Monday, 29 April 2013

Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

VixenLeoš Janáček - The Cunning Little Vixen
Glyndebourne 2012
Vladimir Jurowski, Melly Still, Sergei Leiferkus, Lucy Crowe, Emma Bell, Mischa Schelomianski, William Dazeley, Jean Rigby, Adrian Thompson, Colin Judson, Sarah Pring
Opus Arte
With its charming depiction of life and nature, with the animals of the forest featuring throughout as characters, it’s common to see Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen staged like a pantomime and aimed at a younger audience, even though some of the behaviour of the creatures is indeed quite frankly “animalistic”. The opera is not of course essentially about animals but about life and, indeed, the facts of life, so it’s interesting to see the opera treated with a more mature outlook for the 2012 production at Glyndebourne. It may perhaps lose a little bit of its innocent charm in the process, but there’s more than enough gained from the usual fine attention that Glyndebourne give to the production - and the opera - as a complete package.
Rather than having children and older performers dressed in the usual colourful animal suits, the creatures of the forest are still characterised as animals here, but without the full make-up. Instead they carry only an object by which they can be identified, the idea seeming to be to remind us that their animal behaviour isn’t all that different from humans. A man holds an udder in his hand for the forester to milk, the dog, Lapák, holds a snake-like tail an shakes it about, the cockerel waves his dangly bits proudly and menacingly for the lady hens who are all in frilly lace underwear. As for the vixen, she’s dressed like a gypsy girl, in a woolly jumper with a hooped pattern, flowing gypsy skirt, trilby hat and scarf, with a shaggy mane of red hair, carrying a bushy tail and a hunter’s knife instead of sharp teeth. The characterisation is a bit of a half-way house and doesn’t always allow the anthromorphic elements to come fully to life, but combined with other elements of the stage setting, it does work to express the themes on a literal level as well figuratively.
The set itself places man both within this natural world and at the same time outside it, showing nature to be bold and colourful, while the indoors scenes - kept in the Janacek’s period and Moravian setting - are drab by comparison. Two features however dominate Tom Pye’s set designs that serve to bring those two different worlds together. One is a large winding path rising vertically at the back of the stage which at one time can be a path and at other times a burrow. It seems a little over-elaborate, requiring the use of stand-ins on harnesses, but it works. The other more significant feature however is a huge tree made up of a swirl of planks that alone functions as the strongest image and is at the centre of the stage for most of the production. It’s the one enduring constant that stands there throughout the seasons and the passing of generations, serving as a home for the birds, as a place to protect Forester from the sun while he sleeps, it’s where Sharp Ears the vixen is tied-up on the farm and it’s her shelter and home for her family later, made over into a den after the old badger has been driven out. Eventually, towards the end, even little saplings appear around the tree as well.
The strongest element of the production however, and the one that most eloquently describes the natural world it depicts, is undoubtedly Janáček’s music itself, which is wonderfully played by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. This gorgeous music - for me the most evocative and beautiful of all Janáček’s work - is almost achingly beautiful in its apparently simple rhythms. Not only does it flow however to Janáček’s familiar speech patterns and folk-like textures, but it’s also almost onomatopoeic in its capturing of the sounds, the rhythm and the flow of life, the passing of time and the eternal timelessness of nature. In its melodies also however it seems to mingle joy and sadness, beauty and cruelty, the spontaneity of living and the wisdom of ages. It’s undoubtedly this element that everything else must respond to in a production of The Cunning Little Vixen and, with only a few minor concerns, Melly Still’s direction - and particularly the beautiful choreography of the dancers - seems to respond to the music and its meaning as does the exceptionally fine performance of the orchestra conducted by Jurowski.
If there’s any one concern it’s a minor one about the pacing. Not the tempo. The rhythm and flow feel marvellous, but everything seems to fly past so quickly as if in a haste to get to the next scene, and it’s all over before you knew it. A bit like life I suppose - which may have been the intention. It’s true that The Cunning Little Vixen is not a long work and Janáček deliberately leaves no time for sentimentality about the natural order of things passing on and making way for renewal, but at the same time there seems to be little time in this production for you to connect with some of the most beautiful key moments and let them sink in. There may even be a few trims to the score to indeed prevent the audience from dwelling too long on events that ultimately are just another stage in the greater scheme of things, to be played out continually in the cycle of life.
This is particularly evident in the singing, which is fine throughout but tends to keep the singers - and consequently the audience - a little step removed from the characters, preventing them from really springing into life. Lucy Crowe however handles the complex Czech language requirements with its flow of consonants well, maintaining the necessary rhythm while performing fox-like moves very impressively. Emma Bell too sang beautifully and fitted well into the role of Golden Mane. There is perhaps rather more care given to the human figures, the Forester (Sergei Leiferkus) and his colleagues, and their disillusionment or sense of detachment with the true nature of the world - too caught up in themselves to see their part in the greater scheme of things. If the intention is to restore the human element back into a work where there can be too much emphasis placed on the cute antics of the animals, Melly Still’s production certainly manages that, and in conjunction with the overall tone of the production it works well, revealing all the magnificent beauty of one of the finest works in all opera, even if it loses just a little bit of its innocent charm in the process.
The production comes across reasonably well on the Blu-ray release. Some of the darker scenes have some post-production brightening applied, which creates a ringing halo around figures, but this isn’t evident in more than one or two scenes. Otherwise, the full colourful quality of the work is evident. The audio tracks are the usual PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Extras include a Cast Gallery and a 22-minute Making Of featurette, with interviews covering the concept, the music and the production design with some rehearsal footage. The BD is all-region, BD25 (for a 97 minute opera), with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Meyerbeer - Die Hugenotten

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Die Hugenotten

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1991

Stefan Soltesz, John Dew, Angela Denning, Lucy Peacock, Richard Leech, Harmut Welker, Camille Capasso, Martin Blasius, Marcia Bellamy, Lenus Carlson, David Griffith, Otto Leuer, Friedrich Molsberger, Iván Sárdi, Josef Becker

Arthaus Musik

Poor Giacomo Meyerbeer.  The once highly regarded titan of the 5-Act Grand Opéra is now not only long out of fashion, but on the rare occasion when his work is revived it is scarcely treated with the seriousness and sincerity in which it was undoubtedly composed.  I didn't see the Royal Opera House's recent widely derided production of Robert Le Diable, but judging it on the merits of the performance alone via its broadcast on Radio 3, it at least sounded interesting and probably deserving of a more sympathetic staging than the one devised by Laurent Pelly.  Meyerbeer's follow-up to Robert Le Diable (1831) was another beast of an opera, Les Huguenots (1836) and, unfortunately, it's another work that - even more so now - that most opera houses would consider too expensive to risk putting on and no doubt also difficult to cast.  The only recorded video performance we have of it at present is one dating back to 1991 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Conducted by Stefan Soltesz and directed by John Dew, this is inevitably not a version that will satisfy purists (should such a thing as a Meyerbeer purist exist in this day and age).  As imperfect as it is in some respects, the Deutsche Oper Die Hugenotten is at the moment the only opportunity you have to see one of the big important opera works of yesteryear, and it's worthwhile for that alone.  The first thing you will note about this Blu-ray release however is that the title has been rendered in German (unlike its previous DVD release) to reflect the fact that it is a German-language edition of the original French Les Huguenots performed here.  That's not so much of an issue, since Meyerbeer was actually of German origin and this version dates from an 1837 edition prepared by Ignatz Franz Castelli, so it should be close enough to the original work.

Les Huguenots does actually suit the German tongue surprisingly well, but of more concern is the fact that Castelli's version to a large extent played down the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants that is critical to the work's historical account of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572 during the reign of King Charles IX.  That historical content is furthermore all but abandoned in the German version of Castelli's translation prepared by John Dew for the Deutsche Oper, which sets the work in the Berlin of the period that was then divided by the Berlin Wall.  This recording of the production dates from 1991 after the breaking down of the wall, but even then it still dates from a period when the imagery still held real significance to the people of Berlin.

Quite how the situation in divided Berlin corresponds with religious conflict in Les Huguenots is however difficult to establish.  In Meyerbeer's opera - with a libretto from the illustrious team of Eugène Scribe and Émile Deschamps - Marguerite de Valois is to marry the Protestant King Henry of Navarra as a gesture of peace between the two sides.  To further strengthen this union, the Count de Nevers accordingly invites the Huguenot Raoul de Nangis to his castle in Touraine and offers him marriage to Valentine de Saint-Bris, but Raoul has already seen a beautiful vision of loveliness and fallen in love unwittingly with Marguerite de Valois herself.  After some romantic complications Raoul agrees to marry Valentine, but when he gets wind of a plot by the Catholics to massacre the Huguenots it only deepens the conflict between his duty and his heart.

How do we know this?  Because just in case we miss it, Raoul tells us directly - "Duty... my heart... a difficult battle", and Meyerbeer's scoring only emphasises the obvious conflict even further.  When there is something of a lack of subtlety (or taste), you can see why modern directors feel the need to play up the unintentional campness of Meyerbeer's work.  How else, for example, are you meant to stage Marcel's "Piff, paff, poff!" aria nowadays other than having everyone skip around the stage in a half-dance?  I'm not sure, but I think I'd like to see a more serious-minded director try it and not necessarily in a traditional context, since even in this shortened version (only two and a half hours for a 5-Act Grand Opéra?) Meyerbeer's management and control of the number opera is evidently masterful, presenting a broad scope of melodrama, romance and entertainment in its varied situations with an abundance of melody and drive.

Are the Royalist Catholics meant to represent the Communist forces of East Germany and the Protestants the small population of the surrounded West Berliners?  How will a marriage smooth relations in such a situation?  The production might not correspond perfectly to its Berlin setting but neither does it really detract from the strength of the work or indeed from the performances in this production.  The singing is exceptionally good from all the main performers.  Richard Leech has the right kind of strong, resonant lyrical voice for Grand Opéra, reminding me a little of Roberto Alagna in places.  He copes well with all the high-Cs thrown his way, but it's Angela Denning who has the difficult role of Marguerite de Valois.  Her opening Act II aria is fiendishly difficult and it shows her limitations, but she is good elsewhere.  Lucy Peacock's Valentine is marvellous and there's good work also from Harmut Welker as the Comte de Saint-Bris and Camille Capasso as the Page.  Only Martin Blasius' Marcel isn't up to the mark.  To say the least.

Brian Large directs the production for the screen.  I'm not sure what technology was available at the time in 1991, but the widescreen image is certainly HD quality and it looks excellent.  The audio isn't quite so good.  Only a PCM stereo option is available and the lower-frequencies can be a little booming if you are playing this at any volume using a subwoofer.  On headphones, the sound dynamic is better distributed to the L-R channels.  The detail in the orchestration is there, if it's not as clean and precise as we're now used to with HD recordings, and the singing is relatively clear also.  There are no extra features on the Blu-ray.  The disc is all-region with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Von Winter - Das Labyrinth

Peter von Winter - Das Labyrinth

Residenzhof, Salzburg, 2012

Ivor Bolton, Alexandra Liedtke, Christof Fischesser, Julia Novikova, Malin Hartelius, Michael Schade, Thomas Tatzl, Regula Mühlemann, Anton Scharinger, Ute Gfrerer, Nina Bernsteiner, Christina Daletska, Monika Bohinec, Klaus Kuttler, Clemens Unterreiner

Arthaus Musik

Such is the supremacy and brilliance of Mozart's The Magic Flute that it's tempting to think of Peter von Winter's sequel as something of a novelty. Written in 1798, only seven years after the original, both librettos were however the work of the same man, Emanuel Schikaneder, so in reality there's no reason why Das Labyrinth shouldn't be seen as a legitimate work on its own terms. Rossini's Barber of Seville after all is a worthy prequel to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro since both works are drawn from the same source in the plays of Beaumarchais. De Winter's opera is no novelty then but rather a fascinating work that has languished in obscurity for far too long. It's still nowhere near on a par with The Magic Flute, but then what is?

Well, it has to be said that unfortunately Das Labyrinth does indeed try too hard to be The Magic Flute, and on that level it can't help but struggle. Schikaneder's approach to writing a sequel for an immensely popular success is much the same as the one usually employed by movie studios today. He and de Winter simply repeat the formula of the original with emphasis on the bits that the audience enjoyed the most. As an entertainment this is a foolproof method and there is consequently much to enjoy in seeing these wonderful characters revived and put through new situations. On the other hand, without Mozart to bring his unique vision to the work and dignify the libretto with some internal musical consistency and his deep humanism, the plot of Das Labyrinth more often feels like a lot of random incidents haphazardly strung together with little in the way of originality.

Certainly, the central element that drives the plot doesn't initially appear to differ greatly from the original. Picking up straight after the events in The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night - who is apparently called Luna, we discover here - is plotting to get her daughter back. You didn't think she would give up that easily, did you? With the help of the Three Ladies and Monostatos, who evidently holds a grudge against Sarastro for his treatment in the earlier work, the forces of darkness intend to disrupt the wedding of Tamino and Pamina, wrest the young woman away and marry her instead to the despicable Tipheus, King of Paphos. For some not entirely explained reason, Sarastro also requires Tamino and Pamina to undergo a further trial and find their way through the labyrinth. It's there that Tipheus and his men, the Three Ladies having failed in their previous attempt to carry out the abduction, capture Pamina and take her to the Queen's hideaway on the Moon.

In addition to the main plot, there are evidently other random exploits for Papageno and Papagena, whose marriage is also put on hold until Pamina is recovered and their relationship is likewise challenged. This involves many of the same kind of "trials" that were in The Magic Flute, with the Three Ladies appealing to Papageno's baser instincts and Monostatos also getting in on the act to lead him astray. He disguises himself as Papageno and his blackamoor origins played upon in a way that makes him the butt of some dubious jokes. To get her own back on Papageno however for flirting with ladies of darker skin colour, Papagena runs away with Monostatos. This means that Papageno must be involved in the rescue of Pamina if he wants to ensure his own happiness is restored.

There are just as many musical references to match the familiar plot elements, with plenty of glockenspiel playing, Papageno bird whistles and acres of pseudo-Mozart arrangements. The music is consequently often quite light and charming, even if has none of the memorable melodies of Mozart and little of the composer's carefree imagination, grace and dignity to elevate the pomposity and the silliness of much of the plot. Ivor Bolton however conducts this work with just as much respect, affording Von Winter's compositions the same loving care and attention that he would Die Zauberflöte. This certainly contributes towards making Das Labyrinth feel truly Mozartian and consequently a more interesting work than it might otherwise have been. At the very least it makes this a delightful curiosity that's hard to resist.

The production at the Salzburg Festival isn't quite so compelling. The costumes are lovely, but the sets are not the most suitable for the work. These are limited to some extent by the venue, which is the open-air courtyard of the Residenzhof, meaning that there is only room for a few narrow platforms and an all-purpose backdrop. The backdrop consists in the main of a wall of lights, which is nonetheless versatile enough to represent the canopy of stars of the domain of Königin der Nacht, flicker with storm effects, and break up into columns to represent the labyrinth. It comes into play more as the evening darkens, and there are a few nice additional mechanical effects such as Pamino seated on a crescent moon, but it is otherwise quite limiting.

Christof Fischesser is a wonderful Sarastro, his warm and comforting tones assuring you that this is a character who is powerful and can be trusted. Michael Schade's lovely lyrical tenor similarly presents a warmer and more sympathetic Tamino than is often found in The Magic Flute, and that's all to the benefit of Das Labyrinth. Julia Novikova cuts a suitably impressive figure as Luna, Queen of the Night, but she struggles a little with the challenging coloratura that has been written for the character's extended role in this work. As Pamina, Malin Hartelius often finds that the tessitura of the role is beyond her comfort zone and the timbre of her voice isn't always the most pleasant at those heights. She seems to gain in confidence in Act II however and handles her individual arias quite well. Thomas Tatzl is an excellent Papageno and Regula Mühlemann a charming Papagena.

The Blu-ray release of Das Labyrinth is region-free with subtitles in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean. The filming isn't as polished as it might be, but undoubtedly there are difficulties presented by the unconventional location. The video looks reasonably good even though it only uses a BD25 disc. The audio tracks however are excellent, with good wide use of the surrounds on the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Britten - Peter Grimes

 Benjamin Britten - Peter Grimes

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2012

Robin Ticciati, Richard Jones, John Graham-Hall, Susan Gritton, Christopher Purves, Felicity Palmer, Ida Falk Winland, Simona Mihai, Peter Hoare, Daniel Okulitah, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Christopher Gillett, George von Bergen, Stephen Richardson, Francesco Malvuccio

Opus Arte

The main strength of Britten's Peter Grimes, and one of its main themes of course, is its essentially English character.  That is challenged in two ways in this 2012 production of the opera.  One is that it is performed at La Scala in Milan and not at Aldeburgh or somewhere more appropriate with a feeling for the vitally English smalltown seaside location of the work.  The second challenge to the integrity of the work is that the period of the setting is somewhat inevitably updated to the near-present by director Richard Jones.  In the event not only do neither of these choices prove detrimental to the piece, but they actually manage to bring something new and fresh out of the work.  With an opera like Peter Grimes and the sensitive subjects and themes it touches on, that's exactly the kind of challenge and contemporary relevance you want to remind you of the importance of this work in the composer's centenary year.

The principal theme of Peter Grimes is one that underlies much of Britten's work and is evidently one that has significance and meaning for the composer himself - the corruption of innocence.  That theme is developed in a much wider context however here in Britten's first fully orchestrated opera than it is, for example, in The Turn of the Screw or Billy Budd.  At the same time, Peter Grimes itself is a much more intimate and personal case, since it takes in the circumstances of individual identity that is corrupted by the nature of the wider society in which it struggles to exist.  This is a society where money is respected and where what is deemed respectable behaviour is determined by the nasty, narrow-minded parochialism, wagging tongues, gossip and pointing the finger at others.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?  You don't have to look far beyond the headlines of today's Daily Mail to see that those attitudes persist and are not confined to small English seaside towns.  Based on a poem by George Crabbe called 'The Borough', I'm sure that's exactly what Benjamin Britten wanted to get across.  An unconventional outsider, himself the subject of gossip, rumours and attacks in the press, living at the time in California with his partner Peter Pears as a conscientious objector against the war, this was a subject that was close to the composer's heart.  Britten's approach to the work is consequently all the more daring and challenging for Peter Grimes not in any way being painted as sympathetic character, but he's certainly preferable to the vicious, prejudiced mob who hound him for his inability to behave in any conventional manner.

Who is really to blame for what happens to the fisherman's apprentices?  By today's standards Grimes would hardly meet regulations governing health and safety or child employment legislation and social services would undoubtedly have something to say about allowing children to be in close contact with such an individual.  Ultimately however the pressures placed on Grimes that drive him to make mistakes are those of social acceptance.  He may want to marry Ellen Orford, but he needs to earn enough money to make that alliance worthy in the eyes of the general public and he consequently takes risks that place the young boys in his care in unacceptable levels of danger.  It's the interference and the spreading of gossip by busybodies that create such an environment of instability and uncertainty that things inevitably take a turn for the worst.

There are no easy answers to be found in such a situation and all the complexity of the character of Peter Grimes and his reaction against social norms is there within Britten's score.  And more besides, the composer's own sensibility refracted through Crabbe's drama in an intriguing and personal way.  Britten finds a language for the anti-hero individual set against the mob in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and in Berg's Wozzeck, but the expression is entirely Britten's own and its temperament is completely English.  His first traditionally structured and fully orchestrated opera, there's consequently a sweep to Peter Grimes that you don't find in any of Britten's other works, the score weaving in sea-shanties to haunting and sinister effect, creating an evocation of lives being subject to the brutal force of tides - tides of public opinion as much as the sea.  

You might expect that an English orchestra might be more attuned to these rhythms, but the orchestra of La Scala conducted by the young English music director Robin Ticciati give a remarkable account of the work.  There is always the danger of over-emphasis or heavy-handedness within Peter Grimes, but Ticciati directs with quiet reserve, allowing the swells to rise and the rhythms to assert their authority, building towards the tragedy in a manner and with a drive that seems as unstoppable as the outcome is inevitable.  There are no concerns about the singing either, but wisely that's because there's a predominately English/British cast.  John Graham-Hall sings Peter Grimes with the right tone of edgy fragility and steely determined defiance, never seeking to endear him to the audience, but rather plunging right into the dangerous nature of this impassioned but deluded character.  Most impressive of all however is Susan Gritton's Ellen Orford.  It can be possible to underestimate her character, but she is the heart and conscience of the opera and Gritton makes you quite aware of that with her heartwrenching performance.  With a cast that also includes the impeccable Christopher Purves and a fine Auntie in the form of Felicity Palmer this is a most impressive and complete account of the work.

The choice of Richard Jones is also a good one for bringing out the essentially English character of the work, particularly in a modern-day context.  (It's nominally set in the money-loving 1980s, but that makes little or no difference to its contemporary relevance).  All the little details are there without any sense of caricature or parody which can always be a danger with Jones.  You might see football tops and trainers and all the indications of class and profession that are equally an important part of the work, but the telling details are in the gestures and movements.  Whether it's Auntie's "nieces" swaying down the street in their high-heels curling fingers through hair, whether it's figures in the background smoking cigarettes and chewing gum, dancing in Moan Hall or whether it's more ominous rows of the chorus, watching, observing and passing judgement, it's as good a visual representation of the social context of the work as Britten's music.

Stuart Laing's sets also reflect the context well and even if there are a few curious touches here and there, not least of which is the intriguing final image of Ellen that we are left with.  All of this nonetheless gives cause for reflection on the deeper meaning of the work and the ambiguities that lie within it.  There is little sense of a seaside town, although static seagulls are mounted on the walls of the buildings and seem to become increasingly agitated - in a static kind of way - as the work goes on.  The rooms of each of the scenes all seem to be self-contained and "boxed-in", again reflecting the nature of this society.  Some of them even tilt and sway, rocking from side to side in the stormy conditions and according to the general instability of what is going on.  It's by no means a flattering portrait of the English, but then Peter Grimes isn't supposed to be.

The Blu-ray from Opus Arte looks and sounds great in High Definition.  The sound mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1.  The BD is region-free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.  The booklet has an essay that makes good points about the production, particularly relating to the use of movement and dancing in it, and also some interesting observations about Britten learning from Verdi and Strauss.  There's also a good set of interviews on the disc itself and a cast gallery.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Mernier - La Dispute

Benoît Mernier - La Dispute

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013

Patrick Davin, Karl-Ernst Herrmann, Ursel Herrmann, Stéphane Degout, Stéphanie d'Oustrac, Julie Mathevet, Albane Carrère, Cyrille Dubois, Guillaume Andrieux, Dominique Visse, Katelijne Verbeke

La Monnaie - Internet Streaming, March 2013

For his second opera the Belgian composer Benoît Mernier set about trying to find a text that would work with that particular quality of opera that is able to touch on mythological and universal subjects and make them vital and human.  The subject of La Dispute, based on an eighteenth century drama by Marivaux has a theoretical, experimental edge as well as a human drama at its centre which makes it a perfect fit for Mernier's intentions.  It's one consequently that the composer scores with precision and sensitivity, even if neither he nor the production entirely succeeds in bringing it to life.

It's somewhat appropriate however that Marivaux text, written in 1744, is treated musically in Mernier's La Dispute not entirely unlike a French Baroque opera.  At the outset, in the first dispute, you have Cupid and Amour defending their respective positions of influence over the human heart, Cupid advocating liberty and freedom of choice, Amour seeing him/herself as the protector of romance and fidelity.  Who is to blame then when the rot sets in, as it seems to be doing in another dispute that is taking place in the mortal world between the Prince and Hermiane?  Having been caught dallying with another woman at a party, the couple's argument takes a theoretical turn as they debate whether it is the man or the woman who is ultimately responsible for infidelity.

To answer that question, the Prince says, you would need to go back to the beginning of time to the first man and woman, which of course is impossible.  Enter Cupid and Amour, disguised as Mesrou and Carise, who are just as interested in the resolution of this question.  It just so happens that they have four young people, two of each sex, brought up in isolation with no outside influences and completely unaware of each other.  Wouldn't it be interesting to see how these perfect subjects interact with each other?  Wouldn't an experiment undertaken under these strict laboratory conditions provide some insight into the matter being disputed?

What develops does indeed follow the lines of a dispassionate scientific experiment and, unfortunately, that seems to apply to the music and the opera as a whole.  Like George Benjamin's recent Written on Skin, one wonders whether it is even possible now to really engage with operatic characters in modern opera or whether there isn't necessarily always going to have to be some kind of detached observation and commentary.  It's all a little too coldly calculated here in La Dispute which never really seems to come to life for all the accuracy of the observations.  The conflicts of Amour and Cupid and the Prince and Hermiane are really just a framework then, one that has been filled out by the librettists Ursel Herrmann and Joël Lauwers from other Marivaux texts, while the main part of the work indeed focuses on the lab experiment of the two young couples who are gradually revealed to each other.

This experiment takes place under observation within a brilliantly designed set by Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, a neon lit cube framework within a Garden of Eden-like environment cut off from the real world.  First we meet Églé, a young woman enchanted by her own reflection in a stream, who finds her belief in her own beauty validated when she is introduced to the adoring Azor.  The young couple, who have never seen anyone other than Mesrou and Carise, are inevitably totally enraptured with the discovery of each other.  Until, that is, they become aware of another young couple, Adine and Mesrin.  Then, as they become less certain of their own uniqueness and start to develop insecurities, things begin to get complicated.

Principally, the answer to the question of 'la dispute' would appear to be clear enough from how things develop.  The insecurities initially arise when the two women, Églé and Andrine, meet each other.  It's not a pretty sight.  Jealousy arises out of the thought that someone might regard the other as more beautiful than themselves and that person becomes a threat.  The only way to prove one's superiority it seems is to win over the other's lover, and since they are merely men that is not a difficult object to achieve.  This might seem a rather slight if not entirely inaccurate observation, but it ought to be developed further and on a less theoretical level by the various other levels of the dispute.  There is a little more edge and ambiguity introduced through the human presence of the Prince and Hermiane, but not to any real conclusive end.  But perhaps a true conclusion ought not to be reached other than making the observation that, ultimately, human feelings cannot entirely be understood or even trusted.

When you are getting into such matters in opera, this is where the music should say more than the text, but unfortunately - beautiful though it is - Benoît Mernier's score doesn't reveal any great depths to these academic characters.  There's something academic about the score also, which accompanies the situations perfectly, picking at the characters' hesitant first steps, showing developing emotional awareness and curiosity, extending out into more complex personality traits as the characters interact through some marvellously written duets, but little of it seems to hint at anything more than is already apparent in the text and the dramatic situations alone.  The musical language inevitably leans towards Debussy, but without the mystery and haunting impressionism.

If it doesn't entirely come to life then or reveal any great depths, the qualities of the singing, the production and indeed the work itself are still clearly apparent.  Stéphane Degout and Stéphanie d'Oustrac are two of the finest talents in French opera and sing beautifully here, but they aren't really given a lot to work with in characters as insubstantial as the Prince and Hermiane.  There's rather more of a challenge in the roles of the young couples, and Julie Mathevet and Cyrille Dubois stand out as Églé and Azor, but there is fine work and good interaction also with Albane Carrère's Adine and Guillaume Andrieux's Mesrin.  Dominique Visse throws himself fully into another ambiguous cross-dressing role as Amour/Carise with verve and personality, and is matched in this by Katelijne Verbeke's Cupid/Mesrou.

The clarity of the diction and the purity of the singing voices are supported by a meticulously arranged score that is perfectly balanced between spoken accompanied dialogue, arioso singing, duets and purely musical interludes in a way that allows each of the singers and their dramatic expression to stand clear and shine.  The Hermann's sets, lighting and direction also work to enhance every aspect of the dramatic text, everything coming together to provide a superb spectacle and beautiful accompaniment for an interesting work that nonetheless never amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

La Monnaie/De Munt's production of La Dispute was broadcast on the internet via their web streaming service, the performance recorded on the 10th and 13th February 2013.  It's available for viewing until 17th April 2013.  Subtitles are in French, Dutch and German only.  The next broadcast from La Monnaie is Pelléas et Mélisande, which will be made available for viewing for three weeks from 4th May 2013.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Walton - The Bear

William Walton - The Bear

NI Opera, 2013

Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Anna Burford, Andrew Rupp, John Molloy

The MAC, Belfast - 26 March 2013

There was quite a change of content, style and scale between NI Opera's last production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman for the Grand Opera last month and their production of William Walton's short one-act chamber opera The Bear, performed at the smaller arts theatre of the MAC in Belfast. Directed again by Oliver Mears with Nicholas Chalmers conducting, The Bear at least conformed to Wagner's preference to have the orchestra and conductor remaining invisible to the audience, but that's about the only level on which The Bear can be compared to Wagner. Walton's work was far from the most challenging NI Opera production then and the merits of the work itself are questionable, but in terms of the approach adopted for this lightly humorous work, it was everything it should be.

Based on a comic short play by Chekhov, 'The Bear' is not one of the Russian master's more notable works that stand as masterpieces of the dramatic repertoire like 'The Cherry Orchard', 'The Seagull' or 'Three Sisters'. It's one of Chekhov's earlier comedies that has its own peculiarly Russian sense of humour and it is also rather dated by today's standards. Walton's opera version of the work, written in 1967, is an almost identical word-for-word adaptation that retains the pace, the dynamic and the tone of the original work, with its comic interplay operating effectively between just three characters.

The comedy revolves around the widow Yeliena Ivanovna Popova who has been in mourning for her dead husband Nicolai Mihailovich for almost a year now. That's a period of grieving that is regarded as most unseemly by her footman Luka, who wept over the death of his old lady for a month - but seven? Well, the old woman wasn't worth that and surely no-one is, not even Nicolai Mihailovich. Yeliena Popova moreover is still young and there's a whole regiment of troops billeted in a nearby district, so Luka don't know what all the fuss is about. It's a middle-aged landowner Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov however who makes an impression when he appears at the household trying to recover one of her husband's debts, but the road to courtship is not without some trouble along the way.

The Bear, as the title might suggest, is very much as a parody on distinctly extreme Russian qualities and characteristics involving drinking vodka (the name Smirnov obviously gets an extra laugh here), running up debts, extravagant mourning, headlong plunges into deep emotions and fiery outbursts of temper that lead to duels. It may not be one of Chekhov's most insightful serious works, and the farcical humour might appear to be slightly dated, but the manner and the truth of the characteristics he exposes through this short comic situation are no less precise and revealing. It's hard to fault Walton's take on the work either other than on similar questions of musical fashion and personal taste. It's a genuinely comic score of a kind that is all too rarely heard, perfectly matching the tone of the drama, with jaunty rhythms and tooting instruments, extending 'ooohh!'s and expressions of despair to the point where they do indeed become funny - but it's all very much in a music-hall kind of idiom. It's pleasant and entertaining but by no means a great work.

Obviously however with a small cast, a chamber score and a situation with plenty of dramatic incident, there is ample compensation in the opportunities The Bear provides in the performance of the musicians and the singers. That depends very much of course upon the director and the conductor working together to the rhythms and the pace of the work and with the solid team of Oliver Mears and Nicholas Chalmers there are no problems there. All of the singers moreover are simply marvellous. John Molloy, a Wexford regular, is something of an expert on rare material, particularly those with comic interplay, and he's excellent here as Smirnov. The other young members of the cast are just as impressive, Andrew Rupp's Luka getting the best laughs, but it's Anna Burford 's Yeliena Popova who has to carry much of the work's comedy and singing challenges and she does so exceptionally well, never faltering in even some of the more testing situations.

One of only two operatic works written by William Walton (the other being Troilus and Cressida, written in 1954), The Bear might not be one of the greatest or most challenging opera works, but it is designed to be lightly entertaining and funny and NI Opera's production certainly brought out those qualities. You can't ask for more than that. NI Opera's production of The Bear at the MAC in Belfast was programmed with five Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare in beautiful jazz-influenced musical and choral arrangements by George Shearing (1919-2011).

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

Gaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2013

Julian Reynolds, Guy Joosten, Paul Gay, Elena Moşuc, Charles Castronovo, Silvia Tro Santafé, Roberto Covatta, Tijl Faveyts, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Jean Teitgen, Alexander Kravets, Justin Hopkins, Stefan Cifolelli, Alain-Pierre Wingelinckx

La Monnaie - Internet Streaming, February 2013

La Monnaie's production of Lucrezia Borgia maintains a consistency of style and quality of interpretation that has been evident in all their works broadcast this season via their internet streaming service.  Like La Traviata, Lulu and Manon Lescaut, it's not without a certain amount of controversy either.  Modern, boldly coloured and neon-lit, with a stage set that is far from conventional in concept and configuration, much less traditional in period in design, it was however another bold vision where the spectacle was rivalled by the interpretation of the music and excellent singing from an intriguing cast line-up.

It's well established that the plot and characterisation of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia are not the most convincing.  The work is filled with inconsistencies, improbabilities and weak characterisation.  Donizetti's music too, if we're honest, has its moments but there's an awful lot of plodding conventionality in the scoring.  It doesn't make a whole lot of sense or at least it's expecting a bit much for the audience to sympathise with the idea that there's a loving mother beneath Lucrezia's notoriety as a monstrous killer who even in the opera commits a number of atrocities that include the inadvertent murder of her own son.  The nature of her love for Gennaro is itself somewhat dubious and borderline incestuous.  Gennaro's actions and motivations and love unfortunately are no more credible.  And that's to say nothing of the plot involving poisoned wines and antidote plot twists.

The complications of the characterisation and the melodrama in Lucrezia Borgia do however provide a wealth of material that can be worked effectively by a strong cast of real personality, particularly if they have strong direction.  It's a work that builds up scene upon scene towards a magnificent dramatic finale in the way that only Donizetti or Rossini can do, if the production has singers of sufficient stature to pull it off, particularly in the title role.  La Monnaie's production benefits in this respect from a strong committed central performance by Elena Moşuc, who not only hits all those extraordinarily difficult high notes but she does so with a soft unforced expressiveness and true dramatic conviction.

As Gennaro, Charles Castronovo's lovely rounded lyric tenor is more than capable of the necessary range and power, but he's a little declamatory and unable to really bring anything out of the role and the complicated (badly-written) relationship with Lucrezia.  There's a suggestion that the director has to some extent modelled this Gennaro on Donizetti himself, but I'm not sure this is established entirely successfully.  The adventurous and successful casting of the two leads extends to the other roles.  Paul Gay's lighter bass-baritone is revealed as being much better suited to the bel canto of Don Alfonso than the boom of Grand Opéra, while Silvia Tro Santafé makes a good impression as Orsini.

It's also been well established that a "realistic" period setting isn't necessarily going to make Lucrezia Borgia any more convincing.  It's not a historical drama nor is it a movie or a documentary.  Like any operatic work from this period, the emotions expressed principally through the singing - love, anger, betrayal and revenge - are far more important than the historical characters or the period.  Guy Joosten's setting of the opera, with sets by Johannes Leiacker, looks like a circus or even a nightclub with a catwalk leading down from a curtained entrance that has Borgia written up in neon-lights.  Large menacing figures representing aspects of Lucrezia (Maternity, Death, Evil, Nobility) loom over the circular stage of the Cirque Royal, with the orchestra located to the right hand side at the back.  There's evidently some conceptual layers added here, but the drama itself is nonetheless played out within this according the intentions of the libretto.  More or less.

There are some liberties taken then in the stage production, but no more than Donizetti and Felice Romano's working of Victor Hugo's fictional drama and only as much as is necessary to make the notoriously difficult and somewhat static dramatic staging for this opera work.  This was no stand-and-deliver performance and at the very least it was visually impressive in its colourful stylisations, with figures wearing masks and costumes - pigs, clowns, 'Clockwork Orange' droogs, topless ladies in saucy nun costumes - that not only fit with the Venetian Carnival revelry in Lucrezia Borgia, they also give a sense of characterisation and personality that is hard to find in the work itself.  The success of the production was assured by the superb playing of the La Monnaie symphony orchestra and a lively, intense and invigorating interpretation of the score by conductor Julian Reynolds.

La Monnaie/De Munt's production of Lucrezia Borgia was broadcast on the internet via their web streaming service, the performance recorded on the 23rd and 26th February 2013.  The next broadcast of their exceptional season is the world premiere of a new work by Benoît Mernier, La Dispute.