Friday, 26 August 2016

Wagner - Parsifal (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Bayreuth, 2016

Hartmut Haenchen, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, Klaus Florian Vogt, Ryan McKinny, Karl-Heinz Lehner, Georg Zeppenfeld, Gerd Grochowski, Elena Pankratova, Tansel Akzeybek, Timo Riihonen, Alexandra Steiner, Mareike Morr, Charles Kim, Stefan Heibach

BR-Klassik - 25 July 2016

The scene where Amfortas sheds his blood in transubstantiation and reveals the mystery of the Grail is an extraordinary moment and usually the scene in the first Act of Parsifal. It largely determines the nature of the production as a whole, the moment where, famously in the words of Gurnemanz, time becomes space, where the act of pain and suffering of Christ on the cross is shown, his blood given in communion to his followers as a symbol of the mystery of faith. For the knights of the Grail, it's spiritual nourishment of their belief that Christ's death and suffering will lead to human redemption. It's where Parsifal's eyes are open to the truth of this message of the Redeemer, even if he (and we the audience) don't fully understand it, wrapped up as Wagner makes it in Buddhism, religious mysticism and the philosophical writings of Schopenhauer.

It's no small order to get that across on stage, but its important for any successful production of Parsifal and Bayreuth's new production does that with all the necessary stage-consecrating pomp and ceremony, with all its associated imagery of religious transfiguration, but most importantly, with a sense of the real pain of suffering that approaches true agony. Here in Uwe Eric Laufenberg's production, Amfortas, stripped down to a loin-cloth and a crown of thorns like Christ about to be nailed to the cross, reveals the scars of the blood-letting that has sustained his followers, the Knights of Monsalvat, as he is painfully reveals his open wound and bleeds for them once again. The blood simultaneously pours out from other cuts and openings and pools at his feet, rolling down onto the round altar to a tap where the knights partake of it, and Titurel is able to look again upon the Holy Grail.



Along with Wagner's extraordinary score, it's a powerful and unforgettable moment where the Good Friday meaning and implications of it are made explicit, one where you can feel the audience - in reverence at Bayreuth - collectively hold their breath and almost wince at how real the pain is made to feel. It's the high point of the Act, but it's also an indication of how the rest of the opera is to be played out, setting the tone for the more globally important moment (in perhaps the whole of opera) when we and Parsifal return to the same scene in Act III. Unusually for Bayreuth, the first Act is played out with close attention to the directions in the libretto, showing very little of the interpretation, modernising and deconstruction of the composer's work that has been the hallmark of the festival in recent years, and certainly a feature of the last Parsifal produced there directed by Stefan Herheim.

Here, Monsalvat is a semi-ruined temple in the Middle-East. We know this because, in practically the only other moment of visual and dramatic licence in the first Act, we zoom out at this significant moment through time into space in a projected scene that locates Monsalvat's place in the wider universe. Elsewhere, the acolytes are dressed in monk's cassocks, with knights dressed in army combats, none of them seeming to have any other purpose than to look on at the suffering of Amfortas, prepare his bath and move a huge crucifix around, taking off a plaster figure of a naked Christ down from it. Kundry's role is not only mocked by the young squires, but it's somewhat downplayed in Laufenberg's production, the mysterious figure remaining in the background for most of the first Act. In the only real suggestion of a contemporary agenda, there is a reference made to refugees of different faiths taking shelter there. If that feels like a little tacked on, it does however provide a rather more powerful message at the end of the opera.

Act II doesn't stray too far either from the familiar template, but again there are a few contemporary Middle Eastern references that feel shoehorned in. The most bewildering is Klingsor being a keen collector of crucifixes who likes to indulge in a bit of self-flagellation in front of them. Some of the crucifixes he puts to fairly profane uses in the absence of any "equipment" of his own. He also has a bound and gagged Amfortas held captive, his presence meaning that he doesn't so much taunt Kundry over her past as encourage her to act it out again, at least until she can turn her attentions to Parsifal. Elsewhere it's fairly straightforward. We're in the same temple structure, but one that is somewhere between an Arabian temple and a harem. The flower maidens share the same duality, dressed in hajibs when first appearing, before stripping down to colourful Arabian Nights costumes and veils.



None of these touches, much less the presence of Amfortas on the stage, make the action any more real, and again there is a failure to address the nature of Kundry (and women) in this work where they are either playthings or pawns in the power games of men. It's an inconsistent, literal and very old-fashioned reading of the role and of the place of women in Parsifal. Again, this is partly made up for by Act III in this production, but it's achieved more through Wagner's score and the musical performance than anything that the director is able to bring out of it. It doesn't help that Laufenberg's direction is also lacking as far as acting performances are concerned, not that the nature of this unusual music-drama makes this an easy obstacle to overcome. Everyone however seems to be enacting Parsifal or ritualising it with great reverence (Wagner himself even making a death mask appearance in the of the projections) rather than living the work or making its concerns real.

If there is one element however that makes up for the lack of dramatic stage direction in this new Bayreuth production, it's the quality of the singing and the musical direction. I've seen nothing but the highest praise for Hartmut Haenchen's conducting of the work, and undoubtedly you had to be there in the Festspielhaus to really get the impact, but it sounded a little sober and subdued to me in the broadcast version, at least in the first Act, not really carrying the huge emotional sweep of the work. There is some good dramatic underscoring of moments in Act II however and Act III is every bit as extraordinarily beautiful and transformative and it ought to be. While I personally have some questions about the conducting, the singing is beyond reproach. Klaus Florian Vogt gives us his light, lyrical and deeply sensitive Parsifal; Elena Pankratova is one of the most secure and powerful Kundrys I have heard recently, with great dramatic delivery; and Georg Zeppenfeld is consistently brilliant, his bright timbre and perfect enunciation making Gurnemanz's pronouncements nothing less than a sheer joy that compels you to listen.

It's Vogt however who ensures that Act III is nothing less than the magnificent conclusion it ought to be. The soft-voiced tenor makes it a time for quiet reflection, but with a steely sense of purpose and unwavering belief in his deliverance of purification, redemption and a return to the paradise/innocence. It's a stunningly good performance. Keeping the Monsalvat temple as a constant, it is now in ruins, with huge vines and reeds breaking through the cracks. Following Parsifal's lead, having actually broken the Holy Spear in Act II in what seems like a terrible act of religious vandalism in order to make it into a cross, the refugees also come together to abandon their little bits of religious iconography, throwing it into the sand-filled coffin of Titurel. The stage empties to be filled with the light of Redemption, and the magic that is Wagner's Parsifal resounds to fill the hall and the heart of the listener.

Links: Bayreuth Festival, BR-Klassik

Friday, 12 August 2016

Wagner - Götterdämmerung (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Stefan Vinke, Markus Eiche, Albert Dohmen, Albert Pesendorfer, Catherine Foster, Allison Oakes, Marina Prudenskaya, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Stephanie Houtzeel, Christiane Kohl, Alexandra Steiner

Sky Arts - 31 July 2016

You couldn't by any stretch of the imagination ever call Götterdämmerung anti-climatic. As the final part of one of the most ambitious works of opera ever written Götterdämmerung is nothing but climatic on an epic scale, but it can still often feel like a bit of a chore to sit through after the long haul of Siegfried. As controversial and divisive as Frank Castorf's Bayreuth Ring production has been, the prospect of this Götterdämmerung however is an intriguing one. If the finale of Siegfried is anything to go by, you know it certainly won't be climatic in the conventional sense, but it's certain to have many more surprises and insights into the Ring as a whole.

And sure enough, straight from the first scene, the three Norn maidens are not terribly mystical agents of time and wisdom, but Macbeth-like witches dressed like bag-ladies. Back in what seems to be Castorf's East Germany, the Norn ladies cast spells and spin visions at the back lot of a tenement block, just around the corner from Hagen's Gibichung-managed kebab emporium. It's wonderfully sinister and atmospheric at the same time however, as it perhaps can't help but be with Wagner's writing at its most ingenuous and musically creative. Bringing the gods down to earth - established in Das Rheingold as much as in Die Walküre - is again to the fore in Götterdämmerung, as of course is the famous climax that we are heading towards.



It's in this down-to-earth place that we also find Brünnhilde and Siegfried. Traditionally legends perched on a rock surrounded by fire, they are depicted here sitting on a bench outside a mobile home like an ordinary couple. And as far as love, jealousy and betrayal are concerned, they are an ordinary couple, much like Wotan and Fricka in Die Walküre, with the same balance of power, authority and propensity towards infidelity. If they have extraordinary powers of Wagnerian proportions, it's the Tristan und Isolde-like power of love that makes this pair giants. There's no need for mythologising as far as the production is concerned. The audience need to be fully cognisant of the realities involved and danger that can be caused by ordinary people wielding extraordinary power - particularly the power of love - and the kind of devastating damage they are capable of inflicting upon others.

The characterisation of Siegfried established in the previous evening's opera is carried through to its natural conclusion in this regard in this Götterdämmerung. He's still new to these emotions, he's somewhat undeveloped because of his sheltered upbringing, and doesn't have real experience of the world or women. As he demonstrated in Siegfried though with the reforging of Notung however, he's a fast learner. How many politicians in the world today, people with power 'out of touch with the electorate' display the same characteristics? If there's any one message to take away from Castorf's specific reading of the Ring, it's this; beware of those on whom we confer power believing them to be better than ourselves and capable of wisely exercising such power on our behalf - they are mortal and as prone to human weakness and failings as you or I.

Brünnhilde's outlook is no more mature than Siegfried's in this new relationship. A scene as simple as the disgraced Valkyrie waving the Ring under the nose of her sister Waltraute to make her jealous is amusing, but it ties into the deeper forces that are in action and in conflict with one another. This "pledge of love", this little piece of bling, is her slice of power and to her it is worth "more than the heaven of Valhalla, more than the glory of the gods". All of us will pay the price for such delusions and displays of pride, and by setting this scene to Waltraute's warnings of the approaching crisis, Wagner highlights them all the more forcefully.



As does the director in his management of this and other such scenes and confrontations. True to form, the conclusion indeed fails to 'ignite' in a familiar fashion as Castorf prefers to keep things 'real-world', throwing out more references to oil (the black gold), to East Germany and to the New York Stock Exchange without making any attempt to join it all up in a bombastic or overly simplistic message. To be honest however, while Castorf fully explores Götterdämmerung as much as the other parts of the Ring and presents those ideas in a fashion that is much more fun and diverting than most other representations, a large part of the success of this work, for the still extraordinary force of the conclusion and for the success of the entire production as a whole, has much to do with the quality of the musical and the singing performances.

It was interesting to hear Marek Janowski speaking before the Sky Arts broadcast of the performance and admitting that he pays absolutely no attention to the stage direction. You would think that ideally a successful production of the Ring would need those two elements working hand in hand, but Janowski's own sense of dramaturgy in the music is just fabulous and speaks for itself. The fact that Casforf has a strong sense of dramaturgy too is a bonus, and even if the two views might not coincide, both in their own way connect with the essence of Wagner's intentions. This Götterdämmerung is consequently one heck of a ride.

The singing also holds up to the extreme challenges of the final installment of the Ring cycle. We don't have John Lundgren's superb Wotan as a firm foundation in this work, and Stefan Vinke's Siegfried is perhaps not as big a personality or a voice to replace him, but the tenor manages well nonetheless in a work that has slain many lesser Siegfrieds. Catherine Foster however remains a dramatic and strongly characterised Brünnhilde, one with real personality and tenderness, who remains sympathetic through the dark machinations of the Hagen-plotted Gibichung drama. Her delivery of the final scene, in conjunction with Janowski's conducting and Castorf's direction, is extraordinarily good and intensely moving. Marina Prudenskaya also puts in an intense and touching performance as Waltraude as does Marcus Eiche in a surprisingly sensitive Gunther, but there are no weaknesses in any of the roles here.



Regardless of what you feel about Frank Castorf's production of the Bayreuth Ring, it's one that likely won't be forgotten soon. I would go further and say that it's one that I'm sure will set a new benchmark standard that subsequent cycles will find hard to match. Aside from the sheer spectacle of the sets and the fine musical and singing performances, there is a deep exploration of the work here that applies many of its principal themes to relevant contemporary issues and concerns. A more minimal or 'straight' version that isn't able to offer as thorough an exploration/dissection/deconstruction of the work and doesn't continue to inventively apply its real-world message to the rapidly changing circumstances of our world today will undoubtedly find this a hard act to follow.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Wagner - Siegfried (Bayreuth, 2016)



Richard Wagner - Siegfried

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Stefan Vinke, Andreas Conrad, John Lundgren, Albert Dohmen, Karl-Heinz Lehner, Nadine Weissmann, Catherine Foster, Ana Durlovski

Sky Arts - 29 July 2016

If there was ever any question around the political content of Frank Castorf's Ring Cycle in the first two evening's works at Bayreuth, the nature of the beast is firmly established as soon as the curtain is drawn back on Aleksandar Denić's extraordinary set design for Siegfried. Mime - the dwarf exploited and disenfranchised by their actions of the gods - is working from his travelling van portable workshop forge that is currently located beneath a Mount Rushmore of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, a panorama of Socialist/Communist deities who also once had great ideals that proved to be somewhat more flawed in practice.

It's a big, impressive image that hits home as far as the production's overarching theme goes, but it's also an astute observation that updates and proves the validity of the subject that Wagner was really writing about when creating this mythology. (Wagner's head wouldn't be out of place up there either). Just so your focus doesn't stray and let the mythology get in the way of the message however, the young Siegfried's hobby seems not to be so much chasing and catching bears as rounding up socialist intellectuals who read books, fawn over their great leaders and try to keep them on the right path. As for Fafner, well, seen parading around the Alexanderplatz U-bahn flipside of the rotating set with glamorous ladies with shopping bags, obviously he's the great dragon of capitalism that needs to be slain.



Lest you think this is a bit of a stretch and an imposition on Wagner's creation mythology, the well-translated subtitles - much more idiomatic than usual translations of Wagner's archaic use of language - help make those real world concerns a little clearer. When the Wanderer is asked by Mime which race dwells below the Earth, the Niebelungen's relationship with "black Alberich" is described as one where the "magic ring's masterful might" has "subjugated the slaving mass to him". In every respect, in imagery large and detail small however, Castorf's production doesn't just recap on what has already been established in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre or even just follow through, but it seeks to find new ways to extend the themes that are important to the meaning of the work.

It might have been sufficient - in a rare moment of fidelity that is all too rare even in other modern Ring cycles - to depict Notung as an actual sword in the Azerbaijan setting for Die Walküre, but in the socialist revolution of Communist Mount Rushmore and the Berlin Alexanderplatz of East Germany, nothing but a Kalashnikov Notung will do (although Siegfried does alternate between the symbolic and the literal here) to slay the dragon of capitalism. That's powerful imagery, and a powerful political statement to associate with Wagner's Ring but it is wholly in keeping with Wagner's own political outlook and in keeping with the higher and thus necessarily mythological worldview of the Ring. Castorf's production allows the application of the mythology to be simply applied to contemporary and real-world matters.

Or perhaps it's not so simple. The Ring and Wagner's own personal ideologies are far more complex than that, particularly when you add on references from subsequent historical periods, and Castorf's production consequently has many other obscure references and bizarre details. The forest songbird, for example, has an important part to play here, but her role is difficult to define, as is the 'bear' that appears every now and again (and in different guises throughout the whole cycle). Nascent humanity perhaps, yet to evolve, learning from the (flawed) ways of the gods. The depiction of Erda as a prostitute is strange and certainly controversial, but the characterisation, observation and humour applied to this scene - a drunken Wanderer makes a sentimental late-night call to an old flame - makes it outrageously funny and humanising.

It might be a welcome injection of lightness into what is too often heavy-going for some, but for others it's clearly not what they expect from Siegfried. Castorf deflating of the glorious union of Siegfried and Brünnhilde by having crocodiles invade the stage and get involved in all kinds of antics is clearly not in the spirit of this opera's epic conclusion. There is however reason to be sceptical of it considering how that noble union subsequently falls into decline in Götterdämmerung, but Castorf is keen to emphasise in Siegfried that the flaws in the hero's character are already there. This Siegfried is a little dumb, wild and impetuous. He's not a person who you want to entrust with saving the world, but inevitably it's only a fearless person who would take on such a task, blissfully unaware of the enormity of the undertaking until it all goes badly wrong. America, take note.



That might be the reality, but it's not what many of the Bayreuth audience want to see and their apparent tolerance for Castorf's interpretations seem to have reached their limit in Siegfried, to judge by the audible loud booing that accompanies the ending. Castorf's interpretation however is vindicated or at least well supported by the performances and the singing. Catherine Foster and John Lundgren reprise their Brünnhilde and Wotan/Wanderer roles impressively, Lundgren in particular more reflective and repentant but still formidable in Wotan's earthbound incarnation. Stefan Vinke has a good balance of the lyrical and heroic tenor for Siegfried and is sure of voice here. Ana Durlovski impresses as the songbird, but every single role - from Andreas Conrad's Mime, Albert Dohmen's Alberich, Karl-Heinz Lehner's Fafner and Nadine Weissmann's Erda - are all an absolute delight to listen to and see performing. Unless, of course, you came to Bayreuth expecting something else in Siegfried

Links: Bayreuth Festival

Monday, 8 August 2016

Wagner - Die Walküre (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Christopher Ventris, Georg Zeppenfeld, John Lundgren, Heidi Melton, Catherine Foster, Sarah Connolly, Caroline Wenborne, Dara Hobbs, Stephanie Houtzeel, Nadine Weissmann, Christiane Kohl, Mareike Morr, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Alexandra Petersamer

Sky Arts - 27 July 2016

I often find it the case that once you've seen a concept established in Das Rheingold you wonder whether you really need to sit through another 14 hours in the three Ring operas to have the point hammered home. If you already know how the drama plays out, you can to some extent extrapolate the rest from how Das Rheingold is presented, give or take one or two points and themes that do need to be explored more deeply. You do at least have the wonder of watching those traps laid in Das Rheingold tighten their grip as events take on momentum in Die Walküre. For all its familiarity, there still much in this to compensate in the composition of this work, but it soon becomes clear in the Bayreuth production that Frank Castorf clearly isn't going to rely on just following through. Within the vast scope of the Ring, those other ideas associated with what has been set in motion are also worth exploring outwards.

The theme that Castorf chooses to set Die Walküre is not an obvious one. It extends the Route 66 petrol station location in the USA here to a farmstead in Azerbaijan where Wotan and Brünnhilde are involved in a primitive early means of oil production. Before we are aware of what exactly is being refined here, the first Act where Siegmund stumbles into Hünding's lodge is also located on the same farmstead seemingly on a different plane. The use of the locations, consisting of a barn, stairs to upper levels and a watertower, is extended again through the use of screens of a black and white film showing mining operations, with close-ups on some of the interior action, such as Sieglinde preparing Hünding's night-time drink. Conceptually, it's certainly a bit of a leap, but dramatically the direction functions well.



Whatever you might make of Castorf's intentions for the sets and locations doesn't really matter on a rational level. The action that takes place within it at least works within the boundaries of the themes and the libretto and brings it to life. It's Marek Janowski's pacy conducting of the music that drives the first Act however, capturing that wonderful blend of danger and romance that arises between brother and sister much more successfully than the performances of Christopher Ventris and Heidi Melton, which are individually fine, paying attention to little glances and touches, but they doesn't really have a lot of evident chemistry, or at least not of the Wagnerian Romantic scale. Musically it also captures the dramatic perfection of this work that is full of undercurrents and foreboding. You can sense all of this, even if you don't 'get' the concept.

As with the earlier Das Rheingold however, you'll find that there's little time to really let your mind wander into considerations about what it all means, or be concerned about individual performance or technique. Perhaps it's because the subtitles translate Wagner's florid and archaic libretto a little more understandably, but I don't think I've been inclined to pay as much attention to the words and what we are being told through all the dramatic conflict and tensions. It works on a purely dramatic level, which is the strong point of Die Walküre, drawing you in and allowing you to consider how brilliantly the dangers and the complications that are to play out have entrapped each of the characters, allowing you to really feel and sympathise with each one of them. You don't have to take Wotan's side or Fricka's here, both have valid claims and the fact that they are irreconcilable really feels tragic.

The person who has the most to lose however by being caught up in the post-Rheingold machinations is Brünnhilde. Siegmund's fate is also incredibly sad and unfortunate, but it's Brünnhilde who ends up carrying the can for the decisions and actions that are taken around his fate, and it will lead to even more tragic consequences down the line. If there's usually any one element that will determine how good any Die Walküre will be as the lynchpin of the entire Ring cycle, it relies heavily on the qualities of its Brünnhilde, and in Catherine Foster we have one of the best daughters of Wotan I have seen. The choice of words is deliberate, as Foster really shows how much of the father is in the daughter, fully inhabiting the role and understanding it as being the will of Wotan. Her singing performance is nuanced and impressive in delivery.


That's not to say that any of the other roles in this opera are any less vital to the dramatic function of the work. Much of the dynamic revolves around the father and daughter relationship and John Lundgren gives us a powerful and authoritative Wotan, much more convincing than Iain Patterson in Das Rheingold. This is a very different Wotan however and there's a good case for having a different singer play the two parts. This is a Wotan who is starting to recognise how much he has given away in his desire for power, how his corrupt actions in cheating Alberich of the gold and the ring have set off a series of events that will ultimately destroy him, destroy them all. Lundgren gives a great performance that shows the formidable power of Wotan, one that bears more than a trace of bitterness, anger, regret and fear for what lies ahead.



With a Wotan and a Brünnhilde like that, both completely in tune with the drama and the intent, and with the conductor completely behind it, this Die Walküre is never going to be anything less than impressive. The other performances aren't quite up to the same level, but they are all very good indeed. I particularly liked the passion and the lyricism of Heidi Melton's Sieglinde, and her acting performance was also fully committed. Christopher Ventris was stretched to his limit, but held out and rallied through at the end of the second Act. Sarah Connolly didn't really succeed in placing a distinctive stamp on Fricka and also sounded a little pushed, but she was strong enough to present a credible opposition to Wotan's delusions. Georg Zeppenfeld sounded as accomplished and capable as ever, although his arched-eyebrow 'baddie' act is proving to be rather limited (he plays a similar thuggish King Marke in last year's Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth).

The combined forces of the singers, the musical performance and the adherence to the dramatic integrity and themes of the work (which is after all everything opera should be about) ensured that this was a compelling Die Walküre in its own right, but Die Walküre is not a stand-alone opera. Castorf's production introduces a number of other talking points, ambiguities, subtexts and uncertainties that feed into the wider mythology of the Ring and its associated themes, but dramatically and emotionally, everything comes together impressively in the third Act conclusion in a way that almost makes you long for some way to escape the terrible predicament of what must be inevitable by the time we get to Götterdämmerung.

Links: Bayreuth Festival

Friday, 5 August 2016

Wagner - Das Rheingold (Bayreuth, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Das Rheingold

Bayreuth, 2016

Marek Janowski, Frank Castorf, Iain Paterson, Markus Eiche, Tansel Akzeybek, Roberto Saccà, Sarah Connolly, Caroline Wenborne, Nadine Weissmann, Albert Dohmen, Andreas Conrad, Günther Groissböck, Karl-Heinz Lehner, Alexandra Steiner, Stephanie Houtzeel, Wiebke Lehmkuhl

Sky Arts - 26 July 2016

Frank Castorf's controversial production of Bayreuth's current Ring cycle may look far removed from the traditional mythological settings of Wagner's epic, but in reality it's closer to home and to the intent of the work than you might think. At heart, the central theme of the Ring that purity of intentions in relation to politics and power (if there even is such a thing - now there's mythology for you) is often corrupted by the imperfections of what makes us all human comes as a timely reminder of where we are in the world today and how we've got there. I haven't seen any Ring cycle even remotely as relevant and powerful as this in the last few decades.

Although Castorf sets the Ring's opening prelude music-drama Das Rheingold in a motel on Route 66 in the USA (and subsequent parts are equally global in their locations), a German or European audience would easily recognise the parallels it has to much that has taken place recently in Germany and in Europe in relation to power and politics. It wouldn't happen until long after his death, but Wagner's vision of the fall of the gods and the flawed human forces that replace them would be borne out by later historical developments. Without making any direct reference to a period that is loaded with controversy, Castorf makes a daring parallel that extends the purity of Wagner's idealised dream of a united nation into the corruption of those ideals by Hitler. It's almost as if Wagner could see it coming.

So uncomfortably close to home is that subject that Castorf is forced to bury it in layers, but rather than obscure the intentions of the Ring, the layers instead build upon it and prove its validity. It might be hidden behind a parody of the corruption of the American Dream in Das Rheingold, but such is the strength of Wagner's framework and vision that a German audience might recognise a similar dream closer to home in the reunification of East and West Germany or in the dream of closer European union. Regardless of whichever level you relate to it, Castorf's production is one that cuts through the mythological trappings and makes the subject of power and corruption, gods and humans really meaningful and relevant in a way that hasn't been seen since Patrice Chéreau's production at Bayreuth 40 years ago.



For all the lengthy expounding over 18 hours or so of the Ring cycle, the questions of purity of motive and intention (whether socialist or capitalist) being quickly subverted for the love of power and money is established fairly quickly in Das Rheingold (to such an extent that I've always felt that there are limited returns from the lengthier subsequent works - but maybe that's just me). A small man fed up of toiling in an underground cavern, the dwarf Alberich here wakes up in this production on a sunbed at a motel and is unable to resist the lure of the glamorous Hollywood starlet Rhinemaidens relaxing by the pool. He soon abandons any hope that the rich bathing beauties might slum it with him and instead decides that he can do much more with the vast quantities of gold they possess. Off he runs with it, hoping to turn it into a product that will benefit the workers only to later become someone who later exploits them, corrupted by the power of wealth and promise of influence.

Meanwhile, the god Wotan and his wife Fricka (enjoying a threesome with Fricka's sister Freia) are in temporary accommodation at the motel while the builders are in. His dream is about to be realised (a grand statement that testifies to his the dream of a making a nation great again, reunification). He's so busy admiring the view of his creation from his hotel room that he has forgotten that it needs to be paid for, and the Giants have arrived as heavies presenting the bill. The threats of the purity of his family being corrupted (Freia) by these thuggish foreigners he has used as cheap labour is more than he can bear. Having been told by Loge of the vast quantities of Rhinegold stolen by Alberich, he's prepared to exploit the Dwarf's weaknesses and appropriate those riches for the greater good (himself). Loge takes pleasure in playing with his lighter to ignite those flames, and it's done significantly in the proximity of a petrol station.

Further backed into a corner over how he rules, the 'human' failings, the personal and domestic problems of this god/politician/leader/artist/ industrialist/genius composer all too soon unravel any noble intentions he might once have had. The supposed infallible omnipotence of the gods is coming to an end, as all giants - gods or human - are inevitably destroyed by the corruption of office, the trappings of power, the lure of money or just indulgence of personal lusts and drives. Wagner's Ring however is more than just an allegory and has many other elements to highlight and explore - love, honour, family - but even within itself it can be seen to be an equally flawed creation (its composer too) with its inflated self-importance. All of this however reflects the inherent problem in man's ambition to assume power for a personal ideology.



Castorf's production not only deals with those larger themes in an elaborately constructed revolving motel/poolside/petrol station forecourt designed by Aleksandar Denić - one that touches on some big American themes - but it is sensitive to the complexities of Das Rheingold and the Ring, using cameras and screens and other familiar imagery ingeniously to explore and illustrate the text, subtext and nuances of a work that is too often overlooked in favour of Die Walküre. Castorf shows (or convinces me anyway) that Das Rheingold is the key work in the cycle, one that establishes the tone to be followed, one whose roots and leitmotifs will go on to be developed later in other ingenious ways - but the whole heft of the work is already contained in this opening masterpiece. All too often smothered in mythological trappings and the ambition of conductors and directors as a work more concerned with gods than mortals, rarely has the richness of all the qualities of Das Rheingold and its meanings been so openly exposed and laid bare. This is just brilliant.

Its ambitions are matched by the quality of the musical performance under Marek Janowski. It establishes a tone and detail that allows Frank Castorf to make full use of the rich cast of characters, singers and actors who go some way towards bringing Wagner's genius to life and endowing it with personality. I wasn't totally convinced that Iain Paterson has the personality to carry Wotan, but he does however create a great double act with Roberto Saccà's brightly lyrical Loge. Sarah Connolly sang well although Fricka seemed to get lost a little in all the goings-on. She should assert herself more convincingly later. Elsewhere, all the roles were wonderfully entertaining and fascinating in their characterisation, notably Albert Dohmen's Alberich, Günther Groissböck and Karl-Heinz Lehner's Giants and Markus Eiche's Donner, but even down to the Rhinemaidens all these wonderful creations just breathed life and exuberance and this Das Rheingold was consequently one of rivetting drama full of meaningful portent. 

Links: Bayreuth Festival

Monday, 1 August 2016

Handel - Tamerlano (Buxton Festival, 2016)

George Frideric Handel - Tamerlano

Buxton Festival, 2016

Laurence Cummings, Francis Matthews, Rupert Enticknap, Paul Nilon, Owen Willetts, Marie Lys, Catherine Hopper, Robert Davies

Buxton Festival - 21 July 2016

The key to making an opera like Handel's Tamerlano transfer successfully to the modern stage is to find an appropriate emotional level that will make the necessary connection. You could probably say the same about any opera really, but it's particularly important for baroque opera. What might have been appropriate nearly 300 years ago might not necessarily be the case now, so there's a difficult balance to judge between fidelity to the original intentions of the work and how it can be best viewed by a modern audience. Director Francis Matthews seems to be aware of the particularities and the peculiarities of Tamerlano and this 2016 Buxton Festival production gets the essence of the work across very well indeed.

So what is the dominant mood or emotional level that the Buxton production pitches for? Well, strangely, it plays Tamerlano as something of a drama of manners. The drama of Tamerlano isn't that different from most baroque opera plots. There's a ruler who wants to marry the lover of his closest friend or ally, not realising or caring about the trouble it is going to cause. Afraid to confront the Emperor's wisdom and authority, the other protagonists whose lives have been turned upside down then embark instead on a series of laments of woe and betrayal before those sentiments start to turn towards feelings of anger and a desire for vengeance.

With a few other complications thrown in to set everyone at cross purposes, that's Tamerlano in a nutshell. Handel however, while he has no option but to adhere largely to the conventions of these emotional plot points, is much less strident about their severity. Which strikes you as unusual, because the dramatic plot seems to be dialled up to 11 here in this particular opera with several regicidal death plots of stabbing and poison, the threat of a political prisoner being executed by beheading, a heartbreaking familial conflict between a father and a daughter that plumbs the agonies of betrayal, and several other political and marital complications thrown into the emotional bouillabaisse.



Handel however, certainly as far as it is applied here in Matthews' direction and supported in the period instrument musical arrangement of Laurence Cummings conducting the English Concert, plays all the emotional turmoil of Tamerlano as a delicate question of manners and etiquette. How should Bajazet, the defeated Turkish Sultan, conduct himself before the Tartar victor? And should Tamerlano treat his prisoner with mercy or justice? Should Andronicus defer to the decrees of the Emperor, even if it means he cannot be with the woman he loves, Asteria, the daughter of Bajazet, who the Emperor himself wants to marry and then execute her father? And where does this leave Irene, who Tamerlano was originally supposed to marry? It's a troubling conundrum and one must be seen to be behaving in the right manner at all costs.

The question of etiquette being the dominant concern here is very much within the libretto of the work itself, with frequent pronouncements and accusations of arrogance, pride and anger blinding people to the correct way of behaving. Much is directed against Tamerlano, but he also sees any challenge to his authority - particularly on the part of his reluctant bride-to-be - as improper and is convinced that the 'superba' (arrogantly proud) Asteria will surely recognise what is the right way to behave in this situation and come around. The emphasis on manners is also brought out in this production by the silent courtiers who do the king's bidding, issuing proclamations to make sure protocol is followed and documenting any infractions of them.

The elegant and gentle expression of Handel's music explores the ambiguous and complicated space between intent and behaviour wonderfully, and this is brought out well in the period instrument performance and the conducting of Laurence Cummings. There's a persistent rhythm but the use of instruments and melody suggest more complex emotional workings and plays on these rather more nuanced positions that aren't quite up to the gravity of the conventional opera seria situations. There is a risk that a modern audience might still find such concern over manners and protocol a bit silly, but the production and playing takes this into account without betraying the intent of the work or turning it into a light comedy.

The position and the performance of Tamerlano and how he is characterised is important in keeping that balance. Wonderfully, the Buxton production employs a countertenor for the role (with a second countertenor for Andronico) and Rupert Enticknap plays the part of the Emperor absolutely perfectly, certainly at least as far as the tone and intentions of this production are concerned. There's an edge of arrogance in his bearing, demanding respect for his position but also wanting to appear fair to his friends and enemies, and be loved. It's amazing how much of that can be fed into Enticknap's little trills and ornamentation - just pushing his self-importance and self-confidence too far.



Other little "dramatic" gestures and mannerisms play upon the overheated pronouncements and the artificiality of how they are presented on the stage. Paul Nilon's Bajazet, for example, really milks the situations for sympathy and anguish, yet this is exactly how the role is devised and how the arias are composed for it. Yet, there's an underlying suggestion in the music that it's the proud act of a defeated man and failed father - again those roles and manners that need to be followed - and by playing it that way (undoubtedly directed to be played that way), largely straight, letting the music tell us more than the words and the gestures do, it allows a modern audience to see beyond the conventions of the opera seria form.

Adrian Linford's set designs are curious and difficult to place in any period. It's not quite a 'Night at the Museum' idea, but it does fit with the overall tone adopted which is to suggest something of  a 21st century view of an 18th century depiction of the 15th century Ottoman empire, again emphasising the artificiality of it all. Aside from the two fine countertenors, Rupert Enticknap as Tamerlano and Owen Willetts as Andronicus, Marie Lys also made a great impression as the "superba" Asteria, a strong character who knows her own mind and always has a plan. She cuts through the hesitancies and uncertainties of the male characters bemoaning their fate and is more in favour of taking direction action, moving everything along as it should.

Links: Buxton Festival

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Buxton Festival, 2016)

Vincenzo Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Buxton Festival 2016

Justin Doyle, Harry Fehr, Luis Gomes, Stephanie Marshall, Sarah-Jane Brandon, Jonathan Best, Julian Tovey

Buxton Festival - 20 July 2016

Opera, if you want to try to pin it down to a popular definition, is an artificial narrative construct given a heightened reality through music and singing. The archetypes that would best fit this definition in the consciousness of the general public are those that go for the heightened emotional jugular - La Traviata, La Bohème - but it's practically the entire raison d'être for the bel canto style of opera. Bellini's work evidently fits the bill, and while Norma and I Puritani might be better known works, it's I Capuleti e i Montecchi that probably best meets the definition of the popular archetype.

Shakespeare would have a lot to do with turning the historical struggle between the political factions of the Guelph and Ghibelline into the two rival households of the Capuleti and Montecchi into what has become the archetype or by-word for the romantic tragedy in Romeo and Juliet, even though Bellini doesn't use Shakespeare as his primary source for I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Just like Shakespeare however, the story gives Bellini everything he needs to make this an operatic drama of the highest order.

Harry Fehr's production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi for the 2016 Buxton Festival would seem to be reaching for all those grand archetypal moments and images that everyone can relate to in Shakespeare's version and in Bellini's operatic interpretation. You have to really, as expecting realism or naturalism in a bel canto opera isn't going to get you anywhere. You do however need to find a balance that creates real insurmountable obstacles that only lifts the love story of Romeo (from the Montecchi family) and Giulietta (from the rival Capuleti family) to a higher romantic reality.



Several recent productions have reached for strong imagery to match those heightened sentiments. Arnaud Bernard brought a grand tableaux to life in a museum in his La Fenice production, and Christof Loy drew on imagery from the Godfather for a successful production in Zurich. Buxton also go for a mix of iconic imagery that strives to match the heightened passions of Bellini's writing, depicting the Capuleti as a military unit in army uniforms and the Montecchi in the dark dress of undercover operatives or even terrorists. It's not so much to make any contemporary allusion as much as find imagery that strikes a note of deep conflict and danger.

Yannis Thavoris's set design don't present a lot of variety to the scenes, and there's precious little traditional Verona here, but the set does capture a sense of the external and the internal reality in a clever way. The Capuleti compound is surrounded by a secure fence topped with barbed-wire that at the same serves as the walls of the bed chamber where Giulietta is kept, the two blending into one. It works on a functional level too, the world outside the wire cage masked by black curtains into which figures emerge and dissolve. It could be a barrier that is meant to protect from threats from the hated Montecchi, but it could just as easily be there to keep Giulietta locked inside.

As seemingly insurmountable as this high fence and the armed protection ought to appear, it's still not enough to keep out Romeo, whose love for Giulietta is such that no barrier will stand in his way. Despite having unintentionally killed Giulietta's brother in a dispute, Romeo is able to come and go much as he pleases in this opera, entering the compound in disguise, as a 'goodwill ambassador' and simply just as the necessity of the plot demands. Such contrivances are fine if there is at least an element of danger present in his incursions, and all the military regalia and security measures give that appearance.



The set, costume design and direction all go some way to establishing the necessary tone for the artificiality of the narrative, but it's the music and singing that really carry the full extent of the heightened emotional reality in I Capuleto e i Montecchi. Justin Doyle's musical direction led the Northern Chamber Orchestra through the rattling dramatic twists and turns, while the dramatic and singing performances of the cast were all terrific. It would serve no useful purpose to compare anyone to Joyce DiDonato in the role of Romeo - that's a whole different order of performance - but Stephanie Marshall carried the mezzo-soprano trouser-role well on her own terms. She hit all the necessary points, matching the raised tensions in the drama, and in a production where there were many stand-offs with pointed guns, that was very dramatic indeed.

Sarah-Jane Brandon was also great as Giulietta, probably the stand-out performance of the evening really. The beautiful but drama-stalling love duets in this opera would have been much duller without her intensity. There were no weak points anywhere in this cast however, with Luis Gomes a bright and fervent Tebaldo and Jonathan Best an imposing and even dangerous presence as Capellio, Giulietta's protective father. Unlike Shakespeare's drama, where the families united in grief for the harm that their feud has wrought, I Capuleti e i Montecchi ends on a note of anger. As the culprit blamed for it all, Capellio got his just desserts in this production a bloody manner that matched the crashing finale that was fully in the spirit of this strong production.

Links: Buxton Festival