Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Clemenza di Tito

La Monnaie - De Munt, Brussels, 2013

Ludovic Morlot, Ivo van Hove, Kurt Streit, Véronique Gens, Simona Šaturová, Anna Bonitatibus, Anna Grevelius, Alex Esposito

La Monnaie Internet Streaming, November 2013

Mozart's final opera, written only months before his death, represents what seems like a backward step for the composer back to the old opera seria form, but the mature Mozart's approach is considerably different from earlier works written in this style. Ludovic Morlot's Baroque approach to the orchestration in this production of La Clemenza di Tito for La Monnaie in Brussels would also seem to lack the warmth and character that should perhaps be found in the work, while Ivo van Hove's modern staging would seem to be working against both the subject and the musical interpretation. Ultimately however, by giving due emphasis to the motivations and expression of the actual characters, all the necessary elements work remarkably well together to highlight the qualities that are rarely recognised in La Clemenza di Tito or presented as well as they are here.

Based on an old libretto by Metastasio which had previously been set to works by Caldara, Gluck, and Myslivicek - principally on account of Mozart accepting the commission to mark the coronation of Leopold II at short notice - the opera seria structure of the opera can be rather restrictive. Like all Metastasio's libretti however, the situations are rich enough to provide opportunity for the skilled composer to expand upon. The opening encounters between Vitellia and Sesto in Act I for example could be played as tedious scene-setting exposition for the melodramatic incidents that follow, so it is vital that they appear fully formed characters with strong, credible motivations. In the hands of Mozart - particularly at this stage in his career - that's exactly what you get, and it's really what sets La Clemenza di Tito apart from other settings and indeed, from many other examples of opera seria.

La Monnaie's production is superbly directed by Ivo van Hove in this respect, but it's also impressively realised by Véronique Gens as Vitellia and Anna Bonitatibus as Sesto. It's been noted that a successfully interpreted Sesto is half the battle with La Clemenza di Tito, but if that is so then Véronique Gens makes a good case that a credible and well-sung Vitellia for Sesto to work off is just as vital a component. The setting would appear to be given the same consideration since the whole work takes place here in what looks like a Presidential suite with a bed, a lamp and a desk, but it does nonetheless create a strong environment for the bedroom intrigue and the naked ambitions that are laid bare in the opening scenes. You can feel the simmering resentment on both sides, Vitellia over Tito's apparent choice of Berenice as his consort, Sesto over Vitellia's ambitions and how she is using him, but yet he still loves her.

This is the vital root of the conflict that drives the work, and it needs to be made real. It also needs to be built upon when Tito abandons Berenice and decides to marry Servilia instead. Mozart makes you feel Annio's despair at this decision, but any Baroque composer worth his salt can spin off an aria of torment and betrayal at the unjust whims of fate, the Gods and rulers insensitive to the feelings of their subjects. More than that, Mozart allows you through his music to understand why Annio accepts this unjust situation and bows to the will of his Emperor and it's vital to understanding the other vital component that contributes to a successful interpretation of this opera and what it is all about - the clemency of Tito.

The reason why Annio accepts Tito's choice of bride without complaint is covered in the libretto. He is unused to an Emperor who is open and just wants to hear plain speaking and the truth. Again, the conflict between duty and one's personal feelings is standard fare for the baroque composer, but in the hands of Mozart it's much more than this. With Mozart it's an expression of characters who are more fully rounded people with different aspects to their personality, where their true feelings aren't always visible. In line with Mozart's egalitarian views and humanistic beliefs, and reflecting the changing times, there's a real trust and belief in La Clemenza di Tito that people are essentially good. They make mistakes, they sometimes misunderstand intentions and inevitably conflict with the sensibilities of other people, but essentially, they want to do the right thing.

So while people do terrible things, Sesto setting fire to the Capitol and attempting to kill the Emperor, you should nonetheless be able to understand both where those motivations come from.  You should, in the above case, also get a real sense of the horror and the self-disgust that such actions engender in Sesto ('Oh Dei, che smania è questa') and the others ('Oh nero tradimento') at the injury that that been unjustly inflicted upon the person of such a good ruler. That's what La Clemenza di Tito is all about and Mozart's generosity of spirit and his belief in the nobility and the better nature of man warmly suffuses even the rather sterile nature of the opera seria.

I'm not convinced that Ludovic Morlot's conducting and arrangement of the score for the La Monnaie orchestra really gets across the sensitivity of Mozart's writing. It does seem fairly mechanical and reflective more of the Baroque opera seria than Mozart's rather warmer interpretation of it. On the other hand, the quality of the writing itself still comes through here. The contrast of the modern setting however probably works well to counteract any impression of a creaky old-fashioned plot played out on period instruments. The bedroom setting of Act I, with all its implications of bedroom power games, gives way to a crime scene, with forensic investigators in white protective suits trying to get solve the puzzle. Video cameras feature heavily throughout, projecting close-ups on a screen behind to capture the idea that these are important figures, but also revealing the telling details that make them human in this drama.

The magnificent singing and acting performances contribute to this and bear up well to the closer scrutiny. It's here that one gets much more effectively get to the heart of who the characters are and what the work is about. Kurt Streit has precisely the right kind of sweet tenor voice that convinces you that this is a ruler that it is easy to love and hard to refuse. His 'Ah, se fosse intorno al trono' is at least warmly accompanied by the orchestra to fully get his nature across. Véronique Gens is of course one of the finest singers in this repertoire with a beautiful voice that has real power, but it's how she controls it that makes all the difference to her artistry. Anna Bonitatibus is as credible in her acting performance as she is expressive in her singing the vital role of Sesto, giving real heart to the work and its expressions. Annio's role is also critical to the work as a whole and Anna Grevelius makes a real impression. La Monnaie don't stint on any aspect of this production however and there are also good contributions from Simona Šaturová as Servilia and Alex Esposito as Publio.

La Monnaie/De Munt's production of La Clemenza di Tito was broadcast on the internet via their web streaming service.  Subtitles are in French and Dutch only.  The next broadcast of the 2013-14 season, Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet will be available to view for free from 31 December 2013.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Britten - Gloriana

Benjamin Britten - Gloriana

Royal Opera House, London, 2013

Paul Daniel, Richard Jones, Susan Bullock, Toby Spence, Patricia Bardon, Mark Stone, Kate Royal, Jeremy Carpenter, Clive Bayley, Brindley Sherratt

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Of all the revivals of Benjamin Britten's work in this centenary year of his birth, Gloriana was always going to be one of the more challenging to stage. Composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the work's original reception in 1953 was notoriously unfavourable, but although flawed in some respects and rarely performed since, it's clear that Gloriana features some of Britten's most inventive and brilliant writing and that it deserves much more attention. What better time then than the combination of the centenary of Britain's greatest composer, the 60th anniversary of Gloriana and indeed the jubilee of the monarch that it was written for to take a retrospective look at the work?

The Royal Opera House's new production, directed by Richard Jones, tries hard to take into consideration all these aspects of the work and its creation, but it's not entirely successful. The problem is not so much that the director tries to include references to the history of the work itself on top of the 16th century historical action of the work that covers the final years of Queen Elizabeth I. That's actually cleverly implemented, inventively staged and highly relevant in this year when one is more interested in re-evaluating the work of the composer than we are in expecting it to shed any new light on the events that led to the execution of Robert Devereux nearly 500 years ago. The question is whether this is the right work to be examining those issues in this particular way.

The challenge with staging Gloriana was always going to be finding a way that would be respectful to the work and at the same time do justice to its qualities without resorting to restaging the original production and ending up looking like a parody. By setting it in what appears to be a recreation of the Jubilee Hall at the Aldeburgh, with Queen Elizabeth II making an appearance to open the festival, Richard Jones touches on an important part of Britten's support of small amateur productions and performances, on the importance of music to the community and, through its Royal patronage, reaching out to the nation. The post-war period has proven to be a perfect place for examining essentially English qualities (and Jones has used it often before, most notably in the Glyndebourne Falstaff), and relating matters of class, small town attitudes and a village hall community sensibility with courtly historical intrigue and in the presence of the reigning monarch brings out an interesting dynamic that lies at the heart of the work.

It's unfortunate then that, as good an idea as this seems to be on paper, it doesn't actually do anything for the work itself, to judge at least from this recording of the 2013 Royal Opera House production. Part of the problem may indeed be that while the community setting is inappropriate. It might have worked fine for a work like Peter Grimes, which Jones successfully directed for La Scala in Milan, or for some of Britten's more intimate chamber works, but it tends to diminish the grander treatment of Gloriana and Britten's more complex orchestration and musical arrangements for it. Another part of the problem may be that the work itself, fascinating and unique though it might be in Britten's catalogue, never really amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

The production at least attempts to take some of the formal stuffiness out of the subject and address one of the most problematic aspects of the work - a wearisome libretto of archaic dialogue that, to say the least, lacks pithiness (Sample exchange between the Queen and the Earl of Essex - "O heretofore, though ringed with foes" / "What solace more would I disclose"/ "I only bled with arrows of the spring"/ "Better than tears the faithfulness I bring"). If you can get past the baffling libretto, there are some fascinating themes in Gloriana on the nature of being an ageing monarch but also being a woman, of the conflict between duties relating to the greater good of the nation and having one's personal feelings.

There's a wider scope to the work as well, the Queen visiting her subjects by attending an amateur performance of a masque at the Guildhall in Norwich, celebrating the "country largess", the industry of the common people and their faith in the idea of a nation. Britten's choice of music and courtly dances also reference Tudor pieces to celebrate the English heritage with great inventiveness, finding beauty in the simplicity of the musical themes but also using it as a basis to advance and progress on expression and meaning for the present. It's hard to establish however - from this production at least - exactly what Britten was aiming for in Gloriana as an opera. Is it a tragedy or a satire? Is the tone dark or celebratory? Is it a pagent or a "national opera"?

What's clear however is that it's very different from other Britten operas and you can't rely on the familiar themes that you can expect to find in his works. There's a "traitor" here and a forbidden love of sorts, but it hardly relates to Britten's status as an "outsider" or reflect his own difficult relationship as a public figure and as an Englishman. At any rate, it's probably a mistake to try and make Gloriana fit into a "community" opera production as Richard Jones does here. It seems like a great idea and does bring many of the themes of the work down to a relatable level, but it doesn't really connect with the spirit of the work or the music. It's the latter that is the greatest problem, since there is much of great interest in Britten's musical scoring for this work, yet it feels utterly lifeless here.

Sadly, the singing in the main roles isn't able to inject any life or personality into the work either. Gloriana would certainly need a much stronger voice than Susan Bullock in the role of Elizabeth I, even though her character is supposed to reveal a certain weakness and vulnerability. Bullock can hit the high emotional notes well enough, but she's scarcely audible in the half-sung exchanges that have insufficient colour and none of the necessary force. Toby Spence ought to be perfect casting for the high, bright tenor role of Essex, with a sense of youthful vigour that is in contrast to Elizabeth, but even he can't make up for the weaknesses in the presentation and delivery. Kate Royal, Patricia Bardon and Mark Stone are all wonderful and bring rather more character to their roles, but they aren't the kind of roles that can substantially determine or alter the overall quality of the production.

The technical specifications of the Blu-ray release are good, the production looking and sounding great in the High Definition format even if it does feel essentially lifeless. There are two short featurettes on the disc providing an introduction to Gloriana and to Britten's establishment of the Aldeburgh festival. The Blu-ray is region free and subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Strauss - Elektra

Richard Strauss - Elektra

Opéra National de Paris, 2013

Philippe Jordan, Robert Carsen, Waltraud Meier, Irène Theorin, Ricarda Merbeth, Kim Begley, Evgeny Nikitin, Miranda Keys

Opéra Bastille - 7 November 2013

Sometimes when you're not really expecting it and with the least likely of works the Paris Opera get it wonderfully right. You'd have thought that the previous night's Aida would have been better suited to the vast stage of the Bastille, but Olivier Py's production ended up filling the stage with everything except that which is essential. Robert Carsen, the other director featuring prominently in this season's programme at the Opéra National de Paris, by way of contrast took a minimalist approach but used the space much more effectively in his new production for Elektra by stripping it bare and exposing the dark intimate heart of the work. With every other element falling into place to support it, this was a marvellous account of a masterwork.

It might not have been much too look at, but it seems that the more sparse the staging, the more powerful the expression of Elektra is. Director Robert Carsen gives us nothing but a bare stage with a few inches of soil or dark sand, surrounded far back by a structure of curved steel walls. Similar to another of Carsen's recent productions, Die Zauberflöte (not opening in Paris until next year, but already seen at Baden Baden), there's a pit at the centre here that gives the impression of a grave. Elektra is all about establishing mood and Carsen adheres to the basic principle of Hugo von Hofmannstahl's stage directions of "a blend of light and night, of darkness and brightness".

The implications of the grave representing death and deep, dark and unpleasant recesses are simple enough in Carsen's staging of Elektra, and it's not difficult either to recognise the significance of the dead naked Agamemnon being disgorged from it at Electra's bidding, raised aloft and borne Christ-like in a procession across the stage. Even its gaping openness creates an unsettling sensation with the viewer whenever anyone wanders too close to it, keeping you slightly on-edge and off-balance - which of course is precisely the impression you ought to be feeling during this work. It's a simple effect, but highly effective.

The other simple but effective element of Carsen's staging is his use of a Greek chorus. Rather than leaving that vast space empty but for a gaping hole (which in any case would have been more than enough with the cast here and the performance of the orchestra under Philippe Jordan), a group of black-robed, pale-faced women - attired in the same fashion as Electra - mirror her movements and highlight her gestures, suggesting that she possesses an extra force that cannot be confined to one person alone, while at the same time showing a fracturing of her personality. Which is a fairly accurate visual depiction of how it is scored with psychological precision by Richard Strauss. What remained to be conveyed by the staging was achieved through the lighting, through shadows cast on the curved walls and through the stage directions - most notably in how the various members of the drama make their entrances and exits. In the case of Clytemnestra, for example, she arrives borne upon a bed and exits dropped down into the grave.

While the stage management and how it reflects upon the characters was evidently carefully considered and had a significant impact on the presentation of this opera, the singing takes up the other major part of the challenge and here the casting was very strong indeed. Waltraud Meier may not be the force she once was, but she is nonetheless one of the great Clytemnestras with a gorgeous timbre and loads of personality. She was certainly more expressive and forceful here than in her performance of the role at Aix earlier this year for Patrice Chéreau. Irène Theorin likewise seemed not only more expressive here than in her performance of Electra in Christof Loy's production at Salzburg, and much more human at the same time, but she also consequently carried the incredibly difficult singing challenges of the role with more authority and conviction.

Between them Theorin and Meier created a formidable team that sustained the considerable singing challenges of the work and the important mother/daughter relationship that lies at the heart of the drama. There were however no weaknesses elsewhere, with Evgeny Nikitin a fine Orestes, Kim Begley making a necessary impression even in the minor role of Aegisthus, and Ricarda Merbeth an outstanding Chrysothemis. Philippe Jordan led the Paris orchestra through this difficult work, highlighting here the surprising lush qualities that can be found in Strauss's sometimes harsh and unsettling score. It was consequently perhaps not as dark and mercilessly punishing as Elektra can be, but taken alongside Carsen's staging, it was pitched perfectly and powerfully to achieve the necessary impact without overwhelming the precision of the dramatic intent.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Verdi - Aida

Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

Opéra National de Paris, 2013

Philippe Jordan, Olivier Py, Carlo Cigni, Elena Bocharova, Lucrezia Garcia, Robert Dean Smith, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Sergey Murzaev, Oleksiy Palchykov, Elodie Hache

Opéra Bastille - 6 November 2013

There's definitely something wrong when you come out of a performance of Verdi's Aida feeling somewhat underwhelmed by it all.  In the case of this work bigger does often equate with better. You wouldn't think that there was much danger of the production design of Olivier Py's Aida for the Paris Opera ever being described as underwelming. Quite the reverse. Pierre-André Weitz's designs filled the huge expanse of the Bastille stage from front to back and even made extensive use of the full height of the stage. More than just grand and epic, the production has a touch of Midas about it, with solid gold temples, columns and objects making an impressive and imposing set. Yet underwhelming it was, a "bling" Aida with no heart of gold.

There was to this end perhaps one crucial thing missing from this production of Aida. Egypt. Attempting to avoid the exotic mannerisms and trappings of the work as a spectacle of accumulated clichés is admirable. Setting it in Verdi's period is not necessarily a bad idea either, since the composer was undoubtedly influenced more by the experiences of his own time than the history of Ancient Egypt, but by looking realistically at the context of Aida the director misses the point of the work entirely. For Olivier Py, it's all about the abuse of political and religious power, it's a diatribe against colonialism and oppression and, indeed most certainly, the images presented here successfully express the striving for enormous power and wealth that crushes finer human sentiments.

Unfortunately, those human sentiments are really what lie at the heart of the work and they aren't given the same consideration in Py's production. Aida is first and foremost a human story, a love story, a tragedy. The rest is just background. The horror of war, the injustice of a cruel regime is certainly there, but it shouldn't dominate. It's hard to compete with all those processions, the spectacle and the choral glorification of nationalistic pride and hatred for the enemy, but the real challenge of staging Aida is to use all that as a contrast to the love story at the heart of the work, and that is indeed what makes Aida great.

It might have helped if you could identify then who exactly was the enemy in this production. An Italian flag is waved at the start during the overture by a defiant rebel who is kicked and beaten by soldiers who are dressed in the more modern military aspect of the French forces in Algeria who wave an Austrian flag. The pomp and ceremony of the Triumphal March is undercut with misplaced Holocaust imagery with the defeated Ethiopians looking like Jewish refugees. The Ku Klux Klan perform the interrogation of Radamès by a burning cross, while the High Priests who pronounce his sentence clearly belong to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. There's everything here except Egypt, which ironically might actually be more topical considering world current events.  

Admittedly, the set design is hugely impressive. It's a masterpiece of construction with parts revolving and sliding into place, forming temples, altars and raised columns. Everything, even a tank that is wheeled on, looks made of solid gold, attesting to the sense of wealth being aligned with oppression. As you would expect, the spectacle is most pronounced during the Triumphal March, but there is an almost total disconnect between the staging and the actual music that doesn't serve the work well nor effectively get to the heart of sentiments at play. The huge processions are reduced here to a couple performing a ballet, while the whole stage rises to reveal three piles of naked bodies taken from a gas chamber. The whole thing is a mess, leaving the viewer to untangle all the references to colonialism and oppression that just get in the way of the real heart of the love-triangle nature of the story.

The singing at least was very good, but the characters were unfortunately somewhat overwhelmed by the context of the production. Lucrezia Garcia was an exceptionally good Aida in some parts but a little shaky in others, struggling to keep up on occasion with the pace of Philippe Jordan's conducting. Verdi isn't where Robert Dean Smith can be heard at his best, but he was a good Radamès, only being defeated by the scale and emphasis of the production itself. Aida can often stand or fall on the strength of a good Amneris, but Elena Bocharova was unable to make the necessary impact here. Sergey Murzaev's Amonasro give the best performance of the evening - cool, regal and authoritative - but Roberto Scandiuzzi's High Priest and Carlo Cigni's King also gave solid performances. There are evidently few problems casting for voices at the lower-end of Verdi roles.

If the production and performances were overall underwhelming, there was at least some compensation in the punchy musical performance of Verdi's score by the massed orchestra of the Paris Opera under the complete control of Philippe Jordan. The chorus too brought all the necessary impact in all the right places, but neither was well-served by the production design. If anything it just confirmed that you can't mess around with Aida. It may seem direct and full of grand, epic gestures, but there is a delicate equilibrium that needs to be maintained through the balance of the staging and the music. Olivier Py's production doesn't even come close.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Verdi - Les Vêpres Siciliennes

Giuseppe Verdi - Les Vêpres Siciliennes

Royal Opera House, London, 2013

Antonio Pappano, Stefan Herheim, Lianna Haroutounian, Bryan Hymel, Erwin Schrott, Michael Volle, Michelle Daly, Neal Cooper, Nicholas Darmanin, Jung Soo Yun, Jihoon Kim, Jean Teitgen, Jeremy White

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 4 November 2013

It was a little bit disappointing to discover that Verdi's famous 'Four Seasons' ballet sequence had been cut from this new production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, only now being performed at the Royal Opera House in the original French version for the first time. Stefan Herheim is usually such a thorough director, meticulous in his construction (and often reconstruction) of works, examining them from every level from their subject matter to context and subtext. Surely Verdi's 30-minute long ballet forms an important part of Les Vêpres Siciliennes?

On the other hand, there's a good reason why the ballet is often cut even on those rare occasions that the original French version of the work is put on. There are Grand Opéra mannerisms aplenty in the five acts of Les Vêpres Siciliennes, perhaps too many for a modern audience to endure. As it turns out however, Stefan Herheim doesn't actually shy away from the challenges of incorporating the ballet but rather cleverly finds an alternative and rather more acceptable means of including it. Paying careful attention to the music as always and recognising that all of the themes that are brought out in the music of the ballet are there also in the heart of Verdi's remarkable scoring for the work, he includes ballet elements throughout the length of the opera itself.

Those themes, which are condensed within the Four Seasons ballet sequence, are all to do with the changing of the seasons, with life and death, the past, history and politics involved, and how they weigh heavily on families and individuals caught up in momentous events. Verdi's take on grand opéra is extraordinary, the composer making the most of the opportunity to expand his range and take expression in his music much further than before. He weaves these themes dynamically together, finding depth and subtext, suggesting much more than is evident on the surface. Herheim rather fearlessly tries to break these themes down again and find a way to express each of them visually. And, in his own inimitable way, he throws a few other ideas in there for consideration. Despite all this, Les Vêpres Siciliennes surprisingly proves to be a relatively straightforward Herheim production.

Principally, Herheim does what he often does - he brings the composer and the creation of the work into the work itself. What's interesting about the way it's done here however is that it manages to avoid all the usual Risorgimento trappings. The political climate and Verdi's part in the revolutionary activities of the period (often overstated) evidently form a part of it, but the director here is more interested in Verdi in Paris, Verdi writing Grand Opéra, the period, the venue and even the work's place in opera history. Accordingly the most immediately distinctive part of the staging is that it's an opera within an opera. Les Vêpres Siciliennes is played out with the French audience of 1855 taking the place of the French soldiers in 13th-century Sicily, with the interior of the Paris Opera house forming a backdrop and ballet dancers on the stage dressed like those in paintings by Degas.

That sounds like a lot of unnecessary baggage to add on top of the work itself, but Verdi's choice of subject for the French audience is an interesting one and worth exploring since it undoubtedly informed the creation of the work. Arguably it's even more important since Les Vêpres Siciliennes is primarily an opera and not history, the story cobbled together from a libretto for Donizetti's unfinished Le Duc d'Albe which had a 16th century Dutch historical setting. The reason it works so well in this production then is due to another of Herheim's strengths - his ability to make the characters come to life and his use of space on the stage to reflect their personalities and situation, opening up and closing down, only using what is necessary for impact and always finding a way to get that impact across at the right points, if not exactly in a conventional manner. And marshalling diverse forces to make a necessary impact is what opera is all about.

That isn't something that Verdi himself always manages in Les Vêpres Siciliennes. As fascinating a work as it is coming at this period in the composer's career, it is a somewhat imperfect opera. The production and the singing can help, but even they are limited in this particular production. The first two acts in particular are not entirely successful, even though Herheim attempts to establish the prologue to the story in the overture, where Henri's mother - here a dancer at the ballet school run by Procida - is raped by one of the French soldiers, Guy de Montfort. Hélène then appears dressed as a vengeful woman in black, mourning for the loss of her brother Frédéric, carrying his mummified head around with her, waving it accusingly at the French soldiers with the officers sitting behind in the best opera box seats.

Despite some remarkable writing and a powerful account of the score from Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House orchestra, the first two acts can't seem to bring any kind of coherence or purpose to the structure in which the events are laid out, and they consequently come across as rather flat. The last thing you need at this stage then is a 30-minute ballet on top of it, so its omission at this point is clearly justified, particularly as there is no shortage of ballet dancers on the stage throughout, and their significance - some wearing white tutus, others black - has been well established in the prologue. All the stops are pulled out however for the impact that the personal situations and events of the past bring to Acts III to V.

Yes, there's glorious music throughout, but even in these latter acts there are traps that could bring the whole thing down, particularly in the unsatisfactory conclusions reached in Act V. Herheim however takes full advantage of Verdi's orchestration of these developments, making powerful use of the choruses that represent the masses of the soldiers and the people, and the people against the soldiers. You can feel in them the sense of simmering nationalist resentment, but because of Herheim's direction, you can also understand the complicated personal issues of the past and the family connections that have been brought into it all which more significantly influence the outcome. It's in high melodrama territory certainly, but Herheim works with the intimacy of Verdi's writing to make it feel real and vital.

It has to feel real and vital as far as the singers are concerned also, and by and large, this was successfully achieved. There was some concern expressed by Marina Poplavskaya's dropping out of the production at the last moment and some opinions expressed that Lianna Haroutounian wasn't a strong enough replacement, but I thought she performed marvellously.  Her Hélène didn't make so much of an impression in the opening acts, but her character gained in strength and personality after the interval, and Haroutounian rose to meet those demands. Bryan Hymel again proved himself well suited to this repertoire particularly as the role of Henri is considerably less punishing than Robert le Diable. Michael Volle was a solid threatening presence as Montfort, the role sung with characteristic nuance and warmth from this performer. Erwin Schrott is also a performer with great personal presence and sang very well, but he seemed a little too laid-back as Procida. Herheim's mastery of the work however and Antonio Pappano's conduction ensured however that everything came together perfectly to achieve the kind of satisfying and powerful conclusion than the work really needs.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Wagner - Die Walküre

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Teatro alla Scala Milan, 2010

Daniel Barenboim, Guy Cassiers,  Simon O'Neill, John Tomlinson, Vitalij Kowaljow, Waltraud Meier, Nina Stemme, Ekaterina Gubanova

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Wagner's Ring of the Niebelungen is such a huge undertaking for any opera company that it is inevitably bound to involve some degree of compromise along the way. Even at a house as prestigious as La Scala in Milan. Their opening salvo of Das Rheingold wasn't perfect by any means, but in the areas that counted - in the establishment of a distinct dark and moody setting, in Barenboim's fine conducting and in the overall high quality of the singing - the Ring's prologue was as promising an introduction as you could hope for a new Ring cycle at La Scala. The second chapter however, Die Walküre, brings a whole new set of challenges.

The degree to which Guy Cassiers' direction for Das Rheingold successfully sets the tone for the rather more epic scale of the works to follow is however immediately clear from the outset. The darkness, the menace and the threatening tone carries over perfectly into the epic storms of creation and the flight of Wehwalt/Siegmund and draw us compelling into Die Walküre. The compromises that this section reveals however also gradually become apparent and it involves choices made in the casting and in the singing. Neither however are so great that they detract in any significant way from the overall success of this critical juncture in La Scala's Ring cycle.

Most notably - although it's by no means critical - there's no consistency here in the casting of Wotan and Fricke. On the other hand, the casting is still exceptionally strong. René Pape and Doris Soffel, who weren't entirely convincing in Das Rheingold, give way here to Vitalij Kowaljow and Ekaterina Gubanova, both of whom perform very well even if they don't have the same degree of stature or personality as their predecessors. The other vital roles are strongly cast with Waltraud Meier as Sieglinde, Simon O'Neill as Siegmund, Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and John Tomlinson as Hunding. On paper that looks impressive, and there are indeed some exceptional performances, but not all are quite perfect.

There is perhaps some degree of compromise in the casting of Waltraud Meier and John Tomlinson. Neither is at their peak now and it shows in places. The diminishing power of John Tomlinson's voice that have been noted relatively recently (in his Gurnemanz for the 2013 BBC Proms Parsifal) aren't quite as pronounced here, but it's still not the powerhouse of earlier years. Tomlinson's ability and presence however, his deep understanding of Wagner's music and how it informs the characters even in a relatively minor role like Hunding, stand him in good stead here. The same could be said about Waltraud Meier, who is showing a little more restraint in her performances, but that works perfectly in keeping with Barenboim's dynamic approach to the score here. In terms of experience, expression and sheer professionalism, not to mention a voice of quite lyrical beauty and true force where required, Meier however really comes through.

All the roles in Die Walküre are important to the overall fabric of the work, but the ones that can make all the difference are Siegmund and Brünnhilde. Simon O'Neill sets his own pace it seems, not always following the tempo set by Barenboim, but he sings well and gets across the necessary sympathy and nobility of his character. Nina Stemme however is just phenomenal as Brünnhilde, and that's really what raises the overall high standard of this Die Walküre. Her's is a voice of immense richness of timbre, but Brünnhilde is by no means a role that can carry the work in isolation. It needs to work alongside the other characters and that's where the strength of the casting really shows. To use just one example, the critical scene of Siegmund, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde in the woods during Act II, Scene IV is telling in this respect. It's just stunning, the singing and expression of sentiments coming together, working in perfect accordance with the staging (light shading trees turning into shards of ice) and with Barenboim's orchestration to haunting effect.

It's Daniel Barenboim of course who is instrumental in bringing all this together quite so successfully. He adjusts somewhat to the strengths and weaknesses of the singers in a way that gets the very best out of them, but he also responds to the full dynamic of Wagner's score, allowing the lyricism, romanticism of the work to be expressed in the simple beauty, tone and melody of the music itself as much as in the measured force of the delivery. Act I in particular benefits from a more sensitive and lyrical approach to Siegmund and Sieglinde's encounter, even as the menace still broods dramatically in the background, suggesting that there is still a possibility of averting the tragedy to come at this stage, or at least that these characters offer the hope of redemption. Barenboim is just as expressive when that menace erupts, in the shimmering ecstatic raptures and in the heft of emotions that underline them. It's a sheer tour-de-force that allows the score space to breathe and assert it own power without ever overplaying its hand or over-emphasising.

That all works in perfect accord then with Guy Cassiers' understated direction for the stage, which is more about mood than strict representation. In this respect it's not dissimilar to the Met's recent Ring cycle, only with a set here that achieves that necessary impact much better and in a far less complicated manner than the Met's Machine. Following on from Das Rheingold, Hunding's lodge is a cube of light in what looks like a dark cave of glistening light projections. Act II, with a spinning globe connecting Valhalla to Earth, remains abstract but attractive to watch and feel without there ever being any sense of a "concept" being forced on the work and without distracting from the performances. The circle of fire conclusion is less of a spectacle, but that's in tune also with the simplicity and beauty of the line established by Barenboim's conducting of the work. It's not exactly traditional, but it all looks gorgeous and works well.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus looks and sounds fabulous, the full-HD image and the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio sound mixes perfectly representing the essential tone of the production and the performances. Other than a couple of trailers, there are no extra features on the disc. The BD50 Blu-ray is region-free and subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Barry - The Importance of Being Earnest

Gerald Barry - The Importance of Being Earnest

NI Opera / Wide Open Opera, 2013

Pierre-André Valade, Antony McDonald, Aiofe Miskelly, Jessica Walker, Peter Tantsits, Joshua Bloom, Stephen Richardson, Hilary Summers, Christopher Cull, Olwen Fouéré

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 30 October 2013

Welcome to Barry's world! In Northern Ireland, the name Barry's is probably most associated with a large amusement arcade and fairground ride attraction found in the seaside town of Portrush and formerly also in Bangor. The success of Gerald Barry's opera version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest obviously has no connection to Barry's Amusements, even if it does often feel something like a wild rollercoaster ride, but there is a sense that you do need to adopt the same sense of childish abandon and leave the real world behind in order to experience the pure exhilaration of sensations that are opened to you in The Importance of Being Earnest.

I have to admit I was sceptical at first. Yes I'd read all the unanimous acclaim when the work was first performed at the Barbican in London last year, and I was aware of all the 5* reviews that this new production - a collaboration between NI Opera and Wide Open Opera - had already received before its arrival at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, but I still wasn't convinced. You see, I had actually heard the work when the Barbican performance was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and wasn't exactly taken with hearing a cut-down version of Oscar Wilde's witty play raced through at break-neck speed and recited in high-pitched voices that rise and fall in and out of normal speech patterns according to the whims of the wayward orchestration. It was all a bit frantic and a bit mad.

Which of course was clearly the intention, as reports of some of the more outrageously anarchic stage directions that accompany the performance testify. There's the famous scene in which Cecily and Gwendolen converse through megaphones to the accompaniment of smashing plates on every syllable. Then there's Algernon and Jack having a lengthy discourse about the superiority of muffins over teacake sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. There's Lady Bracknell's outrageous account of Freude, schöner Götterfunken from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The fact that Lady Bracknell is sung by a bass is in this context not so much of a surprise, since there's often a man cast in the role even in regular performances of Wilde's drama. Just to stretch that even further however - a method that seems to be the by-word for anything to do with this opera - this production even dresses Lady Bracknell as a man.

None of which, I have to say, makes Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest sound any more attractive to a regular opera-goer than the idea of a visit to Barry's Amusements. The Importance of Being Earnest however proves to be an opera in the truest sense of the word. It doesn't stand alone on the music, it has to be seen performed, and more than just seen it has to be experienced. It's a true opera too in the sense that it gets to the heart of the drama and expresses the underlying sentiments though the music and performance far beyond the conventions of superficial drama and the recital of words. It just so happens that Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is a rather absurd comedy and Barry wrings out every single ounce of comedy and absurdity that is inherent within it. To tremendous effect.

NI Opera and Wide Open Opera's production of The Importance of Being Earnest therefore relies greatly on a staging that not only recognises and draws out the absurdity of Barry's interpretation of the work, but it must contribute to it as well. When Lady Bracknell gasps out her shock at the nature of Mr Worthing's parentage - "A hangbag!" - it should have a visual and musical response that is commensurate with the tone. For Barry and Antony McDonald's staging here that takes the form of the bearded lady-gentleman actually vomiting the words into a bucket. And when she complains about the decadence of the French and the worst aspects of the French Revolution, it similarly ought to be accompanied by visual references that match the formidable lady's wildest imaginings and result in a decapitation, at least of a hat from a head (into the vomit bucket) if not actually going as far as to remove any heads. That's about as much restraint as you can expect from this work. I think there was even some twerking here between Gwendolen and Jack "Earnest" Worthing, but honestly I'm not exactly sure what that is.

Again, try as I might, none of this makes The Importance of Being Earnest sound the least bit appealing, but the rightness of it, the sheer compelling brilliance of it as you are actually watching, listening and experiencing it is undeniable. Undoubtedly you gain more from it if you are familiar with Wilde's original comedy and practically know the lines before they are devastatingly and rapidly delivered here. I think Barry expects an audience to have some familiarity with the play or at least some of its unforgettable witticisms, but just in case and for any younger members of the audience (of which there were many - another astonishing coup for an unapologetically contemporary opera), the adapted libretto was helpfully contained in full in the programme.

As for the actual production, you could hardly expect more from the wonderful contemporary-period designs, stage props and backdrop or from the performances. Aoife Miskelly and Peter Tantsits were appropriately sparkingly bright and high as Cecily and Jack, but the work is a comic gift for all the cast, with Stephen Richardson as a scene-stealing Lady Bracknell and Jessica Walker a scene-shattering Gwendolen. A true ensemble piece, Hilary Summers, Christopher Cull and Olwen Fouéré also made fine contributions that worked wonderfully in a work that has considerable challenges of pitch and timing. Comic operas that are funny are rare enough, but to find one where even the music itself is funny is pretty much unique, and Pierre-André Valade and the Crash Ensemble worked wonders in the pit of the Grand Opera House.

This then is opera and comedy at its most compelling in its wit and inventiveness. With so many comic antics, so much humour to pick out of the compressed libretto and so much to enjoy in every scene, you could scarcely take your eyes off the stage or let your concentration drop for even a moment. Not so much in a hyperactive attention seeking kind of way, but in the respect that every single word, phrase, syllable and note holds weight, significance and comedy and you didn't want to miss a single one. The "difficult" music is not so difficult in this way, but completely in the spirit of the work. In fact, while I'm sure that Wilde's comedy drama will hardly ever age or disappear from the stage, it's going to feel rather dry and stuffy to go back to seeing The Importance of Being Earnest performed "straight" after experiencing what Gerald Barry has made of it. That's quite an achievement.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Spontini - La Vestale

Gaspare Spontini - La Vestale

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, 2013

Jérémie Rhorer, Eric Lacascade, Ermonela Jaho, Andrew Richards, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, Jean-François Borras, Konstantin Gorny, France TV - Culturebox  Internet streaming
23 October 2013

Written in 1807 and highly acclaimed at the time - admired even by the Emperor Napoleon - Gaspare Spontini's La Vestale has all but disappeared from the opera repertoire over the last century. Judging from the terrific performance of this rare opera at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, broadcast live on French television and available via internet streaming, its fall from grace has little to do with the quality of the work itself. Perhaps, like much of Meyerbeer, Spontini's formal and classical approach now feels a little old-fashioned and it would seem to require singers of a particular style and distinction that there are few enough capable of meeting its demands. All the more impressive then that the efforts of director Eric Lascade and conductor Jérémie Rhorer to revitalise the theatrical and musical aspects of the work benefit from a fine performance of Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho in the key role of Julia.

Certainly La Vestale is very much classical work of grand formality that verges on being rather stuffy and academic by today's standards. Set in Roman antiquity in 269 BC, there's not a great deal to the plot, which revolves around the now very familiar operatic situation of a doomed love affair and a struggle between that great love and one's duty. Essentially, the romantic melodrama occurs when the commander Licinius returns in triumph from the campaigns in Gaul to find that his beloved Julia has been inducted into the cult of Vesta. Licinius however sneaks into the temple of Vesta with a plan to take her away, but they are discovered when Julia lets the sacred flame burn out. The temple and her purity having been so desecrated, Julia is condemned to be buried alive, only to be reprieved at the last minute when the flame miraculously sparks back into life during an attack by Licinius's men.

Much of the anguish of the situations in La Vestale is inevitably brought out through singing that is in the solemn declamatory mode, even if there is great beauty and flourishes of colour in Spontini's musical palette. The classical structure of the plot that involves a simple love story caught up in the exigencies of the political and religious establishment is moreover rounded out by all the conventional arrangements for marches, ceremonies, ballets, prayers and choruses in a way that points towards the excesses of Grand Opéra. Like Aida, which shares many elements of La Vestale's structure and plot, the human love story achieves a grander dimension if you have a composer capable of raising it to those necessary heights and singers capable of meeting them.

It's significant then that the last time this opera was popular, and the main reason why it is even known at all today, is because of Maria Callas. La Vestale requires a soprano of considerable personality and ability to hold it together centrally and bring it fully to life. Ermonela Jaho (who will be familiar from the Royal Opera House's award-winning production of Il Trittico singing Puccini's Suor Angelica) has quite a challenge on her hands and she not only proves to be more than capable, but also engaging and in possession of a strong expressive voice. There's a difference between grandstanding and dominating the role of Julia and Jaho gets the character perfectly, realising that she is a young innocent girl, who is proud, defiant and self-sacrificing. The character and the opera come to life through this performance.

Julia however also needs to be capable of standing up to the High Priestess, La Grande Vestale, which is quite a challenge when it's played with a singer of force and character as Béatrice Uria-Monzon. Both women come out of their encounters well, and prove to be the driving force and rationale behind the work. More so in this production, as it seems the High Priestess, despite her position and her protestations of love being a "barbarous monster", seems to take pity on Julia's predicament and, rather than a bolt of lightning striking Julia's veil, it seems that the High Priestess has a sympathetic hand in the "divine intervention" of the sacred flame being reignited. The masculine roles are less challenging, but Andrew Richards is a fine lyrical Licinius who is never declamatory, even in the récit. He's well supported by Jean-François Borras as Cinna, while Konstantin Gorny makes the most of the unyielding Pontifex Maximus.

The setting of the production at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is relatively simple, sketching in the location and period without going overboard on details. We're not quite at Grand Opéra stage yet, and there's still a Gluck-like elegance and simplicity in the music in the dramatic drive of the work and the production adheres to that arrangement with plain wooden tables, platforms and columns. There's quite enough passionate outpourings of emotion in the vocal exchanges and when you've got a cast capable of delivering it, you don't need all the accoutrements  The stage direction also caters for this, never letting the performance get bogged down in static declamation, allowing the singers to pace the stage and throw those furious emotions up at the Gods, which is literally who they are often directed towards.

Jérémie Rhorer keeps a similarly tight rein on the musical side of things, excising the Act I ballet section, trimming back the sung recitative where possible and focussing on the dramatic content that is so wonderfully scored by Spontini. Who would have thought that there'd be so much vitality in such an unfashionable and rarely performed work? In every respect the production does great service to La Vestale, truly highlighting the qualities of the work and even finding humour in the musical brightness of the obligatory happy ending, with everyone running Benny Hill-style to catch-up with the happy couple and join them in their heavenly-ordained celebrations. As La Grande Vestale demonstrates however, a bit of helpful and sympathetic intervention can be invaluable.

Broadcast on the 23rd October 2013, Spontini's La Vestale at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées can be viewed for free via Internet Streaming from the and the France TV Culturebox web sites. The opera is in French without subtitles.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Aalta-Musiktheater, Essen - 2012

Stefan Soltesz, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Jacques Imbrailo, Michaela Selinger, Vincent Le Texier, Doris Soffel, Wolfgang Schöne, Dominik Eberle, Mateusz Kabala

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

You don't want too much to be concrete and literal in the strange indefinable world of Allemonde that Debussy and Maeterlinck evoke so enigmatically in Pelléas et Mélisande. It should be semi-abstract, impressionistic and symbolic, light and floating, fleeting and shifting, a sequence of connected scenes where not everything is expressed or understood and nothing quite adds up. Like an iceberg - and this work can often appear cold and remote - there's considerably more to Pelléas et Mélisande than is visible above the surface.

This 2012 Essen production of Debussy's only completed opera is in the hands of a director who works well in this medium of connecting the semi-abstract to an underpinning realism. You can't have the characters float around aimlessly like ciphers (even if Robert Wilson has successfully proved otherwise), but you need to recognise that there are passions here as deep as the wells in Allemonde that the characters keep dropping precious objects into. Nikolaus Lehnhoff is particularly successful here in Pelléas et Mélisande in how he ties that altered state of reality not to the two characters who give the work its name, but to the figure whose nature and actions arguably have a more significant impact on the tone and the direction events take - Golaud.

The establishment of a suitable environment for Allemonde is critical also, and that's central to Lehnhoff's concept. The castle where one never sees the skies, the caverns and the wells all evoke a specific atmosphere of oppressiveness, of stagnancy, age and decay that is often commented on by the characters, and is certainly evoked in Debussy's haunting score. Raimund Bauer's sets bring all this together into a boxed structure that is classical and symmetrical in a way that imposes a sense of order and consistency, but is reconfigured slightly from scene to scene to reveal wells, towers and chinks of light that open and close around the characters. Most significantly, in this respect, there is a diamond-shaped panel of coloured light that changes according to the mood of the scene and the characters within it. The lighting fades enigmatically to blue in the musical interludes between the scenes to great effect.

There's considerable attention paid to those subtle changes and the emotional undercurrents that are expressed in the score. I don't think I've never seen a production of Pelléas et Mélisande that adheres to and matches the moods and rhythms so well. Much of the personalities of the characters in the work however is also conveyed in the very timbre of voice and the expression and weight given to the parlando expression of the singing. Jacques Imbrailo's Pelléas is therefore lyrical but conflicted, driven by strange urges and entranced by Mélisande's hair, passions that the world of Allemonde is unused to. As Mélisande Michaela Selinger personifies this complicated bearer of dangerous beauty, delicate and sensitive, yet confused and exasperated with her condition - the victim (or catalyst) of an unknown trauma in the past doomed to perhaps repeat them.

It's Golaud however and the tormented state of his mind filled with suspicion and fearful of betrayal, who asserts the most influence over how events are seen and is the direct agent of the tragedy that ensues. He's particularly sensitive to disturbances in the world of Allemonde - over-sensitive even. And yet in this production, as directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and performed superbly by Vincent Le Texier, you can also sympathise with his Golaud. He is the injured party, he is tormented and to be pitied. I've seen Vincent Le Texier sing this role before, but never so soulfully and never so sensitive to the rhythms of the music that seem to be opening up his soul every time he speaks. He's the dark heart of this Pelléas et Mélisande, the personification of the Allemonde whose sense of order and solidity is broken down by the presence of Mélisande.

There is undoubtedly an element of haunting detachment to Pelléas et Mélisande, but this production still comes across as a little bit cold. There should perhaps be a better balance between the warmth of the score and the singing and the coolness of the production, but that perhaps doesn't work as well on the screen as it might have in the theatre. A gauze screen at the front of the stage softens and diffuses the light, so the clarity you might expect to see in a High-Definition recording is reduced to indistinct softness and haziness. The musical performance under Stefan Soltesz is as beautiful as you would expect, but it doesn't have a fullness of presence in the audio mixes either.

The Blu-ray has optional subtitles in French, German, English, Spanish, Italian and Korean. These can only be selected during play through the remote or the pop-up menu. There are however fixed titles on the screen in English in the musical interludes between scenes that give a synopsis of the next scene like a strange foretelling of events. Other than a couple of trailers there are no extra features on the production, but the director provides some thoughts in the enclosed booklet, and Debussy's own description of how he came to write Pelléas et Mélisande is also included. The disc is all-region.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Bell - A Harlot's Progress

Iain Bell - A Harlot's Progress

Theater an der Wien, Vienna 2013

Mikko Franck, Jens-Daniel Herzog, Diana Damrau, Marie McLaughlin, Tara Erraught, Christopher Gillett, Nathan Gunn, Nicolas Testé

Theater an der Wien - Live Internet Streaming, 24 October 2013

Much in the same way that William Hogarth's prints lend a natural structure for Stravinsky to follow in his opera of The Rake's Progress, so too do the six engravings that make up the satirical morality tale of its companion piece provide a strong framework for A Harlot's Progress. Premiered in 2013 at the Theater an der Wien, British composer Iain Bell effectively fleshes out the six tableaux of A Harlot's Progress in music and drama in his first opera work. Even with the expertise and authenticity of a libretto noted London historian and author Peter Ackroyd, the work however never really brings any deeper sense of meaning, purpose or indeed humanity to Hogarth's sharp-edged satire.

The six scenes of Hogarth's 1732 engraving sequence for A Harlot's Progress could be described as follows: 1. Moll Arrives in London; 2. Moll is the Mistress of a Wealthy Gentleman; 3. Moll becomes a Common Prostitute; 4. Moll beats Hemp in Prison; 5. Moll is dying of Syphilis; 6. Moll's Wake. As each engraving of A Harlot's Progress represents a sequential stage in its morality tale, Bell's opera follows the same "progression", although Moll Hackabout's story is evidently and intentionally less a progress than a steady decline.

From the moment the young innocent country girl arrives at the Cheapside market in London "to find her fortune", the downward trajectory of her progress is indeed on the cards. Pressed into the service of Mother Needham, a procurer of young girls for wealthy gentlemen, Moll's fortunes decline steadily even as she lives a life of apparent luxury as the kept woman of Mr Lovelace. When the gentleman finds that Moll secretly has a lover of her own - the highwayman James Dalton - he throws her out onto the streets where she becomes a common prostitute, gets pregnant and dies ignominiously in a prison in a syphilitic condition.

No, A Harlot's Progress is not a barrel of laughs, but does Iain Bell's score and Peter Ackroyd's libretto really have to be so relentlessly miserable? Ackroyd's depiction of the period London is undoubtedly authentic in its character detail and language - which gets very colourful indeed - even if the work is consequently too wordy and descriptive. It certainly fleshes out the sequence of engravings into a credible narrative drama, and - like the image of Moll's hat and the presence of the baby in Hogarth's drawings, Ackroyd manages to use references that replicate the idea of the series being a cycle. That's all well and good, successfully bringing the series to life, but the opera doesn't advance further on Hogarth's ideas, nor bring anything new to the table.

As far as opera goes, the morality tale of the fallen woman story has by now been told many times in operas like La Traviata, Lulu, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and even most recently in Anna Nicole, and done in all the above with considerably more character, invention and colour. Even Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress recognised that there was humour, satire, irony and tragedy in Hogarth's work and found a way through neo-classical arrangements and pastiche to express the varied character of the tale. Neither Ackroyd nor Bell are able to match the wit and satire of Hogarth's prints, finding only misery, rutting, disease and death in it all.

The tone of Bell's score is consequently rather dark, drab and lacking in character. The overture sets the ominous tone for what is ahead, with rolling drums, fragmentary phrases, plucked notes and droning violin as bodies in rags crawl through the mist to the front of the stage. Individuals arise out of this seething mass, one stabbing and robbing another, others selling their wares, and the score picks out moments and characters with short phrases and serial runs. There's a full orchestra and a chorus employed here, but they are never used to bring any real dynamic to vary the tone or suggest any deeper level of individual character. Everyone in their own way is just miserable and out for themselves. Playing on the theme of Paul Bunyan's 'The Pilgrim's Progress', Hogarth's prints were a satire exposing the hypocrisy behind the society and its establishment figures in their exploitation of good people like Tom Rakewell and Moll Hackabout, but there's very little of that evident here.

The Theater an der Wien's staging is simple but effective enough for the purposes of connecting the scenes of the drama together. Although the costumes are approximate to the period (with some exceptions), the set wisely doesn't pile on the grimy misery of Georgian London. A stylised backdrop of a white wooden cage encloses the drama with panels that increasingly shut down sections on Moll's life as black ashes fall down upon the stage. Moving to contemporary opera is a considerable challenge for Diana Damrau and far from the Mozart roles she is most famous for, but she carries it off and gives a good performance. Tara Erraught's Kitty is also impressive, and Nathan Gunn is fine as James Dalton, but despite the attention paid to fleshing out the detail of the drama, there's not much for the characters to do here other than play out the misery of their existence.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Hepplewhite - Laika the Spacedog

Russell Hepplewhite - Laika the Spacedog

English Touring Opera - 2013

Russell Hepplewhite, Tim Yealland, Sarah Laulan, Nicolas Rigas, Abigail Kelly, Edward Lee, Maciek O’Shea

Armel Opera Festival, Szeged - ARTE Live Web - 14th October 2013

An opera aimed at 7-11 year olds isn't the traditional kind of work that you would think best suited for judging singers in a competition like the Armel Opera Festival, but the English Touring Opera's production of Russell Hepplewhite's Laika the Spacedog proves to be one of the richest offerings in the programme. As well as providing its competition singers with some interesting challenges, it deservedly took away two awards for the production.

As an opera, Laika the Spacedog is deceptive in the apparent simplification of its appealing doggie-does-good story when in reality it works well on a number of levels. The story of the Russian space-programme's race to follow its successful Sputnik I launch by putting the first living creature out into space in 1957 introduces a younger audience to modern history, politics and science, but also emotionally engages them to these concepts through an appreciation of opera, theatre and music that makes effective use of comedy and an inventive staging. And yes, it has a loveable dog.

Musically, it's also a wonderfully composed work that is likewise deceptively simple in its chamber construction but in reality vibrant, playful and complex in its interweaving of instruments and themes. There's a deep rhythmic pulse provided by cello and bassoon, with a clarinet weaving in and out of it and clever use of vibraphone and in even electronic instruments like a Theremin to give a playful lightness and suggest space and science concepts with a little bit of a "period" feel to them.

Most importantly, it involves young people by making them part of the on-stage chorus and audience. Here at Szeged, you can see how successfully the work inspires the imagination of the children and holds them rapt by how thoroughly the young members of the Laika Choir of the Tisza-parti Elementary School become engaged in every aspect of the performance. A young audience would be no less delighted by the work and the performance and the cast likewise try to engage the audience in the exploration of the science concepts behind the work.

That's where the challenge comes in for the performers. For the competition singers, Sarah Laulan, Nicolas Rigas - both French - there's challenge enough in making the English diction clear and the singing melodic when exposed with only a chamber arrangement. The performances however have to be vital, spirited, intense and playful, requiring some degree of charm and comic timing to interact with the other singers and reach out through audience participation. Bass-baritone Nicolas Rigas perhaps fared better in terms of finding the right tone and character for the work, bringing a more musical and melodic touch to the performance, coping well with the English diction. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Laulan on the other hand might not have found this type of work best suited to her talents, but sang well and within the spirit of the piece.

Both fitted in well in this respect with the rest of the production as a whole, which is just an important a consideration. Jude Munden's sets were inventive and dynamic, making use of projections and animation to cover everything from travelling on the Moscow metro, recreating a laboratory, showing the solar system and displaying a rocket launch. Maciek O’Shea's handling of the puppet Laika was of course vital in making this all work so successfully. Supported by the fine playing of the orchestra conducted by Russell Hepplewhite himself and with the experienced supporting cast of Abigail Kelly and Edward Lee (although all the roles bear equal weight here), this was at least a worthy winner of two production awards.

The Armel Opera Festival performance of Laika the Spacedog can be viewed for free for six months after the performance on the ARTE Live Web streaming service. The opera is sung in English with French subtitles only.