Monday, 16 April 2018

Mozart - The Marriage of Figaro (Wexford, 2018)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro

Irish National Opera, 2018

Peter Whelan, Patrick Mason, Jonathan Lemalu, Tara Erraught, Ben McAteer, Máire Flavin, Aoife Miskelly, Adrian Thompson, Graeme Danby, Suzanne Murphy, Andrew Gavin, John Molloy, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Catherine Donnelly, Dominica Williams

Irish Chamber Orchestra

National Opera House, Wexford - 13th April 2018

"Ah, when we are not fighting each other for personal interest, every woman will march to the defense ofher fellow woman against ungrateful men who seek wrongly to oppress them".

There's always something truthful, relevant and contemporary to be found in Mozart's operas, particularly his works with Lorenzo Da Ponte, and Marcellina's pronouncement in Act IV of The Marriage of Figaro neatly taps into a certain current social phenomenon that is unlikely to be missed by anyone in the audience, even if it needs reduced to something a little shorter and catchier with a hashtag. The fact that the above line was first uttered in 1786 however also highlights just how long the same struggle has been going on. The Irish National Opera's new production of Le Nozze di Figaro could of course have made a lot more of this in a modernised setting, but for the first night of the first production in Wexford of their inaugural season they instead wisely focus on the other essential elements that demonstrate why this is a masterpiece and why opera is important. And they do it rather well.

The latter question of why opera is important is one that I personally felt it was important to address and I had wondered before the opening night what kind of message the first INO production might set for future direction, standards and overall purpose. Every opera of course has its own needs and requirements, and a stuffy period Marriage of Figaro sung in English with nothing new to add to it might have been deemed a safer bet, but it would surely have sent out entirely the wrong message about the importance and relevance of opera to the lives we lead today. A modern high concept production wouldn't be a good move at this stage either, but director Patrick Mason pitches it right here with a bright fresh update that doesn't set about making a statement of its own. Mozart and Da Ponte's adaptation of Beaumarchais can do that perfectly well on its own in performance, and it was in the fine music and singing here that the production made the necessary impression.

That sense of brightness and freshness is to some extent established by the set design and the lighting, which presents an open space that at any moment can work as an interior, an exterior, or both within the same space. With a small model of the Almaviva estate mansion always present on the stage, and a large portrait of Mozart in the background throughout, it also manages to keep the wider context of the work in the back of the mind without having to be too clever or knowing. Not that you would be unaware of Mozart's hand in the work for one moment when the music is played as well as it is here by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Peter Whelan; the composer's character stamped across every single, crisp, elegant and emotionally buoyant note.

The period updating of the production isn't over-emphasised, or at least not in any way that might compromise the nature and intentions of the work, but there is a hint of late sixties/early seventies. Glyndebourne did this too with their 2013 production of Figaro and it's a workable solution to the out-dated (if still very much alive in a new form) droit-de-seigneur tradition that Count Almaviva has every intention of re-establishing for the purposes of his designs on Susanna, his wife's maid who is about to be married to his manservant Figaro. In light of recent controversies of misconduct by men in positions of power, the setting here presents a different picture, even from the superficially similar Glyndebourne production. If the 60s/early 70s play to notions of a 'permissive society', it's one where the playing field is not level and indeed playing the field is not seen on equal terms, rather it's one that just gives men the power to take further advantage of the liberties offered.

There's no need for the production to emphasise that with any placards of banners or hashtag references. The implications that it holds for all women, and not just Susanna, are made clear in the several lovely chorus arrangements of the original work in the songs that Figaro has cleverly organised for the other female servants to sing, illustrating precisely what Marcellina recognises in that quotation from Act IV. There's a need for women to combine their strengths and resources, to recognise who the enemy is and to challenge and resist; and it's not just a protest against all men, but "ungrateful men who seek to wrongfully oppress them". Mozart and Da Ponte's enlightened views, as well as the consequences of such oppression, are insightfully woven into every note and word that make up the fabric of this near-miraculous work.

The production however highlighted what is really essential to get right in Le Nozze di Figaro. You can play and sing every note to perfection, but unless the comedy engages and strikes a chord with the audience, it's all to little avail. This is a work that has to implicate and draw you in, and it's done through the personalities of the wonderfully drawn characters who nonetheless essentially need real people to bring them to life. It's here where Patrick Mason has done the necessary work to make the opera - at full length with all the 'supporting' characters arias included - fairly zip along. There are some broad comic gestures but also subtle ones, all the set-pieces run like clockwork to provide the expected laughs and plot developments, the busy but uncluttered and adaptable sets permitting a wonderful flow and openness that allows us, for example, not only to see Cherubino jump from the Countess's bedroom window, but also make a run for it across the garden below.

And it's not just all about the comedy. It's necessary to strike the right tone for each of the emotionally rich and insightful situations that Mozart assembles. It's here that the benefits of including Marcellina's and Basilio's Act IV arias prove their worth, not just balancing and contrasting the emotional tenor of each adjacent scene, or even just rounding out the characterisation, but showing that there is a human side to each of the characters. The actions (or intentions) of the Count don't just have a consequence for the women that he has set his libidinous sights on, but it has an impact on everyone, on how men and women behave towards one another, on how society views such behaviour and the wider impact that it can have on it. It's even more of a joy to have these usually cut scenes included when you have such good performers in the roles of Basilio (Adrian Thompson), Bartolo (Graeme Danby), the gardener (John Molloy) and Marcellina (Suzanne Murphy). Barberina is another role in the opera that can be undervalued and fail to make an impact, but not when you have a young soprano as talented as Amy Ní Fhearraigh to make something of it and show just how musically and emotionally rich a work Mozart has created down to the finest detail. Ní Fhearraigh has already made a stunning impression in the recent Opera Collective Ireland Owen Wingrave and this performance will only enhance that reputation further.

The performing challenges that the principals in this production have to measure up to however is of another degree altogether, balancing and mixing comedy with pathos in arias, duets and complex ensemble arrangements. It's the Count who has the trickiest role to maintain, keeping on the right side of caricature that can either go the way of pathetic bumbling fool to unsympathetic cheating lecher, neither of which tend towards a convincing redemption. Ben McAteer's Almaviva carried a measure of those characteristics, but - in line with the well-considered period setting - was more of a last-gasp opportunist finding that the times (and women's rights) were fast catching up with his sort. His singing was perfectly measured for technique and character, a perfect foil for whoever he was on stage with at any given moment. The Countess is also a challenging role with some of the key arias in the whole opera, and it in places seemed a little too big a role for Máire Flavin. With some terrific support from the Irish Chamber Orchestra however, those arias sang of all the depth of feeling of all Rosina's emotional turmoil and sadness.

It's great to see Tara Erraught back on home shores, having built up an international career in Munich - where most of her performances broadcast on the internet show the breadth of her experience - as well as (controversially) at Glyndebourne and the Met in New York. This was a wonderfully engaging Susanna that Erraught sung brilliantly but just as importantly brought to life with verve, charm and character. Figaro actually ran the risk of being left as a bystander to all the plots and machinations going on around him, but Jonathan Lemalu exuded a quiet confidence in his performance and characterisation of the former Barber of Seville that made it seem a lot more effortless than it really is. Personally, I find a mezzo-soprano a better fit for Cherubino and was surprised at Aoife Miskelly's high and light lyrical soprano being cast for the role, but her 'Voi che sapete' was wonderful and Miskelly's ability for character role playing was a joy to behold. Irish National Opera's impressive inaugural production sets out with high standards, not least of which is to demonstrate the importance of opera today.

Links: Irish National Opera

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Wagner - Parsifal (Antwerp, 2017)

Richard Warner - Parsifal

Opera Vlaanderen, 2017

Cornelius Meister, Tatjana Gürbaca, Christoph Pohl, Markus Suihkonen, Stefan Kocan, Erin Caves, Kay Stiefermann, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner

OperaVision - April 2018

At first sight, and probably for much of the long first Act, the stripped back, minimal production and reduced orchestration of Opera Vlaanderen's Parsifal doesn't look like it has what it takes to really do justice to the epic vision of Wagner's final masterpiece. It has almost nothing of the religious imagery of the work's Good Friday death and rebirth celebrations and it hardly seems to engage with the deeper, sacred mystery and transcendental themes of its wider philosophical influences and references (Buddhism, Schopenhauer). The treatment however remains connected to the work and more tightly focussed on the nature of Kundry, and it's through this focus that the Vlaanderen production does successfully elevate at least one of the themes and meanings of this complex work.

The opening of the opera on a bare stage with a curved wall to the background and a spot of light at the centre of the stage, does give the impression that director Tatjana Gürbaca is settling for representing Parsifal in the abstract, and indeed the opera certainly exists more in the theoretical plane than a physical or geographical one. The colours of the stage and the costumes when the Knights of the Grail take to the stage in modern dress, remain neutral, beige, grey and pale green. Standing out against them, but only slightly, Gurnemanz wears brown corduroy and sits in a wheelchair, while the young boys dressed only in white undergarments, tended by acolytes, turn out to be 'swans'.

Gürbaca's more direct engagement with the work and Kundry's place at the centre of it has however already been laid-out in the Vorspiel in a scene that shows Kundry in a passionate clinch with Amfortas, the incident that leads to his downfall and suffering. The question of suffering and the Christian implications of it are then taken up in thin lines of blood that trickle down the walls at the back, their progress watched more with fascination than reverence by the knights. Parsifal, when he arrives soon breaks this mood carrying a bucket of the blood that he has gathered from this stream and 'shoots' one of the 'swans' by throwing its contents at one of the boys being tended by the knights.

That still remains all very vague and abstract, far from the sombre, reverential tone that we expect from Parsifal, and there is none of the usual ceremonial aspect in the subsequent 'time becomes space' mystery, nor in the transubstantiation scene of the unveiling of the Grail. During this scene, Gurnemanz leads Parsifal around the circle of the stage, their positions frozen in time and echoed in mirrored arrangements by the knights, creating a visual echo of their progress. Other figures wander randomly within the circle of light and look upwards, hands clasped in prayer, as more trickles of blood rain down the back wall and a pregnant Kundry hands out blessings.

By removing the epic grandeur of the traditional imagery and mystique of this scene, what stands out as more significant here is Parsifal's reaction. He might be a holy fool, but rather than be overawed by it all he is instead shocked by the attitude and behaviour of the others. The suffering of Amfortas is largely ignored by everyone else and it's only Parsifal who shows compassion and sympathy. This simple idea is a good interpretation that goes to the heart of what the work is about - one interpretation of many valid possibilities that this work inspires. Looking upward, caught up in their own sense of being special and chosen, they are prepared to offer "thoughts and prayers" to the suffering of Amfortas, but are actually horrified by his punishment and don't really want to acknowledge it.

The interpretation of the work then becomes one where Parsifal's journey is to put us all back in touch with true feelings of compassion, of learning to achieve true enlightenment though the suffering we experience and witness in the world. In order to do that however, Parsifal has to reconnect the division that exists between men and women, between knowledge and compassion. The indications are there in how Kundry is treated by the knights, and the pregnant vision of Kundry in Act I implies that there is a necessity for a rebirth. It's in Parsifal's subsequent encounter with Kundry in Act II that he has to face up to the conflict between what he has been learned from Gurnemanz and what he feels with Kundry. It's a struggle that is much greater than the actual fight that takes place with Klingsor, which is by comparison rather rapidly dispatched at the conclusion of the second Act.

If you're going to put so much importance on the role of Kundry as the path to salvation, then Act II is going to be much more important than the transubstantiation scene of Act I, which is more traditionally the turning point of the opera. Act II however gives considerable room for interpretation and director Tatjana Gürbaca takes full advantage of its possibilities - again not so much for the traditional spectacle as much as for how it can add to her interpretation of Parsifal. Here the Flower Maidens are not as threatening as they might be in other productions, but bewitching creatures that Parsifal finds fascinating, discovering in them something new about beauty and otherness that women represent.

That is only one aspect however and it's not all that Parsifal needs. Complete knowledge - or the true beginning of a path towards completeness - can only be gained though his encounter with Kundry and the kiss of enlightenment. Gürbaca's direction of Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's Kundry doesn't neglect to set the scene for this, realising how important it is for Parsifal to reach this awareness through knowledge of love in the relationship between his father and mother. Parsifal's recollection of Amfortas then at the moment of the kiss is a recognition then of how he came by his wound in the arms of Kundry, not seduced as the Knights' tradition has led him to believe. The mission of healing the wound then becomes one of healing the wound between men and women. Parsifal still resists, but without Kundry, without love, he is warned that he cannot find a way back to Amfortas.

Act III follows through on these ideas, but beautifully manages to retain some of the mystery and ambiguity of the work. Living only with pain, suffering and death, the Knights have become even more detached from their true humanity, from compassion. Their view of the world has consequently become corrupted over time, a never healing wound that needs someone to lead the way towards renewal, rebirth and redemption. "Only the spear that caused the wound can heal it" and Kundry is the spear who necessarily must make the self-sacrifice, who rejects the baptism of Parsifal and cuts deeply into her forearms, smearing the wall with her blood. While the knights gather around in worship of Parsifal, who becomes the Grail for them, it's left to Gurnemanz to recognise the truth, and he lies down between the dead forms of Amfortas and Kundry, reuniting them in death. It's a supremely beautiful ending that works with the complex sentiments of the conclusion, ecstatic and yet melancholic. The way has been opened but not everyone will find or take the path.

It's in these moments that the performance of the orchestra under the direction of Cornelius Meister rises to the occasion. Elsewhere, in the moments of dramatic expression, the performance feels underpowered and inadequate, but then there is a deliberate effort on the stage to also underplay these moments, particularly in Act I. In the moments where the production needs the support of the music to support its interpretation - in the Flower Maidens scene and the Parsifal/Kundry scene of Act II, in the final shimmering, unsettling notes of the opera - it comes through with remarkable feeling for the sentiments and beauty of the work. The singing is also strong in those areas where it counts, particularly in Tanja Ariane Baumgartner's performance of Kundry throughout. Erin Caves delivers a lyrical and dramatically attuned Parsifal. Symbolically confined to a wheelchair for most of the work, Štefan Kocán has a challenge interpreting the role of Gurnemanz, but his singing is strong, resonant and heartfelt. Christoph Pohl isn't the strongest Amfortas and is occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but his role is vital and he brings it fully to life.

Links: Opera Vlaanderen, OperaVision

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Opera Briefs (Dublin, 2018)

Claudio Monteverdi - Il Ballo delle Ingrate
Judith Weir - Scipio’s Dream

Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin - 2018

David Adams, Caitriona McLaughlin, Leah Redmond, Katie O'Donoghue, Matthew Mannion, Ben Escorcio, Robert McAllister, Ana-Maria Acunune, Katie Richardson McCrea, Hannah Traynor

The Abbey Theatre on the Peacock Stage - 29 March 2018

The pairing of two operas written almost 400 years apart is an intriguing one and neither are by any means an obvious selection for students of the Royal Irish Academy of Music working on a stage production of the programme in collaboration with the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art. You might expect the intention of juxtaposing Monteverdi's Il Ballo delle Ingrate (1608) with Judith Weir's Scipio’s Dream (1991) would be to throw up interesting musical contrasts as well as highlighting how social attitudes have changed over the years, but in reality the subjects of both works display a common social conservatism. In the case of Monteverdi's work, the deeply serious treatment of a tragic subject could be seen to merely reflect the attitudes of the times in which it was written, while Judith Weir's more overt comedy is more obviously critical of similar ideals.

What the two works really have in common however is - somewhat obviously - is that they are being performed to a modern audience, and what they have to communicate to that audience must be the primary consideration of a director. Rather than seek to connect the works thematically, which might only strengthen the less liberal sentiments expressed in them and send out mixed messages, Catriona McLaughlin approaches each of the two short pieces on their own terms. Updating them to a more modern setting, the RIAM/Lir production seeks to remain to the original intentions of both works while at the same time finding a way to explore the relevance they have for a contemporary audience living in Ireland. From that point of view, with that as a starting point but with a little bit of a shift in perspective, the timeless quality of both works and the truths they reveal comes through well.

In the case of Scipio's Dream, the updating of ideas towards a modern perspective has already been made by Judith Weir, since her work is based on Mozart's Il sogno di Scipione, written in 1771 when the composer was 15 years of age. Weir's comic opera was adapted for TV in 1991 and updated into a contemporary office background, where a businessman has to make a decision whether to follow the allegorical paths represented by the goddesses of Fortune versus Constancy. Catriona McLaughlin's production actually returns the work closer to it original story based on Cicero's 'On the Republic' by re-envisioning Scipio as the leader of a Republic state; as Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, whose dilemma is the choice between following the fortune of the UK's Brexit decision or to remain constant to the security offered by remaining in the EU.

The choice is perhaps not realistically one that the Taoiseach has to consider, so it's not as if there's a political point to be made here, but placing him in this position at least makes the allegorical aspect of the work more relatable. And funny, which is a vital part of the charm of this particular work; at least in Weir's version as I'm not sure Pietro Metastasio had laughs in mind when he wrote the libretto. It might be a little heavy-handed and unnecessary for Fortune to hold up a mask of Theresa May, for Constancy to hold up a mask identifying her as Angela Merkel and for the other players to similarly identify their European leader counterparts, but it certainly gets the laughs and engages the audience with the conceit. And perhaps there are a few little political points to be made along the way, even if the Irish angle doesn't really mirror the reality of the personal or political challenges faced by Leo Varadkar.

What is surprising about the work, I found, is that while it is certainly modernised, Weir retains the musical language of Mozart's time for her contemporary adaptation of Scipio's Dream. The enchantments of the goddesses of Constancy and Fortune are therefore represented by seductive arias and vocal ornamentation, which are handled well by Leah Redmond and Katie O'Donoghue. The role of Scipio also has its own vocal challenges that baritone Matthew Mannion capably managed, at the same time displaying good presence and successfully delivering the comic touches that are very much part of the charm of the work. The ensemble singers also impressed as they brought a hard border solution that may not be Scipio's dream, but perhaps the only realistic consequence of putting one's faith in the goddess of Constancy.

Despite the underlying sentiments of Il Ballo delle Ingrate, the dance of the ungrateful women condemned to Hell for refusing to submit to the love of a man, there is also a message in Monteverdi's 400 year old work that is relevant to the times. Rather than place it in an equivalent contemporary setting that would undoubtedly distract from the beauty of the piece and probably be an inadequate response to the complexities of the reality faced by women in the world today, the director allows a little modernised tweaking of the translation of the words of the Madrigal make the relevance a little more 'present', but it's the tragic melancholy tone of the extraordinary music of the work itself that aligns it more closely to the fate of abused women, giving it a haunting quality that clearly resonates with a modern audience.

In common with Scipio's Dream the story relies on allegorical figures of gods and goddesses to raise the subject above the level of personal drama to a mythological and moral dilemma. Poor Venus and Eros (Venere and Amore) are distraught that Cupid's darts are no longer as effective as they once were when women used to accept their fate and obeyed the fortune bestowed upon them by the love and attentions of a man. They bring their complaint to Pluto (Plutone), God of the Underworld, who determines that the women are indeed ungrateful and, although it appears harsh to bring them to a place where there can be no return, they must pay the price for contravening the vital rules of nature.

Pluto, as sung by bass-baritone Robert McAllister is indeed a formidable figure, and in McLaughlin's production the torments that the ungrateful women are subjected to by his demons is indeed degrading and horrific. There's no need for elaborate visions of hell, the demons all wear jackets and ties, sitting around the same Prime Minister's office desk that was used in Scipio's Dream. The women are paraded, mocked, stripped of protective clothing and pawed by Pluto's 'Ombre d'Inferno' minions. Enduring their fate, their closing lamentation becomes less of a warning to other ungrateful women than an anthem for all the women who have suffered at the hands of monsters.

That could be a hard angle to sell in such a short piece were it not for the fact that the work is by Monteverdi and a masterpiece that is more than capable of expressing such sentiments. The RIAM Baroque Orchestra performance of Il Ballo delle Ingrate under the direction of David Adams was simply mesmerising, holding the flow and line of the work beautifully, but more importantly finding the dark melancholic poignancy at the heart of the work. The singing also lifted the work to this level, contrasting the exceptional singing of Robert McAllister's marvellously controlled and resonant Pluto with the almost heavenly chorus of the 'ingrate' at the conclusion, weeping not so much for their own miserable fate as much as in solidarity for the fate of all those other women throughout the ages who have lived in hell of one kind or another.

Links: RIAM, The Lir, Abbey Theatre

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Berlin, 2018)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Berlin)

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin - 2018

Andreas Schager, Stephen Milling, Anja Kampe, Boaz Daniel, Stephan Rügamer, Ekaterina Gubanova, Adam Kutny, Linard Vrielink

Culturebox - February 2018


Even if the setting is very different from what you might expect, and there are one or two interpolations or diversions from the script, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Tristan und Isolde adheres fairly closely to the original specifications in the libretto, much like his last production of a Wagner opera at the Berlin Staastoper Under den Linden, Parsifal. There's always a case to be made for a more abstract setting for both works, which operate more on a spiritual level than a geographical one, and that was certainly the case with Harry Kupfer's production which this new one replaces. Tcherniakov however seems to reject this high-flown abstraction and throw out the Schopenhauerian philosophical elements that one would think an essential element of the opera, attempting rather to bring the work firmly down to earth and see it in purely human terms.  Surely this is a mistake with a work like Tristan und Isolde?

Well, you would think so, but Tcherniakov nonetheless managed to introduce other ideas and ways of looking at Parsifal into that production, and if not quite reach the heady heights that the work can aspire to (although Daniel Barenboim, with Anja Kampe and Andreas Schager certainly helped the reach the mystical dimension of the work in the music), he did at least find an alternative and perhaps more relatably human way to address some of the questions that this work poses. The same team of Barenboim, Tcherniakov, Kampe and Schager apply a similar approach with this new Tristan und Isolde.

Act I takes place here in a wood-panelled lounge of a luxury liner, where a group of businessmen in suits sit around enjoying a few post-meeting drinks. They seem to be happy to have conducted a successful deal in Ireland, bringing back a Queen for King Marke of Cornwall. A screen shows voyage updates and video cam footage around the ship, Isolde becoming increasingly irritated as they approach the English shores. Other than the obvious modernisation of the set however, there is little that deviates (and there's little room to deviate one would think) from the original stage directions.

The one area where there is opportunity to establish a character on the work in Act I is obviously the drinking of the love potion and here Brangäne, visibly distressed at Isolde's desire to use a death potion, obviously doesn't add it to the drink, but neither does she switch it for a love potion. Sharing a hefty glass of vodka, you are left with the impression that it's just the alcohol that breaks down Tristan and Isolde inhibitions and reveals their true feelings for each other. It's hardly the most romantic depiction of the love potion scene, but there are other musical and dramatic elements at play here and Tcherniakov superimposes a brief green-tinted projection of Isolde nursing the wounded Tristan from their encounter in Ireland over the proceedings. It's not much but it does achieve the necessary background for the deep shift of overwhelming and uncontrollable desire that defies normal human boundaries.

Those boundaries however in Tcherniakov's vision remain the rather more mundane ones of middle class morality and social convention. In Act II we're in an elegant drawing room, the walls again decorated with wood panelling and images of trees and a lamp to update the original stage directions. It's the same kind of society that we see in Tcherniakov's productions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but here Isolde is an outsider in a world of her own, enraptured by the Goddess of Love. I don't know about Tcherniakov, but Barenboim and Kampe raise the game considerably in Act II, peaking to a fury and a force as Tristan not so much slips in to meet Isolde as practically dances in. Tcherniakov shows two people unbridled and enraptured by something greater, dancing with joy, oblivious to the world outside, giving no thought to social niceties that would restrict and bear down heavily on their illicit union.

It may take some of the spirituality and philosophical musing out of the opera, but as a reflection of how it relates to Wagner's inspiration and desires and his attempts to elevate them into something more meaningful, Tcherniakov's approach has validity and, whether you find it appropriate or not, it strips away the work's metaphysical pretensions. Tristan and Isolde's love is not some transcendence of human desire, but a defiant challenge to any kind of social convention or middle-class morality that might seek to disapprove of it or refuse to recognise the purity of feeling within it. And yet, as the green projections reappear and the "O sink hernieder" Night of Love duet establishes an otherworldly setting,you still get a sense of being in the midst of something that surpasses the mundanity of everyday existence, of something that we would all strive to be able to reach. An impossible height? Of course, but if anyone can persuade you that such a state can exist, it's in how Wagner makes the impossible possible in his music.

At the stage in Act II however the tragic crash between the ideal and reality is not yet on the radar of Tristan and Isolde or Wagner, so it's still possible to believe in the impossible and there's no need for faux-solemnity and gravity that is customary in this opera, but rather the evocation of a state of supreme sublime bliss. That element of danger crashes in by the end of Act II however, and when it does it ought to be felt viscerally. No matter what else you make of the Berlin production as a whole, it's in the musical expression and performance of those states under the direction of Daniel Barenboim that the work just soars. Barenboim's pacing and drive is superb, the score measured in mournfulness, ecstatically driven where necessary without ever being aggressive, shifting from lyrical to dramatic, from a roar to a whimper. With emphasis (at least in the mix of the streamed recording) on brass and woodwind rather than the darker strings, there is more colour given to those moods, shifting emphasis in ways I've never heard before.

Barenboim also takes care in the conducting to allow space for and support of the singing voices. Accordingly, Act III of this Tristan und Isolde is one of the most complete and impressive I've ever seen. Andreas Schager almost makes Act III look effortless, drawing on inexhaustible reserves. You might think that he is perhaps too lively for a mortally wounded man - although there is no obvious wound struck in Act II - but it's clear that if he's going to expire it's won't be from a sword wound but rather exploding with ecstasy, which indeed is more true to Tristan's fate. It's here that the director interpolates somewhat, showing Tristan lost in memories of his mother and father, or reveries even since his mother is pregnant with him in the acted-out domestic scenes that share the stage with him (and a cor anglais player) in his room on Kareol. Tcherniakov at least attempts to make something more of the words and it's certainly more thoughtful than playing the scene with him just writhing in delirium.

Whether you can rationalise it as being something to do with death and rebirth, somehow the simple image of an alarm clock and the drawing of a curtain over the little back room where the prostrate lifeless form of Tristan has been carried creates an extraordinarily effective and moving finale. I don't know if it's really within Wagner's intentions, whether it just finds another way to approach what Wagner intended, but aligned to that remarkable music, with Barenboim's conducting and Anja Kampe reaching those incredible heights, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production does seem to find its own way to capture the indescribable beauty of the sentiments of the final scene. Whatever else you might think about the production, if it gets you there and makes that kind of impact, it's done something right.

Links: Berlin Staatsoper, Culturebox

Friday, 23 March 2018

Puccini - La Rondine (Genoa, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - La Rondine

Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova - 2018

Giuseppe Acquaviva, Giorgio Gallione, Elena Rossi, Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Marius Brenciu, Stefano Antonucci, Giuseppe De Luca, Didier Pieri, Davide Mura, Francesca Benitez, Marta Leung, Marina Ogii

TCF Streaming - 21 March 2018

It has some supporters - the Royal Opera House and Angela Gheorghiu among them - but for a work that comes in the midst of Puccini's mature period, La Rondine is surprisingly a mostly forgotten and neglected work. I entirely forgot about it myself when I assessed the strengths and weakness of Puccini's work post-Butterfly in my recent review of Turandot, but it's at least 15 years since the only time I saw the work performed - in Dublin - and despite it having Puccini's familiar melodic strengths, it's clearly not the most memorable work, and it's hard to see how it can be rehabilitated for a modern audience.

It's not that La Rondine is a bad opera as much as it feels like a misstep by Puccini, who uncharacteristically appears to look towards other operas for inspiration and direction rather than follow his own instincts. La Rondine comes across as an attempt to look back at Verdi's La Traviata and attempt to do for Paris what Strauss did for the glory days of Vienna in Der Rosenkavalier; taking a light operetta setting and likewise filling the score with dance melodies that are ironic and nostalgic at the same time. As lovely as it can look and sound, La Rondine nonetheless comes across as slight and superficial, with none of the same sense of engagement that Strauss and Hoffmansthal had with Der Rosenkavalier, and hence none of its sense of fun and sophistication.

Everywhere in La Rondine you get a sense of compromise - compromise that resulted in no less than three versions of the opera, as Puccini struggled to give it some shape and depth. Even the plot seems to only really superficially resemble the setting and action of La Traviata without really connecting to any true emotions or the social commentary that fired Verdi's response to the subject. La Rondine opens with the party of a courtesan, Magda. Amidst the scene-setting introductions to the characters, which present Puccini with a number of songs and dance melodies that he sets beautifully, Magda reflects on her position, and on a lost love in the past that a new visitor Ruggero has brought to mind. When the guests leave, she wonders whether she might still have a chance at love and, disguised as Paulette, she follows him to a night spot that had been recommended by some of the other guests.

Puccini can't but follow his own style however, and the scene at Bulliers in Act II of La Rondine owes more to La Bohème's Cafe Momus; the scene filled with life, glamour, colour and the promise of romance, no matter who you are or what your past is. Elsewhere, La Bohème likewise remains like a model imposed unsuccessfully over La Traviata as a way of treating the subject. In Act III, when 'Paulette' and Ruggero go to Nice to be free to love outside the constraints and gossip of Paris society, Puccini introduces a tension similar to Act III of La Bohème. Although like Violetta and Alfredo there are financial problems with this arrangement and a crisis of conscience for Magda who doesn't want to destroy the young man's reputation, her self-sacrifice here comes like Mimi's in the form of a decision to return to her wealthy benefactor Rambaldo in Paris, who loves her for who she is and can provide for her.

And Puccini, in the second version anyway, leaves things there, with none of the fire and fury of La Traviata, and none of the melodramatic and heart-rending deaths from tuberculosis scenes of either La Traviata or La Bohème. It might be refreshing to have the heroine live at the end, but it doesn't provide a strong narrative arc in the sense of love being taken through to death that makes Tosca, La Bohème and Madama Butterfly such perfect dramatic opera creations. Like Manon Lescaut, La Rondine feels like it's short of an Act that might better round out the drama, characterisation and bring some further emotional engagement with the characters and their situation. Without it, Puccini's music in La Rondine feels empty and perfunctory, just as Manon Lescaut feels over-elaborate for its slightness.

There is one respect in which Puccini is characteristically successful and that is his association of mid-19th century Paris with the idea of glamour, romance, music and colour. All of the characters constantly vaunt its charm in their conversations; its night-life, its writers, its music, its dancers, its women - a place where anything can happen and dreams can come true, but it's also a place that can turn the head of the unwary. It's also a place where for some who are supposedly living the dream, like Magda, it can bring social pressures and expectations that are hard to continue to live up to in opposition to one's deeper needs and nature, and the swallow (la rondine) needs to fly south. It's a rounded portrait of the attractions and pitfalls of the City of Lights, if not a socially realistic one, or even a La Bohème verismo one which the harsh deaths in La Bohème and La Traviata at least bring emphatically to the forefront.

Giorgio Gallione's production for Genoa captures the essence of both Paris and Nice well, as well as mark the contrasts between them, without having to rely on hackneyed Belle Epoque imagery. The period is updated to another stylish era that has echoes of the 1920s, albeit a little more hyperstylised and glamourised. There are plenty of party-goers and lots of dancers doing choreographed moves at Magda's party in Act I and at Bulliers in the colourful night club scenes of Act II, but it also manages to convey a sense that it is all forced, as the disguises and the contrasting behaviour between the couples of Magda and Ruggero and Prunier and Lisette suggest. Act III in Nice is also highly stylised, more open and easy going by Paris, but with a single fallen tree and sun terrace figures in the background, it also hints that pressures remain and all is not ideal for Magda and Ruggero.

I don't find Puccini's music for La Rondine particularly inspired, memorable or well-attuned to the dramatic action. It feels perfunctory in its distribution of arias, in its weaving of songs and dance melodies and rarely displays any of the composer's true character. It's performed well though by the Carlo Felice Genova orchestra under conductor Giuseppe Acquaviva, who keeps it light and buoyant. The singing certainly has its challenges, but they seem to be more in the bel canto register that you rarely find anywhere else in Puccini, although there are certainly dramatic and lyrical challenges in the role of Magda, which Elena Rossi sings very well. The lead tenor role doesn't particularly have great character to it in this opera, but Arturo Chacón-Cruz brings a romantic charm to Ruggero. and there's lively support from Giuliana Gianfaldoni's Lisette and Marius Brenciu as Prunier.

Links: Teatro Carlo Felice, TCF Streaming

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Dallapiccola - Il Prigioniero / Rihm - Das Gehege (Brussels, 2018)

Luigi Dallapiccola - Il Prigioniero
Wolfgang Rihm - Das Gehege

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

Franck Ollu, Andrea Breth, Ángeles Blancas Gulín, Georg Nigl, John Graham-Hall, Julian Hubbard, Guillaume Antoine

La Monnaie MM Streaming -  January 2018


The challenges of writing an opera in the serial music form could perhaps be measured by how few actually make it to completion and by the shortness of length of those that are actually finished. Even Schoenberg, the inventor of the twelve-tone dodecaphonic system only completed one short opera in this form, Von Heute auf Morgen, and left his one longer masterpiece Moses und Aron unfinished. Berg likewise left his the troubled Lulu unfinished at the time of his death, while Wozzeck only has twelve-tone elements. There are however other notable extended operas that are largely written in the serial form including Bernd Alois Zimmerman's Die Soldaten and Ernst Krenek's Karl V. As Wozzeck, Lulu and Moses und Aron testify however, while the composition of such complex works presents considerable and sometimes insurmountable challenges, they also bring specialised demands for staging, performance and use of musical resources.

As formidable as they often appear to be however there is nothing limiting about the works in terms of musical expression, and Luigi Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero finds a terrific range of expression even within the limitations of a 50 minute work set almost entirely within the confines of a prison cell. Just as Schoenberg was able to extend the situation of a biblical story to explore more personal ideas and obsessions, the richness and uniqueness of the musical language available permits Dallapiccola to delve more deeply into the themes that arise for a political prisoner in relation to freedom, political expression, hope and disillusionment, and apply it to greater concerns in the troubled times of the 1940s.

Il Prigioniero opens then with a dramatic soprano voice, the mother of the prisoner, speaking out at the horror of the regime that has led to her son being held and tortured in prison. Dallapiccola follows this cry of despair with a lament from a large chorus, "Lord have mercy on us. Our hope lies in you". It's in this state that we find the prisoner about to give up all hope until a single word changes his outlook and insinuates itself into the mood of the whole piece; "fratello" - brother. The jailer who offers this lifeline to grasp follows it with another word, "spera" - have faith. Finding the door left open, one perhaps more metaphorical than real considering the developments, the prisoner follows the path of hope down the corridor outside his cell.

The chorus fill in again, their lament turned to praise for the light, which brings an "Alleluia" out of the prisoner for freedom, but it's premature and illusory, as the path is one that leads to his execution. The fullness of expression, the use of words, the chorus, as well as the post-romantic sweep of the score in the dynamic between the dark and the light is one that recalls a similar use of these elements in Moses und Aron. It's brought out fully in Dallapiccola's score, given wonderful expression in Franck Ollu's direction at La Monnaie in Brussels, and in the writing for the contrasting voices of Ángeles Blancas Gulín as the mother, Georg Nigl as the prisoner and John Graham-Hall offering hope in the form of the jailer only to take it away as the Grand Inquisitor.

Andrea Breth's direction also tries to give as much expression as can be found in the work, in the darkness, in the cage of a cell, opening it up with light, bringing sudden cuts to black, stripping the stage bare at the conclusion when all hope is gone and opening the back of the stage to a blinding heavenly light that shines out on the emptiness within. It was Andrea Breth who worked with Franck Ollu (and Nigl and Graham-Hall) to similarly striking effect on Wolfgang Rihm's Jakob Lenz at La Monnaie in 2015 and the collaboration reunites to present another Rihm short opera that is paired brilliantly with Dallapiccola's Il Prigioniero.

Although deriving from the other half of the twentieth century, Rihm's Das Gehege (The Enclosure) also has roots in the post-Romantic, in Richard Strauss rather than Schoenberg, although not so much the lush orchestrations of latter-day Strauss as the jagged rupturing of post-Romanticism in the expressionism of Salome and Elektra. In the expression of a woman who has captured an eagle and sets it free only to kill it when she realises that it no longer has the vitality and strength to survive, Das Gehege bears a similar tone of intense dark eroticism, with even a hint of the fantasy world symbolism of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Breth's direction draws out the Salome-like underlying erotic fascination in a woman who is filled with dark desires and ends up killing the thing she professes to love by having the woman in the cage, the enclosure, joined by a series of men with bird heads and wing attachments in a dance of death. Outbursts of anguished singing are broken up with brief instrumental expressions of lust and fury that are accompanied in the darkness by disorientating strobe lighting that leaves behind a trail of bodies. More than just in the use of the same cage that held the prisoner - the woman likewise a prisoner of fatal unquenchable urges - there are other visual cross-references and correspondences made with Il Prigioniero, notably Georg Nigl playing one of her avian victims and a staircase that offers a descent as much as a way out.

As explosive as the musical expression is, its fractured structure carrying an underlying tug of lyrical romanticism, a considerable amount of responsibility for carrying the force of the whole of Das Gehege lies with the soprano singing the Frau, the only singing role in the opera. Ángeles Blancas Gulín, already showing stamina and ability to meet the highly pitched demands of the mother in Il Prigioniero, gives another impressive performance here that is electrifying and terrifying, striking that balance between being derangedly in thrall to her passions, but tempering any over-intensity with a seductive lyrical tone. She has to do that while climbing the cage, hanging upside down over the shoulder of one of her paramours or sprawled in one shape or another and somehow never falters a note.

Links: La Monnaie,

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Puccini - Turandot (Turin, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

Teatro Regio Torino, 2018

Gianandrea Noseda, Stefano Poda, Rebeka Lokar, Jorge de León, Erika Grimaldi, In-Sung Sim, Antonello Ceron, Marco Filippo Romano, Luca Casalin, Mikeldi Atxalandabaso, Roberto Abbondanza, Joshua Sanders

OperaVision - January 2018

Puccini's position in the pantheon of opera greats is pretty much unshakeable, with works like Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème likely to remain as much of a fixture in many opera houses as the stalls seats. Even in those great works, it's the musical qualities that elevate the manipulative twists of the drama and, in some cases, compensate for the thinness of the characterisation. Puccini's other works around his glorious Trinity are variable and equally flawed, but often more interesting. I remain agnostic on La Fanciulla del West, where as interesting as the musical development is it can't redeem the banalities of its stock Western gold rush clichés, and I think that the earlier Manon Lescaut has been elevated beyond its merit, but Il Trittico is a fine showcase that extends the range of Puccini's musical and dramatic palette. And then there's Turandot, whose unfinished state offers an intriguing contemplation of what might have been.

Puccini's struggle to finish the work before his death in 1924 perhaps gives some indication that the finished work might inevitably have been just as flawed and compromised as the endings that were written for it by Franco Alfano and Luciano Berio. It's as if Puccini had solved the first two of the Princess Turandot's riddles and hadn't yet figured out the answer to the third, but the two thirds of the work completely scored by the composer offer an intriguing glimpse of a new direction that Puccini might have further explored. The first act alone is monumental on the scale of the Triumphal March from Verdi's Aida, but it carries an undercurrent of menace and a through-compositional flow that is equal to Wagner at his most charged and lyrical. All too often (The Met, Royal Opera House), Turandot's true qualities risk being obscured and mired in kitsch Oriental fairy-tale fantasy when there is actually a much darker tale in there.

The question then is what to do with Turandot, which risks falling into so many operatic traps and mannerisms that can obscure its true nature and potential. Calixto Bieito's production was the first I've seen that attempted to delve into the dark terror of a cruel authoritarian regime that is vividly depicted in the fairy tale. Instilling fear in the people, blinding them with obscure ideological riddles, oppressing free expression of the individual through the arts, Bieito's vision is a controversial rewriting certainly, but it's a treatment nonetheless that is commensurate with the grand scale of the work's grand musical expression. Interestingly, Bieito's production doesn't attempt to resolve or fix an unfinished work and lets it end on the dark note of Liù's death, and that is also the sentiment that Gianandrea Noseda and Stefano Poda strive to match in their production for the Teatro Regio Torino.

While you could also see some measure of Bieito's vision of Turandot as a totalitarian nightmare in the Turin production, the approach of Stefano Poda is rather more abstract and focussed more on a kind of tyranny of the mind. "Turandot," we are told by Ping, Pang and Pong "does not exist" and Poda takes that as the basis for his production, concerned more with Turandot as an obsessive instinct on the part of Calaf to want to take part in some impossible and unrewarding ideal. According to Poda, Turandot is a dream, the conflict of Calaf struggling to escape his own mind and exist outside of himself. If the case of what to do with Turandot isn't entirely answered by these ideas in the Turin production, perhaps that's because it's an impossible task anyway.

Poda, who designs the costumes and the sets as well as directing, accordingly places Turandot not in some oriental location but in "a non-place made of light". There's something cold and scientific about the setting, all of the figures looking alike, as if cloned, devoid of personality or indeed imperfections. There is a vaguely sinister aspect to this, as it would be if it were the ideology of a nation or state, with Ping Pang and Pong carrying out experiments on dead bodies, but Poda sees it rather as the idealised worldview of someone with no real experience of the outside world. The lines bisecting the almost entirely naked bodies of the dancers in the production are not the result of some experiment operated on them as much as it represents a kind of metaphysical dualism.

Whether you buy into this conceptual idea or not, or whether you even find that it makes sense, the production does at least seek to address the issue of the mythological in Turandot rather than depicting it as a rather improbable and meaningless fairy-tale as it would be if it were taken literally. Little of the traditional stage directions are adhered to, the production representing the usual outward manifestations of torture, beheading and riddle-playing as more of a metaphorical struggle. Purely in terms of spectacle the production looks incredible and is wonderfully choreographed, but it also works in conjunction with Puccini's extraordinary score to create something otherworldly. Noseda's conducting of the work highlights the qualities and the unusual elements of the orchestration that makes a strong case for the opera as the pinnacle of Puccini's output.

The linked interviews here with Stefano Poda and Gianandrea Noseda reveal other interesting thoughts on the subject, Poda observing that Turandot is the last great opera of the Italian tradition. Italian opera could certainly be said to have reached its apogee in Turandot and it ends here appropriately with Puccini's death. It's significant then that the work is unfinished, as if it had nowhere else to go, and Poda is content for it to remain in that state. So too is Noseda who proposed this purist approach towards Puccini's score, noting that Turandot is a product of a post-war unease, looking back for answers in older forms of dramatic expression like Carlo Gozzi. It's no coincidence that many find the ending of Turandot dramatically unsatisfying since Puccini himself was unable to find the answers he was looking for in it.

Poda and Noseda then are both of the opinion that what Puccini has completed is enough and that in its curtailed unfinished state, the work can nonetheless provide a more satisfying or realistic resolution than anything Puccini or any one of the composers who have tried to complete it were able to achieve. Whether you agree with the approach of directors like Stefano Poda or Calixto Bieito before him, the results speak for themselves, revealing that there is far more to Turandot than is often thought and that it deserves to be taken seriously on its musical terms rather than as a piece of operatic kitsch. Those musical and singing challenges are not inconsiderable either and they are given a fine account under Noseda's musical direction. The singing in Turandot can also be very challenging and although Turandot, Calaf and Liù are treated very much as ciphers here, Rebeka Lokar, Jorge de León and Erika Grimaldi perform admirably. Between this and Bieito's production, there's plenty to suggest that Turandot merits this kind of considered approach and in as far as using the unfinished version, it makes a strong case that less is definitely more.

Links: Teatro Regio Torino, OperaVision