Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Helsinki, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Finnish National Opera, Helsinki - 2017

John Fiore, Kasper Holten, Johan Reuter, Camilla Nylund, Gregory Frank, Mika Pohjonen, Sari Nordqvist, Tuomas Katajala

The Opera Platform - January 2017

Just for a second I had to think twice about which Wagner opera I was actually watching until the familiar overture - furiously played here in a way that made it unmistakable - reassured me. It isn't that Kasper Holten's concept for the Finnish National Opera production is anything outlandish, it's just that it opens on a scene that is almost exactly like Robert Carsen's Tannhäuser for the Paris Opera. Both show an artist furiously working on a painting while a model/lover reclines semi-naked on a mattress on the floor beside him. It's not the kind of familiar image you normally associate with the very distinctive setting of Der fliegende Holländer.

The role of the artist in society may be better suited to Tannhäuser, but those themes can also be applied with some validity to pretty much any Wagner opera, even if it sometimes seems a bit of a stretch. Kasper Holten's Helsinki production however is boldly resolute in presenting the opera in those terms and he doesn't have to ditch all the familiar sea legend imagery either, but subtly reworks it to support the central theme of the artist suffering for his art. It forces the viewer to reconsider the work in relation to the composer's use of mythology and indeed how it can be applied to Wagner's own mythologising of himself. The brilliant production values help make the point convincingly enough, but the musical values at Helsinki make this nothing less than a resounding success.

As the overture progresses, we already gain a vital grasp of the nature of The Dutchman as a suffering artist. It's not just one woman who is in his studio, but a never-ending succession of one beautiful model after another. The artist's curse, like the Dutchman's curse to endlessly wander the seas, is to never know rest in his duty to his art and to remain an outsider with no place to call home. Such is his dedication to his muse that he also risks never knowing true love. It's a lonely life, and even surrounded by admirers at Daland's art gallery, the Dutchman remains a solitary sorry figure. There's not a black mast, a red sail or storms in sight here, the only concession to the sea imagery being the agonised Abstract Expressionist blue-splash paintings that the Dutchman compulsively creates. It's all the "treasure" he has to offer the gallery owner in exchange for marrying his daughter.

You might be less inclined to buy into this concept were the musical delivery and performances not as good as they are here. Right from the outset, John Fiore leads the Finnish National Opera orchestra through a devastatingly powerful, dynamic and emotionally charged musical performance. In another context, the vocal delivery might appear to be a little over-emphatic, but it's a perfect fit here, with Gregory Frank's Daland, Johan Reuter's Dutchman and Tuomas Katajala's Steersman all intense, lyrical and forceful in delivery. What couldn't you do with a cast and performances like this, and it permits Holten the opportunity to explore more deeply the themes in this intriguing early work from Wagner when the composer was still trying to find his own voice.

Act II (after the interval in this three act version of the opera) extends the themes of art taken to obsession rather well, and is likewise boosted by an outstanding performance from Camilla Nylund. Senta and the sailor's wives are not spinning yarn here, but spinning pottery wheels and the phallic clay construction on Senta's plate shows where her distracted mind lies. To make it clear to the rest of her colleagues, she recounts her obsession with the great artist known as the Dutchman and her belief that she could be his redemption by creating her own painting and throwing herself down onto the splattered paint in a mixture of Abstract Expressionism and performance art. As sung by Nylund, it's quite a performance, the familiar attractive timbre of voice covering the range from entrancement to exultation and enrapture with every expression perfectly pitched.

It provides all the more reason why Senta and the Dutchman are immediately attracted to each other. As the Dutchman states, his first impression is that her "image" speaks to him and he can see a kindred soul in the painting she has made. Holten captures that sense of souls coming together well with a nice piece of stage trickery, using a handheld camera that Senta and the Dutchman share to record their direct perspective on the other person. Projecting it 'live' in the background, it's a brilliant device. Philipp Fürhofer's sets also do much to contribute to the natural fluidity of the piece, the large glass-panelled walls creating a cross-section of rooms on a rotating platform, with wilder projections of stormy sea abstractions enveloping the stage.

Act III still requires an imaginative response to present the crew of the ghost ship in Act III in terms of the concept of the artist. Holten comes up with... a nightmare. It might sound like a cop-out, but it fits perfectly with the nature of the Dutchman, seeing him assailed by doubts in the faceless figures of an uncomprehending society. If it works, again it's got much to do with the drive of the performances, but the choreography and dance movements all flow into that same swirl of emotions and artistic passions that were evident during the overture. Johan Reuter's charged performance as the Dutchman is key to holding this together so well, his deeply sensitive character subject to overwhelming emotions that surge like the tides of the sea and threaten to drown him.

Speaking of which, there have been many ways of depicting that final scene in Der fliegende Holländer and many ways of reading its message, but Kasper Holten's version is one of the best I've come across, having both meaning and impact. And impact perhaps just an important a factor that should not be underestimated as a means to deliver the 'message'. In a masterstroke bordering on exploitation, Senta turns the recordings that she and the Dutchman have made - images that capture his own death - into a piece of video art. If that is not striking enough, introducing further ambiguity on the nature of the artist to exploit their lives and loves for material, Camilla Nylund's delivery of the final ecstatic lines and her realisation of the personal price to be paid for great art is utterly devastating.

Broadcast on the Opera Platform in an all too brief viewing window, this is a truly great Der fliegende Holländer and essential viewing. If this is the standard they are accustomed to, it's a fine introduction to the quality of the work at the Finnish National Opera. It's also a reminder of how creative and insightful Kasper Holten can be in his grasp of what makes particular works great as well as in his ability to convey it clearly and inventively to an audience. I will be interested to see how Oliver Mears succeeds him at the Royal Opera House, but watching this and a number of his recent production, I can't help thinking that Holten's early departure has been an unfortunate loss to Covent Garden.

Links: Opera Platform, Finnish National Opera

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae (Salzburg, 2016)

Richard Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae

Salzburger Festspiele - 2016

Franz Welser-Möst, Alvis Hermanis, Krassimira Stoyanova, Tomasz Konieczny, Norbert Ernst, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Regine Hangler, Gerhard Siegel, Pavel Kolgatin, Andi Früh, Ryan Speedo Green, Jongmin Park, Maria Celeng, Olga Bezsmertna, Michaela Selinger, Jennifer Johnston

ORF2 - August 2016

"All that glisters is not gold", Shakespeare tells us in 'The Merchant of Venice', and the distinction is a relevant one in the case of Strauss's treatment of the King Midas myth in his late opera Die Liebe der Danae. Even though the opera was developed from an idea by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and is scored to some of Richard Strauss's most gorgeous and extravagant musical arrangements, the resulting work lacks the depth of their earlier collaborations, lacks an edge and does feel a little out of touch with the realities of the changing times in which it was composed. And yet, like the similarly compromised Arabella, it is not without merit, particularly if a director is able to bring something to it.

There is plenty of glitz and glister in Alvis Hermanis's production of the work for Salzburg, but not much that really taps into a seam of gold. It's all decorative, aiming for a generic fairytale look and feel with little care about whether it makes sense, and certainly not caring to look any deeper into the work for social commentary or contemporary relevance. Whether there is much to be gleaned on those levels from Josef Gregor's libretto is doubtful, but at least the Deutsche Oper production from 2011 attempted to relate the curse of Midas's gift to that of the "golden touch" of the composer, and also see the aging Strauss in terms of Jupiter's failing powers and influence in the new world. This however just feels like empty spectacle.

That in itself could be seen as a valid reaction to the piece as Der Liebe der Danae is certainly all glittery show, its lush post-Wagnerian Romantic melodic sweep as easy on the ear as the set designs are on the eye in this Salzburg production. Hermanis arranges the first two Acts as a decorative display of constant motion and changing colour, which at least reflects the musical flow of the work. That's the same principle that the director applied to the metronomic rhythms of Janáček's Jenůfa at La Monnaie, and here another parade of dancers in gold skin-tight suits are frequently present, dancing and writhing at the back of the stage.

It's not totally gratuitous then as it does relate to the dream-like quality of the music, which is itself an expression of the hopes of the bankrupt King Pollux to find a wealthy suitor to marry his daughter Danae and save him from his debtors. Her portrait has gone out to King Midas, so he has high hopes for the best possible match. Danae is also in the thrall of a dream, seeing her lover bring her gifts of gold, but it seems that those dreams might be frustrated when it is not Midas who arrives bearing gifts, but his messenger Chrysopher. Or so it seems. In reality, Jupiter is up to his old tricks, posing as Midas in order to seduce yet another mortal woman, and his messenger is indeed the real Midas.

The Salzburg production certainly gives a bold, colourful setting for this dream fairytale, its golden-red glows and exotic costumes all contributing to this effect, but it's all very random and free-associative. It's like, what's the first thing you think of when you hear this opera? Fairy tales and the Arabian Nights? Well, that's good enough, no-one is going to think too deeply about Der Liebe der Danae. This could account for the undue emphasis placed on Midas's past as a donkey driver in Syria dominating the tone and locations for Act III, the setting clearly evoking some kind of contemporary allusions for the director.

Hermanis is controversially on record for voicing his objections to Germany's refugee policy, quitting a theatre where he was contracted to work in Hamburg. Although those objections were supposedly based on fears of importing terrorism, there was a unpleasant racist tone to them that could be seen to be reflected in the caricatures of middle-eastern men in over-sized turbans and women with exaggerated breasts grasping for riches. The bottom line however is that the production is not terribly imaginative, it doesn't appear to have any consistency or purpose, and is merely static and decorative. It's certainly lovely to look at, but it doesn't really do justice to the characterisation or the treatment of mythology in the opera, nor does it manage to apply it meaningfully to any contemporary reality.

As with much Strauss, particularly those that are more Wagnerian in scope (and there are many correspondences here with the Ring), the voices and the ability to meeting the singing challenges count for a lot here. The individual members of the principal cast in the Salzburg production are all exceptionally good, but there is some terrific ensemble work from the other character roles of the four kings and Jupiter's old flames Semele, Europa, Alkmene and Leda. Krassimira Stoyanova yet again demonstrates for me that she is one of most impressive singers of Strauss around today. Her interpretation and acting aren't particularly exciting - not that she is given much character to work with here - but her range, technique and the timbre of her voice are all just wonderful.

Much the same could be said about Tomasz Konieczny. I was unimpressed by his Wotan for the Vienna Ring Cycle two years ago where he had the vocal ability but a rather grating tone. Here however in the Wotan-like role of Jupiter, he combines power with superb vocal colouring. The all-important closing scenes of Die Liebe der Danae between Danae and Jupiter consequently are vividly expressed. Gerhard Siegel is certainly more lyrical in the human role of Midas, if not really a convincing rival in the romantic stakes. Norbert Ernst's cuts an appropriately bright and sparkling figure as the Loge-like Merkur, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is excellent in the role of King Pollux. With a cast like this and Franz Welser-Möst conducting an unrestrained (a little too unrestrained?) account of Strauss's extravagant arrangements and melodies, it's disappointing that Alvis Hermanis is unable to rise to the heights that Strauss himself was aspiring to, but never quite reaching.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele, ORF2

Monday, 13 February 2017

Vinci - Catone in Utica (Versailles, 2015)

Leonardo Vinci - Catone in Utica

L’Opéra Royal de Versailles - 2015

Riccardo Minasi, Jakob Peters-Messer, Franco Fagioli, Juan Sancho, Max Emanuel Cencic, Ray Chenez, Martin Mitterrutzner, Vince Yi

Culturebox - 19 June 2015

On one level it's understandable that up to now, the operas of Leonardo Vinci have been largely overlooked when it comes to revivals of baroque opera from this period. While there is undoubtedly merit in the works, they are perhaps not as worthy of attention or interest as the works by Handel, Gluck, Vivaldi and Pergolesi, and there are surely other luminaries from the period like J.A. Hasse and J.C. Bach whose operas probably still haven't been given adequate attention.

On the other hand, as more of Vinci's work is being performed, it's becoming clear that it may not be the case that his operas - often alternatives of the same Pietro Metastasio librettos used by the above named composers - are in any way lesser works, but works that rather have more practical considerations for them remaining unknown and unperformed. To perform a Leonardo Vinci opera - and more importantly to do it well - you need a very high standard of countertenor to sing some of the roles.

As the extraordinary spectacle of the hugely successful 2012 Opéra National de Lorraine production of Vinci's final opera Artaserse demonstrated, that might not just mean one star countertenor, but up to five. Catone in Utica (1728) is another countertenor extravaganza, and if it isn't quite as demanding, it still needs four countertenors of great ability. Considering the rarity of singers of that quality, it's not surprising that the 2015 Versailles production of Catone in Utica shares some of the same star names as the Nancy Artaserse, (Valer Sabadus was also due to perform in this production but was unable to partipate)but it also introduces a few newer names worthy of attention in the future. With that kind of talent, Vinci's Catone in Utica is another joyful revelation.

Cato, the Roman senator of Utica in Africa, has pressing problems with the power struggles in the Capitol and Caesar's expansionist policies. The Numidian leader Arbace believes that there is an opportunity to stop Caesar in his tracks, but he has also come to see Cato on another pressing matter; he wants to marry the Senator's daughter, Marzia. Cato sees sense in the arrangement, gaining in Arbace a warrior who will be a valuable asset, so he proposes that the wedding take place immediately, that same day. Ah, if only things were that simple, but if then it wouldn't be a Metastasio libretto if they were.

Marzia asks Arbace to put the wedding off for another day, putting him to the test to see if he is worthy of her. Arbace, as you might expect in an opera seria, agonises about this at length, but he has plenty of cause for such concern later when Caesar arrives.  The dictator turns up in Utica claiming that he is seeking reconciliation for the sake of Rome. Cato evidently doesn't believe him, not does Emilia, Pompey's widow. Despite Cato's advice to her to remain calm, she calls for vengeance for the death of her husband.

Inevitably, it's the romantic complications that heighten the tensions even further. To Cato's horror, Caesar has the hots for Marzia (the extravagance and urgency of his arias surely permit it to be described in this way), but he is even more shocked to find that Marzia is willing to marry the Emperor, provided that Caesar draws back on his political and military ambitions. Arbace, needless to say, has a few more arias to lament over this turn of events, and just to complicate the matters even further (like I say, it's Metastasio), Caesar's captain Fulvio fancies Emilia. That doesn't go down well either.

Vinci's opera seria treatment of the familiar political and romantic material of Catone in Utica doesn't appear to be anything exceptional. The first act is at least elegant and pleasantly scored if somewhat functional and a little routine in its pacing, with long da capo arias and a fair amount of recitative. Vinci however fires up the drama and the tempo considerably in Act II, and it's the characterisation of Caesar that has much to do with injecting a bit of life and danger into the routine drama. There's a fair bit of virtuoso writing for his arias, but it's the delivery that is important, and the urgency of it seems to have a ripple effect or, indeed, more of a tidal surge in how it impacts on Cato and Marzia in particular.

The delivery is everything here really, and again with Leonardo Vinci, it's the impact of the castrato writing and how it is sung by the countertenor voice that is the defining characteristic and saving grace of this work. In its own right, Vinci's version of Catone in Utica might just be yet another routine setting of the material (Vinci's was the first setting of a libretto that has also been used by Vivaldi and J.C. Bach), but it's the nature of the countertenor voices and the exceptional quality of the singers in those roles, that elevate the opera to a higher level of interest and beauty. Franco Fagioli obviously dominates here as the devious Caesar, as you would expect from one of the world's top flight countertenors. Max Emanuel Cencic fits that description too, and he's still wonderfully lyrical in the role of Arbace if sounding rather lighter than his countertenor counterparts here.

I was particularly impressed however with the two young countertenors in the female roles, both of whom are new to me, both of them sounding incredibly natural and unforced. Fagoli is unassailable with the kind of role that has been written for Caesar, but Ray Chenez almost steals the show as the rather more complex character of Marzia, with a strong singing and dramatic performance that undoubtedly contributes to the work as a whole. Vince Yi also impresses, with a lighter but beautifully lyrical countertenor voice as the fiery Emilia. The countertenors might steal the limelight, but there are equally fine performances from Juan Sancho as Cato and Martin Mitterrutzner as Fulvio.

Jakob Peters-Messer's production design and direction for Versailles is attractive and works well with the drama. It's elegant and classical, with a predominately monochrome colour scheme, but has some futuristic stylisations with designer rather than period costumes and extravagant hairdos. The staging suits the tone of the music, suggesting the antiquity of the setting with a few projections and flat cardboard miniatures, without having to build elaborate monuments and ruins. There is also a level of abstraction in the lighting, projections and in mysterious masked figures, with skulls and rats hinting at the underlying tones of power, death and horror that it finds in the work.

Those are brought out to some extent also by the Il Pomo d’Oro orchestra led from the violin by Riccardo Minasi. If much of the music sounds fairly conventional and the accompaniment of the recitative isn't particularly imaginative, there are welcome flourishes and drive in certain passages that work wonderfully with the singing of the countertenor. The combination allows the proceedings to spin off into thrilling flights of musical drama that belies the rather dry nature of the classical subject matter.

Links: L’Opéra Royal de Versailles, Culturebox

Monday, 6 February 2017

Wagner - Das Liebesverbot (Madrid, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Das Liebesverbot (Madrid)

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2016

Ivor Bolton, Kasper Holten, Christopher Maltman, Peter Lodahl, Ilker Arcayürek, David Alegret, David Jerusalem, Manuela Uhl, María Miró, Ante Jerkunica, Isaac Galan, María Hinojosa, Francisco Vas

Opus Arte - Blu-Ray

Bold, brash, colourful and comic are not adjectives that you'll find applied to a Wagner opera very often, but Das Liebesverbot is most definitely not a typical Wagner opera. Written before the composer had found his own musical voice for the expression of his philosophy of the importance of art and mythology as a foundation for German culture, Wagner's earlier non-canonical work would have been more in the thrall of the Italian bel canto and French grand opéra. Meyerbeer's 5-Act epics would be the model for Wagner's subsequent opera Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen, but it's the much lighter touch of Bellini and Donizetti that can be detected in Das Liebesverbot.

Das Liebesverbot is notable also for being based on Shakespeare's comedy 'Measure for Measure'. It's not one of the playwright's more famous dramatic works and it seems to be one less likely to be suited for an operatic treatment. It deals with the Duke of Vienna, who has introduced harsh measures to deal with the growing problem of drunkenness, vice, licentious behaviour and the increasing number of establishments of ill-repute in the city. Going in disguise as a friar, the Duke leaves his deputy Lord Angelo to carry out his orders, wishing to see for himself how the law is implemented. He not only sees the unintended consequences of his laws, but he also sees how they can be misused by corrupt individuals for their own ends.

Like most adaptations of Shakespeare to opera, Das Liebesverbot isn't terribly faithful to the original. Wagner relocates the setting from Vienna to the hedonistic Palermo in Sicily, where the corrupt regime in charge of implementing the strict laws are the Governor Friedrich and his Chief of Police, Brighella. The opera version at least retains the characters central to the drama, if not its main players, as it's the relationship between Claudio and Juliet that is to bring the unintended consequences of the laws. As they are not yet married, Claudio has been arrested and condemned to death, the law effectively a ban on love - Das Liebesverbot. His friend Lucio brings the news to Claudio's sister Isabella, who is a nun in a convent. She goes to plead with the governor for the release of her brother, but Friedrich intends to take advantage of the vulnerable young woman's position and tries to seduce her.

If the drama isn't exactly the type of material you would normally associate with Wagner, there is perhaps some indication of his interest in the subject in how it relates to his anti-authoritarian and libertarian views. Even in this early work, Wagner wrote both the libretto and the music as he would for all his operas, but otherwise there is very little that is recognisably Wagnerian about the subject or the musical treatment. If you can get past the idea that it has something of an academic workshop quality to it, or that it even comes across as a pastiche, Das Liebesverbot is a hugely enjoyable work, masterfully constructed to create a fine musical drama out of a difficult Shakespearean drama. Wagner works with the contrasting and inconstant tones of the drama, filling it with great melodies and racing rhythms, if not any particularly memorable arias.

Rather than try to integrate the work somehow into the Wagner universe, which seems an impossible task, Ivor Bolton and Kasper Holten instead do their best to capture the pace and dynamic of all its colourful scenes and the musical variety purely on its own terms. Visually, Holten's bold, stylised, cartoon-like approach suits the opéra-comique nature of the plot, with rolling platforms keeping things moving across the stage. The director struggles nonetheless to find ways to hold interest through some of Wagner's excesses. The duet of the meeting between Isabella and Claudio at the start of Act II, for example, is unnecessarily long drawn-out without any compensating musical qualities. Even with good direction, using mobile phones and text messages to try and catch the absurdities of the scene, it still drags.

It doesn't help that this scene is followed with another scene - a trio between Isabella, Lucio and Dorella - that likewise feels rather academic in its composition and utterly lifeless in the staging. This scene highlights another problem with the opera - although it's evident from quite early on - and that's finding the right kind of voices to sing it. Regardless of the model it is based on, Das Liebesverbot is not bel canto, and the lighter, lyrical and agile voices that are cast here might sound lovely, but they are frequently overwhelmed by the orchestration and challenged by the length of the scenes. The cast would be more at home in the post-Wagnerian works of Strauss or Schreker, but that doesn't quite work here, suggesting that Das Liebesverbot demands the range of Strauss along with traditional Wagnerian stamina. Within those limitations however Manuela Uhl is certainly pushed but copes well as Isabella, but it's only Christopher Maltman's Friedrich who holds up consistently, albeit to lesser challenges.

The colourful production however comes into its own at the absurd comedy of the finale. A little more convincingly than Shakespeare (but not much), Wagner conceives a fancy dress party as a means of tricking Friedrich into sleeping with his own wife instead of Isabella. There are still problems with this idea of the governor who banned pleasure being invited to a carnival (with the Chief of Police Brighella also being lured into making a fool of himself for good measure), not to mention the strange circumstance of his wife being a nun (María Miró an excellent Mariana), but it's a good excuse to set the revelations and resolutions to vibrant carnival music that bring the whole affair to a lively conclusion. In that respect, Kasper Holten does justice to Das Liebesverbot in a production that should satisfy Wagner completists but, much like finally getting the chance to experience Strauss's Feuersnot or Guntram, you'll probably not be in any great hurry to see it again.

The Teatro Real production of Das Liebesverbot is nicely presented on the Blu-ray release. The image is clear and colourful and the sound mixes present the musical performance well in uncompressed high definition mixes. As often seems to be the case, the mixing tends to favour the orchestral performance, particularly in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround track, with the already weak voices further submerged in the centre channel. They come across a little better in the LPCM Stereo, but are still a little low. The only extra feature on the disc is a Cast Gallery, but the circumstances of the composition of the opera and discussion of its content (where more of its inconsistencies and problems are identified) can be found in an essay by Chris Walton in the booklet. A synopsis is also provided. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro Real Madrid

Monday, 30 January 2017

Adès - Powder Her Face (NI Opera, 2017)

Thomas Adès - Powder Her Face

Northern Ireland Opera, Wide Open Opera, Belfast - 2017

Nicholas Chalmers, Antony McDonald, Mary Plazas, Adrian Dwyer, Stephen Richardson, Daire Halpin

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 27th January 2017

Musical boundaries have certainly been pushed over the last seven years that Oliver Mears has presided as artistic director of the newly formed Northern Ireland Opera, and they don't come much more daring and frighteningly modern than Thomas Adès's 1995 opera Powder Her Face. Like all works involved in scandal however there's an indistinct boundary between whether the scandal lies in the source material - here, the notorious 1950s' divorce trial of the Duchess of Argyll and the detail revealed about her promiscuous lifestyle - or with the opera itself, infamously well-known for its rather graphic musical depiction of one of the sexual scenes in the opera. As is often the case with such material, the notoriety rarely lives up to the reality, but NI Opera's collaboration with Wide Open Opera on Adès's Powder Her Face makes a convincing case for its music-theatre qualities.

The nature of the material and how it is approached in Powder Her Face presents such challenges and if it's not pitched right it's more likely to provoke giggles than shock, but in reality neither response is particularly helpful in getting to the point of the opera. The point of Powder Her Face however, it must be said, has always been difficult to judge. Director Antony McDonald recognises that there's no way to avoid the elements of shock and giggles, but the trick really is to effectively control where the shocks and giggles should be, and to try to put them in service of the human story that is too often overlooked in the case of the Duchess of Argyll.

It's the human story that seems to be lacking in Philip Hensher's libretto. The opera is divided into eight scenes that cover the years from 1934 through to 1990. The scenes and the limited number of characters involved don't seem to be particularly well chosen and scarcely seem adequate to shed any real psychological light on the Duchess or even the extent of her scandalous extra-marital activities. The main content of the opera is framed by the two scenes in 1990, which seems to provide a distancing social context for the work, viewing the past through modern eyes. There seems to be as much emphasis placed on the peripheral characters of the servants and the hotel staff as there does on the Duchess, and their response to her, to her position and to her notoriety is emphasised in the libretto.

In the 1990 scenes, the hotel staff are deeply disrespectful, putting on her coats and jewellery and acting out the contrast between her airs and graces and the reality of her disgraced reputation. Their behaviour is in marked contrast to the how the servants and the 'lower classes' behave in the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s. Subservience and simmering resentment at their treatment, not to mention being used for sexual gratification, seems to deteriorate in equal measure with the decline of the reputation of the Duchess of Argyll. If the libretto suggests that Powder Her Face is a play about changing attitudes towards class and social orders, it doesn't seem to reveal anything profound or revelatory. It's the music of Thomas Adès however that gives the work another dimension.

And it's the music that suggests the tone to adopt that best suits the presentation of the opera. Antony McDonald previously directed the NI Opera/Wide Open Opera production of Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest, an equally challenging work where tone and presentation is of vital importance, and helped turn it into one of the most astonishing and entertaining productions I've ever seen. (Can we see it again please?). He seems to get the tone absolutely right yet again in this elegant and stylish Powder Her Face, not relying solely on the literal content of the libretto, but finding rather ways of presenting it that respond to the playful period musical touches with an underlying discord that contrasts with the rather more tragic personal fate of the Duchess. The Belfast audience dutifully gasped when provoked, giggled at all the right moments and responded with enthusiasm at the conclusion.

That kind of response is never solely related to just one successful aspect of a production; it all has to work together. Sensitivity to the content of the libretto and the tone of the music is one thing, but the underlying humanity of the characterisation is best served by the singing and the acting performances. That's particularly the case with the depiction of the Duchess of Argyll. Judging by the 1990 framing scenes, the audience are being asked to sympathise with this woman without there seeming to be any real humanising content provided in either the scenes or the music, but Mary Plazas - who clearly has great experience with this role - showed how much dignity there was in a woman subject to pressures of her libido and her position. It's a terrific performance that completely humanises the role.

It's this aspect that is vital not only in the understanding of Powder Her Face, it's what also ensures that the opera has a greater universality and life-span beyond the social context or the period class issues it raises. It's the degree of truth in the human story that lies underneath such issues that will determine whether the opera can sit alongside the depictions of women at odds with their times and society in La Traviata, Madama Butterfly or Lulu. As it stands, it's impossible to judge whether Powder Her Face will have a place alongside such works, but the Northern Ireland Opera/Wide Open Opera production and Mary Plazas's performance certainly got beneath the surface of a woman who is struggling to control and balance her own desires against the expectations and judgements of society, even as that society gradually changes.

The whole vitality of work, its relevance across the different periods that present differing responses of an unforgiving society, are very much contained within the performances of the other three singing roles in the opera. It's amazing in fact just how much can be conveyed by the brief scenes of no great expositional nature when you have a small cast that are capable of imbuing them with verve, personality and an essential degree of unselfconsciousness. Adrian Dwyer, Stephen Richardson and Daire Halpin throw themselves into the roles, always judging the tone perfectly. Richardson is permitted some of the more slapstick moments (and slapping with a stick moments) as Hotel Manager, Husband and Judge, which he delivers with gusto. Daire Halpin makes deceptively light work of the challenging range and variety of Maid characters, forming a terrific double act with Adrian Dwyer who is equally as impressive as the Waiter in a number of guises.

Without subtitles, the English text doesn't always carry over when it has other voices singing over one another and a complex musical arrangement to follow, but Nicholas Chalmers measured the chamber orchestration exceptionally well, with a sense of fluidity that gave greater continuity to those separate scenes with their variations in musical and dramatic tone. Credit where credit is due, Nicholas Chalmers' contribution is often overlooked alongside the more visual artistic direction of the Oliver Mears' stage productions, but he has also been an important factor in the Northern Ireland Opera success story. Certainly, the response to the opening night of this new production of Powder Her Face would seem to vindicate the approach that has been adopted by Mears and Chalmers with their NI Opera venture, and I'm sure that it will be maintained with the promising appointment of Walter Sutcliffe as the new incoming artistic director.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Puccini - Madama Butterfly (La Scala, 2016)

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2016

Riccardo Chailly, Alvis Hermanis, Maria José Siri, Annalisa Stroppa, Carlos Álvarez, Bryan Hymel, Carlo Bosi

ARTE Concert - December 2016

With all its kitsch Orientalism, do we really expect to find realism in Madama Butterfly? Maybe not in the conventional sense, but there is a kind of realism in how Puccini and David Belasco's original play (based on a true story) recognise western attitudes towards the lure of the exotic East (which includes racist and stereotypical views) and how the incompatibility of those views with the reality can have tragic consequences for both sides. Musically too there have always remained question marks about Puccini's emotional manipulation, so it was going to be interesting to see what would be revealed in the La Scala production of the original two-act version of Madama Butterfly that Puccini quickly abandoned and revised after its failed premiere in 1904. The results are impressive and, for me at least, a complete revelation and revindication of the work.

Latvian director Alvis Hermanis seems to find the perfect place between realism and the ideal in his production for La Scala. It looks traditional in one respect having all the associated imagery and colour we expect to find in Madama Butterfly, with its sliding screens and cherry blossoms, traditional geisha make-up and obis. In the same way that his Jenůfa for La Monnaie in Brussels made use of the imagery of Alphonse Mucha, the director here taps into another authentic source for representation of the place and the period, using photographs from the start of the 20th century as a basis for the costumes and the design. It draws from the very imagery that inspires these idealised and stereotypical views that come out in US naval officer Francis Blummy Pinkerton.

F.B. Pinkerton, in this original version of Madama Butterfly (and often too in the more familiar revised version) is a just as much a vulgar stereotype of the brash American as Cio-Cio San is an idealised western image that persists of the Japanese woman as a fragile, silent, submissive doll. If that's the ideal that Pinkerton wants he can buy it, and dollars are flashed and handed out liberally to everyone who helps him acquire that dream. It's a contractual arrangement to legitimise the more uncomfortable reality that he is buying a 15 year-old girl to sleep with. Regardless of the dressing - and Madama Butterfly is exquisitely dressed here in the gorgeous costume designs - I don't think there's any attempt to hide the true nature of this sordid little set up.

And there's no attempt either in this opera to pretend that such a situation will end in anything but disaster and tears. And tears are always guaranteed by the time we get to the always shocking finale, but Puccini is surely justified in provoking them. At heart Madama Butterfly is not a study of idealism versus reality in a social context nor an exploration of the incompatibility of diverse cultural worldviews, it's a conflict on a more personal level, on a romantic level, between what a man expects out of this unconventional arrangement and how the woman views it. Pinkerton believes that anything of value can be bought, that even nature will bow down to the dollar. Madama Butterfly - despite the superficial adherence to rituals and traditions - shows that the human heart cannot be bought. Putting aside the oriental touches in the music, it's on this level that Puccini's music operates and it hits there at the deepest point.

All of these elements and the deeper implications are brought out exceptionally well in the La Scala production. It's ravishingly beautiful, it satisfies an audience who prefer a more traditional approach, but by playing to those expectations it also highlights the very prejudices that the opera is criticising and fully realises the musical world that Puccini has created for the opera. It's totally involving and enveloping, all the more so for Riccardo Chially's superb musical direction and the quality of the singing, which is of a very high standard right across all the principal roles. Bryan Hymel is still Byran Hymel; wonderfully lyrical, entering fully into the role and taking the high notes gloriously but sounding pushed and constricted when there is more body needed in the lower range. Annalisa Stroppa and Carlos Álvarez are both terrific as Suzuki and Sharpless, showing the value of these roles.

There can be no praise too high to describe Maria José Siri's performance as Cio-Cio San. More than just beautifully sung to meet the exacting standards of the La Scala audience, it was an extraordinarily complete performance that practically lived out the role on the stage. The singing alone is a challenge for any dramatic soprano, but imagine living through the extreme range of emotions that Puccini scores for in such a concentrated, heightened fashion. No soprano experienced enough to sing this role is ever going to pass in appearance for a 15 year old girl, but Maria José Siri evokes the innocence and inexperience of the girl in every expression and in every note, completely assuming the role.

There's the rapturous innocence of Act I, the firmness of her convictions bordering on delusion in Act II, the combination of which leads inevitably to the tragic conclusion in Act III. If you get the first two Acts right, then Act III is going to follow through and hit hard the way it should. Well, it can hardly fail in any case, but it makes all the difference if there is that strength of character and conviction placed behind it. I think you could tell how well Maria José Siri was going to assume that role well before 'Un bel dì vedremo', so there was also plenty of time to prepare yourself for the emotional impact of the conclusion, which indeed is pretty much near devastating.

Of course I'm talking here as if this were the three-Act version of Madama Butterfly, when in reality this production goes right back to the original poorly received 1904 two-Act version. Despite reports of it being extensively revised by Puccini, the original doesn't appear to be significantly different from the more familiar version of the opera as we all know it. The Humming Chorus is still there - not as long I think - as a link between Act II and the concluding scene. I was interested and glad to hear however that its melody isn't there when Sharpless attempts to read Pinkerton's letter to Butterfly. I have never liked it there, feeling it was out of place, particularly as it is so well-known now as a kind of expectant night music or lullaby.

The more significant revisions however are reported to be in the tone of the racism expressed by the Americans and the callousness of Pinkerton. That to me however is more of an issue of interpretation, as I've seen more sympathetic Pinkerton's certainly, but depending on how it is directed Pinkerton can still come across as a heartless cad in the familiar three-Act version. Greater emphasis can also be placed on his willingness to 'buy' a 15 year old girl as a 'bride'. Mrs Pinkerton has a little more of a role in this version, but I'm sure I've seen her role developed before and always thought it was cut according to the production. I could be wrong.

Essentially however, the familiar Madama Butterfly is entirely there in all its ravishing beauty and dark romanticism. Alvis Hermanis's production looks stunning, keeping it traditional and period, with an authenticity in detail and manner and with no small degree of flair. Most importantly, it is utterly perfect in how it presents the mood, the drama, the romance and the tragedy, with attention to the surface impressions and the underlying tensions. If there were every any doubts about the merits of Madama Butterfly as an opera beyond its crowd-pleasing popularity, this production reminds you that it is indeed nothing short of a masterpiece.

Links: Teatro alla Scala, ARTE Concert

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre (LSO, 2017)

György Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

London Symphony Orchestra, 2017

Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Sellars, Peter Hoare, Ronnita Miller, Elizabeth Watts, Pavlo Hunka, Frode Olsen, Heidi Melton, Audrey Luna, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, Christian Valle, Fabian Langguth, Benson Wilson

Barbican Hall, London - 14th January 2017

Maybe it's just a reflection of the strange times we are living in, but György Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre actually seemed to make a lot of sense in this timely semi-staged version of the composer's difficult and absurd anti-anti-opera. If anything the world has become even more absurd than Ligeti could ever have imagined in these post-truth, hard Brexit leaning times, a week away from Donald Trump becoming the President of the USA. Honestly, the goings-on on the stage at the Barbican made more sense and were more credible than last night's news. Truly, it seems that we are now living in Breughelland.

That's a tribute really to Peter Sellars, a director who has worked with Ligeti and who was instrumental in convincing the composer to work on the revised 1997 version of Le Grand Macabre, but it's also to the credit of Simon Rattle and the LSO, who unexpectedly turned a concert performance of this work into a revelatory experience. A semi-staged performance barely seems adequate for this work, nor does a serious treatment of it seem appropriate, but remarkably the comic absurdity and difficult music produced what turned out to be a meaningful, invigorating and thought-provoking experience at the first of its brief run of two performances at the Barbican.

The challenges of performing Le Grand Macabre, not to mention the relatively small specialised audience that it would appeal to, mean that we don't often get a chance to see this opera staged. If you were to rely solely on the most recent UK production of the work directed by La Fura dels Baus at the Coliseum, you would likely then only have a view of one side of the work where the emphasis is on the irreverence, the surreal, the vulgarity and the spectacle and it's unlikely that you would really have connected with any of the deeper content or message in the work. Sellars and Rattle show however that there is another side to Le Grand Macabre, many sides even, and in the process they show why consideration of a variety of interpretations of any work of art is important.

If there was one essential element or key theme in Le Grand Macabre that the La Fura dels Baus production and Peter Sellars share, it's the idea of the opera taking place in an apocalyptic end-of-times moment. Hence its absurdity. It's no surprise either that for Peter Sellars - who has collaborated with John Adams as the librettist for Doctor Atomic - the expression of that apocalyptic theme takes the form of us being on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. As Ligeti and his family experienced some of the worst horrors of the Holocaust and the Cold War, this is certainly a theme that is present as a dark undercurrent to the work.

There's not a lot of stage dressing needed to make this theme apparent in a semi-staged version. There are a couple of barrels of glowing toxic nuclear waste to both sides of the stage, but most of the context is relayed through screen projections at the back of the stage. Nick Hillel's video footage and projections are not just the familiar imagery you might expect, although mushroom clouds are certainly shown and there is footage of the meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, but there is also a certain amount of humour at the irony and the horror of the nuclear arms race, a tone that is entirely appropriate within the context of Ligeti's work.

The realisation that it's all madness and that death is just around the corner seems to come to nuclear corporate executive Piet the Pot while doing a presentation for 'Clean Futures' at a Nuclear Energy Summit (London - Berlin 2017). He's taken a few drinks to steady himself for presenting something he presumably no longer believes in, so the combination of stage nerves and the alcohol seems to play havoc with the reality that he sees around him. The words of his colleagues in white lab coats, Armando and Armanda, seems suddenly suggestive and erotically inclined towards death, while his boss seems to materialise before his eyes in the form of Nekrotzar, Le Grand Macabre.

There are limits to how far you can take that kind of absurdity with all Ligeti's accompanying unconventional and often atonal music, and it's particularly difficult to sustain such a relatively thin premise across four scenes. The message, you would think, has been made abundantly clear very quickly indeed and the second scene between the astrologer Astradamors and his wife Mescalina seems to have little to add to the absurd situation. Nekrotzar's assumption of Astradamors' marital duties - carried out via the emotional distancing of an on-line chatroom here - is hammered home at the end of Act II with a map of the world being blasted with an infographics display of all the nuclear bombs that have been detonated since 1945. It's horrifying to imagine the damage that must have been inflicted not only on the the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in those first bombs, but also the scale of the cumulative environmental impact of such tests.

It's the quality of the work itself and its deeper meaning that reasserts itself in the second half, or rather it is assertively deployed by Sellars, Rattle, the LSO and an exceptional cast of singers. Geoffrey Skelton's English translation also makes a stronger impression when it has been placed in this context, the libretto's nonsense verse, wordplay, alliteration and invention revealed to be very clever and witty, revelling in the absurdity of all the madness and death of Nekrotzar's war machine. Witty and inclined to make you laugh, but not in itself laughable. This is a deadly serious business and seen in the light of where we stand now - god help us - Ligeti's stance seems to be the only irrational response towards it.

The key factor in carrying the work through to its dark meditations is unquestionably the performance of Audrey Luna in Scene III as Gepopo the Chief of the Secret Police. In semi-staged concert performance, there wasn't perhaps the ability to present Gepopo in his three disguises as bird of prey, a spider and an octopus, but all the colour and drama in this character were brilliantly expressed and conveyed by Luna, strapped down into a bed on the stage, singing directly into a camera that projected her performance at the back of the stage. In combination with Anthony Roth Costanzo's beautiful countertenor Prince Go-Go it created an extraordinary impression, Luna's stratospheric babblings more intelligible and coherent than the average Donald Trump speech.

The same level of commitment was evident throughout a work that is filled with singing and dramatic challenges. The LSO assembled an impressive cast here for these performances at the Barbican, with Heidi Melton deserving mention for the particularly difficult Mescalina, Frode Olsen fearlessly pushing the depths of the bass role as Astradamors and Pavlo Hunka an imposing presence as Nekrotzar. There were some gorgeous lyrical moments from the combined singing of Ronnita Miller and Elizabeth Watts as Armando and Amando, contrasting terrifically with Peter Hoare's gradual derangement and disintegration as Piet the Pot. Sellars also made great use of the whole Barbican Hall for the chorus, with individual musicians and singers popping up on all of the levels, ensuring a surround sound experience that included the audience as citizens of Brueghelland.

What the semi-staged concert performance permitted above all else however was that it literally places Ligeti's music centre stage, and that was nothing less than revelatory. It's very easy for the true nature of Ligeti's music for Le Grand Macabre to get lost in all the absurdity so that it sound like nothing but wildly diverse and fractured accompanying noise, with atonal parodies of Beethoven and other forms of music, but Simon Rattle and the LSO showed how consistent and of-a-piece the music is. Its little miniatures are expressive of the moment, alternately skittish and playful, darkly reflective or shrilly terrifying, but they all contribute to the greater impact and rich tone of the work in its totality.

It's hard to say that it's Ligeti's greatest work, but Le Grand Macabre is certainly his most sustained and demanding piece; richly dynamic, a compendium of all the extravagance, experimentation, absurdity and inventiveness that are characteristic of the composer. In the form of this opera and in the light of where we are today, the dark undercurrents from Ligeti's personal experiences that inspire the themes of Le Grand Macabre now suddenly seem all too apparent and relevant.

Links: LSO, Peter Sellars talks Le Grand Macabre