Thursday, 22 December 2011

Verdi – La Traviata


TraviataGiuseppe Verdi – La Traviata
Oper Graz, 2011
Tecwyn Evans, Peter Konwitchny, Marlis Petersen, Giuseppe Varano, James Rutherford, Kristina Antonie Fehrs, Fran Lubahn, Taylan Memioglu, Ivan Oreščanin, David McShane, Konstantin Sfiris
Arthaus
There’s a tendency now for some producers, when confronted with some of the best-known and popular works, to strip them right back to the bone. In some cases, it can certainly be justified by the amount of fat that certain operas have gained through lazy convention, just rolled-out and played in a traditional staging with little thought for the relevance of their subjects to a modern audience. The assumption is undoubtedly that the public just want to hear the famous familiar arias and sob into their hankies at the end, and who is going to risk denying the audience that in an opera like La Traviata? Verdi’s opera, the only one he wrote with a contemporary subject (although even that was eventually denied him by the censor), is however one that could certainly withstand and perhaps even benefit from a fresh perspective, as Willy Decker’s production for Salzburg (now currently at the Met in New York) demonstrated. This somewhat minimally staged 2011 Oper Graz production by Peter Konwitchny certainly puts a different emphasis on the score and the drama, but does perhaps cut it back a little too much.
The case for this production, apart from the smaller nature of the venue, is one assumes that the storyline of La Traviata is now so familiar that it doesn’t need all the period accoutrements and props that are surely only a distraction from the brilliance of an opera – Verdi’s finest work up until his final four masterpieces – that is surely capable of standing purely on the strength of the singing and the music alone. It undoubtedly is and, with a few reservations, this performance is as good as any you’ll hear – one that even allows you to hear the emotions expressed in a fresh and genuinely touching human way, particularly if you are tired of the grand mannerisms of divas showing off their range and routines in a stuffy, period social setting of barons and courtesans. La Traviata is a brilliant work on that level, expressing the strength and the weakness of human sentiments on the subject of love. Surely, that’s what really counts? Well, perhaps not when you have so many other interpretations to choose from and with many classic performances of a great work already available. Each version has its own strengths and weaknesses, so what is gained from this production much will depend on one’s personal taste for singers and for modern, minimalist stagings.
Personally, I find Marlis Petersen, singing the role for the first time, wonderfully refreshing in the role of Violetta Valéry. Her principal Act 1 aria ‘Ah fors è lui’ and cabaletta are sung beautifully, purely and without mannerisms, sifting through the conflicting emotions of a woman who believed she was incapable of finding true love suddenly confronted with thrilling sensations when least expected, but cautious about the dangers of headlong abandon into the pleasures of loving and being loved. Her Act 3 ‘Addio del passato’, where she confronts the flipside of those emotions, the loss of love and the approach of death, is just as effective and affecting. A curtain, a chair, a fine singer – does Verdi and Piave’s work need anything more than this to bring it to life? Well, yes, it does perhaps need a little more than that, and it doesn’t always get it in this production.
Traviata
Going against more common interpretation, Giuseppe Varano’s Alfredo Germont isn’t the cocky young man or the impetuous hothead as seen recently on Blu-ray recordings featuring Ramón Vargas, Rolando Villazón or Joseph Calleja. Here, he’s a bespectacled nerd, a bookworm in a duffel coat, a shy, inexperienced romantic dreamer who seeks inspiration in his books of poetry. His voice isn’t as strong as the aforementioned tenors either, but, by the same token, the performance consequently loses all the operatic mannerisms and finds a way to express more realistically the inner nature of his character. James Rutherford sings well as Germont-père, but here he’s characterised as rough and abrasive, with little sympathy or understanding for Violetta’s plight when he asks her to give up Alfredo, even wheeling in his schoolgirl-aged daughter in person, beating her and manhandling her in order to blackmail Violetta’s feelings.
Such interpretations are valid and viable if they can be made to work, but not if they undermine or contradict the strengths of the original musical and lyrical intent. One would think that ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ ought to be more poignant for the presence of the girl in question, but it’s not, and Violetta’s capitulation of ‘Ah dite alla giovine!’ consequently doesn’t feel justified here. There should be a sense of paternal care for his children certainly that may make Germont blind and even inconsiderate to the suffering of others, but that’s not entirely how the libretto or the music depict his character. In order to make it work that way, you would need to mess with the score and make some judicious cuts, and unfortunately, that’s where this production is on rather dubious ground.
Cuts in even the most famous operas are not uncommon – even in La Traviata – but this production is particularly ruthless in wielding the knife in order to make it fit to a design that differs from the original intention. In some cases, the cuts are justifiable in focussing the drama back on Violetta and Alfredo and in moving the story along. We lose the gypsy dance and the matador chorus from the start of Act 2 entirely, just so we can get back to Alfredo’s confrontation with Violetta after the break-up. Personally, while the music is marvellous, I’ve always felt that this was rather out of place in the opera and did indeed bring the dramatic flow to a standstill (although Willy Decker did indeed manage to put an interesting spin on this section to integrate it back into the work), so it’s absence here is understandable if nonetheless regrettable. Other cuts and trims however (Violetta’s Act 2 letter-writing, Germont’s ‘No, non udrai rimproveri’, the cutting of references to the baron and the duel, the excision of the doctor’s presence from the start of Act 3) feel arbitrary, or worse, are done with the intention of twisting the narrative design.
In some respects, this allows the opera to work towards its own ends without causing too much damage to the dramaturgy of the original. It’s a very lean version of La Traviata consequently and it fairly flies along, running to only one hour and fifty minutes, launching from act to act without time even for an interval. The minimal stage sets – curtains and a chair for the most part, but with strong warm lighting schemes to enhance the overheated nature of the opera – allow for such quick changes, but the dramatic context is just as important as a concept, and that’s unclear here. It’s fine to use curtains in a Brechtian manner to suggest life as a series of scenes in which we often assume the role of characters, but I don’t think this is any more truthful to the human content of the work. It just switches one set of dramatic conventions for another.
Traviata
Fitting in with the stripped-down nature of the production, there are no big gestures either from the orchestra under the musical direction of Tecwyn Evans. It’s nice to hear the detail of the score without it being smothered in punchy grand gestures and mannerisms, but it’s questionable whether this is true to the nature of Verdi’s dynamism and sweeping arrangements. Actually, it’s not questionable at all, since it often feels like a mechanical run-though, not giving sufficient sense of the passing of time or the context of the relationship between Alfredo and Violetta, and it does reduce the heightened emotions and impact of the drama. That’s clearly the intention of the music and artistic directors here and, while it may not be traditional, it does put a different and interesting perspective on the work that is worth considering, even if it doesn’t always work.
It’s perhaps only the final scene that has the necessary impact, with the requisite timing that leaves room for the emotions to sink in. Thanks to Petersen’s fine performance, it also just about passes the crucial tear-in-the-eye test. With all the cuts to the score and lack of dramatic setting, this 2011 Graz production is not recommended to anyone watching La Traviata for the first time, but it is not without its merits and it is certainly worthwhile for anyone who has despaired of ever hearing La Traviata approached with some originality, freshness and daring, even if it doesn’t entirely work and certainly doesn’t get to the emotional heart of the work in the way that Verdi intended.
On a BD25 disc, the 1080i image is not exceptional simply because there’s little detail to be seen on stage, and what is there is fairly washed out by the strong orange lighting, but the disc itself is technically sound. The audio mixes, in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, are wonderful however for anyone who wants to hear the fine detail of the (subdued) orchestral performance and singing. Extras include a 20-minute making of that gets right behind the scenes of the rehearsals and the booklet includes a short interview and a synopsis by the director Peter Konwitchny, which give some idea of his intentions for the production.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Verdi - La Forza del Destino


DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino
Opéra National de Paris, 2011
Philippe Jordan, Jean-Claude Auvray, Mario Luperi, Violeta Urmana, Vladimir Stoyanov, Marcelo Álvarez, Nadia Krasteva, Kwangchul Youn, Nicola Alaimo, Nona Javakhidze, Christophe Fel, Rodolphe Briand, François Lis
Opéra Bastille, Paris (via Internet streaming), 8 December 2011
Verdi’s Il Forza del Destino is one of those fascinating mature works by the composer – along with Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo in Maschera – which draw on the best elements from the composer’s earlier work in terms of melody, drive, pacing and plotting, but which have the benefit of a little more complexity in the orchestration, hinting at the greatness of the later final opera compositions – Don CarlosAidaOtello and Falstaff. The characters in La Forza del Destino, like the other works from this period, are somewhat limited by the conventionality of the melodramatic plotline, but Verdi’s score hints that there are other depths that can be drawn from the work. Consequently it’s a work that requires a little more thought given to the staging and a cast of performers who have the ability not only to meet the singing demands, but be able to give something to the acting. The direction of the current production for the Opéra National de Paris unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to those challenges, but that doesn’t prevent their La Forza del Destino from being any less brilliant musically.
I’m not sure it helps at all to displace the opera’s famous Overture, but it’s become something of a convention now (and not just here, but also recently in the Amsterdam production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes) and here it’s delayed until after the first act. The Overture of La Forza del Destino is now so familiar that it can be easy to forget that it has a dramatic function, and it’s the contention of Philippe Jordan, the musical director of the production, that it works better in that context as an introduction to the opera’s themes following Act 1, which is really just a prologue. Whether that’s the case or not is debatable, but what is not in question is just how impressively it is delivered. The filmed recording of the production, broadcast in French cinemas and available for Internet streaming from the Paris Opera web site, demonstrates Jordan’s controlled and precise direction of the Overture and confirms my belief from recent visits (LuluTannhäuser) that the Paris Orchestra is one of the best in the world at the moment. The same musical intelligence and virtuosity is evident not just in the Overture, but throughout this production.
Destin
While the staging and the performances of a strong cast are more than adequate, they aren’t given anything much to do in a storyline that doesn’t quite deserve the beauty and intelligence of Verdi’s score, which is moving away from the convenienze of Italian opera and the yoke of the cabaletta towards a purer musical form of dramatic expression. That’s the case with most of the composer’s melodramas during this period, where there are moments of greatness and brilliance, but overall there isn’t an entirely satisfactory match between content and the growing confidence and complexity of Verdi’s musical arrangements. The religious themes, the question of honour and duty and the fighting of a duel remind one of Stiffelio, while the music and Spanish setting tug more in the direction of Don Carlos.
Despite some of the superficial similarities in the outline, La Forza del Destino is a Verdi opera that is far beyond the straightforward dramatic plotting of a work like Stiffelio. The religious and philosophical questions behind La Forza del Destino are, like the title itself (The Force of Destiny), rather more allusive for a Verdi opera, most of which are named directly after its principal character (Oberto, RigolettoDon Carlo) or an historical event (Il Battaglia di LegnanoLes Vêpres Siciliennes). It’s a title that, particularly in the context of the religious themes of the work, got Verdi into trouble with the censor, the opera indeed seeming to consider the power of destiny and fate and man’s attempts to control it through war, debts of honour or religious observance. Those seemingly subsidiary elements of the opera – Preziosilla, the fortune teller, Melitone, the monk and the soldiers going to war – are in the end just as important, if not more so, than the melodrama of Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo di Vargas. Where do the common people, torn between sinning and God, asked to take part in these wars, fit into the greater scheme of things?
Destin
As such, it should be possible for an innovative director to make something of those contradictions and the darker undercurrents in the score or the libretto as with Tcherniakov for Macbeth, or Christof Loy for Les Vêpres Siciliennes, but Jean-Claude Auvray’s production doesn’t attempt anything quite as radical. It’s not unusual for directors to update the older historical periods of Verdi operas to the composer’s own time and align the revolutionary elements of the plots with the struggle for the reunification of Italy, the Risorgmiento, and that’s the case here, but the Viva V.E.R.D.I. (“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia”) slogans and flag-waving fit awkwardly and confusingly with the Spanish setting of the opera. The religiously sparse and ascetic sets however make the environment less concrete, allowing the wider dimension of the opera’s themes to be applied, where the backdrops, like the changes and whims of fate, are fluid, temporary and changeable, capable of being rolled-up and spirited away at a moment’s notice.
Somehow however – and it’s not necessarily a fault with the direction, since the opera itself is imperfect in this respect – the main characters lack substance within such an environment, caught up in extraordinary coincidences and twists of fate. It’s hard therefore to make that in any way realistic, despite the best efforts of Verdi’s score, the outstanding performance of it by the Paris Opera orchestra, and the generally fine singing of a strong cast. Marcelo Álvarez demonstrates why he is one of the most sought-after and foremost Verdi tenors at the moment, a fiery Don Alvaro, but one who embodies a sense of conflict and honour in his struggle with the cruel twists of fate that occur. Violeta Urmana also seems to be the Verdi soprano of choice at the moment, but isn’t always the most versatile of singers or the best of actresses. She has some fine moments here and is generally impressive, but she clearly struggles with the high notes in places and it’s by no means a distinguished performance. There’s good solid support however from Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo, Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, Kwangchul Youn as Padre Guardiano and Nicola Alaimo as Brother Melitone – all of which are enough to make this a solid and entertaining La Forza del Destino, even if it is somewhat lacking in adventure.
The Opéra National de Paris’ La Forza del Destino is available for viewing on their website until February 2012.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Puccini - Tosca


ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca
Arena di Verona, 2006
Daniel Oren, Hugo de Ana, Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcelo Álvarez, Ruggero Raimondi, Marco Spotti, Fabio Previati, Enrico Facini, Angelo Nardinocchi, Ottavia Dorrucci
Arthaus
This budget release of Tosca by Arthaus (available for around £6 from online retailers) is an accessible and affordable introduction for anyone interested in discovering just how amazing opera can look and sound on Blu-ray. In the early days of DVD, Arthaus released a couple of ‘DVD Samplers’ that highlighted the latest releases in their catalogue with a selection of trailers, key arias or scenes from their opera, ballet and music documentary titles. This gave a flavour of how certain opera productions were staged, and whether they would be to your taste or not. Arthaus have however come up with a much better idea to introduce new audiences to their Blu-ray catalogue, and that is to include an entire opera along with all the samples, so that newcomers can get a sense of the whole dramatic and musical power of a complete production.
The choices so far have been good ones. The first release, Verdi’s La Traviata, with a stellar cast including Angela Gheorghiu, Ramón Vargas and Thomas Hampson and a sumptuous set at the Scala in Milan, could hardly be a better advertisement for opera on Blu-ray or a better introduction for the newcomer. La Traviata is full of magnificent and familiar melodies, demonstrates virtuoso singing and has a strong dramatically involving and emotionally engaging storyline that moves rapidly along. If that particular production was a little traditional and unimaginative, it is at least a safe option that cannot fail to impress. The same can certainly be said, on just about every level, for the choice of Arthouse’s second ‘Blu-ray Sampler’, Puccini’s Tosca.
Tosca
Filmed in 2006 in the stunning outdoor location of the ancient Roman arena in Verona, there are no grand or avant-garde concepts attached to the production, just a solid, straightforward account of Puccini’s melodrama of a love affair that becomes embroiled in revolutionary political affairs of state and ends in tragedy. No clever concepts need to be applied to Tosca – its themes are there on the surface and not politically engaged in the manner that Verdi would deal with such subject matter – and it’s underscored by the powerful tugging sweep of Puccini’s hugely romantic score. Employing Wagnerian leitmotifs none too subtly, (Dah-dah, DAH every time the villain Scarpia is even mentioned), compressing the drama down to a series of escalating events, the three acts clocking in at under two hours, Tosca is a superbly calculated and orchestrated music drama.
The stage setting here by Hugo de Ana is actually rather unspectacular for a Verona production, but it’s not an opera that needs the extravagant grandeur of a Zeffirelli setting. A few statues are scaled up to create an imposing presence of religion and the state over the affairs, but there are few changes made to the necessarily all-purpose stage for each of the acts. The only real set-piece is the ‘Te Deum’ at the end of Act 1, which involves cannons firing on the stage and the opening of the screen at the back to reveal a line-up of skull-faced bishops, and it’s highly effective, with shock and awe in all the right places. The two other famous set-pieces in the opera – the ceremonial decorating of Scarpia’s corpse with candles and the plunge of Tosca at the finale – are not exactly muted (it’s impossible for them to be muted with Puccini’s score powering them), but they just don’t take them to their usual lengths and they do consequently slightly lose their traditional impact.
Tosca
If the scenes work and are scarcely less effective than usual, it’s down to Puccini’s score to a large extent, but it also needs strong casting to put it across, and this production certainly has that. Best of all is Marcelo Álvarez – better known for his Verdi tenor roles than for Puccini, but Cavaradossi suits him well in this particular opera. Fiorenza Cedolins is fine and occasionally brilliant as Flora Tosca, and Scarpia (Dah-dah, DAH) is in the capable hands of the great Ruggero Raimondi. Obviously each is going to be judged by their showpiece aria – Scarpia’s ‘Te Deum’ in Act 1, Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte’ in Act 2 and Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in Act 3 – and all of them are impressively delivered in singing and in dramatic terms. Daniel Oren conducts here and it’s an adequate account of the work, but a little too smooth, the instrumentation not always well balanced in the sound mix for maximum effect. This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.
The quality of the Blu-ray is excellent. The image is clear and colourful, the high quality PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 sound mixes well distributed, with nice detail. Subtitles are English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. There are no extra features relating to the Verona production of Tosca on this budget release. Intended to showcase the Arthaus catalogue, the 47 trailers on the BD total 140 minutes of extracts from their TDK and Arthaus releases, which are right bang up-to-date and well worth a look through. There are however no subtitles on any of the trailers.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae


DanaeRichard Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2011
Andrew Litton, Kirsten Harms, Manuela Uhl, Mark Delavan, Matthias Klink, Thomas Blondelle, Burkhard Ulrich, Hulkor Sabirova
Arthaus
The penultimate opera by Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae was written in 1940 before his last opera Capriccio, but withheld until after the war for fear that the time wasn’t right for its rich, extravagant orchestration of a mythological tale that seemed to have little relevance to the times. The time it seems has never been right for Die Liebe der Danae, the opera only receiving its premiere in 1952 after Strauss’ death, and it would appear to have had even less relevance in the post-war years and in an world of German opera that was embracing the earthier, discordant sounds of Berg, Hindemith and Weill. Consequently, Die Liebe der Danae has rarely been performed (according to the notes on this release there have been only 16 productions worldwide in the last 60 years), but at a time when economic concerns have banking institutions and large countries teetering on the brink of crisis, perhaps the time is finally right for Strauss’ neglected late masterwork. This 2011 production at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin certainly makes a persuasive case for it.
The classical subject of the opera relates to another of Jupiter’s mythological liaisons (Semele, Leda and one or two other conquests also appear in this opera), in his attempts to seduce Danae, the daughter of King Pollux of Eos. With the kingdom of Eos near bankruptcy through the extravagant lifestyle of the King, Jupiter knows that Danae’s weakness is gold, and since the king is keen to marry his daughter to a rich suitor in order to restore his fortunes, how could they resist an offer of marriage from Midas, the legendary King of Lydia, whose touch will turn anything into gold? Jupiter disguises himself therefore as Midas, and forces Midas himself to act as his messenger Chrysopher and make the necessary arrangements. Danae however, against the odds and her love of gold, rejects the disguised Jupiter and falls in love with the real Midas instead, unaware of who he really is. It’s a choice that is to have grave repercussions.
Danae
The libretto for Die Liebe der Danae was written by Joseph Gregor, who was never as successful in his collaborations with the composer as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but based on some original ideas by Hofmannsthal, there are more interesting themes within the storyline than are obvious on the surface, and inevitably some amount of operatic references and self-referentiality on the part of the composer. The mythological elements have some similarity to Die Walküre – the allure and the power of the Gods diminishing, the strength of human love that takes its place expressed in the union of Midas and Danae – and the score accordingly sees some of Strauss’ most Wagnerian touches, certainly in Act II at least. It’s tempting to see, as the author of the booklet notes on this release points out, Strauss in the role of Jupiter, considering his position at this stage in his life and concerned about his legacy in a world that may no longer need him.
There is however it seems to me something of Strauss in Midas also, “cursed” with a gift that turns everything to gold – Die Liebe der Danae is scored as beautifully, extravagantly, lushly and with infinite levels complexity as some of the greatest of Strauss’ works – but it’s a gift that carries with it the danger of turning whatever it touches into something cold and lifeless. Much of Strauss’ operatic work could certainly be considered as being too intellectualised and self-referential, as cool and lifeless as the golden rose in Der Rosenkavalier – an image that is even used again in this opera with the turning of a natural flower into a beautiful but lifeless gold object. But, considering the nature of opera again in his final work Capriccio, the composer seems to come to an accommodation that the underlying truth and life in his work will endure and still find a way to reach out and touch the human spirit. All that glitters may not always be gold, but sometimes it is.
Danae
It’s taken a long time for recognition to be given to this particular opera, which makes this release all the more welcome. The Deutsche Oper production of this beautiful but rarely performed work is an absolute delight and a real treat for fans of Richard Strauss. Directed by Kirsten Harms, there is perhaps some attempt to make a personal identification of the opera’s themes with the composer by hanging an upturned piano over the set in all three acts with falling pages of a music score instead of golden rain, but otherwise this is a relatively straightforward and faithful staging of the opera, set in a timeless mythological world that is neither period nor modern. It looks marvellous and comes across well on the screen, the sets perfectly appropriate for the scale and the nature of the subject. The casting is good and the singing excellent with Manuela Uhl as Danae, Mark Delavan as Jupiter and Matthias Klink as Midas. If there are a few minor areas where the strength of the singing is competing to be heard above the sumptuous, layered score, it’s nonetheless as good as you could hope for from a live performance.
The High Definition PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.0 audio tracks on the Blu-ray however really work marvellously, the mixing giving the voices adequate space, while putting across the full splendour and luscious beauty of a score that, superbly performed by the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Andrew Litton, ranges from delicate, sparkling playfulness to brooding, contemplative melancholy. Consummately Richard Strauss then, and this performance amply demonstrates the qualities and strengths of an opera that, like much of the composer’s late work, remains largely unknown, underperformed, underrated and surely ripe for rediscovery.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Handel - Rodelinda


RodelindaGeorge Frideric Handel - Rodelinda
The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Harry Bicket, Stephen Wadsworth, Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Shenyang
The Met: Live in HD - December 3, 2011
The challenges of staging a Baroque opera for a modern audience are difficult enough through trying to find a way to make the rather static nature of the drama more interesting to watch and bring the archaic musical conventions of the opera seria alive. By nature a more intimate drama, the difficulties of reaching out to a large audience in a major opera house, or even indeed to a worldwide audience watching live through a HD broadcast link must be even greater. With their production of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Met certainly made every effort to keep the drama and action moving through an inventive, appropriate, period set with direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and consideration was clearly given to the casting of strong singers to project the deeper emotional drama of the piece, but there was the feeling that the Met really isn’t the right venue for such works and the full impact of one of Handel’s most lyrical and dramatic operas was never fully achieved here.
Although it has a reputation for having a complex plot, the dramatic action ofRodelinda is actually not all that difficult to follow, and on the surface at least, it’s actually one of Handel’s least complicated situations. Updated in this production to Milan in the early 18th century, the King of Lombardy, Bertarido, has been deposed by Grimoaldo, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, had been planning to marry Bertarido’s sister Eduige in order to gain a legitimate claim to the throne, but resolves instead to marry the queen, Rodelinda. Grimoaldo’s henchman, Garibaldo, puts pressure on Rodelinda, threatening the life of her son, and she reluctantly is forced to accept Grimoaldo’s proposal. Her husband Bertarido however is not dead, but has been smuggled into the city by his friend Unulfo, who still remains loyal. Overhearing Rodelinda’s agreement to marry Grimoaldo, Bertarido is forced to reveal that he is still alive, a selfless act that causes Grimoaldo to reconsider his intentions. The remainder of the storyline falls into conventional lines of resolution of both the political and, more importantly, the romantic situations that have become entangled.
Rodelinda
Even if it is fairly conventional in this respect, there is however still rather more dramatic action than you usually find in a Handel opera, with plenty of confrontations between opposing rivals and reunions between lost lovers. The real drama however goes on beneath the surface, the inner turmoil expressed, as it it often is in Baroque opera, through long repetitive da capo arias. Rodelinda is one of Handel’s most beautiful works for how these inner conflicts are expressed in the singing and in the music. It’s more than the usual, “I’ve been betrayed, how can I live with the shame?” type of situations, and the resolution is more than the person in the wrong coming to their senses and bringing about an honourable resolution that restores the political and romantic order of things. Superficially, it has to be admitted, Rodelinda does fit this template to a large extent, but it’s how those characters grapple with those difficult decisions, and it’s how those sentiments are expressed in the singing voice in some lovely poetic arias, through the achingly tender musical accompaniment, and in how the characters evolve over the course of the three acts, that the opera excels as one of Handel’s finest, most involving and most beautiful works.
From interval discussions behind the scenes during the HD-Live broadcast, it’s clear that the singers and conductor Harry Bicket are fully aware of the qualities of the work, of how those dramatic situations need to be presented, and how those deeper emotional conflicts and character development can be expressed in the improvisational coloratura of the seemingly rigid form of the da capo aria. Somehow, however, this never managed to be convincingly conveyed in either the dramatic staging, the singing or the performance of the orchestra. The Met’s Rodelinda treated Handel’s opera with skill, respect and consideration, but it just never felt like a Handel opera. As good as each of the singers is individually, the casting here was perhaps not the most appropriate for this particular opera. Personally, I’m not usually of the opinion that there’s only one way to present a work or that certain singers should only stick to a certain repertoire for which they are best suited – I like seeing a singer stretch their capabilities as much as I enjoy seeing a familiar opera transformed by a new interpretation – but few if any of the Met’s stellar cast seemed entirely comfortable in their roles here.
Rodelinda
Renée Fleming championed this work and helped get it performed at the Met when it was first produced in 2004, and she is a terrific dramatic singer who brings an attentive intelligence to the role of Rodelinda. Fleming demonstrated that she is capable of meeting the extraordinary vocal challenges in her own way, but – even though she is experienced in this type of opera – perhaps the demands of the Baroque technique got in the way in this performance, because she never succeeded in bringing the Queen’s drama to life. Neither did Stephanie Blythe fit well in the role of Eduige. She sang more than adequately, but you just didn’t get a sense that she was feeling her character’s predicament. Bertarido, with his deep reserves of love, honour and bravery, is perhaps the most interesting character in the opera, but Andreas Scholl’s light countertenor was too small for the Met production and didn’t always bring enough underlying steeliness of his character’s core. Iestyn Davies’ countertenor Unulfo however fared much better. Joseph Kaiser and Shenyang were good fits for their roles as the baddies, but even Kaiser failed to draw the full extent of Grimoaldo’s conflict and the change that he undergoes from the beautiful arias that Handel gives this character.
Ultimately however, the singers were competing with an enormous stage set that was certainly inventive and brilliantly designed by Thomas Lynch to keep the action flowing, providing a sense of realism and spectacle, but – like Wadsworth’s production for Iphigénie en Tauride last season – it was much too elaborate for the smaller intimate scale of the human drama that is played out in such a work. The same can be said for the Met Orchestra, which played the score of Rodelinda well enough, but only partially using period instruments and arranged to fill a larger opera house, it lacked the rhythm, the simplicity, the beauty and the delicate touch of a Baroque orchestra. As ever with the Met then, we got a typically top-class opera production, with top-flight singers and an intelligent and considered approach to the work, but either the venue, the occasion or the medium of HD-Live is all wrong for Baroque opera, because this version of Handel’s Rodelinda just never came across as movingly, involvingly and lovingly as it should.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel


Hansel and GretelEngelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel
NI Opera, 2011
Oliver Mears, David Brophy, Niamh Kelly, Aoife O’Sullivan, Graham Clark, Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones, Aoife Miskelly, Rebekah Coffey
Grand Opera House, Belfast - 25 November 2011
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the annual Christmas pantomime had arrived just slightly earlier than usual at the Grand Opera House this year judging by the number of parents with kids, the rustling of crisp packets and a lack of the normal respectful silence one would be accustomed to during the overture to an opera production at the august Belfast venue. But that’s the beauty of Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, which has the traditional fairytale elements that appeal to children, but also has a sumptuous score for opera lovers that lies in the Wagnerian tradition, if somewhat on the lighter side of the Teutonic scale. It’s also the beauty of the new approach to opera being taken by the director of NI Opera, Oliver Mears, who has not only gone out to smaller venues throughout Northern Ireland to seek out a new audience, but, as in the company’s approach to Tosca earlier this year with each of the three acts taking place in Derry in separate venues with local significance, he has also taken into consideration new ways to engage an audience and new ways to present an opera production.
The broad appeal characteristics of Hansel and Gretel however can still make it difficult to judge at what level to pitch it. As NI Opera’s first full-scale production at the Grand Opera House, following a number of smaller chamber works in other venues across the province, there must be an equal temptation to appease the traditional opera fans in the audience as much as play-up the fairy-tale elements and appeal to a new, younger audience who will undoubtedly engage with the strong mix of music, comedy, drama, horror and spectacle that the opera offers. To his credit, Mears doesn’t appear to attempt to steer the opera in any single direction, but instead pays close attention to the composition itself and allows the inherent playful but sinister qualities of Humperdinck’s work to find their own expression without having to make concessions to one audience or the other.
Like most fairytales, and certainly in the case of many of the works of the Brothers Grimm, the cautionary stories often have dark origins. Those are certainly there in Hansel and Gretel, they are there in Humperdinck’s opera and they are not at all underplayed or softened for a younger audience in this production. While the image of the gingerbread house filled with sweets is the most attractive and memorable image associated with the story there’s a warning about the dangers of gluttony in the fattening up of Hansel to be a tasty meal for the witch in the woods who uses her abode to lure young children to their doom. There’s evidently a cautionary element there also relating to the dangers of taking sweets from strangers – the unsettling posters of missing children in this production highlighting that this is more than just children lost in the woods – which takes the story into very dark territory indeed. There are also darker undercurrents in the story and in the opera concerning the relationship of the parents – an authoritative, even perhaps abusive mother and an alcoholic father – and how this relates to the children running away.
Hansel and Gretel
NI Opera’s production consequently avoided all the sugary-sweet Bavarian fairytale elements normally associated with the story, and instead set Act 1 in a rather more familiar modern home setting, even if some of the elements had a rather disturbing but delightfully subversive David Lynch feel to them. Much in the manner in which Lynch’s nightmares seep into the real world, a painting made by the children of a yellow stickman in the dark woods and stuck onto the fridge, forms the backdrop to Act II, the Sandman stepping eerily out of the painting to sprinkle sleep dust onto the children. In contrast to the chatter throughout Act 1 and enjoyment of the childish antics of the two children on the stage, you could have heard a pin drop at this moment, and undoubtedly terrifying as it might appear to the younger children in the audience, it’s an image that would certainly make a strong, memorable impression. Hansel and Gretel’s subsequent dream of the magical angels doesn’t bring any comfort to the children in the audience either, depicting a birthday feast where the mother’s head is presented on a platter.
Act III appears to go into full pantomime mode, with Graham Clark’s Witch almost rivalling May McFetteridge as the Belfast stage’s long-standing traditional pantomime Grand Dame, ending up spinning hilariously and eventually splattered gorily across the window of the giant microwave oven that emerges to dominate the set, but again, there is no holding back on the dark elements that are there in the plot and indeed in the deliciously rich musical score that does indeed have mystical Das Rheingold qualities. Like David Brophy’s conducting of the Ulster Orchestra, each of the singers played their part in reaching into the characters themselves for those deeper dark elements, but managed to balance this with a playful way that they are often expressed. Neither the score nor the singing could always compete with the spoken-out-loud reactions of the children in the audience, but Niamh Kelly’s mischievous Hansel, Paul Carey Jones’ strong deep baritone Father, Rebekah Coffey’s creepy Sandman and Graham Clarke’s well-judged performance and presence all commanded attention.
Performing Hansel and Gretel for an untypical opera audience no doubt presents some difficulties, but NI Opera, in their first full production as the new local opera company, seem once again to have got the balance absolutely right. They clearly know how to reach their audience, and it’s not by talking down to either the newer, younger audience or by aiming to satisfy expectations of traditional opera-goers. Rather, as previous productions have likewise shown, there has evidently been careful consideration given to the selection of works to present, less familiar operas certainly, but ones which ultimately can reach out and engage a modern audience. The NI Opera production of Hansel and Gretel, with the Ulster Orchestra, demonstrates that this needn’t involve any artistic compromise, but that through close attention to the score and the libretto itself, trusting in the strength of the characters and in the depth that is accorded to them through Humperdinck’s score, the work can be, should be and indeed was, eerie, enchanting and engaging in equal measures for the whole audience.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Glass - Satyagraha


SatyagrahaPhilip Glass - Satyagraha
The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Dante Anzolini, Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, Richard Croft, Rachelle Durkin, Molly Fillmore, Maria Zifchak, Mary Phillips, Kim Josephson, Bradley Garvin, Richard Bernstein, Alfred Walker
The Met: Live in HD - November 19, 2011
It’s taken a long time for Philip Glass to find acceptance in his home city of New York, his success and popularity as a living modern composer undoubtedly regarded with some suspicion by music critics, as well as his ability to blur the lines between classical and modern music through the writing of numerous film scores and symphonies based on David Bowie albums. Mainly however, it has to be admitted, the criticism has been principally on a failure to grasp the value of his minimalist approach to music that consists of long sections of repetitive rhythms with slowly changing parts, music that seems to be more mathematical in its structure and precision than relating in any meaningful way to human emotion or expression. It’s a valid criticism, but it’s one that a serious consideration of Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha very strongly refutes, and with this production at the Metropolitan Opera, it seems as if recognition for the brilliance of the work – one of the greatest opera works of the late 20th century – and for Philip Glass has finally been achieved.
The Met have of course been more receptive towards Philip Glass than the music critics, with his first opera Einstein on the Beach – an abstract avant-garde theatrical project that is undoubtedly one of the composer’s more difficult works – performed there in 1976. It was the Met who also commissioned Glass to write The Voyage (1990), an opera to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, which, if it approached the subject from a typically oblique angle, was however rather more conventional in its musical form. Of all Philip Glass’ opera works, Saytagraha remains one of the most interesting, shaped as it is by period of its writing with Glass still in minimalist mode but moving towards a more conventional use of classical orchestra instrumentation. Forced by necessity of the size of the orchestra pit of the commissioning house in Rotterdam,Satyagraha is distinctive also for making use only of strings and woodwind instruments, with no percussion or brass, and some supplemental electronic organ to hold the rolling sequences of rhythms.
Satyagraha
There is however one more vital component to the sound and the score for Satyagraha that doesn’t require space in the orchestra pit, and that is the composer’s remarkable and unconventional use of the voice in the opera. Apart from the ensemble arrangements for duos, quartets, sextets and choir, what is significant and unconventional about how the voice is implemented in Satyagraha, is that it the libretto is sung in Sanskrit, the words broken down into syllables that give additional force, rhythm and another layer of instrumentation on top of the orchestration. The choice of Sanskrit is, of course, not random, but inextricably tied into the purpose, the themes and the expression of the subject of the opera, which deals with Mahatma Gandhi, specifically his early years in South Africa where he first formulated his principles of non-violence and civil disobedience working as a lawyer for the immigrant Indian population there.
The entire libretto of Satyagraha, written and arranged by Glass and Constance De Jong, is drawn from an ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavada Gita, and what is highly unusual about its use is not just that it’s sung in Sanskrit, but that this sacred text replaces any kind of conventional narrative spoken by the principal characters. Gandhi would have meditated on the Bhagavada Gita, and rather than use any external means of expression through the libretto for the actions of Gandhi and his supporters during this period in their following the path of truth (the meaning of the word “satyagraha” is roughly “truth force”), Glass chooses to have his characters look inward as a means of dealing with the increasing violence, prejudice and injustice enacted by the European South Africans against the blacks and Indian immigrants. Used in this way, the rhythmic intoning of the verses of the Bhagavada Gita are attuned Janacek-style to the tone and inflections of the voice with a mantra that seems to bear the sacred voice of truth. Working in conjunction with the barest outline of the setting of the real-life events, the words of the libretto and their delivery combine to create a near-religious purity of expression that has all the sincerity, conviction and spirituality of a Handel oratorio.
It starts as one voice, initially Gandhi alone (sung well in this production by Richard Croft), who has just arrived in South Africa as a young lawyer, and has immediately been put off the train for failing to give up his seat to a white man. In a moment of silence before the music and singing commences, he looks at his suitcase lying in the dust as if trying to decide whether to just give up and go home. Instead he turns his thoughts inward, finding the determination to go take up the struggle in the Bhagavada Gita’s description of the great conflict between the Kuruvas and the Pandavas. That voice is taken up by others as the opera progresses, his secretary Miss Schlesen, Kasturbai and Mrs Naidoo, culminating in an extraordinary sextet by all the principals through the New Castle March of Act III, each of them finding truth in the words and the strength to stand up to the injustice of the South African government’s racially discriminatory laws. There are few real dramatic reconstructions, not one word written that attempts to describe the narrative playing out of events or the interaction between the characters. The characters for the most part face the audience and express the truth as it is written in the Bhagavada Gita, and find their strength and unity through this.
Satyagraha
That’s very difficult to get across on the stage, particularly as the ancient Sanskrit text is not translated into English surtitles for the audience, but the opera is only difficult if the audience is expecting a conventional narrative. Words, and attempts to define or interpret their meaning, would just get in the way here. The meaning should come through the intoning and recital of the vocal arrangements themselves, driven forcefully with the accompaniment of the orchestra. It helps however if there is something visually interesting and relevant to focus on in the place of dramatic action. That might not have been there in previous very rare productions of the opera (the Stuttgart production of Satyagraha by Achim Freyer, currently the only version available on DVD), that perhaps haven’t been able to bring the meaning across quite as well as it’s done here. Directed by Phelim McDermott, with the set designs by Julian Crouch and the Improvisational Puppetry of their Improbable theatrical company’s skills ensemble, this production manages to find a balance between the stylised setting of the events in Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 and 1913, the words of the libretto – some of which are projected in English onto the set designs – and the wider context of the opera and the meaning of satyagraha, past, present and future (in Tolstoy, Tagore and King).
I first saw this production of Satyagraha when it premiered in London at the English National Opera in 2007 (and again when it was revived in 2010), and even then it was clear how those subjects and the broader meaning of Gandhi’s message in the opera were still relevant and successfully put across by the inventive but unfussy production that combined spectacle with meaning. That relevance is perhaps even more pronounced at the present time, with the power of non-violence and peaceful demonstration evident in upheavals in the Arab world, but also in events closer to home at St Paul’s in London and, not so far away from the Metropolitan Opera itself, contemporaneously on Wall Street. The timing seems fortuitous, resulting in deserved recognition belatedly given to Satyagraha and Philip Glass in standing ovations at the Met global broadcast around the world in HD-Live, but the truths expressed in the opera itself have always been there, only needing the means to spread the word and find an audience who will be receptive to it. It’s gratifying to see then that the same global communications technology that played such a vital part in the Arab revolutions as a new Indian Opinion could, albeit in a much less important way, help gain wider appreciation for this particular work, but – who knows? – some might even find deeper inspiration from the truths expressed in it.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Giordano - Andrea Chénier


ChenierUmberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier
Bregenzer Festspiele, 2011
Ulf Schirmer, Keith Warner, David Fielding, Héctor Sandoval, Norma Fantini, Scott Hendricks, Tania Kross, Rosalind Plowright
Unitel Classica – C-Major
If you want to convey a sense of the outrageous decadence of pre-Revolutionary France and blithe ignorance of the rich with regards to the reality of conditions for the poor in a production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, you would be hard pressed to match the extravagance of the one staged on the lake at Bregenz in 2011, where a huge head and upper torso of Marat, based on Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting ‘The Death of Marat’, seems to rise out of the water with Lake Constance as his bathtub. The open-air lake stage at the Bregenz is traditionally an opportunity for spectacles to rival the Arena di Verona, but that doesn’t mean that it comes at the cost of attention to detail in the direction of the opera itself or towards the quality of the singing, and that’s certainly the case with this production.
It’s vital of course to set the tone right from the outset, since Act I of Andrea Chénier sets the scene for everything that is to follow since. Dressed in colourful, gaudy costumes and balancing enormous wigs on their heads, it’s here that the guests of a soirée at the Château de Coigny are to have their cozy little gathering interrupted and their privileged position challenged by the first stirrings of revolution. Attending the event is the humanitarian and poet André Chénier, who is goaded by Madeleine de Coigny into reciting a verse as a party piece. The beauty of Chénier’s words shames Madeleine and the company, showing them up as being detached from reality and sincere feelings. But there is worse to come when their dancing is rudely interrupted by the butler Gérard who turns up with a bunch of beggars and speaks up for the suffering and mistreatment his family and fellow servants have suffered at the hands of the noble hosts and their kind. All these ominous signs of discontent confirm the Abbé’s warnings and his admonitions that all is not well at the Royal Court.
Chenier
Act II takes place four years later in the aftermath of the revolution, and the opera develops – inevitably – into a romantic situation between Chénier and a contrite Madeleine de Coigny who comes to him looking for help. In a situation that Puccini would mirror to some extent later in Tosca – the similarities not surprising since Luigi Illica wrote the libretto for both – their happiness is threatened not only by an inescapable involvement in the politics of the revolution (Chénier disillusioned by the Reign of Terror is being urged to flee Paris), but also by Gérard, who is now one of the main figures of the Revolution and in love with Madeleine himself. Romance is to the fore in Andrea Chénier, but it’s aligned very closely with the history, politics and sensibilities of the period. Even Gérard has come to doubt the cause, or at least the methods used by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and questions whether there can be redemption in love or in giving oneself over to sensuality, again not so different from the dilemma faced by Scarpia and the choice he has to make between God and Tosca. The situation, taken similarly to arrest and execution, is however scarcely any less dramatic here in Andrea Chénier.
Despite the opportunities to rather over-play the drama, Keith Warner’s production is relatively restrained and in keeping with the content. It is grand spectacle certainly, but the designs are well used for the purpose of keeping the drama moving. Not only is the extraordinary set by David Fielding decorated with several platforms so that action can play out simultaneously on different stages, but there are several other hidden recesses that open up on occasion to disgorge additional horrors as the Reign of Terror takes hold over the course of the opera. Performers even have to travel by rowing boat from the main stage to another floating platform that represents the St Lazare prison. There are a few stunts where extras and doubles plunge into the lake itself, but it doesn’t feel excessive in the context. Additional Interludes – the end of Act I for example showing the popular uprising set to a screeching electric guitar playing the Marseillaise – may however be taking things a little too far.
Chenier
In this context, climbing staircases from one level to the next, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the performers in the main roles might have been chosen for their level of fitness and for having a head for heights (both of which are undoubtedly necessary here), but they are also fine singers. Mexican tenor Héctor Sandoval is in the classic romantic tenor mould as Chénier, and he is well matched with Norma Fantini’s Madeleine. Baritone Scott Hendricks however almost steals the show as a spirited Gérard. None of them seem at all disconcerted or the least put-out by the tricky manoeuvring and stage placements that are required. Radio mics are inevitable on a set like this and are not so discreet, but while it’s not ideal the sound recording is good and well mixed for both the singing and the orchestra on the Blu-ray disc, which also boasts a fine High Definition image. There are no extra features on the disc other than trailers for other releases, but the enclosed booklet has a synopsis and a brief interview with Keith Warner on the production.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Wagner - Siegfried


Richard Wagner - Siegfried
The Metropolitan Opera, New York
Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Patricia Bardon, Jay Hunter Morris, Gerhard Siegel, Bryn Terfel, Eric Owens
The Met: Live in HD - November 5, 2011
I’m sure there are few productions of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen tetrology – the most ambitious and gargantuan production for any opera company to undertake – that are not beset with numerous difficulties and set-backs (even Bayreuth seem to be finding it difficult to engage a director willing to take on such a challenge at the moment), but the Metropolitan Opera in New York certainly haven’t made it easy for themselves with their 2010-12 production. The new technology designed and constructed to meet Robert Lepage’s concept was certainly an ambitious and innovative solution to maintaining the necessary consistency, commonality and fluidity that runs through each of the four Ring operas, but it has had more than its share of teething problems across Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The news that the maestro James Levine’s health problems had forced him to stand down from Met conducting duties this season was also quite a blow to the production. All of this however seems relatively minor in comparison to the challenge of finding a Siegfried to replace the one who has just succumbed to illness only weeks before the opening of the critical third instalment.
Siegfried
Enter tenor Jay Hunter Morris from Paris, Texas to replace the indisposed Gary Lehman, seemingly unfazed by the challenge of stepping into one of the most difficult roles in the entire opera repertoire on one of the biggest stages in the world of opera. A man either with no concept of the notion of fear or one who acts out of blithe innocence for a heroic endeavour, and as such, there can be no more perfect a match for the role of Siegfried. Jay Hunter Morris fits the bill on this count and in the other areas that matter. He’s not the most lyrical or dramatic heldentenor you will ever hear in the role, but there are few enough Wagnerian tenors in the world that fit that description that are capable of stepping into the role of Siegfried at a few weeks’ notice and Morris sings the role exceptionally well, carrying it off with courage, enthusiasm, stamina and personality, looking every inch a classic Siegfried. He’scertainly capable of slaying this particular dragon and that he does it so confidently is quite an achievement.
An achievement also, I’m happy to say now that we’re fully into the third part, is the gradual evolution of Lepage’s vision of the Ring cycle. Relying entirely on a huge heavy and complex piece of machinery, with no backdrops other than the computer generated images and lighting projected onto it, and little even in the way of props, the Machine was a risky gamble, and yes, it’s had its technical problems along the way. How well it works on a conceptual level is also debatable, but in terms of how it allows consistency, balance and fluidity, tackling complex scene changes, without unnecessary distraction or taking the focus away from the singers, is perfectly judged and balanced. Although undoubtedly difficult and complex to achieve, here in Siegfried it gives the impression of simplicity, managing to morph quickly and impressively from one scene and mood to the next without being overly showy. Less is definitely more when it comes to dealing with Wagner’s blend of myths and concepts – Lepage understands this, Jay Hunter Morris understand this, and so too does Fabio Luisi, taking over capably from Levine and dealing admirably with the challenges that this difficult stage in Wagner’s masterwork presents.
Siegfried
There is however no element and no minor role that doesn’t present challenges for the individual singers and the performers in Siegfried, or for the director and conductor who has to keep a consistency between them and with the other parts of the tetraology. The dwarf Mime can be played and sung with too much comic exaggeration, but Gerhard Siegel has the experience to enter more fully and thoughtfully into the role, and fits in well with the tone already established in the production. There’s a darker impulse and desire lying beneath that chimes with the nature of his brother Alberich, re-evoked here again after Das Rheingold in the gorgeously rich deep tones of Eric Owens. Much of this is just colour to the overall purpose of Siegfried, but it’s vital that it fits in with the richness of the colour that Wagner interweaves into the musical tapestry for the interaction and motivations of main characters. There are perhaps too many echoes and motifs to juggle satisfactorily in this particular opera and not enough depth of plotting to gve it sufficient character of its own – although it’s a work of absolute genius on the part of Wagner to develop and extend this method – and consequently it’s not always done as well as it is managed here.
What helps ground the opera however are the importance of the roles and the performances of the central characters of Wotan, the Wanderer and Brünnhilde. Having grown steadily into the role after a solid but unimpressive Das Rheingold followed by a significantly more commanding Die Walküre, Bryn Terfel’s first Seigfried Wotan is simply wonderful here. His character’s motivations and personal conflicts of interest are difficult to make work dramatically, but if you just take Wotan at his word in song – and this production allows him the space to explore the character deeply that way – then he is an utterly convincing, flawed, tragic character. It’s a great performance. Scarcely less of a challenge dramatically and vocally, Deborah Voigt might not entirely satisfy critics of her Brünnhilde in Die Walküre – weak only in only some areas, I thought – but she rose to the challenge here in Siegfried, her casting fortuitously seeming to work well not only with Terfel’s Wotan in the previous Ring instalment, but complementing well with the humanity in Jay Hunter Morris’ performance.
I’m not sure that the Metropolitan Ring will be ever considered a classic or a revolutionary new look at Wagner’s masterwork, but through good choices in the casting – along with more than a little bit of luck – and through a thoughtful, considered and balanced approach to the score and the production design, those performers are given full range of interpretation and expression, which if it is not revelatory, is at least consistent and of the highest quality. The standard has been set at a high level and the scene is now set for the Twilight of the Gods. Bring on Götterdämmerung.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Bellini - La Sonnambula


SonnambulaVincenzo Bellini - La Sonnambula
Royal Opera House, 2011
Daniel Oren, Marco Arturo Marelli, Andreas Leisner, Celso Albelo, Eglise Gutiérrez, Elena Xanthoudakis, Michele Pertusi, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora
Covent Garden, London - 2nd November 2011
It’s tempting to make excuses or a rationale for the limited musical arrangements and the somewhat contrived situation that leads to a melodramatic crisis in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Updating the period and setting it in an Alpine sanatorium in the 1950s, influenced to some extent by Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain‘, director Marco Arturo Marelli attempts to provide some psychological depth to the work, but in reality only confuses the issue further. Like most bel canto opera, it probably just better admitting that the only real reason for its scarcely credible plotline is to provide plenty of opportunities for virtuoso singing, and on that level alone, La Sonnambula – and indeed this production of it – more than justifies its existence.
For some commentators, it’s this simplicity that is in fact the key virtue of Bellini’s approach to the work. Its two act structure is a model of dramatic form, but it also reflects the simple attitudes that exist in its village-life setting in regard to the central issues, where a young woman Amina, is accused of infidelity to her fiancé Elvino on the eve of her wedding, having been found in the bedroom of a recently arrived stranger. Unaware that it’s her habit of sleepwalking that has led to her unfortunate night-time excursion, the opera’s theme then is based around the simple notion of purity as seen through the eyes of smalltown moralists who purport to uphold it yet question it in its sincerest form in Amina.
Judged purely on musical terms, you have to admit that Bellini gets it perfectly right. There’s not too much in the way of ambiguity in the characterisation or in the musical arrangements that underscore this straightforward conflict. Provided, that is, that you have a singer in the role of Amina with the kind of voice that can suggest simplicity and purity wronged and give it an air of authenticity in the ringing high notes and coloratura that express her innermost love for her husband-to-be and the sincerity of her intentions. And when you consider that this is a role for a Callas or a Sutherland, you can understand why it’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds.
Sonnambula
Fortunately, the Royal Opera House had two strong leads in Eglise Gutiérrez and Celso Albelo, both of whom were capable of reaching the extraordinary vocal challenges of the opera, even if they were both a little lacking in the charisma and the acting demands required to give their roles the kind of depth that Marco Arturo Marelli was undoubtedly looking for. There have been some criticisms of Gutiérrez’s Italian diction and the fact that her voice became increasingly thin on the high notes, both of which are true. Normally, I’d be inclined to regard such questions of technique as secondary in importance to the overall characterisation, but in the case of bel canto opera, characterisation is indeed subsidiary to the technique and is all about the singing. There are few enough singers in the history of opera, let alone around today, who are capable of meeting both demands in this kind of work however, so expectations surely need to be adjusted, and personally, I was impressed by how both leads met the challenges presented by this particular opera. No excuses need be made however for Elena Xanthoudakis as Lisa or Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo, both dramatically more convincing and dynamic as characters, both singing impressively, with real feeling for the work.
The use of chorus was also brilliantly employed. Choral work is not usually something you associate with bel canto opera – at least not until Verdi found a way of harnessing its possibilities as a means of popular expression – but it’s used here in just such a manner as the voice of public opinion, who watch and comment approvingly or disparagingly on everything that develops. Accordingly, they change with the wind, from “How could she, the faithless wench!” (I’m paraphrasing) and “How can this be anything but what it seems?” to “We always knew she was pure and true”. It’s realistic to the situation, but inevitably feels a little overstated, working contrary to the director’s intentions of giving the piece a realistic psychological or sociological treatment. So too, unfortunately, does the role of Elvino, whose change of heart and preparations to summarily dump Amina on their wedding day and marry Lisa instead is not only questionable, but his lack of faith in Amina is surely unforgivable.
A lot then depends on the dramatic twist to make it all work and fall into place, since it not only precipitates the drama, but also ultimately resolves it. Sleepwalking is an interesting notion that is worth exploring – the sleepwalker acting out unconscious inner thoughts and desires – but Marelli’s staging isn’t really able to do anything with it here in La Sonnambula, or make it any more dramatically convincing. There are no true human characteristics realistically expressed, no great revelations opened up, not even any real sympathy or comprehension shown along the way. Everything is as it appears and purely reactive to outward appearances.
Sonnambula
Which in a way sums up not only La Sonnambula, but this particular production as well. The score and the treatment here are perfectly in touch with its subject, the stage design impressive to look at and well-suited to the drama (if it isn’t able nonetheless to make the most of Amina’s famous perilous sleepwalking scene), and there’s genuine skill and talent evident on every level, but ultimately there’s no great depth to the work and it’s a disservice to the opera, the singers and to the audience to attempt to suggest that there’s anything more to La Sonnambula than is apparent on its enjoyably exquisite but hollow surface. That however, is more than good enough.