Saturday, 20 September 2014

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Royal Opera House 2014 - Blu-ray)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House 2014

Kasper Holten, Nicola Luisotti, Mariusz Kwiecień, Alex Esposito, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Véronique Gens, Malin Byström, Antonio Poli, Elizabeth Watts, David Kimberg

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Mozart's Don Giovanni is a larger than life character. Not unrealistically larger than life, but truly a highly complex individual. You could write tomes of analysis on the character and still barely scratch the surface. Don Giovanni has been interpreted and psychoanalysed in countless productions, and every production somehow always seems to bring out another facet of his personality. Depending on the director and depending on the singer, Don Giovanni can be a rogue and a playboy; a heartless seducer of innocent women who is evil incarnate; or he can simply be a sensitive man who loves women too much; a charmer who women can't resist; a commitment-phobe who is unable to form attachments to any one woman when there are so many out there; women who fall for the rogue knowing full well that he will use and abandon them. Some might even foolishly believe they can change him.

Kasper Holten is undoubtedly aware of the complex nature of this colossus of the opera world and is certainly not the first to recognise that Don Giovanni is Don Giovanni - the opera is the man. That's not to say that the other characters in the opera aren't well developed. Like all Mozart's mature operas - and even some of the more youthful ones - the music is considered with attention to detail for even the smallest and seemingly most frivolous of secondary roles. Lorenzo da Ponte's development of character and plot meanwhile ensure that there's a dramatic consistency to the human interaction of every personality. Nevertheless, Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera is a huge figure who is unquestionably the centre and the driving force for the behaviour of every other person. His actions and the performance of the person playing the role determines the whole tone of the opera.

Mozart might have had one dominant character in mind when he composed for Don Giovanni - the work according to Mozart's own description of it is primarily a comedy - but his writing and Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto leave a lot of room for interpretation. A whole lot of room is needed for a figure like this, and Kasper Holten consequently uses the whole of the stage of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. In Es Devlin's designs, the stage is Don Giovanni, every detail, every colour, every lighting consideration, every stage prop and backdrop are used to express the magnificent monstrosity of Don Giovanni as he is written by Mozart. The set is a complex revolving arrangement of boxes, compartments, doors and staircases that during the overture fogs over with a black mist and fills up with the name of his conquests. Donna Anna wears a black stained dress, as if carrying the corruption of Giovanni, and the whole background floods with blood as the Commendatore is killed.

It's an effective way to open the opera and it does place us directly in the mind of Don Giovanni. Elsewhere lighting, colour and projections similarly reflect mood and character, from the ice blue calculating coolness of his re-encounter with Donna Elvira, to the warmth of the golden wood panelling - and all the sincerity of wood-panelling - as he attempts to charm and seduce Zerlina. Although there's complicity on the part of Donna Anna here, there's little doubt which side of the fence this Don Giovanni lies on. There's no sympathy for the devil here - he's an opportunist, an egotist, a snake with no care or feeling for anyone but himself, who will even betray his only faithful companion (Leporello's devotion being truly dogged) just to add another name to his list. The Commendatore is killed without a qualm and without a second thought, he seduces Zerlina in front of Masetto and, in this version, he even has Don Ottavio suffer the indignity of Donna Anna submitting to him again, even after all he has done, while he sings 'Dalla sua pace'. That hits home painfully.

The attention to the staging is strong then, as it often is with Kasper Holten and in the capable hands of Es Devlin, but as with other Holten productions I've seen (Die Tote Stadt, Eugene Onegin), while the spectacle is fully expressive of the music, Holten is not so strong directing singers as actors. All of them are a little bit stiff here and tend to feel like they are going through the motions. Fatally however, the lack of drive must primarily be considered to be down to Nicola Luisotti's leaden and uninspired conducting of the orchestra. Everything plods along, or not so much plods as smoothly sails along with no sense of the dynamic or the darkness that underlies Mozart's score. It's as if the conductor wants to downplay the cruder underscoring of Mozart's dramatic flair, and that's a bad decision. The fortepiano recitative doesn't enliven matters at all either, but some of the sense of drama is restored by the conclusion, even if the actual staging lets it down here.

The projections, it has to be said, do a terrific job of conjuring up all kinds of phantom imagery and an abstract sense of Don Giovanni being consumed by his own ego. The Commendatore, as such, appears to be nothing more than a projection of Don Giovanni's descent into madness. The libretto doesn't really support this idea and it makes the staging of it a little awkward. Donna Elvira screams not at the appearance of the stone man, but at a glimpse she catches into Don Giovanni's madness. Leporello sees the statue of the Commendatore and reads the inscription on it, but turns away at the final scene as if he's not part of it. The stage does indeed become deserted by the time of the epilogue, showing a Don Giovanni trapped in a madness of his own creation. Or even perhaps one laid for him by the enemies who deliver their final verdict ('Questo è il fin') off-stage. The problem is that there's not much sense in the direction of a building crisis to what finally drives Don Giovanni over the edge.

The lack of fire (no pun intended on how the finale is delivered) in the performances is also there unfortunately in the singing. There's a good cast here and they are all very capable in the roles, but with perhaps one exception, there's not much that really stands out and impresses. Mariusz Kwiecień has the looks and the voice for Don Giovanni, and the experience (this performance is his 100th in the role he tells us in the BD extra features), but he doesn't have the necessary charm or charisma to fully inhabit or bring something personal to the role. I've seen Alex Esposito play Leporello a few times now, and like his Papageno, these Mozart roles suit his style, voice and personality well - more so I think that his otherwise fine work as a Rossini bass. He has a way of getting to the underlying humanity of the characters beneath their comic exteriors. His key aria, 'Madamina, il catalogo è questo' is good, but it's not particularly well directed and as a consequence lacks impact.

The same can be said of Malin Byström's Donna Anna. She has character and a good voice, but she's not supported elsewhere.  Her aria 'Or sai chi l'onore' for example is well sung, but with Luisotti holding the orchestra back from emphasising those emotional high points, it just doesn't hit home the way it should. Véronique Gens is the one notable exception to the casting here. She has a great voice for baroque opera and opera seria and has everything that is required for a substantial role like Donna Elvira. She stands out so far above everyone else here however and is in such a different league that she's almost miscast for this production. I also liked Elizabeth Watts' Zerlina - she's a fine singer and there's plenty of character in her voice and her performance. Antonio Poli's Don Ottavio was a little stiff and characterless, but Alexander Tsymbalyuk's Commendatore was powerfully declaimed.

On Blu-ray, the High Definition presentation of the performance is superb. Although the stage is mostly in darkness to allow the projections to be effective, the image is clear and detailed. The stereo and surround mixes bring out the colour of the music and singing. The Introduction in the extra features gives a good overview of the production, and there's a little more consideration of the nature of Don Giovanni's women and how Mozart writes for them in another featurette. Kasper Holten and Es Devlin also provide a full-length commentary for the opera. The enclosed booklet has a good essay by William Richmond on the changing faces of Don Juan in literature and film over the ages. The Blu-ray is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Verdi - Il Trovatore (Salzburg 2014 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

Salzburger Festspiele, 2014

Daniele Gatti, Alvis Hermanis, Anna Netrebko, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Diana Haller, Francesco Meli, Plácido Domingo, Riccardo Zanellato, Gerard Schneider, Miloš Bulajić, Raimundas Juzuitis

Medici, ARTE Concert - August 2014

The Di Luna family seem to have fallen on hard times in the 2014 Salzburg Festival production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. Like many other once aristocratic families with large expensive estates to manage, their home is now open as a museum to the general public as a means of paying for its upkeep. This one in particular has some colourful history attached to it. The eldest son, Ferrando, takes on the role of tour guide and tells the latest group of tourists all about how the fortunes of the Di Luna family went into decline following the death of the youngest son, consumed in the same fire where they burnt an old witch accused of putting a curse on him.

This isn't a bad way to present the 15th century melodrama of Il Trovatore. The opera opens with a tale that relates the background of the story, and unquestionably, it's this historical event that is to continue to have grave repercussions for the Di Luna family. It's perhaps not a device that can be sustained for the whole of the work, so Latvian director Alvis Hermanis - who brought Alphonse Mucha paintings spectacularly to life in La Monnaie's Jenůfa last year - works on a similar 'Night at the Museum' idea here, where the paintings in the galleries come to life and recreate the past. It's not an ideal arrangement, requiring the cast to make some awkward on-stage quick changes, but the crimson colour scheme looks fabulous and there could even be come conceptual merit to the enterprise.

Perhaps it's the troubadour reference, but this intentions of this production of Il Trovatore reminded me of the concept of George Benjamin's and Martin Crimp's Written on Skin. It's about looking back at history and bringing the past back to life through art, through painting, through the power of storytelling. And, of course, through the power of opera as well. It's not a grand concept by any means, but Alvis Hermanis manages to apply it to Il Trovatore without interfering too much with the primary purpose of the opera to entertain and inspire passions through storytelling, since that is also essentially the primary purpose of the troubadour.

It's not uncommon to apply such a distancing framing device to operas (mostly bel canto works) where the plot is a little over-heated or lacking in credibility. Although the plot of Il Trovatore can be expressed in such terms, it doesn't necessarily need a modern framing device because Verdi's score is powerful enough to carry you along through the roaring melodrama. Aside from the abundance of memorable melodies, arias and choruses, the music also succeeds in how it is able to give full dramatic expression to the heightened sentiments of the characters without adding to the hysteria.

Those arrangements seemed to be slightly restrained here as conducted by Daniele Gatti to the point that where very familiar pieces aren't immediately recognisable. I would be reluctant to judge it on the highly compressed live sound-mix for an internet stream, but there does seem to be some holding back from the traditional playing of Verdi at full-tilt, withholding in the process some of the pleasures that come with it in this particular work. On the other hand, it does reveal some of the musicality and beauty of Verdi's writing. Some of the choices however may be determined by the staging - there are no hammers on anvils in the art gallery of this production, for example - but in scenes such as the conclusion where the impact is all-important, it hits home powerfully.

In terms of the singing or the playing of the characters however there was little such compromise. The only real constraint on some of the performers was the necessity of changing costumes in their transformation from museum attendants in modern dress to historical figures in period costume, while continuing to keep singing at the same time. Anna Netrebko seemed to be half in and half out of a dress in some scenes (not that I'm complaining), but it scarcely mattered as far as her performance is concerned. She might not be the ideal Leonora, but she certainly has the ability, the voice and the charisma to carry it off. She's deservedly the star attraction here and remains riveting to watch, never giving anything less than total commitment to the role. If this production itself is less than perfect, Netrebko's raises this Il Trovatore to one that is well worth seeing.

Whether she was well-matched here with Plácido Domingo's Conte di Luna however was difficult to judge. Domingo was announced as indisposed due to illness and his subsequent performances were all cancelled, but he still took to the stage to perform for the live broadcast. He was visibly unwell and struggling for breath, but held up remarkably well even if his performance as the Count is still very much in baritenor mode. Marie-Nicole Lemieux played Azucena exceptionally well. Her account of the Zingarella's fate and her chilling closing exclamations could hardly be more dramatically delivered. Francesco Meli combined power with a rare delicacy as Manrico. The song of the troubadour should have the power to bewitch and enchant, particularly given the requirements of this staging, and that was all here.

Links: ARTE Concert,, Salzburg Festival

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Mozart - The Magic Flute (NI Opera, 2014 - Belfast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Magic Flute

NI Opera, 2014

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Aoife Miskelly, Anthony Gregory, Ben McAteer, Stephen Richardson, Ruth Jenkins-Róbertson, John Graham-Hall, Brendan Collins, Sinéad O'Kelly, Sarah Richmond, Laura Murphy, Richard Shaffrey, Lynsey Curtin, James Osborne, Dylan Scullion, George Rohan

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 11th September 2014

There are many ways to approach the richness of ideas and meanings in The Magic Flute, but first and foremost the performance must be lively and entertaining. Oscar Wilde said that life is far too important a thing to take seriously, and you could say the same thing about The Magic Flute. Through the entertainment and the wonderful music, all the beauty of the work, its characterisation, its sensibility, its enlightened views on life, love and liberty all come tumbling out, almost effortlessly.

That's the secret to the success of NI Opera's latest production, making the effort seem minimal, letting the spirit of the Magic Flute float out there as if it is indeed a pure and simple expression of the truth that doesn't require any heavy-handed symbolism or mystical obfuscation. Considerable effort has undoubtedly gone into making it seem effortless, and that's part of the trick. Commencing what is now the fourth full season in their short history, the Northern Ireland company get off to a flying start here in an impressive production that shows that they have their finger on the pulse of opera as well as on the mood of the province.

Touring through Armagh, Omagh, Belfast and Derry, this production is aimed at reaching a wider and a younger audience, and there aren't many works that are as widely appealing and at the same time as expressive of the nature and the brilliance of opera as The Magic Flute. If you can make it entertaining, you have the audience eating out of your hand with characters and tunes like this winning hearts and minds. Seeing Die Zauberflöte as a celebration of Masonic rituals and ideals is missing the point. Seeing it as wholly Mozart is what makes the work great. NI Opera clearly recognised the advantages of that perspective and the standing ovation at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast was well deserved.

Taking the spirit of Mozart as a starting point, approaching The Magic Flute as a wonderful entertaining puzzle, set designer Simon Holdsworth creates a set design that is elegant, eye-catching, functional, impressive, clever and often surprising. It's everything that Mozart and The Magic Flute should be. The 'theme' is a black and white marble chequerboard design, which sets the idea for a game of chess strategy between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, but also is easily adaptable to the snakes and ladders of Tamino's opening struggle - funny and frightening - with the giant serpent.  

The black-and-white theme is predominant throughout, partly as a means of distinguishing between those opposing forces of good and evil, but it blends in (without forcing the issue) with the idea of elegance and order that is also an important part of Mozart's creation. Without making an issue of the period either, the setting is vaguely 1940s, reflecting perhaps a more recent familiar view of dominant masculinity as well as one where the value of a woman's contribution is recognised, if for nothing else than for it being a necessary complementary flipside of masculinity. This follows through to the black-and-white tradition of dress in the brilliantly staged wedding that wraps up the conclusion here so well.

There appears to be little validation for the three boys being pilots in a little red plane (wonderfully sung and played out by the young boys) or for Sarastro being depicted as a lord of the manor, first seen dressed for a fox hunt with his disciples, with other members being gardeners on his estate and Monostatos his footman, but at the same time, the characterisation fits the work perfectly. Place Sarastro on a leather chair in a library of what looks like a gentleman's club, and you get the same sense of a society that values its own view of tradition, learning and progressiveness without the associated connotations of cults and Freemasonry.

The production is totally in the spirit of Mozart then and so is Oliver Mears' direction. The clever little twists and devices are inspired, not just being added for the sake of amusement, but they find - through entertaining means - a way to explore and reveal other aspects of what can be fairly strange characters. The reason we know that there is more to these characters than is visible on the surface is that Mozart's warm, sensitive and ennobling music tells us so. That's brought out well by conductor Nicholas Chalmers despite the relatively small size of the orchestra. With only one first violin and one second violin, it doesn't manage to be quite as lyrical as the music ought to be, but it captures perfectly the beauty of the melodies, as well as the spirit and the pace of the work in all its variety of tones and situations.

It was a full account of Die Zauberflöte too, with the only significant cuts I noticed being in the reduction of the recitative and spoken dialogue. I'm not always a fan of unsubtitled English-language versions of opera, but it has to be said that in a theatre of this size, it worked well. The translation of the libretto for this production was also extremely clever and very witty. It particularly came to life since it was sung and performed so well - a testament to the direction and the quality of the singing. When you're talking about an entertaining Magic Flute, you're talking about one where Papageno makes a strong impact and Ben McAteer's performance, in dungarees covered with bird-crap, was indeed the stand-out routine of the night, his voice agile, his enunciation clear and his personality engaging.

There was a great mix of young new talent and solid experience in the rest of the cast that blended well. Aiofe Miskelly is Belfast's rising star on the international stage, and is clearly as capable in challenging repertoire roles like Pamina as she is in more experimental modern works. She was very well matched by Anthony Gregory's commanding Tamino. Everything about his performance as a fine, upstanding young Prince made it clear why Tamino inspires the kind of confidence that others place in him.  Stephen Richardson was a deep and resonant Sarastro, getting right down to those near-impossible low notes and making them ring. At the other end of the scale Ruth Jenkins-Róbertson's entrance as the Queen of the Night was spectacularly staged and vocally impressive, as were her formidable Three Ladies. John Graham-Hall's cockney-inflected Monostatos might have been a little over-exaggerated, but it fully participated in the entertaining richness of the characterisation and the performance.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Verdi - La Traviata (Glyndebourne 2014 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Glyndebourne 2014

Mark Elder, Tom Cairns, Venera Gimadieva, Michael Fabiano, Tassis Christoyannis, Olivier Dunn, Eddie Wade, Hanna Hipp, Emanuele d’Aguanno, Graeme Broadbent

Culturebox, The Telegraph - Live stream 10th August 2014

While there has been no lessening whatsoever of the high production values at Glyndebourne in its 80th year, I'm detecting a little more of a back to basics approach in the new productions for 2014. Der Rosenkavalier was anything but traditional in its impressive and beautiful set designs, but Richard Jones didn't take any real liberties with the actual concept or characterisation, or provide any new insights either. Despite the controversy in the casting, it was actually a fairly safe production. You could say the same about the new 2014 production of La Traviata.

Even just putting on Verdi's La Traviata can be seen as a safe choice, but that's only the case if it's smothered in conventional stuffy Parisian Belle Epoque decor. Hildegard Bechtler's set designs do well to avoid such trappings without losing any of the glamour and sophistication that we associate with the work's location and settings. The set and costume designs are smart, elegant and eye-catching, the stage immaculately lit and coloured. It has the virtue of being ever so tastefully modern and stylish without being tied to any specific period. It's updated, but not in any way that is going to frighten anyone with a more traditional taste in opera productions. As a production that is going to tour around the UK later in the year, all these considerations are important.

Safe is also how you would describe Tom Cairns' direction. There's nothing in the least bit radical attempted here. There's none of Andrea Breth's Salò references, none of Willy Decker's elegant modernisms, none of the stripped back to the bone minimalism of Peter Konwitschny, and none of the nudity that is fashionable to apply even to this work nowadays. The fading glamour of the courtesan is maintained in Glyndebourne's production, without highlighting or emphasising any of the harsh realities of prostitution, the social attitudes towards sexually liberated women, and without dwelling on the grim reality of Violetta Valéry's decline, illness and death. There are a few swoons and falls, but all within the romanticism of operatic heroines dying from consumption. None of the characterisation deviates from the well-established depiction we have of these characters.

And why should it? Arguably, Verdi's remarkable music - the composer in the full-flower of his genius here - carries everything that is necessary, expresses everything that he couldn't explicitly place on the stage. Mark Elder, conducting the London Philharmonic, matches the elegance of the production and it's delicately and sensitively performed, but there's just not enough of the Verdian passion in this supreme example of the composer's craft. This is a hugely dynamic work that is all about passion and death, from the first stirrings of love to full-blown ecstasy, running through fear, betrayal and jealousy in Violetta's rapid decline into delirium and death. It's a beautiful production, consistent of purpose and design, and it's wonderfully played, but there's very little sense of the full sweep of Verdi on the stage or from the pit.

If there's one aspect where Glyndebourne play less safe and take something of a chance, it's in the casting. Like their Der Rosenkavalier, the names are not the obvious ones or even familiar ones, but the performance of the principals was nonetheless exceptionally good. First and foremost is Venera Gimadieva's Violetta. A star at the Bolshoi, this is an impressive introduction for the young soprano at Glyndebourne. She doesn't have a big soprano voice and it wasn't a showy star performance, but Gimadieva sang the role beautifully and looked wonderful. It wasn't a nuanced performance by any means, her presence is a little cold and she lacked the kind of complete absorption in the role that a more experienced soprano can bring to it, but that could be down to the fact that the solidly traditional characterisation gave her nothing new to bring out of the role either.

The same can be said for Michael Fabiano. His Alfredo was beautifully sung in a distinctive and modern tenor voice, and competently performed in a way that made his character's behaviour totally credible. But it was also totally familiar, with no real insight or exploration of the character at all. Tassis Christoyannis similarly gave a good performance as an otherwise bland Giorgio Germont - a character who can be used much more creatively and explosively than he was here. The other roles all contributed well to the ensemble, although Hanna Hipp wasn't quite right for the role of Flora. As an ensemble piece however, this production, safe and consistent as it was, proved to be a solid, reliable and enjoyable reminder that, no matter how often you hear it, La Traviata is one of opera's greatest works. In comparison to rather more adventurous recent productions that have explored its passions with rather more vigour, the Glyndebourne 2014 production was just a little bit dull.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier (Glyndebourne, 2014 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Glyndebourne, 2014 

Robin Ticciati, Richard Jones, Kate Royal, Tara Erraught, Lars Woldt, Teodora Gheorghiu, Michael Kraus, Miranda Keys, Christopher Gillett, Helene Schneiderman, Gwynne Howell, Andrej Dunaev, Robert Wörle, Scott Conner

Telegraph, ARTE Concert - July 2014

It's unfortunate that the controversy over personal comments directed against Tara Erraught's Octavian have overshadowed what is actually a very impressive and well-performed Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne 2014. Neither side has come out well in the subsequent furore. The critics can justifiably claim that their comments about Erraught's inability to convincingly pass for a young man were taken out of context, but they were unkind and unnecessary. Those on the other hand who defended the mezzo-soprano on the absurd principle that opera is "all about the singing" merely showed that they have little understanding of the history and the nature of opera.

Fortunately, all was put right when Glyndebourne's Der Rosenkavalier was broadcast and streamed live over the internet, allowing the world to see for themselves that the views of both sides were nothing but expressions of egotistical self-importance. The person who has actually come out of the whole affair best is Tara Erraught, who (as far as I'm aware) made no comment and refused to enter into the unseemly debate, but instead bravely just got on with the rest of the run and gave a fine performance on the night of the live broadcast.

Putting aside the question of suitability of casting and whether it's important or not, what the Glyndebourne production ought to do and what it succeeded in doing, was to remind the viewer that Der Rosenkavalier is about so much more than a singer and a performance. It's a work of extraordinary richness, sophistication and complexity, transcending any traditional view of what opera is about, and it requires careful direction to draw all the various levels of meaning out of it and bring the wonderful contrasts of performance together. Richard Jones directed an elegant production of the opera, beautifully conceived and designed, that at least touched on its multiple delights, even if it didn't bring anything greatly original to the stage.

It might seem like a trivial concern, but what was immediately striking about the production was the impeccable taste of the interior design that created a loving sense of the period without being slavishly literal. Paul Steinberg's sets for each of the three acts were eye-catchingly colourful and elegant, but minimally dressed in a way that complemented but didn't overwhelm the drama, the sentiments and the personalities in the opera. Richard Jones' actual direction of the drama was a little less adventurous, but well-pitched to match the flow between farce and philosophy. Der Rosenkavalier however is so layered and meticulously constructed a work that it doesn't really need any further elaborations or interpretations imposed upon it.

Act I therefore played out pretty much as written. There were a few distinctive directorial touches, but they only served to enhance what is already there in the work. Instead of the usual crude bump and grind that accompanies Strauss' suggestive overture, Jones instead emphasised the erotic charge of Octavian's desire for the more mature woman by showing Marschallin emerging naked from a stylised shower and displaying herself to the bewitched young man. Elsewhere, the first act is mostly played as a straightforward bedroom farce, acted with verve and certainly well-sung, but with no great character or originality.

The suggestions are all there however that there is something of greater depth being explored. A prominent clock alerts the viewer to real-time aspect of Act I, as well as recognising the importance of the passing of time and the ending of an era as a theme, but it doesn't take it much further than this. The subsequent acts however find other subtle means in both set design and the expression of the drama to highlight the conflict between the past, the present and the future. A distinction is drawn between the traditional aristocratic privilege of the past, the rise of the nouveau riche bourgeoisie in the present, and the freedom of youth as the future, unbound by anything but love and free to choose their own destiny.

Within such change is the capacity for both sadness and optimism (with some fun in-between), and the production successfully finds the appropriate tone for each situation. The work itself and the production is at its best in those key moments in each of the three acts. The Marschallin's reverie over time and ageing at the end of Act I is beautifully sung by Kate Royal. It's not despairing, but dignified, the nobility of her sentiments and recognition of the ways of the world allowing her to bring reconciliation at the key moment of Act III in the gorgeous trio. In between it's the Act II meeting of Octavian and Sophie that makes the greatest impression. The encounter (lushly orchestrated) is caught up in a rush of colour and sugar that you could almost swoon with pleasure. That's the impression the moment should evoke and with such an emphasis it determines the overall tone of the production as one where love and beauty are celebrated and the outlook is an optimistic one.

That's about as much of a directorial position as Jones takes on the Glyndebourne production. It's a bit of a designer's doll-house of a set-design and the figures are threatened with being a little dwarfed by the greater scheme of things. That's a risk that is inherently in Strauss and Hofmannstahl's conception of Der Rosenkavalier, and if the characters emerge from it as more meaningfully human, it's on account of the beautiful writing of the score for the drama and for the voice. You won't find the finest interpretation of any of those roles here - at least not in any way that is revelatory - but it's at least very well performed.

The female leads at least are impressive. Royal is suitably elegant and sings with feeling, but doesn't quite capture the melancholy of Marschallin's position. Teodora Gheorghiu is a bright Sophie and forms a good partnership with Tara Erraught's Octavian. It's true that Erraught is more Mariandel than Octavian pretending to be Mariandel in Act III, but a girl playing a boy playing a girl is just one of the complexities of this work that it is difficult to carry off without considerably more experience. The appalling wig and sideburns she wears doesn't help, but in terms of her singing and her ability to carry the central role of Octavian, there was nothing here that was anything less than convincing. Inevitably, with such strong singers in these roles, the trio at the denouement was simply gorgeous in delivery of the singing and its sentiments.

The male roles didn't work quite as well, but Strauss of course never showed them as much consideration as he did for the female characters in his operas. Ochs von Lerchenau however should at least show some belated good grace that inspires just a little sympathy, but although he sings the role well, Lars Woldt doesn't really find it here. Michael Kraus' Faninal is likewise well-sung, but a bit dull. Musically, however, there was nothing run-of-the-mill about Robin Ticciati's conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. If the concept didn't inspire any greatness, it at least allowed expression of the full beauty of the arrangements. For the listener too, this was a Der Rosenkavalier to put aside any examination of the work's cleverness or any distracting controversy surrounding the production and simply revel in its glorious beauty.

Links: ARTE Concert, The Telegraph, Glyndebourne

Friday, 22 August 2014

Bach - Trauernacht (Aix-en-Provence, 2014 - Webcast)

Johann Sebastian Bach - Trauernacht

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2014 

Raphaël Pichon, Katie Mitchell, Frode Olsen, Aoife Miskelly, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Rupert Charlesworth, Andri Björn Robertsson

Medici, Culturebox - Live Streaming, July 2014

J.S Bach didn't actually write any operas, so it's rare indeed to find his work in the schedule of an opera festival. Bach's Passions have a dramatic line that has seen them adapted to the stage on occasion, but the work Trauernacht, presented at the 2014 Aix-en-Provence festival, is unlikely to mean anything to opera-goers. Trauernacht (subtitled 'The Angel's Hand', but literally meaning 'Night of Mourning') is actually a collection of a number of similarly themed religious Bach cantatas gathered together and developed into a kind of narrative line by conductor Raphaël Pichon and director Katie Mitchell.

Bach wrote over 200 cantatas while he was in the position of  Cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, sacred pieces of varying length for solo performers and small choirs quoting lines from the Bible or religious meditations on scripture. If it's a case that, like Handel's religious oratorios, these exquisite little pieces can be given a new life through a stage performance, then there's merit in the exercise for that reason alone. Unlike Handel's oratorios however, it rather more difficult (and potentially controversial) to select and adapt these works to fit a dramatic narrative. There is however a very specific sentiment explored musically in the pieces chosen for Trauernacht, and there is even an inherent drama in how the music expresses the sentiments of the few lines of text and scripture in them.

As the title of the work tells us, that sentiment is associated with questions of death and mourning. Although death is a common enough occurrence in opera works, nowhere is it meditated on at such length (even though the work runs to less than 80 minutes) and with such sensitivity as it is here in Trauernacht. The exquisite beauty of the music and an abstract mediation on such matters would then more than justify the creation of such a work, but Mitchell also attempts to find a narrative path of sorts that takes a meaningful line from sorrow and incomprehension among a family over bereavement suffered by the death of a father, through to acceptance that this is the fate of us all.

In terms of staging, this doesn't require anything too elaborate. Vicki Mortimer's designs for the Katie Mitchell's Aix production (the two of them previously collaborated in the creation of George Benjamin's Written on Skin for Aix in 2012, Mitchell also involved with The House Taken Over by Vasco Mendonça en 2013) provide a table with four chairs, a dinner table where the family place the remaining belongings - a folded suit and a pair of shoes - of their recently buried or cremated father. A fifth figure sits recessed in the darkness in the background who evidently represents the father (Frode Olsen in the main providing a haunting low whistle between cantatas), but by the same token he can be seen as merely the presence of the father or even an angel. His main role is as a focus for the thoughts and meditations of the other four members of the family to work through their anger, grief and sorrow as they move around, sometimes in slow motion, and sit down later for a meal together.

To set the funereal mood for the piece, the opening prologue is not by actually by J.S. Bach, but a motet written by his cousin Johann Christoph Bach, "Mit Weinen hebt’s sich an". All the other compositions however come from J.S. Bach cantatas, often consisting of short recitative or a single repeated line as each of the family members - in solo air, in duet and sometimes in small choral arrangements - express their thoughts and process their grief. The tenor rages at the terrible fate that awaits them all in cantata BWV 90, "Es reißet euch ein schrecklich Ende", the four singers come together at the centre of the piece to sing of their submission to the Lord's will in an extract from cantata BWV 71 "Du wollest dem Feinde nicht geben" taken from Psalm 74 ("You would not give the soul of Your turtledove to the enemy"). The father himself comes forward to sing BWV 159 "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is finished"), bringing the family to acceptance in the bass air BWV 82 "Ich habe genug" ("I am content"), and in the choral BWV 668, "Vor deinen Thron" ("Before thy throne, O Lord, I present myself").

In terms of staging, the narrative developed by Katie Michell and Raphaël Pichon for Trauernacht is very simple, but it's entirely appropriate, respectful and meaningful. The directors successfully retain the religious origins and significance of these profound meditations on death, while at the same time giving them context and expression in everyday actions and places. That's as much in the singing and the performances, the words and the sentiments behind them not merely chanted or recited, but given full dramatic expression. There's a spiritual purity in these musical compositions, in the lilting tone of the recorder, oboe and viola da gamba that mournfully accompanies the singing, weaving through the voices, granting them an uplifting grace that carries them through to a beautiful resolution.

Links: Medici, CultureboxFestival d’Aix-en-Provence 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Rossini - Il Turco in Italia (Aix-en-Provence, 2014 - Webcast)

Gioachino Rossini - Il Turco in Italia 

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2014 

Marc Minkowski, Christopher Alden, Adrian Sâmpetrean, Olga Peretyatko, Alessandro Corbelli, Lawrence Brownlee, Pietro Spagnoli, Cecelia Hall, Juan Sancho

ARTE Concert - Live Streaming, July 2014

For it to be one of the composer's early comedies, composed the year after L'Italiana in Algeri, there is nonetheless something of an air of sophistication and modernism in Rossini's Il Turco in Italia. There may not be any greater subtlety or examination of cultural differences in the clash of Western and Eastern traditions than the previous work, but there is a little more interest in examining problematic areas in the relationship between men and women. Those questions might not be examined quite to the same level of sophistication and invention as Mozart, but if L'Italiana in Algeri is Rossini's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Il Turco in Italia is his Così Fan Tutte.

What sets Il Turco apart from L'Italiana is the unusual almost post-modern, proto-Pirandellian meta-fiction device of the work being devised, orchestrated and more or less written as it goes along by a Poet seeking to create a drama. In reality, his role is not much more than that of the manipulations of Don Alfonso in Così Fan Tutte, but it's a gift for an opera director who wants to play with the work on various levels. It's maybe not so complex for the conductor. Although there are moments of brilliance, musically it's pretty much Rossini by numbers, but there's a considerable amount of fun to be had in generating and measuring the famous Rossini drive through to the end of the work. In both respects then, Il Turco in Italia is more clever than inspired, and the same could be said for the Aix-en-Provence production.

In Christopher Alden's production, the Poet is indeed central to the purpose as well as the development of the drama. He's seen labouring over his writing desk during the overture, only finding inspiration when six characters in search of an author arrive in the little Italian port town where he has taken up residence. One is the flirty Fiorilla who is cheating on her husband Don Geronio with her lover Don Narciso, making both men's lives miserable. Now she has her eye set on the exotic figure of a Turkish prince, Selim, who has just arrived in town. The attraction is mutual, but Selim has other attachments - whether he wants them or not - with Zaida, who has fled from his displeasure with her faithful Albazar, the two of them also in town now with a group of bohemian travellers.

Recognising the potential of this situation as material for a drama, the poet Prosdocimo starts to manipulate the six characters towards his own ends. He doesn't, it has to be said, do an awful lot that is original with them, falling back into the standard plot devices like stirring jealousy with letters and getting them to adopt disguises in a way that causes confusion and havoc at masked balls. Then again, they are fairly stock characters - flirty young wife, jealous older husband, timid lover and exotic foreigner, with a couple to be added as sacrificial secondary characters (think Masetto and Zerlina from Don Giovanni) to stir up the jealousy, infidelity and the drama even further. It's not surprising that this serves to give Rossini fairly run-of-the-mill material for by-the-numbers writing, although being Rossini, it's often dazzling and entertaining, particularly when there is a good cast available, and there's a good cast available here.

Alden evidently emphasises the manipulation of the drama for the Poet/Composer/Director's own ends. Six characters, two women and four men is not the ideal arrangement for a happy ending, but it's enough for the poet to work though several troubled combinations. Alden's poet accordingly works furiously at his typewriter and hands out scripts for the characters to perform. The men seem happy or resigned to play the roles that life has allotted them, the stronger female roles less so. Fiorilla at one stage takes the typewriter into her own hands here and writes the part for herself, refusing to accept conventions, but - somewhat predictably and unexcitingly as far as the potential of the opera goes (and sadly for the weaker examples of the species, Don Narciso and Albazar are written out), the status quo is more or less resumed by the end.

The set design doesn't do an awful lot with the potential of the work either, set in what looks like a large tiled Turkish bath-house (without baths), with the large figure head of a ship being wheeled on at certain points for no discernible reason. Curtains are used not so much in a manner to highlight the dramatic satire as provide opportunities for minor prop changes. It functions well enough however, leaving the real work to be done with the characterisation - such as it is - and the direction of the performances. The potential is indeed at its best when it allows Fiorilla to make her own mark on the Poet's script in Act II when she makes her feelings known to Selim about his indecision with regard to choosing between her and Zaida.

It's also at its best in this scene because it has the strengths of the singers Adrian Sâmpetrean and Olga Peretyatko there to make it work. Both are marvellous, Sâmpetrean's smooth bass complementing the Peretyatko's bright soprano. Peretyatko also has the necessary star-quality and vocal range to carry off a strong female Rossini lead like this, her delivery of Fiorilla's final aria 'Squallida veste, e buona' every bit as impressive as it ought to be. As has been characteristic of this year's Aix festival, the casting has been strong right across the board and there are no weaknesses elsewhere in Turco. Alessandro Corbelli provides good singing and comic acting as Geronio; Lawrence Brownlee's slumped-over Narciso delivers some gorgeous self-pitying arias; Pietro Spagnoli is solid as the master-of-ceremonies poet holding it all together; Cecelia Hall is a sparkling Zaida; and Juan Sancho makes a fine song and dance of Albazar's only aria.