Friday, 24 October 2014

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Staatsoper Berlin, 2014 - Berlin)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Staatsoper Berlin, 2014

Daniel Barenboim, Harry Kupfer, Peter Seiffert, Stephen Milling, Waltraud Meier, Boaz Daniel, Stephen Chambers, Ekaterina Gubanova, Florian Hoffmann, Maximilian Krummen

Staatsoper am Schiller Theater, Berlin - 18 October 2014

How representational do you really need to make Tristan und Isolde? Isn't the journey undertaken by the two protagonists more an emotional journey than one taken at sea from Ireland to Cornwall? Should you not be thinking more about the philosophical content of Schopenhauer and Feuerbach that Wagner is exploring in the opera rather than wondering where the characters are physically located? Can you represent all that, for example, in the huge figure of a fallen angel?

Well, that image - based on a photograph by Isolde Ohlbaum - is the basis of the set for Harry Kupfer's original 2000 production for the Berlin Staatsoper, and it seems to be a powerfully iconic image to build a production around, even if it is difficult to relate it in any direct way to the tragedy of Tristan und Isolde (or Schopenhauer or Feuerbach for that matter). Dominating the stage, the huge angel lies prone, fallen forward, its elbows sunk into the ground, its right wing splayed, the left one shattered. Other than a few headstones scattered on either side of it, this giant is the only set for each of the three acts, occasionally slowly revolved and viewed from 360°. Tristan, Isolde, Brangäne, Kurwenal, King Marke and the others climb over it, lie on it and crawl beneath the broken wings.

There's a post-apocalyptic quality to the imagery which is also reminiscent here of the place beyond space and time occupied by Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production of Parsifal. There is something similarly apocalyptic about the subject of Wagner's retelling of the legend of Tristan und Isolde, the majority of the work taking place far beyond any physical place where the laws of man and rational behaviour hold sway. The forbidden love of Tristan and Isolde, freed from any inhibitions, knows no boundaries, subverts day and night, transcends life and only really finds its purest form in death. This is a work that likewise seeks to destroy the world as we know it and be reborn into something that transcends the physical and aspires to the divine.


That's something of a challenge for any composer to undertake, but I don't think anyone would question the genius of Richard Wagner's ability to convert that into the most sublime musical expression. Much like its abandoned first performances, the work itself still remains a challenge to perform, but the pay-off when it works and when everything comes together is enormous. There really is nothing else like it in all of opera - Wagner's own final masterpiece Parsifal excepted. The Berlin Staatoper, still currently residing at the Schiller Theatre while their Unter den Linden opera house undergoes renovation, with Daniel Barenboim at the helm for Kupfer's production, have one of the best teams in place to do this work justice, and the assembled cast for its 2014 revival certainly impresses.

The actual directing of Tristan und Isolde, as opposed to the production design, is undoubtedly just as complex as it appears to be simple. The motivation of the characters is to all basic intents that of all-consuming love, but obviously it goes beyond that to life-consuming love. You get a true sense of that in the Berlin production. By the end of Act I, having imbibed the love potion, it's not so much a case here of Tristan and Isolde barely being able to restrain themselves, as much as Brangäne and Kurwenal being scarcely able to prise them apart, even as they (notionally) arrive in Cornwall and King Marke strides up the back of the fallen angel to claim the wife Tristan has brought back for him.

Much intensified then, the same sense of burning ardour seeking consummation has therefore to be correspondingly heightened in each of the subsequent acts. That is undoubtedly the strength of this production and much of the reason for its success is down to Daniel Barenboim, one of the finest Wagnerian conductors in the world today. Barenboim seems to have an unerring ability to navigate the complex tidal surges in Wagner's operas, knowing when to hold back the immense forces, how to measure their release and when to let them completely overwhelm. In Tristan und Isolde, that force is deep, intense and slow-building, occasionally rising to an almost unbearable need for release. It's hard to believe that you can raise the stakes this early in Act I and continue to build intensity, but Barenboim and Kupfer's production does just that.


The complex nature of Tristan und Isolde however means that it also needs space to open up and expand, even as the outer world closes down on the two lovers. It needs a human-aspiring-to-superhuman quality to keep the metaphysical thinking grounded in reality and not merely floating off into the realm of abstract philosophical theorising. It needs great singers basically. I've detected some weakening in Waltraud Meier's voice in recent recordings and performances, but working perfectly with Barenboim's management of Wagner's score, her Isolde here was simply outstanding. It's true that her voice doesn't have the same soaring quality that is evident in the 2007 Barenboim/Chéreau Tristan und Isolde on DVD, and some adjustments have to be made, but she remains one of the foremost interpreters of the role. It was a gripping and utterly mesmerising performance.

Peter Seiffert was an impressive Tristan, the intensity of the performance stretching him once or twice, but he was equal to the challenge. Stephen Milling sang wonderfully and with gravity, but there wasn't great personality to his King Marke. Boaz Daniel was a last minute stand-in for a stranded Tómas Tómasson as Kurwenal, and he made a terrific impression, his singing energetic and passionate, making his presence fully felt. Likewise Ekaterina Gubanova gave us a beautifully sung Brangäne that was warm and heartfelt. If there were any weak link this perhaps mightn't have worked so well, but with such a fine cast and a strong conceptual approach backing up the unbeatable combination of Meier, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, this was every bit as emotionally devastating and transcendentally uplifting as you would expect Tristan und Isolde to be.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Puccini - Tosca (Staatsoper Berlin, 2014 - Berlin)


Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

Staatsoper Berlin, 2014

Daniel Barenboim, Alvis Hermanis, Anja Kampe, Fabio Sartori, Michael Volle, Tobias Schabel, Jan Martiník, Florian Hoffmann, Maximilian Krummen, Grigory Shkarupa, Jakob Buschermöhle

Staatsoper am Schiller Theater, Berlin - 16 October 2014

The most notable point about the Staatsoper Berlin's new production of Tosca is that it marks the first time that Daniel Barenboim has conducted a Puccini opera. As interesting as that might be - and it did prove to be a fascinating reading of a very familiar work - it was just as intriguing to see how Barenboim's Tosca worked with the vision of Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. I don't think anyone would have known quite what to expect from this pairing, much less predict just how complementary the end result might be.

Relatively new to the opera world, the Hermanis productions that I have seen (Jenůfa for La Monnaie and Il Trovatore for Salzburg) have tended to be rather elegant, painterly and even 'flowery' in a way that would seem ill-suited to a verismo opera. In both those previous productions however there was a recognition of the harsher reality of stories that on the surface are given a somewhat romantic edge through a narrative structure that is enhanced by some beautiful melodies. There was also a very clear division in the Berlin Staatsoper's production between the familiar romanticised version of Puccini's Tosca as it is more often depicted and the rather brutal reality of its verismo subject.

There's is another 'painterly' approach used in this production. In fact, the entire opera is told in painted storybook form played out on a large screen that is built into the set. It's a cleverly all-purpose design that functions with some minor changes to represent the pillars and a wall for Cavaradossi's to paint in the Sant' Andrea della Valle church in Act I; it's imposing as a wall with a balcony in Scarpia's office at the Palazzo Farnese in Act II; and it acts as a backdrop to a wall of a prison cell on the Castel Sant' Angelo for Act III. Except it doesn't attempt to actually recreate the real-life locations in the way that so many other productions do in their attempt to inject realism into this opera.



And it doesn't need to. The Berlin production emphasises the realism by contrasting the action on the stage with the Napoleonic period storybook paintings projected on the screen. If you want to see Tosca as it is traditionally done, with wigs, candles and photo-realistic backgrounds of the real-life Rome locations, it's all up there on the screen. On the stage, the costumes are closer to the actual period of the work's early twentieth-century composition. (In their smart suits and moustaches, Scarpia's henchmen Spoletta and Sciarroni even look like Puccini as he is seen in those familiar photographs). There doesn't appear to be any attempt to tie the work to anything specific in Puccini's time, but it's sufficiently different to make it distinct from the period glamour without imposing another reading on the work.

No matter what the set designs show and no matter what period it's set in, what is of primary importance is the way a director handles the opera's key scenes. Despite the beauty of the melodies and the fact that they are two of the most memorable arias ever written in Italian opera, 'Vissi d'arte' and 'È lucevan le stelle' are not to be sung as bel canto, but must be depicted as verismo. Here, Anja Kampe doesn't step forward and sing Tosca's aria to the audience, she sings it as a means of seducing Scarpia with the false promise that she might have more to offer him in return for releasing Cavaradossi. There's no diva performance here, it's solid and dramatic with flashes of fire and brilliance. The curtain falls at the end of Act II with Tosca sinking into a chair in a state of shock at what she has done. That's verismo.

The same sense of aligning those those arias and key scenes to a purposeful dramatic context is also evident in the casting of Fabio Sartori for Cavaradossi. As a counterbalance to the cool but dark undercurrents that characterise Tosca and Scarpia, as Italian tenor is probably essential to stir up the passion and fire that Cavaradossi represents. Sartori brings this out superbly. I've found the tenor to be a bit hit and miss in the past in his Verdi singing, but his Puccini is impeccable, particularly when he's well directed. The singing is heartfelt and passionate, his 'È lucevan le stelle' finishing not with an eye towards applause, but caught up in his dark reflection on life and it coming to an end.



Michael Volle brought an unexpected lyricism to this production's Scarpia. Like Anja Kampe's Tosca, it was interesting to see the role played with a more Wagnerian tone, or in Volle's case, Wagnerian with a softer timbre and a Strauss-like beauty. It didn't exactly make Scarpia any more sympathetic, but it did make him much more human than this villainous character or the caricature of it is more often played, and indeed scored. I don't think this kind of casting and contrasting of voices comes about by chance either. It's clearly been carefully thought through for the impact that is required for the purposes of this production, and in particular for the manner in which it is conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

It was Barenboim's conducting of the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra through his first Puccini opera that really hammered home the verismo aspects of the work. Anyone still subscribing to Kerman's outdated view that Tosca is a 'shabby little shocker' or a tawdry Italian melodrama would have been surprised by the human and the dramatic qualities that Barenboim found in the work. The conductor never let Puccini's lyricism and sense of melody get in the way of the aching and painful sentiments that underlie their superficial beauty. There was no bombast either in those moments of high melodrama, the horns blasting out a jarring dissonance in the crashes of those soaring crescendos, shaking the audience to the core.

With Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle this way, there was no need for Tosca's leap at that famous conclusion, even though it was depicted in all its glamorous glory in the painted version of the story. The jarring reality and mounting horror of what has transpired over the three acts is all there in the music as the opera reaches its climax. The only option that is left open to Tosca needs no further spelling out, leaving Kampe to merely hold her arms out wide and walk towards the front of the stage as the curtain falls. The impact on the audience was palpable.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Sciarrino - Luci Mei Traditrici (Montepulciano 2010 - DVD)

Salvatore Sciarrino - Luci Mei Traditrici

Montepulciano, 2010

Marco Angius, Christian Pade, Nina Tarandek, Christian Miedl, Roland Schneifer, Simon Bode

EuroArts - DVD

It's evident to anyone who has heard his work that contemporary composer Salvatore Sciarrino's operas, like his orchestral chamber works, don't use instruments in any conventional fashion. The instruments are mostly familiar ones used in classical music, but they are pushed to make sounds that they weren't necessarily made for. Wind instruments whine and explode in whooshes of puffed air, strings are plucked, scraped, hammered and stretched. The instruments seem to be attempting to come alive of their own accord with a gentle physicality that seems to struggle with a sinister silence that threatens to envelop and overwhelm us. That's as good a description for the function of music as any, even if Sciarrino's music doesn't sound like music as you know it.

The same can be said for the extraordinary way Sciarrino uses the voice in his operas. If the musical expression is doing battle with the silence, the voice in his work is a soul at war with emotions. It sounds like a sensitive soul, hesitant, fearful, stuttering out rapid phrases, flowing and swirling the words around the expression of another person. Sometimes voices blend together in common accord, at other times, they stop/start and become trapped in a repetitive cycle that struggles to get its message across. All the time, the voice is attuned to those sounds created by the musical instruments, all of it struggling to keep the greater void of the looming silence at bay.

That works powerfully for a certain kind of work that has a bit of a sinister edge to it, where weak mortals struggle against greater forces, most notably in Sciarrino's Macbeth, but it can even be employed successfully in a work like Aspern (an adaptation of Henry James' 'Aspern Papers'). That's also the dominant mood in the chamber opera Luci Mei Traditrici, a work based on a 17th century text that describes the troubadour Gesualdo's jealous murder of his wife and her lover. The music and vocal delivery on their own make a tremendous impression, but just how effective Sciarrino's opera writing is can only really be felt when it is staged. This performance recorded at the Cantiere Internazionale d'Arte di Montepulciano in Tuscany in 2010 is a rare opportunity to see Sciarrino's strengths as a musical dramatist.



Sciarrino's point of reference for the libretto of Luci Mei Traditrici is 'Il tradimento per l'onore' written in 1664 by Giacinto Andrea Cicogni. In English the opera's title translates roughly as 'My Betraying Eyes' but the work is has also been performed in English (by the WNO) under the title of 'The Killing Flower'. Musically, Sciarrino finds another ancient reference for the work in an elegy written in 1608 by Claude Le Jeune. The two references form a kind of dialogue that Sciarrino fleshes out with sounds, noises and flurries of melodies that express the lyrical violence of the subject. "Fleshing out" makes the overall soundscape sound rather fuller than it actually is. In reality, the arrangement is very spare, every note audible and perfectly measured to create an impressionistic image or emphasise an expressionistic gesture.

Reflecting the music and the drama, Alexander Lintl's stage design is similarly spare but movements can be somewhat more elaborate. The first scene between the Duke and the Duchess Malspina, for example, becomes a ritualistic kind of dance, the holding of fans suggesting a Flamenco or even a tango as the two of them weaving in and around each other in the same way as their fragmented phrases swirl around. The air of danger, the presentiment of violence is alluded to in the thorn of a rose, the point of a knife and, most expressively of all, in the nature of the music and how it underlines and gives meaning to the words. The stage itself is mostly bare but for a few long boxes with wooden slats, the background dark.

So closely aligned is the stage itself and the movements within it at this production in Montepulciano, that Christian Pade's direction of it becomes practically an abstract visual representation of the music itself. On stage and in performance, Luci Mei Traditrici is as intensely intricate a combination of words, music, drama and staging as you could imagine, where every single note counts, where every gesture and movement is precisely calculated. It's everything that opera ought to be in other words, but even more impressive that Sciarrino is able to express it through a very distinctive and personal idiom that owes little to conventional musical expression.

The performance of this highly specialised and difficult language is similarly astonishing, the contemporary musicians of the Ensemble Algoritmo conducted with precision of detail by Marco Angius. Like the production team, most of the singers seem to be Frankfurt Opera regulars, with soprano Nina Tarandek and baritone Christian Miedl extraordinarily good as the Duke and Duchess, their spoken voice repetitive rhythms interweaving and clashing in a way that defines the relationship between them. If the music and noises behind them can be unsettling, the singing voices are hypnotically lyrical and Roland Schneider's countertenor soars as the 'guest' who comes between them. Simon Bode sings the role of the servant, who has a small but vital role in the drama.

The DVD recording isn't quite of the High Defintion standard that you would find in most large-budget recordings of opera on Blu-ray, but it effectively captures the mood and setting of the performance. The image is strongly contrasted and in NTSC format, it lacks fine detail, but the filming of the performance is superb. The audio track - PCM Stereo only - is outstanding. The DVD includes a half-hour feature on the production, with Salvatore Sciarrino himself giving a walk-though of the work, explaining its structure and use of sounds. The very specific intentions of how it should be performed and the attention to detail can be seen in the rehearsals for the performance. The DVD is region-free, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French and Japanese.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Verdi - Macbeth (Metropolitan Opera, 2014 - HD-Live)


Giuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Metropolitan Opera, New York - 2014

Fabio Luisi, Adrian Noble, Željko Lučić, René Pape, Anna Netrebko, Claudia Waite, Christopher Job, Raymond Renault, Noah Baetge, Joseph Calleja, Moritz Linn, Richard Bernstein, Seth Malkin

The Met Live in HD - 11 October 2014

There's at least one good reason for selecting Macbeth as the opening broadcast in the Met's 2014-15 Live in HD season, as opposed to the actual season opener Le Nozze di Figaro (which will be broadcast later this month). It's become a recent tradition to open the HD broadcasts with the popular attraction of Anna Netrebko, and opera's brightest star - possibly now at the peak of her career - has a new role in her repertoire - Lady Macbeth. That's something worth reviving a readily available production of Macbeth for, and Adrian Noble's 2007 production fits the bill.

Considering the liberties that Verdi and his librettist Piave take with Shakespeare's drama, it probably helps that there's a former RSC director behind the production to anchor it back in Shakespeare's themes. The strength of Noble's Macbeth consequently is its adherence to mood and character, and even if it gives the appearance of modernisation, it remains fairly traditional in its presentation. It's a good half-way house that is typical of the Met, where modernisation is acceptable if it is visually impressive and doesn't go as far as reworking the concept or more deeply exploring the themes of the work in a challenging or revisionist way.


Noble's production seems to borrow something of its mood from Alfred Hitchcock, with Lady Macbeth even transformed here into a Hitchock blonde. There's a sinister quality to Mark Thompson's set and costume designs that makes it a bit 'Dial M for Macbeth', the setting dark, misty and moonlit, the costumes vaguely 1940s. The witches wear granny-coats with handbags (think Monty Python's 'pepperpot' old ladies) and there's a more elegant formal dress of the royal court, most notably in the banquet scene. The military scenes however reflect a more modern image of war, but not too high-tech - the jeeps, combat gear and automatic guns having something of the appearance of the Bosnian war.

It's all very much iconic imagery that has resonance and meaning to a modern audience, without introducing high-technology 'magic' that could distract from the very necessary hands-on nature of mad ambition and the bloody business of murder. Is this a dagger which I see before me? It certainly is. It's not a drone or anything else that is designed to make some modern political point about the morality of killing and war in the present day. That's not what Macbeth is about. Nor is it specifically about national identity. Verdi certainly made something more of the Italian Risorgimento struggle in his opera ('Patria opressa') but there are no such references in this production, and little even that relates it to its Scottish setting. There are no saltires, no tartan or flags, and no attempt to update it to make reference to the recent independence vote in Scotland either.


The generic setting and non-specific period allow the focus to fall back onto the human question of our relationship to power, ambition and murder. Fortunately, although it diverts in some plot developments from Shakespeare's vision, Verdi's writing for Macbeth sees the composer at his most inspired. Macbeth is still a relatively early work in the composer's 'galley years', but the quality of the source material (even in translation) clearly spoke to the composer who would much later revisit his beloved Shakespeare in Otello and Falstaff. The selection of scenes and numbers for Macbeth allow him to align power and melody to new levels of intensity, and to stronger characterisation than is found in those other early Verdi pot-boilers.

Melodically and in the setting of the scenes to standard numbers and arias, the composition of Macbeth is wonderful, but the real quality of the work - particularly in the revised version used here - is in Verdi's writing for the voice. Get a couple of great singers into those roles with a strong chorus and Macbeth can be a thrilling and visceral experience. Željko Lučić and René Pape have a track record with this production at the Met in the roles of Macbeth and Banquo. It's perhaps unfair to merely pass over their performances here as "solid" - Lučić in particular is shaping up to be a great Verdi baritone and doesn't put a foot wrong, hampered only by not very special direction - but when you have the right person in the role this is Lady Macbeth's opera, which that means it's Anna Netrebko's.

Quite simply, Netrebko is phenomenal, singing a challenging role with apparent ease, delivering the signature 'La luce langue' aria with remarkable control and tightly focussed precision. She almost makes it look too easy, and that might be a problem. She has clearly waited for the right time to tackle Macbeth, and has prepared for it well (trying out some arias on CD and a couple of live performances of the role at the Munich festival this summer), but at the same time the performance is almost too cool and studious, and it could do with a little loosening up.


That is perhaps just being too picky about what is by any reasonable consideration an outstanding performance, but there are occasionally flashes that show that Netrebko is capable of bringing much more to the role than the direction really allows. Her Act II banquet brindisi ('Si colmi il calice'), for example, isn't quite so joyful, but shows her growing anger with Macbeth succumbing to his terrifying visions of Banquo's ghost, flashing him furious glances and singing the second verse almost between gritted teeth.  There's a taste of the fire that could underlie the cold, calculated behaviour here, and it's evident in 'La luce langue', but too little of it is seen elsewhere.

The same however could be said of the production as a whole. Some scenes are handled well, while others are rather static, the cast left to stand and sing out to the audience. In addition to the aforementioned banquet scene, where the bloody ghost of René Pape's Banquo makes a great impression, the scene of the King's burial is well staged, the tensions spilling over in such a way that the suspicions of Banquo and Macduff (sung well by Joseph Calleja) can clearly be seen to set them up in opposition to Macbeth.  Fabio Luisi had the measure of the work, finding wonderful character as well as force in the score, and the Met chorus impressed, but in a way that confirmed that the quality of the production lay more in the delivery of the musical performance than in the largely static stage direction.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Strauss - Daphne (La Monnaie, 2014 - Webcast)


Richard Strauss - Daphne

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2014

Lothar Koenigs, Guy Joosten, Iain Paterson, Birgit Remmert, Sally Matthews, Peter Lodahl, Eric Cutler, Tineke Van Ingelgem, Maria Fiselier, Matt Boehler, Gijs Van der Linden, Kris Belligh, Justin Hopkins

La Monnaie Internet Streaming - October 2014

Richard Strauss' late one-act 'bucolic tragedy' Daphne (written originally as an unlikely companion piece for Friedenstag) is as musically sumptuous and rich in melody as any post-Elektra Strauss opera, but it has to be said that it is a very dry mythological subject that inspires such beautiful music. Directing Daphne for La Monnaie, Guy Joosten attempts to enliven the work with some contemporary relevance, but in the end, it's the visual extravagance of Alfons Flores set design and some gorgeously lyrical singing that ensures that the production suitably matches the shimmering beauty of the score.

It's not too difficult to see what differentiates the treatment of mythology in Daphne and the preceding opera Der Liebe der Danae from the likes of Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos, and that's the difference between librettists Joseph Gregor and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Gregor was a writer, historian and classicist, while Hofmannsthal is a poet and an artist who was capable of drawing out challenging and experimental themes from the subjects for Strauss to respond to in his music. It's particularly noticeable where passages of Daphne resemble scenes from Ariadne auf Naxos, the former having none of the edge of the latter's juxtaposition of opera seria and opera buffa, and none of the deeper exploration of the sentiments that this conflict draws out.



There is at least a strong division of sensibilities to work with in the mythical story of Daphne from Ovid's Metamorphoses. Essentially, it's a conflict between nature and order, or the world of nature and the world of man. Daphne is a child of nature who has grown up in close relationship with a laurel tree. She's suspicious of social order and conventions, refusing even to dress up and join in the celebrations for Dionysus that is the excuse for wild revelry and excess among the shepherds and fishermen. Her pure nature also makes her draw away from the declarations of love of the young shepherd Leukippos. Apollo himself appears, disguised as a herdsman, seeming to offer a love that is more pure and in touch with her feelings, but Daphne eventually shies away from his advances too.

In Guy Joosten's production, the contrast between Daphne's child of nature and the world of man is put across - and unnecessarily overemphasised perhaps - in a manner that quite literally depicts her as a tree-hugger in conflict with an economic banking system. It's a system that suggests order and prosperity, but in reality it's on the brink of collapse through its worship of technology, money and its indulgence in excess. It's not a particularly subtle commentary on contemporary society, but it is a meaningful way to define the distinctions at conflict in the mythological tale. The way that it is presented however, and how the resolution to the dilemma of Daphne's position is arrived at by the all-important conclusion, is nonetheless effectively delivered.

The conclusion is a beautiful one - particularly as it is scored by Strauss - but dramatically it can still be rather dry. It's handled very well here however in the modernised production that pushes the concept a little further. Apollo's anger at his rejection and betrayal by Daphne result in the death of Leukippos and an almost cataclysmic upheaval of the "system". That mainly takes the form of little more than a set of stairs that buckle and put the lights out on all the city dealing, but Daphne's transformation into a laurel tree is somewhat more elaborately staged in a way that would appear to have broader meaning - or at least come closer to the impact Strauss is aiming for.



Rather than metamorphose into a tree, Sally Matthews' ecological warrior climbs the huge thick-trunk tree that looms over the stage throughout and seems to merge into it. This is achieved though projections that then see the tree consumed in a huge conflagration that is less pastoral symphony and closer to the end of times conclusion of Götterdammerung, giving the work a broader sense of nature in the end reasserting its authority over man-made attempts to control it. It might seem to be stretching the purpose of this slim one-act opera into something as ambitious as a Ring cycle and I'm not convinced that conductor Lothar Koenigs captures the transcendent beauty of the transformation music, but seen in this light, the Late Romantic Wagnerian influence that persisted in Strauss' writing through to his latter works does seem more evident, and the idea seems to work.

The primary reason that the story works effectively at all is of course down to how Strauss scores those key scenes, and much also depends on how well it's played and sung. Sally Matthews might not be quite as silky-voiced as some Strauss sopranos, but there's force there and passion that suits Daphne. Her lament for Leukippos is almost devastating, fully bringing out all the pain of her character and the aching beauty of the score. It helps considerably that you feel for both Leukippos and Apollo too, particularly since they are so beautifully sung here. Eric Cutler's Apollo combines a heldentenor quality with a beautiful light lyricism and warmth that fits the Strauss/Wagner qualities of the score. Peter Lodahl's Leukippos has an even brighter timbre that is sweet and expressive. Iain Paterson and Birgit Remmert are also notable as Peneios and Gaea.

Link: La Monnaie - De Munt

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Verdi - Otello (Orange 2014 - Webcast)

Verdi - Otello (Orange 2014 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Otello

Chorégies d'Orange, 2014

Myung Whun Chung, Nadine Duffaut, Roberto Alagna, Inva Mula, Sophie Pondjiclis, Seng-Hyoun Ko, Florian Laconi, Enrico Iori, Julien Dran, Jean-Marie Delpas, Yann Toussaint

France TV, Culturebox - August 2014

Otello wouldn't be the most obvious or the most popular choice for a performance at the open air Chorégies d'Orange amphitheatre. It's unquestionably one of Verdi's greatest works and it certainly has strong dramatic credentials, but it's still not something you would think of as a "stadium opera". Judging by its reception and the performance here - broadcast live on French television and streamed on the internet - it's obvious that this passionate and powerful work can strike a chord with a wider audience if it has the right team in place.

If the actual production here lacks imagination and is unambitiously directed, it nonetheless succeeds in how it identifies and puts across the real strengths of the work. That's evident right from the outset where Verdi's earth-shattering opening, lacking even an overture, launches right into the middle of a storm at sea and leaves no place for shelter. A massed chorus stirs up the tensions as to whether the ships at sea will survive the onslaught of Verdi's scoring. Along with the impressive setting of the ancient Roman open-air amphitheatre, it builds up to provide a suitably big entrance for Otello.

Ah, and there's the secret ingredient to the Orange production, or perhaps the key resource that they place all their faith in. Roberto Alagna is Otello. He may be short in stature, but Alagna is not short in personality and he certainly knows how to make an entrance when given a build-up like this. (I've seen him work a similar trick just as successfully and without having to sing a note in Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini). Here Otello's heroic entrance is emphasised by him bearing the decapitated head of the leader of the defeated Turkish fleet, striding forward onto the stage, showering gold crowns to the waiting masses. Talk about going down a storm...



Alagna proves to be a good choice for Otello, but it's by no means an obvious one. Verdi's Otello is a big role to fill, not just in terms of personality but the singing demands are considerable, requiring force as well as lyricism, and quite a bit of stamina. Alagna isn't perfect and the strain shows, but he hardly puts a foot wrong and gives a committed performance. It's also something of a star performance. Either he doesn't appear to be terribly well directed in this production or he is left to his own devices, striking heroic poses, and poses of heroic anguish, never missing an opportunity to (literally) bare his chest. It's not a subtle performance, but it's one with enough personality to fill the arena.

Inva Mula plays Desdemona with an equal amount of big-gesture emoting, but Otello is grand melodrama. Mula sings well and makes a suitably good impression alongside Alagna. You have to wait to Act III and IV to see if she has what it takes to deliver the heightened sentiments and challenges of characterisation, and she carries it off well. Sophie Pondjiclis' singing of Emilia was strong enough but a little bit wayward. Seng-Hyoun Ko sang Iago well, but there didn't appear to be a great deal of effort put into interpreting or directing his character.

As far as directing went though, Nadine Duffaut didn't seem to have a lot to offer. With Alagna capable of dominating, with Verdi's powerful score conducted well by Myung Whun Chung, and with an impressive arena setting that needed little dressing, there really wasn't any need to do a lot more with the production. There were a few enhancements here and there, a broken mirror of suitable scale and suggestion on which pre-filmed close-ups were projected, all of which gave the production some character, even if the costumes were rather generically traditional. It was just enough however to work well, and there would have been few disappointed with the outcome.

Links: Culturebox

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Strauss - Die schweigsame Frau (Bayerische 2014 - Webcast)


Richard Strauss - Die schweigsame Frau

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2014

Pedro Halffter, Barrie Kosky, Franz Hawlata, Okka von der Damerau, Nikolay Borchev, Daniel Behle, Brenda Rae, Elsa Benoit, Tara Erraught, Christian Rieger, Christoph Stephinger, Tareq Nazmi

Staatsoper.TV - 5 October 2014

There are a few subjects or themes that appear regularly in the operas of Richard Strauss, and sometimes even within his other tone poems and orchestral works. One of them is family life, as seen in his Symphonia Domestica and in the closely autobiographical opera, Intermezzo. Another recurrent theme in Strauss' work is around opera itself and the nature of being a composer. This self-referential subject is most evident in Ein Heldenleben, Feuersnot, Aridane auf Naxos and Capriccio, but there are also self-referential elements in the music and treatments of Der Rosenkavalier and Der Liebe der Danae.

All of these familiar themes are there to one extent or another (depending how much emphasis a director wants to give them) in Die schweigsame Frau ('The Silent Woman'). Considering that Strauss was married - albeit happily - to a woman who by all reports was very difficult to live with, the idea of being married to a silent woman was perhaps one that Strauss found amusing to contemplate. It certainly makes a fine subject for an entertaining but relatively light comic opera, but the musical treatment by Strauss is typically sensitive and beautifully orchestrated in a way that draws out other qualities and characteristics from the subject. These are brought out wonderfully in the Bayerische Staatsoper's production directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Pedro Halffter.



The first thing a director has to recognise about Die schweigsame Frau is that in addition to the family matters that dominate the subject, the work is also very much an opera about opera. Set in England, the subject of Die schweigsame Frau resembles Verdi's Falstaff in it being about an old and somewhat past-it knight, Sir Morosus, who is encouraged by one of his servants, the barber Master Cutbeard, to get himself a wife. Morosus however can't bear to have women about him and despises their chatter. In his 46 years as a sailor travelling around the world, the only silent woman in his experience is one who is "in the churchyard and under a stone cross". His housekeeper is torment enough, but a wife in the house would have him in a coffin within three weeks.

When his son Henry returns from the dead however, bringing with him a loud wife and a noisy opera company that he has joined, Morosus considers that it would be better to marry in order to disinherit his son and the raucous company he keeps, but who would marry an old man like himself? Somewhere between The Barber of Seville and Don Pasquale (it's worth noting that alongside Falstaff, the three comic operas referenced here are perhaps the three finest comic operas ever written, barring Mozart's work, but that too is referenced elsewhere), Sir Morosus' barber hatches a plot to trick the old man into a sham marriage, rescuing the inheritance for Henry, and perhaps winning the old man over to a realistic acceptance of the idea of married life.

Well, realistically that's not going to happen, and the authors recognise this. Instead, what Strauss manages to do - the music being particularly instrumental in how successfully this is achieved - is reform Morosus' view of the world and the audience's view of Morosus. Over the course of Die schweigsame Frau, he becomes wonderfully human. Even though he is being set-up, with three members of the opera troupe being offered as potential brides in a sham marriage, Morosus is nonetheless moved that a beautiful woman would even consider marrying an old man like himself. Timidia, who is Henry's wife Aminta playing a role, is herself moved somewhat by how the old man is stirred into love and begins to understand that happiness isn't necessary something elusive.



The fact that the emotions are stirred by something "fake" isn't an issue. The role-playing is just another example in the Strauss canon, of how the "artificial" construction of art, music and opera can inspire genuine feelings and suggest possibilities that one might not otherwise be open to in "real-life". To do that successfully, of course, the opera and the music must itself be good, and with Strauss, that's something that is never in any doubt. Act II culminates in the most beautiful sextet that is typically Straussian in the soaring beauty of its orchestration, but worthy of Mozart (who is the model for this kind of scene evidently, and a model that Rossini often emulated) in how it draws together sentiments of nobility, sadness and humanity, even within a comic situation.

Despite its qualities, Die schweigsame Frau wasn't a success when it was first performed and it has rarely been revived over the years. Much of the opera's troubled history stems from the fact that it was banned by the Nazis in 1936 after only three performances. This was less to do with any controversy surrounding the subject of the work than the fact that Strauss worked with a Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, on the libretto. Even after the war, there was little appetite for this Strauss comedy, or indeed for much the lush orchestration and frivolous subjects that seemed increasingly out of touch with developments in 20th century music, and Die schweigsame Frau is consequently one of those latter works by the composer that is rarely performed and has subsequently fallen into obscurity.

In the year of Strauss's 150th anniversary however, Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper's new production of Die schweigsame Frau gives this neglected work a welcome revival and they've done rather well by it. For much of the first two acts, and much of the third also, the set consists of nothing more than a raised platform on the stage, with a bed the only real prop. Barrie Kosky however lets the characters and the music fill out everything that is essential in the work. Or rather, the conductor Pedro Halffter ensures that the full impact of Strauss's orchestration serves the comic drama and the underlying human sentiments, while Kosky draws out the typically Strauss themes and references, most notably in how the Henry's opera troupe are all dressed as famous opera characters.



It might have been better to dress Tara Erraught as Mariandel here rather than Violetta, since her character plays the same type of plain-speaking, forward country-girl when introduced as one of Morosus' potential wives, but I can think of at least one good reason not to go in that direction (fun and appropriately opera self-referential as it might have been), but there's no reason to over-complicate the work with too much cleverness - the work is strong enough to work on its own terms. Act III opens up the stage a little more when Timidia starts transforming the house and start spending the money which drops down like rain as the platform opens up. It's a simple and effective direction that gets the essentials across.

The production is also very well served by the cast. Like most Strauss operas, the principal soprano role is exceedingly challenging, and Aminta/Timidia is no exception. Brenda Rae has to hold some very high notes indeed, and she does so impressively, her performance in the dual role moreover wonderfully engaging. The lower end of the bass tessitura for Sir Morosus is no less challenging, and in many respects, the role can be just as rewarding as Baron Ochs von Lerchenau. Perhaps that's just because Franz Hawlata sang it so well here and, just as importantly, recognised and brought out the different human facets of his character. As mentioned above, Tara Erraught's soaring mezzo-soprano made a noticeable impact, but there were equally strong performances and singing from Nikolay Borchev as the barber and Daniel Behle as Henry.

This was a wonderful start to the new season of live steamed broadcasts at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. In an anniversary year where we've been treated to plenty of Der Rosenkavaliers, Ariadnes and even an unusual amount of Die Frau ohne Schatten productions, this is an ambitious and pleasantly successful venture into lesser explored but eminently worthy Richard Strauss territory.

Links: Staatsoper.TV