Saturday, 25 April 2015

Handel - Tamerlano (La Monnaie, 2015 - Webcast)


George Frideric Handel - Tamerlano

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2015

Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Dumaux, Jeremy Ovenden, Sophie Karthäuser, Delphine Galou, Ann Hallenberg, Nathan Berg, Caroline D’Haese

La Monnaie Streaming - February 2015

Pierre Audi's direction of Alcina for La Monnaie didn't inspire me to visit the Handel opera it was paired with, Tamerlano, in any kind of a hurry. Patrick Kinmonth's elegant Handel-period costumes and the beautiful simplicity of the old-style theatrical backdrops might have suited the baroque theatre at Drottningholm in Sweden that these two productions were originally designed for, and it might have served the music beautifully and have drawn attention to the drama, but Alcina still felt very dull and mannered, as opera seria can do if not treated with a little more invention.

Tamerlano however, coming from the composer's most celebrated period and following Giulio Cesare, ought to have a little more going for it. Even within the confines of the opera seria format, dealing with a ruler who plans to marry and thereby break up other happy plans and romantic arrangements before eventually showing clemency to his enemies and sorting everything out, Tamerlano's musical qualities, characterisation and sense of human emotions in conflict, reaction and interaction with each other, is surely unsurpassed until Mozart returned to the opera seria and a similar theme in La Clemenza di Tito.



It was something of a revelation too to see Harry Bicket's period performance with a countertenor Tamerlano on the Arthaus DVD recording of the work at Halle in 2001. Even within a basic period Eastern setting, you could see how Handel's score with its rhythms and melodies gradually developed characters and sowed tensions between them in a way that led up to a fraught and deeply involving human drama. It's the drama that counts in Tamerlano and, reportedly, Pierre Audi's intention for this production and for Alcina was to remove any superfluous elements and let Handel's sense of dramatic construction speak for itself. Even with Christophe Rousset conducting with precision and authenticity, and with an exceptionally good cast, it's still difficult to see what if anything Audi's direction brings to the work.

Tamerlano, in fact, is even more sparsely decorated than Alcina. Kinmonth's 18th century period costumes are the dominant feature of the production design, the actual set for the whole three hours of the three acts consisting of nothing more than a line of highlighted pillars set down each side of the wings. On the stage itself, there is nothing on the stage other than a single chair used in Act III, and only the bare minimum of props - a scarf, a vial of poison. Any setting of mood or situation is done though lighting, and even that is restricted to the occasional spotlight to pick out the singer from the surrounding darkness, with little use of colour, or even any indication of day or night settings.

If the intention is indeed to similarly draw attention to the drama as it is enacted by the performers alone, it fails completely. Many traditionalists bemoan modern presentations with the claim that you'd be better off closing your eyes, or switching off the screen in the case of a DVD recording, and just listening to the music, but Pierre Audi's production is an instance where you might as well enjoy the beauty of the music since the staging has absolutely nothing to offer or contribute to putting across its dramatic content. It's not entirely static or mannered, there are some background walk-ons when others are referred to, so you can follow exactly what is going on, and there are one or two old-style painted panels lowered into place at significant points to great effect, but it's really not enough to lift Tamerlano out of its opera seria mannerisms.



Whether it's an impression enforced by the staging, Christophe Rousset's conducting of Les Talens Lyriques also fails to enliven or touch on the heart of the work. The performance is impeccable, the quality of the individual playing, the beauty of the instruments and the interaction between them is measured and precise, but for it's a little too precise and the rhythms are a little too jerky stop/start in the French manner that doesn't suit Handel quite so well. There's fine singing here from Christophe Dumaux's countertenor Tamerlano, Jeremy Ovenden's Bajazet, Sophie Karthäuser's Asteria, and a delicate charming Andronicus in Delphine Galou. It's in the duet 'Vivo in te mio caro bene' where true feelings are revealed and shared for the first time that Handel transcends the confines of the opera seria structure and touches on the human, and Karthäuser and Galou sing it beautifully, with unadorned simplicity and true feeling.

It's at this point too that Audi allows the harsh edges of the set to soften with billowing clouds lowered to frame the two lovers, which fits perfectly and has impact, but it turns out to be an isolated gesture. That is clearly the intent, undoubtedly in the belief that it is all that is needed and that Tamerlano can work on its own terms. It does, musically and in terms of the singing performances, but there's still nothing here to engage the viewer with the visual aspect of the opera or its drama. You could dispense with the stage direction, and listen to this on a CD and it would be just as good. Which is just not good enough.

Links: La Monnaie, Culturebox

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Adam Fischer, Otto Schenk, Martina Serafin, Wolfgang Bankl, Elīna Garanča, Erin Morley, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Caroline Wenborne, Thomas Ebenstein, Ulrike Helzel

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 12 April 2015

There are some things to be said for Otto Schenk's old, traditional, somewhat stuffy, period realistic production of Der Rosenkavalier. Not much admittedly, and it's perhaps unintentional, but Act I at least fully indulges Strauss and Hofmannsthal's qualified nostalgia for an idealised Vienna of the past, a way of life that is on the point of change and never to be regained. And since this production is being played in Vienna itself, that is likely to hold some measure of recognition with the home audience. So it's not a stylised Vienna either, but one that looks and realistically reflects how things might indeed have looked and, to an extent, operated in the olden days.

The Vienna seen in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier, in the bed chamber of the Feldmarschallin, is one where the privilege of nobility permits all manner of abuses. These are presented in a saucy farcical manner by Strauss and Hoffmannsthal - with reference evidently to the music and operetta of the time - but there is a little bit of an edge here that shows attitudes, morals, social gatherings, behaviours and manners that are rather hidebound and out of step with the world we live in today. It's a world that is already starting to change with the arrival of the merchant class of nouveaux riches, seen in the second act. Unintentionally then, Otto Schenk's frumpy, old-fashioned set does reflect a world clinging to a past that is in conflict with social changes.



Particularly in its attitudes towards women. Octavian, a young boy sung by a mezzo-soprano in a trouser role who is to be our optimistic hope for a new future, dresses as a maid in Act I and soon finds out what it's like to be on the receiving end of male attentions. The behaviour of Baron Ochs towards Mariandel is not surprising however, nor are the allusions to servants bearing illegitimate offspring of the nobility without those children having the same rights and privileges, but it's mostly played for laughs in the opera. What makes Der Rosenkavalier a little more pertinent however, is the attitute and contemplation of the situation of the Marschallin. 

Marschallin has enjoyed the privilege of having a prominent position in nobility, but she - "ordered into wedlock straight from the convent" - has never enjoyed the same kind of freedom that men of rank and position hold. Baron Ochs can chase her "maid" around the room, probably "get the money and the young girl" from a rich family that he is engaged to and boast of there being probably more than one other little bastard Lerchenau in the servant's quarters that he doesn't even know about. Marschallin however, as a woman, has to be very careful to hide her illicit although perhaps not entirely guilt-free (abusing her position as a wealthy and beautiful woman?) affair with her young cousin Octavian. "That's the way of the world".



But the Marschallin's contemplative melancholy goes beyond the inequalities in how the sexual behaviour of men and women is perceived. She also feels "the fragility of all temporal things" as only a woman can, and knows time is more cruel to women than to men. But more than just fearing the approach of old age and the diminishment of her charms, there's an awareness - its implications perhaps not entirely grasped - that the times are changing too. "Don't be like all other men!", she warns Octavian, even as she has the premonition that their time together is approaching an end, and that society will leave her kind behind just as Octavian will, sooner or later, leave her for Sophie. He must take advantage of these new opportunities and offer Sophie, and women as a whole, a different world from the one she has known.

All this is laid out in Act I, and there's not much Otto Schenk's production can do to take away from the beauty of what Strauss and Hofmannsthal have created here. It's a scene that carries resonance all the way through the longeurs of Act II and particularly Act III, right up until the moment that the Marschallin reappears and brings all the lovely melancholy of time and change with her once again. The production however has nothing much to contribute to any of this, Act II at the residence of the Faninals scarcely looking any brighter or more modern than Act I, Act III's dark interior of the inn looking exactly as you might expect a den of iniquity to appear, played plainly as a farce without any of the work's satirical tone.



The production values however are high, as you might expect, Octavian in particular cutting a fine figure against this backdrop in his period costume and wig. That's Elīna Garanča, looking terrific if not in the least bit manly, singing the role beautfully. She sings one of the best Octavians I've heard recently, but her movements, performance and delivery are a little stiff, not really seeming to engage with the production or as well with the other characters as you might like. And yet, the performances of each of the other singers Octavian plays off is also outstanding in his or her role. Martina Serafin is a perfect Marschallin, Wolfgang Bankl a well-characterised Ochs auf Lerchenau, but it's Erin Morley's Sophie who really gives the production that freshness and vitality that is unfortunately lacking elsewhere.

Der Rosenkavalier was broadcast from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcast is L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI on the 30th April. May sees Juan Diego Flórez in DON PASQUALE, Plácido Domingo in NABUCCO and the beginning of Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DER RING DES NIEBELUNGEN, conducted by Simon Rattle. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Gluck - Alceste (Venice, 2015 - Webcast)

Christoph Willibald Gluck - Alceste

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2015

Guillaume Tourniaire, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Carmela Remigio, Marlin Miller, Giorgio Misseri, Zuzana Markova, Vincenzo Nizzardo, Armando Gabba

Culturebox - 24 March 2015

You could pretty much guess how a Pier Luigi Pizzi production of Alceste is going to look, but just because it's predictable, doesn't mean that it can't also be classy and highly effective. So yes, Pizzi's production of the original 1767 Vienna Italian version of Alceste for La Fenice is indeed all robes, neo-Classical pillars and steps and no, there's absolutely no licence taken with the all-important dramatic presentation. The stage might not really amount to much more than a visually impressive, minimally decorated, classically-styled high-impact set, but it impresses every bit as much as the scale of the Greek tragedy that plays out on it.

If there's a concept to the production here, it's on the same grand scale as the mythology. The theme of Alceste is life and death, and the set is accordingly predominately black and white, even the floor a chessboard design, with a few typically bold colours thrown in for additional impact. Within the set, the drama is also played out in a fairly traditional fashion, which in the context of Gluck's opera seria means that there's lots of anguished writhing, outstretched hands and falling to the floor. There's always the danger of the real human sentiments that lie behind the mythology getting lost in all the bold gestures, but the singing can go some way towards making up for it.



It's Carmela Remigio as Alceste who has to take on the burden of keeping this relatively straightforward drama interesting while there is not a great deal happening. Essentially, amid the mourning and lamenting of the citizens of Thessalia, the drama centres solely on Alceste sacrificing herself so that her dying husband, the king Admeto, will be spared by the Gods. For two and a half hours, essentially, we see her preparing for death and then slowly fading away as the Admeto comes to realise the horror of the deal she has made. We get a little more dramatic action in the French revision of Alceste, when Hercules goes down to Hades to bring the queen back, but here, it's a long drawn out decline that is only reprieved at the last minute by the will of Apollo.

Carmela Remigio voice hasn't the fullness of tone that you would normally associate with this kind of opera seria role, but she does succeed in making it feel every bit as tragic and compelling as it ought to be. It is and needs to be a big enough voice to remain dramatic and lyrical and rise above this fully orchestrated version at La Fenice. The Vienna version is more opera seria than stricter reformist revisions made by Gluck in the French, and Guillaume Tourniaire's conducting of the orchestra lacks the kind of edge you get from a period ensemble. There is a harpsichord in there in the accompanied recitative, but it's certainly softened by the strings. It's to the credit of Remigio then that when combined with the attractiveness of the sets, it never becomes too smoothed out or, heaven forbid, soothing.


You can see how far Remigio takes her performance in her farewell to the world aria (or, the first of them, the moment she decides to sacrifice her own life for her husband, because essentially, it's one long lament thereafter), in the aria 'Non vi turbate, no', which brings tears to her eyes. Pizzi's set, making only slight changes for each of the acts and never straying too far from the classical temple setting, helps establish the mood well here. Alceste wanders out into the forest at night in Act II, a blue tint in the lighting matching the tone, a tree with a pile of skulls capturing the matters of life and death that are to be mulled over. In contrast to Act I, Thereafter, Alceste's robes change from flowing white to constricting black, while her neatly tied up hair is loosened and freed.



There's only so much the remainder of the cast can do to add to the atmosphere, her children sobbing in the embrace of Ismene, as well as delivering a heartfelt lament. The other major contribution here however comes from Marlin Miller's wonderful singing and characterisation of Admeto. Again, the voice isn't a typical opera seria voice and ther recitative singing can sometimes seem a little declamatory, but there's a beautiful heartfelt lyricism here too, a regal dignity in how he deals with the situation, a sincerity in his protestations that he couldn't possibly live if it means that his wife must die in his place. Together, Remigio and Miller really highlight the nature and severity of the dilemma faced by the king and the queen.

This is a beautiful interpretation and a handsome production of Alceste at La Fenice. It's not radical by any means, it doesn't quite give you a sense of how revolutionary Gluck's score was, not in this early Italian version anyway, even though it was here that the composer and his librettist Calzabigi laid out their ideas for the reform of opera in its preface, but - as with Orfeo ed Euridice - it shows what two strong central performances can make of such a work with a solid supporting production behind them.

Links: CultureboxTeatro La Fenice

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Donizetti - L’elisir d’amore (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)


Gaetano Donizetti - L’elisir d’amore

Bayerische Staastsoper, 2015

Asher Fisch, David Bösch, Ailyn Pérez, Matthew Polenzani, Mario Cassi, Ambrogio Maestri, Evgeniya Sotnikova

Staatsoper.tv - 12 April 2015

 
L'elisir d'amore is not the most romantic romantic-comedy ever written, nor is the most comic romantic-comedy either, but what it does have that stands in its favour above all else is the delightful exuberance of Donizetti's sparkling score. David Bösch's 2015 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, broadcast live via their web streaming service on 12 April, doesn't do much for either the romance or the comedy, but - particularly under the baton of Asher Fisch - it is definitely Donizetti at his most exuberant.

So, where are we this time? You can take nothing for granted in a production at the Bayerische Staatsoper, except that an opera almost certainly won't be in its original setting, and probably not even in any familiar or naturalistic setting either. And so it is with the post-apocalyptic wasteland of David Bösch's L'elisir d'amore. That hardly sounds like the ideal place for a romantic-comedy - Love is a battlefield? - but perhaps there's no need to look too deeply into the production design or Donizetti's opera for any deep conceptual meaning, other than the need to present it in a bright, dynamic and eye-catching fashion.



And it most certainly is that. There are only one or two big effects, which have great impact, but mostly the staging is kept simple on a single set. It's a desert wasteland on a well lit stage, the inhabitants all brightly dressed, but slightly shabby and looking rather the worse for wear. They look like they could well do with some of Professor Dulcamara's miracle elixir to cure every ill when he rolls up into town not so much a wagon as a huge space-age globe vehicle. Dulcamara's arrival should be an something of a wondrous occasion, and rather than looking like an obvious snake-oil hustler, here he arrives with the kind of entrance that is going to have an impact on the willingly credulous populace.

Impact is what it's all about, and exuberance with it. For L'elisir d'amore to work it ought to sweep you up into its world, and Bösch certainly creates a world to get lost in. It never gets dull, it never gets too silly, but rather creates little moments of wonder and magic, particularly in relation to Nemorino in his idealised love for the cruelly dismissive Adina. Balloons form a (rough) heart in the sky (leading up to Adina's hastily arranged wedding with the soldier Belcore), and there is an amusing scene when the young ladies of the town all chase Nemorino in wedding dresses upon news of him receiving his uncle's inheritance. It all builds nicely towards the big finale, which hits home exactly as it should.


So the romance and the comedy is there, after a fashion, albeit in a slightly off-centre and non-obvious way. The soldiers in this Elisir, for example, are desert rats, and the magic potion given to Nemorino comes in a fire-extinguisher looking like an IED, which is I suppose the impact it inadvertently has, but I don't think there's any point in reading much more into it than that. This is a fantasy land setting with real-world pointers, making it somewhat familiar but also poking fun at the absurdity of it all. And absurdity is what we get, particularly in the brilliant comic turn here from Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino.




Polenzani is the stand-out performer here, although the rest of the cast are all perfectly complementary to the tone of the production and in terms of vocal delivery, which in this work is quite challenging. Polenzani is particularly good in this repertoire and sings Nemorino wonderfully, giving him real character, throwing himself wholly into the proceedings with... well, yes... exuberance. He's a lively figure here, and it's just what the work and the production needs. Ailyn Pérez isn't quite as charismatic and the singing challenges of Adina stretch her on one or two occasions, but it's still an impressive performance. Mario Cassi's Belcore is rather underplayed, reflecting the soldier's rough lack of personality. Ambrogio Maestri's Dulcamara isn't overplayed either, and there's a nice turn from Evgeniya Sotnikova as Gianetta.

Nemorino is at the heart of this production, and Matthew Polenzani's entertaining performance carries it off, but it's conductor Asher Fisch who really leads the dance. This is a warm, vigorous and, I'll say it again, exuberant account of Donizetti's score from the Bayerisches Staastorchester, supporting the singers, getting right behind them, finding all the dynamic that is required here, getting it across with a flourish at the big moments, and taking us out with a real bang at the finale. Terrific.

May is a ballet month in Munich with a live broadcast of Der gelbe Klang / Spiral Pass / Konzert für Violine und Orchester. The next opera broadcast from the Bayerische Staastsoper is Alban Berg's LULU, conducted by Kirill Petrenko and directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov with Marlis Petersen in the title role. It will be streamed live for free from the Staatsoper.tv site on 6 June.

Links: Staatsoper.tv

Friday, 10 April 2015

Wagner - Parsifal (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Adam Fischer, Christine Mielitz, Michael Volle, Stephen Milling, Johan Botha, Angela Denoke, Ryan Speedo Green, Boaz Daniel, Catherine Trottmann, Hyuna Ko, Jason Bridges, Peter Jelosits, Michael Roider, Ileana Tonca

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 5 April 2015

 
It strikes me that there are broadly three ways to approach a staging of Parsifal. You can do it straight traditional with knights in helmets, you can try to impose a more abstract interpretation of the meaning of the work, or you can try to find some middle way that is more attuned to the mood of the piece rather than the letter of it. None of these ways is the 'right' way, none of them are entirely satisfactory, but all of them have something to offer. Such is the nature of Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, neither real world, fantasy nor purely conceptual either. Even 'opera' is an inadequate a word for it.

A consistent approach is made all the more difficult through the way that each of the three acts of the opera has its own distinct tone, each of the acts are linked, but there is no consistent narrative arc or even an underlying conceptual theme or philosophy that brings them together in any meaningful way. It's possible to impose one, highlighting the Christian imagery or looking for the sexual symbolism that runs through the work, but that usually runs into difficulties when it comes to purposefully tying it all together. It's probably better to take each of the three acts individually, find the precise tone that each of them require, and try to let that stand on its own terms.




You could, for example in the case of the Vienna State Opera production of Parsifal, spend a long time trying to work out what the purpose or meaning of the setting is in Act I alone. Monsalvat, the domain of the Grail, looks here like a fencing school where the knights hone their sword skills. Act II leaves that world behind for a living room where a rather less than demonic Klingsor lounges around on a sofa rather than directing forces against Parsifal from his tower. The domain of the Grail in Act III is a different place from the one in Act I, but much has changed in-between, even if we haven't followed it through in a straightforward linear narrative way. Time really has no meaning here.

What does have meaning here is the notion of a journey. Each Act is a stage along that journey, and, much like the three ways you can approach Wagner's opera itself, it makes a journey from real-world, to concept, to myth. Pinning those three stages down to any one interpretation or description isn't particularly helpful, and you could just as easily describe the journey across the three acts as one of innocence through reason leading to enlightenment; sin through repentance leading to salvation; birth through love leading to death (with rebirth implicit); or in its most simple form as waiting through action leading to an outcome. None of these holds true with any consistency or purity of purpose, but the pattern should emerge - and in Christine Mielitz's production it does so very clearly - even if the words/concepts used to describe it will be different for everyone.




Even within each of those individual three acts however, a similar three-stage pattern can be discerned, and the director here finds a way of emphasising and drawing that out, without necessarily imposing a reading on the audience. In Act I alone, for example, the slow opening clearly shows a world in waiting, its people in pain, the knights seeking purpose, gearing themselves for action. Whether you find it meaningful or not, a fencing school does at least give this sense of preparation, of the young knights seeking the wisdom of its elders like Gurnemanz. Interestingly, fitting in with the whole nature of the contradictions within Wagner's philosophical outlook, the spur to action here comes from a holy fool, an innocent who sins in the killing of a swan.

The key moment in Act I however is the leap taken to the third stage - myth, enlightenment, transformation, death - whatever you want to call it. It occurs in Parsifal when Gurnemanz invites him to take that extraordinary journey through time and space. In Christine Mielitz's production, the Christian symbolism is used to spark off recognition of the mystery of transubstantiation, the knights physical needs met through the dispensing of bread, their spiritual strength found in the sight of the grail (deliberately not make visible as a physical object as such here), their fight to continue with their purpose both a literal and a symbolic one. Parsifal is profoundly affected by his witnessing this act of faith and mystery, and Wagner's scoring of it is just some of the most extraordinary music ever composed.

The impact and importance of the act, and the patterns within it, is brilliantly established in this first Act in the Vienna production. Similar attention is given to the similar journeys in Act II (Kundry - 'Bekenntnis wird Schuld in Reue enden, Erkenntnis in Sinn die Torheit wenden' - 'Confession will end guilt with remorse, And the knowledge will turn folly into sense') and in Act III, cumulatively building towards the End itself with its gravity, quiet glory and transcendental healing redemption in death with the promise of rebirth in a dimension beyond time and space. Even as it finds a concrete form to express the action of each of the three acts, in as far as any of them have any real action, the direction leaves interpretation open. You settle on one interpretation to the exclusion of others and to the loss of the totality and the enduring mystery of Parsifal as a whole.




I don't know if the staging and direction are the determining factors here, or how much of a part Adam Fischer's soaring musical direction of the work plays, but this was a different kind of performance from Johan Botha from the other Parsifals I've heard him sing. His voice has darkened somewhat, there's more gravity in his delivery, and a greater engagement with the character in his demeanour. Botha is never a strong actor, but the director seems to be able to work to his strengths by not getting him to act at all. With this voice, he doesn't need to. Angela Denoke is much the same here as in her other performances of Kundry, scarcely able to keep her slight slip on as usual, fiercely committed in her performance, but inconsistent in her singing. Her pitch becomes increasingly wayward as Act II progresses, but Denoke never fails to bring a sense of compassion (another important characteristic for Parsifal) to Kundry in the third act.

We had another familiar and capable Parsifal performer in Stephen Milling's Gurnemanz, while Michael Volle impressively adds another Wagnerian role to to his recent Hans Sachs in the Met's Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, with a notable Amfortas. Klingsor needs a little more drama and force than Daniel Boaz can manage, but there was little else wrong with his performance. This was a strong, experienced cast who seemed to adapt well to the considered direction of Christine Mielitz, and with Adam Fischer managing Wagner's sublime score masterfully from the pit, this was every bit as warm and uplifting as an Easter Parsifal should be.

Parsifal was broadcast live on Easter Sunday from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. This month sees a new production of ELEKTRA with Nina Stemme on the 11th April, Elīna Garanča in DER ROSENKAVALIER on the 12th April and L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI on the 30th April. May sees Juan Diego Flórez in DON PASQUALE, Plácido Domingo in NABUCCO and the beginning of Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DER RING DES NIEBELUNGEN, conducted by Simon Rattle. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.


Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Campra - Les Fêtes Vénitiennes (Opéra Comique, 2015 - Webcast)

André Campra - Les Fêtes Vénitiennes

Opéra Comique, 2015

William Christie, Robert Carsen, Emmanuelle de Negri, Élodie Fonnard, Rachel Redmond, Emilie Renard, Cyril Auvity, Reinoud Van Mechelen, Marcel Beekman, Marc Mauillon, François Lis, Sean Clayton, Geoffroy Buffière

Culturebox - 30 January 2015

 
So far, André Campra's operas haven't received as much attention as the two French royal court appointed composers on either side of his career, Lully and Rameau. As the person responsible to a large degree for the revival of interest in many of the great forgotten French works those two composers, with academically informed performances on period instruments, it's great to see how William Christie and Les Arts Florissants' interpretation of Campra's most famous and emblematic work compares. Having also directed a number of stage productions of Lully and Rameau for Christie to terrific effect (Armide, Les Boréades, Platée), Robert Carsen's production of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes for the Opéra Comique in Paris combines with Christie's interpretation to present the work in as spectacular and entertaining a way as you might expect.

Lully's beautiful tragédies-lyriques might have been a hard act to follow, but at least as far as Les Fêtes Vénitiennes goes, Campra manages to retain what is good about Lully's work - principally the splendour and the rhythmic pulse of the dance music - without the longeurs that go along with it. There's a Prologue here invoking the Gods that leads to conflict among mortals, but none of the lengthy praises to the Sun God, Louis XIV, that open Lully's tragédies-lyriques. And instead of one long mythological subject drawn out and interspersed at every opportunity with dances and choral pieces, Campra hits upon a more accessible format that would later become known as the opéra-ballet.

It's a format that if it is recognisable at all now, it will be because of Rameau's similarly frivolous portmanteau entertainment of Prologue and Entrées, Les Indes Galantes. The style was perhaps hit upon accidentally by Campra during the first performances of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes in 1710, the work evolving as it was performed, with some new episodes added and old ones dropped, according to their popularity with audiences. The intent is clearly that this is all in the name of entertainment and spectacle, and Les Fêtes Vénitiennes is as lively and entertaining as they come.




In keeping with the spirit of the work, it would be a mistake to over-extend the piece by showing as many of the Entrées as possible, but rather it's more important to try to retain the variety and concision of the original. From the 4 Prologues and 9 Entrées available then, Christie selects one Prologue ('The Triumph of Folly over Reason') and 3 of the Entrées ('The Ball or the Dance Master', 'The Serenades and the Gamblers' and 'The Opera or the Singing Master'). There's a certain amount of cross-over between the four parts - and, of course Carsen and Christie focus on the 'theatrical' theme - but really the only real connection linking the different interchangeable parts of the works is that they all fit within the rather open concept of being based around the celebrations of the Carnival in Venice.

The Prologue opens with a group of modern-day tourists visiting St Mark's Square and being taken with the colourful pageantry of the Carnival, abandoning Reason to the Folly of the festivities, much to the displeasure of the religious orders. This allows the work to then fall back on a stylised imagining (no more authentic I imagine than Campra's original vision) of the exaggerated colour, exotic locations and all the pleasure-seeking and romance associated with Les Fêtes Vénitiennes. In Le Bal, a wealthy prince wants to test the constancy of a young Venetian woman he is in love with, exchanging positions with his Dance Master to see if she truly loves him or is only interested in wealth and position. Les Sérénades features two women, Isabella and Lucile, both of them competing for the love of Léandre, who is really in love with another beauty, Irène. L'Opéra also deals with love affairs, where a group of opera singers love-lives become enmeshed in the opera they are singing.

Most of the Entrées are played out in a fairly straightforward manner here, albeit in highly-stylised sets and wearing boldly-coloured and extravagant costumes. There are a few characteristic twists - Fortune for example dressed (or semi-undressed) as a walking Casino - but they all remain in the spirit of the work and within the context of the Venetian setting. There's some recognition that L'Opéra ou le maître à chanter, with its opera-within-an-opera setting, is a kind of baroque Ariadne auf Naxos and perhaps some parody of Lully's operas is implied, so we get all kinds of theatrical tricks, even dancing sheep. In the main however, the idea is simply to get as much of the entertaining variety that makes the work a delight to watch, with frequent dances, colourful costumes, clever stage craft, choruses, duets and arias.




Some of the pieces take a little longer to get going, the final
L'Opéra Entrée in particular requiring quite a bit of recitative to set up its plot, but in terms of the variety of the selections and their individual make-up, their purpose is clear, their balance of singing, ballet dancing and spectacle all seeking to entertain. Carsen provides the context for that marvellously, but the real test of the work is in the musical performances and the singing, and the production doesn't let us down on those points. William Christie and Les Arts Florissants bring all the inherent vibrancy out of the work and it's simply marvellous to hear on period instruments, Campra's arrangements, particularly the ballet sections, having a popular folk-dance character that sounds closer to Cavalli than the rather more stately regal rhythms of Lully and Rameau.

The singing is also outstanding, many of these singers well-schooled in the Arts Florissants style, with much experience in the music of this period. Some of the familiar names playing multiple roles, as is often the case in such works, are Marc Mauillon, baritone François Lis as Léandre and Emmanuelle de Negri as Reason, Lucile and Lucie, all of them wonderful. Élodie Fonnard also makes a terrific impression in the eye-catching role of Fortune as well as playing Iphise in L'Opéra, and Reinoud Van Mechelen wonderful light lyrical tenor shines out in the countertenor roles of Thémir and Zéphir. With so much talent packed into such variety of scenes and situations, there's never a dull moment here.

Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra Comique

Monday, 6 April 2015

Rihm - Jakob Lenz (La Monnaie, 2015 - Webcast)


Wolfgang Rihm - Jakob Lenz

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2015

Franck Ollu, Andrea Breth, Georg Nigl, Henry Waddington, John Graham-Hall, Irma Mihelic, Olga Heikkilä, Maria Fiselier, Stine Marie Fischer, Dominic Große, Eric Ander

La Monnaie Streaming - March 2015

 
It's not difficult to see the commonality between Wolfgang Rihm's 1979 opera Jakob Lenz and Alban Berg's masterpiece, Wozzeck. Both operas come from works written by Georg Büchner, both are fairly intense episodic expressionist pieces that deal with mental disintegration, and both are composed in a variety or totality of styles that takes in tonality, atonality, formal traditional structures and occasional gestures that push at the limits of what music can express.

That is evidently the kind of music that is called out for by the nature of the subject itself. Jakob Lenz was an 18th century German poet in Goethe's circle of writers who suffered from bouts of mental illness and died in 1792 at the age of 41. Concerned about his state of mind, Lenz is invited by a sympathetic pastor, Oberlin, to stay at his house in the country in the year 1778. He hopes that in taking Lenz away from the stresses of his life and bringing him closer to nature that he might help ease his problems and inspire him in other ways. The stay however only seems to make matters worse for the troubled poet.
 


The difficult nature of the subject itself - the work essentially entering into the head of a man who is going insane - inevitably means that the musical expression in Rihm's opera can itself be very difficult to grasp. The music has to respond to some extreme emotions and go to unrecognisable and uncomfortable places that aren't commonly explored by an audience. As well as expressing those extreme states, even including a harpsichord in the orchestra for 18th century authenticity, the use of a small chamber orchestra also allows the composer to express little intimate details, making those feelings discernible and tangible.

It's not all full-blown insanity however, and a little less challenging than another experimental work in this field, Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King. As well as showing us the inner turmoil, the music of Jakob Lenz also deals with the external reality, otherwise the work would surely be unlistenable. It's still difficult enough since it as to function on multiple levels, dramatically, narratively and musically, not only depicting inner and outer states, but developing a less than obvious connection that lies between them. If it makes sense at all, it's only within the head of Jakob Lenz, for whom this is all "Logical", as he repeats in the final words of the opera.

The challenge of putting on a stage production of Jakob Lenz is surely no less challenging than the musical performance, as the work alternates between the inner mind and outer reality. It needs to throw you straight in there at the start, experiencing the working of a tortured mind, before showing you the reality of the poet's position. Although the split and distinction between the two is a feature of the set design, it doesn't get any easier to distinguish thereafter the boundary of reality lies and where it breaks down, whether it's little bits of madness that are infecting the view of reality or indeed whether it's only a few moments of lucidity that creep into the poet's prolonged and increasingly disturbed bouts of madness.




With streams of water running down the stage and rocky landscapes intruding into the pastor's house, Andrea Breth's direction and Martin Zehetgruber's set designs tend to suggest that even reality is very much subjective here in terms of how Lenz sees the world. In terms of narrative, you can still discern that Lenz is at the home of Pastor Oberlin, that he is visited by his friend Kaufmann, and that in those rare periods of lucidity Lenz debates with them the difficulty of deriving inspiration or even any kind of joy from nature or from pretty words. He is looking more and more inward, retreating into solitude, like Wozzeck, disappointed with life and being gradually broken down by his own torments.

Those torments are not only difficult to comprehend, they are inevitably difficult to express on stage. Principally, much of the madness and the breakdown between the mind and reality is expressed in the form of Lenz's beloved Friedericke. Here, Lenz's obsession with the image of Friedericke becomes entwined with that of a young child who has drowned in a neighbouring village, with even Oberlin appearing wearing tresses at one point. All this further becomes combined in a strange mix of religious rites that suggest questions of death and rebirth.

It's all fairly bleak stuff, and even quite harrowing in places. Franck Ollu however approaches the work with a calm solemnity and precision, allowing the music to be expressive without becoming too harsh and unlistenable. Much like Wozzeck, the singing also needs to be just on the right side of unrestrained. It doesn't do the listener or the singer any favours to push the madness too far. The playing of the role of Jakob Lenz is of course all-important, and Georg Nigl maintains the intensity throughout while having to act in some very unpleasant positions. Henry Waddington's Oberlin is also well sung, with John Graham-Hall bringing equal intensity as Lenz's increasingly exasperated friend, Kaufmann.

Links: La Monnaie