Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Maskats - Valentina (Riga, 2015 - Webcast)

Arturs Maskats - Valentina

Latvian National Opera, Riga - 2015

Modestas Pitrenas, Viesturs Kairišs, Inga Kalna, Juris Adamsons, Rihards Macanovskis, Mihails Culpajevs, Armands Silinš, Liubov Sokolova, Andžella Goba, Ieva Parša, Krišjanis Norvelis, Samsons Izjumovs, Nauris Puntulis, Laura Grecka, Ieva Kepe

The Opera Platform - 30 May 2015

Premiered in 2014, at the close of the celebrations of Riga's year as European City of Culture, Arturs Maskats' Valentina is undoubtedly an important new opera work; important to Riga and Latvia, and important to a world that is still trying to come to terms with events that happened in recent history during the Second World War. Memory is in fact one of the main themes of the opera, evoked in the libretto, in the structure that this gives the work, and in the music itself. It makes its point very well, even if it can't possibly live up to the ambition of standing as a statement for all the people of Riga during and after the war.

Maskats and his librettist Liāne Langa ambitiously attempt to filter the whole of the experience of the war and its legacy through the figure Valentina Freimane, a famous theatre and film historian who survived the Holocaust. It's ambitiously but necessary, as the best way to understand the context of the war as a whole is through the experience of one person. Belonging to a Jewish family, in hiding for the duration of the war, Valentina's experience speaks of the horror of the whole, the initial incomprehension, the realisation of war, spreading out to take in the impact it has on close friends, relatives and other citizens in Riga who they come into contact with.

That's challenge enough, and it inevitably feels a little oversimplified trying to compress this naturalistically into the dialogue of the libretto. The opera's creators however aren't aiming for an entirely naturalistic approach. To do so would be to resign the war to an event in the past and neglect the wider impact and its significance through to those living in the present day. Maskats' opera, and particularly the staging by Viesturs Kairišs, attempts to break away from the linear narrative format, dividing the opera up into two parts, the first Act leading up to the beginning of the war, the second part dealing with the aftermath, but also introducing little digressions in time to connect it to a wider historical and personal perspective.

The first half of Valentina, Act I, is constructed then of a number of shorter scenes, episodic snapshots in time that stand mostly as moments of memory and beauty of more innocent times. It starts out in a reflective manner with Valentina seen as an older woman, a screen showing a sepia photo of a street scene, Valentina recalling children singing and playing on the street, family life and being in love. The libretto is littered with references to the summer, the music also evoking warmth and melodies of the 1930s. It's an innocent age, and that innocence is reflected in Valentina choosing to follow her love for Dima rather than the Jewish boy Alexey that her family would like for her, Valentina oblivious to the situation elsewhere in Latvia and to the consequences that this will have in the years ahead.

Those elements gradually make their presence felt as the first Act progresses, the music taking on a more militaristic edge and a marching rhythm as the events in the wider world are discussed. How it relates to Latvia is spoken about in real practical terms, but the libretto also uses an undertaker to give a sense of general unease and uncertainty for all in his fearful dreams. Valentina's role however can also be seen to reflect Latvia's position, caught between two great powers, Russia and Germany, in the middle of something they have no control over and a great deal over. As Alexey also says later, he is now a grown man, but still feel like a child, "still unaware what game he will have to play".

Musically, Maskats' compositions in the first half have something in common with Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. There's no direct reference other than the use of national folk music, but the accumulation of moments add up to a celebration of life and experience, of time and the changes that time brings. Later, there's more of a Tchaikovsky to the dramatic underscoring and flowing melody that works effectively. Most notably however, there is a very specific Latvian character to Valentina, on how events during the war have had an impact that has shaped national character and outlook There's an attempt to consolidate the pre-war character through a stirring ode to Riga close to the end of Act I, which might have sounded like nationalistic and celebratory were the reverie not shattered by a soldier appearing gun first from a manhole in the middle of it and a red flag appearing.

Reflecting the loss of national identity, or even the personal identity of being part of a family, Valentina and Latvia are further divided and categorised by the yellow stars that appear at the start of Act II. In contrast to the episodic reverie of Act I, Act II has more of the flow of a nightmare. In attempting to capture the horror of war, and a wider perspective on matters such as collaboration, Act II loses Valentina as a focus for the opera while she is in hiding. The opera too consequently fails to hold its focus musically and dramatically, the incidents certainly horrific on their own, but still not really being capable of hitting the mark at the full gravity of the situation. It's an impossible task in any case and probably a mistake to even attempt it. While it certainly doesn't trivialise the experience for all those concerned, it's beyond the realm of this opera and Muskats' tonal melodic music to truly express and encompass dramatically the horror and the greater evil by merely putting singing 'champagne Nazis' on the stage.

Viesturs Kairišs' direction made the very best of the staging of Valentina in a more or less traditional manner, without any clever effects. The episodic structure of the first half has a consistency of tone, makes bold gestures where they ought to be, and is subtle when a lighter hand is needed. Adopting the perspective of the older Valentina, it effectively manages exactly the way a person would tread delicately through those memories, with fondness for those times of family and community warmth, and with the horror of the symbols (red flags, yellow stars) that intrude on those memories and usher in less pleasant events. In line with the dramatic shift in Act II, it feels less effective at trying to place a concrete reality on the war crimes, but certainly by the end, with the reappearance of Valentina - a strong performance from Inga Kalna - it all comes together to make a strong impression indeed.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Strauss - Feuersnot (Palermo, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Richard Strauss - Feuersnot

Teatro Massimo, Palermo - 2014

Gabriele Ferro, Emma Dante, Nicola Beller Carbone, Dietrich Henschel, Alex Wawiloff, Rubén Amoretti, Christine Knorren, Chiara Fracasso, Anna Maria Sarra, Michail Ryssov, Nicolò Ceriani, Paolo Battaglia

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

History hasn't been kind to Richard Strauss's first two operas Guntram (1894) and Feuersnot (1901), both of them better known now by reputation than through actual performance. It's common knowledge then that the influence of Wagner was still very present in Strauss's early operas, slavishly so in Guntram, self-consciously in Feuersnot. That would change definitively in the operas that follow, Strauss finding his own voice in Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, but that doesn't mean that there aren't traces and roots of classic Strauss in those earlier works. Feuersnot, in particular, demonstrates much of what would become great in later Strauss operas.

Not that you would have had much of an opportunity to reevaluate those early Strauss operas, with any performances of Guntram and Feuersnot, even in the year of the Richard Strauss centenary, tending to be concert performances. One welcome exception, thankfully recorded and preserved for release on Blu-ray, is the rare staging of Feuersnot at the Teatro Massino in Palermo in 2014. Directed by Emma Dante and conducted by Gabriele Ferro, it's a thoughtful and entertaining production that plays to the strengths of the work, at the same time as it manages to overcome many of the problems that might prevent it being staged more often.

The main problem with staging Feuersnot, I imagine, is that it's hard to know quite how to pitch Strauss's undoubtedly self-indulgent attempt at parody in the work, and actually make it entertaining. It's difficult to judge and pitch the work as a Strauss opera when it is so self-consciously Wagnerian. The danger is that you will think that Strauss is being far too clever for his own good, a bit of a show-off, immodestly writing a work on the model of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg in which he sets himself up as the "true heir" to Wagner, as well as regarding himself as a bit of a stud. Emma Dante finds a very good way of bringing these ambitions a little more down to earth in her production for the Teatro Massimo.

Feuersnot is a played out as a medieval legend based in a village near Munich. There an apprentice sorcerer, Sir Kunrad, based on Strauss himself, takes his revenge on the people who fail to recognise his talent and his rightful position as the successor to the great Master magician Reichhart Wag'ner, whose great genius also wasn't sufficiently recognised in his own time. Slighted by the people of the village who don't recognise the merit of his powers and his right to express his libidinous urges in public - stealing a kiss from the mayor's daughter Diemut - Kunrad calls a fire famine upon the village during the feast of the Summer Solstice, when the children are preparing to set their celebratory bonfires alight.

Strauss isn't exactly obscure about his intentions in how he sets himself up as the successor to Wagner, but it's hard to know whether he is being either tongue-in-cheek or just immodesty secure of his own talent. Musically, Feuersnot is so cleverly constructed and brilliantly composed that you'd have a hard time denying the evident skill with which Strauss weaves his way through Wagner references and places his own spin on them. That spin, taking Wagner's mythic spiritualism and giving it a more earthy sensuality, could be considered vulgar, but this is entirely in keeping with other Strauss works of this time (Ein Heldenleben in 1898 and Symphonia Domestica in 1903) that would elevate the personal and the domestic to grandiose levels. Or simply find them subjects more worthy and relevant to the general public.

However we regard such behaviour, the brilliance of Strauss' technique and its dramatic application in an opera is plainly evident. It does however lead to a provocative conclusion in Feuersnot that might still be problematic and controversial. Having been subjected to Kunrad's fire famine, the terrified people of the village, and even her own father, urge Diemut to put aside her maidenly honour and get jiggy with Kunrad so that they can rekindle the fire on this Midsummer Night. She and Kunrad do the deed - Strauss bringing a more sensuous physicality to the music than you would find with Wagner - and Diemut, impressed by the prowess of the magician, acknowledges his place as her true master.

The 'legend' of Feuersnot is a thin one, even for a one-act opera (a 'Singgedicht in one act'), with little dramatic drive. Emma Dante however recognises that it's about music and not magic, and brings that not terribly well concealed subtext out in a number of ways. She also attempts to capture the huge variety and dynamic that lies within the score and represent that on the stage with circus acts and dancers to give an impression of constant colour and movement. This can be entertaining and sometimes annoying, but it does certainly bring some liveliness and a certain tongue-in-cheek irreverence that adds to tone and enlivens a staging of work. The final 'fire dance' scene in particular more than justifies the approach, finding a colourful and meaningful way to represent the otherwise problematic ending.

The musical performances all contribute to making this an 'illuminating' production of a rare Strauss opera. Gabriele Ferro underplays the Wagner and emphasises more of the familiar later Strauss characteristics in the score. Nicola Beller Carbone has Wagnerian strength aplenty in the role of Diemut, and although Dietrich Henschel doesn't quite have the force or the volume for a 'heldenbaritone' he sings and plays the role of Kunrad with a mischievous sparkle and verve. None of this is perhaps enough to see Feuersnot reconsidered as canonical Strauss, but it is unquestionably Strauss, and presented in the best possible light here.

The 2014 Teatro Massimo production of Feuersnot is released on Bluray by Arthaus Musik, and it looks and sounds terrific in High Definition. The BD has a 12-minute 'Making Of' that gives some insights into the work and the approach to it, and there is also an informative essay on the work in the enclosed booklet. The disc is region-free, but subtitles are in English, German and Korean only.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue (Strasbourg, 2015 - Webcast)

Paul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

L’Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2015

Daniele Callegari, Olivier Py, Lori Phillips, Marc Barrard, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Aline Martin, Rocío Pérez, Gaëlle Ali, Lamia Beuque, Jaroslaw Kitala, Peter Kirk

Culturebox - 6 May 2015

There's no doubt that fairy tales have a certain power to unsettle and create a sense of unease, and it's usually in respect of a moral or a cautionary message. Clinically exploring the psychological underpinnings of those works in some modern productions, particularly the legend of Bluebeard in the operas by Dukas and Bartok, can however tend to take away somewhat from the dark mystery of the myth behind them. Olivier Py's production of Ariane et Barbe-bleue for L’Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg exposes some of the work's subtext without losing its edge of dark, mysterious suggestion, but there would appear to be other elements that Py wants to take from this distinctive working of the Charles Perrault fairy tale.

In as far as most modern revisions of Ariane et Barbe-bleue go, and indeed of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the emphasis is often on the psychoanalytical aspect of female psychology and sexuality. Ariane's flirtation with the notorious Bluebeard is often less that of an innocent being delivered into the hands of a notorious suspected murderer of his previous wives, less a cautionary tale on the nature of searching for forbidden knowledge, and more as the freedom of a woman to probe, question and explore her own sexuality rather than submitting to a man's needs. In the age of '50 Shades of Grey', this question can be taken even further into sexual exploration and the dangers that lie within such experimentation.

It's hard therefore to go back and simply see the Bluebeard legend as nothing more than a fairy tale, but there ought to be another way to explore the themes of the work, and Maeterlinck's libretto, departing considerably from Perrault's version, offers opportunities to do that. The search for forbidden knowledge, as related in Ariane's determination to unlock the door to the Seventh Room despite the express instructions of her new husband, is only the starting point as far as Dukas's opera goes. In fact, Ariane is scarcely bothered to even look at the treasures contained in the other rooms, despite the Nurse being satisfied with the contents of these alone. Py likewise is hardly interested in this aspect in his production, the treasure that they contain being invisible as far as the audience are concerned.

All the audience can see are two women in a dark underground dungeon, walking though a single door into an equally dark, squalid bare room, with a little bit of falling glitter briefly illuminating the dual-level set. While the nurse has no capacity to imagine anything more precious than glittering stones, Ariane is far from impressed. The treasures she seeks are not precious jewels or even material objects, but something deeper - "Ce que j'aime est plus beau que les plus belles pierres", she tells the nurse at one stage, and shortly after this as they approach the 7th door - perhaps more significantly as far as the director's interpretation goes here - "Le bonheur que je veux ne peut vivre dans l'ombre". ("The happiness I am looking for cannot live in the shadows").

There is unquestionably more than a suggestion of sexual undercurrent to the meaning of these words, and that is certainly not underplayed in Py's direction. There is considerable full nudity on the stage, with each of Bluebeard's previous wives represented by naked dancers in the extended musical interlude sections of the work, as well as at other points throughout. Not murdered by Bluebeard in this version of the fairy tale, the women are nonetheless captives, enslaved, abused, raped, serving the master (Bluebeard also represented by a naked male dancer wearing a devil mask with horns) and his accomplices. All this takes place in eerie red light, in the darkness of the upper room, and in the woods surrounding Bluebeard's castle.

What is significant about the Maeterlick and Dukas version of the story, apart from the fact that the wives are not dead here (and that the wives are all named after heroines in other Maeterlinck plays, including a Mélisande), is that Ariane attempts to help them escape from the dungeon and allow them to see the light. When the nervous villagers see the women however, they finally rally to storm the castle and beat Bluebeard almost to death. Feeling sympathy for their captor, or perhaps just no longer capable of conceiving of any other life outside of that which they have experienced at the hands of their abuser, the women however each refuse to follow Ariane now that she has opened the path to their freedom.

For Py, an actor and theatre director who is well known for his political stance as well as his Catholicism, there are familiar themes in his treatment of this turn of events in Ariane et Barbe-bleue. According to the director himself - and without neglecting the sexual content of the work - the political questions that this gives rise to is his primary concern in the direction. When people are oppressed, they don't know how to respond to someone who wants to deliver them from their captivity - "Personne ne veut être délivré. Il vaut mieux se libérer soi-même". The need to throw off the chains needs to come from within. The dark rituals showing women liberating themselves from a Devil and looking toward the light however has more of a suggestion of Py's Christian outlook than any political message. The messages might be mixed - Py is happy to let much remain in the shadows - but the director's treatment is nonetheless typically strong, distinctive and supportive of the material.

Lori Phillips took on the role of Ariane for this production, replacing Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, who I've heard singing it before. It's a challenging role, demanding Wagnerian stamina and force at a very high pitch, and if the voice tires of such sustained singing it can waver and lose its dramatic force. For Phillips that comes around the scene of leading the captive women towards the light, but she never loses control and rallies through in the second part of the work. Elsewhere, the singing among the nearly entirely female cast is good, the variety of voices giving individual character to Bluebeard's wives. Daniele Callegari weaves a steady line between Wagner and Debussy in his conducting of the orchestra of the Opéra National du Rhin.

Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National du Rhin

Monday, 22 June 2015

Janáček - Jenůfa (Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Leoš Janáček - Jenůfa

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2014

Donald Runnicles, Christof Loy, Michaela Kaune, Jennifer Larmore, Hanna Schwarz, Will Hartmann, Ladislav Elgr, Simon Pauly, Stephen Bronk, Nadine Secunde, Martina Welschenbach, Fionnuala McCarthy, Jana Kurucová, Alexandra Hutton

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Christof Loy's strength as a director, as he demonstrates here to remarkable effect in the Deutsche Oper's production of Janáček's Jenůfa, is the depth of characterisation he brings to the drama. It's never an imposed reading, but one that can be found in the music itself - no more so than in Janáček's extraordinary score for this work. The setting in Loy's productions might not always conform to the letter of the libretto, but he nonetheless invariably creates a strong environment for the characters to work in and reveal their inner lives. He has a lot to work with in Jenůfa, and with some equally strong musical and singing performances, the full power of Janáček's work is there for all to hear and see.

Jenůfa is a simple story, but it shows how terrible things can happen to anyone, accidentally, through no fault of their own. The consequences of these events and the responsibilities it confers on people can be an unendurable burden, causing great suffering and misery. As a humanist however, Janáček recognises the truth that beauty can flourish even in the worst of situations, and that happiness is always a possibility. This note of hope that he introduces in the almost impossibly beautiful epilogue to Jenůfa is one of the greatest moments in all of opera. Christof Loy shows the truth of this in the Deutsche Oper production, but in order to reach that moment of near-transcendence, he also has to show the full horror of what leads up to it.

What Loy achieves so well in Act I is the sense of urgency and anticipation, the rush of emotions, the implied threats of violence and the conflict of sentiments that are going to set off a tragic series of events. It's a perfect match for the complex, urgent rhythms of Janáček's weaving, rolling and menacing score. There's Jenůfa's fear of her cousin Števa being conscripted into the army, her concern heightened by the fear that she will have to face the anger of the community alone, since she knows she is unmarried and pregnant by him. Her stepmother, Kostelnicka, unaware of her condition, dislikes Števa, her own experience leading her to conclude that he is a drunken good-for-nothing who is unsuitable for marriage. Laca is in love with Jenůfa and, jealous of the concern she shows for Števa, glowers and roars, ready to explode in a fit of jealous rage. Add Števa, stupid, drunk and celebrating, a misplaced knife and a crowd and there will inevitably be trouble, but this is only the beginning of a series of terrible events.

The fact that those actions are going to have grave consequences has however already been indicated right from the outset in a silent scene that shows Kostelnicka brought into an interrogation room. As well as setting her up as a key figure in what is to follow, Loy also shows his ability to look beyond the surface drama into the real heart of what makes Janáček's Jenůfa beat. Understanding Kostelnicka's motivations is important, but it has to be seen in the context, attitudes and morals of the Moravian village community in which the opera is set. That means much more than just using regionally appropriate costumes and backdrops, and for Loy all is needed is plain costumes and an austere white box with sliding panels that open up and close Jenůfa off from the community outside.

That fully creates the occasion for Jenůfa to be a victim of circumstance, her nature and instincts bent to conform to the pressures of society and the community. In terms of laying out the tragedy and the part that Kostelnicka and Laca play in it, Loy not only sets down strong characterisation, but he has two fine singers who are capable of drawing every ounce of character that is inherently there in the drama and the music. Jennifer Larmore in particular is one of the best Kostelnicka's I've ever come across. The scene where she resolves to remove the baby from the picture is chilling and credible, as is how she remains affected and weighted down later as a consequence of her actions. As a singing performance, Larmore's performance is simply outstanding and everything it ought to be, but there's real personality and meaning given to the words and how they manifest in her actions.

Laca's role is a dual one that is rather more complex than the character's simplicity of expression would suggest, but all the contradictions and their implications are fully brought out in Loy's staging and in the performance by Will Hartmann. From one perspective, Laca's accidental scarring of Jenůfa is the single most significant episode that sets off a chain of tragic events, but it is also significant that he also brings about the resolution to them. Loy ensures not only that the actions of the others are fully weighed for the impact they have in what occurs - the villagers, Števa, Kostelnicka and even Jenůfa herself - but that the sense of love, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation that comes about arises out of the tragedy is even greater. Laca is an important part of this, and Hartmann not only captures that stupid blind, jealous rage of the character, but also his sensitivity and the depths of his feelings for Jenůfa, unconditionally defending her from the community outrage.

There's a danger that Jenůfa could remain a passive figure in the opera with no ability to direct her own fortune, her own passions subject to the actions, whims and projections of others. Her beauty and the purity of her feelings is important however and that comes through intact, if scarred. Michaela Kaune isn't as strong an actor as Larman, but the expression of the essence of Jenůfa is all there in her singing and performance and she clearly puts everything into the role. The same sense of commitment is applied to the characterisation and the performances elsewhere. Even Števa has real personality. He's not just a drunken good-for-nothing or cowardly, but just a boy. He's passionate and clearly loves Jenůfa but he's not grown-up enough to take on the responsibilities of a disfigured wife, a child and making a home, but he is just too weak to stand up to the more forceful female personalities around him.

Similar attention is applied even to secondary roles, but none of Loy's ideas or interpretations exist in isolation or are created out of nothing. All of this is there in the libretto and in the score itself and Donald Runnicles ensures that the precision of the rhythms and their emotional undercurrents all perfectly match the composer's intentions as well as what is happening on the stage. On BD/DVD, Brian Large elects to cut out the audience applause between acts, allowing the force of the drama to playing the drama straight through, and it does make a significant impact, Loy's direction and the acting performances drawing you right in. There are no extra features on the BD50 disc, and the image and audio are reasonably good, but not exceptional. Subtitles (which can only be selected from remote or pop-up while playing) are in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Japanese.

Links: Deutsche Oper Berlin

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier (Glyndebourne, 2014 - Blu-ray)

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Glyndebourne, 2014

Robin Ticciati, Richard Jones, Kate Royal, Tara Erraught, Lars Woldt, Teodora Gheorghiu, Michael Kraus, Miranda Keys, Christopher Gillett, Helene Schneiderman, Gwynne Howell, Andrej Dunaev, Robert Wörle, Scott Conner

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

It's unfortunate that the controversy over personal comments made by critics about the casting of Tara Erraught's Octavian tended to overshadow what is actually a very impressive and well-performed Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne 2014. Strauss's opera is about so much more than a singer and a performance. It's a work of extraordinary richness, sophistication and complexity, transcending any traditional view of what opera is about, and it requires careful direction to draw all the various levels of meaning out of it and bring the wonderful contrasts of performance together. Richard Jones directs an elegant production of the opera, beautifully conceived and designed, that at least touches on its multiple delights, even if it doesn't bring anything greatly original to the stage.

It might seem like a trivial concern, but what is immediately striking about the production was the impeccable taste of the interior design that create a loving sense of the period without being slavishly literal. Paul Steinberg's sets for each of the three acts are eye-catchingly colourful and elegant, but minimally dressed in a way that complements without overwhelming the drama, the sentiments and the personalities in the opera. Richard Jones' actual direction of the drama was a little less adventurous, but well-pitched to match the flow between farce and philosophy. Der Rosenkavalier however is so layered and meticulously constructed a work that it doesn't really need any further elaborations or interpretations imposed upon it.

Act I plays out in a pretty much as it is written. There were a few distinctive directorial touches, but they only serve to enhance what is already there in the work. Instead of the usual crude bump and grind that accompanies Strauss' suggestive overture, Jones instead emphasises the erotic charge of Octavian's desire for the more mature woman by showing Marschallin emerging naked from a stylised shower and displaying herself to the bewitched young man. Elsewhere, the first act is mostly played as a straightforward bedroom farce, acted with verve and certainly well-sung, but with no great character or originality.

The suggestions are all there however that there is something of greater depth being explored. A prominent clock alerts the viewer to real-time aspect of Act I, as well as recognising the importance of the passing of time and the ending of an era as a theme, but it doesn't take it much further than this. The subsequent acts however find other subtle means in both set design and the expression of the drama to highlight the conflict between the past, the present and the future. A distinction is drawn between the traditional aristocratic privilege of the past, the rise of the nouveau riche bourgeoisie in the present, and the freedom of youth as the future, unbound by anything but love and free to choose their own destiny.

Within such change is the capacity for both sadness and optimism (with some fun in-between), and the production successfully finds the appropriate tone for each situation. The work itself and the production is at its best in those key moments in each of the three acts. The Marschallin's reverie over time and ageing at the end of Act I is beautifully sung by Kate Royal. It's not despairing, but dignified, the nobility of her sentiments and recognition of the ways of the world allowing her to bring reconciliation at the key moment of Act III in the gorgeous trio. In between it's the Act II meeting of Octavian and Sophie that makes the greatest impression. The encounter (lushly orchestrated) is caught up in a rush of colour and sugar that you could almost swoon with pleasure. That's the impression the moment should evoke and with such an emphasis it determines the overall tone of the production as one where love and beauty are celebrated and the outlook is an optimistic one.

That's about as much of a directorial position as Jones takes on the Glyndebourne production. It's a bit of a designer's doll-house of a set-design and the figures are threatened with being a little dwarfed by the greater scheme of things. That's a risk that is inherently in Strauss and Hofmannsthal's conception of Der Rosenkavalier, and if the characters emerge from it as more meaningfully human, it's on account of the beautiful writing of the score for the drama and for the voice. You won't find the finest interpretation of any of those roles here - at least not in any way that is revelatory - but it's at least very well performed.

The female leads at least are impressive. Royal is suitably elegant and sings with feeling, but doesn't quite capture the melancholy of Marschallin's position. Teodora Gheorghiu is a bright Sophie and forms a good partnership with Tara Erraught's Octavian. It's true that Erraught is more Mariandel than Octavian pretending to be Mariandel in Act III, but a girl playing a boy playing a girl is just one of the complexities of this work that it is difficult to carry off without considerably more experience. The appalling wig and sideburns she wears doesn't help, but in terms of her singing and her ability to carry the central role of Octavian, there is nothing here that was anything less than convincing. Inevitably, with such strong singers in these roles, the trio at the denouement was simply gorgeous in delivery of the singing and its sentiments.

Lars Woldt sings an entertaining and unrepentant Ochs von Lerchenau. A director can permit a little sympathy for the character if he shows some belated good grace in his defeat, but Richard Jones doesn't give him that much. Michael Kraus' Faninal is also well-sung, but a bit dull and doesn't make much of an impression. Musically, however, there is nothing run-of-the-mill about Robin Ticciati's conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. If the concept doesn't inspire any greatness, it at least allows expression of the full beauty of the arrangements, wonderfully controlled by the conductor. For the listener too, this is a Der Rosenkavalier to put aside any examination of the work's cleverness or any distracting controversy surrounding the production and simply revel in its glorious beauty.

Richard Jones' colourful production inevitably looks stunning in High Definition on the Blu-ray. The lighting is well handled, the image perfectly clear and warmly toned. The DTS HD-Master Audio and PCM Stereo tracks can be a little echoing with the use of stagge microphones rather than radio mics, but the quality of the singing and the musical performance is apparent. The extra features include Ticciati talking about taking over at Glyndebourne and working on his first Der Rosenkavalier, the leading ladies interviewed about building their characters and their Act III trio, and Richard Jones talks about the look and design for the production. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Glyndebourne

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Szymanowski - Król Roger (Royal Opera House, 2015 - Webcast)

Karol Szymanowski - Król Roger

Royal Opera House, London - 2015

Antonio Pappano, Kasper Holten, Mariusz Kwiecien, Saimir Pirgu, Georgia Jarman, Kim Begley, Alan Ewing, Agnes Zwierko

The Opera Platform - 16 May 2015

Szymanowski's Król Roger is a rare enough work, but not so rare that you wouldn't have come across it before and even had an opportunity to see it performed thanks to a fine Blu-ray release of the 2009 production at Bregenz. That particular production, while it looked marvellous and highlighted that this was a work that merited more attention, was I felt a fairly arid stage production that made little effort to explore the subtext and context of the work. Kasper Holten takes a bit more of a chance in the work's first production at the Royal Opera House, opening up the themes of a little known work and making it explicit not only to the audience in London but having it broadcast live on the worldwide stage of the new Opera Platform streaming service. The real risk however is perhaps revealing that there's not much more great depth to the work than is apparent just beneath the surface.

Based on 'The Bacchae' by Euripides, and set in the Byzantine era of the 12th century ruler King Roger, Szymanowski's Król Roger is a fairly basic morality tale. It explores the consequences of a Christian king whose moral certainties and security of his authority is challenged by the arrival of a new prophet. This takes in a familiar opera subject, beloved of Baroque opera seria, of the need of a ruler to show caution in balancing the exercise of power against the satisfaction of their own personal needs. Like many European artists, writers and filmmakers who have been drawn over the years by the allure of an exotic paradise and a closer connection to nature that permits a more open sexual liberation, Szymanowski had a passion for the hedonism and cultural diversity of the Mediterranean, and issues relating to the composer's homosexuality are also very much a part of what the opera is about.

Listening to the reports of the Shepherd-Prophet's activities, King Roger initially regards his seductive promise that true happiness can only be found in indulging the senses as pagan blasphemy. Troubled and jealous of the influence the Shepherd has over Queen Roxana, he orders the dangerous madman be put to death, but relents when the Queen appeals for clemency and instead banishes him. Roger is however perturbed by the words of the Shepherd. When did he ever last feel passion such as that described by the prophet? He might be a king, but in contrast to the limitless pleasures promised by the prophet, he has to admit to himself that his reach doesn't extend beyond how own arm, or more accurately, beyond a sword at the end of his arm. There's a persuasive argument here that troubles the King, so he invites the Prophet to another private meeting.

The conflict between the head and the heart can't be missed in the most distinguishing characteristic of Kasper Holten's direction and Steffen Aarfing's set design, with its huge head dominating as the eye-catching centre-piece. It's a feature that was also evident in Holten's Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera House, the psychology of the noble made visible and compartmentally spread in 3D projections across the various levels and rooms of a mansion construction. Unlike Don Giovanni, the simplicity and abstraction of his idea works more effectively in Król Roger. The huge choral opening of the work calls out for a big gesture, and the monumental imagery here could hardly be more effective in achieving the necessary impact.

Like Don Giovanni's house of the mind, Król Roger's head revolves 360 degrees in the second act to show the conflict that is going on within it, on a literal as well as an internal level. The head is split into several levels, showing the living quarters of the King and the Queen. At a lower level a mass of semi-naked bodies can be seen twisting and writhing while the king grapples with the doubts that the words of the Shepherd have awakened in him. It's debatable whether Holten's production, set moreover in the 1920s, does anything more than make the subtext of the composer's homosexuality a little more obvious, but on the evidence of the beautiful performance of the work at the Royal Opera house, there is clearly a musical richness to the work and wider themes explored that suggest that Szymanowski's Król Roger is worthy of more attention.

The large choral pieces are the most striking and original element of Król Roger, which is perhaps why the influence of Strauss's Salome - one of the most important works from this period - seems to go largely unnoticed. It seems to me to be the obvious comparison, with its prophet, its awakening of forbidden lusts that challenge traditional Christian morality, and the fear of the consequences that might ensue. It's evident right down to the sensual language of the libretto, and mirrored in the music as well. Salome is very evident in the soaring orchestration, the heady, seductive Oriental melodies and rhythms that are even presented in the form of a dance in Act II, but also in the dramatic punctuation of the music, its notes of dissonance and its roaring crescendos.

All of this is indeed seductive to the listener, as much as it is to the king. What is interesting about Król Roger, and what suggests that there is potentially more to say about the work than Kasper Holten suggests, is the rather more ambiguous ending. There is a danger in letting oneself submit to wild abandon of earthly delights, Roger risking losing his power and influence, becoming reduced to a pilgrim or a beggar. Salome pays the price to pay for stepping outside those boundaries, but after his own experience at transgressing social and sexual mores, Oscar Wilde would later revise this view in 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' to the opinion that each man might indeed kill the thing he loves "yet each man does not die". Szymanowski's Król Roger - and to be fair Holten's production supports this - seems to go along with this, seeming to be reborn through acknowledgement and acceptance if not quite submission to those desires.

If there's a seductiveness to this view proposed by the Shepherd that Roger is unable to resist, a lot of it is to do with Szymanowski's score, the vivid reading of it by Antonio Pappano, and the outstanding singing performances. The complementary contrasts between Mariusz Kwiecien's Roger and Saimir Pirgu's Shepherd in particular really contribute to the essential dynamic. Singing in his native Polish Kwiecien is impressive - commanding and authoritative turning to tortured and liberated, his voice reflecting all the passion that is contained within that journey. Saimir Pirgu seductive lyric tenor is simply perfect casting for the Prophet, and Georgia Jarman's Roxana is wonderfully persuasive in her effusive declarations.

Links: The Opera Platform, The Royal Opera House

Monday, 15 June 2015

Berg - Lulu (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Alban Berg - Lulu

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2015

Kirill Petrenko, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Marlis Petersen, Daniela Sindram, Rachael Wilson, Rainer Trost, Bo Skovhus, Matthias Klink, Hartmut Welker, Martin Winkler, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Christian Rieger, Heike Grötzinger, Andrea Borghini - 6 June 2015

As many times as Lulu is produced and reinterpreted and as many times as Alban Berg's unfinished opera is reworked, the central character, like the opera itself, remains something of an enigma. Much can be made of the ambiguous and enigmatic character of Lulu in the first Act, where her essence is captured by the Artist in a painting. It's a painting that earns him fame and fortune, but it is also ultimately responsible for his madness, suicide and death. You would expect any modern production of this still very modern and challenging opera to make something of the implications this has for nature of the work itself, as well as the themes it covers. You can also be fairly sure that these won't be neglected in a production by Dmitri Tcherniakov at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Tcherniakov finds an effective way to depict Lulu and the work itself as an enigma by using a set built entirely of glass compartments. Everything appears to be open and transparent on the surface, but in reality it conceals an invisible maze-like structure. Painted onto the wall of this opera/this life is the Artist's portrait of Lulu, a bare life-sized outline, an abstraction, unfinished, not quite connected. The outline is filled in by what appears occasionally behind - sometimes one of the main players pressed to the glass, trying to grasp hold of the portrait of Lulu, or simply pinned to it, unable to escape the force it exerts. At other times, the glass compartments each show a world of other couples, each in the same universal struggle between man and woman.

It's a very high concept then, one which is apparently very simple on the surface but which is representative of the enigma of the opera itself and its construction. It manages to express small moments and insights, as well as being able to relate to them as having universal and a 'meta' application. This is Lulu as an exhibit, a reflection of what others want to see in her, of the complexity of the personality of Lulu herself and her relationships with each of the other characters, but the glass structure also forces the viewer to reflect on what it says about their own life and relationships, looking into a mirror, comparing and contrasting. In theory and in purely visual terms, it's an impressive concept, but the reality is that it doesn't have a great deal of anything new to say about Lulu.

As clever and as simple as the idea is, and despite trying to find a consistent line to follow that might provide a key to the work as a whole, Tcherniakov's Lulu only expresses and perhaps even just deepens the enigma. You can't fault the idea of exploring the central relationship of Lulu and Dr. Schön (who transforms in the final act into Jack the Ripper) which the director states he uses as his focus for the work, but there results aren't in any way new or revelatory. He's not wrong either in trusting that the superb singers cast in these roles are more than capable of expanding and filling in on the complex personalities at work here, but any deeper understanding of Lulu the person and Lulu the opera remains elusive.

That might just be a problem with the nature of the work itself. I certainly don't think you can seriously fault Marlis Petersen for the committed performance she gives here as Lulu. It's brilliantly sung and full of personality - perhaps a little too much even. Lulu here has something of a cruel streak, a more conscious flirtatious edge that expresses her own personality, showing her as more than just a plaything in the hands of a number of men. There's a growing dominance and imposition of her will as the work progresses, which - considering her background and treatment - inevitably becomes twisted into something broken and self-destructive. And yes, as Tcherniakov intends, it's made clear how this path of self-destruction is tied up in her relationship with Dr. Schön.

As Dr. Schön, Bo Skovhus provides a singing and dramatic performance more than strong enough to work alongside Petersen's intense Lulu. As much however as the two of them create a strong central core that can be seen as progressing through the fractured narrative structure, Lulu still remains unfathomable in relation of how she fits into the world. Or how she doesn't fit into it. Lulu remains an abstraction, and Tcherniakov's closed compartmentalised sets unfortunately contribute to this sense of dislocation and unreality. Justification for it can certainly be found in the structure of Berg's score and the episodic nature of the drama itself, but as much as the performers give to the work individually, it still never quite seems to add up to any illumination of the whole. This Lulu remains an outline to be filled in by the viewer's own interpretation. As it always did.

The variety of tones and the structure is, of course, in the nature of the work itself. If Tchernaikov wasn't able to bring anything to it or draw any clear dramatic or psychological thread through the work, Kirill Petrenko at least managed to find a consistent tone (using the Friedrich Cerha completed Third Act version) that nonetheless incorporated all its rich musical variety of expression. There was a more lushly orchestrated sweep through the whole of the work and less of the jagged-edged dissonances that could be highlighted. All the extraordinary textures and tempi of the work were nonetheless weaved right through the performance, providing a Lulu that was far more interesting to listen to than engage with dramatically.

The next Bayerische Staatsoper live broadcast is Pelléas et Mélisande on July 4th.

Links:, Medici