Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Janáček - Věc Makropulos (Vienna, 2015 - Webcast)

Leoš Janáček - Věc Makropulos

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Jakub Hrůša, Peter Stein, Laura Aikin, Ludovit Ludha, Margarita Gritskova, Markus Marquardt, Wolfgang Bankl, Thomas Ebenstein, Aura Twarowska, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Carlos Osuna, Heinz Zednik, Marcus Pelz

Staatsoper Live at Home - 20 December 2015

You don't see a great deal of 20th century works at the Vienna State Opera, but one composer who remains popular and deserves a place there is Leoš Janáček. In addition to revivals of Otto Schenk's sumptuous The Cunning Little Vixen and David Pountey's Jenůfa this season (both of which can be seen broadcast Live at Home in April 2016), the Wiener Staatsoper's new production of Věc Makropulos is quite a commitment to a major composer who is scarcely as well represented in any other European opera house. While the 'new production' might look impressive and faithful to Janáček's vision, there's little here however that really feels 'new' about it.

Janáček always feels more like a modern composer than a classical composer to me, but in Peter Stein's production of Věc Makropulos, as with Schenk's beautiful but starkly literal and unimaginative production of Cunning Little Vixen, you get the impression that the Vienna State Opera want to wrap Janáček up with mothballs so that he can play safely alongside the Zeffirelli production of La Bohème and Schenk's production of Die Fledermaus there. I can't help feeling that by playing safe Peter Stein entirely misses the point of Věc Makropulos. The opera's main character, Emilia Marty is a 337 year old woman who moves on and refreshes herself with the times in order to retain her allure and mystery. Věc Makropulos essentially must take place in 'the present', but this production doesn't look like it has aged in the hundred years since it was written.

True, just because Věc Makropulos is 'science fiction' doesn't mean it has to look futuristic, but miring the work inside a frozen time-capsule in the year 1922 doesn't do an awful lot for the theme of existing outside the laws of time. You can't really fault the production however for adhering precisely and with utmost fidelity to the set designs and stage directions as they are in the libretto.  It looks exactly how you would imagine an ideal period production of Věc Makropulos would be if it were lifted straight off the page. Dr Kolenaty's office in Prague in 1922 for Act I is the Kafkaesque bureaucratic library of books, volumes and case papers, with steps leading up to the highest shelves. Act II shows a backstage view of stage looking out onto an opera house with a stage throne (as specified in the libretto) sitting plump in the middle of the stage. Emilia's hotel room in Act III is all clean Art Deco curves, straight lines and glossy surfaces.



Arguably, the fact that the settings are traditional and period shouldn't matter as much as what you do within it. Sadly, there was absolutely no imagination or interpretation applied here either. Perhaps I noticed it more because there were unusually no English subtitles provided for this Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home production, meaning I had to rely on a text of the libretto from elsewhere while watching the performance, but it is astonishing how literal the production is in its translation of the directions. Peter Stein not only creates the set design to the exact specifications of the libretto, but he also follows every single movement, gesture and even lighting direction to the letter.

In Act III for example when Emilia Marty returns after her collapse and her off-stage rapid aging, the stage directions specify a greenish lighting. Sure enough, the panels of the wall cast a greenish glow over the stage until the directions call for the lighting to turn red at the dramatic final scene, and the Vienna production dutifully complies. I don't think I've ever seen a production reproduced with such slavish exactitude as this one. The argument of course is why shouldn't the production follow the directions to the letter since that is clearly what the composer wanted? If you've ever wanted an answer to that question it's provided here. It creates a dull, superficial and lifeless production that holds no surprises, but rather just feels like it is going through the motions, moving people around restrictively like puppets.

Janáček's greatest operas are all about 'life', about the passing of time, about being in the moment and accepting one's humanity but with an awareness of being part of something greater. He treats the subject with more sensitivity and humanity in Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen, as well as in his final opera From the House of the Dead, but there can be much more made of the cruel fate of Elina Makropulos than is achieved in this drearily literal production that ignores the subtext and meaning and has no emphasis or ideas of its own to bring to the stage. As lovely as the production looks, it's so dull and unimaginative that it almost but not quite takes away from the real spark of the life that is principally there in Janáček's music.

Jakub Hrůša's conducting sounded to me like it was the musical equivalent of the staging. It was a strictly literal interpretation and well played but with no inspiration or verve. Janáček's music seems to allow for wider interpretation than most, and I've never heard any of his works sound the same twice. Some concentrate on the rhythmic pulse, others spin and leap according to the patterns of the sung language, but there should essentially be a spark of life there. It's hard to entirely extinguish the essence of that in the composer's wonderful arrangements and it does remain intact here, occasionally breaking through to enliven the monotony of the dramatic walk-through.



The singing too was exceptionally good, which is a bonus, and this is a very tricky work to sing. Laura Aikin in particular was simply outstanding as Emilia Marty/Elina Makropulos. I hadn't paid enough attention to the cast list, and couldn't quite recognise her in this role when she appeared, but I was very impressed when I checked during the interval. Whether Aikin is the right age now to play the role of an 'ageless beauty' is debatable, but she certainly gave her character the kind of ambiguity required, somewhere between the cold indifference of having seen and experienced it all, and anxiety and vulnerability over the cruel uncertainty of her fate. Certainly in terms of the singing, Aikin could hardly be faulted, bringing more personality than the stiff stage directions permitted.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Theater an der Wien, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Theater an der Wien, 2015

Marc Minkowski, Olivier Py, Samuel Youn, Ingela Brimberg, Lars Woldt, Bernard Richter, Manuel Günther, Ann-Beth Solvang

Sonostream TV - 24 November 2015

The enduring legacy of Wagner's operas, even as musical fashions and tastes have long moved on, has much to do with his sense of theatre. It's this underrated aspect of the composer's work that can first be seen developing into something greater in Der fliegende Holländer, the composer aligning a sense of theatricality to a subject of mythological drama in a way that would inspire his own distinctive musical ideas and themes. If the language and subject of Der fliegende Holländer is perhaps not convincing on its own terms to a modern audience and its message is by no means a profound or nuanced one, its dramatic and musical-drama strengths are such that the work can still touch upon something deeper.

Olivier Py's opera productions have their problems, and taking liberties with the intent of the work can be one of them, but as an actor himself and theatre director (as well as currently being the artistic director and programmer of the prestigious Avignon drama festival) there is no question that he has a strong sense of theatre. Py has also developed his own theatrical language and signature in the opera house over recent years, most inspired when dealing with questions of good and evil, light and dark, sacrifice and redemption. His productions have consequently been more successful when applied to works like Hamlet, Dialogues des Carmélites and Ariane et Barbe-bleu, and less so when trying to shoehorn them into something like Aida.

There's no question then that Der fliegende Holländer fits very well with this vision, but just in case you are in any doubt, Senta walks across the stage early during the overture of this Theater an der Wien production and writes 'Erlösung' (Redemption) on the black boards of the set's representation of the Dutchman's ship. Pierre-André Weitz's set design is familiar from the tone that Py has established in those aforementioned works with similar themes. It's dark and imposing. The black panels not only represent the Dutchman's ship, but also the walls of the house where Senta and Donald live. The rotating set however offers up many more possibilities and configurations, as well as symbolically marking a dividing line between interior worlds and the outside world.



There's a lot of interiority in Der fliegende Holländer, and Py manages to represent it well in this production through the set, but also with simple effective devices that don't stretch the indulgence of the audience. In Act I for example, Py handles the long monologues in archaic verse well by not having the performers stand alone on the stage singing to themselves. When the Steersman sings to his love from his lonely lookout, you actually see her silently walk up and embrace him. Likewise when the Dutchman laments the fate that condemns him to eternally sail the high seas, he sings it to a dancer who prowls dramatically alongside him on the stage. Py indulges in the theatricality a little by having the dancer cover his face and shoulders in black make-up on the stage during the overture, the dressing room mirror remaining there throughout.

In terms of visualising the force of evil, or even Satan, that the captain struggles with, it's highly effective and doesn't come to dominate the proceedings the way dancing stage doubles often do. Likewise, while Py characteristically brings full-frontal nudity (male and female) into the production, it's to illustrate and bring out the underlying passions that exist in the work. A naked double for Senta lies stretched out on a bed and appears vulnerable while the Dutchman and her father, Duncan (as he is called in this version of the work), barter the terms of his stay at their house with the hand of his daughter thrown in for good measure. The stage and the characterisation elsewhere is filled with little details like that. It's partly updated to the 1940s - for no discernible reason I can see other than it looks very smart for the costume design - but the locations are more symbolic than literal.

Act II consequently abandons any idea of the wives being seamstresses spinning, Mary rather directing them in a choir practice, since what they are really doing is indeed singing. With Senta's recounting of the legend and her first meeting of the Dutchman, all of the elements seeded throughout come together, the stage rotating faster, drawing together their worlds; a much more expansive world than the small house in a boxed in space that Erik/Georg hopes to share with Senta. Symbolism however - a field of black crosses, a huge skull - indicates that the scope of Senta's life with the Dutchman is one determined by its fatalistic nature. She has effectively entered into a death pact.



Py's theatrical interpretation of Wagner's musical-drama is only part of the equation. The singing has a large role in determining whether these ideas (Wagner's and Py's) work on the stage. The principal roles in the Theatre an der Wien's 2015 production are all superb. Samuel Youn is a Bayreuth regular and his characterisation in performance just seems to deepen and gain greater authority. Ingela Brimberg impressively channels all the passion of Senta in a bright timbre with secure delivery. She initially seems more tormented than romantic, but her first scene with the Dutchman shows that she is capable of a softer touch that loses none of its force. Lars Woldt is a superb Donald and Bernard Richter a much more sympathetic and sweetly toned Georg/Erik than is usually the case. Even Manuel Günther's Steersman and Ann-Beth Solvang's Mary are impressive here.

As some of the perhaps confusing references indicate, conductor Marc Minkowski is working with the earliest version of Der fliegende Holländer with its original Scottish setting, with Daland named Duncan and Erik as Georg. Not that this makes any discernible difference as far as Py's non-Scottish specific setting is concerned, nor in how Minkowski directs the now common joined-up, no-interval version of the work. It's not the kind of opera that I would associate Minkowski with, but there's no question that you get the full impact of Wagner here, the music raging and stormy, moody and dark, lyrical and highly Romantic with all the temperament of a changeable sea.

Py and Minkowski's efforts here all play to the strengths of Der fliegende Holländer, not against it, expanding on the characterisation perhaps, but only in a way that tries to get at an essential truth. Whether the Romanticism of the work means anything in an age when the currency of legends and mythology is much devalued, where love and sacrifice are less common, the truth and the beauty of Wagner's vision still comes through in its glorious theatricality.

Links: Sonostream, Theater an der Wien

Friday, 18 December 2015

Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel (Munich, 2015 - Webcast)


Sergei Prokofiev - The Fiery Angel

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2015

Vladimir Jurowski, Barrie Kosky, Evgeny Nikitin, Svetlana Sozdateleva, Heike Grötzinger, Elena Manistina, Vladimir Galouzine, Kevin Conners, Okka von der Damerau, Igor Tsarkov, Jens Larsen

Staatsoper.TV - 12th December 2015

We are well used to seeing productions from the Bavarian State Opera that are more than a little unconventional, often even seeming to have scant regard for the directions of the libretto. With Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel - a fairly rare work that was first performed only after the composer's death - the Munich opera company seem to have found a work that is truly bizarre enough to fit with what commonly takes place on their stage. Somewhat surprisingly then, especially since it's Barrie Kosky who is given charge of the direction here, the production struggles to match or keep up with the strange happenings that take place in Prokofiev's highly unusual work.

Even by Prokofiev's extravagant operatic range, The Fiery Angel is over-the-top in almost every respect. This is a composer who can plunge into the particularly Russian nature of the worlds of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with ambitious and dynamic works like War and Peace and The Gambler, but he also reveals a side for the comic and the absurd in his Betrothal in a Monastery and The Love for Three Oranges. Musically and thematically, The Fiery Angel is no less flamboyantly orchestrated for the rhythms, patterns and strange paths that its plot takes. It's not an opera that is memorable for melodies or arias, but every dramatic line and gesture is underscored with complex arrangements and an invigorating punchy delivery.

The music then is perfectly suitable for a work that has few recognisable sentiments in its headlong descent into madness. The person suffering from delusions that take her on a spiraling sequence of hallucinations is a young woman called Renata. She has been discovered by Ruprecht, a rather more worldly-wise man who has found her in his hotel room raving about her childhood encounter with a fiery angel, Madiel. The angel however, becoming aware of Renata's growing carnal lust, abandoned her, but Renata believed that Madiel subsequently took human form in the shape of Count Heinrich. However, he too abandoned her after a year.



Ruprecht is inclined to take advantage of the young woman's delusions in her search for Heinrich/Madiel, her fiery angel, but as he makes the pretence of assisting her by exploring esoteric texts and seeking instruction from Agrippa von Nettesheim, he soon becomes caught up in the strange world that Renata lives in. The line between fantasy and reality (and erotic role-playing) becomes increasingly blurred as they are visited by nightmarish visions of Faust and Mephistopheles, which in turn leads to a kind of religious epiphany when Renata decides to enter a convent only to face trail by the Inquisitor for being possessed by a demon. The whole nightmarish descent into deeper madness is played through here over almost two and quarter hours without an interval. With Vladimir Jurowski conducting the Bayerisches Staatsorchester through Prokofiev's challenging score, it really is a whirlwind ride.

With such a subject and treatment, you would expect that the stage presentation would also be on the extravagant side, particularly as it's the Bayerische Staatsoper and Barrie Kosky is directing. Surprisingly, the opera set for the hotel room looks more like the Marschallin's boudoir in Der Rosenkavalier, with numerous footmen and porters on call at Ruprecht's arrival. With Prokofiev's tone being fairly manic from the start, perhaps Kosky felt it might be a little better to introduce a little bit of normality at this stage by way of contrast to where the opera goes later. That might not be a bad idea if the director were able to establish a more consistent tone that works with the opera, but instead all Kosky has to contrast it with in the latter half of the work is all the familiar camp hallmarks that seem rather too crude to have any bearing on the intent of the opera.

Kosky goes to town of course on the tavern scene, with the obligatory dancing men in drag, and he has Mephistopheles wave his willie around and play suggestively with large sausages. As one of the more unhinged scenes in a fairly bizarre opera, one doesn't expect the director to read anything deep into the irreverent and sexually-charged content, but there are surely more inventive ways of doing it than this. In a work like The Fiery Angel, you're not so much looking for elucidation as something that might engage and hold the audience through the increasingly absurd turn of events. On its own, Prokofiev's difficult score is fascinating in its own right, but at over two hours long and with no intermission (an intermission would only break the mood and the flow), it needs a little more visual engagement. The letterboxing of the stage and Rebecca Ringst's set designs at least manages to inventively keep things moving through a five-act opera, suggesting an interior world more than actual locations.



The uninterrupted two and a quarter length of the work is just as much a challenge for the performers, particularly as Vladimir Jurowski is intent on keeping up the pace and momentum, fairly rattling though the complexities of the score. Taking on most of the singing challenges as Renata and on the stage for pretty much the entire length of the performance, Svetlana Sozdateleva copes incredibly well, even when she has to endure the indignities of Kosky's direction. Such is the commitment and personality that she brings to a difficult character that Sozdateleva makes almost everyone else seem rather dull by comparison - Kevin Conners' delirious Mephistopheles excepted. Evgeny Nikitin consequently, while he sings well, never seems to get to grips with who Ruprecht is or what he wants. Prokofiev, admittedly, doesn't make that easy to determine, but you might have hoped for more from Kosky and the Bayerische Staatsoper.

The next live opera broadcast from the Bayerische Staatsoper is a new production of Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA on 19th March, conducted by Zubin Mehta and directed by Johannes Erath, with an outstanding cast that includes Piotr Beczala, Simon Keenlyside (fingers crossed) and Anja Harteros.


Links: StaatsoperTV

Monday, 14 December 2015

Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor (Liège, 2015 - Webcast)


Gaetano Donizetti - Lucia di Lammermoor 

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège - 2015

Jesús Lopez Cobos, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Annick Massis, Celso Albelo, Ivan Thirion, Roberto Tagliavini, Pietro Picone, Alexise Yerna, Denzil Delaere

Culturebox - 25 November 2015

Donizetti's opera adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's 'The Bride of Lammermoor' is so bound up in the period gothic themes of ghosts, revenge and madness that there seems to be little point in updating the work on the stage or seek to deconstruct it for any deeper meaning. The best that one can do is frame the work with a little historical distance from the melodrama, but as we've seen with the Royal Opera House's production of that other Scott adaptation, Rossini's La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake), there's not an awful lot to be gained from such an approach either. Better surely to just present the work in its own terms.

We'll reserve judgement on that until we see Katie Mitchell's new production at Covent Garden next year, but in the meantime, the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège under the direction of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera decide to stick with the traditional approach for Lucia del Lammermoor, and in a big way too. Conductor Jesús Lopez Cobos even goes right back to Donizetti's original manuscript to find a purer dramatic version of the composer's vision before it and its famous mad scene became the favourite toy of the world's greatest coloratura sopranos over the ages.

Make no mistake though, whatever way you approach Lucia di Lammermoor you still need a soprano of great ability and you also need to convey the essence of the gothic, with thunderstorms and heavy mists drenching the stage in the atmosphere of its Scottish locations. It wouldn't be like Stefano Mazzonis or Liège to let us down on either front, and indeed they manage to give a fair account of the work as it is on its own terms with even a little bit of necessary flair where it is required. Rather than appear stuffily traditional then, there is a wonderful solidity to the Liège production in both the staging and the singing that anchors the opera a little more securely than might otherwise be the case.


That doesn't mean that there is any lack of distinct interpretation or personality applied to the work. There's a full three-dimensional quality to the music and to the staging here that allows us to explore the heart of the drama. Jesús Lopez Cobos sets the tone well in the moody, rumbling overture, while the stage is coloured a bruised purplish-blue to presage the gothic storm to come. The set gives us castle ramparts, a forest and a fountain, as well as a full tower that rotates to let us in on the looming crisis between rival Ashton and Ravenswood clans. Enrico has plans for his sister Lucia's marriage, but she is in love with Edgardo from the Ravenswood family and Enrico intends to put a stop to that.

The lighting in particular reflects all the moods and conflicting emotions that are bound up in the story, and the costume design of the well-wrapped clansmen is also far more realistic of what one would wear living in a Scottish castle in a 17th century winter. Even that however is not without some stylistic flair that seems to give real substance and body to a romantic melodrama. Settling for a largely traditional approach in the production then, you have to take the rough with the smooth, and there is inevitably a bit of both here, but it ultimately yields worthwhile results.

The dramatic declamations of the overheated (or hard-to-swallow) libretto and the more prosaic moments of the music would be difficult to get through if everyone was standing around and singing out to the audience, but Mazzonis manages to keep the characters engaged with one another. The upside of this is that combined with the attractive staging it's enough to keep the audience engaged and ready for the big moments when they occur. As long as you have good singers in the roles - and that's a big enough ask - you're on sure footing with this approach.

The ghost in the fountain aria ("Regnava nel silenzio"), the sextet and the ending of Act II, the mad scene in Act III and the conclusion are all vital, and fortunately the main performers and the chorus are all up to the task. Annick Massis has force and control of the coloratura, but more importantly has what Cobos demands for this production and that's the dramatic character to get the essence across without the unnecessary elaboration that has been added to the role over the years. Celso Abelo is Spanish, but he has a great Italian tenor voice and is impressive in the role of Edgardo. This is the kind of strong central singing team that is required for this work and they acquit themselves admirably.


Another original element that Cobos brings back to the work is the use of the glass harmonica for Lucia's mad scene. Along with a more restrained approach to the singing by Massis, this gives the scene more of an effective haunting quality rather than the full-blown off-her-rocker insanity with which Lucia is more often characterised. Or, depending on your expectations for this work, it could come across like the murder and decapitation scene that takes place in a room on the tower; a rather a rather bloodless affair, lacking in the kind of intensity you might expect.

There is more enough drama within the storyline and within the original musical score however for it to work on its own terms and for the purposes of this production, and it is indeed an enjoyable account of the work that clearly meets with the approval of the Liège audience. If Massis takes the role of Lucia down a step, Abelo is good enough to make up for the difference for the final scene to have all the necessary impact. Even if the blocks of masonry that he pulls down upon himself seem to bounce in rather too much of a rubbery fashion to do any real damage, the illusion of opera staging, brought together on so many other levels here, provides all the necessary weight.


Links: Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Culturebox

Friday, 11 December 2015

Donizetti - L'Elisir d'amore (La Scala, 2015 - Webcast)

Gaetano Donizetti - L'Elisir d'amore

Teatro alla Scala at Malpensa Airport, Milan - 2015

Fabio Luisi, Grischa Asagaroff, Bianca Tognocchi, Vittorio Grigolo, Mattia Olivieri, Michele Pertusi, Eleonora Buratto, Jan Pezzali, Mauro Edantippe

ARTE Concert - 17 September 2015

Although I've come to appreciate and admire some of Donizetti's lesser known works, I've never been a great fan of what is probably his most popular work, L'Elisir d'Amore. I have to admit though that its popularity does at least lead to some inventive settings and reinterpretations, even if the humour and characterisation that can be derived from its situations have always seemed rather limited. It's a work however that merits attention particularly when it's performed by an Italian company and you would expect La Scala in Milan to bring out the full value of the work. The essential Italian quality of the work is supported here by an unusual setting that if it's not the most inventive is at least challenging.

Anyone who believes that opera is still a vital art form where even Donizetti still has a place and has something to communicate to the world today, has to admire any attempt to get opera out of the theatre and away from theatricality, and attempt to reach a new audience. Cinema showings and internet streaming are one way, as is the use of directing talent from the theatre and cinema, as well as the employment of directors with distinctive visions and a determination to apply it to classic works. Physically taking the stagingess out of the opera house is also an admirable endeavour, and surprisingly, one that often works remarkably well. La Scala's attempt to stage L'Elisir d'Amore at Malpensa airport in Milan starts out like a good idea then, but it doesn't successfully follow through on its ambitions.



The airport is a surprisingly versatile place for an opera, and it's not the first time a live TV broadcast of an opera has been made from one. A few years ago there was an impressive and spectacular production of Mozart's Die Entführung dem Serail broadcast live from the airport at Salzburg. Adapting the public spaces and even the runway to the needs of the libretto, it even succeeded in putting a relevant modern spin on the intent of the work. Die Entführung isn't a particularly deep work by any means, but it does have rather more to it than L'Elisir d'Amore, you would think. So how does flashmobbing Donizetti at Milan-Malpensa fit in with the 'themes' or even just the comic situations of Donizetti's sparkling melodramma giocoso?

Well, it's a bright, lively opera and one that suits an open public performance. This Elisir opens in an airport cafe where Nemorino is a waiter and Adina the oblivious, indifferent owner sitting reading her book while Nemorino pines over her failure to respond to his admiration. Belcore is, of course, a handsome pilot in smart uniform, flanked by glamorous air hostesses as he parades through the concourse to the departure gates. Dulcamara is an amateur pilot in leather jacket and goggles who is flown is a small private plane with a portable drinks cabinet that he sets up on a prepared stage. Belcore of course recruits Nemorino not into the army here, but as a member of his cabin crew. It's not a perfect match for the opera and the locations are not used as inventively as Salzburg. Instead of a stage in the opera house, all they manage to do is set one up in an airport with airport travellers seated around it.

Having made some effort at least in the first Act to have it semi-credibly located in an airport, the airport workers inexplicably abandon their modern-day dress and behaviour momentarily in Act II for clownish pantomime costumes, marching onto the stage built in the check-in area to celebrate the coming wedding of Adina and Belcore. I don't know why this occurs, but it looks ridiculous. Further defeating the point, much of the remainder of the work subsequently takes place in this main location, on a stage, singing out to travellers who obviously have a long time to wait for their flights. 'Una furtiva lagrima' at least is well staged as the new cabin crew member Nemorino takes his bags through security. Unfortunately, the artificiality of most of the production is compounded by the inclusion of a French and an Italian host who step in now and again to explain to the TV audience what is going on, interviewing members of the audience, and they even discuss aspects of the work with the singers, partly in character, partly stepping out if it.  



It's not entirely satisfactory, but some respond better to the setting than others and you can get away with pretty much anything in L'Elisir d'Amore if you enter into it with the spirited indulgence of the commedia dell'arte origins of the work. With the production settling for traditional over the opportunities offered by the airport locations, all that is left is the quality of the opera performance itself, and fortunately, it's reasonably good. Vittorio Grigolo is a bright and committed Nemorino, singing well and Michele Pertusi gives us his usual entertaining Dulcamara, a familiar comic role that is comfortably within his range. Mattia Olivieri is not quite as commanding as he might be for Belcore but proves to be a suitable rival for Adina's affections. There's nothing particularly cruel or misguided about this Adina - just a woman who can't make her mind up and is ready to act spitefully on a whim. I've seen Eleonora Buratto sing this role before in Asagaroff's production at Zurich and she plays it well here again, if not having quite the full force of delivery.

I don't know if there is anything more to be gained from staging L'Elisir d'Amore in an airport than is already apparent in its simple storyline. What the La Scala production demonstrates is perhaps not so much that L'Elisir is still a relevant work with some important message for today, as much as the way that opera can be something living and vital without compromising on its essence. There aren't many other popular forms of art that are capable of being performed live in a public place with such a high level of artistic merit as this. Art installations in public places have limited appeal and no-one seems particularly interested in putting theatre on in public places, yet somehow La Scala are able to pitch up Fabio Luisi, a full orchestra and some of the finest singers in Italian opera into Milan-Malpensa airport with a custom-made production and film the whole proceedings live without there being any significant decline in artistic quality.

One might have hoped for more however, because really, this is just a perfunctory run-though of the opera, particularly from Fabio Luisi. The performances do at least have the kind of freshness that revitalises the work to some extent and the airport setting initially serves as a good showcase (or gimmick if you like) to show a wider audience how entertaining, accessible and versatile opera can be. Perhaps it's the change of environment, but even the more jaded viewer or one unconvinced by L'Elisir d'Amore can observe the artistry involved in a new light. It's live and it's an event; one that, despite the use of discreet radio microphones and headsets, doesn't compromise the essential character or nature of the art form, but rather shows how enduring and adaptable it can be.

Links: Teatro alla Scala, ARTE Concert

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Mozart - Idomeneo (Theater an der Wien, 2015 - Webcast)


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Idomeneo

Theater an der Wien, 2015

René Jacobs, Damiano Michieletto, Richard Croft, Gaëlle Arquez, Sophie Karthäuser, Marlis Petersen, Julien Behr, Mirko Guadagnini

Culturebox - 20 November 2015

Idomeneo is a problematic work in the Mozart canon, belonging to his youthful period and tied to the format and conventions of opera seria. It is unquestionably Mozart however, highly accomplished and full of melody and beauty, but with a darker edge of terror here. It's the latter aspect that is an unfamiliar quality from what we are accustomed to hearing in Mozart, and it often seems to be at odds or inadequately expressed by the beauty of the music itself. Damiano Michieletto's production of Idomeneo for the Theater an der Wien seems to get more from the work by focussing on that darker side, and is assisted in drawing those qualities from a closer period interpretation of the music by René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester.

Michelietto's production relies heavily on symbolism to emphasise the darker underlying context of Idomeneo beyond even the horror of the drama that unfolds. We are reminded of the fall of Troy and the damaging consequences of what the Greeks have brought back from the long drawn-out war on the highly-stylised stage set. Boxed-in by a set of curtains, the stage is a sand and mud pit filled with the boots of fallen warriors, the characters having to pick their way through it, sticking to the ground and stumbling over the lumps and bumps of this troubled landscape. It's here that we first see Ilia and get a sense of her predicament and state of mind. She can't escape from what has happened to her home and neither the love professed by Idamante nor his freeing of her captive people are enough to compensate for that.

There is more tension between Ilia and Idamante than you would traditionally see in this work since there is another lump or bump that is significant in this version. Ilia, the daughter of King Priam, is noticeably pregnant by the son of an enemy king, which only deepens her despair and confusion. The gift she had to offer Idomeneo when he returns back from the dead after the storm at sea is a package of baby clothes and an ultrasound scan of the baby she is carrying. Any kind of joyful news, whether its the liberation of the 'refugee' Trojans, Ilia's conflicted love for Idamante, or indeed Idamante's joy at the safe return of his father, is qualified and short-lived. Particularly the latter situation, since Idomeneo has rashly promised Neptune to sacrifice the first person he meets if he is allowed to survive and reach dry land.



The characterisation is thus somewhat more consistent here with the overall tone and it's very strongly developed and explored in this production; in appearance, in singing and in how each person reacts to one another. There's a lot of pent-up tension and no respite for anyone following the harrowing war that has just ended. The tension between Ilia and Idamante for example, should be obvious considering their backgrounds, but it is only really drawn out here by the symbolism, the direction of the performers and how they sing the roles, as well as by how Jacobs handles the musical direction. The usual bombastic emphasis of the romantic melodic line is toned down by the harder edge of the period instruments, Jacobs aiming for a simpler interpretation that seeks to find a truer expression for the dramatic content which might not be quite as developed here as in other Mozart works.

The casting and singing however are of the highest order, and it's noticeably this aspect - the lyrical qualities of the singing voice and what it is capable of expressing - that differentiates Mozart's late opera seria innovations from other works in this style. All of the singers here show how good this early Mozart can be when it has the right voices assigned to the roles, and when those roles are allowed to express the characterisation that is implicit in the situations they find themselves in. It's most evident in Richard Croft's Idomeneo. Like Kasper Holten's 2014 Vienna production, the King of Crete is visibly haunted here by the bloodshed and horror of the Trojan war, tormented by gore-covered ghosts. He's like Macbeth haunted by Banquo's ghost, driven mad, stumbling and flailing, self obsessed and full of self-pity, wallowing in the injustice of it all and hopelessly ineffectual as a consequence, often symbolically found in proximity to a bed.

Croft's voice has a softness, delicacy and lyricism that matches the requirements of this kind of Idomeneo. And even with the sweetest timbre, Sophie Karthäuser too can express the conflict and boiling anger that lies just beneath the surface of Ilia, making those beautiful da capo arias really express something fundamental about herself and her predicament. Just as impressive is Gaëlle Arquez as Idamante who proves here, if it needed to be made clear, that in the absence of a castrato, a mezzo-soprano can make much more of this role than a countertenor. There's a lovely voice there to be sure, but Arquez also demonstrates confidence in her expression, interpretation and colour.



The icing on the cake her is the luxury casting of Marlis Petersen as Electra. She fully involves herself in Michieletto's characterisation of Electra as a scheming glamour puss in blonde wig, wearing glittery dresses as she teeters through this landscape of misery in high-heels and shopping bags. She's the only person happy with the turn of events, since Idomeneo is forced to send her off with Idamante into the safety of exile, trying on a series of colourful outfits in a fashion-show rendition of 'Idol mio'. There's a little thinness creeping into the middle range, but Petersen is still capable of imbuing this role with great character, and her spirited performance is exactly what is needed to give the work that extra dimension and dynamic.

While the consistency of tone is maintained right through to the climax and is perhaps even bleaker in the ruins of Crete, I'm not sure that Act III holds together quite as strongly. As is often the case these days, Electra and Idomeneo are depicted as self-interested villains - and even lovers here - who pay the price for their actions. The singing and performances at least are just as strong and convincing, Sophie Karthäuser in particular delivering an amazing 'Zeffiretti lusinghieri', Gaëlle Arquez joining her impressively for the subsequent duet. Julien Behr also shows us the value of his Arbace here. If the direction throws everything in to try to make the final act a little more exciting - including the voice of Neptune seeming to come from Ilia's womb - it at least finds the right note to end on, Mozart's long chaccone accompanied by Ilia going into labour and giving birth on the stage. As far as establishing Idomeneo's out with the old and in with the new message, this production - as elsewhere - takes everything just that little bit further than most.


Links: Culturebox, Theater an der Wien

Monday, 7 December 2015

Britten - Death in Venice (Teatro Real, 2014 - Webcast)


Benjamin Britten - Death in Venice

Teatro Real, Madrid - 2014

Alejo Pérez, Willy Decker, John Daszak, Leigh Melrose, Tomasz Borczyk, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Duncan Rock, Itxaro Mentxaka, Vicente Ombuena, Antonio Lozano, Damián del Castillo, Nuria García Arrés, Ruth Iniesta

Culturebox - December 2014

While on the surface Death in Venice is about much more than an old man's attraction to a boy's youth and beauty, it is the key to the essential conflict that the aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach struggles with on so many levels. In Death in Venice, the struggle extends to old age meeting youth, beauty confronted by ugliness, art versus mediocrity, fame or obscurity, control over submission and ultimately, of course, life versus death. Venice, a city of contrasts, embodies all of von Aschenbach's fears; a place of incredible beauty and allure that is fading and slowly crumbling into the sea, succumbing inevitably to the forces of nature.

Accordingly, most productions of Britten's Death in Venice tend to emphasise the beauty of Venice (I don't believe you can exaggerate it) without however really considering its dark corrupting side. Like Deborah Warner's acclaimed and successful production for the English National Opera, Willy Decker's production for the Teatro Real in Madrid is visually magnificent, but its clean modern minimalist designs don't seem to be the most natural way of probing beneath the surface to explore the slow decline of Venice alongside that of von Aschenbach, something that the writer seems to anticipate on his way there. 'Ah Serenissima!' '...where water is married to stone', 'what lies in wait for me here, ambiguous Venice?'



As with Warner's production, there are other less obvious ways to create the sense of unease that is evoked in the imagery of the libretto - Aschenbach's journey on a gondola to the Lido compared to crossing the Styx in a black coffin - and in Britten's music. Without intending to be disparaging, since it proves to be largely effective, what Willy Decker brings to the work is a sense of camp, where Aschenbach's desire to hold onto his dignity and reputation is in sharp contrast to the common and vulgar displays he encounters in the city. The first encounter is the most ominous; a kiss planted on him by an old traveller fooling around and having fun, made up to look younger than he really is.

There has to be an attraction there too however and this lively scene along with the handsome costume and set design of the production, can be seen to exert a strong first impression on von Aschenbach as he begins a journey of no return. A seductive rather than a stuffy elegance would be a better way to describe the tone of Decker's production designs. There's a blending of period costumes - the white linen suits and dressed of the holiday makers iconically familiar from Visconti's movie version of Mann's novella - mixed here with immaculate, shiny, minimalist location settings, that does succeed in establishing the kind of contrast and ambiguity that Venice in the opera represents.

That gives the work a freshness here, avoiding cliché or simple representation, while still adhering to the intent of the libretto. "There's a dark side even to perfection", von Aschenbach observes, and he notes the clever thought down in his notebook, always seeking to rationalise instead of feel. But there's an attractive allure to this dark side that the Madrid production captures well, the ornate classical mixing with the clean unadorned modernism, with just a hint of the exotic that is there also in Britten's score. These elements sit a little uneasily side-by-side but, particularly in the way that they are captured in Decker's production, they can also be complementary.

If the production looks terrific and works well enough with the material, it plays a little safe and doesn't entirely manage to achieve the desired impact by the end. Tadzio, for example, is well-characterised as if he could just be an ordinary boy, not one who is flirting on some level with von Aschenbach. The attraction and objectification is entirely on the part of the writer and his imagination, even if his being observed doesn't escape the boy's notice. This is always likely to be the case, but unless you see Tadzio the way Aschenbach does, it's a little harder to 'sympathise' with the confusion that this personification of classical beauty exerts upon him.



There are some good directorial touches that attempt to make this relationship explicit. The playfully dropped red ball is a good visual image for the connection between them, the dancing and choreography kept simplified and expressive, and there's a Punch and Judy show that does give some indication of the state of mind of von Aschenbach in his obsession. The singing is also exceptionally good from John Daszak in the principal role - one that has to be to really carry the work - with good support from Leigh Melrose as the traveller and the other minor parts, but there is never any real sense of how the sequence of events leads to any noticeable decline in Aschenbach.  The musical interpretation conducted by Alejo Pérez doesn't really manage to get the essence of this across either.

Links: Culturebox, Teatro Real

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Beethoven - Fidelio (Salzburg, 2015 - Webcast)


Ludwig van Beethoven - Fidelio

Salzburger Festspiele, 2015

Franz Welser-Möst, Claus Guth, Jonas Kaufmann, Adrianne Pieczonka, Sebastian Holecek, Tomasz Konieczny, Hans-Peter König, Olga Bezsmertna, Norbert Ernst, Paul Lorenger, Nadia Kichler

Medici.tv - August 2015 

The 2015 Salzburg Festival production of Fidelio finds a way to bring out and emphasise the beauty of Beethoven's musical compositions for the opera, but it does so rather drastically by cutting all the spoken dialogue sections. This is a risky strategy since the work has a very important message on life, liberty and love that is contained within its drama just as much as in the music. Or does it? Is it not Beethoven's music that really carries the depths of the sentiments far above the rescue opera nature of the drama? The Salzburg production seems to confirm the impression that it's the music that takes precedence over the drama, but evidently the music and drama are intertwined and to such an extent in Fidelio that deconstruction of its elements might not really serve any valuable purpose.

Salzburg have a bit of a history with reworking familiar operas to see if a fresh approach can reveal new facets of the work. And not just in the expected manner of bringing in a director who can radically reinterpret the work. Salzburg aren't afraid to take an adventurous approach with the music and the structure of familiar works as well, such as Christian Thielemann's revelatory pared-down arrangement of Parsifal and the less successful attempt to reinstate a version of Molière's 'Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme' alongside Strauss's abandoned first version of Ariadne auf Naxos. In the case of Salzburg's Fidelio, the right director is also needed to compensate for the stripping away of the spoken dialogue, and the feeling seems to be that along with Beethoven's music, Claus Guth's probing psychological dissection of the work can be enough to get the essence of the work across, and perhaps even bring something more out of it. That's a bit of a gamble...

Musically at least, Fidelio appears to be in safe hands with Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic. More than safe, the work seems to just glow with all the splendour of one of the finest works of the Classical period played by one of the best orchestras in the world. The sweep of the drama is all there, along with sensitivity for the sentiments and attention to the sophistication of the human message in the arrangements - one of the strongest expressions of the beauty and resilience of humanity outside of Mozart. Mozart's influence indeed can be heard much more clearly when presented in this purely musical fashion without the awkwardness of some of the domestic elements and dramatic implausibilities intruding. Even those however are given new life here, with even Marzelline and Jaquino's opening duet sparkling and fresh.


Viewed purely in terms of the impact of cutting all the spoken text just so that the arias, duets and quartets can be better highlighted, Salzburg's Fidelio succeeds impressively. In no small part, the quality of the exceptional casting and singing has much to contribute to that. Jonas Kaufmann sings Florestan with all the intensity combined with sensitivity you would expect, possibly a little over-projected, but clearly in anguish for his unjust imprisonment, sustained only by the love of his wife and his belief that what is right will eventually overcome evil in the world. Adrianne Pieczonka is also about as good as you can get in this role nowadays. Hans-Peter König as ever phrases beautifully with rounded depth and resonance as Rocco. Olga Bezsmertna is a bright, lyrical and passionate Marzelline, well matched with Norbert Ernst's Jacopo. I found Tomasz Konieczny's baritone lacking in colour and dynamic when he sang Wotan in the 2015 Vienna Ring Cycle, but he is a little better here as Pizarro.

If the reconstruction, interpretation and performance allow the opera to flow more beautifully on a purely musical level, it does risk making a nonsense of the dramatic content. Christian Schmidt's sets for Claus Guth's production don't even bother with a jail or even any familiar sense of captivity. The action is set in what looks like a large undecorated ballroom or anteroom which is dominated by a huge black monolith that rotates to obscure and block the way between the characters, serving also to permit entrances and exits. Light and darkness are important symbols in this work, and this is emphasised by the black dress of Pizarro and his men contrasted with the immaculate white of the prisoners who troop out for "O welche Lust". No dressing in rags here. Shadows are also significant, reflected boldly on the walls, shifting in size and solidity.

The representation of a 'shadow side' is a common psychological device used by Claus Guth, and it's extended here - also not uncommonly - to a number of doubles. The most obvious candidate for such a division is of course Fidelio/Leonora, but at least Guth doesn't or seems not to make too much of the male/female persona of Leonora's disguise. Quite how he wants to mark that division however is anyone's guess, as the silent shadow double for Leonora here seems rather to be the underlying expression of the fear and confusion (over Marzelline's interest in Fidelio) that Leonora cannot show on the surface. Quite why the shadow Leonora frantically expresses herself using exaggerated sign-language gestures isn't obvious. Nor is it clear why the fairly one-dimensional Pizarro is the only other figure with a shadow-self, and indeed he doesn't seem to offer any more insight on the nature of the evil that is already there in the character's expressions and actions.


If the purpose of Guth's concept is difficult to determine, and can't exactly be said to fill in the gaps left by the cuts to the spoken dialogue (Guth in fact introducing industrial noise sounds and amplified breathing in their place), the setting looks good and works dramatically with the characterisation. Up to a point. I daresay prior familiarity with Fidelio aids understanding of what is happening and there are a few other concessions. The duets are still there, and a lot of the conflicts of light and dark occurs there. These are also superbly played and sung for all the necessary impact. It also helps to have a projected image of Florestan during the overture as a hint of the object of Leonora's mission. It's not a bad idea either even if it's just to remind the audience who have come to see him that Jonas Kaufmann will appear, since it's a good hour and a half and into Act II before we see or hear Florestan.

It's only when we see Florestan and the state that he is in that the nature of the opera and Guth's directorial touches hits home with more of an impact. As far as the opera goes this ought to be a big deal, and Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic certainly set that up the drama of the outcome in the Leonore No. 3 introduction to the finale. Quite whether Guth's direction works to the same extent or even follows the same direction is less certain. By the time we get to the Finale where the black monolith has disappeared leaving behind only a pit in the floor of the ballroom and a huge chandelier refracts light everywhere, the set starts to look more like an emotional space rather than a physical one.

If it were not already obvious, particularly with the in-between breathing and the noise, Florestan's confused, exaggerated, horrified reaction to Leonora and his 'freedom' suggests that the whole idea of the rescue - with all the implausibilities that lie within the rescue opera itself - is just a feverish fantasy of the prisoner's mind. While psychologically this is likely to be more realistically the state of mind of a tortured man left to starve and die in isolation, it is not, I imagine, exactly what Beethoven had in mind. Leonora's shock at Florestan expiring on the final note of the opera suggests a mix of subjective and objective realities, so it could be that the rescue is just too much for Florestan's weakened body and spirit to take. That ending certainly has a big impact, but the confusion of the final scene does tend to detract from the spirit of what is truly great about the work.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele, Medici