Saturday, 21 May 2016

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Champs-Elysées Paris, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris - 2016

Daniele Gatti, Pierre Audi, Torsten Kerl, Rachel Nicholls, Steven Humes, Brett Polegato, Andrew Rees, Michelle Breedt, Marc Larcher, Francis Dudziak

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris - 15 May 2016

There wasn't much that was traditional about the setting of Pierre Audi's new production of Tristan und Isolde for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, but Wagner's groundbreaking opera works on a different plane from most and its internalised exploration of desire is given much better expression in its music than in its dramatic presentation. In that respect Daniele Gatti, conducting this Wagner opera for the first time, found the perfect measure of expression that complemented Audi's representation of the work's complex and sometimes contradictory themes.

In terms of its look and symbolism, the set doesn't appear particularly new or inspired. Instead of a ship in Act I we get large upright panels that vaguely give the impression of a ship's hull. The panels move around the stage to set up barriers, create divisions, opening up and closing down spaces. Instead of a tower, Act II features the huge curved ribs of a leviathan that rise out of the stage, creating wishbone-like formations around a framework that is covered to look like a black standing stone. For the island of Kareol in Act III, the wounded, dying Tristan agonises in a dark box with a mirrored background that opens up to let in the light during Isolde's transfiguration.

Principally however, the expression of the set reflects the work's play of darkness and light. The background is a Robert Wilson-like wall of gradiated light that is partially eclipsed at various points in each of the three acts by one or two large black squares. You can take these as representations of Tristan and Isolde, or view them in the abstract as black hole of all-consuming desire, but its bold symbolism is in accordance with the nature of the work and its themes. The more nuanced levels of the work and the contradictory clashes between life and death in Wagner's Romantic application of the Schopenhauer-influenced meditations are however also played out in more subtle lighting effects.

Mostly however, its the music that carries the weight of all these themes and whether it's Gatti's conducting, the playing of the orchestra or the acoustics of the venue (having encountered none of them together live in this theatre before), but the richness of sound in this performance was incredible. All the detail in the score was brought out with delicacy and precision, and with Wagner and this opera in particular there's a wealth of detail that can be coaxed out if it isn't allowed to be smothered in heavy orchestration. Gatti's pace was perfectly measured to draw every ounce of emotion out of the score, having a lightness of touch, but swelling up into great surges of pure overwhelming desire.

As important as this aspect is it needs to work with everything else around it, and there was a feeling that director, conductor and singers - not to mention lighting that was as important to the overall mood as anything else - were all working to a common purpose. The production, the singing, the measured delivery of the music all remained within that all-important space in Tristan und Isolde between emotionally-charged and overbearing. If one element threatened to take things too far, another would balance it out.

In particular the casting for the singing seemed well-judged for the size of the theatre as well as for the mood and tone that was being pitched. Torsten Kerl's heroic tenor is a little more hard-edged than the usual Romantic Tristan, his voice not a particularly large one either in Act I, but that's understandable at this stage as that voice has a long way to go yet. By Act II and Act III however, I found that I didn't even notice that it was Torsten Kerl, but just that it was Tristan in the throes of unbearable longing. Replacing the originally scheduled Emily Magee, Rachel Nicholls' wasn't a typical Isolde either, her voice softer and more lyrical, her passions more gently expressed, going more with the flow of the production rather than fighting to rise above it. In this case, that approach worked very well, and you can imagine how gorgeous their Nachtgesang was.

Steven Humes was similarly a more restrained King Marke than you more commonly find, his voice well suited to his more forgiving nature here. Less transported by their desires (although desire exists in some form in all of the characters) or perhaps struggling with them more since their master's have abandoned themselves to their sentiments, Michelle Breedt's Brangäne and Brett Polegato's Kurwenal were rather more emotionally driven, both singers making a great impression, balancing out the range of expression. At the conclusion Nicholls' Isolde delivered a Liebestod that accordingly felt like less of a mountain for the soprano to climb than a gentle submission and surrender to the extraordinary forces that had been generated, the music then gently dissipating and evaporating in pure sublimation into the aether.

Links: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Friday, 20 May 2016

Verdi - Rigoletto (Opéra National de Paris, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2016

Pier Giorgio Morandi, Claus Guth, Francesco Demuro, Franco Vassallo, Irina Lungu, Andrea Mastroni, Vesselina Kasarova, Isabelle Druet, Mikhail Kolelishvili, Michal Partyka, Christophe Berry, Tiago Matos, Andreea Soare, Adriana Gonzalez, Florent Mbia

Bastille, Paris - 14 May 2016

There's been a very evident attempt to make the artistic direction of the Paris Opera a bit more cutting edge again under its new director Stephane Lissner, but Claus Guth's setting of Rigoletto in a brown cardboard box seems to being taking things a little too far. It's hardly the most attractive or imaginative representation for the dramatic setting of the opera in Mantua, and it's hard to imagine how it could even suit the purposes of Guth's usually intense psychological exploration of character and motivation.

It's not so much the case that Mantua and its royal court are represented by a cardboard box however as much as it's Rigoletto's regrets that are packed away in the box. The broken and dishevelled jester walks to the front of the stage at the start of the opera, wearing a grimy overcoat, his whitened clown make-up scored with deep creases, carrying a box that holds his only possessions. Rigoletto despairingly draws out a clown suit and a bloodstained white dress and the opera commences in flashback all within the confines of the larger box that fills the stage.

It's a relatively straightforward device in that respect and there's actually not any real licence taken with the characters or the drama elsewhere. The period is vague and non-specific, the costumes period in style for opening royal court scene, even if the set is plain brown corrugated cardboard, but it gradually moves into more modern styled dress as the opera progresses. As plain as the set is, it's functional, requiring few changes between acts - a staircase added in Act II, some of the flaps opening to provide doorways for the tavern scene and some projections are used. It consistently remains a representation of Rigoletto's life after the event being reduced to the contents of a cardboard box.

For deeper exploration of character then and the complex father/daughter issues at the heart of the work, Guth relies on another familiar device often employed in his productions; the use of doubles. Rigoletto in the flashback is represented by the singer, but the actor who 'unboxed' the memory is frequently present on the stage at the same time, distraught and helpless, unable to intervene and change what has already occurred. This added level of regret does highlight Rigoletto's folly to some extent and bring a little more intensity to the scenes, but no more really than you if you've seen the opera before and already know what is ahead.

Gilda is similarly split and not just to one double but to a series of Gildas in dancers of different ages. Unsurprisingly, these younger Gildas are intended to show the young girl as an innocent, but more than that they also reflect her 'growth'. Rigoletto's protection of Gilda means that her growth is stunted in a way that leads to her innocence being cruelly abused when it comes into contact with the real world, but it does bring about a twisted kind of growth that can also account for her sacrifice in the final act. It's nothing new, just another way to emphasise or perhaps 'translate' a more melodramatic device from the past into one that carries a little more credibility for a modern audience today.

What appears to be given more emphasis in Guth's version that is not so often explored is the relationship between the assassin Sparafucile and Rigoletto, since Sparafucile when he first appears acts as a mirror image of Rigoletto. Again, this is just emphasising what is there in the libretto, Rigoletto even acknowledging that the two men are alike, only one kills with words while the other kills with the sword. Drawing attention to this however does put greater emphasis on the cowardice of the jester, his hiding his failure to act behind words, just as he hides his identity from his daughter. This of course comes back to haunt him and in this version - as it's done in flashback - he already knows it, which only intensifies his failure and his pitiful attempts to shift the blame onto a 'maledizione'.

Cardboard box aside then, Guth's Rigoletto sticks fairly closely to the accepted characterisation with only a little shift of where the emphasis lies and it's fairly successful in where it applies them. In the first Act at least however, it's not at all certain that the music and singing performances measure up to it. It all feels somewhat half-hearted and routine. As is usually the case with Rigoletto however, I find that you have to reserve judgement until Act II and Act III. Which, as an aside, makes me begin to wonder whether the first Act is really all it's cracked up to be. It certainly has all the elements in place and Verdi spices it up with plenty of dramatic colour and some famous arias, but it rarely ever seems to take off. Guth's production doesn't really help matters here in Paris.

Act II and III however, while the direction doesn't particularly contribute much more to the production, are indeed more alive and engaging, which suggests that Act I is really just a prelude to set the scene or act as a counterbalance for the fireworks in the subsequent Acts. Accordingly, there's a noticeably more invigorating drive from Pier Giorgio Morandi's conducting of the orchestra that is matched by what takes place on the stage and in the singing. Franco Vassallo's Rigoletto is by no means one of the great interpretations of the role, but there was no sign of faltering or being challenged by it. The 'Cortigiani' is a good measure of a Rigoletto and Vassallo was more than capable, carrying the role well but not really inspired or even truly fired-up.

The same could be said about most of the other roles in these second cast performances for the later run of the 2016 production. Francesco Demuro's Duke of Mantua was however by far the most impressive, his bright tenor voice clear and ringing, sailing through 'La donna è mobile' with such charm that it appeared natural and effortless. We didn't get to see much of the Duke's 'evil' side, but that was more of a directing decision and a surprising omission for Guth since the Duke seems the most obvious dual-personality in the opera. Irina Lungu had a few wavers, but rose to the challenges of Gilda's role and brought some personality to it. Andrea Mastroni was fine if not making as menacing a Sparafucile as you might like.  Vesselina Kasarova is, to say the least, an acquired taste, but she is capable of some interesting interpretations. Not her Maddalena unfortunately, which was wayward, wooly and largely inaudible, her voice now losing much of its former force.

Even if it wasn't traditionally staged and the singing wasn't of the highest standards, the Paris Rigoletto hit the mark sufficiently at all the necessary dramatic and musical points. Act I carried off the tricky staging of Gilda's abduction stylishly if not naturalistically, mainly through the choreography of the courtiers in their masks, the scene ending with the thundering accompaniment to Rigoletto's dread of Monterone's curse. Act II's duets had pace and fury in equal measure and although the staging of Gilda's death scene remained largely off-stage, represented only by a falling curtain, the full impact of the scene was felt.

This performance of Rigoletto was viewed at the Bastille on the 14th May 2016. A recording of the production with the alternative cast that includes Olga Peretyatko (Gilda), Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Michael Fabiano (Rigoletto) is currently available streaming on-line on France TV's Culturebox website, although region restrictions are in place.

Links: L'Opéra National de Paris, Culturebox

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Mozart - Lucio Silla (Philharmonie Paris, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Lucio Silla

Philharmonie de Paris, 2016

Laurence Equilbey, Insula orchestra, Rita Cosentino, Franco Fagioli, Olga Pudova, Alessandro Liberatore, Chiara Skerath, Ilse Eerens

Culturebox - 23 April 2016

Written when he was 16 years old, Mozart's early opera Lucio Silla (1772) is never going to be regarded on the same terms as the composer's mature masterpieces, but like most of the Mozart's early works there are flashes of brilliance and a wonderful consistency to the work that can certainly be highlighted in a sympathetic stage production. You would expect however, that as an opera seria, Lucio Silla might need something a little more than the minimal semi-staged production of this rarely performed work at the Philharmonie de Paris, but the quality of the work and the performance is apparent nonetheless.

That's because even in this early work, Mozart's writing surpasses and overcomes the traditional static nature of the opera seria with its repetitive da capo arias and what can often be generic characterisation. There's movement and life in Mozart's energetic score alone, where even the recitative is beautifully orchestrated, flowing into elegant ariosos and inventive melodic arias. A minimal stage set isn't an issue then; in this case the opera is the music, the arias and the sentiments expressed, not the dramatic playing.

The period setting isn't adhered to, but it doesn't need to be either. Lucio Silla might be an old opera - nearly 250 years old - and its subject might be about a Roman dictator in 82 BC - but its sentiments are universal and not dependent upon its historical context. Those sentiments are the familiar ones of love, betrayal, rejection and reconciliation, but with Mozart they are not generic either. They key to making Lucio Silla work is in how successfully a production can manages to capture something of the mood of the piece and complement the young Mozart's delightful score.

That's not as obvious as it sounds, since the music sound largely conventional in its arrangements, even if it is graced by Mozart's characteristic gift for elegance and melody. Try and look in that music for any deeper insight into character or motivation however, and it's not obviously there, but it can be brought out in performance. The subject of an evil dictator would presuppose death and darkness as the dominant mood, and you can at least get a sense of that in the music. The desperation of lives and love in the balance too.

The basic sets for the production directed by Rita Cosentino capture that to some extent also. Largely, the set consists of little more than a couple of panels with some familiar Italian words written graffiti-like on them in chalk. SILLA is juxtaposed with MORTE and transformed into AMORE in Act I while the Roman dictator's position is made clear, silencing opposition (faces of old dead generals with mouths scores out in red on another side of the panels), his banishment of Cecilio a means by which he can set his sights on Giulia, who believes her beloved is dead.

Act II raises the stakes with dire threats of revenge and assassination and accordingly more Italian words are chalked onto the panels, words recognisable and familiar to anyone who has heard Verdi operas - SANGUE, COLLERA, VIOLENZA, FURORE. Act III relies more on visual harmony of colour and symmetry, with the key word at the conclusion being LIBERTÀ. It's these words that underline the sentiments of each of the Acts, and with Mozart's music and some good singing it's more than enough to get across not only the nature of the work, but Mozart's already distinctive take on the traditional opera seria material.

It's a tone that Laurence Equilbey and the Insula orchestra bring out particularly well. Using period instruments and specialising in informed playing of music of this period, the orchestra bring a rich, dynamic, almost percussive sound out of this work's score. There's a harsher, grittier sound there behind the elegant surface of the melodies and rhythms that captures the darker context of the work. It might not be music that is up to the standard of Mozart at his greatest, but it's unquestionably Mozart, full of vitality, perhaps even more so for being an early work of youth. The production and the musical performance can't really be faulted if it fails to find any great depth or originality in Lucio Silla, but they can and do find the essence of Mozart in it.

The singing plays a vital part in that and it does so here with some bright youthful singing. Franco Fagioli demonstrates the benefits of having a countertenor in the role of Cecilio; soaring and lyrical Fagioli has all the emotional qualities you could want for this role. Olga Pudova too has a wonderful Mozartian voice, bright and perfectly controlled with direct expressive ornamentation that can be heard in Giulia's Act II's 'Ah se il crudel periglio' aria. The singing is equally as good from Alessandro Liberatore as Silla, Chiara Skerath as Lucio Cinna, and Ilse Eerens as Celia. The chorus remain present at the back of the stage, vitalising the work's glorious outbursts of Mozart's choral singing. A chance to revisit an early Mozart is always welcome, particularly when it has well-informed and sympathetic playing that is as good as this and when it has a production and singing that does it justice.

Links: Culturebox, Philharmonie de Paris, Insula orchestra

Monday, 9 May 2016

Verdi - Il Trovatore (Opéra National de Paris, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore 

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2016

Daniele Callegari, Alex Ollé, Ludovic Tézier, Hui He, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Marcelo Alvarez, Roberto Tagliavini, Marion Lebègue, Oleksiy Palchykov, Constantin Ghircau, Cyrille Lovighi

L'Opéra National de Paris, Bastille - February 2016

When it comes to early Verdi operas it's often the case that the plot doesn't matter quite as much as the passion in which it is presented. There's a balance to be found of course between quite how far to push those passions and where to push them, but when it all comes together the effect is unlike what any other opera composer can achieve. Il Trovatore is one of the most difficult to balance drama and passion, but between the production and the singing, Alex Ollé's 2016 Paris production proves to be one of the better attempts to harness and unleash the work's unquestionable power.

Alex Ollé's production goes for a simple set of adaptable black monoliths that can be used for multipurpose application. Looking not unlike the Berlin Holocaust memorial, the pillars rise into and out of the ground at variable heights to represent steps, seats, high towers and trees, flattening when required into gravestones. Disappearing altogether, they also create doorways to hell from which ghostly figures emerge as Azucena relates the story of the burning of her mother for witchcraft.

There's no imposition of any concept here, the abstract designs rather being used simply to serve the playing of the drama while having a strong visual sensibility at the same time. Primarily however, the set design works in conjunction with the lighting to establish a distinctive mood. The dominant mood in Il Trovatore is a sombre one of dark and dire portents and there doesn't appear to be a great deal of variegation within that. Using mirrors and shifts of lighting however, the infinitely configurable set proves surprisingly adaptable to subtle changes of a measured tone that never lets it all spill over into hysterical melodrama.

Despite its propensity towards going over the top with a notoriously wild plot of misfortune and chance, and with highly-charged music to match, Il Trovatore however is itself not terribly dramatic. The characters tend to stand around and relate events in a story to others, emoting and declaiming quite a bit. Ollé's production doesn't really enliven this much or particularly add anything much in the way of character development. I'm not sure that having the Conte di Luna and his troops dressed in Nazi-like uniforms really helps either. Nor does Daniele Callegari's conducting of the Paris orchestra, although the musical performance is good - it just lacks the kind of Verdean fire you might like to find there.

By way of recompense however, the Paris Opera have assembled an excellent cast here. It's not perfect by any means - it's hard to get a uniformly great Verdi cast together - but everyone throws everything into the performances and they balance each other out well, if not always to the expected strengths of Il Trovatore. It's Ludovic Tézier's Conte di Luna and Ekaterina Semenchuk's Azucena who contribute most towards that tone of darkness and danger. Tézier is impressive and wonderfully lyrical in a way that gives the Count a suavely evil character. His breath control and ability to sustain his notes is not only technically impressive, it adds to that character. Semenchuk is a fire-breathing Azucena, again demonstrating marvellous control with a rich timbre.

Without underestimating the challenges of the tenor and soprano roles, Marcelo Alvarez and Hui He aren't quite as note perfect and show the strain of singing these roles a little more, but only a little. Hui He's lovely fullness of voice gives intensity to the role of Leonora, while Alvarez puts more effort into his acting performance than is usually the case, and it makes all the difference. Whether all the elements were perfect or not however, the stage direction that weighs and balances the tricky dynamic of Il Trovatore was clearly effective, with an incredible finale that gives you shivers, as it rightly should. Verdi's unforgettable melodies, some fine singing and an impact like that is all you want from Il Trovatore, and you get it here in Paris.

Links: L'Opéra National de Paris

Friday, 29 April 2016

Verdi - I Due Foscari (Royal Opera House, 2014)

Giuseppe Verdi - I Due Foscari 

Royal Opera House, 2014

Antonio Pappano, Thaddeus Strassberger, Plácido Domingo, Francesco Meli, Maria Agresta, Maurizio Muraro, Samuel Sakker, Rachel Kelly, Lee Hickenbottom, Dominic Barrand

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Some early Verdi operas are worth reviving, and some are really of curiosity value only. I due Foscari, Verdi's sixth opera, is one that is worth coming back to occasionally, if only for the unusually sensitive and dark melancholic beauty of its score. Although there are evident weaknesses in the plot development, it's also worth re-examining now and again just to see if a production can make something more of the strong themes that underpin the work. The Royal Opera House's 2014 production of I due Forscari makes a strong case for the musical value of this work, but Thaddeus Strassberger's production doesn't quite have what it takes to elevate this to the level of being considered a neglected Verdi masterpiece.

Much like the later Un ballo in maschera, the beauty of Verdi's musical composition in I due Foscari far exceeds the quality of libretto and the treatment of the source material. That might seen unfair since I due Foscari (and Un ballo in maschera) are based on real historical events, the former coming from a strong literary source in a work by Lord Byron, but Verdi's writing undoubtedly confers more sensitivity and personality on the characters than is evident from the limited text that describes the plot and the situationMuch of the exciting developments and action I due Foscari however takes place either before the opera starts or occurs off-stage. The last time I reviewed this opera, I described it as a kind of courtroom murder drama where we don't see either the killing or the trial. The main drama having already taken place, the characters are mostly left to just run through the standard numbers that express their grief and anger (the dominant moods here) towards life's cruel twists of fate. It wouldn't be far off the rigid formula and expression of an opera seria format in that respect.

What is significant here in I due Foscari however it that the work evidently comes from a very personal dark place, and it's more than just railing against fate and the cruel whims of the gods. We do get plenty of that in the nature of the opera itself and in the dark 'tinta' of the work. Doge Francesco Foscari's deep melancholy over the death of his three children and the imprisonment and trial of his only remaining son is undoubtedly informed by Verdi's own personal family experiences with the deaths of his children. There is also however a burning anger at human injustice, the abuse of power and authority and the impact on lives crushed for the sake of greed, ambition and personal gain.

I due Foscari then isn't a conventional numbers opera by any means, nor one that is plot-led. It's about exploring character, personality, location, mood and situation. Bel canto can go so far in exploring and giving voice to those sentiments, but Verdi's score - while giving tremendous voice to his characters in their arias - goes much further musically than his predecessors of Donizetti and Bellini. The quality and expressiveness of Verdi's music helps define all those other external elements and internal conflicts that impact upon a person in the kind of situations that Jacopo, his wife Lucrezia and his father the Doge find themselves in. Whether the quality of the drama merits it or not, I due Foscari is a fascinating early sketch for future developments that the composer would expand upon in La Traviata and Rigoletto and with even greater facility and purpose in his mature later works.

It's clearly much more than a sketch, but at the same time, it's still rather less than a successful whole. You can't fault Thaddeus Strassberger's intentions for the production to reflect the dark tone of I due Foscari and something of the feel for its Venetian locations without getting too mired in period realism. Kevin Knight's set designs however aren't always able to reflect those intentions on the Covent Garden stage, succeeding only in making Venice look exceedingly ugly. The ugliness is I'm sure intentional, reflecting a deeper reality beneath the surface beauty and the elegant formalism and attire of the Dieci - the Council of Ten. The use of water and platforms to walk above the floods for example are a less 'picture-postcard' view of Venice that serve well to show another side of the character of the lagoon city.

The production however pushes the bleakness and nihilism much too far, over-emphasising what is already there in abundance in Verdi's score. Additional gory scenes of dismemberment and torture are unnecessary; there's more than enough personal torment there already in the lives and in the fates of Jacopo, Francesco and Lucrezia without adding to it so heavy-handedly. It also takes things a little too far at the conclusion, which is powerful enough on its own terms without Lucrezia collapsing into raving madness and violently drowning her own son, but there's no doubt it has the desired impact of stunning the audience into the realisation that this is far from the kind of Verdi opera we are familiar with.

Where the production is most successful is in the actual performance. Antonio Pappano's conducting of the Royal Opera House orchestra made the biggest impression, demonstrating fully the qualities of Verdi's score. It was delivered with force and vigour and yet at the same time with tenderness and sensitivity for the fluctuations of mood and tempo. All four of the principal roles impressed, and arguably, they're all equally important in this work. You can see why Plácido Domingo has moved into the Verdi baritone repertoire with roles like Francesco Foscari out there. It suits his age and stature as well - you couldn't imagine him singing the tenor role of Jacopo here, for example. He doesn't have the rich baritone growl of Leo Nucci in the role of Doge, but the passion is all there, some of the phrasing is beautiful and he works wonderfully with what is expressed in the musical accompaniment.

Domingo's fit for the role really comes apparent when he's working with the other performers, and it's no coincidence that this is also when the full power of Verdi's writing is at its strongest in this work. The duet with Lucrezia, the trio with Lucrezia and Jacopo are some of the high points of this work and they come across marvellously in this interpretation. That's as much to do with the impassioned edgy performance of Maria Agresta as Lucrezia and the lyrical beauty of Maurizio Muraro's Jacopo - each of them reflecting Verdi's clear writing and characterisation of the roles. The writing for the chorus also serves an important function in I due Foscari, and that too is handled impressive and to great effect by the Royal Opera Chorus under the direction of Renato Balsadonna.

On Blu-ray, the performance feels somewhat more cold and clinical than it appeared when broadcast live in the Royal Opera House's 2014 Cinema Season, but the qualities of the performances are all there in the fine High-Definition presentation, particularly in the uncompressed PCM stereo mix. Extra features on the Blu-ray include a brief Introduction to I due Foscari, which has interviews with the cast, with Pappano, Strassberger and a look at the costume and set design for this production.  An Interview with Antonio Pappano looks in a little more detail at the leitmotifs and the beautiful melodies that Verdi composed for the work. The enclosed booklet has a good synopsis and an essay by Francesco Izzo that looks at the distinctive musical colour and characgterisation that makes this a significant Verdi work.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor

Royal Opera House, 2016

Daniel Oren, Katie Mitchell, Diana Damrau, Charles Castronovo, Ludovic Tézier, Peter Hoare, Rachel Lloyd, Kwangchul Youn, Taylor Stayton

Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live - 25 April 2016

Katie Mitchell's intentions for the new Royal Opera House production of Lucia di Lammermoor and their potential for controversy had been well publicised beforehand. This was going to be a feminist reworking, one that put Lucia at the centre of the drama as a woman taking control over her own destiny, neither a victim nor someone acting at the behest of others, where even the heroine's famous descent into madness would be her own decision.

It's a fine idea and one that you might hope would bring a little more depth to the characterisation mostly abandoned by the librettist Salvadore Cammarano in this adaptation of Walter Scott's novel 'The Bride of Lammermoor'. Unfortunately, while there is some notional resistance in Lucia refusing to marry the wealthy Arturo at the demand of her brother Enrico for the sake of the Ashton family fortune, choosing instead to love Ernesto, the son of an old rival family, this revisionist view runs contrary to what actually happens. Katie Mitchell's version of the work might not entirely succeed in its intentions then, but it does nonetheless have some impact.

It's hard to give any real depth to the opening scenes of Act I however, and the director's "updating" the work from the 18th century to the mid-19th century of Donizetti's time hardly makes a significant difference. Vicki Mortimer's set designs make use of a split-screen technique, meaning that Lucia remains on the stage even during the scenes when there is all-male plotting going on, but this comes into play to more effect later in the opera. Spicing things up with a sex scene between Lucia and Edgardo might not seem like much either, but there are consequences here also that have more of an impact later. The fact that the following Act II fairly simmers with tension means that the production team and the singers have put the necessary work in. And it shows.

It's not the only thing that shows. Lucia, in this version, is pregnant and is seen suffering from morning sickness at the start of Act II. This is undoubtedly the most important detail that Mitchell includes to 'fill out' the characterisation, establishing a greater bond between her and Edgardo and providing a more convincing reason - since she miscarries after her murder of Arturo and loses a lot of blood - for her becoming somewhat unhinged at the turn of events and for her dying so dramatically at the conclusion.

Whether that carries though as convincingly in practice is debatable, but it certainly makes Lucia's Act II scene with Enrico much more intense when there something more real at stake and not just something that could be dismissed as a romantic illusion. The fact that it is sung with tremendous passion by Diana Damrau and Ludovic Tézier in a way that belies any belief that Donizetti's music is repetitive and unsophisticated. Daniel Oren's conducting of the work here, when it's combined with dramatic realism and expert singing, shows just how intensely dramatic it can be.

The rest of this highly-charged Act then falls neatly into place. If Enrico seems to let his enemy get away with rather a lot by gatecrashing Lucia's wedding to Arturo, it's only because it suits his purpose to see Edgardo further destroy the bond between him and Lucia. Mitchell also makes sure that the ghosts have a large part to play in determining the nature of this relationship, and it always helps when they are made physical. Here they are often seen coming between Lucia and Edgardo, the ghosts of the past as terrible family histories that present an insurmountable obstacle to their union. The final touch of the ghost of Lucia's mother pressing the kiss of madness into her forehead works wonderfully.

Despite this, Act III still doesn't seem able to overcome some of the inherent dramatic weaknesses of the bel canto opera, nor really live up to the intentions of Mitchell's revisions. The split-screen might provide greater rationale for the usually off-stage action - allowing the murder of Arturo to be acted out in its full gory detail - but it divides attention and takes away from where the focus of the Wolf's Crag scene (and the music for it) is intended. It doesn't make things easy for the video director capturing this for the cinema screening either, the camera never seeming to know which scene to settle on, but appearing to spare the viewer from some of the more gruesome images of this controversial scene, which kind of works against the intentions of the production.

If the overall impact is nonetheless impressive, it's not because of any "feminist" agenda, but because the characterisation is stronger and fuller than you usually find it in this opera. It's also unquestionably because Diana Damrau brings a lot to the role with an outstanding singing and dramatic performance. It becomes a bit too much to try to make every note of the mad scene coloratura mean something and relate to a recognisable reaction - it still feels like so much yodelling - but it's still a committed performance that has real depth and intensity. By way of contrast, Charles Castronovo avoids the kind of mannerisms that can sometimes sound like an effort to emulate Jonas Kaufmann, and he gives a more grounded lyrical performance. Ludovic Tézier's luxurious rounded tone for Enrico contributes to a well-integrated cast of singing and performance that delivers as much as could be expected from this bel canto work, and even perhaps a little bit more.

Links: Royal Opera House

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Tchaikovsky - Iolanta/The Nutcracker (Paris, 2016 - Webcast)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Iolanta/The Nutcracker

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2016

Alain Altinoglu, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Sonya Yoncheva, Arnold Rutkowski, Andrei Jilihovschi, Vito Priante, Roman Shulakov, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Elena Zaremba, Anna Patalong, Paola Gardina

Culturebox - March 2016

Given their shared history, it's surprising that opera and ballet tend to remain within their respective disciplines and rarely cross-over. There are of course exceptions and one of them is the pairing of Tchaikovsky's short opera Iolanta with the composer's ballet The Nutcracker at its Mariinsky premiere in 1892. It's also notable that combining opera and ballet in the same programme is traditionally something that has been done in French opera from Lully, Rameau and Gluck right through to the extravagant excesses of the Grand Opéra.

So while it is more common nowadays to see Iolanta paired with another short opera by a different composer, it's undoubtedly instructive to see the work paired in the way it was originally intended, and it's appropriate that it should be the Paris Opera who stage the two works in the same programme. Considering the separate paths that both works and disciplines have taken in the meantime however it would still take some radical reworking for it to succeed. Fortunately the Paris Opera have entered a new period of productive experimentation again and, fortunately in this case, they have engaged Dmitri Tcherniakov to come up with a daring approach to the programming that confounds any expectations.

Surprisingly however, at least initially, it looks like Tcherniakov might be going down the same relatively safe route as his La Traviata for La Scala in 2013 (although you can't be safe enough for La Scala). His Iolanta is set in the same sort of drawing room, the decor, lighting and costumes all suggesting period in a way that conforms with the attitudes expressed in the drama, with there being little evidence of his usual modern subversion of the works. The placement of a Christmas tree in the drawing room suggests that Iolanta will blend into The Nutcracker, and indeed it does, but not at all in the way you might expect, the tree even being abandoned before the ballet starts, and the Christmas drawing room scene following it soon after.

The Nutcracker proves to be not so much a continuation of the story of Iolanta as much as an extension of its themes, assuming that you see its story of a young girl who has is cured from blindness as a metaphor for a young woman coming of age. That's certainly how the Metropolitan Opera played the work when it paired Iolanta with Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, a double-bill that put the emphasis on sexual awakening and liberation. Although successfully staged, it was still a fairly radical and dark exploration of the works' themes and not the most obvious direction you would see Iolanta moving towards. Seen in the context of its pairing with The Nutcracker, the Paris production is a more simple matter of coming of age and self-awareness, but there's nothing at all straightforward in the way Tcherniakov's production sets about it.

If Iolanta was played fairly straight, with perhaps only an additional emotional intensity brought out in the uniformly strong singing and acting performances - with a notably sweeping performance from Sonya Yoncheva - the already notorious opera director really lets loose in his settings for the ballet sequences of The Nutcracker.  It starts out fairly sedately with the cast of Iolanta remaining on the stage, Clara here appearing to be the little sister of Iolanta rather than a straightforward double or mirror role. If the dancing is not the traditional ballet steps, it is initially at least smooth and fluid, the party games and march music involving a kind of musical chairs game and playing with a nutcracker piñata.

That's about as close as this version of the ballet gets to any of its traditional reference points. The movements, choreographed in the first part by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, become more frantic and modern with jerking semaphored movements and rhythms as Clara dances with Fritz. Without the familiar ETA Hoffmann story points, it's hard to establish exactly what is going on when a gunshot is fired (by Drosselmeyer?) and the drawing room seems to explode in a ball of fire, leaving Iolana not involved in a war between gingerbread soldiers and grey mice, but in a desolate forest of swirling ashes and snow. Whirling changes of perspective add to the sense of dislocation through projections of the dark woods that are populated by dark shadowy figures with torches.

Act II of the Nutcracker takes us further into unfamiliar territory and strange imagery, with additional dance sequences by two other choreographers, Edouard Lock and Arthur Pita. The shadow of a giant bird circles, an enormous CGI hippo wanders through the woods, but the notion of sexual awakening is suggested by several Claras all dancing with fine young men, with the principal Clara writhing suggestively on the forest floor, abandoning herself to her inner nature. One would think that the traditional sweets and gifts from around the world would suit the purposes of this enlarging of Clara's (and by extension Iolanta's) world, but instead the scene is colourfully filled by huge toys which take us through to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The final pas-de-deux is also extraordinary, beautifully choreographed as a succession of Claras dance with the Prince through to old age.

It might not adhere to the original Nutcracker and the connection with Iolanta is tenuous, but it's a beautiful and poignant interpretation that works fully with Tchaikovsky's musical expression. More than just a dream, Clara's experience is a life-long journey that is even more fantastical than the original conception. That's what Tcherniakov does and it doesn't always please opera fans, so I'm sure it will also no doubt horrify some ballet fans more used to the traditional 'Casse-Noisette' that is a perennial favourite at the Paris Opera. It's all the more impressive then that the overall reception to this daring extravaganza has been very positive. It's another promising sign of the new director Stéphane Lissner successfully putting a progressive stamp on the Paris Opera.

Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National de Paris