Friday, 26 June 2015

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

Richard Strauss - Feuersnot

Teatro Massimo, Palermo - 2014

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

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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

Thursday, 25 June 2015

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


Paul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

L’Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2015

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

Culturebox - 6 May 2015

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National du Rhin

Monday, 22 June 2015

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

Leoš Janáček - Jenůfa

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2014

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

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

Links: Deutsche Oper Berlin

Thursday, 18 June 2015

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

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Glyndebourne, 2014

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

Opus Arte - Blu-ray


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

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

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




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

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

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

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


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

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


Links: Glyndebourne

Monday, 15 June 2015

Berg - Lulu (Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)


Alban Berg - Lulu

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2015

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

Staatsoper.tv - 6 June 2015

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Links: Staatsoper.tv, Medici

Friday, 12 June 2015

Wagner - Parsifal (Berlin, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Parsifal

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 2015

Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Wolfgang Koch, René Pape, Andreas Shager, Thómas Thómasson, Anja Kampe, Matthias Hölle, Sonia Grané, Annika Schlicht, Stephen Chambers, Jonathan Winell, Paul O’Neil, Grigory Shkarupa, Julia Novikova, Adriane Queiroz, Sonia Grané, Narine Yeghiyan, Annika Schlicht, Anja Schlosser

Culturebox - 18 April 2015


So where does Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Parsifal fit into the literal, conceptual or interpretative ways of presenting Wagner's final enigmatic opera? Not surprisingly, Tcherniakov places the work in a modern-day setting rather than in some ancient, mythological fantasy location, but what is surprising is how faithful and literal the controversial director actually remains to the letter of the libretto. There are few of the usual shock elements that the director is known for, revisions that have been known to completely overturn the original intentions of some operas. Tcherniakov's production of Parsifal even uses an actual chalice as a Grail (when was the last time you saw that?) and is almost reverential in its treatment. Well, up to a certain point, at least.

As far as the modern-day setting goes however, there is little here that feels out of place in relation to the context and the spirit of Parsifal. Tcherniakov's idea of modern is very much a stripped back one, the bearded Knights of the Grail shabbily dressed in loose woollen jumpers, wearing woollen hats, looking rather like they've just been released from imprisonment in a gulag. It's a familiar deglamourised look that you'll see in other Tcherniakov productions, in the populace of Macbeth, in the citizens of the Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, the Knights forming a fraternal parallel with the committee of nuns in the controversial Paris Dialogues des Carmélites.

The intention appears to be not so much to 'deglamourise' as 'humanise'. Whereas the lush swathes of music in Carmélites, in Kitezh and in Parsifal are essential to the spiritual side of the work, Tcherniakov clearly wants to relate it to a recognisable human condition. It seems reasonable to expect that a survivalist cult living in the woods might indeed look exactly as the shabby tramps do here in Act I, Gurnemanz relating the history of their charismatic elder Amfortas through a slideshow projection (it could have been a PowerPoint presentation if Tcherniakov really wanted to ruffle feathers). This works, but the challenge of updating the dark fantasy elements of Klingsor in Act II to a modern-day setting is rather more difficult.




This Klingsor is far from the familiar presentation and image we have of him. In the 2015 Berlin production he looks like a nerdy schoolteacher in a baggy jumper, wearing spectacles and slicked-back hair. His 'flowermaidens' are less sirens than schoolgirls of differing ages in flowery summer dresses. Is this teacher a threat because he is offering knowledge in place of the Knights' superstition, or are there more sinister motives at play? Parsifal's entry to Klingsor's kingdom is not over battlements, but through a window, wearing shorts and a hoodie, carrying a backpack, descending into the classroom where the benches are arrayed in a circle (in an echo of the seating arrangements in the castle of Monsalvat).

If Tcherniakov determinedly rejects the religious imagery and fantasy elements of the work with such an approach, it's not entirely neglectful or disrespectful of the deeper spiritual undercurrents in the work, and not entirely without a conceptual side either. In Act II indeed it all becomes a little Herheim, but only for a moment in a flashback scene where a young boy Parsifal is introduced in a scene of sexual awakening with a young girl. The intention would seem to be to have this stand in for the idea of the loss of innocence, of shame at being discovered by his mother bringing with it all sorts of psychological implications. It's a minor diversion from the script, briefly returned to in Act III with a doll and a toy knight on a horse, but despite a charged performance from Shager and Kampe as Parsifal and Kundry, it doesn't really succeed in its attempt to touch on the human nature of the sentiments here.

It's a difficult balance to achieve, and in some ways Tcherniakov's production does go a little too far in 'demystifying' the work. It's also difficult to determine where the emphasis is terms of the weighing placed on the characters. Is this Parsifal centred around Kundry, Parsifal or Amfortas? What exactly is Gurnemanz's role in this version of the work? The balance between the characters actually seems fairly even, not highlighting the experience or the suffering of one above the others. There's no wild interpretations or unusual characterisation, the relating of the work uncomplicated, holding close to the intent of the original.



It's only right at the end of the work that Tcherniakov's individual interpretation comes into play and that the relationship of Amfortas and Kundry is seen as one of the more significant aspects of the work. Whether the right spirit of forgiveness is met in Gurnemanz's actions - stabbing Kundry in her embrace with Amfortas on the final notes of the opera - or whether it is a valid reaction to the treatment of women within the work as a whole, it at least sees Tcherniakov at his controversial best, making a valid commentary on the work. There's no question that this ending clearly makes a powerful impact.

If Tcherniakov runs the risk of demystifying the spiritual side of Parsifal, that side is fortunately more than adequately catered for in Daniel Barenboim's conducting of the Staatskapelle Berlin. The score is delivered in a more spirited fashion than some somnolent interpretations that have been heard recently, reflecting strongly the fury that is there in the work in the key Act II scene between Kundry and Parsifal. Singing too has a large part to play in the humanising of these characters and their journey to transcendental redemption, and this production might not have been quite as successful were it not for some truly outstanding singing performances.

In a uniformly strong interpretation, it's hard to single out one performer above another, however it's worth noting that René Pape continues to impress and establish himself as perhaps the finest Gurnemanz in the world today, improving with each production of this work that I see him perform. His Gurnemanz is authoritative, gentle, lyrical and resonant, his sentiments appearing to come from the deep emotional core of his character's faith and beliefs. It's only if you can sing it like this that you can really carry off the twist that Tcherniakov pulls at the last moment. Thómas Thómasson has similar challenges in his characterisation of Klingsor, but it's beautifully sung, exuding an indefinable edge of danger. Wolfgang Koch looks every part the tortured, charismatic cult leader, driven wild-eyed and crazy through his own personal torments and responsibilities. It's not uncommon to see such an agonised Amfortas, but it's rare to his pain and blood so greedily exploited by the knights.




While all those roles are very much contributory to the whole fabric and tenor of Parsifal, the success of any production traditionally rests on the performances and the interaction between Parsifal and Kundry. The Andreas Shager/Anja Kampe pairing here is fascinating, energising and compelling to watch. Shager is a powerful, lyrical heldentenor, almost perfect for the role. He's perhaps not yet the finished article as far as stage presence goes, but this is still an impressive performance that holds a great deal of future promise. Anja Kampe continues to impress, reaching a new level in completeness of performance in a role that offers so much. This is a finely pitched Kundry, appropriately restained but powerful. All the passion is there but contained and controlled, only hinting at the inexpressible depths beneath, but when she allows you to catch a glimpse of them at the right moments, it's hugely impressive.

Not everyone will find Tcherniakov's interpretation of Parsifal to their taste, but it works hand in hand with Barenboim (continuing a long and successful collaboration between the two in Berlin) in a way that explores the big themes of Wagner's final work. There is emphasis on role of the true artist to suffer for their art and nourish his followers and humanity through the giving of their own life-blood, compassion through suffering leading to healing and redemption for the masses. There's a danger that such sentiments can be overpowering, overblown and detached from reality, but the Berlin Staatsoper's production provides a very human, real and personal interpretation of what Wagner's final work really means.


Links: Culturebox, Staatsoper Under den Linden