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 that stage 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

Friday, 13 January 2017

Schoenberg - Gurre-Lieder (Amsterdam, 2014)

Arnold Schoenberg - Gurre-Lieder

Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam - 2014

Marc Albrecht, Pierre Audi, Burkhard Fritz, Emily Magee, Anna Larsson, Marcus Marquardt, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Arnold Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder is an unusual piece that is difficult to classify, but it's also a work that it is difficult to associate with one of the most radical composers of all time. Gurre-Lieder uses a Romantic musical language that is not typical of the Schoenberg who would shake up the old traditions with serialism, yet it comes at a time when the composer was already moving away from the traditional musical forms. Orchestrated like an opera, Gurre-Lieder certainly doesn't fit easily into the song-cycle, cantata or oratorio format, but neither would it appear to have the dramatic qualities for an opera. For a work that nonetheless remains one of Schoenberg's best known and most performed works, it's surprising that no one has attempted to adapt it to the stage until this 2014 production at the Dutch National Opera.

The fact that there is no clear narrative form to Gurre-Lieder might however work in its favour when it comes to presenting in on the stage. There are no predetermined stage directions to be adhered to and there are no preconceptions about how the work ought to look and be presented. There might be a few clues in its origins, references and the period it derives from, but a director is free to make whatever they want of the songs, the sentiments and the arrangements. Whatever images Gurre-Lieder with its grand, lush orchestration might have conjured in the mind previously however, it's unlikely to be anything like the setting that Pierre Audi devises for the Amsterdam stage.

As abstract as it might appear there is clearly an effort made by the director and the music director to get inside the work's complicated life, its history and period, at the same time as it tries to illustrate what there is of Gurre-Lieder's sparse storyline. Based on a German translation of a series of poems written in 1900 by Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, the Gurre-Lieder recount the affair and the consequences of the love of King Waldemar for a young local girl called Tove. Amidst premonitions, laments and mourning, Tove dies at the hands of Queen Helwig and Waldermar loses his mind, imagining summoning an army of the dead to avenge her death before he too expires in a blaze of remorse.

...Or something like that. To be honest, I've never really paid much attention to the lyrical content of Gurre-Lieder's Romantic meditations and expressions, which is probably why it's such a good idea to try and put the work across visually in dramatic terms. Pierre Audi's concept works in at least giving the listener something to think about in this dimension of the work, even if it still proves difficult to hold one's attention and derive any deeper meaning out of the verse. It's not great storytelling, but it can be evocative, dramatic and poetic, particularly when it is combined with Schoenberg's gorgeous post-Wagnerian musical compositions.

And post-Wagnerian, neo-Romanticism is very much the tone here in terms of subject and execution, so it's not surprising that Audi's production reflects that to some extent. The staging and subject (more so than the music) evokes gothic imagery that you might expect to find in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, there's a fatalistic love affiar that is reminiscent vaguely of Tristan und Isolde (in this case the music leads more towards the comparison), while the lush orchestration and fairytale elements can put one in mind also of Strauss's near contemporary Die Frau ohne Schatten, a work that also draws heavily from the period, from the thinking and art movements that were developing and cross-pollinating in Vienna at this time.

If there's one overall consistent theme as such that the DNO production applies as a concept for representing the work on the stage, it's perhaps this idea of great change. That's applicable to the age the work was composed in as much as to the great change in musical forms that Gurre-Lieder heralds. There's a nightmarish quality to the production that comes with this fear of death, the end of one era and the beginning of another. The anxiety particularly affects Waldemar, but the premonitions of the Wood Dove and the raising of a dead army all carry a fearful edge. Schoenberg's glorious choral finale of the rising sun on a new day certainly holds out promise for the future, but with Waldemar dying, there is a certain ambiguity there. The sun will still rise regardless and change will come, for better or worse.

There might not be anything particularly revelatory here, but the stage production does represent the essence of the work and, at the very least, it invites the listener to consider anew what the work is about much more so than a more conventional concert performance would. Marc Albrecht's conducting of the piece also benefits from these visual cues and highlights the very particular variety of musical language that Schoenberg uses in the work. The singing is perhaps not quite strong enough to carry over those huge orchestral forces, but Burkhard Fritz is wonderfully lyrical as Waldemar, Emily Magee impresses as Tove and Anna Larsson stands out as the Wood Dove. The other roles have the same Romantic lyricism and are well handled by Marcus Marquardt and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke. The DNO chorus are, needless to say, mindblowingly good, which is a distinct advantage for the impact of this work's finale.

The chorus are indeed the main focus of the extra feature on the Blu-ray disc. DNO productions on Opus Arte releases always include an excellent interview/making of feature on the background to the production and rehearsals, and this one is well worth viewing. There's also a Cast Gallery and an informative essay on the work by Gavin Plumley, along with a brief synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The HD image and sound options are superb, really putting across the qualities of the production and the performance. The singing is mixed a little low in the DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 mix, but there's a better balance and perhaps more impact in the LPCM stereo mix.

Links: DNO

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Strauss - Capriccio (La Monnaie, 2016)

Richard Strauss - Capriccio

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2016

Lothar Koenigs, David Marton, Sally Matthews, Dietrich Henschel, Edgaras Montvidas, Lauri Vasar, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Charlotte Hellekant, François Piolino, Elena Galitskaya, Dmirty Ivanchey, Christian Oldenburg

ARTE Concert - November 2016


"Primo le parole, dopo la musica" or is it vice-versa? There's obviously no definitive answer to the question of whether the words or the music are more important in opera. Even precedence is very much down to the practicalities and working methods of the creators and dependant upon the individual preferences of the listener. So on paper at least an opera about a composer and a poet, Flamand and Olivier, debating the subject with a Countess at a private concert soirée doesn't hold out much promise as a rivetting subject for an opera. And yet, Capriccio itself is a work of art that proves that opera can transcend such debates and distinctions.

There's a lot of truth then in what the boorish theatre director La Roche says; on paper both words and score are lifeless. It's a stage production that puts flesh and blood into an opera, that allows it to live and breathe, to reach out and touch the heart of an audience. Of course, even that distinction is academic if the work itself isn't of sufficient quality, insight and humanity, but Strauss's abilities and his work within opera are among the highest the artform has ever seen. Capriccio, his final work, might sound trivial and self-regarding, but it's a fitting testament that still has something important to say on the nature of people and the important role music and art plays in their lives.

Capriccio is indeed a masterpiece from a great composer but, in the spirit of the work itself, even Richard Strauss wouldn't be the opera genius he is without the collaboration of some great writers. His finest works are unquestionably those written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but Stefan Zweig and Joseph Gregor clearly also contributed the ideas and texts that would inspire Strauss to greatness in Capriccio. The writers are important, but so too presumably is the audience those works were written for and the artists who would perform them. And life itself. The genius of Capriccio is that it is there in this exquisite little work which might seem frivilous, but in reality touches on some fundamental questions about art and its relation to life.

So it is always a risk, but it would be a bit of a crime if a production of Capriccio only managed to come over as trivial and self-important. The words and the music are not enough - although they are a great place to start and Lothar Koenigs certainly brings out the luminous beauty of the orchestral colours - but Capriccio does need attention paid to its characters and their personalities, and that rests on the ability of the director and the performers to bring it to life. Fortunately that's handled very well indeed in David Marton's direction of the work for La Monnaie, and it's also very evident in the singing, with Sally Matthews in particular finding all the beauty and anguish of life in the words and music written for the Countess.

Marton's production does well to strike a balance between the intimacy of the work (that has a basis in the small chamber orchestra performance that opens the opera) and its expansiveness that takes in all the sentiments that the work touches on in passing. There's no avoiding the self-referential nature of the work (which is an opera about a group of people discussing opera and making an opera about themselves discussing opera), so it's not surprising that the set consists of a stage on the stage in a side view of a theatre. A small private theatre obviously that explores the inner workings of the human heart and human interaction as much as it does the craft that goes into writing, directing and performing a piece of music theatre.

It's not just a tussle for artistic recognition and it's not even a tussle between two men trying to seek the affections the Countess; there are other parties involved that have a role to play, however small it might seem. It's not always easy to work out who each of them are at first, or where they are coming from, but Strauss gives them all consideration and blends them into the little world of Capriccio's complications. The prompter, for example, might not seem to be all that vital a role, but without him, the whole enterprise might indeed fail. The Major-domo, the Haushofmeister, also looks on here, clearly in love with the Countess. He might be vital to the smooth running of the household, but he knows he can never be a solution to the conflicts in her heart.

This master/servant role as a metaphor for the impossibility of the mastery of the heart is a device that has been used for a similar effect between the Marschallin and her servant in some productions of Der Rosenkavalier. It's possible to see Madeline, the Countess of Capriccio, as an extension of the thoughts and sentiments that plagued Marschallin, a recap if you like to summarise such themes in this comprehensive work. Marten also uses the young dancer here, showing her in three ages from child to young woman to old lady, to touch on those considerations of the passing of time as it applies to the hard choices that the Countess has to make. Ostensibly that's about how she wants the opera to end, but also evidently it's about where she wants her life to go, knowing that the decisions she makes now will determine the rest of her life.

The successful direction of Capriccio is all about bringing out such undercurrents. What takes place on the surface of Capriccio, in all the discussions of art and opera, is just a metaphor for life. It's what goes on beneath that is just as important; the personalities and the interpretation of them. It would be a shame to miss out on the applying some personality to the richness of the sumptuous music that Strauss has composed for even the most seemingly minor of characters, but it doesn't mean that there have to be any big revelations or deep psychological underpinning. The big things are already there and Marten and the performers concentrate on the little moments and the finer detail.

There is always the danger of the Countess appearing detached, too caught up in the technicalities of the musical debate and her personal love dilemma. Sally Matthews isn't the most expressive actress but her singing is beautiful here, carrying the essential warmth of the Countess and a wider sense of her conflict as being one that applies to life in general. It helps that the other roles are also well defined and sung, with Edgaras Montvidas in particular wonderfully lyrical and charming as Flamand, and Lauri Vasar posing a credible threat as his rival Olivier. Kristinn Sigmundsson is a fine La Roche. I still find it hard to really grasp what the role of the Count brings to the opera, but Dietrich Henschel sings it well alongside Charlotte Hellekant's Clarion. All the performances really count here however in contributing to the rich fabric of the work.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert

Friday, 6 January 2017

Perocco - Aquagranda (Venice, 2016)

Filippo Perocco - Aquagranda

La Fenice, Venice - 2016

Marco Angius, Damiano Michieletto, Andrea Mastroni, Mirko Guadagnini, Giulia Bolcato, Silvia Regazzo, Vincenzo Nizzardo, William Corrò, Marcello Nardis

Culturebox - 10 November 2016

Aquagranda was commissioned by La Fenice to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a significant event; the flooding of Venice on the 4th November 1966, when storms and high tide lifted the water two metres above sea level, inundating St Mark's Square and threatening the city's important historical buildings, but it also affected the lives of many ordinary Venetians. Despite its very modern musical language and the fact that it has a libretto co-written by the author of the source novel it is based on, Filippo Perocco's Aquagranda however never seems to find a character of its own beyond the remit of its commission.

Aquagranda looks at the events of November 1966 through the eyes of Fortunato and his son Ernesto. 25 year old Ernesto is unwilling to become Venetian fisherman like his father, and is preparing to leave the little island of Pellestrina for a life in Germany when the flooding occurs. Finding himself deeply affected by the event, Ernesto recognises the feelings he has for La Serenissima and stays to help rebuild the city. There are other figures who appear, and you could say that the waters of Venice play a major role in the work, but essentially that's about as far as any real storyline goes in the opera.

Rather than a conventional drama then, Aquagranda, through Perocco's score and through Damiano Michieletto's stage production for its performance in Venice, is more of an impressionistic commemoration of the 1966 flood. The first third of the work doesn't really have much more to it than Fortunato and another fisherman debating in repeated fragmentary back-and forth phrases just how bad things are going to be. They look at the menacing skies, the full moon, the high tide and watch its irregular rise and fall. Eventually, they are faced with the irrefutable evidence of the mounting level of water and forced to consider its impact.

If there is little of any narrative drive in either the music or the exchanges between the characters, there is at least a vivid impression of the nature of the coming storm in the music and the staging. A chorus placed to either side of the stage chants words and provides rhythm for the atmospheric drone-like score with live electronic elements, the orchestra ensemble conducted by Marco Angius. Avoiding any typical depiction of Venice - no domes or gondolas - production designer Paolo Fantin sets a glass wall of water behind the main figures. The water rises and swirls within its frame, while dancers move behind it, all soon to spill over onto the front of the stage.

The middle part of the opera is then drenched with the water that has built up as the walls which have protected the city for centuries are destroyed in a single day. Father and son, their family and friends are suddenly faced with the impact on their little isola of Pellestrina and consider how much greater a disaster such a deluge must be for the palaces, churches, domes, marble, gondolas and the celebrations in the great city of Venice. The mood is darker, the stage is drenched in water, the singers and dancers move through it all in a state of mourning, lamenting the disaster.

If the first part of Aquagranda relates the coming of the waters and the second part deals with the event itself, it's the third part that lets the overall narrative or structure of the work down. Instead of ending on a note of warning or reminder of the ever present danger that climate change presents to the lagoon city, the opera chooses to end on a celebratory note that doesn't ring true immediately after the disaster. The walls have been reconstructed and life goes on, seemingly with little reflection on what has occurred. Instead of being a work that might continue to have meaning and significance for the future of Venice, it's a conclusion that just presents the event as a wrapped up 50 year old piece of history. Musically, Aquagranda captures a sense of that event reasonably well within the remit of the commission, but Perocco never reveals any ambition to invest the work with any greater sense of purpose.

Links: La Fenice, Culturebox

Monday, 2 January 2017

Shostakovich - The Nose (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Dmitri Shostakovich - The Nose

Royal Opera House, London - 2016

Barrie Kosky, Ingo Metzmacher, Martin Winkler, John Tomlinson, Rosie Aldridge, Alexander Kravets, Alexander Lewis, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Peter Bronder,Helene Schneiderman, Susan Bickley, Ailish Tynan, Jeremy White

Opera Platform - 9th November 2016

Outrageous. I think that's the key word to aim for in a production of Shostakovich's The Nose. Gogol's wonderfully absurd and satirical comedy is given a musically extravagant treatment by Dmitri Shostakovich and it calls out for an outrageously surreal comic response on the stage. I'm surprised that Terry Gilliam hasn't been ear-marked for this one at some stage, but The Met's recent production at least found an appropriate illustrator's flourish in William Kentridge. If it's outrageous you're looking for however, Barrie Kosky is your man. 

In Gogol's story and Shostakovich's opera, the nose of interest is that of the Collegiate Assessor Platon Kuzmitch Kovalev. Somehow it disappears from his face, is found in the bread mix of the barber's wife and then goes off to have an independent life of its own, much to the consternation of Kovalev. Even worse, it seems to be having a better life than him, being seen in all the important places around the city and even making the rank of State Councillor. Kovalev meanwhile finds that the absence of a nose don't confer much credibility on him with anyone, not with the police or the newspapers when he tries to report it missing, and it pretty much kills any prospects of marriage he might have had.

Kosky delivers an energetic staging that matches Shostakovich's musically eclectic score for The Nose, even adding a tap dancing routine to a score folk and jazzy rhythms, oomph-pah trombones and tuba and even a balalaika ballad, the music alternating between moments of dark reflection, comic verve and symphonic interludes. It's a technical challenge to find the right mood for each scene, particularly as the work is played straight through without an interval and with minimal time for scene changes, but Kosky and his design team come up with some inventive solutions that don't compromise on the director's individual sense of style and his tableau arrangements.

Barrie Kosky doesn't do obvious, but he has some familiar tics and tricks that are starting to become quite predictable. There is some of the director's trademark campness thrown into the Royal Opera House's all-singing all-dancing production, with gratuitous male dancers in corsets and suspenders, but primarily what you get in a Barrie Kosky production of the Nose is an appropriate sense of irreverence. And noses evidently. Lots of noses. It's not just Kovalov's nose that is prominent here, there are noses everywhere you look - which is kind of obvious. As obvious as... well, you know what.

Well, maybe not so obvious, since there is a rather large dose of comic absurdity and satire in The Nose, and any attempt to look for deep meaning in it is doomed to appear rather silly. Kosky gets the comic absurdity, but doesn't really do the satire. But then, Gogol's satire was very much to do with certain peculiarities of Russian society, with its system of rank and position, with power and authority, with corruption and bribery. There is a pre-Kafkaesque edge to it, but that's not what Shostakovich goes for, and neither does Barrie Kosky.

So what does Kosky find in this Royal Opera House production of The Nose? You might not be surprised to find that Kosky picks up on the undercurrents of a castration complex that Kovalev undergoes in his emasculation. Without his nose, Kovalov no longer feels like a man, he is unable to pursue women, and marriage to the daughter of Pelageya Podtotschina Grigorievna is out of the question (although he was always ambivalent about this match in the first place). Evidently you would expect Kosky to make a big deal of this, and literally at one stage he does indeed make a 'big thing' out of the nose.

So it's typically Kosky, a little bit camp, a little bit vulgar (David Poutney's funny English translation keeping it nice and sweary as well), but it's also clever, entertaining and fun. There's some inventive use of tables and desks driven on wheels to keep things moving along. The production is funny in some places and kind of laboured dead air in others, but it's that kind of a hit and miss opera. Summing up the whole enterprise however, an observer comes on to the stage and gets the audience laughing at the idea that anyone would make an opera out of this "sorry little tale"; "It's of no use to any of us". So there's no point in, ahem, looking down your nose at it.

Singing The Nose in English is perhaps a necessity unless you have a large cast of Russian singers ready to take on the 78 singing and speaking parts (outside of Russia, I would think that only the Bayerische Staatsoper have that kind of resource to draw on). English works just fine, particularly in Poutney's good translation, and we get good singing and speak-singing performances from Martin Winkler as Kovalev and John Tomlinson in a variety of colourful roles that he assumes brilliantly. Alexander Kravets's District Inspector is terrific, and Susan Bickley and Ailish Tynan enter into the spirit of the whole thing wonderfully. I'm not at all familiar with the music, but Ingo Metzmacher's conducting of the orchestra certainly holds together all the varied rhythms, moods and peculiarities of the piece.

Links: Royal Opera House, Opera Platform

Monday, 26 December 2016

Puccini - La Bohème (Turin, 2016)

Giacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Teatro Regio Torino, 2016

Gianandrea Noseda, Àlex Ollé, Irina Lungu, Kelebogile Besong, Giorgio Berrugi, Massimo Cavalletti, Benjamin Cho, Gabriele Sagona, Matteo Peirone, Cullen Gandy, Mauro Barra, Davide Motta Fré

Opera Platform - October 2016

La Bohème is one of those works whose former strengths no longer carry as much weight for me as they once might have done. The beautiful arias, the Romantic sweep of Puccini's heart-tugging arrangements and melodies are still beautiful, still emotionally and dramatically effective, but they no longer seem to be where the true heart of the work resides. The gaps in the plot and character that I would have once regarded as its weaknesses on the other hand now seem to be more important to the enduring universality of the work as a whole. Gianandrea Noseda and Àlex Ollé seem to be attempting to address both points and striving for a better balance in the Teatro Regio Torino's 120th anniversary production of the first performance of La Bohème there, but it could also be seen as trying to fix something that doesn't really need to be fixed.

The piecemeal adaptation of Henry Murger's story collection once might have been regarded as a weakness in the structure of the opera. There is little flow between the four distinct acts, each of them having to sum up a 'where they are now' situation, with all the troubles incidents and twists and turns that their lives have taken in-between left to the side. That wouldn't be so bad if the scenes that remain weren't padded out with what often feels like unnecessary colour, weak characterisation and a lot of joking around that isn't all that funny.

Those might seem like weaknesses, but Puccini turns them into virtues, mostly. There's nothing weak about Puccini's musical colouring for the scenes, and if the use and repetition of themes might not always meet the strictest codes of musical and dramatic integrity, they do create a continuity that is necessary to link the four Acts. If a theme is repeated in a different context from its original use, it often serves as a contrast and a 'reminder' of where it originally came from. The horsing around of the budding artists can still be irritating and feel pointless, but it is important to reflect a wider view of the situation that has a major impact on Rodolfo and Mimi. It's not the love story that is important in La Bohème, as much as the work being about how love tragically comes second place to paying the bills.

That's not a very romantic way to look at one of the greatest love stories in opera, but it is a mistake to idealise La Bohème and prettify the abject poverty of the "bohemian life", where the protagonists are fighting on a daily basis to heat their tiny rooms, trying not to starve and striving not to die of some terrible disease. While it's important to reflect this, it is also important to show how life goes on, how friendship and companionship endure and - regardless of the weight you think Puccini applies to this aspect - it's all there in the opera. There may also be huge gaps in Rodolfo and Mimi's relationship, but those gaps just widen the huge gulf between the ideal and the reality and leave space for the listener who has experienced the travails of love to reflect on the truths in their relationship.

It might not be perfect but, as is often the case with Puccini, the imperfections just leave space for consideration, interpretation and playing with the colours. La Bohème however is not a work that demands any reconstructive or deconstructive modernisation. Indeed, were it not for Stefan Herheim's charged Oslo production, you would think that this is one opera that is surely immune to too much directorial intervention. Critically however, Herheim managed to play to the traditional strengths of the opera, deepening its sentiments without resorting to sentimentality and in La Bohème, there's a thin line there that it is easy to cross. The challenge for Àlex Ollé is the same one of reigning in and opening up.

A member of La Fura dels Baus, the Catalan theatre team who are not exactly known for restraint in their productions of elaborate concepts and spectacular technical innovation, Ollé has however been capable of scaling down where there is no need for additional overemphasis. La Bohème very much has its own distinct world, but whether it is set in Belle Époque Paris or a more contemporary updating isn't as relevant as much as showing the relationship between the real world and the lives of the characters. Alfons Flores's set designs for the Teatro Regio Torino production depict a more contemporary world, but it is still recognisably a poor district inhabited by ordinary people.

What Àlex Ollé's direction seems to set out to emphasise - or maybe reflect more than emphasise - is the ordinary and the universal application of this world. It's not a tragic story of love and poverty in olden times, but a familiar one today, where love is unable to overcome the other practicalities of living. The garret room set of Act I and IV then is not a little enclosed space here; it's one room of many, where undoubtedly similar stories are played out. You occasionally see another couple - one set out on a romance at the same time as Rodolfo and Mimi's is ending - but these are incidental details that are not over-complicated or over-emphasised to the detriment of the main story.

With Café Momus sliding in on Act II - and looking like a properly swanky restaurant for a change rather than some dive - there is some effort to keep a sense of flow and continuity, as well as the all-important contrast that Puccini plays upon for effect. Like the rest of the Acts, Act III has a familiar configuration, just slightly updated, retaining what is necessary for the dramatic storytelling, while also trying to keep it relevant, or 'grounded' if you like, in a way it wouldn't be if it were kept period. It's not a realistic depiction of poverty and misery by any means, but it's not smothered in schmaltz either.

If La Bohème doesn't flow dramatically, in the music at least Puccini hits straight at the heart, and in the case of this work he is surely entitled to play to the emotions. Gianandrea Noseda however shows that you can adhere to the melodic, the romantic and the dramatic qualities of the music without ladling on the syrup. If this means that the tear-jerking qualities of the work are underplayed, well that's not necessarily a bad thing unless that's what you want, in which case this could be a little disappointing. I would say a fair proportion of a La Bohème audience would expect a little more emoting in the music and the singing than they get here.

Irina Lungu is a more delicate soprano than the full-cream Mimi we are accustomed to, and while she doesn't always hit the big moments she can bring some wonderful poignancy to something like "Addio, senza rancor". Her duet in this scene with Giorgio Berrugi is one of the high points here, Berrugi very much with a classic bright lyrical Italian tenor that is perfect for Rodolfo. With the combination of Lungu and Berrugi and Puccini's emotional expression at its finest, the conclusion of La Bohème still can't be anything but heart-wrenching, despite the efforts of the creative directors to downplay it slightly. It spared me being left a wreck at the conclusion, but I'm not sure that many would thank them for it, as that surely is the primary effect Puccini sets out to achieve.

Links: Teatro Regio Torino, Opera Platform

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Wagner - Parsifal (DNO, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Dutch National Opera, 2016

Marc Albrecht, Pierre Audi, Anish Kapoor, Ryan McKinny, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, Günther Groissböck, Christopher Ventris, Bastiaan Everink, Alexandra Petersamer, Elena Pankratova, Marcel Reijans, Roger Smeets, Lisette Bolle, Rosanne van Sandwijk, Erik Slik, Jeroen de Vaal, Maartje Rammeloo, Lisette Bolle, Inez Hafkamp, Tomoko Makuuchi, Caroline Cartens, Rosanne van Sandwijk, Eva Kroon

Amsterdam - 9th December 2016

Parsifal is such a unique piece of music drama that it permits many ways of presenting it; there's no right way and there's no wrong way. It has little of the dramatic action that you would more commonly find in opera and is limited in the stage directions it needs to put its message across, so it's surprising how versatile and open to exploration Parsifal remains. The conceptual, symbolic or abstract approach however seems more like its natural medium, rather than say a production that explores character or one that attempts to provide an interpretation of the meaning of the work. Other approaches are valid however, which of course is a measure of its greatness as a supreme work of art, which seems to me to be something that is indisputable.

That was my impression anyway coming out of the Pierre Audi's production of the work at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, which suggests that they must have got something right. Just quite how they did it is, as is often the case with this opera, somewhat more difficult to define, but surely it is at least by remaining true to the spirit of Wagner's intentions for his final masterpiece. That doesn't mean that you have to be slavishly literal however, and Pierre Audi's direction and Anish Kapoor's sets are firmly in the conceptual mode. By which I mean that they attempt to create a visual representation of the deeper meaning of the work rather than holding to its surface representation. And by which I mean there is scarcely any overt religious iconography, but plenty to allude to the work's spiritual and transcendent content.

That very much depends on how much you want to read into it, but obviously when it comes to such an approach, the onus must be placed on the individual member of the audience. For me, the representation of Montsalvat as a solid mass of jagged rocks bathed in blood-red light gave it the appearance of a raw open wound. That is evidently a key image in relation to this opera, and in fact it's also the image of a bleeding wound that is projected onto the screen during the overture. The pain and suffering endured by Amfortas, an eternal wound from the spear that that pierced Christ on the cross, is so great that it can't simply be confined to a single body; it engulfs the whole of Montsalvat. Everyone there feels the pain, and if you can't hear that in the music, you aren't listening closely enough.

Arguably that is what the staging should be striving to represent by whatever means necessary. It's more important to sense that than it is to see medieval knights and the Holy Grail on the stage. The second scene of Act I, the transubstantiation scene, literally builds on the first scene. The configuration is slightly altered and wooden scaffolding around it bears the faithful. There's a sense here of the need to build the world anew, build upon the pain, putting it to use. The wooden beams picked up by the reinvigorated knights are not crosses then, but crossbeams that symbolise or serve as building blocks.

Anish Kapoor's designs for Klingsor's castle and gardens in Act II are even more abstract, consisting only of a large circular mirror of uneven distorted clarity hanging above the stage, the background of the set merely a curved black wall. Again, it's a representation of the tone of this Act, the world seen through a glass darkly (a Biblical reference without the religious iconography). Reflected in this mirror the flower maidens are indeed a dazzling kaleidoscopic display that holds Parsifal back from what it is he must do. Kundry attempts to bring some light to Parsifal's quest for enlightenment, but it still represents a distortion of the truth. It is only when Parsifal recalls the suffering of Amfortas that his eyes are opened and he is able to recognise the truth for himself.

Act III is the exact opposite of how this Act is usually represented. Instead of a post-apocalyptic Montsalvat, with Titurel dead, Amfortas surely unable to endure further pain, and the faith of Gurnemanz and the knights in tatters, Kapoor depicts a clean, open, ordered scene. It's all pale blue, with geometric shapes on a bare minimal stage, the figures all wearing futuristic robes like a scene from a Robert Wilson opera production (incidentally, I haven't seen his Parsifal, but Robert Wilson doing any Wagner and preferably a Ring Cycle would be my ultimate dream production - could someone ask him, please?). The third act however is about redemption, and that is followed through with the associated Christian rituals of feet-washing and baptism, as well as consideration of death and the afterlife.

If it was difficult to pin the production down to a definitive statement, concept or interpretation, there was no mistaking what the music was telling you, and it's there that the 'truth' of Parsifal is there to be revealed. Marc Albrecht conducted with a measured pace, never allowing the work to float or drift, keeping instead a consistent drive - although I might have liked a slower more contemplative Good Friday scene. It was the 'shaping' of the orchestra that counted for more here, lifting the sweeps of strings, emphasising the plaintive tone of the cellos and the spiritual uplift of the brass, with the percussion hammering home the truth. It was an utterly exhilarating performance that demonstrated the beauty and the brilliance of Wagner's orchestration for Parsifal, as well as its ability to reach deeper places.

The performance of the 9th December was slightly delayed while the DNO flew in a replacement for an indisposed Petra Lang. The disappointment of not seeing Lang sing and perform the role of Kundry was however alleviated by the promise of the replacement being Elena Pankratova, who most recently sang the role (impressively) at Bayreuth this year. Delays however prevented Pankratove from getting to the house in time so the first Act was sung very capably by Alexandra Petersamer from the side of the stage while the role was mimed out by the assistant director Astrid van den Akker. The circumstances were not ideal, but in practice it didn't have an adverse impact on the quality of the performance, with Pankratova at the side of the stage for Act II and III demonstrating every ounce of the power that marked her performance at Bayreuth. If anything, a mimed Kundry just gave her and the work an additional sense of otherworldliness.

Also seen at Bayreuth 2016, Ryan McKinny likewise gave another intense, agonised performance as Amfortas. There might not have been as much blood-letting as at Bayreuth, the 'Grail' here being a flow of blood onto a strip of cloth held in front of him for the followers, but the sacrificial nature of gesture counted. I was initially uncertain that Günther Groissböck would have the necessary gravitas for Gurnemanz, but he was more than capable for the role, his voice carrying even over the full force of the orchestra, and he had good stage presence.

Christopher Ventris didn't make the same kind of impression, but it's undoubtedly a challenge for singer and director to give Parsifal any real depth of character. He is a cipher, a symbol, a saviour who will lead the way through pain to redemption in compassion. There was no faulting his singing performance, which was nothing less than lyrical and beautifully articulated. Bastiaan Everink's Klingsor was similarly a cipher, but again well sung. The brilliance of the DNO chorus was truly astounding and deeply moving - reducing the lady beside me to tears at the end of Act I - and the flower maidens here were also exceptionally lyrical and beguiling.

Links: De Nationale Opera