Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Van der Aa - Sunken Garden (Lyon, 2015 - Lyon)

Michel van der Aa - Sunken Garden

Opéra de Lyon, 2015

Etienne Siebens, Michel van der Aa, Roderick Williams, Katherine Manley, Claron McFadden, Jonathan McGovern, Kate Miller-Heidke

TNP, Lyon - 15 March 2015

One of the benefits of seeing a modern and fairly experimental new opera like Michel van der Aa's Sunken Garden as part of the wider context of Opéra de Lyon's 'Les Jardins Mystérieux' opera mini festival is that it helps put it into context, highlighting and contrasting it with other works on a similar broad theme. Here, Sunken Garden is set alongside Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, and surprisingly the comparison does tend to work in its favour.

Having only heard Sunken Garden
previously on a BBC Radio 3 broadcast during its premiere performances at the English National Opera in 2013, it didn't really seem to work as a conventional opera. Even more so than other operas, this was however clearly a work where the visual component is just as important as the music, if not more so. Involving a number of other different disciplines and embracing all kinds of new technology, radio obviously wasn't really the right medium to explore a 3-D film-opera. At its French premiere in the Théâtre National Populaire in the Villeurbanne suburb of Lyon, 'Le jardin englouti' clearly worked well on the stage and received a much more enthusiastic response from what looked like a sold-out performance.

Seen fully-performed, some aspects however, such as David Mitchell's compendium of stock phrases and banal cliches that represent 'the way real people speak', still grated, but these were probably not as evident to a French audience. When viewed in performance, the supernatural elements of the story, built-up through the dialogues of a small cast and with filmed interviews sections, comes across even more so as having the whole look and feel of an average episode of Doctor Who. In the context of the Mysterious Gardens festival however, and particularly having watched an ambitious staging of
Orfeo ed Euridice at the Lyon Opera House just the previous night, it encouraged one to think a little more about the content and themes of the work.

If you can get past the banalities of a plot where a meglomaniac evil villain seeks a means of achieving immortality by capturing the souls of others and holding them in a 'sunken garden', essentially it's no more ridiculous an idea than a hunchback dwarf creating a paradise for decadent nobles to indulge their corrupt lusts, or for a musician to journey to Hell in the hope of bringing his beloved wife back from the dead. Regardless of the musical means and the technology used to put this across, similar themes are explored in Sunken Garden, and they do have rather more weight and meaning that could easily be missed in dazzle and colour of the spectacle, although ideally it ought to enhance them.

Sunken Garden is about secret places, the kind of secret place that one wishes they could withdraw to when faced with the horrors or even just the difficulties of everyday life when it gets too much to deal with. Like Orpheus, Toby Kramer is an artist who has suffered loss after the death of his wife, and seeks to find answers or some kind of solace in his work. A multi-media artist, Kramer is pouring his energies into a new project based on the real-life disappearance of a young man, Simon Vines, filming interviews with friends, trying to understand what could have motivated someone to choose to leave a successful life and career behind him, if it was even a choice he made himself. A wealthy donor, the owner of an art gallery, is fascinated by Kramer's work so far, and willing to keep providing him with funds to expand it into a 3-D film.

The longer Kramer works on the project, the stranger the disappearance of Simon Vine appears, the artist discovering documents and footage on a mobile phone that suggests that Vine's former girlfriend Amber Jacquemain has also disappeared. Dealing with his own loss, Kramer's personal involvement in the work deepens, much to the frustration of Zenna Briggs, the representative from the art gallery who is getting impatient with the slow progress of the project. Eventually, Kramer discovers that Simon and Amber have both been abducted, their souls being sucked dry to fuel a sunken garden in another dimension to feed the desire of a villain who wants to be immortal, a person he already knows.

As ludicrous as it might sound, Sunken Garden does in its own way - and really not so different from the ambitions of Alviano Salvago and Orpheus - seek to create a paradise that takes one away and makes one immune from the horrors and tyranny of everyday existence. Ultimately Kramer has to decide whether he wants to cut himself off from the world, initially through his never-ending art project, and then in some manufactured world of technology (seeking solace and escape in technology is a major theme here and the entire raison d'être for all the 3-D technology in the film-opera itself). The realisation that there is a downside to any ambitions to create a paradise outside of the boundaries of natural order is one that Kramer, much like his counterparts in Die Gezeichneten and Orfeo ed Euridice, has to eventually accept and come to terms with, but it's not an easy decision to make.

Visually then, the sunken garden must be an alluring but slightly sinister place, and the impressive 3-D film technology used by Michel van der Aa does that very well, justifying its use as much more than a gimmick. The composer is well-known for his efforts to expand the range of lyric drama and musical expression, and as such it's not so much a question of attempting to progress opera into new directions, as much as making best use of all the resources available now that will allow full expression of the ideas of the subject. Assessing the value of Sunken Garden as a purely musical drama is not really relevant either. It's only one small part of a much more widely-encompassing view of opera as music theatre. On its own the music might not be particularly memorable, but it is eclectic, and doesn't feel constrained to fit old models of expression, using sequencers and sound effects as well as more traditional instrumentation, freely borrowing from a wide range of modern influences (Radiohead being an acknowledged inspiration).

Whether this means that the work has any place in posterity doesn't seem to be foremost in the mind of the composer/director/filmmaker either - although its revival here for Lyon is a good sign. Van der Aa's concern seems to be solely with putting the work across in the most effective way with whatever state-of-the-art means are available now, and it's a highly effective and imaginative stage production. If it is revived in the future, a production doesn't necessarily need to use 3-D or the same pre-recorded filmed performances - two of the singers don't appear in person here - but, much like the reinventions of older works for the modern stage (to again go back to the extraordinary Lyon production of
Orfeo ed Euridice), it can be freely reinterpreted using whatever new technology is available. Whatever means is used - whether that's holograms or use of other dimensions (hey, who knows?) - the message about the misuse of technology and its incompatibility with human nature will surely still be relevant.

Links: Opéra de Lyon

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice (Lyon, 2015 - Lyon)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Opéra de Lyon, 2015

Enrico Onofri, David Marton,
Victor von Halem, Christopher Ainslie, Elena Galitskaya

Lyon - 14 March 2015

For a work that was intended to be stripped-back of ornamentation according to Gluck's reformist agenda for opera seria, Orfeo ed Euridice is surprisingly amenable to elaboration and interpretation. Whether it has the full resources of La Fura dels Baus behind it, or Castellucci's reaching out beyond the myth to the reality, what matters most is that a production gives focus and emphasis to the all-important dramatic and emotional core of the work. I'm not sure that it matters then the new Lyon production takes a few liberties with a staging that fully supports Gluck's dramatic intentions, but it's in very unconventional territory in its musical choices and interpretation.

Like Castellucci's Orfeo, the key point to be addressed is the ending, which must be reconsidered if one is to convey the truth of the drama and the myth. The happy ending imposed on Gluck's opera isn't convincing and it actually goes against the intentions of the myth by showing that death isn't the end and that there is a possibility of second chances. What there should be is the possibility of reward and redemption for Orpheus or at least some sense of coming to terms with the bereavement of his beloved Eurydice, but it is only in his art, in his music, that he finds the ability to endure and come out stronger from the experience.

David Marton's production for Lyon, part of their 'Les Jardins Mystérieux' opera festival, attempts to address this issue without invalidating the orginal myth or how it plays out in Gluck's opera. As its starting point, it takes inspiration from Virgil and depicts Orpheus as an aged writer who has never recovered from the death of his wife. The house he was building for them remains unfinished, and sitting at his desk tapping at a typewriter, he pours his loss out into his writing (the text projected on-screen behind him derived from a work by Samuel Beckett), as he is haunted by visions of their wedding, her death and the impossibility of ever being able to recapture what has slipped from his grasp. In his tortured prose, the old man attempts to rewrite his idea of a perfect life as it might have been, but it is doomed to fail.

The production takes the very unusual step then of splitting the role of Orpheus into two - an old Orpheus, a writer, and the younger version of his memory who is seen in flashback. As such, the traditional story is played out in a way that bears little relation to the original. Orpheus's journey to the Underworld is one that is undertaken more in writing than in 'reality', the old writer trying to reclaim what he once almost had, still seeing himself as a young man. The idea of not looking back at Eurydice isn't adhered to then, but it's more a case that Eurydice, ever-youthful in death, recolis when she sees past the young image of Orpheus to the reality of him now as an old man. It's only when the old Orpheus himself dies at the end of this production that he is reunited in the afterlife, young again, with Eurydice, the couple sharing a domestic moment with Love (Amor), depicted here as five children.

It's all a bit confusing at first, but in theory the director's concept is sound, and the production does touch on the beautiful poignancy of the work - even more so with its twist on the ending - without betraying the intent of the original. Musically however, this is not how you might be accustomed to hearing Orfeo ed Euridice. Not only do we have two Orpheuses, but one is a bass and the other a countertenor. Scored for a countertenor or mezzo-soprano, I would never have imagined the role being sung by a bass, and I don't quite know musically how they managed to split the role between the extreme range of male voices, but somehow they do it, and it is surprisingly successful. As hinted above in the description of the drama, the role of Amor is also reworked as a small chorus of five boys. This is all very unusual and it can be initially very confusing.

These aren't the only musical liberties taken with the work for the sake of this twist in the dramatic presentation. The music is also slightly 'adapted', and it takes a little while to get used to the unfamiliar interpretation. In one scene, for example, a radio broadcast listened to by the old Orpheus plays a musical response in interplay with the orchestra in the pit. Is this just being clever, or is there a valid reason for it? It may be that memories are stirred by the music on the radio, sparking off a sequence that lies somewhere between memory and imagination - the Elysian fields scene and Dance of the Blessed Spirits, for example, taking the form of a wedding reception. There are likewise a few pauses in order to let some dramatic scene play out or for Orpheus to hammer some more on his typewriter, which is not entirely satisfactory either, breaking up the flow and rhythm of the piece.

On the other hand, Enrico Onofri's interpretation and the actual playing of the orchestra is just beautiful, the opera played with all the dances included, the work allowed to breathe freely in those heavenly melodies, some of the greatest music ever written. There's no rigid Baroque playing here, the music is allowed to be dramatically expressive, putting the solo clarinet player on-stage for relevant Orphic musical expression, and the chorus are just extraordinarily good, lifting those moments of intense dramatic feeling. Consideration in the conducting was given towards the lighter voices of Christopher Ainsley's countertenor and Elena Galitskaya's Eurydice, allowing the beauty of the voices to carry. Victor von Halem's resonant, lyrical Wagnerian bass needed no assistance, and it was simply amazing to hear Orpheus sung in this register.

As slightly troubling as it might have been to hear such sacrosanct material played around with in this way, and as confusing as it might have been dramatically, this was a brave gamble by Enrico Onofri, David Marton and the Opéra de Lyon. I'm not sure that the Lyon audience knew entirely what to make of it all. Victor von Halem rightly received the loudest applause for a touching and beautifully sung performance, even if it wasn't entirely what Gluck had in mind. The contribution of the production team on the other hand wasn't entirely appreciated by a small section of the audience, however it should have been clear that if the worked touched as deeply as it did, establishing the right tone as a contemplative Orfeo ed Euridice, a sad one but never sentimental, it's because of and not despite those unconventional production choices in the music and the staging.

Links: Opéra de Lyon

Monday, 23 March 2015

Schreker - Die Gezeichneten (Lyon, 2015 - Lyon)

Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Opéra de Lyon, 2015

Alejo Perez, David Bösch, Charles Workman, Magdalena Anna Hofmann, Simon Neal, Markus Marquardt, Michael Eder, Aline Kostrewa, Jan Petryka, Jeff Martin, Robert Wörle, Falko Hönisch, James Martin, Piotr Micinski, Stephen Owen

Lyon - 13 March 2015

Selected as one of three thematically connected works in the Opéra de Lyon's 'Les Jardins Mystérieux' March 2015 opera festival, the mysterious garden of Franz Schreker's Die Gezeichneten is a rather disturbing one, a paradise that holds altogether darker, twisted roots. The Lyon production of this rarely performed yet enchantingly beautiful work was accordingly dark, recognising perhaps the historical origins of Schreker's composition, as well as its continued relevance today.

The libretto for Die Gezeichneten (translated as 'Les Stigmatisés', the Stigmatised) was written by Schreker on the request of fellow composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky. The work is based on the play Hidalia by Frank Wedekind (famous as the author of Lulu), but the inspiration also comes from Oscar Wilde's 'The Birthday of the Infanta' - a work that Schreker had already written as a dance-pantomime 'Der Geburtstag der Infantin'. Zemlinsky's identification with the cruel little tale stemmed from his own insecurities regarding his relationship with Alma Schindler, later Alma Mahler, and it would become the subject of his own opera based on the Wilde story, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf).

It's not difficult to see why Schreker's libretto may not have entirely suited Zemlinsky's intentions. It doesn't have a happy ending or even a noble one, but rather seems to suggest that there is a darker side to everyone. Even the best of intentions, corrupted by a sense of pride, love or even self-empowerment, can have unintended consequences. Schreker's own experience following the success of Die Gezeichneten would seem to follow a similar trajectory, the composer being appointed to a prominent position as a Music Director in Berlin, before falling victim to the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi party and seeing his influence and musical reputation slip into decline.

In Die Gezeichneten, the stigmatised outsider is Alviano Salvago, a scarred, hunchbacked nobleman in 16th century Genoa, who has created a beautiful island paradise called 'Elysium'. Unknown to Alviano, the Genoan nobility have been using the underground grotto of the island to abuse children that they have been abducting from the city. Aware that he cannot be loved for his appearance, Alviano intends to enhance his reputation by donating the island as a gift to the people of Genoa. The nobles appeal to Duke Adorno to preserve their playground, Adorno unaware that his own missing daughter Ginevra Scotti is one of the victims held captive in the grotto.

Alviano finds another powerful enemy in Count Vitelozzo Tamare. Tamare is in love with Carlotta, the daughter of the Podestà. Carlotta, an artist following her own independent spirit, has rejected Tamare and is attracted rather to the hunchback, wanting to paint him, but Alviano's lack of confidence prevents him from exploring whether the attraction goes any deeper than artistic. Indeed, once Carlotta finishes her experimental portrait of Alviano's soul, she seems to lose any further interest in the strange little man, but Alviano, flattered by the attention of Carlotta, is now a changed man.

Lyon's production, directed by David Bösch, spared the audience none of the horror of this dark fairy-tale nor the disturbing implications and undercurrents that run through the subject. There was little sign of any Romantic decadence or period glamour here. The true nature of the Genoan nobles' activities was laid out clearly, posters showing pictures of abducted children in screen projections, lusts openly displayed as the men shared videos and pictures of the abuse carried out, groping and grasping at horrified young women. The scenes of abused children in the grotto, when it is uncovered in the final act, are horrifying, some of victims wearing rags, some dead, others with blood spilling down their legs. And yet, for all the realism of the treatment, there was still an otherworldly hallucinatory aspect to the nature of the work.

Partly that's down to the themes being just as suggestive as the abstract dark fairy-tale nature of the plot, and partly it's down to how that is expressed in the music. The themes that rise to the surface are those of the abuse of power, the corrupting influence of power, the gratification of desires and the inevitable downfall of a corrupt society. But it's also about art, the power of art to explore beneath the surface and show the true nature of the human soul. If you delve into such places however, you can also be sure of finding some unpalatable truths. This fits with the post-war view of the barbarism unleashed by Great War, but its essential truth is borne out in Schreker's own later experiences, when through his Jewish ancestry, his own art would come to be regarded as 'Entartete', degenerate art, by the National Socialists, who would come into power and leave similar devastation in the wake of the Second World War.

The question of whether Schreker's own art with its grand, elegant flow of lush post-Wagnerian orchestration, is capable of delving into those places is debatable, but in Die Gezeichneten at least, it has a place. Tied to these themes moreover, it's not ambitious to say that the work is capable of being expressive of how these themes can be applicable to many different facets of life. If there's any kind of disparity between the dark decadence of the work and the surface beauty of orchestration, Schreker's score is revealed to be much more muscular and expressive than one would think under the direction of Alejo Perez. Art is transformative, but it can also be twisted and corrupted. The meansure of that is in the dissonance that creeps into this beguiling music, and Perez and the Lyon orchestra bring this out clearly, not letting the audience be entirely seduced by its chromatic spell, but reminding us that it has a sinister side to it.

It helps that the musical performance works in conjunction with the imagery on the stage, but the singing is also a vital ingredient in this work. Having previously known this work with a more heldentenor style of performance from Robert Brubaker in the role of Alviano Salvago at Salzburg in 2005, it was quite a change to hear the softer timbre and delicate delivery of Charles Workman in the role here. This worked wonderfully however, Workman's luxurious tones contrasting with Alviano's marked and disfigured appearance. It was a captivating performance, remarkably clear in enunciation and carrying across the huge orchestral forces in a strong expressive delivery. Magdalena Anna Hofmann impressed as Carlotta, a difficult role that has to reach some near-impossible heights, and if the securing of those notes wasn't pitch-perfect every time, she brought a degree of personality to the work's complex artistic female character.

Links: Opéra de Lyon

Friday, 20 March 2015

Mozart - The Marriage of Figaro (Opera North, 2015 - Belfast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Marriage of Figaro

Opera North, 2015

Alexander Shelley, Jo Davies, Richard Burkhard, Silvia Moi, Quirijn de Lang, Ana Maria Labin, Helen Sherman, Henry Waddington, Joseph Shovelton, Gaynor Keeble, Jeremy Peaker, Ellie Laugharne, Nicholas Watts

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 19 March 2015

Opera North's acclaimed production of The Marriage of Figaro arrived in Belfast with a string of plaudits from the earlier stages of its tour. While the praise it deserved, most of it must be attributed to the work itself, which shows Mozart at his most brilliant and still pretty much untouchable in the comic opera genre. Coming after some rather more impactful productions by NI Opera however, Opera North's Le Nozze di Figaro couldn't help but feel a little tame and unadventurous in comparison.

Whether it was a conscious decision or not, this production felt very 'English'. It was sung in English, which is never the best way to hear a work filled with arias that everyone knows in the original Italian. You feel a little cheated when you don't get to hear a 'Porgi, amor', 'Voi che sapete' or 'Sull'aria'. More than that, the characters attitudes, manners and behaviour all came over as rather more cool and restrained than their usual hot-blooded continental Spanish counterparts singing in Italian. As with the decision to sing it in English, this may well have been the intent, showing universal class issues and character traits in a manner that the audience would more readily recognise.

That is appropriate because Le Nozze di Figaro is indeed all about class, social and gender divisions. Or not so much about their divisions as, in Mozart's enlightened view, their commonalities. It's the divisions that are first marked out, right from Figaro's measurements of the small understairs room that the Count Almaviva has 'generously' given to Figaro and Susanna on the day of their marriage. The servants' place in this world doesn't extend beyond the length of a tape-measure, and Leslie Travers' set designs for Jo Davies production block out that small space on the stage through a clever device of wall panels that close down and open up the stage, depending on the location and the position of the characters.

The location however certainly doesn't feel like a country house outside Seville, and there's not too much fluster or fury in this 'day of madness'. The Count here is, happily, neither a complete buffoon nor a dangerous predator, but characterised much more as Mozart and Da Ponte perhaps intended. Aware of his power and intent on lording it, particularly over women given half a chance, he is on the other hand too proud to be seen to be begging for their favour or forgiveness. He tries to avoid the latter behaviour wherever possible, but the former attitude tends to make this more difficult. It's very much a class and changing times thing, rather like the Strauss's Baron Ochs in the Mozart-influenced plot of Der Rosenkavalier. Almaviva is not the main character, but he is central to the plot and the reaction of all the others towards him, so it's important to establish the precise tone, and between them, Jo Davies and Quirjin de Lang get it absolutely right.

None of the other characters however really seem to feel threatened by Almaviva. True, Figaro takes the fight to him ('Se vuol ballare, signor Contino' or 'I'll lead the dance' as it is here), when he hears that he has intentions on Susanna, but Susanna seems to be more than capable of batting away his wandering hands, and has some female solidarity in this from the Countess, Rosina. Even in the trickiest of situations, doing their best to bluff the Count, you never get the impression however that any of them take him at all seriously or feel that he is any real threat. You get the impression that they're secure enough to know that they can get Equal Opportunities Commission or Dignity in the Workplace onto him if he keeps this nonsense up, when the intention of Mozart was that this is precisely why we need Equal Opportunites!

Opera North's The Marriage of Figaro doesn't really have the edginess of Mozart and Da Ponte's intent, and without that edge and threat the comedy isn't quite as sharp and outrageous as it could be and ought to be. It all moves along smoothly however - a little too smoothly - everything falls into place, and you can't help but admire how well-constructed a work this opera is as a drama and a comedy, and how well characterised it is in the complementary contrasts of its characters. There's nothing out-of-place or strange in the playing out of the set-pieces, but consequently there's nothing here either that will shock or surprise an audience at just how progressive a work Le Nozze di Figaro was and remains, both as a humanist drama and in its musical advancement.

In musical terms it was very well played, conductor Alexander Shelley permitting little variations in pace and emphasis without overemphasis. A little more emphasis might actually have worked to invigorate the production in one or two places, but here the character was on the loving and benevolent nature of the work rather than its revolutionary edge. That matched the singing delivery of the cast, Richard Burkhard an unflappable Figaro, Silvia Moi an assured Susanna. There was a little more fun with the secondary characters (if you can call any of these wonderful creations 'secondary'), with Helen Sherman a vigorous Cherubino, Ana Maria Labin a touching, soulful Countess, and Henry Waddington and Dean Robinson providing great entertainment as Bartolo and Marcellina.

Verdi - La Traviata (Opera North, 2015 - Belfast)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opera North, 2015

Oliver von Dohnányi, Alessandro Talevi, Anna Jeruc-Kopec, Victoria Sharp, Louise Collett, Ji-Min Park, Stephen Gadd, Daniel Norman, Peter Savidge, Nicholas Butterfield, Dean Robinson

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 18 March 2015

La Traviata might be the most performed opera in the world, but in some ways its popularity just makes it more of a challenge for an opera company to find a way of revitalising and renewing it in a new production. Aside from the musical resources and talent needed to perform it, there are also audience expectations to consider, which in my experience means that good productions of La Traviata are common, but great ones are rarer. Opera North's new production managed to strike a good balance between performance and audience expectations. It wasn't a particularly adventurous La Traviata, but it did eventually overcome the conventional mannerisms to get to the emotional heart of the work.

The opening Act however wasn't particularly auspicious. It did the decadent Belle Époque well, making Violetta's party look like an authentic out-of-control revelry/orgy that might have been more in keeping with the reputation of a courtesan than some stuffy formal dinner party. As the work can be rather circumspect about how Violetta's earns her keep, this is a good way of establishing that. Musically, it felt like we were just running through the numbers, but you can't blame Opera North for that any more than you can blame Verdi for writing such popular and memorable tunes. You have to give the audience what they expect, and Opera North did that at the outset and gave maybe a little more than that later.

At the very least, Act I made it abundantly clear that we had a stunning Violetta in Anna Jeruc-Kopec. She looked the part, sang with accomplishment and conviction, with feeling and personality. Ji-Min Park's Alfredo didn't make quite as much of an impact, but this is not his Act. That comes at both ends of Act II and there he handled all the emotional extremes of Alfredo's rapid fall from rapturous love to bitterness, anger and disappointment with a strong and emotive delivery. In between, we enjoyed Stephen Gadd's Georgio Germont, balanced between stern disapproval and some measure of sympathy for Violetta, with a warm, secure vocal delivery. His duets with Anna Jeruc-Kopec were delightful, Jeruc-Kopec demonstrating how good her performance was in those moments of intense distress.

From there on it there was less of the stop/start number playing broken up by audience applause. In La Traviata, that's usually a good sign, showing that the audience is less focussed on recognition of the arias and evaluation of the performances and has become caught up in the emotion and the drama of it all. You don't feel particularly inclined to applaud someone's life being taken apart on the stage, no matter how technically accomplished the performance and delivery. This is the magic that Verdi and Opera North manage to achieve with La Traviata, drawing the audience in with consummate skill and doing it almost imperceptibly.

While Alessandro Talevi's direction and production design didn't appear to make much of an impact then, it was actually very cleverly and carefully planned to match Verdi's musical construction. There's a musical arc to the work that opens contemplatively with (you can assume) Violetta alone in the overture, breaks into revelry at the Baron's party, builds up to rapturous love that then declines through the second half to a party that follows a similar downward trajectory, ending with Violetta again facing her mortality alone. Aside from the strong dramatic construction, Verdi's music also follows a similar coherent pattern that hits all the key points, with musical melodies/leitmotifs and phrases recurring in different guises that remind one of the earlier occasions they were played. It's masterful and highly effective.

Madeleine Boyd's set designs use a very simple means of ensuring that there's a visual symmetry that matches Verdi's musical construction. On the most basic level, there's a large bed in place in Act I that transforms into a jetty for Act II's country house scene and then into a stage and a gambling table for Act III. It's a simple device, but clever, ensuring that you don't view these Acts as random scenes, but can see the continuity between them. One scene reminds you of the other under different circumstances, much the same way that Verdi's score does. What lies behind those scenes is a little more difficult to establish here, but there is some effort to get beyond the traditional imagery and be a little more representative of the underlying emotions and sentiments.

An endoscopic image of, presumably, the tuberculosis bacteria working its way through her lungs, is visible during the overture, Violetta facing it, confronting her fate, the bright circular image transforming into a full moon outside during Act I. The blissful love scene of Act II - where don't actually see Alfredo and Violetta happy together - opens with Violetta contemplating the infinity of water meeting sky. In Act IV, the masked Parisian carnival revellers seated in tiers outside the window applaud Violetta's dramatic death scene.

None of this particularly adds to any great insight or understanding of the work and its message - it certainly doesn't highlight Verdi's scathing critique of social hypocrisy towards women who fall outside accepted boundaries - but it provides a distinct character for the production that doesn't stray too far away from the traditional reading. What's important is that, judging from the response of the audience, it works to draw you into the drama and the experiences of the characters. Rather more depends on how good the singers are in expressing those intentions, and if there was nothing unusual in how they were directed, the fine singing carried the full weight of the sentiments though to the devastating conclusion towards which the performance had been so imperceptibly and effectively building.

Bellini - I Puritani (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Vincenzo Bellini - I Puritani

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Marco Armiliato, John Dew, Jongmin Park, John Tessier, Carlos Álvarez, Olga Peretyatko, Sorin Coliban, Carlos Osuna, Ilseyar Khayrullova

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 10 March 2015

No-one goes to see Bellini's I Puritani expecting a history lesson. I think you'd find it hard to recognise any realistic treatment or situation between the opposing Puritan and Royalist forces, and certainly not any great depth of insightful characterisation of their lives and motivations. If however you come to see I Puritani for a lesson in how to construct and put across a bel canto opera of a Romantic nature with all the trimmings, well then you're in the right place. The Vienna production of Bellini's final work is given an outstanding interpretation here, with Olga Peretyatko in the leading role showing what the real value of this work can be.

You might not get much of a history lesson, and the plot of I Puritani might appear ludicrous to the casual viewer, but there is - quite literally - method to the madness. I Puritani isn't about the English Civil War, but the setting is as good as any for an epic drama between two opposing forces. And it's not so much a conflict between Roundheads and Cavaliers here, as a war between men and women. This aspect is particularly marked in the Vienna production. In bold strokes certainly, but bold strokes that depict a greater subjective reality.

Essentially, I Puritani must be seen from the perspective of Elvira if it is to engage the audience and make any sense at all. Yes, there's a dramatic plot point that sees the Royalist Arturo risk the delicate alliance that he has established wth the Puritan Parliamentarians, by helping a Royalist prisoner escape. This moreover is not just any prisoner. Arturo has recognised that the captive is the queen herself, Henrietta. Although he is about to be married that day to Elvira, Arturo's loyalty to the queen and his sense of duty is more important. Using the veil from Elvira's wedding gown, he helps the queen escape past the guards, and leaves his bride-to-be in a bit of a state.

In broad strokes then, I Puritani is about the clash of love and duty, but specifically in the different values that that men and women attach to them. Arturo knows that his actions are not excusable, but they are credible in that they are determined by his sense of duty. In his mind, his duty towards his queen must take precedence over any personal consideration - there's no other choice he could have made. Seen in that light, Elvira's response to the masculine view towards duty and honour over private sentiments - the jilted woman disintegrating into full-blown insanity - would seem to be a bit of an over-reaction.

It's vital however to see things from Elvira's perspective. She doesn't know it was Queen Henrietta that Arturo has rescued, but even if she did know, the fact is not really relevant. She's not experiencing events in a political or historical context, but from an emotional one. In her mind, her husband-to-be, the man she loves deeply, has absconded with another woman, a woman who - in the ultimate betrayal - he has helped escape using her wedding veil. The historical background and fact that it is the Queen is relevant only to the audience in terms of scaling the enormity of this betrayal to Elvira's mindset. With the stakes set so high, it's not surprising that she goes mad.

The trick to making such a drama work is to completely draw the audience into that mindset. Bellini is able to score the work to elicit the necessary emotions and go some way to making it credible, but it must work on the stage as well. That means that you need an exceptional singer for Elvira - who is the primary focus and emotional barometer for the work - but you also need it to work in complete conjunction with a sympathetic musical interpretation and good stage direction. You can see that the cast are fully behind those personal dramas. They never appear to be larger-than-life historical figures, but creatures of delicate sensibilities and a firm sense of duty for what is right. It might not tell us much about the period, but it tells us a lot about the depth of human feeling. That's all there in Bellini's musical expression.

The stage itself them doesn't get bogged down in unnecessary historical accuracy either. Simply dressed, mostly dark, with only a few bold touches - huge beheaded statues - Heinz Balthes' sets speak of the conflict and give a sense of the scale that I Puritani works on. Bold colouration - usually associated with Elvira - is used to similar effect, while Olga Peretyatko, appears in the midst of all this in her white wedding dress a vision of perfection. That perfection becomes swallowed up in what is the only real expressionistic gesture in the stage direction. Evidently, that's during the 'mad scene' at the end of Act I, when Elvira's sense of order falls apart and she is caught up in a swirl of violent emotions.

The appropriateness of the stage direction and its ability to follow the mood becomes even more evident in Act II. There's no attempt to force the message home either in the stage direction or in the management of the orchestra. It takes its time and settles into the moment, letting it all just sink in. Sir George's description of the poor mad Elvira is just beautiful; sensitive to her plight, distraught at the cause of it (Arturo), highlighting in its own way the different male and female responses to the events that have occurred. Nothing significant happens in Act II, but between them Giorgio, Riccardo and Elvira make it really feel like it is the heart of the piece, which is what it ought to be.

As good as all this is, what really elevates the production and convincingly takes you into the heart of Elvira's dilemma and madness, is the outstanding performance of Olga Peretyatko. Peretyatko really is up there among the best in the world in some of the most challenging roles in the bel canto repertoire at the moment. Her delivery is confident but sensitive throughout. In the critical mad scene - where you really have to feel Elvira's predicament and her reaction is justified - she is not just technically accomplished to the highest level in her ornamentaion, but retains a wonderful lyricism in that lovely songbird quality that Peretyatko posesses in her voice. Demonstrating incredible control, she never overstretches or tips her performance over into full-blown hysteria.

Peretyatko's comanding central performance is, as demonstrated in Act II, well matched with solid and sensitive performances from Jongmin Park as Sir Giorgio and Carlos Álvarez as Sir Riccardo Forth. John Tessier is a little less steady as Arturo, but he has a bright timbre that is well-suited to the role, even if the high notes are a little beyond his range. It is an extremely difficult role, and not a sympathetic one, but Tessier does well to make his position credible. With such strong casting, good direction by John Dew, and the musical performance in the very capable hands of Marco Armiliato, the Vienna State Opera's production of I Puritani might not have been much of a history lesson, but it was a masterclass of Italian bel canto.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Rachmaninov - Francesca da Rimini (Nancy, 2015 - Webcast)

Sergei Rachmaninov - Francesca da Rimini

L'Opéra National de Lorraine, Nancy - 2015

Rani Calderon, Silviu Purcărete, Igor Gnidii, Suren Maksutov, Alexander Vinogradov, Gelena Gaskarova, Evgeny Liberman

Culturebox - 15 February 2015

Francesca da Rimini was composed over a decade after Rachmaninov's first one-act opera Aleko, but although the composer's approach to opera changed during that period, it still remains more of a lyric-drama than a work driven by narrative or dialogue. Called a 'symphonic opera' by the composer himself, Francesca da Rimini is still very much a mood-oriented piece then, and adapted from an episode from Dante's Inferno, it's very different from the Zandonai opera of the same name based on Gabriele D'Annunzio's play.

Almost a third of the length of the whole work is filled with an extended mood-setting symphonic introduction of low notes and lamenting choruses with only a few lines of singing. The dialogue here too is only to set the scene, Dante led by the ghost of Virgil into the Second Circle of Hell, a place reserved for those who have let lust override reason, whose passion has led them to deceit and murder. Among the souls twisting and writhing in infinite agony are Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, both murdered by Lancelotto, brother of Paolo, husband of Francesca, after being betrayed by both of them.

Depicting Hell is a challenge as much for the stage director as the composer, but it's one that Silviu Purcărete does just as well as Rachmaninov. Whether the story of Francesca da Rimini is told in flashback or is actually played out for eternity in Hell, Rachmaninov's approach is (in contrast to Zandonai) clearly to emphasise the horror rather than the romance, and Purcãrete works according to what can be heard in the highly descriptive and evocative music. There in the Second Circle of Hell, black-robed monk-like figures with full-length skeletons draped over their backs writhe and swirl to the rumbling, crashing percussion and the swirling music score.

Out of the number of the condemned appear Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, both clutching their own skeletons. Following the opening scene setting, and continuing with a distinct structure of its own, the second part of Rachmaninov's symphonic opera features an extended monologue by Lancelotto Malatesta who bitterly recounts how he came to murder his wife and brother, correcting the wrong that had been done by both of them. In this monologue we get all the familiar backstory of Francesca's mistake, falling for Paolo's beauty and her shock at the realisation that it is Lancelotto, the deformed Malatesta brother, who is the man she is meant to marry.

The third part of the opera then depicts Francesco and Paolo's downfall, which we already know is going to be duet of death. If you weren't familiar with the story, the music alone would be enough to tell you of the likely outcome, but the sense of menace is further heighted by Paolo's account of the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere to Francesca in Modest Tchaikovsky's libretto. Silviu Purcãrete's direction, taking place in Hell, with skeletons looking on from the surrounding darkness is strikingly effective in this respect too. The romantic tension as Francesca attempts to resists the attraction she feels and her inability to resist Paolo's advances has a distinctly menacing edge then that is further enhanced in this strong production design.

Another reason why you might be forewarned of the outcome comes though the work's usual presentation alongside Rachmaninov's earlier one-act opera Aleko. The themes are closely related - an unfaithful wife who takes a lover and is killed when the jealous husband discovers the infidelity. Inevitably, a director can make connections between the two works when they are performed together, particularly when the wife and the jealous husband are sung by the same soprano and baritone. That works well here, Alexander Vinogradov strong in both roles as Aleko/Lancelotto, although as with her Zemfira, Francesca is a testing role for Gelena Gaskarova.

Less effective are the direct visual links that the director uses to connect the two works. The hints are there earlier on, Gelena Gaskarova seen initially in the same modern dress as Zemfira, transforming into period costume as Francesca. It works to remind the viewer that the story is an age-old one, that relations between man and woman were ever thus (ensuring a steady stream of penitents in the Second Circle of Hell). Less necessary is the dancing bear (or man in the bear suit) from this production's Aleko (quite what sin of Lust he has committed to end up there is a mystery), and it's not a great surprise to see Aleko's car crash in to this realm at the end as well. The consistency of the approach to the musical performances by conductor Rani Calderon is matched however by Silviu Purcărete's striking visual representation, making this a fine production of these two rarely performed works.

Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National de Lorraine