Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Verdi - Don Carlo (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Marco Armiliato, Daniele Abbado, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Stefano Secco, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Maria Pia Piscitelli, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Eric Halfvarson, Ryan Speedo Green, Margaret Plummer, Jinxu Xiahou, Simina Ivan

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 25 February 2015

There's not really any room for half-measures in Verdi's Don Carlo. You're already at a disadvantage when you produce the 4-Act Italian version, losing the whole of the First Act love story at Fontainebleau, which means you have to gain emotional involvement for Don Carlo's romantic inclinations for his step-mother via other means. Verdi's terrific writing and characterisation goes some way to making this work, but it needs very strong singers indeed for both Carlo and Elisabeth to get it fully across. Vienna's 2015 revival of Daniele Abbado's production has that, and even more besides on the singing front. Unfortunately, it's somewhat lacking on the set design and stage direction, and in a work of total opera like Don Carlo, a weakness in any area can undermine the whole.

The fact that this doesn't prove to be the case in Vienna is a testament to just how good the singing and musical performances are here. That's no mean feat in Don Carlo, which has any number of critical roles, each of them with complex personalities that show different sides of that personality depending on the person that they are with at any given time. It doesn't just place demands on individuals, it requires them to interact well in the various relationships and situations with the others around them. Being a father to Carlo, King Philip II shows a different side of his personality from the one that he shows to Elisabeth as a husband, and a different one again from how he interacts with the Grand Inquisitor. As you might expect. It's how those other people relate to the king in those situations depends in turn on their relationships with each other, and that creates a complex web of conflicts between public and private faces, between love and friendship, when those boundaries become blurred by situation and circumstance. This is where the real drama of Don Carlo lies, and Verdi's remarkable writing lays them bare.

In theory then, the decoration of the set should really be neither here nor there. If you can get across the multi-faceted nature of the situations and the characters, and have singers of sufficient skill and experience to do that, you would think that would be enough for Don Carlo. It isn't nearly enough. Usually. A simple stripped-back set might work well for Simon Boccanegra, as in Vienna's recent production (although, as here, it also had the secret weapon of Ferruccio Furlanetto alongside the incomparible Leo Nucci), but the stage direction there was a lot more subtle than it appeared. Don Carlo however is not a work that benefits from a less-is-more approach. Even in its lesser 4-Act version, it's still grand opera, and it should be grand on every level. That doesn't preclude subtlety, but bold flourishes are required in the characterisation as much as in the setting.

The first half of Daniele Abbado's production for Vienna fails to hit those big dramatic points, for all the fine efforts of the cast. The first two acts are very much about the public face, opening with religious rites and funeral, with the added flourish of the ghostly 'Friar' who turns out to be the spirit of Charles V. There are big royal ceremonies, proud displays of friendship and loyalty, stirrings of rebellion and even a showpiece auto-da-fé scene, all of which should give the impression of great political, regal and religious forces. If nothing else, the grandeur of the first half should at least provide a strong contrast to show the more human side in the second half, where personal weaknesses and conflicting interests and murmurs of rebellion cause huge fractures that threaten to expose the weaknesses of those institutions and bring down the whole delicately woven fabric of Philip's reign.

There's very little that impresses about the set in Act I and Act II. It is literally a box, with a bare wooden stage floor and unadorned walls, with no doors, just panels that open to let people in. Occasionally, we get a sense of location, with a skylight opening up, with a slight variation in colouration or lighting that suggests an exterior, but mostly it's a bare stage and basic lighting. Free movement is restricted somewhat by three cables that one presumes will lift to create a new scene at some point. They do so most effectively to create Carlo's prison in the second scene of Act III, but it's a bit much to have them impinge upon the rest of the set for such a short if nonetheless important scene. Most disappointing of all, the auto-da-fé scene falls well short of being impressive, a few figured dropped down onto the floor while a bale is lit behind them. Seen from a lower angle than the camera adopts, it might have been more effective, but probably not much more...

The singing, at the very least, rises superbly to the demands of Verdi's remarkable score, and in one or two cases is even great. I'm referring evidently to Ferrucio Furlanetto, who has performed as Philip in Don Carlo many times, and there are few who can compete with him. The tone and timbre is still wonderful, his control and delivery is impeccable, but more than just technically good or even just consummately profession, he brings real artistry and personality to the character. Eric Halfvarson's Grand Inquisitor is also excellent, and, following on from a great 'Ella giammai m'amo' where the king expresses his private griefs and fears, the duet/duel between these two great forces of Church and State at the start of Act III becomes a real tussle of wills that sets the tone for what is to follow.

If the first half felt weak and let down by the staging, this kind of opening really galvanises the second half, and it doesn't look back. Marco Armiliato manages to raise the orchestra up to a new level along with the dramatic developments, and one or two of the other performers seem to pick up their game as well. And, with Verdi's simply astonishing management of the developing situations, they really need to. Most impressive is Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who gives a typically earnest and intense performance that is exactly what is required for Rodrigo. The challeging role of Elisabeth is handled extremely well by Maria Pia Piscitelli, who gives it dramatic force as well as dealing with the tough singing requirements. Béatrice Uria-Monzon is also a charged Princess Eboli, again perfectly in line with the tone of the work and the strong presentation here.

Don Carlo has a tough time living up to the title role in the opera alongside such personalities, and if Stefano Secco isn't quite up to the same level, he still sings it with unfailing Verdian lyricism across the whole four acts. Carlo is pretty much a constant throughout the opera and, as such, his interaction with each of the other characters is vital to the success of the whole. With Marco Armiliato drawing all that together musically in the second half, and with each of the other characters at full drive, the nature of the interaction and its significance all falls into place to impressive effect. The balance of internal conflict and interaction with the external situation in the second half takes on a force of its own independent from the direction, or at least rendering its weaknesses less of an issue as the opera makes its way to its chilling conclusion.

The Vienna State Opera's Live in HD programme continues in March with live Internet broadcasts of Halévy's LA JUIVE, Bellini's I PURITANI, Massenet's WERTHER, Verdi's LA TRAVIATA and AIDA.  Details on these productions and how to view them can be found in the links below:

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Wagner - Der fliegende Höllander (Royal Opera House, 2015 - Cinema Live)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Höllander
Royal Opera House, 2015

Andris Nelsons, Tim Albery, Bryn Terfel, Adrianne Pieczonka, Michael König, Peter Rose, Ed Lyon, Catherine Wyn-Rogers

Royal Opera House, Live Cinema Season - 24 February 2015

Wagner's operas are notoriously difficult to stage. Leaving aside the unique issues associated with putting on a Ring cycle, even the one-act version of Der fliegende Höllander presents its own challenges. And they are not just technical considerations. Although there might not appear to be much room for a director to manoeuvre a particular reading or concept into an account of ghost ships sailing on the seas, you'd be surprised at how the underlying themes can and have been developed. But so they really get to the heart of what Wagner intended to put across?

Tim Alberry's production for the Royal Opera House's production doesn't attempt anything too ambitious, unless you think that getting right back to the essentials of the work is ambitious, and I suppose when you're talking about Wagner, that might well be true. As tempting as it is to see Wagner himself at the centre of Der fliegende Höllander (his exile, his money problems, his belief in love and sacrifice) and as tempting as it is to apply these issues to modern-day concerns (globalisation, commerce, imperialism, asylum-seeking) - the most important thing about the work is the work itself. And I think even Wagner was aware of that in the first opera where he successfully found his own individual voice.

The Royal Opera House production, without getting too literal, period or traditional in terms of stage directions, makes a good case for Der fliegende Höllander working best when you simply let Wagner take over, when you let the orchestration and the singing carry the full weight and import of the score. The set and the staging don't work against this, nor do they attempt to enhance the impact or effects that can be achieved by the revolutionary score alone. The production design simply provides the necessary platform for all the mood, all the force, all the yearning, all the drama that is in the score itself to be expressed to its fullest extent. Even viewing the performance on screen in a live broadcast - I can only imagine what it must have felt like live - this was a spine-tingling production that just seemed to set Wagner's first true masterwork wide open.

And in the process, the ROH production reveals that spine-tingling is exactly what Der fliegende Höllander ought to be. That might not be revelatory, but the impact that Wagner is aiming for can sometimes get lost in the concept. There's no need to think too hard about it. It's a ghost story, a legend, a story of huge romantic passions. It's certainly informed by Wagner's own personal experiences, his own sensibility and beliefs, as well as by his extraordinary ability to translate those ideas into musical terms. The rush and the roar of those wild seas, the sweeping overwhelming passions, is all there in the music and expressed in Wagner's new approach to the flow of through composition in the music and in the singing. The impact is all the more effective in the one-act version, and the ROH production sustains that enveloping mood extraordinarily well in the staging, but even more so in the all-important musical performance.

The music is the largely left to work its own magic in the overture, and that's spine-tinglingly good on its own - but when it works hand-in-hand with the production, it's all the more effective. The main set - which only changes significantly for Act II's scene in the sewing factory - is a long bowed hull of a ship, with thick ropes and dripping water pooling at the front of the stage. It's chilling enough on its own and effective to support the haunting melodies that have been established in the overture and the Steersman's lament, but the musical motif announcing the arrival of the Dutchman's ship drops the temperature further. All it needs is a huge shadow to cross the set to match the enormity of the ship and the enormity of the intent and passions that lie within it. The set, along with Andris Nelson's wondrous management of the ROH orchestra, gives this impression of vast, mythological forces, and the trick of any production of Der fliegende Höllander as a music-drama is to harness those forces and get them across in human terms.

That's mainly a challenge for the singers, and I've rarely heard one that has been as consistently good across every single role - not forgetting the vital impact of the chorus either. Bryn Terfel certainly carried the world-weary demeanour of the Dutchman well, but the other facets of his personality were also well-characterised. A sense of hope struggling against near-desperation gives him a dangerous allure in his scenes with Daland, but his uncertainty and vulnerability in relation to love and the possibility of Senta failing him is all there too. It's there as much in the singing as the acting performance, and if there are one or two places where the full intensity isn't sustained (Tyrfel had withdrawn from an earlier performance, so might not have been on full form here), it's no less a strong, near-definitive performance.

Just how good the opera can be is shown when you have a Dutchman like this matched against a Senta like Adrianne Pieczonka. Not for a second does her performance waver from her character's dangerous obsession, but the depth of that obsession also extends to the depths of Senta's feelings for this lost man, making it warm and supremely human. It requires none of the shock impact of a grandstanding sacrificial death, the loss of the Dutchman's trust is enough to destroy her here. You really get a sense of that in her performance, which is outstanding on every level. If Michael König's Erik lacked a similar depth, it's only on account of his character's nature being dwarfed by those of Senta and the Dutchman. Peter Rose, announced as suffering a cold, nonetheless sang beautifully and lyrically with great sensitivity as Daland. Ed Lyon made a great impression as a luxuriously warm Steersman, and Catherine Wyn-Rogers was a fine Mary.

The singing was clearly in capable hands, but everything needs to work along with it and revival Daniel Dooner clearly had a good handle on Tim Albery's original stage directions, bringing it together to work as a whole. The importance of the chorus cannot be underestimated, particularly for the intensity they bring to the confrontation between the sailors, their wives and the Dutchman's crew and the Royal Opera Chorus brought this out with rising intensity. The man who really had to bring it all together was Andris Nelsons, and really with every side playing to the top of their game on a such a work as Der fliegende Höllander, that's a huge responsibility. It was more than just a question of marshalling the pace, rhythm and energy of Wagner's score however, and more than just working to the strengths of the singers. Nelsons also captured that spine-tingling edge to Wagner's mythological storytelling, and that indeed was revelatory of where the true greatness and character of the work lies.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Nicolai - The Merry Wives of Windsor (Liège, 2015 - Webcast)


Otto Nicolai - Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor

Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, 2015

Christian Zacharias, David Hermann, Franz Hawlata, Anneke Luyten, Werner Van Mechelen, Sabina Willeit, Laurent Kubla, Davide Giusti, Sophie Junker, Stefan Cifolelli, Patrick Delcour, Sébastien Dutrieux, Patrick Mignon

Culturebox, Medici.tv - 5 February 2015

You wouldn't think that works on the lighter side of the opera/operetta spectrum would need much in the way of revision and updating for a modern audience, but it's a policy that has worked relatively well for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège over the last few seasons. Not so much perhaps for Offenbach's La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein last year which turned a military satire into a cookery game-show to no great effect, but it's the sense of fun, playfulness and ingenuity that often counts in such works and if a little tweaking here and there can help bring rare Rossini, Grétry and Offenbach to the stage, then it's well worth the attempt.

Such is the case with Otto Nicolai's Singspiel, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, a comic operetta based on Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'. The Liège production takes place in suburbia in the present or sometime in the late-twentieth century, but there's not really much of an issue in terms of updating the period. The essence of Shakespeare's comedy is timeless, although it helps if, like Mozart's comedies - and this is quite reminiscent of one - it can remain in a little more of an 'innocent age' than the present day. What is more of an issue in presenting this particular work to a modern audience is, again like some of Mozart's comedies, the question of how to deal with all that spoken dialogue.

David Hermann's production deals with this very well this time. It abandons practically all of the original spoken passages that lead from one aria to the next and replaces it with a new concept entirely. After each scene, various members of the drama are interviewed (in French) on a couch by a psychiatrist, Dr. Cajus. More of a marriage counsellor than a psychiatrist perhaps, Frau Fluth (Alice Ford), for example, reveals to the doctor her plans to use John Falstaff's declaration to arouse the jealousy of her husband, as well as get one over on the arrogance of the man who has written the same letter to Frau Reich (Meg Page). Herr Fluth likewise confesses his anxieties on the couch, his paranoia about Falstaff being his wife's lover and his inability to catch him, taking his complex to nightmarish proportions.

This allows the opera to reduce the spoken exposition and find a new way of getting the underlying sentiments across to an audience while perhaps also poking a little fun at the tendency of Regietheater to open up the hood and examine the nuts and bolts that hold an opera together, as well as psychoanalytically delving into the motivations and psychologies of the characters. Is Sir John a figment of the character's imagination, invented to act out their own impulses, or is he real, as Cajus insists? There's always the risk of being a bit too clever for your own good in such a production, but the trick is not to stretch the work too far away from what makes it funny in the first place. A comic operetta might not seem like it can bear up to such examination, but this one is after all based on a Shakespeare drama.

You get a sense that the director knows exactly what makes The Merry Wives of Windsor tick, and it's Sir John Falstaff. He also recognises that in terms of the singing roles in Nicolai's drama, Falstaff doesn't really get top billing, but is more of a catalyst character than a principal one, one who by the conclusion here is indeed the "Lord of Misrule". The real drama however is going on in the marriage of Frau and Herr Fluth and in the young love of Anna Reich (Anne Page) and Fenton, with the other characters offering opportunities for additional comic routines and complications. Only Verdi, and only in the maturity of his final opera Falstaff, is really capable of tackling the magnificence of one of Shakespeare's greatest creations.

Otto Nicolai needs a little help in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the director helps him out by, counter-intuitively it seems, actually keeping Falstaff off the stage as much as possible to preserve the enigma. It's almost as if Falstaff is too big for the stage - which in more ways than one, he sort of is. In Act I, where Frau Fluth takes her flirtations a little further than you might expect, Sir John remains enigmatically behind the veil of the four-poster bed. He's not so big however that he needs to be hidden in a linen basket, but in this version - whether he really is an invention of the characters' imaginations or some other reason (health and safety maybe?) - he's carried off in a small vase. Likewise Act II's drinking songs here become a multitude of Falstaffs in the nightmare of Herr Fluth, but by Act III he gradually starts to take on a physical form and, at the same, becomes almost mythological.

Inevitably some ideas in the production work better than others. The production could do with a little more dialogue to pad out the drama, but that's hardly the main concern in Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. The music is lovely, and that's what you really want to hear, not a lot of dialogue. The psychiatrist concept at least keeps the opera playful and concise and proves to be a reasonably good way of eliminating all those pages of German spoken text. Despite having a concept built around him not appearing often on the stage, Franz Hawlata does get across the larger-than-life nature of Falstaff across, particularly in the final Act, but it's Anneke Luyten's Frau Fluth that keeps the performance light, witty and vibrant. Christian Zacharias conducting and a terrific performance from the Wallonie-Liège orchestra ensures that the work positively sparkles.

Links: Medici.tv, Culturebox

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor (Genoa, 2015 - Webcast)

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor

Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova - 2015

Giampaolo Bisanti, Dario Argento, Desirée Rancatore, Gianluca Terranova, Stefano Antonucci, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Alessandro Fantoni, Marina Ogii, Enrico Cossutta, Fabiola Di Blasi

Teatro San Felice Web Streaming - 21 February 2015

Although I'm not really familiar with his film work, I wouldn't have put the director Dario Argento down as a traditionalist as far as opera direction goes. And yet, there no question that his Lucia di Lammermoor for the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa is very much period in design and conventional in its adherence to the original stage directions. With one or two exceptions, there's little here that you wouldn't have seen in a production of this opera thirty years ago, but it's in those exceptions that we get a little of the personal touch of Dario Argento, without evidently taking it too far into extremes.

Let's not forget that Dario Argento is famous for his giallo thrillers - big gothic melodramas with much nudity and blood (to point out only the superficial characteristics of his films), so in that respect at least the Italian filmmaker's style is perfect for a torrid bel canto melodrama like Lucia di Lammermoor that is always verging on the edge of madness and eventually topples over into full-blown murderous insanity. So it's not surprising that the set cries out Gothic right from the start, with a night-time exterior of huge crumbling tower of Lammermoor castle and dead trees all silhouetted by a crescent moon. All that is missing is the rolling Scottish mists.

It's completely the way you expect Lucia di Lammermoor to look, and it's certainly functional for the stage directions, but there's little sign of any distinct character or directorial input at this stage. Costumes are mid-19th century (Donizetti period?) rather than 16th century, the ladies in flowing robes, the lords and gentlemen in greatcoats and hats that are at least heavy enough for the Scottish winter weather. Familiarity with the opera - or even the nature of the mood established - means that we know however that there's going to be madness, murder and blood to come, and you can expect Argento to make a little more of that. And you can probably count on some nudity as well...

...and indeed, the first sign that this wouldn't be a staging from 30 or 40 years ago comes in Act I when a pale, naked corpse arises out of the fountain during Lucia's recounting of the ghost story. It might be characteristic of the director - and there is more to come - but it's still hardly a radical reworking of Sir Walter Scott's drama. It's not as adventurous, for example, as updating the work to Kennedy-era USA, as in the production of Lucia di Lammermoor currently running in parallel in Munich. On the other hand, it's undoubtedly the ghost-story horror elements of the original work that appeal to Argento, so why not just let them work on their own terms, with perhaps just a little directorial emphasis?

And indeed, the naked woman is just such an indication of the director's intentions. She's more than just an apparition, she's more or less the personification of the madness that is already manifesting itself in Lucia's mind. Being forced into a marriage with Arturo for family and political reasons when she is in love with Edgardo, a hated rival to her family, this pressure just adds to Lucia's already fragile state. Mourning her dead mother, weighed down by sorrow and a deathly fear that grips her, you could even say that death stalks Lucia. Argento's direction certainly highlights that and it's clear that it's only going to take one final push to topple her over the edge. Madness and murder are sure to follow.

The naked ghost significantly makes an appearance again at the start of Act II, standing in for Lucia's appearance and palor, but she doesn't appear in Act III. She's perhaps not needed in the final Act, as by that stage Lucia is in full-blown madness, and Argento and the work itself have other characteristic ways of expressing that state. The obvious familiar one is Lucia's 'mad scene', where it's left to the soprano to express her derangement in improvised coloratura while covered in blood. It wouldn't be like Dario Argento however to let a murder take place off-stage, and consequently Lucia's brutal stabbing of Arturo takes place in a lightning-flash backstage reveal of their room during the wedding celebrations.

There's no question that this has all the desired impact and that it assists a role that Desirée Rancatore is stretched to fill. For the larger part of the work, Rancatore sings well - she has dramatic drive in her voice and a fine lyrical timbre, but she is pushed somewhat by the high notes and is unimaginative in the coloratura. As one of the most famous and challenging scenes in all opera, there are however few sopranos who can really make something of this nowadays. Whether her acting is up to it either or whether she just isn't given the necessary direction here, I couldn't say, but Argento's direction doesn't give the performers much to do but walk-on, stand and sing. The Wolf's Crag scene, for example, between Edgardo and Enrico is static and utterly lifeless, although admittedly that's an extreme example, an add-on while the set is prepared for the wedding scene.

Elsewhere the singing is good. Gianluca Terranova is outstanding as Edgardo, a classic Italian tenor with a strong lyrical, clear tone. Stefano Antonucci is mostly solid, authoritative and authoritarian as Enrico, although the voice is not always as lyrical and occasionally you notice the lack of musical and dramatic expression. Giovanni Battista Parodi - due to sing the role in later dates, but standing in for an indisposed Orlin Anastassov - also gave a good performance as Raimondo. The orchestra was conducted with genuine Romantic fervour by Giampaolo Bisanti, stirring up all the dramatic tension, yet full-bloodedly lyrical. Full-blooded is what you expect from Lucia di Lammermoor, and Argento - despite a small smattering of boos from the audience at the curtain call - certainly brought enough of that to the Genoa stage.

Another live streaming of Dario Argento's production of Lucia di Lammermoor, with the alternate cast, can be viewed on 28th February on the Teatro Carlo Felice website.

Links: Teatro Carlo Felice Streaming

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi (La Fenice, 2015 - Webcast)

Vincenzo Bellini - I Capuleti e i Montecchi

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2015

Omer Meir Wellber, Arnaud Bernard, Jessica Pratt, Sonia Ganassi, Shalva Mukeria, Rubén Amoretti, Luca Dall’Amico

Culturebox Internet Streaming - 18 January 2015


The greatest love story ever written, Bellini's version of 'Romeo and Juliet' is perhaps not the greatest opera ever written, but it was the composer's first great success and is a work that can be seen as clearly leading the way towards La Sonnambula, Norma and I Puritani. As is often the case with the less well-regarded works of bel canto, I Capuleti e i Montecchi can however be transformed into something greater with the right production and the right leading lady. The new production in Venice, bringing the work back to where it was first performed in 1830, is perhaps nothing special, but it's good enough to support a terrific performance from one of the greatest bel canto singers in the world at the moment, the young Australian soprano Jessica Pratt.

There are considerable differences between 'Romeo and Juliet' and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and most of them can be put down to librettist Felice Romani working not from Shakespeare's original drama but an 1818 Italian version of the drama written by Luigi Scevola, which he had already been adapted for Nicola Vaccai's 1825 opera Giulietta e Romeo. Much is inevitably cut for concision, losing many of the secondary characters and situations, and even a few of the big ones. Before the opera starts, Romeo has already inadvertently killed Juliet's brother in a conflict between the rival families of the Capuleti and the Montecchi, and even the families have been drawn back to their original political divisions of Ghibellines and Guelphs.

None of this is any kind of a hindrance to the essence of the central romantic drama between Romeo and Giulietta, although there are evidently differences in the development of their relationship and in how the tragic events unfold. The rivalry that makes their love impossible is still there between the opposing families or political factions, and that provides opportunities for plenty of tense, dramatic choral pieces. It would help the opera if Romeo and Giulietta can have a few good duets and arias to air their troubles, and those are well catered for in Bellini's fine settings of Romani's libretto. It all culminates in a dramatic scene where Giulietta 'dies' just as she is about to be married against her will to Tebaldo, but there are also opportunities for Romeo and Giulietta to see each other die in a way that can be reflected in emotional outbursts of singing to add even greater emphasis to the tragedy.

Arnaud Bernard's production for La Fenice responds well to the situations and gives the performers the right context to deliver on Bellini's settings, but it doesn't really have anything significant to add to the work. As a co-production with Athens and Verona, it undoubtedly has to work for each venue and can't be too adventurous (not that Verona can't be adventurous if there's still spectacle involved as in their La Fura dels Baus Aida), but really, this I Capuleti e i Montecchi is to all intents and purposes a period production. It uses the now familiar framework of paintings in a gallery coming to life, but unlike say Alvis Hermanis' Il Trovatore, which can be seen to be about storytelling and history, it doesn't seem to have any real conceptual purpose.

Visually however, it looks well and suits the basic dramatic purposes the work. At the start, on the rise of a curtain, the Capuleti come alive and surge out of a large painting that has been stored in the basement or workshop of a museum. If you see it as nothing more than La Fenice bringing an old master out of the archives and Bellini's music still being capable of invigorating it with life, then it makes its point, albeit not a particularly original one. In the main, other than one or two modern gallery art restorers and transportation staff moving things around, and a few freeze-frames of the action settling back into picture poses, the production gets away with just being a period costume drama.

What is perhaps more important as far as direction goes, is that it allows all the drama and romance to work within this concept and it gives the necessary space for Romeo and Juliet to do their stuff. If that's means that their final moments take place on a workshop table in a museum basement rather than on a bier in a period Veronese location then it's really of little consequence. It works just as well because Romeo and Juliet are singing like their very lives depend on it. And in essence, that's the strength of I Capuleti e i Montecchi. It was written to be brought to life by a great soprano and a great mezzo-soprano, which means that it was written, as far as we're concerned, for Jessica Pratt and Sonia Ganassi. And, forsooth, if they don't indeed make it their own...

Jessica Pratt is, quite simply, phenomenal. And that's not the first time I've said that about one of her performances. She excels as a lyric soprano in bel canto roles, and if she doesn't quite have the force for more dramatic roles, she can nonetheless translate the coloratura of a Rossini, Bellini or a Donizetti heroine into a thoroughly dramatic performance. And not just in the high-end coloratura, but with great technical ability and control, she demonstrates that just as much can be expressed with intensity in softer, more intimate scenes. Pratt is a convincing actress too, looking the part in her flowing locks and plunging gowns, even if the demands of this role hardly extend beyond traditional romantic opera heroine swoons and gestures.

Sonia Ganassi doesn't quite have the same glamour in the mezzo-soprano trouser role of Romeo, but she has a vital part to play and proves to be more than capable for the vocal and dramatic challenges of the role, and gives an impressive performance, working well with Jessica Pratt. Those are the roles that really matter here, but there were good performances also from Luca Dall’Amico as Lorenzo (Friar Laurence), Shalva Mukeria as Tebaldo and Rubén Amoretti as Giulietta's father Capellio. Omer Meir Wellber conducted the orchestra of La Fenice with a good balance between the lyrical content and the dramatic edge to Bellini's music.

Links: Culturebox, Teatro La Fenice

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Tchaikovsky - Iolanta / Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Met, 2015 - Live in HD)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Iolanta
Béla Bartók - Duke Bluebeard's Castle


The Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Valery Gergiev, Mariusz Treliński, Anna Netrebko, Piotr Beczala, Aleksei Markov, Ilya Bannik, Elchin Azizov, Nadja Michael, Mikhail Petrenko

The Met Live in HD - 14 February 2015

Whether by accident or design, the Met's Live in HD Valentine's Day broadcast featured two one-act operas that explored two different sides of love, one where love is bathed in light, the other shrouded in darkness. I guess if the programming was by design it might not have been a little more predictable and you might have expected Gonoud's Romeo et Juliette or - at a stretch - Tristan und Isolde. The pairing of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, never before performed at the Met, with Bartók's challenging Duke Bluebeard's Castle was much more ambitious, and with a fine musical and production team in place, it was an impressive indication of what the Met can achieve when they really make the best use of the resources and talent available to them.

There are some obvious superficial connections between the two works - both are fairy-tales and both involve a female protagonist who must overcome a domineering male figure in order to achieve fulfilment in her love life. In the interal interview during the live cinema broadcast, director Mariusz Treliński proposed a further connection that helped him link the two works, seeing Judith in Duke Bluebeard's Castle as a grown-up version of Iolanta from Tchaikovsky's opera. That doesn't really come across in any obvious attempt to suggest that they are the same person, but there's no doubt that by looking at it that way, it allows some themes in the first work to be explored in greater depth in the second.

The director uses all means at his disposal to try to tease out the underlying metaphors of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. Or at least he seems to, but it becomes clear by the time we get to the Bartók work that he has left quite a bit in reserve for the deeper exploration of the more overt psychological-probing of Duke Bluebeard's Castle. For Iolanta, the world of the blind girl is beautifully realised, her bedroom a revolving open-box set within a dark wood, with occasional projections, sometimes symbolic (a faun skipping through the woods), sometimes abstract. Significantly, when Iolanta can't tell a red rose from a white rose, those projections are entirely black and white.

This is significant in a number of respects, since much of Iolanta is about perception. Iolanta's blindness is a metaphor for not seeing the outside world as it really is, being caught up in her own inner world and an idealisation of love. Her blindness, we also discover, cannot be cured unless she wants to see for herself. Of course, in Iolanta's case, that not necessarily the young girl's fault, as she has been isolated and protected from the outside world by her father King René to the extent that she isn't even aware that she is blind. The fairy-tale is not without its dark side - what proper fairy-tale isn't? - but the resolution is pretty much black and white, the light of her love for Vaudémont allowing her to see and accept the world and the people around her for who they really are.

There are no such black and white matters in Béla Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, and no pretense of the story being anything but a metaphorical exploration of female psychology and dark sexual desires. The menacing voice-over narration at the start tells us that it is the inner world that we are delving into here. And, in a way, it is true that Judith is a more grown-up version of Iolanta. The innocence is gone, and Judith goes to live with her new husband Duke Bluebeard despite his fearsome reputation for his treatment of young women, even more drawn to the darker aspects of his masculinity than the idealistic light of love. Judith is however simultaneously attracted and appalled by the dark recesses that she discovers in Duke Bluebeard's 'castle'.

Judith, more mature than Iolanta (Perrault's fairy-tale also more open about the dark impulses that underpin such stories) believes she can handle the truth now. She wants to leave no door unopened as far as her husband is concerned, but is horrified by the visions of what is revealed as she is given the key to unlock each of the rooms. Despite the warnings of never going near that darkest, locked seventh room - the secret of Bluebeard's sex life in his relationships with his previous wives - Judith can't help but curiously probe into things she would be better off not knowing about. She discovers more than she wants to know and the knowledge cannot be unlearnt. She too is trapped in Bluebeard's castle.

In line with the more psychological probing and the darker outcome of the second tale, Bartók's 20th century musical language for Bluebeard is also far away from Tchaikovsky's fairy-tale music, far more ambiguous and unsettling. As far as director Mariusz Treliński is concerned about the relative impressions that each work evokes, it's as different as black-and-white to colour. All the richness of Tchaikovsky's music is there in the setting for Iolanta but the tones and brightness are pure, but Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle requires a much more complex range of colours and effects. This is impressively achieved for a one-act opera, Boris Kudlička's set designs sliding into place, working with the lighting and projections to evoke a distinct quality for each of Bluebeard's rooms, as well as for the symbolic nature of what they represent.

This is extraordinarily ambitious, and - particularly in the handling of Duke Bluebeard's Castle - I've never seen anything quite like it at the Met. Conceptually, as a whole, it all works remarkably well, the pairing of the two works allowing one to feed off the other. Whether one gains more than another from the contrast and juxtaposition doesn't matter - it will be different for every individual viewer how they respond to each of the works - but it undoubtedly allows the viewer to see both works in a new light. That's undoubtedly a lot to do with the direction here which really probes the situations and the characters, but there is complete interaction between all aspects of the production, between the creative team and the performers which is just as vital to its success.

Aside from the challenges of the stage design, it's Valery Gergiev who has to take the orchestra from Tchaikovsky to Bartók and find commonality between the works or at least make them complementary. Like Treliński, he finds the fairy-tale aspect of the stories as a basis to work with, contrasting the shimmering otherworldliness of Tchaikovsky's score - with which the Russian conductor clearly feels an affinity - with the harder-edged factured realities of Bartók's music. Both works also benefit from contrasting but equally committed performances from Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Nadja Michael as Judith. Michael can be wildly variable depending on the role she is playing, but here in her Met debut role, she was highly impressive. With Mikhail Petrenko an outstanding Bluebeard, Iolanta was almost put into the shade by the duo in the second work. Ilya Bannik however give a strong performance as King René in Iolanta, but I found the reliable Piotyr Beczala a little bland here this time.

Links: The Met Live in HD

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Verdi - Simon Boccanegra (Wiener Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Philippe Auguin, Peter Stein, Leo Nucci, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Stefano Secco, Barbara Frittoli, Marco Caria, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Marian Talaba, Arina Holecek

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 1 February 2015

The Vienna State Opera production of Simon Boccanegra initially looks fairly low-key, minimal, using basic sets and period costumes, holding faithful to a mostly traditional representation of the work. I say that like it's a bad thing, but nowadays it often can be, unless there is a certain ironical distance involved. The right approach however can be make-or-break when it comes to plots in Verdi operas, and the narrative of Simon Boccanegra is, to be frank, a bit creaky and a strain on credibility. There is another way to make Simon Boccanegra 'work' however, one that hopefully won't go out of fashion like an Otto Schenk or a Franco Zeffirelli production. Having good singers.

Simon Boccanegra is not a Verdi opera that I've seen performed often, and never having seen one that was totally convincing, it's not one that I would ever thought ranks with his best. The Vienna State Opera's production proves otherwise. Simon Boccanegra, it would appear needs good singers more than it needs good direction or modernisation. And the Wiener Staatsoper's 2014 production, broadcast live over the internet via their bold Live in HD programme, fortunately has both. With Leo Nucci as Simon Boccanegra and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco you don't get much better in the big Verdi baritone and bass roles than that. With that kind of backbone, the opening prelude scene of Simon Boccanegra can be every bit as dramatic as Verdi scored it, and - as it sets the tone for what it to follow - it needs to be.

What you can also observe from the direction and production design of the opening scene is that it doesn't disorient the audience with any bold concept, the meeting between the two rivals taking place on a fairly basic representation of a dark square in Genoa. It's difficult enough to establish the family rivalry, the relationships between the two men and the whole political plotting around the election of Boccanegra as the next Doge of Genoa, but it is essential that you do, as this is the key to the events that take place in the main part of the opera 25 years later. Letting the prelude rest on the performances, the charisma and ability of these two singers works partly because these are powerful personalities and should appear to be, but also because both Nucci and Furlanetto bring real sensitivity and depth of expression to their singing of these roles.

Much of this is of course down to how Verdi has written the roles, the composer at this stage demonstrating in his mature works greater nuance for character detail and expression. The quality of the libretto isn't quite up to the same standard and the plot is reliant on many of the old melodramatic contrivances, but when you place great singers in these roles, you can see how it can be made to work, you can see what Verdi will be capable of when he does have libretti worthy of his ability in Don Carlo, in Falstaff and Otello, and it's impressive. Having let the skill of Verdi, Nucci and Furlanetto established the tone of the work from the outset, and given it more credibility that it perhaps merits, the director is able to introduce other elements to support and expand on the work in the subsequent acts, underling its meaning and significance.

How this is done is quite remarkable in its simplicity. The impression that is given in the prelude is that of a dark and shadowy past, and that's an impression that carries through and has influence 25 years later. The staging, we discover when we are introduced to Amelia in the present, isn't strictly traditional either. The costumes remain period, but Act I looks more Robert Wilson minimalist, with a bright pale blue background, and characters wearing rather more stylised white costumes. There's no strange movements or geometric symbolism here (I can't really imagine Simon Boccanegra done full-out Wilson-fashion), but there's an elegance here that speaks of youth, innocence, beauty and hopes that are about to be dashed by that dark past that hangs over the whole work. Act II then brings together all those conflicts and passions in a dark circular room with open lighted doors, a simple table, a goblet for poison and a dramatic red curtain.

In that respect the staging is perfect for how Verdi skilfully packages the themes of the work together. Every now and then we are reminded in the music of those dark undertones established at the opening, the composer bundling them all together in each heated situation that ramps up the emotions, but at the same time gives the plot increasing dignity, depth and credibility. It never feels like the old-style of number opera composition, particularly if it's handled sensitively by the conductor. Simon Boccanegra is not blood-and-thunder Verdi. It's much more subtle than that, requiring a balance between character and drama, and Philippe Auguin manages to balance that well, which is difficult in this work. When it's done right, and when it works hand-in-hand with the staging and the singers however, the impact it has on this opera is revelatory.

Leo Nucci might be getting older, but he still carries Boccanegra and many Verdi baritone roles better than anyone else in the world today. As a weakened Doge, destroyed as much from within as from his enemies, it's a role that suits Nucci well. You could say much the same about Feruccio Furlanetto being the pre-eminent Verdi bass singer in the world today. His technical control and timbre is just gorgeous, but his phrasing also reveals little details of character and a wonderful understanding of the importance of Fiesco's role to the work as a whole. As important as Nucci and Furlanetto are to Simon Boccanegra, there's balance and dynamism required in the roles of Amelia and Gabriel, and that is also superbly achieved. Stefano Secco in particular is impressive as Gabriel, giving one of the best performances on the night. Barbara Frittoli isn't perfect - the role of Amelia is a challenging one for the soprano - but the dramatic intensity of her performance counts almost as much here.

The revelation of Simon Boccanegra, in the hands of Verdi and brought out by a good production and singers, is that the themes are more important than the plot. It's about the past catching up with the present, about the actions taken in the past having resonance and very real consequences in the future. It's about wasted years, years dragged down by old enmities, misunderstandings and waiting for vengeance, of parents failing their children, of leaders failing their people. Much of that is carried by the rivalry between Boccanegra and Fiesco, and unless you really have exceptional performers in those roles, you don't get it fully across. To be honest, I've never really realised just how important that is until this production. The greatness of Verdi operas is Verdi, and that more than anything else is what is all there in Simon Boccanegra.  And this is a glorious production of that work.

The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home in HD season continues in February with broadcasts of ANDREA CHÉNIER, DON CARLO and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert.  Details of how to view these productions in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video