Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Berlioz - La Damnation de Faust (Paris, 2015 - Webcast)

Hector Berlioz - La Damnation de Faust

L’Opéra de Paris, 2015

Philippe Jordan, Alvis Hermanis, Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, Bryn Terfel, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Sophie Claisse

Culturebox - 17 December 2015

Alvis Hermanis' production of La Damnation de Faust wasn't well received when in opened in Paris in December, the director and his team reportedly booed loudly by the audience on the first night. Even by the conservative standards of some sections of the Paris audience they must be an overly sensitive lot, as it's hard to see what anyone could find offensive about the Latvian director's elaboration of the themes in Berlioz's opera. Admittedly the science-fiction setting of a mission to Mars is not the clearest or most obvious way to explore Faust's dilemma over the nature of humanity, but it's hardly provocative Regietheater either.

As difficult as it is to define as a musical entity, Berlioz's 'dramatic legend' opera/cantata is a richly orchestrated work, exhibiting all the well-documented enthusiasm that the composer had for Goethe's work. La Damnation de Faust doesn't have a lot of dramatic action to it and is more of a compilation of selected scenes, which to judge by Boito's Mefistofele and even Gounod's Faust is the only way to adapt it to opera. Berlioz's version however is ideal for a director to apply a response to the work that is equally as rich as the musical ideas, and it doesn't have to be anything extreme either. It's about exploring the human capacity for evil and for love, and the eternal struggle for the better side of that nature to rise above the lesser.

If it's not exactly ideal for the stage, that is also the reason why the work usually attracts the more imaginative approach of likes of Terry Gilliam and La Fura dels Baus. Alvis Hermanis' approach for the Paris Opera isn't quite as extravagant in scale. There's something of Hans Neuenfels' controversial Lohengrin for Bayreuth in how it examines the themes of the work as a scientific experiment rather than from a religious/moral perspective. Hermanis takes the questions raised in La Damnation de Faust and applies them to the Mars One mission to create a human settlement on the red planet in 2025. It's an idea that works both ways, using Faust to examine real questions raised about the failings and contradictions that it reveals within the human make-up, but it also gives what is essentially a 'religious fantasy' set in the 15th century a basis in the real world of today.

That's all well and good in theory. In practice and on the stage, it doesn't work quite as well as the director might have liked. It's rather heavily signalled at the start by the question: "Who is the Faust of our time?" and suggests that it's none other than Dr Stephen Hawking. Although sung and performed freely by Jonas Kaufmann, another actor/double plays Hawking sitting in his wheelchair and speaking through that famous voice generator. The imagery is specific to the future Mars mission, but it's also broad-stroke in terms of how it contrasts science and nature. Dancers are used extensively, with men in white coats conducting experiments on the 'white mice' volunteers in glass cages wearing only their underwear, while projections show nature, egg fertilisation and grand scenes large and small from nature.

It's all very tenuous and not particularly illuminating, but as a way of illustrating the themes of Faust, it's fine. The production looks good, the stage is always active without being overactive, and the essence of what is being sung about is conveyed with some originality that avoids all the usual cliches. It holds together consistently and stands up in a way that the work itself, being made up of selected scenes that drop many of the familiar dramatic points, would not do so well on its own. There's certainly nothing here that distorts the meaning or the essence of the work, or detracts from the very specific musical interpretation that Berlioz applies to it all. It's anything but the fiasco that the Paris audience and press would have you believe.

The fact that there is a great cast and good performances that make this a memorable musical performance, also makes the extreme reaction of the audience even more baffling. Jonas Kaufmann is not given a lot to work with dramatically either by the nature of the work as Faust or the direction as Stephen Hawking, but his singing is just wonderful. Sophie Koch starts off a little wobbly and imprecise as Marguerite, but settles into the role well and gives her usual committed performance. Bryn Terfel can sing the role well, but the vague characterisation of Mephistopheles in this reading of the work and the casual dress make it feel a little perfunctory. Philippe Jordan ensures however that the orchestra provides all the dynamic and excitement that might be lacking elsewhere. How anyone could come away from the Bastille disappointed by this production is something of a mystery. 

Links: Culturebox, L’Opéra National de Paris

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Boesmans - Wintermärchen (La Monnaie, 1999 - Webcast)

Philippe Boesmans - Wintermärchen

La Monnaie-De Munt, 1999

Antonio Pappano, Luc Bondy, Dale Duesing, Susan Chilcott, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Franz-Josef Selig, Cornelia Kallisch, Juha Kotilainen, Kris Dane, Johanne Saunier, Heinz Zednik

ARTE Concert

As one of Shakespeare's late romances and believed to have been only partly written by him, The Winter's Tale - like Cymbeline, The Tempest and Pericles - seems to be designed to draw together a number of familiar dramatic situations and incidents purely for the sake of dramatic entertainment. To broadly and somewhat crudely lump them together, each of them offer variations on banishment, wild storms at sea, lost siblings cast adrift on the tides of fortune, where they meet adventure in foreign lands, only recognising their true inheritance at the end as they are belatedly reconciled into the noble families whose fortunes have since taken dramatic turns.

A Winter's Tale in particular, although it's by no means alone in this, additionally makes use of several heightened otherworldly set-pieces (or miracles, if you like) that would seem to make it a natural for the lyric stage. With a central theme of a jealous father whose foolhardy actions lead to him become estranged from his daughter, it would seem moreover a natural work for Verdi to tackle as an opera (reminiscent as it is of Rigoletto and particularly Simon Boccanegra), but although a great admirer of the playwright and one of the greatest opera composers of Shakespeare (Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff all being truly great works), I'm not aware of Verdi ever expressing an interest in The Winter's Tale or even being familiar with this particular work.

It's a work nonetheless that would certainly have presented some challenges, even to the great composer that late Verdi was, if we are to judge from the imperfections of Simon Boccanegra. Dutch composer Philippe Boesmans, working with director Luc Bondy, finds a way to draw together some of the more incongruous dramatic elements of The Winter's Tale in their 1999 collaboration on its operatic adaptation, Wintermärchen. Despite the high melodrama, or more likely in some ways due to it, The Winter's Tale carries a strong emotional and psychological undercurrent to it, one that is so expertly and movingly handled at the conclusion that it invites one to overlook the dramatic contrivance elsewhere.

Like almost all adaptations of Shakespeare to the opera, cuts are inevitable and much of the poetry is lost from the original work, but Luc Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofberger's libretto condenses the drama fairly well for Boesman's four-act opera. If the moral question explored in the work on the subject of jealousy is pushed somewhat to extremes - both in the original drama and the opera - the impact of such behaviour on others is just as important, and similarly pushed to extremes. Luc Bondy's staging of the work for La Monnaie consequently attempts to play the drama as naturalistically as is possible (barring the obvious otherworldly interventions), allowing the staging to take on some of the more melodramatic aspects.

Although the first two acts of the drama take place in Sicily then, the kingdom of King Leontes is depicted as a dark and snowy landscape for the winter's tale that is to take place. A huge wall of ice symbolises the sudden insane jealousy that drives Leontes to attempt to have his friend Polixenes poisoned in the belief that he has had an affair with the Queen and is somehow responsible for her pregnancy. As Leontes watches them from behind the wall, the block of ice becomes an enormous barrier that chills his heart, and separates him from the truth that everyone else around him can see. The close of this first half of the drama even successfully stages the trial of Hermione and brings in the judgement from Delphi as a direct message from Apollo, Boesman's post-Wagnerian orchestration capturing all the impact of the consequences that follow.

By way of contrast, both Bondy and Boesmans take a very different spin on the second half of the work that mainly takes place sixteen years later in Bohemia. Leontes' abandoned daughter has been raised by a shepherd and grown up with the name Perdita unaware of her heritage. Engaged to Prince of Bohemia, against the wishes of his father Polixenes, the mute Perdita and Florizel's romance takes place in what looks like a fenced-in basketball court in a New York backstreet alley, populated by 'bohemian" musicians, pickpockets and street dancers. Boesmans score changes considerably, with most of Act III performed in an avant-jazz style by the group Aka Moon. Florizel is not an opera singer either, but sings more like a pop musician. The language changes too, with English spoken in 'Bohemia' in contrast to the 'court language' German of the first two Acts in Sicily.

The drama and the overall tone however still adheres closely to Shakespeare's play, and in any case it's not really any less naturalistic or realistic than Shakespeare's controversial depiction of the exiles being washed up by a storm on the landlocked shores of Bohemia. The inconsistencies and the otherworldly interventions that overturn the tragic developments of The Winter's Tale for the warmer, happy ending of Leontes being reunited not only with Perdita but also with the dead Queen Hermione are likewise less important than the overall necessity of providing a satisfying conclusion that will warm the hearts of the audience. Boesmans and Bondy carry that off well, particularly in the handling of Hermione's statue coming to life. Holding to the consistency of Wintermärchen's characterisation, the Queen, frozen in time in the wall of ice, breaks through it, restored to life at the return of her daughter. 

If there's room to bring a measure of realism to the experiences of the characters in The Winter's Tale through the performances of a good cast, the scoring for the voices for Wintermärchen and the quality of the singing performances can likewise bring out the very real sentiments that lies behind all the drama. This recording of the 1999 performance of the work at La Monnaie, conducted by Antonio Pappano - revived on-line by ARTE in tribute to the recent death of Luc Bondy - benefits from exceptional singing and dramatic performances, particularly from Dale Duesing as Leontes and Susan Chilcott as Hermione. Hermoine's despair at the charges brought against her in Act II are particularly heartfelt in how the scene is scored and in how well it is performed, but Leontes likewise is a challenging role with a wide emotional range to get across. A young Franz-Josef Selig also makes a strong impression here as Camillo, with a particulrly lovely lament for his home at the opening of Act III.

Links: ARTE Concert, La Monnaie

Friday, 15 January 2016

Handel - Saul (Glyndebourne, 2015 - Webcast)

George Frideric Handel - Saul

Glyndebourne, 2015

Ivor Bolton, Barrie Kosky, Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies, Paul Appleby, Lucy Crowe, Sophie Bevan, Benjamin Hulett, John Graham-Hall

Sky Arts, Sonostream - 22nd August 2015

Very much old fashioned as they might be as a form of music, Handel's oratorios have proven to still have tremendous vitality in modern performances. More informed use of specialised period instruments in the hands of skilled musicians helps and some fine singers can bring the wonder of the music to life, but the works benefit just as much from efforts to make them visually appealing as stage works. The nature of the Biblical origins of those stories and the format Handel developed in the oratorio present some difficulties on that front, but Glyndebourne's acclaimed 2015 production of Saul is a perfect example of what can be done with an imaginative director on board.

As far as the musical performance of the work goes, there's little cause for concern. The composer's first English oratorio Saul has a tremendous character of its own, Handel by-passing the limitations that the opera format had placed on him by keeping arias short and free from repetition or da capo, using a larger scale orchestration than previously and introducing new instrumental colour, punctuating the work with short instrumental "Symphony" passages and high-impact choruses. Even if it wasn't written to be performed like an opera, there's a lot of dramatic colour in Saul and Ivor Bolton conducts the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment with all the necessary dynamic, capturing the sheer exuberance of the heightened passions while at the same time retaining the beauty and subtlety of more noble qualities expressed in the work.

Director Barrie Kosky's approach to the staging is a little less straightforward. The Australian director, who is also the Intendant at the Komische Oper in Berlin, operates in a style that is very much his own. A distinct, individual approach however works well in translating and putting across all the colour of Baroque opera for a modern audience who might otherwise find its structure and conventions dry, unappealing and unapproachable. Kosky's productions for Rameau and Monteverdi consequently can divide opinion, since they are unlikely to meet any preconceived ideas you might have for how those works should be staged. There's not much dramatic action in opera seria or in an oratorio like Saul, so an imaginative response is precisely what is required here.

Coming from the Biblical story of the Book of Samuel, the story of David and Saul is a familiar one, but not one that you would immediately consider lending itself to great music theatre, much less a high concept reinterpretation of it. Handel, with his librettist Charles Jennens however really give the story a colourful setting, with a particularly explosive opening and a magnificent finale. Barrie Kosky's approach seems to be simply to put those musical flourishes into visual terms, but not entirely in abstraction, retaining as much as possible of the essence of the emotional sentiments and the dramatic situation that provokes them in order for it all to remain meaningful.

You might think never think of the opening of Saul in the context of a huge feast on a banquet table before a colourfully dressed group of Israelites in 18th century costume, but there's no question that Kosky's vision for this setting entirely gets across the essence of Handel's music. It even invites you to listen to the music more closely to hear how the sentiments of joy are mixed with horror and fear at the sight of the decapitated head of Goliath lying gruesomely before them. Katrin Lea Tag's set designs don't elaborate on that a great deal over the three acts, remaining simple and expressive, but Kosky's finds other extravagant, surprising and grotesque ways of putting the dynamic across, using dance, movement, shouted interjections and shock imagery.

All of this is justified by the exuberance and extravagance that is found in Handel's composition itself - or if not justified, it at least abiding by the spirit of work. It might not appear to follow the stage directions of the libretto to the letter (although strictly there are no real stage directions to be followed in an oratorio), it still manages to adhere to the essential themes and intent of the work. Joyous celebration at the start of Saul is followed by anger, jealousy and love complications and ends in tragedy, mourning and reflection, but Handel no longer has to compartmentalise these sentiments according to old opera seria rules in the musical construction he develops for his oratorio.

That richness is reflected in the musical interpretation at Glyndebourne under Ivor Bolton, and it certainly finds an equivalent visual representation under Kosky's direction, but it's also matched on a performance level by the singing. Handel's music is a driving force in itself, but the dramatic emphasis that it requires often comes from the strength of individual performances. Unquestionably, it's Saul who is the centre of all the dramatic conflict in this oratorio, and it could hardly have a more driven Saul than the interpretation given here by Christopher Purves. Under Kosky's direction he's given full rein here to delve deep into his character's torment, and Purves expresses that fully in the beauty and nuance of the voice as well as in the very physical performance.

Saul then provides a solid core of anger, jealousy and hatred that inspires differing reactions and responses from all the other characters. Despite being charged with arranging for the death of David, Jonathan's inner compassion and his friendship with David overrides any hatred and jealousy that Saul tries to sow between them. David's response to Saul's actions are likewise more reflective and compassionate, and both men's character finds perfect expression in the performances of Iestyn Davies's lyrical countertenor David and Paul Appleby's noble Jonathan. The roles of Saul's daughters Michal and Merab are less well established, but the more sympathetic Michal comes across better in Sophie Bevan's performance, her undisguised glee at Saul's change of heart over her love for David adding another level of tone and amusement that fits in well with the intentions of the production. The gorgeous chorus writing that also plays such an important part in the overall tone of the work is superbly handed by The Glyndebourne Chorus.

Links: Sonostream, Glyndebourne

Monday, 11 January 2016

Reimann - Die Gespenstersonate (Deutsche Oper, 1984 - DVD)

Aribert Reimann - Die Gespenstersonate

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1984

Friedemann Layer, Heinz Lukas-Kindermann, Hans Günter Nöcker, Martha Mödl, Horst Hiestermann, David Knitson, Gudrun Sieber, Donald Grobe, William Dooley, Barbara Scherler, Kaja Borris

Arthaus Musik - DVD

Aribert Reimann's chamber opera Die Gespenstersonate (The Ghost Sonata) is an adaptation of the play by the same name by August Strindberg and it's a fairly faithful one too, in tone as much as in its translation of Strindberg's text. It's a typically bleak outlook from the Swedish dramatist on human relations, cynical of family structures, marriage and the social values that extend through them out into society.  It's a familiar subject also for Reimann, who has explored similar themes in adaptations of various other classical and literary works, in Lear and most recently, in Medea. Those are both large scale works that make use of huge orchestral forces and jarring cacophonic music for effect, but Die Gespenstersonate achieves much the same impact through Reimann's powerful use of a chamber orchestra, the arrangement putting one in mind of the sinister undercurrents created in Britten's The Turn of the Screw.

As the title indicates, ghosts also play a part in Die Gespenstersonate, but they are likewise scarcely any more unsettling or disturbed than the 'living' characters in the play. At the centre of the work is the Director Jakob Hummel, a tyrannical force who has bought up the debts of the Colonel and aims to assert his authority over his estate in the same way he does with his own household. He introduces the student, the son of the Colonel to the various figures in the house, berating them for old crimes they have committed, intent on "pulling up the weeds to reveal the crime", although we find that the Director is far from guiltless himself.

The bizarre household includes a living Mummy and even some ghosts that only the student is able to see, all of them silently going through the motions of living together in mutual hatred and suspicion, but unable to escape from the crimes that bind them together. "We've parted ways countless times", the Mummy confesses, "but then we're always drawn back together again". The Director wants to destroy it all, but the Mummy believes that there is a way of erasing the past, through repentance for the sins that have been committed.

Reimann's version of the work would appear to put this idea into a German post-war context, where the sins of the past still hang over the people, binding them together in silent guilt, casting an influence over the present day that prevents them moving forward. Despite being separated from that time and free of guilt, even the student is affected by those actions in the past, repaying what he is led to believe are his father's, principally in the ghost that arises in the shape of a lost woman who falls into a pit whenever he tries to reach for her. The split level stage of the Deutsche Oper's 1984 production, emphasises the division between past and present, the upper level inhabited by the grotesque characters of the household seen through the transparent floor.

Reimann's score is moody and unsettling with deep low tones, creating and edginess between the characters in the way that the instruments weave between one another and clash in dissonance. The scoring for the voices creates a similar effect, some of the roles very wide in tessitura in a way that is typical for Reimann, with sharp rises followed by deep plunges. Much of the text of the play is largely spoken-singing, but when Reimann uses the full range of expression for the content, breaking into sung phrases when required for extra emphasis. The young student, who perhaps is led through a greater emotional journey than the rest of the fossilised inhabitants, seems to have the biggest emotional journey in this regard.

Recorded at its world premiere in Berlin in 1984, the performances are everything they ought to be, with a striking cast taking on the challenging roles well. Released on DVD as part of Arthaus Musik's series of archive Deutsche Oper releases, the image quality is inevitably Standard Definition only, but the 4:3 image is bright and clear, capturing well the whole tone and mood of the piece as it was performed at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. The PCM Stereo audio track is excellent. There are no extra features other than the information and synopsis provided in the enclosed booklet. The DVD-9 disc is all-region compatible, with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish and Italian.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Verdi - Giovanna d'Arco (La Scala, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Giovanna d'Arco

Teatro alla Scala, 2015

Riccardo Chailly, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, Anna Netrebko, Francesco Meli, Devid Cecconi, Dmitry Beloselskiy

ARTE Concert - 7 December 2015

I suppose it can't be easy for La Scala to aspire to be a modern progressive European opera house and at the same time keep the more vociferous elements of its audience happy. The opening performance of the new season on the day celebrating the city's patron saint is always a useful barometer for measuring where the Milan opera house is going to sit in the coming year and how successful those efforts are going to be. Based on the new production of Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco, with Riccardo Chailly taking over from Daniel Barenboim as principal conductor, there seems to be some measure of compromise involved and a return to the Scala's core Italian repertoire. While there might be a few reservations, it's hard however not to see the big opening night performance as being largely a successful one.

It's probably safest to give the Italian public at La Scala a Verdi opera, but based on last year's Tcherniakov La Traviata, that's not necessarily a guarantee of unanimous acclaim. Rather than beg comparisons with another Rigoletto or La Traviata, La Scala have instead chosen to open the 2015/16 season with of one of the composer's lesser-known but worthy early operas, Giovanna d'Arco, one moreover that was first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1845. If it's done right you're onto a winner and La Scala take no chances here engaging Anna Netrebko, a singer willing and capable of adding another striking Verdi soprano role to her repertoire. It's a role she has sung before only in concert in Salzburg in 2013, but here she performs it on the dramatic stage for the first time. Netrebko doesn't disappoint.

Joan of Arc is one of those challenging Verdi soprano roles that sound amazing when they are done right, but there are few who are capable of doing it with the kind of passion, control and personality that Netrebko brings to the role here. Her deep voice does occasionally sound like it's getting 'woolier', but it's a big and expressive voice that can take on the technical challenges of Giovanna. Netrebko can also throw herself into a performance without putting a step wrong or a note out of place. Her performance here is utterly professional, almost too good you might even think and too smooth in delivery, but no - it's simply superb singing and a fine dramatic performance, no bones about it.

It's by no means a one-woman show however, and there are other significant roles in this opera that are well cast here, with Francesco Meli a wonderfully lyrical Carlo VII, and good supporting performances from Devid Cecconi replacing Carlos Alvarez as Giacomo and Dmitry Beloselskiy as Talbot. It helps that these performances are all complementary, working well with one another and with Netrebko - Meli in particular forming an incredible duo with Netrebko. I wasn't totally sold on the musical performance under Chailly. Musically, it feels a little restrained and this early Verdi could do with a bit more 'letting loose'. I haven't seen any criticism of Chailly elsewhere however, so it's perhaps best not to judge that from the less than perfect medium of a streamed internet broadcast.

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier production seems to find a good compromise between period and conceptual, but it doesn't work entirely satisfactorily. It's perhaps not the most original way of achieving that, Giovanna here seeming to be a 19th century woman suffering a mental breakdown, identifying in her dreams with Joan of Arc. The idea has merit and basis in the underlying psychology of Joan of Arc, particularly with how it's explored in Solera's libretto based on Friedrich Schiller's drama. The woman/Joan appears to have suffered a trauma, perhaps sexual, and seeks to find empowerment in her dreams of being the religious saviour of her people. Her love for her king is somewhat ambiguous however, and it raises troubling notions of how she can retain her purity and chastity, particularly in relation to her father and society look upon her presumption.

The action then all takes place in Giovanna's bedroom, the floor and walls slightly tilted, the king appearing in her visions all in gold, like a statue come to life. By the end of the prelude however, the dream has exploded into full-blown delusion, the armies and citizens pouring through the walls in spectacular fashion. The whole things brings to mind Netrebko's performance in Iolanta for the Met, and the father here is similarly a protective, powerful authority figure who attempts to hold her back from her true self or who she wants to be. She needs to be grander to overcome his objection and concerns and be seen as pure in his eyes. The whole father-daughter set-up very much Verdi however, and thematically very close to Rigoletto. Chailly highlights those musical references in the shimmering lightning effects of one scene and particularly in the final death scene.

Leiser and Caurier take this theme of religious purity and redemption a little bit further, having Jesus walk onto the stage and pass on a cross for her to carry - but it fits in with the heightened drama here and the frequent references to Giovanna's chastity. It also strengthens the charge of blasphemy laid against Giovanna for her to be burnt at the stake. It has an internal consistency then, even if it is far removed from Verdi, Solera and Schiller's original idea, never mind the historical reality. You could see this Giovanna's battlefield death as merely being a delusion of a woman on the stake, only the stake is also a delusion in this version, which doesn't leave you with a whole lot of reality to grasp onto. You get a fairly modern production then, but it's one which still allows all the armour and stirring calls to battle. Most of all however you have Verdi and Anna Netrebko, and I think most would happily settle for that.

Links: ARTE Concert, Teatro alla Scala

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Janáček - Věc Makropulos (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Jakub Hrůša, Peter Stein, Laura Aikin, Ludovit Ludha, Margarita Gritskova, Markus Marquardt, Wolfgang Bankl, Thomas Ebenstein, Aura Twarowska, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Carlos Osuna, Heinz Zednik, Marcus Pelz

Staatsoper Live at Home - 20 December 2015

You don't see a great deal of 20th century works at the Vienna State Opera, but one composer who remains popular and deserves a place there is Leoš Janáček. In addition to revivals of Otto Schenk's sumptuous The Cunning Little Vixen and David Pountey's Jenůfa this season (both of which can be seen broadcast Live at Home in April 2016), the Wiener Staatsoper's new production of Věc Makropulos is quite a commitment to a major composer who is scarcely as well represented in any other European opera house. While the 'new production' might look impressive and faithful to Janáček's vision, there's little here however that really feels 'new' about it.

Janáček always feels more like a modern composer than a classical composer to me, but in Peter Stein's production of Věc Makropulos, as with Schenk's beautiful but starkly literal and unimaginative production of Cunning Little Vixen, you get the impression that the Vienna State Opera want to wrap Janáček up with mothballs so that he can play safely alongside the Zeffirelli production of La Bohème and Schenk's production of Die Fledermaus there. I can't help feeling that by playing safe Peter Stein entirely misses the point of Věc Makropulos. The opera's main character, Emilia Marty is a 337 year old woman who moves on and refreshes herself with the times in order to retain her allure and mystery. Věc Makropulos essentially must take place in 'the present', but this production doesn't look like it has aged in the hundred years since it was written.

True, just because Věc Makropulos is 'science fiction' doesn't mean it has to look futuristic, but miring the work inside a frozen time-capsule in the year 1922 doesn't do an awful lot for the theme of existing outside the laws of time. You can't really fault the production however for adhering precisely and with utmost fidelity to the set designs and stage directions as they are in the libretto.  It looks exactly how you would imagine an ideal period production of Věc Makropulos would be if it were lifted straight off the page. Dr Kolenaty's office in Prague in 1922 for Act I is the Kafkaesque bureaucratic library of books, volumes and case papers, with steps leading up to the highest shelves. Act II shows a backstage view of stage looking out onto an opera house with a stage throne (as specified in the libretto) sitting plump in the middle of the stage. Emilia's hotel room in Act III is all clean Art Deco curves, straight lines and glossy surfaces.

Arguably, the fact that the settings are traditional and period shouldn't matter as much as what you do within it. Sadly, there was absolutely no imagination or interpretation applied here either. Perhaps I noticed it more because there were unusually no English subtitles provided for this Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home production, meaning I had to rely on a text of the libretto from elsewhere while watching the performance, but it is astonishing how literal the production is in its translation of the directions. Peter Stein not only creates the set design to the exact specifications of the libretto, but he also follows every single movement, gesture and even lighting direction to the letter.

In Act III for example when Emilia Marty returns after her collapse and her off-stage rapid aging, the stage directions specify a greenish lighting. Sure enough, the panels of the wall cast a greenish glow over the stage until the directions call for the lighting to turn red at the dramatic final scene, and the Vienna production dutifully complies. I don't think I've ever seen a production reproduced with such slavish exactitude as this one. The argument of course is why shouldn't the production follow the directions to the letter since that is clearly what the composer wanted? If you've ever wanted an answer to that question it's provided here. It creates a dull, superficial and lifeless production that holds no surprises, but rather just feels like it is going through the motions, moving people around restrictively like puppets.

Janáček's greatest operas are all about 'life', about the passing of time, about being in the moment and accepting one's humanity but with an awareness of being part of something greater. He treats the subject with more sensitivity and humanity in Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen, as well as in his final opera From the House of the Dead, but there can be much more made of the cruel fate of Elina Makropulos than is achieved in this drearily literal production that ignores the subtext and meaning and has no emphasis or ideas of its own to bring to the stage. As lovely as the production looks, it's so dull and unimaginative that it almost but not quite takes away from the real spark of the life that is principally there in Janáček's music.

Jakub Hrůša's conducting sounded to me like it was the musical equivalent of the staging. It was a strictly literal interpretation and well played but with no inspiration or verve. Janáček's music seems to allow for wider interpretation than most, and I've never heard any of his works sound the same twice. Some concentrate on the rhythmic pulse, others spin and leap according to the patterns of the sung language, but there should essentially be a spark of life there. It's hard to entirely extinguish the essence of that in the composer's wonderful arrangements and it does remain intact here, occasionally breaking through to enliven the monotony of the dramatic walk-through.

The singing too was exceptionally good, which is a bonus, and this is a very tricky work to sing. Laura Aikin in particular was simply outstanding as Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos. I hadn't paid enough attention to the cast list, and couldn't quite recognise her in this role when she appeared, but I was very impressed when I checked during the interval. Whether Aikin is the right age now to play the role of an 'ageless beauty' is debatable, but she certainly gave her character the kind of ambiguity required, somewhere between the cold indifference of having seen and experienced it all, and anxiety and vulnerability over the cruel uncertainty of her fate. Certainly in terms of the singing, Aikin could hardly be faulted, bringing more personality than the stiff stage directions permitted.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Wagner - Der fliegende Höllander (Theater an der Wien, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Höllander

Theater an der Wien, 2015

Marc Minkowski, Olivier Py, Samuel Youn, Ingela Brimberg, Lars Woldt, Bernard Richter, Manuel Günther, Ann-Beth Solvang

Sonostream TV - 24 November 2015

The enduring legacy of Wagner's operas, even as musical fashions and tastes have long moved on, has much to do with his sense of theatre. It's this underrated aspect of the composer's work that can first be seen developing into something greater in Der fliegende Höllander, the composer aligning a sense of theatricality to a subject of mythological drama in a way that would inspire his own distinctive musical ideas and themes. If the language and subject of Der fliegende Höllander is perhaps not convincing on its own terms to a modern audience and its message is by no means a profound or nuanced one, its dramatic and musical-drama strengths are such that the work can still touch upon something deeper.

Olivier Py's opera productions have their problems, and taking liberties with the intent of the work can be one of them, but as an actor himself and theatre director (as well as currently being the artistic director and programmer of the prestigious Avignon drama festival) there is no question that he has a strong sense of theatre. Py has also developed his own theatrical language and signature in the opera house over recent years, most inspired when dealing with questions of good and evil, light and dark, sacrifice and redemption. His productions have consequently been more successful when applied to works like Hamlet, Dialogues des Carmélites and Ariane et Barbe-bleu, and less so when trying to shoehorn them into something like Aida.

There's no question then that Der fliegende Höllander fits very well with this vision, but just in case you are in any doubt, Senta walks across the stage early during the overture of this Theater an der Wien production and writes 'Erlösung' (Redemption) on the black boards of the set's representation of the Dutchman's ship. Pierre-André Weitz's set design is familiar from the tone that Py has established in those aforementioned works with similar themes. It's dark and imposing. The black panels not only represent the Dutchman's ship, but also the walls of the house where Senta and Donald live. The rotating set however offers up many more possibilities and configurations, as well as symbolically marking a dividing line between interior worlds and the outside world.

There's a lot of interiority in Der fliegende Höllander, and Py manages to represent it well in this production through the set, but also with simple effective devices that don't stretch the indulgence of the audience. In Act I for example, Py handles the long monologues in archaic verse well by not having the performers stand alone on the stage singing to themselves. When the Steersman sings to his love from his lonely lookout, you actually see her silently walk up and embrace him. Likewise when the Dutchman laments the fate that condemns him to eternally sail the high seas, he sings it to a dancer who prowls dramatically alongside him on the stage. Py indulges in the theatricality a little by having the dancer cover his face and shoulders in black make-up on the stage during the overture, the dressing room mirror remaining there throughout.

In terms of visualising the force of evil, or even Satan, that the captain struggles with, it's highly effective and doesn't come to dominate the proceedings the way dancing stage doubles often do. Likewise, while Py characteristically brings full-frontal nudity (male and female) into the production, it's to illustrate and bring out the underlying passions that exist in the work. A naked double for Senta lies stretched out on a bed and appears vulnerable while the Dutchman and her father, Duncan (as he is called in this version of the work), barter the terms of his stay at their house with the hand of his daughter thrown in for good measure. The stage and the characterisation elsewhere is filled with little details like that. It's partly updated to the 1940s - for no discernible reason I can see other than it looks very smart for the costume design - but the locations are more symbolic than literal.

Act II consequently abandons any idea of the wives being seamstresses spinning, Mary rather directing them in a choir practice, since what they are really doing is indeed singing. With Senta's recounting of the legend and her first meeting of the Dutchman, all of the elements seeded throughout come together, the stage rotating faster, drawing together their worlds; a much more expansive world than the small house in a boxed in space that Erik/Georg hopes to share with Senta. Symbolism however - a field of black crosses, a huge skull - indicates that the scope of Senta's life with the Dutchman is one determined by its fatalistic nature. She has effectively entered into a death pact.

Py's theatrical interpretation of Wagner's musical-drama is only part of the equation. The singing has a large role in determining whether these ideas (Wagner's and Py's) work on the stage. The principal roles in the Theatre an der Wien's 2015 production are all superb. Samuel Youn is a Bayreuth regular and his characterisation in performance just seems to deepen and gain greater authority. Ingela Brimberg impressively channels all the passion of Senta in a bright timbre with secure delivery. She initially seems more tormented than romantic, but her first scene with the Dutchman shows that she is capable of a softer touch that loses none of its force. Lars Woldt is a superb Donald and Bernard Richter a much more sympathetic and sweetly toned Georg/Erik than is usually the case. Even Manuel Günther's Steersman and Ann-Beth Solvang's Mary are impressive here.

As some of the perhaps confusing references indicate, conductor Marc Minkowski is working with the earliest version of Der fliegende Höllander with its original Scottish setting, with Daland named Duncan and Erik as Georg. Not that this makes any discernable difference as far as Py's non-Scottish specific setting is concerned, nor in how Minkowski directs the now common joined-up, no-interval version of the work. It's not the kind of opera that I would associate Minkowski with, but there's no question that you get the full impact of Wagner here, the music raging and stormy, moody and dark, lyrical and highly Romantic with all the temperament of a changeable sea.

Py and Minkowski's efforts here all play to the strengths of Der fliegende Höllander, not against it, expanding on the characterisation perhaps, but only in a way that tries to get at an essential truth. Whether the Romanticism of the work means anything in an age when the currency of legends and mythology is much devalued, where love and sacrifice are less common, the truth and the beauty of Wagner's vision still comes through in its glorious theatricality.

Links: Sonostream, Theater an der Wien