Thursday, 30 October 2014

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

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

ROH Live Cinema Season - 27 October 2014

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.

The beauty of Verdi's musical composition and the extent to which it far exceeds the quality of the source and libretto makes me wonder whether Verdi's I due Foscari needs a new term to describe it. We're used to bel canto being shorthand for a particular kind of Italian opera where the beauty of the singing far outstrips the worth or the credibility of the opera plot. I don't know what the equivalent of that would be for a work where the quality of the music far exceeds the apparent value of the plot - 'bel musica' perhaps or 'bel orchestra' - 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 situation in I due Foscari. You could probably include Un ballo in maschera in this category as well.

That's perhaps unfair to I due Foscari (and Un ballo in maschera), which is based on real historical events and which has a strong literary source in a work by Lord Byron. True, much of the exciting developments and action 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 lack of any significant on-stage action could be considered the main failing of the opera, which would appear to just run through the standard numbers for each of the characters expressing 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.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Donizetti - Roberto Devereux (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Gaetano Donizetti - Roberto Devereux

Wiener Staatsoper, 2014

Andriy Yurkevych, Silviu Purcarete, Edita Gruberova, Paolo Rumetz, Monika Bohinec, Celso Albelo, Peter Jelosits, Marcus Pelz, Hacik Bayvertian, Johannes Gisser

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 17 October 2014

Donizetti's Roberto Devereux is perhaps not the strongest of the composer's trilogy of Tudor operas, but it has similar characteristics and plot devices that, with some good direction and a star performer in the principal female role, can put it up onto the same level as Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda. In Roberto Devereux the significant role is Queen Elizabeth I, and it's played here at the Vienna State Opera by Edita Gruberova. The principal role might be in experienced hands then, but the work itself still needs a stronger sense of purpose and direction than it gets in this production.

Like Donizetti's other two Tudor operas, Roberto Devereux has the same advantages of romantic intrigue in a royal and political setting that raises the stakes of jealousy, rivalry, intrigue while at the same time putting a human face on historical affairs. This particular libretto however is contrived and fairly poor at humanising the characters. It's full of romantic declarations and dire pronouncements of the 'alas, woe is me', 'heavens, I have been betrayed' type. The plot is contrived, but it's the kind of material that would nonetheless give Donizetti tremendous scope for a score of stirring passions. Musically, and in terms of how the score has been written specifically for those human elements to be expressed in the singing, Roberto Devereux can be a thrilling experience.

Dramatically however, it needs a little extra effort. Roberto Devereux's fate and sentence of death for his actions in Ireland rest on the decision of a queen who feels that she has trifled with her affections, and that he loves another. Devereux however is determined that he will die before he reveals that his secret lover is Sara, the wife of the Duke of Nottingham. The contrivance rests on whether Devereux will save himself by presenting to the Queen a ring she has promised will always permit clemency towards him, but the ring is in Sara's hands. The Duchess of Nottingham has however been locked up ever since her husband's suspicions have been confirmed, recognising a misplaced scarf belonging to her. Even if she were able to deliver the ring to the Queen, it would reveal that she is her love rival. Oh, what a bind...

As melodramatic as the plot and the arch pronouncements might be, there's good symbolic use of objects in the opera - a scarf, a ring - to forge connection between characters and instigate revelations about their inner natures. If highlighted in the direction, they can be an effective visual hook to help move things along, unless a director has other ideas. Silviu Purcarete doesn't make a big deal of these contrivances, but he doesn't appear to have much else to contribute in its place to aid the dramatic progression. Costumes are mostly stage period with Elizabeth I in her familiar traditional costume and wig. The backdrop used throughout appears to be a row of opera boxes with the royal box tier slightly askew.

It's more than adequate as a set for representation of the locations, but the problem with the direction is that there'd not much thought given to getting across the heart of the work as a drama of extreme passions and historical adventure. Most of the acting and delivery of the arias within it is fairly static. Donizetti brings good dramatic tension in his score, and it's given a strong account under the direction of Andriy Yurkevych, but on stage, too much relies on the singers to make the deficiencies of the romantic declarations in the libretto credible and the give the characters a real human dimension. To their credit, the cast are all very good, but only one or two of them manage to rise above the limitations of the direction to this level.

The strongest singing performance here is Monika Bohinec's Sara. The Duchess of Nottingham has a substantial role in terms of the range of expression that Donizetti writes for the role. Bohinec expresses all the anguish and repressed feelings in her singing, and it's a good voice, undaunted by the high coloratura. She's a good actress too, but she's not given much direction and falls back consequently on traditional operatic gestures and delivery. Her confrontation scenes with Nottingham could be much more intense, but Paolo Rumetz is too static and, although very capable in the singing of the role, rather one-note in delivery. There's not enough to spark their scene to life. Celso Abelo sings well too as Devereux. He has a fine voice and good technique that carries some weight in an aria like 'come uno spirto angelico' as he vows to take his secret to the grave, but elsewhere he's not terribly exciting.

Edita Gruberova is however in a league of her own. As far as the Vienna Staatsoper's 2014 production of Roberto Devereux goes, she's the chief attraction and everything rests on her performance. Unquestionably one of the finest singers in the world in this kind of role, Gruberova has however been there for a long time now. When I last saw her perform in person in La Straniera in Zurich last year, I thought that her voice wasn't quite as steady and sure as it once was, becoming a little piercing and forced on those challenging top notes, but Gruberova was still capable and still had the presence and personality to fill a role like that. That assessment holds true of her Elizabeth I for Vienna's Roberto Devereux.

Gruberova might no longer be in her prime and might not have much in the way of direction to work with, but she has the experience to take this role and run with it herself. She understands the character, knows how she feels and knows exactly how to pitch her response to events. There's a little retained here from Christoph Loy's production of Roberto Devereux, with Elizabeth removing her wig, divesting herself of her public face to show her human vulnerability, but it doesn't have the same impact when there isn't the same consistency to the production as a whole. Even despite that, Edita Gruberova has the star quality to make this ending as bring-the-house-down compelling as it ought to be. No allowances need be made when you have that.

The Vienna Staatsoper have an ambitious and impressive programme of pay-per-view live performances being streamed this season. See the Live Programme on their website for details.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video

Mozart - Idomeneo (Wiener Staatsoper, 2014 - Webcast)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Wiener Staatsoper, 2014

Christoph Eschenbach, Kasper Holten, Michael Schade, Margarita Gritskova, Maria Bengtsson, Chen Reiss

Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming - 14 October 2014

Until fairly recently, you wouldn't have seen much baroque or opera seria at the Vienna State Opera - although I'm sure an exception was made for the city's adopted son, Mozart. It's only fairly recently too that we've started to see Mozart played more authentically, with period instruments and in the scaling back of the size of the orchestra. It's marvellous then to see that kind of approach applied to the Wiener Staatsoper's production of Mozart's early opera seria Idomeneo, but in Kasper Holten's producton, it's not slavishly traditional either.

It may be one thing to play it with authentic period instruments, but opera seria brings with it expectations of a lot of static standing and declaiming long arias of anguish, torment and unrequited love, with some choral praise-giving for variety. A stage production needs to find a way of making that more accessible to a modern audience, and often that involves a great deal of cutting of da capo arias and ballets. Kasper Holten's production for Vienna finds a good balance between conceptual and traditional presentation, but his cuts and reorganisation of the structure of the work could be seen as rather more controversial.

Visually, the production has a strong design and state of the art stage craft, but there's not a lot visually or in terms of direction that expresses any great insight into the characters. The opening scene has impact, depicting the captivity of Ilia and the Trojans by having them bound in thick ropes, hanging high from the rafters. Ilia descends during her recitative and aria, as Idamante arrives and announces the freeing of the captives in thanks for the safe arrival (a little prematurely) of his father, the king Idomeneo, who was believed lost at sea. There are less effects in the subsequent acts - it doesn't even bother to show the traditional storm spectacle for Idomeneo's arrival - relying more on the stylised design of an ancient map of Crete and attractive, colourful costume designs to sustain visual interest.

It's pretty to look at, but although there are a few stylised touches that attempt to get into the minds of the characters - most significantly in Idomeneo being haunted and tormented by bloody, faceless dark figures from the Trojan war in Act II's 'Fuor del mar' aria - there's not much in the way of interpretation in the traditional stage direction of the characters. That's not to say that Holten hasn't considered the work seriously and tried to find the best way of presenting it. It's clear from his efforts to restructure the work by reordering the musical numbers that he has thought about the characters motivations and has attempted to 'correct' things that Mozart himself might have done had he more time to work on it.

'Fixing' Mozart sounds a bit conceited and a foolhardy enterprise, but Holten's restructuring - although it goes a little too far in some of the cuts - does actually allow the work to flow better and make more sense. In opera seria, there can be a sense that arias have been included randomly just to suit specific performers, give each person their fair share of the spotlight, and just because an aria/lament/ballet/chorus is needed for variety at that specific point. (In the worst cases, works would even be corrupted by singers inserting their own favourite arias by other composers just to please the audience). Holten's editing is a serious attempt to bring greater dramatic and character consistency to the work, and largely, it succeeds.

The main change is in the placement of Ilia's aria and love duet 'Zeffiretti lusinghierei' with Idamante, which is removed from Act III to the opening of Act II. Coming immediately after securing the freedom of the Trojans and learning that Idamante may have lost his father, 'Se il padre perdei' consequently has more depth of feeling, and more convincing reason for Ilia to fall in love with the prince. The principal reason for its displacement however, is that it frees up the action of Act III and allows the drama of Idomeneo's dilemma to flow better without the interruption of the love scenes. This also allows the director to portray Idomeneo as a weak figure, bullied and punished by the gods, indecisive and willing to sacrifice Idamante, but ultimately unable to help his people. There is no sea monster here, it's Idomeneo who is the monster. At the end, his statue is toppled and he is unceremoniously dumped into a pit of demons with Electra as Ilia and Idamante are crowned the new rulers. Very much a case of out with the old...

Electra has always had a bit of a raw deal in Idomeneo, but in Kasper Holten's reworking of the opera she doesn't even get the opportunity to rage against the injustice of the daughter of King Priam of Troy replacing her in Idamante's affections. Act II - Scenes IV, V, and VI, where Electra comes into her own, are clearly considered superfluous to the drama and are all cut in this production. It's a pity as we seem to have a good Electra here in Maria Bengtsson, although admittedly we don't see here stretch her singing or acting abilities. On the other hand, Holten and conductor Christoph Eschenbach manage through the restructuring to include the new aria written for Idamante in the Vienna version of the work, and it fits in well.

What you also want to hear in Mozart are beautiful voices. Not so much for bel canto improvisation in the da capo arias, as much as in the purest sense of bel canto meaning sweet singing, as this is the way the characters express the sincerity of their feelings. The cast all fit this requirement admirably, with Margarita Gritskova most impressive as Idamante. Michael Schade's soft timbre perfectly suited a conflicted Idomeneo who has suffered and has depths of feeling for his son and his people, but not the strength to overcome the challenges he faces. Chen Reiss was a strong Ilia, her character benefitting most from the restructuring of the work (unlike Maria Bengtsson's Elettra), giving her arias and duets more depth of feeling. Eisenbach's reading of the score was light and refreshing, the clarity of the interpretation brought out wonderfully by the orchestra.

The Vienna Staatsoper have an ambitious and impressive programme of pay-per-view live performances being streamed this season. See the Live Programme on their website for details.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

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.