Friday, 8 September 2017

Cavalli - Erismena (Aix, 2017)

Francesco Cavalli - Erismena

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Leonardo García Alarcón, Jean Bellorini, Francesca Aspromonte, Carlo Vistoli, Susanna Hurrell, Jakub Józef Orliński, Alexander Miminoshvili, Lea Desandre, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, Stuart Jackson, Tai Oney, Jonathan Abernethy

ARTE Concert - 12th July 2017

There are times I'm convinced that there is a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience in some of these early baroque and opera seria works. It's not just that the plots are needlessly intricate and difficult to unravel, but the names often all sound the same. So in addition to Erismena in Cavalli's opera of that name we have Erimante and Erineo, with an Ercinia appearing out of the woodwork when we thought her name was Alcesta, all of those becoming mixed up with Orimeno and Aldimira. And who the heck are Arminda and Artamene?

If I didn't know better I'd think the librettist was trying to cover over any plot weaknesses or lack of credibility in the extraordinary events and coincidences that take place in such works, but you can hardly accuse Cavalli of fudging the issue here with his gorgeous melodies and precise delineation of mood and character. Even if you are a little confused in places as one identity dissolves into another, disguises are dropped and genders are switched, in the masterful hands of Cavalli the changes just reflect a rich set of individuals who come together to create complex connections and bonds.

Breaking down the plot to its essentials in an effort to simplify (I'll try anyway) and focus on its themes, the fates of all of the characters revolve essentially - and not unexpectedly - around a king. Erimante the King of Armenia is haunted by a vision of an unknown warrior who he dreams will take his throne from him. At the same time, a wounded warrior has been discovered by Orimeno. He leaves the warrior with his beloved Aldimira and her nurse Alcesta, who helps cure the man's injuries. When Orimeno brings him to the king however, Erimante recognises the feared warrior of his dreams and orders Erineo to kill him.

Erineo however fails to carry out this task, leaving the warrior to fall into the hands of Aldimira, who has fallen in love with him. The warrior reveals his mission is to seek vengeance against Idraspe, who abandoned the warrior's 'sister' Erismena, although obviously we know that the warrior is Erismena herself disguised in a soldier's armour. Romantic complications are added to the whole affair - most of them involving the flighty Aldimira it has to be said - but there are further surprises in store since - no big surprise this one - Erismena is not the only one living under an assumed name or identity. Alesta, who is really the nurse Ercinia, eventually reveals all, including the fact that Erismena is the daughter of Erimante and as such the rightful heir to the throne rather than a threat to the king. See what I mean about the names?

Anyhow, safe to say that there are a lot more complications, identities and characters involved in the affairs in Armenia (Arminda and Artamene incidentally are only mentioned in passing otherwise it really would be impossible to unravel this one). To similarly simplify the essential theme of Cavalli's opera - and the whole disguises and unknown origins question of such operas - it's all about the search for identity, for understanding one's true nature. This realisation of course only comes about through some hard-earned life lessons, but in the case of Cavalli's Erismena, the work is considerably enriched by the types of characters involved and by the musical treatment that the composer creates for them.

Leonardo García Alarcón's conducting from the harpsichord of the Cappella Mediterranea brings out all those characteristics and moods with a sparseness and directness of means that only a skilled period instrument ensemble can do. What the Aix-en-Provence production reveals however is that the purity of young voices also play just as vital a role in bringing the themes of the work to the surface. It's immediately apparent from the moment that Susanna Hurrell's Aldimira and Francesca Aspromonte's 'warrior' Erismena sing the duet 'Occhi belli', revealing not only the the beauty of the sentiments but the naivety behind them. It's an opera that is all about youth.

Aldimira is flirtatious, capricious, inconstant, and has many lovers - she herself exemplifies one facet of the changeable nature of love and the instability of trust and fidelity. Erismena represents another side of love, one that has solidity of reason and is constant in purpose. People come in all shapes and sizes, quite literally here, particularly in the case of the old nurse, showing that love and its torments are not the preserve of the young alone. Love is a complex business and changeable, and how better to illustrate that than the manner in which the twists and turns of Cavalli's opera and musical treatment covers it.

It's a much richer and more dynamic palette that is brought out here than the laments and single-emotion at a time expression of subsequent opera seria period. Arias and ariosos flit between one mood or emotion to another - as someone in love is wont to do - and the singers here are eminently capable of displaying the necessary range, where youth and purity of voice and sentiment is absolutely essential. It's through love that we recognise our true selves, the opera tells us, through the destiny and fate that bonds us to each other as family, and it's love in all its guises that gives life its depth, richness and quality. Cavalli recognises this and puts it all into his dynamically expressive music.

The stage production at Aix isn't quite as rich and expressive, but it rightly defers to the music and the singing. The set design has a makeshift quality, dimly lit, with a wire mesh platform employed and canopy of light-bulbs. The costumes too are in that mix-and-don't-match style that nevertheless reflects characters who have many contradictory facets and might not don't really know who they are yet. Francesca Aspromonte sings Erismane in a way accentuates her essential beauty, firmness and brightness. Susanna Hurrell captures a sense of lightness and innocence in Aldimira that makes her character's inconstancy charming rather than flirtatious and damaging. Carlo Vistoli's Idraspe/Erineo is beautifully sung, reflecting his dual nature and identity and his desire to control his nature, but all of the roles are sung with bright youthful pureness and great skill, weaving around the Cappella Mediterranea's beautiful interpretation of Cavalli's melodies, to striking effect.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress (Aix, 2017)

Igor Stravinsky - The Rake's Progress

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Simon McBurney, Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby, Kyle Ketelsen, Evan Hughes, David Pittsinger, Hilary Summers, Andrew Watts, Alan Oke

ARTE Concert - 11th July 2017

To borrow a phrase from Baba the Turk, the rationale behind Stravinsky's neoclassical account of The Rake's Progress is not only perplexing to many, but it can be vexing too. Without some imagination and purpose applied it can - to continue with Baba the Turk's own commentary - show too much devotion towards an ancient flame and end up being, in dramatic and musical terms, nothing more than a souless pastiche of Classical opera mannerisms. In that respect, the opera could even be a self-regarding commentary on it own nature.

When a work seems to be a superficial pastiche or a commentary on itself, it leaves limited scope for a director to do something new or interesting with it, but surely The Rake's Progress offers more potential than Simon McBurney brings to the new production of the opera at the Aix-en-Provence festival? Like his Magic Flute, which appeared at Aix a few years ago and at a few other European opera houses, the use of stage-craft is innovative - this time using an almost entirely computer generated boxed-in surrounding set - but it plays along with the superficiality of the work, illustrating it without finding or bringing any new depth in it.

It's true anyway of course that The Rake's Progress, based on a series of Hogarth 18th century prints, is essentially a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of being swept away by the superficial attractions of money and the dissolute lifestyle that comes with it, its superficial attractions blinding us from where true beauty lies and what life has to offer. On that level at least, as well as on a level that impressed with its open-box immersive visual extravagance, the production design matches the intent of the original. And, regardless of the fact that the Hogarth series is almost three hundred years old, its point about sinful indulgence lacking the true rewards of moral integrity still holds true, even if the times have changed.

Simon McBurney's production design is essentially then an updating of David Hockney's updating of the Hogarth prints in his designs for John Cox's celebrated Glyndebourne production, the world depicted in one of flat paintings come to life. McBurney's version of this world is a fake computer-generated equivalent, projected appropriately on a thin paper wall blank sheet. Nick Shadow is the first person to rip a whole in the wall and step into Tom Rakewell's perfect but dull world, and the fragile nature of this delusion is exposed with further rips and tears, the most damage being done with all the trivial luxury items purchased by Tom's new wife Baba poking through the walls and ceiling.

Aside from images of a stock-market crash and the towers of the City melting down, in essence there's nothing here that really puts any new spin on the dehumanising endgame of materialism, consumerism or capitalism. Rakewell's bread-making machine viewed as nothing more than a brown box hardly scales up the operation to a level where this would have any valid social commentary on the world today, and there's little in the opera anyway beyond platitutes of innocence and virtue in Trulove that suggest that there's any real-world alternative. By merely illustrating it, McBurney's production exposes the thinness of the opera's concept as much its basic morality tale, and the work needs more real engagement with its subject than this.

Musically, as sophisticated as Stravinsky's writing undoubtedly is in its own terms, never mind the cleverness of its appropriation and reworking of its neoclassical reference points, The Rake's Progress still risks coming across as little more than an early model for the West End or Broadway musical. Or worse, as an insincere West End of Broadway musical. I don't think the rather Handel oratorio-like archaic formality of expression of Auden and Kellman's dialogues helps, the libretto often giving the impression of just being clever for the sake of it without really expressing anything that has genuine feeling in it or a belief in the story it tells.

The blandness of the dialogues extends to the characters, who never come to life or show any real personality. Tom Rakewell, Anne Trulove, Nick Shadow; as their allegorical names indicate, they are all ciphers created to fit a predetermined role unenlivened by a sense of humour or irony instead of their natures arising out of their circumstances, behaviour or situations. The singing and dramatic presentation of these caricatures is well handled by Julia Bullock, Paul Appleby and Kyle Ketelsen, but inevitably superficial and mannered, lacking any human interest or purpose. Rather like the work itself, the Aix-en-Provence 2017 production of The Rake's Progress is something that it is easier to admire than truly enjoy.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Mozart - Don Giovanni (Aix, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Jérémie Rhorer, Jean-François Sivadier, Philippe Sly, Nahuel di Pierro, Eleonora Buratto, Pavol Breslik, Isabel Leonard, Julie Fuchs, Krzysztof Baczyk, David Leigh

Culturebox - 10th July 2017

Mozart of course is not immune from the trend to re-imagine, re-work and update the themes of classic operas, but it seems to me that he does generally tend to be spared the more extreme interpretations. There may be a good reason for that, and it's undoubtedly something to do with the fact that Mozart's enlightened timeless egalitarian ideals largely (barring a few old-fashioned expressions) still stand up pretty well and don't need to be reinterpreted for a modern audience.

The Aix-en-Provence festival - where Mozart has been a staple over the years - seem to hold to this principle in their productions, but are flexible enough to adopt an approach that meets the specific demands of the variations between the ideas in each of the works. The Marriage of Figaro in 2012, for example, updated the practice of droit de seigneur to sexual harassment in the office place, whereas La Finta Giardiniera the same year was capable of working in its simplest form, using only the natural outdoor environment of the gardens of the Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean.

Così Fan Tutte is another example of a work where the attitudes expressed can seem a little outdated if it's not played as either a satire or an out-and-out comedy, but Christophe Honoré's 2016 production at Aix successfully demonstrated that the work is capable of dealing with the deeper and more serious issues that the subject raises. Die Zauberflöte, on the other hand, was given a stripped-down demystification of its magical properties in Simon McBurney's 2014 production, but it was the score itself, conducted by Pablo Heras Casado that revealed the benefits of reducing Mozart down to the bare elements of its purest expression.

The one Mozart opera that has been subjected to the most analysis and scrutiny over the years however is probably Don Giovanni. Even though its themes relating to men and women, class and society, love and betrayal are universal and timeless, the actions of Don Giovanni himself are fertile ground for modern psychoanalytical and philosophical exploration. Jean-François Sivadier's production for 2017 Aix-en-Provence festival however seems like an attempt to cut through the accumulation of so many reinterpretations of this complex personality and get right back to basics, and he's supported in that by Jérémie Rhorer's stripped back orchestration with Le Cercle de l'Harmonie.

At first, it looks like there is no real weight or emphasis given on the nature of Don Giovanni or judgement on the nature of his crimes. There are no excuses made for his attempted seduction of Donna Anna or the killing of the Commendatore, he's just an incorrigible womaniser who doesn't take his exploits - or women - seriously. There's only so far you can take a hands-off approach to Don Giovanni however, since there is rather more depth to the other characters - notably Donna Elvira - that needs to respond to Don Giovanni's essential nature. And then there is the more practical matter of presenting the coming to life of a statue, the descent into Hell and the moralistic conclusion of the finale. Sooner or later a director is going to have to take a position, and Sivadier does.

And, true to the intent of the stripped back approach, he takes his lead from Mozart and his music rather than apply any modern reconstructivist or revisionist interpretation. Or rather he takes his lead from Don Giovanni himself. While it might seem that Giovanni doesn't take his affairs with thousands of women seriously, he does actually really believe that he is a great egalitarian - indiscriminate in his seductions of women, young and old, slim or fat, rich or poor - and that his sharing of his love equally among them, without selecting any one of them as special, is the only fair thing to do.

That statement is rarely taken seriously - and Leporello is certainly sceptical of it - and it's seen merely an excuse for his libidinous behaviour; but what if he really believes it? The director Jean-François Sivadier seems to take him at his word, viewing Don Giovanni not objectively, but in his own eyes as a kind of saviour bringing a message of love and liberty to the masses. The word Libertà is indeed painted on the wall at the back of the stage - a wall significantly that is in the process of being broken down - a cross forming the basis to the letter T. Donna Anna even cradles Don Giovanni in a Pietà pose during the "provo ancor per lui pietà' line of her 'Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata' aria.

The bearded and long hair appearance of Philippe Sly also has something Christ-like about it, the reference becoming more apparent - since it's hardly an image one would readily associate with Don Giovanni - only when he strips down to his underpants and adopts a crucifixion pose. Likewise, when it comes to the critical matter of the conclusion of the opera, this Don Giovanni doesn't descend to Hell, but quite the opposite, he remains on the stage during the final ensemble bathed in light. Again, none of this Don Giovanni as a sacrificial saviour would make any sense other than as a projection of his own belief in his superiority, a belief in absolute freedom that enables him even to murder with impunity.

The very minimal sets designs by Alexandre de Dardel strip away anything of a traditional nature or conventional imagery in this opera that might distracts from this unique perspective. The stage is mostly bare with only a shiny curtain to allow for on- and off-stage appearances, with sheets held up now and again for the purposes of hiding. Other than coloured lights dropped down for Zerlina and Masetto's wedding celebrations and Don Giovanni's party and a large cloaked statue of the Commendatore, there is little else used in the way of props.

There's little ornamentation either in Jérémie Rhorer's conducting of the Le Cercle de l'Harmonie, and the lack of distraction allows you to focus on the qualities of Mozart's score. It's quite beautiful of course and does reveal subtle variations of mood, sentiment in the pace and the playing, expressing the inner life of the other characters without it having to be overstated on the stage or in the singing.

The singing, from a mostly young cast that nonetheless has some notable names with some measure of experience. Philippe Sly is not overbearing or sleazy or anything that might be seen as a caricature of Don Giovanni (aside from his Messiah complex!) and he's supported well by Nahuel di Pierro's fine Leporello. Eleonora Buratto continues to impress in a role as challenging as Donna Anna, and you can't fault a Mozart cast that includes such sweet voices as Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio, Isabel Leonard as Donna Elvira and Julie Fuchs as Zerlina. With Krzysztof Baczyk and David Leigh very capable in the roles of Masetto and Il Commendatore, the singing blends perfectly with the gentle and more subtle arrangements coming from the pit.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, Culturebox

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Boesmans - Pinocchio (Aix, 2017)

Philippe Boesmans - Pinocchio

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Emilio Pomarico, Joël Pommerat, Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Chloé Briot, Yann Beuron, Julie Boulianne, Marie-Eve Munger

ARTE Concert - 9th July 2017

I don't think that there's too much question that Pinocchio is a children's fairy tale and it's one that has a very effective and unforgettable way of impressing valuable life lessons on the consequences of lying. It's an unusual subject however for composer Philippe Boesmans and dramatist Joël Pommerat (who together previously created Au Monde for La Monnaie in 2014) to base an opera upon, so perhaps there are other aspects and contemporary relevance that can be brought out of the darker side of the story.

The Pinocchio tale is one familiar to many from the Walt Disney film, without the Disney addition of Jiminy Cricket. All the memorable scenes are there; from Pinocchio's conception as a puppet from a piece of magic wood, his impoverished childhood, he desire to go to school and be like other children, his being swindled by a couple of crooks, turning into a donkey, his ending up in the belly of a whale and his eventual transformation into a real boy. The cautionary tale moral of the story, about lying, about pride denying one's origins and the question of growing or changing into a better person are very much all brought across.

Even if it is just a fairy tale for children there's potential for a piece like Pinocchio with all those memorable scenes to have another life on the opera stage. Joël Pommerat, directing the production himself for its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence festival, characteristically takes a darker direct approach to the story's themes, and perhaps even incorporates a few more contemporary questions into the matter of becoming a real human by embracing cultural diversity in a wider and more multicultural society, but the work still adheres largely to its traditional themes and its childhood focus.

If it doesn't quite establish a character of its own that merits its translation to the opera stage, Boesmans' Pinocchio is certainly richly composed and fully attuned to the drama. There are inevitably reminders of the delicate emotional surrealism of Maeterlinck and Debussy in fairy tale mood and in spoken language rhythms, but they tend to take on more of a Ravel character in the context of the story. The scene where the fairy chides the naughty Pinocchio, making his nose grow for telling lies and promising to make him a real boy, is very like similar scenes in L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, with even the vocal writing heading into high-end coloratura.

Marie-Eve Munger impresses with her ability in this role of the fairy, and Chloé Briot is an engaging presence throughout as the puppet, but the singing elsewhere in this world premiere production also matches the fine writing for the voice here. Aside from Pinocchio and the fairy, who have very specific demands, the other roles are small parts for singers in multiple roles, but they are written in such a way as to make an impression. Stéphane Degout, for example, is the circus director, one of the crooks and a murderer, but his main role is that of the narrator. As mainly a spoken role, it seems a waste of such a singing voice, but Degout's narration is critical to the flow and he still manages to make it musical in the delivery.

Boesmans' music also has its own dramatic flow and colourful expression, drawing on Arabic influences for the prison scene and when the outsider Pinocchio is trying to fit in with the other cool boys, using on-stage musicians improvising in a scene that is similar to Boesmans' use of a bohemian backstreet band in Wintermärchen, his version of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Boesmans however is happy to draw on whatever sounds best fit the dramatic requirements, using accordions elsewhere to provide other 'local' colour and siren like sounds to accompany the growth of Pinocchio's nose. With Klangforum Wien in the pit conducted by Emilio Pomarico, the reduced orchestration creates a wonderful, magical sound of exquisite detail.

The benefits of working with a small orchestra also apply to Pommerat's idea of keeping the cast reduced to a small theatrical troupe playing the multiple roles. And it's very much a core troupe of performers from La Monnaie, including Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Chloé Briot and Yann Beuron, some of whom Boesmans and Pommerat have worked with in the past. It does very much give the impression of a little troupe all working together to create a close-knit unit. Pommerat's usual distancing direction would seem to work against that, the set a familiar dark, monochrome minimalist affair, but as with the flashes of brilliance in the music and the singing, the use of special effects and projections have a striking impact when used.

Whether Boesmans' opera version of Pinocchio will have a life as a fairy-tale favourite beyond its performances at Aix-en-Provence remains to be seen. It's a fairly faithful presentation of the main themes and scenes of the children's story, and it doesn't particularly have anything new to add to it in the way of contemporary relevance, although I daresay that a different director than Joël Pommerat could bring much more out of the potential shown here. As it stands however, Pinocchio the opera is an entertaining piece with much to admire in the scoring and the skillfully played performances.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Monday, 4 September 2017

Bizet - Carmen (Aix, 2017)

Georges Bizet - Carmen

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, 2017

Pablo Heras-Casado, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Michael Fabiano, Elsa Dreisig, Michael Todd Simpson, Gabrielle Philiponet, Christian Helmer, Pierre Doyen, Guillaume Andrieux, Mathias Vidal, Pierre Grammont

ARTE Concert - 6th July 2017

Obviously there's going to be a significant proportion of an opera audience that are going to want their Carmen with all its idealised exoticism, wild gypsies and romantic passions; those are surely the essential ingredients listed on the package. That percentage might be significantly lower and expectations rather different at a production of Carmen at the Aix-en-Provence festival, particularly one directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. The challenge surely is to repackage the work, but not change the ingredients too much, but is that even possible for a dish like Carmen...?

There's some truth to the idea that Tchernaikov's method is a cool Russian response to wild Latin passions, but there is a sense that the director is genuinely trying to find another way to connect with the underlying essence of the work. Tcherniakov's Carmen has one of his distancing constructs built around it, which he tends to do when an opera's plot is too ludicrous to take seriously in this day and age. Similar to his Il Trovatore for La Monnaie - another over-heated drama - it encloses the work within a kind of dramatic version of inverted commas, where the story is played out by a group of actors in a role-playing exercise.  

The introduction shows a husband and wife whose marriage has lost its sparkle, who have gone to an unusual form of counselling that involves role-playing. The administrator has examined the questionnaire and profiles and has determined that the opera Carmen is the best fit for therapy. The husband will be Don José, his wife later participating as Micaëla in an effort to eventually draw her husband and his Carmen experiences back into the real world. Tchernaikov then ditches the conventional spoken dialogue pieces of Carmen and replaces them with various interventions from the administrative staff and actors who read out the stage directions in preparation for the next scene.

The Carmen role-play all takes place within an office-like environment with everyone donning name badges of the characters they will play. There's certainly nothing of the more familiar Sevillian imagery of seductive gypsy women and macho bullfighters, the Carmen of this production an actress who acts self-assured but who in reality is a little self-conscious, struggling awkwardly with the rose in her hair and a little embarrassed at the kind of role she has to play. Her aim however is not to seduce Don José in the traditional manner as much as encourage him to participate, to inject a little imagination and find a way to let some passion back into his life.

Such a construct proves to be a little infuriating in places, with a lot of silly fooling around that risks over-complicating and distorting the intent of the original work. Arguably, the romanticism of Carmen is already implicit in the idealised exoticism of its imagery and rhythms and in the artificial construct of the opera drama. Surely no-one thinks that Carmen is a work of social realism and everyone is aware of opera as heightened drama and passions? On the other hand, stepping back a little further does provide a way of looking at the themes and the passions of the work in a more (post-)modern context.

Whether it needs this kind of reconstruction and updating is debatable then, but there is a case to be made that Dmitri Tcherniakov is just turning the focus of the opera back onto the dramatic content of Bizet's musical arrangements to see if it still stands up and achieves its aims when removed from all the lazy mannerisms that have become attached to the work. It could be argued that by cutting most of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy's dialogues and plotting, liberating it from the opera-comiqué conventions that would have been similarly restrictive to the composer, Tcherniakov is even reducing the work down to its purest essence.

Even if you have to indulge Tcherniakov's twisting of the plot, it does turn the focus back to the power of the music to tell its own story and to touch on the underlying reality. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado works with Tcherniakov on this with arrangements that might not always be "authentic" to the intentions of the original, but which through their ringing rhythms and popular melodies nonetheless touch on the passions at the heart of the work. Like this production's "Don José", the music similarly has to find its own inner truth and connect with it afresh to put some real excitement back in there, rather than just relying on lazy mannerisms and faked emotions.

It's important to find your way into Carmen, but you can't run into it blindly, Tcherniakov's production seems to say, and it's important to find your way out again refreshed by the experience and not ready to murder someone. I think. With this director, you never know quite where that will lead, whether to take it entirely seriously or even if it all will make sense. This is after all a director who completely reversed the ending to Dialogues des Carmélites (a controversial move that led to a legal challenge and the DVD of the Paris production being removed from sale), so there is always the potential for it to be as if you were seeing a work for the first time. And if you can do that with Carmen, that's really something.

If Carmen felt fresh and held one's attention once again at the 2017 Aix-en-Provence festival, a lot of it was also to do with the casting. The singing might have been slightly compromised by the need to act in and out of character, but only slightly. Interpretation counted for more in this production and Stéphanie d'Oustrac's Carmen and Michael Fabiano as Don José were never anything less than committed and passionate in their performances, delving deep into the complex personalities that Tcherniakov has created for them here. Elsa Dreisig's Micaëla was also excellent and made a great impression.

Links: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Wagner - Tannhäuser (Munich, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Tannhäuser

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2017

Kirill Petrenko, Romeo Castellucci, Klaus Florian Vogt, Christian Gerhaher, Anja Harteros, Elena Pankratova, Georg Zeppenfeld, Dean Power, Peter Lobert, Ulrich Reß, Ralf Lukas, Elsa Benoit

ARTE Concert - 9th July 2017

There's a stunning display of imagery and evidence of a unique perspective in Romeo Castellucci's Munich opera festival production of Tannhäuser. Musically too the performance of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester conducted by Kirill Petrenko is lushly gorgeous and the singing from an impressive cast is jaw-droppingly good. It's everything we've come to expect from the Bavarian State Opera over the course of this current season. If there was something missing from the Tannhäuser production however, it's that indefinable quality that can be described broadly as coherence.

And perhaps it's not so difficult to pinpoint where the lack of coherence comes from, since that's the job really of the director. Romeo Castellucci's account of Wagner's opera however doesn't strictly hold to its traditional imagery or themes, but tends to revisit them from a more abstract perspective. As is often the case with Castellucci it's probably a mistake to try and think too deeply about the imagery or try to connect up all the dots and references into a coherent whole. On its own terms his visual representation of the opera is quite striking and unexpected. This is definitely not a case of a director nailing his ideas firmly to a single recognisable concept, but rather one that opens it up for the audience to apply their own interpretation.

It's hard for example to understand just what kind of statement the director is making upfront when a legion of topless Amazonian archers take to the stage during the overture and embark upon a synchronised ritual of target practice onto the projected image of a eye, which then becomes an ear. In Castellucci's mind, they are cupids, straight out of the libretto's description of Venusberg, their arrows representing love and the wounds it creates, but there's more of a Leni Riefenstahl Olympia character here and in other imagery that is reminiscent of propaganda art of the Third Reich. It could also be seen to ancient mythology of Diana, goddess of the hunt and nature.

It's an idealised image of perfection however that is ultimately shown to be corrupting to Heinrich, and Castellucci finds equally extreme imagery to represent this with the goddess Venus bubbling out of a mound of heaving forms melded together in pool of rippling flesh. As unconventional as the imagery is, it can be related to or seen as a response to the broad character of Tannhäuser, albeit with a little more sinister edge to it. That's certainly the character also of Wartburg when Heinrich returns there, with the Landgrave and his entourage shown out hunting in red robes, ritually washing themselves in the blood of a felled deer rather like a cult to Diana. 

Thus far, you can relate the imagery, albeit tenuously, to themes in Tannhäuser. Heinrich, having seen more of the world, is reluctant to rejoin Hermann's order, which can be seen to be a perversion of nature - a slaughter and a circle of blood that is regarded with horror by the young shepherd boy. Elisabeth - Anja Harteros wearing a nude-print dress - represents a vision of purity that the singers aspire to but are too unworldly to be capable of attaining. The imagery turns ever more bizarre in an attempt perhaps to relate this to the ideal of a pure kingdom or nation, with flawless bodies moving behind a white veil in perfect synchronisation, suggesting some kind of body fascism that is just as disturbing as the fleshy imagery of Venusberg.

Sequence after sequence moves ever more distant not only from any conventional symbolism, but any kind of consistent rationale that you could apply. Disembodied feet litter the stage; a lightbox that presents the themes of the singers is obliterated from the inside by frenzied spraying of black paint; pilgrims carry a huge gold boulder and return with smaller sized gold rocks; monumental bases hold the rotting, disintegrating corpses not of Heinrich and Elisabeth, as hundreds of thousands of millions of years pass and they turn to ash, but are emblazoned with the names of 'Klaus' and 'Anja' instead. The image of the arrow is present throughout, but its symbolism changes according to the scene, representing wounding love one moment, the hunting of Tannhäuser the next, but primarily and significantly as the final image seen on the stage, it represents the flight of time.

It all looks beautiful and is visually engaging, but without extensive programme notes and explanations it would be hard to follow just what the director is reading from Tannhäuser. According to Castellucci, Heinrich is a figure who is doomed to never attain the perfection he seeks in either realm (Venusberg/Wartburg), but rather the quasi-religious perfection represented by Elisabeth/Maria can only be found in a dimension outside space and time. Even with that explanation it's a very unique perspective that hardly illuminates nor illustrates the opera in any conventional fashion. And, despite the apparent desecration of the work's high-minded ideals, it doesn't entirely overcome the sanctimonious tone that you sometimes find at the work's conclusion.

There are however rare pleasures to be found elsewhere. In terms of singing, Christian Gerhaher's warm, lyrical Wolfram steals the show and it's not often you can say that in Tannhäuser, and that's no mean feat either when up against singers of the class of VogtHarteros, Zeppenfeld and Pankratova in the major roles. It does make for an odd but interesting imbalance, since it makes Wolfram's ode to Grace ('Anmut') in the singing competition a persuasive and appealing vision against which Heinrich's reaction seem churlish. That's through no fault of Klaus Florian Vogt, who sings as purely and beautifully as ever here, although not quite with the same commanding conviction for this role as he can provide as Lohengrin, von Stolzing or even as Parsifal.

I had some minor reservations about Anja Harteros when she sang Elsa in the Salzburg Easter Festival Die Walküre but she is very impressive as Elisabeth here with some absolutely gorgeous singing, holding her line beautifully with a smooth legato. She seems at a bit of a loss what to make of Elisabeth and I suspect Castellucci didn't really give her a lot of direction here. It's a pity because Harteros is a fine singer/actor and could do a lot more, but her singing performance alone is good enough. Castellucci doesn't do Elena Pankratova any favours by burying her in a mound of prosthetic flesh, but the Russian soprano didn't let that deter her either from an excellent performance.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, ARTE Concert

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Verdi - Aida (Salzburg, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Salzburg Festival, 2017

Riccardo Muti, Shirin Neshat, Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli, Ekaterina Semenchuk, Luca Salsi, Roberto Tagliavini, Dmitry Belosselskiy, Bror Magnus Tødenes, Benedetta Torre

ARTE Concert - 12 August 2017

It's hard to imagine that a production of Aida can miss its mark, or even worse, be boring, but it does seem to happen with increasing regularity. I'm sure it's a lot to do with the nature of the work itself, which much be fairly intimidating to approach, where there are exceptional demands placed on the singers and on the need to meet audience expectations for an opera spectacle of the highest order. There's merit in Riccardo Muti's belief that you don't have to go either the route of the full Zeffirelli or modern abstract but that you can find an in-between alternative, and the resulting 2017 Salzburg production certainly returns the focus on the musical qualities of the performance, but it has to be said that Shirin Neshat's incredibly static production misses the mark by a mile.

Although the director might have been an unknown quantity, expectations were nonetheless high for this Salzburg Festival Aida. The principal reason for that was of course for the opportunity to hear Anna Netrebko take on the famous role for the first time and as the consummate professional, it can't be denied she doesn't disappoint in the slightest. She might look and act more like an Egyptian Princess than an Ethiopian slave girl, but she's going to carry that aura in every role, no matter how good her acting performance. If you paid a fortune to see this production in Salzburg in person, you will certainly have got your money's worth. This is as good an Aida as you'll hear sung in your lifetime.

Netrebko's voice has matured into a fully rounded voice, secure in every register and impressive at the high end. Her assumption of the role - as always - is full of conviction. You can get lost in the presence of Netrebko singing a role, she just commands attention and is compelling to watch. That's to the benefit of at least giving the kind of strong focus the opera needs that is not provided by the decor or the direction, but it's no reflection on the rest of the cast assembled here. Francesco Meli, like many tenors before him, is faced with the intimidating challenge of 'Celeste Aida' with scarcely any time to warm up, but by the time we get to Act IV, he's firing on all cylinders, along with the rest of the cast.

Much of the musical strengths of Aida lie in the fact that it is a tour de force and a great ensemble work, that provides unparalleled opportunities for individual singers and chorus, but it's also a work that can really spark into life when all the individual characters work together and push each other to the heights required. Ekaterina Semenchuk on her own is just terrific, utterly compelling in Amneris's fury in that final act, but throughout she also works well off and alongside Netrebko and Meli. In any other production, Semenchuk would prove to be a formidable rival for Aida - and acceptably so - but well, it's hard to imagining anyone outshining Netrebko. Luca Salsi too provides a luxurious timbre for an Amonasro that complements Netrebko beautifully. With Muti conducting the impressive Vienna Philharmonic through a glorious account of the score, the work builds and coalesces through to a quite phenomenal final Act.

Musically at least, this is as good as it gets. Unfortunately it's held back and very nearly destroyed by an unimaginative and static stage production. Prior to this performance, the production stills held out some promise for a stylish spectacle that didn't rely on hokey middle-Eastern props, but its limitations become evident very quickly indeed. The set consists largely - very largely - of two huge blocks which revolve to alternately provide a wall on one side for background (and a screen for occasional projections) and a hollowed-out interior that essentially provides nothing more than a platform to arrange the cast and chorus for the big choral scenes to project oratorio-like towards the audience.

It really is as static as that. I don't think I've ever seen a Marche Triomphale quite as uneventful and underwhelming as this one. Everyone stands around looking outward and awkward, a few extras pretend to play trumpets and a group of dancers wearing animal skulls make some half-hearted moves. It's as if the opera has suddenly just stopped for a rest, breaking the momentum that has been built so far. The opera almost dies a death, and that is not the impression that this famous scene should make.

If the set-pieces were incompetently handled, there was no sign of any ideas or direction anywhere else. Netrebko, Meli, Semenchuk, Salsi and Tagliavini seemed to have been left to stand and sing, or if they were feeling particularly moved, to pace from one spot to another and project out to the audience. Netrebko, who has some ability as an actress or can at least inhabit a role well, makes a little more effort to actually engage with her lover, her rival and her father, and in the process brings more out of them. A few Syrian refugees are randomly projected onto the walls in a throwaway concession to contemporary relevance, but otherwise the director trusts in Verdi and Muti to do the bulk of the work, and fortunately that's managed very well. If you were listening to this on the radio it would undoubtedly have sounded very impressive, but as an opera performance it was sorely lacking.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele, ARTE Concert