Thursday, 30 June 2016

Donizetti - Poliuto (Glyndebourne, 2015)

Gaetano Donizetti - Poliuto

Glyndebourne, 2015

Enrique Mazzola, Mariame Clément, Michael Fabiano, Ana María Martínez, Igor Golovatenko, Matthew Rose, Timothy Robinson, Emanuele D’Aguanno

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Donizetti's rarely performed Poliuto takes place in ancient times, in Armenia in 259 AD, but Mariame Clément's production establishes the context and what is at stake immediately in the first scene, without having to explain the background. In a more modern setting a group of Christians who could be any oppressed group of people are skulking around trying to hide their activities from the watchful authorities. One, scarred on his chest, shows that they are prepared to suffer for their beliefs, even to martyrdom, which would be the case if they were caught.

The setting and the tone is established in a manner that is admirably concise and direct for a work that is lean and to the point also. A few subsequent scenes build on this. Nearco, the leader of the Christian 'cult' prohibited by the law on pain of death, wields a blade and seems to initiate a baptism of blood with a new convert, Poliuto. Adding to the tension at this early stage with some typically operatic romantic complications, Poliuto confesses to Nearco that his nervousness is not entirely due to taking part in a forbidden ritual, but that he's also concerned that his wife might be unfaithful.

Although the situations are familiar and conventional, Poliuto is not the familiar Donizetti of racing rhythms and flowing bel canto melodies. The tone from the outset is more sombre, or at least played as such here, the music more closely aligned and matched to the subject with all the variety of situations that this entails. There seems to be justification for this, the conductor Enrique Mazzola bringing out the delicacy of the arrangements in the beauty of the melodic line, but also finding the dramatic undercurrents within it that connect and bring about sharp changes of tone.

It's the kind of flow that should enable Paolina, Poliuto's wife, to move away from dark suspicions about her husband's involvement with this dangerous sect to accepting the message of love they preach in the aria 'Di quai soave lagrime'. The tone switches immediately again with the news that the Roman general Severo has not been killed in battle as she believed. Severo is indeed Paolina's lover, or was previously before she married Poliuto. Her emotions then are mixed and conflicted, relief and joy that the man she once loved has not died turning quickly to concern about facing up to those feelings.

Donizetti similarly runs through the emotional gamut as it affects Severo, returning in glory to a triumphal chorus (that anticipates the one in Verdi's Aida) and then stepping outside it to consider his own feelings at this moment. The handling of these mixed and conflicted sensations is masterful, but the opera of course is devised to incorporate such a wide range of dramatic colour, one that would be developed further in the grand opéra tradition when Poliuto, after being rejected by Naples for depicting religious martyrdom on the stage, was rewritten and expanded as Les Martyrs for Paris.

It's not a bad idea then to play down the excesses of the melodrama in the staging, and Mariame Clément keeps the Glyndebourne production uncluttered and uncomplicated. Tall, stone pillars move to hide and conceal, as well as giving a sense of cold, immovable determination that could be applied to each of the conflicting forces and beliefs within the work. A few necessary props are used and there are some projections; a forest, clouds crossing over and closing down moods, even opening out to show, for example a processional cavalcade of official cars marking Severo's return.

The settings and projections are mostly well-judged, complementing the music as well as the manner in which Donizetti - in his usual fashion - tightens the screws, darkening the mood and quickening the pace. If occasionally tensions seem to be slightly released, it's only to provide enough slack to ramp them up even further, ending each of the acts with rousing finales and culminating in a position where the eventual martyrdom becomes as agonising as it is inevitable. The direction keeps all of this under control without unnecessary overemphasis, or at least thankfully with nothing that matches or surpasses having the Romans dressed in pseudo-Nazi uniforms.

That feels like something of a misstep, and I'm not sure the analogy is a helpful one, but it isn't taken much further than that. It's not that the work can't support such interpretation. The use of religion as a tool to control the masses and satisfy their bloodlust in order to further political interests is touched upon here in the libretto, but it's not developed any further than this. Despite some attempt at modernisation and universal application, the martyrdom of its adherents at the conclusion ensures that the Christian sacrificial outlook dominates and scarcely leaves room for any other interpretation. Donizetti's writing here is powerful enough that you can even hear strains of Violetta's lament 'Ah! Gran Dio! morir si giovane' from La Traviata at the conclusion. Verdi evidently learned much from this work.

The strength of Poliuto's musical and dramatic content and the force that it asserts is backed up by a strong cast of singers. Michael Fabiano - seen at Glyndebourne last year as Alfredo in La Traviata - is particularly good as Poliuto, the American demonstrating a robust tenor voice that is also capable of finer expression. Ana María Martínez is a little bit stretched on occasion by the high note demands of Paolina, but handles a challenging role well. The baritone role of Severo could probably use a little more depth and gravity, but it's sung with a lyrical character by Igor Golovatenko that emphasises the romantic nature of the role a little more. Matthew Rose however puts plenty of weight and gravity behind Callistene the High Priest to balance the range and tone of voices in the work, as does Emanuele D’Aguanno's Nearco for the tenor voice.

Links: Glyndebourne

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Handel - Saul (Glyndebourne, 2015)

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

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

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: Glyndebourne

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Strauss - Salome (Genoa, 2016)

Richard Strauss - Salome

Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa - 2016

Fabio Luisi, Rosetta Cucchi, Lise Lindstrom, Jane Henschel, Herwig Pecoraro, Mark Delavan, Patrick Vogel, Marina Ogii, Marcello Nardis, Alessandro Fantoni, Naoyuki Okada, Jason Kim, Alessandro Busi, Frano Lufi, Manuel Pierattelli, Roberto Maietta, Luca Gallo, Alessandro Busi, Beate Vollack

Teatro Carlo Felice Live Streaming - 25 May 2016

Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice production of Salome doesn't appear to offer any specific interpretation or modernisation of the work. If it seems to take a more generic approach that never strays far from the expected lines, it nonetheless captures the destructive and almost self-defeating essence of what is vital about Strauss's first great operatic masterpiece.

The source and the context of the creation of Strauss's version of Salome are highly relevant in assessing its importance, its greatness, its legacy, as in some respects it's emblematic of a time of great change in music and in modernist thinking. Strauss had seen Wilde's play in a fairly faithful German-language translation by Hedwig Lachmann and the play's ideas and sensibility clearly resonate with what was happening in turn of the century Vienna. The impact that the work made on him provided Strauss with a challenge to replicate it within the world of music.

As a source, and for what the work says, Oscar Wilde's scandalous play is far more important than the original Biblical tale. All Wilde's plays - even the drawing room comedies like 'An Ideal Husband' and 'The Importance of Being Earnest' - are subversive in one way or another, gently mocking Victorian mores and attitudes. 'Salome' however is a little more daring. Written in French, Wilde knew that the play would never be performed in England due to blasphemy laws that prevented Biblical characters appearing on the stage, and it freed him creatively to expand on the florid poetry that would twist the exotic Biblical setting into a taboo-breaking tale of forbidden lust and death. 

In some respects then, at a level above the purely textual, 'Salome' is about destroying conventional views; quite literally delving into the cistern of corruption that lies beneath the comfortable facade of respectable society. It's easy now to see what attracted Strauss to the challenge of putting this transgressive text to a new and more rigorous form of music. This was the kind of subject that would take the Liebestod philosophy of Strauss's idol Wagner one stage further in musical terms, break with convention and upset a few people. There wasn't much point in doing anything else and, up to that point, there would be nothing that pushed musical boundaries further than Salome.

So perfectly interlocked is the music with the text, the entire piece one continuous flow of intense poetry, that Salome really is a work that speaks for itself. In practical terms the set needs to be generally all-purpose for the locations of the continuous one-act opera and, like Strauss's subsequent opera Elektra, it needs to be focussed on establishing mood. The Carlo Felice production in Genoa takes a fairly generic approach then that is vaguely Biblical in look and feel, but perhaps actually looks a little more Greek tragedy. In fact, I'm sure they could use the same set just as effectively for Elektra with minimal changes, but there is at least a commonality between the treatment of the subjects in these two one-act Strauss tone-poem operas.

Salome, like Elektra, is about a corrupt or degenerate family (a nation, a way of life) that is being eaten up by its own descent into self-destruction. The facade of respectability is being stripped away to reveal decadence and dark lusts, and much of this is already there in the music and the poetry of the libretto. Tiziano Santi's sets provide a fairly conventional response to this, with a dark pit in the centre of the stage from which Jochanaan's warnings of the coming of a new way emanate. Salome dangerously flirts around this pit, the product of a corrupt union, trying to bend the promise of Jochanaan's visions to her own twisted will. Aside from the requirements of the stage direction and lighting to meet the drama, the only significant change to the set is to show the downfall of a royal line in the fracturing of the surrounding marble framework of the palace.

Fabio Luisi keeps a tight rein on proceedings from the orchestra pit, but like Rosetta Cucchi's direction, it doesn't really seem to plumb the dark depths of the work, although admittedly in a work as intense as this, that's difficult to judge from a live internet stream rather than from inside the theatre. Lise Lindstrom has that precise Turandot voice that matches Salome's requirements of meeting Wagnerian force with Puccinian high lyricism. The dynamic between her fluctuating states of reverie and fury isn't perhaps quite as pronounced as it might be but she has the voice and all the dangerous allure for this role. Herwig Pecoraro and Jane Henschel show their suitability and experience in the roles of Herod and Herodias. Mark Delavan is a fabulous deeply intoned Jochanaan.

Links: Teatro Carlo Felice Streaming

Monday, 6 June 2016

Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Glyndebourne, 2015)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Glyndebourne, 2015

Robin Ticciati, David McVicar, Sally Matthews, Edgaras Montvidas, Tobias Kehrer, Brenden Gunnell, Franck Saurel, Mari Eriksmoen, Jonas Cradock

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

In a radical new approach to directing opera, David McVicar has moved more towards the idea of respecting the original period and libretto in order to get as close as possible to the composer's intentions. It's radical only in that such fidelity to the source is not currently fashionable in opera productions, but McVicar's contention would be that putting the work above the director's ego is surely paramount. While McVicar may have been a little more flexible with period detail in other opera productions in the past, he has however always seemed to be less inclined to mess about with the original intentions of Mozart operas and you can't really argue with the reasoning behind that that decision.

The great Mozart operas need no updating to assist a modern audience in grasping the universality and humanism that lies within them. By the same token their qualities ensure that they can equally withstand a modern interpretation, but what matters is that the director remains faithful to the meaning and intent of the works, and in that respect 'traditional' works just as well as 'revised'. Whether the same qualities can be found in an old-fashioned Singspiel comedy like Die Entführung aus dem Serail however is more questionable, as is the decision to play it straight with period detail and literalism. It works, of course - it's still Mozart - but whether it presents the work in its best light for a modern audience is debatable.

Evidently it's not possible to stage a work such as this as it was originally intended. The world is a different place, people behave a little differently and they have different ideas of what humour can be derived from western women being held captive in a barbaric Turkish harem. Die Entführung aus dem Serail however is no inconsequential lightweight comedy and Mozart still manages to find the most noble human sentiments in even the most unlikely places and brings it out beautifully in his music. All McVicar's production seeks to do is make it all seem a little more realistic and credible without damaging the integrity of the work.

Or indeed the humour. Realistic and credible is not really essential for a comedy opera and it can in fact be a mistake to take it too seriously. Christof Loy has already established that when you include all or most of the spoken dialogue, you have a very different Die Entführung aus dem Serail from the general perception of the work. McVicar's direction, also retaining most of the spoken text, allows the humour to work alongside this, and undoubtedly that's an important aspect that contributes to the wider human element of the work.

I'm not sure though that there's much to be gained from asking Vicki Mortimer to go into such meticulous detail in researching and building the elaborate sets for this Glyndebourne production. McVicar tweaks the public and private locations from scene to scene to make it more realistic - even if there is still no sense whatsoever of it being in a seraglio - and Mortimer and the crew oblige with impressive stage-craft. For the amount of effort put into this however, it doesn't seem to bring a corresponding increase in value or depth. If however all you gain is a sense of order and elegance as well as a certain delicacy of touch, well then that suits Mozart, and McVicar, as he often does, judges the tone perfectly and matches it on the stage impressively.

Looking like something of a sister production for McVicar's 2013 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg however, it's a sign of the safer and more traditional side adopted in recent years by Glyndebourne. There are still some daring reworkings in each year's programme, but not here and not with Mozart - at least not since the 2010 'La Dolce Vita' version of Don Giovanni. Die Entführung aus dem Serail has proven its worth in the Mozart operatic canon over the years and it deserves a serious treatment. It gets that here with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Robin Ticciati, the period orchestra arrangement enlivening the work with a real kick. There's much to enjoy in the treatment then, just not much that is imaginative or adventurous.

Unfortunately, while the cast is impressive and the singers are all very capable, it's not good enough overall to give the production a bit more of a lift or an edge. Sally Matthews has a powerful range and has impressed many times on the Glyndebourne stage, but her timbre is a little harsh for Mozart. McVicar clearly intends to depict Konstanze as a woman with a little more fire and grit, and you do get a realistic sense of the seriousness of her predicament, but the lyricism and the romantic sensibility isn't there. Her voice seems warmer in the second and third acts, but without a sufficient connection with Edgaras Montvidas' Belmonte, it never really comes together the way you might like.

Montvidas is fine and if he similarly doesn't have the beautiful soaring tone of a typical Mozart tenor or a prototype Tamino he nonetheless gives a good performance as Belmonte. It just doesn't particularly stand out. For Die Entführung to work well however, you really need the comic roles to be well cast, and there at least the singing matched the tone being strived for with Brenden Gunnell a lively and desperate Pedrillo - a role that has Papageno-like potential for stealing the show in this opera - and with Tobias Kehrer excelling as his adversary Osmin. Mari Eriksmoen's voice wasn't always the strongest, but her Blonde was played well.

What continues to be a remarkable discovery however, fully justifying the decision to include as much of the spoken dialogue as possible, is just how important and significant the non-singing role of Pasha Selim is to the whole tone and purpose of the opera. It's one that proves that drama is the beating heart of opera and one that Mozart wasn't afraid to entrust to an actor rather than a singer. Franck Saurel plays the role rather well here, showing the kind of dynamic and emotional investment that Selim brings to the work, deepening the serious questions raised as well as contrasting with and extending the comedy. Proving McVicar's point, given the right environment and fidelity to the intent of Mozart's music and drama, Die Entführung aus dem Serail speaks for itself.

The quality of the HD transfer on Blu-ray is exceptionally good, not least with the detail that can be heard in the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 and the LPCM Stereo mixes. The BD includes a feature that looks into how the visual look of the production was developed. There's more on this in the booklet, where there is an interview with the set designer Vicki Mortimer. The booklet also contains an essay by Cori Ellison and a synopsis for the opera.

Links: Glyndebourne

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Champs-Elysées Paris, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris - 2016

Daniele Gatti, Pierre Audi, Torsten Kerl, Rachel Nicholls, Steven Humes, Brett Polegato, Andrew Rees, Michelle Breedt, Marc Larcher, Francis Dudziak

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris - 15 May 2016

There wasn't much that was traditional about the setting of Pierre Audi's new production of Tristan und Isolde for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, but Wagner's groundbreaking opera works on a different plane from most and its internalised exploration of desire is given much better expression in its music than in its dramatic presentation. In that respect Daniele Gatti, conducting this Wagner opera for the first time, found the perfect measure of expression that complemented Audi's representation of the work's complex and sometimes contradictory themes.

In terms of its look and symbolism, the set doesn't appear particularly new or inspired. Instead of a ship in Act I we get large upright panels that vaguely give the impression of a ship's hull. The panels move around the stage to set up barriers, create divisions, opening up and closing down spaces. Instead of a tower, Act II features the huge curved ribs of a leviathan that rise out of the stage, creating wishbone-like formations around a framework that is covered to look like a black standing stone. For the island of Kareol in Act III, the wounded, dying Tristan agonises in a dark box with a mirrored background that opens up to let in the light during Isolde's transfiguration.

Principally however, the expression of the set reflects the work's play of darkness and light. The background is a Robert Wilson-like wall of gradiated light that is partially eclipsed at various points in each of the three acts by one or two large black squares. You can take these as representations of Tristan and Isolde, or view them in the abstract as black hole of all-consuming desire, but its bold symbolism is in accordance with the nature of the work and its themes. The more nuanced levels of the work and the contradictory clashes between life and death in Wagner's Romantic application of the Schopenhauer-influenced meditations are however also played out in more subtle lighting effects.

Mostly however, its the music that carries the weight of all these themes and whether it's Gatti's conducting, the playing of the orchestra or the acoustics of the venue (having encountered none of them together live in this theatre before), but the richness of sound in this performance was incredible. All the detail in the score was brought out with delicacy and precision, and with Wagner and this opera in particular there's a wealth of detail that can be coaxed out if it isn't allowed to be smothered in heavy orchestration. Gatti's pace was perfectly measured to draw every ounce of emotion out of the score, having a lightness of touch, but swelling up into great surges of pure overwhelming desire.

As important as this aspect is it needs to work with everything else around it, and there was a feeling that director, conductor and singers - not to mention lighting that was as important to the overall mood as anything else - were all working to a common purpose. The production, the singing, the measured delivery of the music all remained within that all-important space in Tristan und Isolde between emotionally-charged and overbearing. If one element threatened to take things too far, another would balance it out.

In particular the casting for the singing seemed well-judged for the size of the theatre as well as for the mood and tone that was being pitched. Torsten Kerl's heroic tenor is a little more hard-edged than the usual Romantic Tristan, his voice not a particularly large one either in Act I, but that's understandable at this stage as that voice has a long way to go yet. By Act II and Act III however, I found that I didn't even notice that it was Torsten Kerl, but just that it was Tristan in the throes of unbearable longing. Replacing the originally scheduled Emily Magee, Rachel Nicholls' wasn't a typical Isolde either, her voice softer and more lyrical, her passions more gently expressed, going more with the flow of the production rather than fighting to rise above it. In this case, that approach worked very well, and you can imagine how gorgeous their Nachtgesang was.

Steven Humes was similarly a more restrained King Marke than you more commonly find, his voice well suited to his more forgiving nature here. Less transported by their desires (although desire exists in some form in all of the characters) or perhaps struggling with them more since their master's have abandoned themselves to their sentiments, Michelle Breedt's Brangäne and Brett Polegato's Kurwenal were rather more emotionally driven, both singers making a great impression, balancing out the range of expression. At the conclusion Nicholls' Isolde delivered a Liebestod that accordingly felt like less of a mountain for the soprano to climb than a gentle submission and surrender to the extraordinary forces that had been generated, the music then gently dissipating and evaporating in pure sublimation into the aether.

Links: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

Friday, 20 May 2016

Verdi - Rigoletto (Opéra National de Paris, 2016)

Giuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2016

Pier Giorgio Morandi, Claus Guth, Francesco Demuro, Franco Vassallo, Irina Lungu, Andrea Mastroni, Vesselina Kasarova, Isabelle Druet, Mikhail Kolelishvili, Michal Partyka, Christophe Berry, Tiago Matos, Andreea Soare, Adriana Gonzalez, Florent Mbia

Bastille, Paris - 14 May 2016

There's been a very evident attempt to make the artistic direction of the Paris Opera a bit more cutting edge again under its new director Stephane Lissner, but Claus Guth's setting of Rigoletto in a brown cardboard box seems to being taking things a little too far. It's hardly the most attractive or imaginative representation for the dramatic setting of the opera in Mantua, and it's hard to imagine how it could even suit the purposes of Guth's usually intense psychological exploration of character and motivation.

It's not so much the case that Mantua and its royal court are represented by a cardboard box however as much as it's Rigoletto's regrets that are packed away in the box. The broken and dishevelled jester walks to the front of the stage at the start of the opera, wearing a grimy overcoat, his whitened clown make-up scored with deep creases, carrying a box that holds his only possessions. Rigoletto despairingly draws out a clown suit and a bloodstained white dress and the opera commences in flashback all within the confines of the larger box that fills the stage.

It's a relatively straightforward device in that respect and there's actually not any real licence taken with the characters or the drama elsewhere. The period is vague and non-specific, the costumes period in style for opening royal court scene, even if the set is plain brown corrugated cardboard, but it gradually moves into more modern styled dress as the opera progresses. As plain as the set is, it's functional, requiring few changes between acts - a staircase added in Act II, some of the flaps opening to provide doorways for the tavern scene and some projections are used. It consistently remains a representation of Rigoletto's life after the event being reduced to the contents of a cardboard box.

For deeper exploration of character then and the complex father/daughter issues at the heart of the work, Guth relies on another familiar device often employed in his productions; the use of doubles. Rigoletto in the flashback is represented by the singer, but the actor who 'unboxed' the memory is frequently present on the stage at the same time, distraught and helpless, unable to intervene and change what has already occurred. This added level of regret does highlight Rigoletto's folly to some extent and bring a little more intensity to the scenes, but no more really than you if you've seen the opera before and already know what is ahead.

Gilda is similarly split and not just to one double but to a series of Gildas in dancers of different ages. Unsurprisingly, these younger Gildas are intended to show the young girl as an innocent, but more than that they also reflect her 'growth'. Rigoletto's protection of Gilda means that her growth is stunted in a way that leads to her innocence being cruelly abused when it comes into contact with the real world, but it does bring about a twisted kind of growth that can also account for her sacrifice in the final act. It's nothing new, just another way to emphasise or perhaps 'translate' a more melodramatic device from the past into one that carries a little more credibility for a modern audience today.

What appears to be given more emphasis in Guth's version that is not so often explored is the relationship between the assassin Sparafucile and Rigoletto, since Sparafucile when he first appears acts as a mirror image of Rigoletto. Again, this is just emphasising what is there in the libretto, Rigoletto even acknowledging that the two men are alike, only one kills with words while the other kills with the sword. Drawing attention to this however does put greater emphasis on the cowardice of the jester, his hiding his failure to act behind words, just as he hides his identity from his daughter. This of course comes back to haunt him and in this version - as it's done in flashback - he already knows it, which only intensifies his failure and his pitiful attempts to shift the blame onto a 'maledizione'.

Cardboard box aside then, Guth's Rigoletto sticks fairly closely to the accepted characterisation with only a little shift of where the emphasis lies and it's fairly successful in where it applies them. In the first Act at least however, it's not at all certain that the music and singing performances measure up to it. It all feels somewhat half-hearted and routine. As is usually the case with Rigoletto however, I find that you have to reserve judgement until Act II and Act III. Which, as an aside, makes me begin to wonder whether the first Act is really all it's cracked up to be. It certainly has all the elements in place and Verdi spices it up with plenty of dramatic colour and some famous arias, but it rarely ever seems to take off. Guth's production doesn't really help matters here in Paris.

Act II and III however, while the direction doesn't particularly contribute much more to the production, are indeed more alive and engaging, which suggests that Act I is really just a prelude to set the scene or act as a counterbalance for the fireworks in the subsequent Acts. Accordingly, there's a noticeably more invigorating drive from Pier Giorgio Morandi's conducting of the orchestra that is matched by what takes place on the stage and in the singing. Franco Vassallo's Rigoletto is by no means one of the great interpretations of the role, but there was no sign of faltering or being challenged by it. The 'Cortigiani' is a good measure of a Rigoletto and Vassallo was more than capable, carrying the role well but not really inspired or even truly fired-up.

The same could be said about most of the other roles in these second cast performances for the later run of the 2016 production. Francesco Demuro's Duke of Mantua was however by far the most impressive, his bright tenor voice clear and ringing, sailing through 'La donna è mobile' with such charm that it appeared natural and effortless. We didn't get to see much of the Duke's 'evil' side, but that was more of a directing decision and a surprising omission for Guth since the Duke seems the most obvious dual-personality in the opera. Irina Lungu had a few wavers, but rose to the challenges of Gilda's role and brought some personality to it. Andrea Mastroni was fine if not making as menacing a Sparafucile as you might like.  Vesselina Kasarova is, to say the least, an acquired taste, but she is capable of some interesting interpretations. Not her Maddalena unfortunately, which was wayward, wooly and largely inaudible, her voice now losing much of its former force.

Even if it wasn't traditionally staged and the singing wasn't of the highest standards, the Paris Rigoletto hit the mark sufficiently at all the necessary dramatic and musical points. Act I carried off the tricky staging of Gilda's abduction stylishly if not naturalistically, mainly through the choreography of the courtiers in their masks, the scene ending with the thundering accompaniment to Rigoletto's dread of Monterone's curse. Act II's duets had pace and fury in equal measure and although the staging of Gilda's death scene remained largely off-stage, represented only by a falling curtain, the full impact of the scene was felt.

This performance of Rigoletto was viewed at the Bastille on the 14th May 2016. A recording of the production with the alternative cast that includes Olga Peretyatko (Gilda), Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) and Michael Fabiano (Rigoletto) is currently available streaming on-line on France TV's Culturebox website, although region restrictions are in place.

Links: L'Opéra National de Paris, Culturebox

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Mozart - Lucio Silla (Philharmonie Paris, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Lucio Silla

Philharmonie de Paris, 2016

Laurence Equilbey, Insula orchestra, Rita Cosentino, Franco Fagioli, Olga Pudova, Alessandro Liberatore, Chiara Skerath, Ilse Eerens

Culturebox - 23 April 2016

Written when he was 16 years old, Mozart's early opera Lucio Silla (1772) is never going to be regarded on the same terms as the composer's mature masterpieces, but like most of the Mozart's early works there are flashes of brilliance and a wonderful consistency to the work that can certainly be highlighted in a sympathetic stage production. You would expect however, that as an opera seria, Lucio Silla might need something a little more than the minimal semi-staged production of this rarely performed work at the Philharmonie de Paris, but the quality of the work and the performance is apparent nonetheless.

That's because even in this early work, Mozart's writing surpasses and overcomes the traditional static nature of the opera seria with its repetitive da capo arias and what can often be generic characterisation. There's movement and life in Mozart's energetic score alone, where even the recitative is beautifully orchestrated, flowing into elegant ariosos and inventive melodic arias. A minimal stage set isn't an issue then; in this case the opera is the music, the arias and the sentiments expressed, not the dramatic playing.

The period setting isn't adhered to, but it doesn't need to be either. Lucio Silla might be an old opera - nearly 250 years old - and its subject might be about a Roman dictator in 82 BC - but its sentiments are universal and not dependent upon its historical context. Those sentiments are the familiar ones of love, betrayal, rejection and reconciliation, but with Mozart they are not generic either. They key to making Lucio Silla work is in how successfully a production can manages to capture something of the mood of the piece and complement the young Mozart's delightful score.

That's not as obvious as it sounds, since the music sound largely conventional in its arrangements, even if it is graced by Mozart's characteristic gift for elegance and melody. Try and look in that music for any deeper insight into character or motivation however, and it's not obviously there, but it can be brought out in performance. The subject of an evil dictator would presuppose death and darkness as the dominant mood, and you can at least get a sense of that in the music. The desperation of lives and love in the balance too.

The basic sets for the production directed by Rita Cosentino capture that to some extent also. Largely, the set consists of little more than a couple of panels with some familiar Italian words written graffiti-like on them in chalk. SILLA is juxtaposed with MORTE and transformed into AMORE in Act I while the Roman dictator's position is made clear, silencing opposition (faces of old dead generals with mouths scores out in red on another side of the panels), his banishment of Cecilio a means by which he can set his sights on Giulia, who believes her beloved is dead.

Act II raises the stakes with dire threats of revenge and assassination and accordingly more Italian words are chalked onto the panels, words recognisable and familiar to anyone who has heard Verdi operas - SANGUE, COLLERA, VIOLENZA, FURORE. Act III relies more on visual harmony of colour and symmetry, with the key word at the conclusion being LIBERTÀ. It's these words that underline the sentiments of each of the Acts, and with Mozart's music and some good singing it's more than enough to get across not only the nature of the work, but Mozart's already distinctive take on the traditional opera seria material.

It's a tone that Laurence Equilbey and the Insula orchestra bring out particularly well. Using period instruments and specialising in informed playing of music of this period, the orchestra bring a rich, dynamic, almost percussive sound out of this work's score. There's a harsher, grittier sound there behind the elegant surface of the melodies and rhythms that captures the darker context of the work. It might not be music that is up to the standard of Mozart at his greatest, but it's unquestionably Mozart, full of vitality, perhaps even more so for being an early work of youth. The production and the musical performance can't really be faulted if it fails to find any great depth or originality in Lucio Silla, but they can and do find the essence of Mozart in it.

The singing plays a vital part in that and it does so here with some bright youthful singing. Franco Fagioli demonstrates the benefits of having a countertenor in the role of Cecilio; soaring and lyrical Fagioli has all the emotional qualities you could want for this role. Olga Pudova too has a wonderful Mozartian voice, bright and perfectly controlled with direct expressive ornamentation that can be heard in Giulia's Act II's 'Ah se il crudel periglio' aria. The singing is equally as good from Alessandro Liberatore as Silla, Chiara Skerath as Lucio Cinna, and Ilse Eerens as Celia. The chorus remain present at the back of the stage, vitalising the work's glorious outbursts of Mozart's choral singing. A chance to revisit an early Mozart is always welcome, particularly when it has well-informed and sympathetic playing that is as good as this and when it has a production and singing that does it justice.

Links: Culturebox, Philharmonie de Paris, Insula orchestra