Friday, 29 April 2016

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

Giuseppe Verdi - I Due Foscari 

Royal Opera House, 2014

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

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

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

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor

Royal Opera House, 2016

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

Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live - 25 April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Royal Opera House

Saturday, 9 April 2016

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

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Iolanta/The Nutcracker

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2016

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

Culturebox - March 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National de Paris

Monday, 4 April 2016

Wagner - Die Walküre (DNO, 2014 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre (DNO)

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2014

Hartmut Haenchen, Pierre Audi, Christopher Ventris, Kurt Rydl, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Catherine Naglestad, Catherine Foster, Doris Soffel, Marion Ammann, Martina Prins, Lien Haegeman, Julia Faylenbogen, Elaine McKrill, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Helena Rasker, Cécile van de Sant

The Opera Platform - March 2016

Aside from the merits of the music and the compositional qualities - which since they are among some of the most revolutionary innovations in opera history are not negligible - the modern day relevance of Wagner's cycle of Ring operas as work of literary value and human meaning is rather more debatable. There have been some impressive productions in modern times that have explored Wagner's ideas on mythology for its cultural and national significance and attempted to relate them to wider concerns, but the works seem to resist efforts to impose contemporary meaning and relevance on them.

The real strength of Der Ring des Neibelungen lies, perhaps surprisingly, in its qualities as a human drama. Prevailing thought on the works considers that there is very little human context in its recounting and reworking of the stories of the Gods of Norse mythology, but particularly in Die Walküre (and even in the earlier prologue Das Rheingold), the conflicts between family members and how they look upon other races all have very recognisable human characteristics. At the very least, the treatment of tells us a lot about Richard Wagner's ideas and his own personal views and life.

That doesn't necessarily need to be brought out in a production of the Ring, but it is important to recognise the human characteristics that lie within it, and it's also important to recognise that the work is best served not with a concept, but with adherence to its tremendous dramatic qualities. Based only on a viewing of Die Walküre (which is at least the centrepiece of the whole Ring cycle), Pierre Audi's 1999 production for the Dutch National Opera doesn't appear to be a high-concept one, but its strength is in how it plays to the sheer theatricality of the drama.

There might well be a theme followed through in the subsequent parts of the Ring cycle, but as far as this production of Die Walküre fares on its own merits the work fairly reverberates with dramatic tension in its own conflicts, domestic and celestial alike. The stage for Pierre Audi's production is semi-abstract, consisting of a wooden circle (or ring) with a cutaway section within it to accommodate the orchestra with just enough use of props and objects to cover the various locations used in the opera and retain its more familiar characteristics, such as Nothung and the Valkyrie, in a recognisable form.  The Valkyrie in particular look the part with shiny wings fitted to their arms.

The tilted wooden circular stage gives the performers sufficient room to stride across it dramatically, and stride it they do, without being strident in the singing. That could well have been the case in the second act at least with the casting of Doris Soffel as Fricke, who can sometimes come across as shrill and weak in places, but the emphasis on the dramatic delivery puts paid to that and Soffel also gives one of her better performances here. Striding across the stage with walking sticks with goats heads atop them also gives her the kind of air of menace and authority that Wotan should be unable to stand up against, and that's no mean feat when Wotan is as strong a performer as Thomas Johannes Mayer.

The curved wooden planking in a variety of wood tones that also suggest a less garish version of the rainbow bridge (of more use presumably in Das Rheingold), are also surprisingly versatile when it comes to other key moments in Die Walküre. Streams of fire appear at the appropriate points for Brünnhilde's fate at the end of the work, which when supported by changes in the lighting, prove to be just as effective as required, without going overboard. The consistent minimalist approach suits the purposes of the production and its emphasis on the drama more than the spectacle, but it also allows focus to be placed on that other effective dramatic quality of Die Walküre - the singing.

There's a fine cast capable of achieving that in this 2014 recording of this production, a production that has gone through a number of line-ups and changes in revival since its first performances in 2005. That's immediately apparent from the casting of Christopher Ventris as Siegmund and Catherine Naglestad as Sieglinde in the first act. These are solid performances with the kind of lyrical quality that you want from the brother and sister lovers (Audi detects a Tristan und Isolde moment between them in the sharing of a drink and plays well up on it here). Kurt Rydl plays against them as Hunding, with a little bit of wobble, but still wonderfully sonorous. Catherine Foster is a fine Brünnhilde who holds it together wonderfully through to the finale.

All would be to little avail if the musical performance didn't capture the sense of 'human' drama involved, and wasn't up to the task and fortunately Hartmut Haenchen manages proceedings well. Whether it's anything to do with the orchestra being up there in the stage-pit and more closely connected to the drama I couldn't say, but the reading was measured, sensitive and soulfully Romantic, mindful of the importance of the leitmotifs in this work and giving them almost physical form.

Links: The Opera Platform, Nationale Opera & Ballet

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Verdi - Un ballo in maschera (Munich, 2016 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Un ballo in maschera

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016

Zubin Mehta, Johannes Erath, Piotr Beczala, George Petean, Anja Harteros, Okka von der Damerau, Sofia Fomina, Andrea Borghini, Anatoly Sivko, Scott Conner, Ulrich Reß, Joshua Owen Mills

ARTE Concert - March 2016

Un ballo in maschera sits in that difficult period of Verdi works just after the composer's 'galley years' where the musical writing is more mature in characterisation and experimental in form but still not quite as fully developed as it would be in his late works. The operas of this late-middle period still lean towards bel canto convention in arias, melody and number structure and are often burdened with ludicrous melodramatic plots that sit uncomfortably with the new found sophistication and melodic invention of the musical writing. The relationship or indeed the disparity between the music and the drama can be particularly hard to establish in a production of Un ballo in maschera.

A production that takes the drama at face value and plays it straight with all the period conventions (such as the 2008 Madrid production) does the work no favours at all. Proving that the themes and composition of the work are strong enough however, La Fura dels Baus successfully adapted the opera to a futuristic science-fiction setting where arguably the melodrama sits better. Also recently, the Met in New York have made the case that an elegant middle way between these two extremes that can also be effective, particularly when you have good Verdi singers. The question of appropriate singers in fact might ultimately be the key to making the work dramatically convincing.

The Bayerische Staatsoper's production, directed by Johannes Erath, works the middle path. It finds the same sense of elegance that you can see in the David Alden production; the sophistication of the music is there in Zubin Mehta's conducting of the orchestra; and the singing - with a few worrying exceptions - largely captures the inner emotional tone of the work. The set design and look and feel also suggests a black-and-white Hollywood melodrama - also evident in Alden's production - but there is more of an emphasis here on the air of fatalism that lies at the heart of the work, a sensibility that Verdi's music captures much better than the torrid romantic complications and the overheated political plotting of the assassination.

The emphasis in the Munich production then is largely restricted to the bedroom. A bed remains at the centre of the stage for most of the performance, and there's even another one mirrored on the ceiling high above the stage. Rather than just being merely a suggestion that it is the romantic complications that dominate (the bed tends to be an overused stage prop in this respect), it also strives to evoke that air of fatalism within the work. This is hinted at very early on during the overture which shows a dream-like encounter between Riccardo (in the Boston governor version of the opera) and the fortune-teller Ulrica, that ends with Riccardo sprawled lifeless on the bed. This vision persists when the Earl visits the fortune-teller, having been informed of her impending banishment for witchcraft, but the scene is also present in the final act pinned high above on the ceiling.

Following the internal voice of the opera rather than the plot and locations does manage to rein in the overheated nature of the more familiar plot points, but it risks making not much sense either. There's no gypsy camp or gathering at Ulrica's hut but rather figures - all elegantly attired in formal evening dress - tend to wander into the bedroom and deliver their parts. Strangest of all, Amelia doesn't go outdoors to gather herbs for her potion, but it takes place in her bedroom where her husband Renato doesn't at first recognise her and is then surprised when her identity is revealed (by strange men wandering into the room), yet he's not surprised to find Riccardo there in his bedroom. It's all very strange and dreamlike. You can take for granted too that there are no masks at this "masked ball".

As much of a cliché as it might be, you could see this production as a dream sequence of a revenge fantasy brought out by Renato's suspicions and his playing out of the role assigned to him by the fortune-teller's predictions. Emotionally at least that is pretty much the level the opera operates on anyway, so it's not too much trouble to go with the flow. Visually, the idea of dream logic is also reflected in the impressive reverse mirror-like design of the stage set with its staircase elegantly winding from the room below to the upside-down one above. A Hitchcockian use of doubles comes into play on one or two occasions with Amelia and Riccardo, and even Oscar's true female identity(!) is revealed here, all of it suggesting the perspective of Renato struggling to reconcile questions of identity and personality.

The performances all fit well with this dark vision, but the singing doesn't always meet the requirements. Piotr Beczala at least, looking uncannily and fittingly like Anton Walbrook, gives a good and only occasionally faltering performance as Riccardo. He's proving to be one of the best Verdi tenors out there at the moment, with a distinctive timbre and style of his own. George Petean does well to hold the emotional drama of Renato's key role in this production. Anja Harteros seemed somewhat distracted or absent as Amelia, her singing line wavering and unconvincing, strong on the high notes but weak and unsteady in the lower register. Her performances can be variable, but either this was a particularly bad off-night or the role just isn't entirely right for her.

Zubin Metha's conducting of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is smooth and elegant without igniting the underlying passions that are there to be exploited. In that respect at least it's in keeping with the overall tone of the production. And, in a way then, the imperfect production is also in keeping with Verdi's flawed opera which doesn't quite have fully-rounded characters who can live up to the overheated plot of suspicion, jealousy and murder that fails to make a whole lot of sense. We're not quite at Otello yet. 

Links: ARTE Concert, Bayerische Staatsoper

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina (DNO, 2016 - Amsterdam)

Modest Mussorgsky - Khovanshchina

Dutch National Opera, 2016

Ingo Metzmacher, Christof Loy, Dmitry Ivaschenko, Maxim Aksenov, Kurt Streit, Gábor Bretz, Orlin Anastassov, Anita Rachvelishvili, Olga Savova, Andrei Popov, Svetlana Ignatovitch, Roger Smeets, Vasily Efimov, Morschi Franz, Vitali Rozynko, Sulkhan Jaiani, Richard Prada

Nationale Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam - 16 March 2016

With its complex view of Russian history and society, Khovanshchina must be one of the most overreachingly ambitious works of opera ever undertaken, the piece worked on by Mussorgsky for nine years before being left still in an unfinished state after the composer's death. Pulling the work together into something more coherent has been a challenge for other composers including Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovitch, but Khovanshchina is still an enormous challenge to stage. The Dutch National Opera's new production directed by Christof Loy bravely takes on the challenge, but almost inevitably it's not entirely successful.

There's a lot to get up on the stage in Khovanshchina, both physically and conceptually. Mussorgsky's great unfinished work is layered not only with the various political factions competing for power or even simply survival under the reign of the new ruler Peter the Great, but it also takes in the wider strata of society that is comprised of nobles, soldiers, religious factions and the common worker. All those various entities are further boiled down into the form of individual people with personal lives that are greatly affected by the uncertainty and the brutality of the times. It's a huge slice of Russian history up there on the stage in a fragmentary drama. No wonder Mussorgsky tried and failed to finish such a work.

It's no wonder too that Khovanshschina often fails on the stage. The recent Vienna production was heavily criticised for its static nature - this is a work that surely should be anything but static - but its vertical staging there did at least succeed in establishing the hierarchical nature of the Russian society and the attempts by each to climb its heights and end up falling low. Christof Loy's new production of the opera for the DNO similarly attempts to establish a construct that puts the work into context by connecting it to the present day, but in a work that already gives you a lot to take in, it's perhaps an unnecessary complication that doesn't really yield any greater insights into the Russia of the past or the present.

It wouldn't be the first time I haven't followed exactly what Loy is attempting to get across in his productions and yet have still been impressed at how he still gets the essence and full impact of the work across. The initial idea and inspiration behind the DNO's Khovanshchina is at least transparent, the curtain rising to reveal a tableau vivant of Vasily Surikov's 1881 painting 'Morning of the Streltsy's Execution', the epic scene of the painting reproduced in large scale behind the figures on the stage. One notable difference between the painting and the stage is the overturned cart and the dead white horse, both of which adorn the stage throughout most of the five acts. It's symbolism writ large, to which you can apply whatever meaning that comes to mind as you listen to the equally epic music that accompanies the unfolding horror of the events that lead up to the scene depicted in the painting.

Once the first act gets underway however we get the more familiar Christof Loy touches. The characters, or some of them at least, strip out of their period costumes and into modern-day suits. There remains a mix of period and modern dress that is evidently intended to draw a connection to how the past has influenced the present, but it's hard to see any direct link, particularly as there is enough to take in and remain focussed on just working out who the various historical factions are and where their allegiances lie. That actually is established fairly well, but whatever commentary is being made about the present regime, or whether there even is a direct commentary here, is less easy to discern.

More than just stripping off period historical baggage that might mean little to a modern audience, Loy's minimalism also serves to de-clutter the stage for those key scenes where Mussorgsky's epic drama has perhaps its greatest impact. Many of those scenes involve filling the stage for the huge choral pieces and crowd scenes that make such an impression and are such a vital part of a work that is about the Russian people, but Loy's quirky approach also achieves impact and results in other scenes of high drama such as the murder of Ivan Khovansky that precipitates the fall of the Streltsy. The dance of the Persian slaves for the Prince is performed by very young girls in shiny dresses (to the background of a glitter curtain) and it's superbly choreographed and performed, creating a suitably sinister environment even before Khovansky is stabbed by a little girl standing innocently alongside him.

Loy employs many such touches, large and small, including a marching brass band on the stage and, by no means least since he has a tremendous resource at his disposal, making good use of the chorus. This is my first live experience of the famous DNO chorus, although I have seen and heard them many times on DVD and on Dutch radio NTR4, and you couldn't ask for another work that would display their talents more fully than Khovanshchina. Their input was simply phenomenal. If it's hard to say that Loy succeeded in putting all of Russia on the stage, the chorus nonetheless contributed greatly towards it, and it helped also that there was also a cast of fine Russian principal singers in this production.

Among a consistently strong line-up, Anita Rachvelishvili was most impressive as Marfa and Dmitry Ivaschenko an authoritative Khovansky, but Kurt Streit also held his own among all those Russian voices with a fine performance as Prince Golitsin. Ingo Metzmacher conducted the orchestra through the Shostakovitch edition of the work, which might not have the same epic quality and refinement of the Rimsky-Korsakov's version, but in line with the production, the singing and the acting performances, the emphasis was on the importance of the individual human stories caught up in the vast scope of the historical period drama. On that level at least, this was certainly a successful account of the work.

Links: Nationale Opera & Ballet, NTR4 Radio Broadcast

Monday, 21 March 2016

Saariaho - Only the Sound Remains (DNO, 2016 - Amsterdam)

Kaija Saariaho - Only the Sound Remains 

Dutch National Opera, 2016

André de Ridder, Peter Sellars, Philippe Jaroussky, Davone Tines, Nora Kimball-Mentos, Heleen Koele, Marian Dijkhuizen, Albert van Ommen, Gilad Nezer

Nationale Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam - 15 March 2016

The few indications of what you could expect from the new opera by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho suggested that it was going to be quite 'arty' in conception. The fact that the piece was to be based on two Japanese Nôh dramas adapted and directed by Peter Sellars certainly prompted this impression and expectations of slowness and paucity of drama were certainly met at the 2016 World Premiere of Only the Sound Remains in Amsterdam. Where the work exceeded all expectations however was in the richness of the musical language that Saariaho employed with a minimum of instruments, and in how successfully it expressed the inner meaning of the work.

When you are dealing with Nôh drama, that is obviously the most important aspect to get across. Japanese Nôh theatre, the Dutch National Opera's promotional material told us "was born from the Buddhist idea that light is concealed largely in darkness, so as not to blind mere mortals." The conceptual approach to the subject then is a sound one, in more than one sense of the word. Reduced down to their simplest form, symbolism largely taking the place of any representational view of the dramatic staging, it's indeed only the sound that remains as a way of delving into the darkness that separates mortals from the true light on the other side of the veil.

That's very high concept and somewhat airy-fairy, so let's deal with the more objective reality of what is represented on the stage in the two short operas. Both of the Nôh dramas deal with a contact that is established between a mortal and a being from "the other side". In 'Always Strong', a Buddhist priest evokes the spirit of the legendary warrior Tsunemasa during a ceremony in his honour. Tsunemasa's ghost is drawn back by the offering of a lute that was a gift from the Emperor, the warrior appearing in the form of a shadow that eventually disappears leaving only the sound of his voice remaining behind. In the second story 'Feather Mantle', a fisherman finds the feather robe of an angel, and only agrees to return it if the angel will agree to perform a celestial dance in exchange.

There is not really any greater complexity to the dramas than is outlined above, and not really any great sense of meaning that you can take from the descriptions or indeed the libretti for the works alone. What is important, as much in opera as in Nôh drama, is the essence of the performance itself, and the clue to the nature of art as a medium of communication with "the other" is in the works themselves. It's a musical instrument, a lute, that permits the Priest to hear the voice from the spirit world, and it's through the dance of an angel that a humble fisherman is able to see beyond it to experience a vision of the waxing and waning of the moon. Sellars' direction keeps the works as simple as that, with little use of props and only two or three figures on the largely bare stage, with only a thin veil and lighting/shadows used to show the separation between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Watching Only the Sound Remains, I was reminded of another recent new opera, Georg Friedrich Haas' Morgen und Abend which premiered at the Royal Opera House last year, but only in as far as how Sellars similarly reduces the dramatic content in his libretto to deal with a subject that lies outside normal human experience. Like Morgen und Abend - although the musical approach is very different (the range of modern music far wider than most suspect) - Only the Sound Remains also attempts to extend the range of music drama, using new sounds and techniques to describe something that mere language and a dramatic construct alone cannot hope to reach; an attempt to grasp a sense of the other.

Kaija Saariaho's music is the vital element that establishes the connection to the spiritual side in both works, and it is really is something quite astonishing. The music is performed by a small seven-piece ensemble that consists of a string quartet, percussion, flute and Finnish kantele harp. The string quartet, and perhaps the percussion as well, creates a kind of an ambient atmospheric drone background mood music that could be said to be representative of the physical world. The more expressive exploration of the light on the other side is achieved mainly through the soft flow of the flute and the extraordinary otherworldly plucked string sounds of the kantele. More than the choice of instruments, it's the incredible way that they interact that establishes the connection between the physical world and the spiritual. The overall impact and richness of this sound world is mesmerising, Saariaho enlarging the palette of sound she can achieve using these acoustic instruments alone, with little need this time for the use of electronics.

Electronics were used only noticeably in one or two places in the second piece, and mainly then on the voice. The use of the singing voice is evidently another hugely important element of the overall soundscape here and again Saariaho's writing for it in Only the Sound Remains is just extraordinary. Both pieces are written for only two singers on the stage; a baritone for the priest and the fisherman; a countertenor for the ghost and for the angel (with a dancer doubling the role). Here alone the desired sound is fully realised with Davone Tines integrating with the earthier sounds of the physical world and Philippe Jaroussky's countertenor soaring to reach that otherworldly level. A quartet of singers in the raised orchestra pit however also forms part of that vital function of connecting the two planes in a kind of narrator role, even taking a performance role mirroring gestures on the stage.

Although the two works like the two worlds they explore remain separate, there is of course much that connects them and Sellars' libretto, along with his on-stage visual clues and Saariaho's dynamic musical expression of the light and dark, help bring out the underlying commonalities in the works and the message that lies within them. The interaction that occurs in both plays suggests an answer to the question of why there isn't a stronger bond between the two worlds on either side of the veil. The ghost of Tsunemasa reliving the horror of the wars and the angels held earthbound by human doubts, show that those on the other side tend to come off badly when they come into contact with the physical world. If they leave any trace behind in the world, only the sound that remains and, when expressed like this in music, in poetry and dance, it's the closest thing we have to heaven on earth.

Links: DNO