Saturday, 15 July 2017

Verdi - Aida (Brussels, 2017)


Giuseppe Verdi - Aida

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Alain Altinoglu, Stathis Livathinos, Adina Aaron, Andrea Carè, Nora Gubisch, Dimitris Tiliakos, Giacomo Prestia, Enrico Iori, Tamara Banjesevic, Julian Hubbard

ARTE Concert - June 2017

What is the point of Aida? Well obviously it started out as an attempt to bring Verdi out of retirement with the commission of writing a new work for the grand occasion of the new opera house in Cairo, and while the work was never completed for the occasion, it is nonetheless full of nationalistic sentiments and regional colour with grand marches and ceremonial processions. You can't commemorate that occasion every time the opera is produced, so obviously Aida must have something else worth celebrating since it remains one of the best-known and most frequently performed of Verdi operas.

Unfortunately, most directors miss the point of Aida or at least allow it to be submerged in the crowd-pleasing ceremonial aspects of the Grand Opéra spectacle and the bombastic arrangements of its Arabic melodies. Some have tried to be a little more adventurous with the work, looking more deeply at the relevance of its themes and seeking to find another way to bring them to the surface, but few are entirely successful at meeting not unreasonable audience expectations. That however is not going to deter a progressive opera company like La Monnaie from attempting to do something fresh and original with Aida.

So what is the point of Aida at La Monnaie? Aside from the familiar Verdi themes of father/daughter relationships and the conflict between love and duty, the opera is primarily concerned with power and oppression. It's about the crushing of human feelings, human love and one's own better nature in favour of a cause (war in this case) that is determined by rulers and informed by the will of the gods. It's about those who believe that they have authority and wisdom on their side but who are in reality all too human in their failings and weaknesses, and as a consequence are all the more capable of grave misjudgements considering the power they wield.

So tell me if Aida has a point in this day and age...

Having accepted that there is very much a point to Aida, the question then is how best to put that across on stage with the right emphasis that doesn't actually glorify power, war and oppression, but at the same time still retain something of the spectacle and the pure operatic qualities of Aida. You can try to introduce contemporary elements like Olivier Py's Paris production, but that tends to come over as heavy-handed and also risks dominating over the human love story that is a necessary part of the work. The director of the National Theatre of Greece, Stathis Livathinos, directing his first opera production, goes a little towards abstraction, but not so abstract that it doesn't relate to the underlying reality and the themes or provide necessary spectacle.

There is something ancient but also timeless in set designs for this production of Aida, Alexander Polzin doing well to avoid the imagery of ancient monuments and temples in the desert by symbolically showing the land as a small outcrop of rock; an island in a sea of darkness, that is venerated by the rulers and priests, glittered and shining. There's no mistaking it for anything grand and noble, with soldiers goose-stepping across the stage, blood spattered on their costumes, and there's no exotic dance of Moorish slaves either, the prisoners made to polish the rock during the opera's ballet, ground down into the gleaming rock by their captors until they scream.

The colour coding of the costume design by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer and the perfect lighting by Alekos Anastasiou contribute exceptionally well to defining and differentiating between the various classes and groups of rulers, priests, warriors, common people and slaves. The slaves all wear plain dark blue shifts, the priests in wrapped pale blue robes with Anubis masks - with the High Priest adorned with porcupine-like spikes - the ruling classes in gold, the common people in grey, the warriors in purple. Wonderfully choreographed and directed, it all still captures what is uniquely grand about Aida without the tired grand opera mannerisms, managing to look spectacular as well as stylish and colourful, albeit within a more limited and muted palette.

A more muted palette is also applied to the reduced La Monnaie orchestration under Alain Altinoglu. It can seem a little underplayed and lack the impact of the more bombastic approach, but Aida is a late period Verdi opera where it is worth holding back a little to allow the actual notes of the music to express their own qualities. As a consequence, you can hear the beautiful phrasing of the individual instruments and sections which is all too often submerged under volume and speed. It's not the full-blooded Verdi that many would expect and no doubt prefer, but I though this account was very refreshing and revealing of other qualities in Verdi's writing, as well as better attuned to the underlying sentiment and themes of the drama.

I don't think you can play an opera like Aida naturalistically, but it doesn't deserve irony either. Stathis Livathinos finds a good balance between stylisation that plays to the themes and the dramatic and musical conventions that call for a certain amount of standing and delivering. The singing is also excellent for what is a very demanding work, all of the singers avoiding any strident expression. Andrea Carè's Radamès and Dimitris Tiliakos as Amonasro fare best with secure and lyrical delivery of their parts. Aida and Amneris present rather more challenges for Adina Aaron and Nora Gubisch who are a more little wavering in pitch and delivery in places, but both bring dramatic character and romantic personality to the roles rather than fall back on operatic mannerisms.

All efforts in trying to bring something new and fresh to Aida however are to no avail if the conclusion fails to deliver emotionally and dramatically (as this season's Madama Butterfly failed to do at La Monnaie). A huge block of stone hanging ominously over the stage and slowly descending to enclose Aida and Radamès while they sang their love duet in delirium was however very affecting and in keeping with the production's question of the price to be paid for power and how it oppresses the human spirit. Such a fresh and ambitious approach to Aida is a difficult task to carry off, but Livathinos and Altinoglu do it with style at La Monnaie, the opera still remaining impressive, but in the right way.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt, ARTE Concert

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Schreker - Die Gezeichneten (Munich, 2017)

Franz Schreker - Die Gezeichneten

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2017

Ingo Metzmacher, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Tomasz Konieczny, Christopher Maltman, Alastair Miles, Catherine Naglestad, John Daszak, Matthew Grills, Kevin Conners, Sean Michael Plumb, Andrea Borghini, Peter Lobert, Andreas Wolf, Paula Iancic, Heike Grötzinger, Dean Power

StaatsoperTV - 1 July 2017

Franz Schreker's opera Die Gezeichneten is an unusual work, characteristic of a very specific style and of the period of its composition. It's a fairy-tale for the turn of the 20th century, with a late Romantic approach to its ideas and musical development that is perhaps a little too decadent and rich for modern tastes. In this opera, as in much of his other lyrical-dramas, Schreker poses some interesting questions in relation to the function of art that the post-Wagner opera world was (and perhaps still is) struggling to resolve. After 100 years of near neglect, the growing popularity of this particular opera suggests however that it's a question that is not only still relevant but becoming a more urgent issue for our contemporary society.

As far as Schreker is concerned, the pressing question of what should be the function of art and the role of the artist as an outsider is similar to the one considered by Wagner in nearly all of his important opera works. Composed in 1919 however, the world that Schreker explores in Die Gezeichneten is a very different place, and the rules and guidance that might have served as an example no longer seem relevant or are unable to take hold in a rapidly changing world that has gained a new perspective on humanity through Freudean psychoanalysis and the horrors of the First World War. If Die Gezeichneten follows the path of a fairy-tale, it's a fairy-tale where the darker undercurrents are now laid bare on the surface to serve as a reflection of what they say about modern society.

The post-Wagner/post-Parsifal/late Romantic composer/artist/idealist would like to believe that art provides a means of human transcendence from these horrors, but the former ideas about what constitutes art and beauty are now no longer quite as clear or as pure as might once have been thought. Elysium, the Utopian island of marvels and beauty created by the deformed dwarf Alviano Salvago in Die Gezeichneten, has become corrupted as a playground for the rich and the powerful to cultivate 'exotic' tastes, abducting children and exploiting the misery of others for their own pleasure. As Count Tamare describes it, it's a corruption of the realisation of a dream of beauty. There's clearly something there that resonates with our own times and this is keenly explored by director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his new production of the work for the 2017 Munich Opera Festival.

With its creator a deformed and ugly figure of ridicule, the Elysium created by Alviano in Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatised) is in himself representative of the function of art to transform the ugly reality into something beautiful. Carlotta is another artist capable of recognising the beauty of Alviano's true nature and expresses it in the painting of his pure soul. It's the validation of their belief in a higher purpose for art that leads them to love, but also to believe that they have a true and purer understanding of art and beauty. Unfortunately their great ambitions prove to be not only incompatible with the reality of the world, but they prove to be corrupting of their own nature. The seductive power of beauty in the form of Graf Andrea Vitellozzo Tamare leads Carlotta astray, while for Alviano, love has given him god-like aspirations that reveal an ugly side to his nature.

"Give me Carlotta" pleads Alviano when he is in danger of losing her love to the debauched libertine Tamare, "then I'll be a prince, a king, a god". Love has conferred Apollo-like aspirations in Alviano that align with the Wagnerian ideal of the supremacy of the artist in society, but instead he shows himself to be vindictive and egotistical, a "troll" at heart. It seems that the moment the true nature of beauty is grasped by the artist, it confers a sense of power and influence that turns him into a monster who is incapable of responding to that supreme vision of beauty without corrupting and destroying it by his very nature.

That's certainly the image that Krzysztof Warlikowski emphasises in the 2017 Munich production with his usual cinematic references. The director relies on the imagery of David Lynch's depiction of 'The Elephant Man' as a beautiful soul trapped in a monstrous body, but there are also significant scenes projected for classic silent horror films. There is the scene from 'Der Golem' where the monster is confronted and destroyed by the beauty of a child with a flower; a similar confrontation in that famous scene at the lake in 'Frankenstein'; the unmasking of 'The Phantom of the Opera' reveals the ugly side of his nature; and in 'Nosferatu' beauty will expose the monster to an unbearable light that destroys him. Apart from a scene of Duke Adorno working out in a boxing ring and figures starting to appear as mice, Warlikowski sticks fairly closely and directly to this principal theme in the first half, with Elysium a modern art gallery, replete with a Tate Modern style turbine hall showing a brilliant disc, where the idea of art is something living rather than traditional.

In Act III however, after a spoken word reading of Schreker's account of himself as an artist that associates him with Alviano, Warlikowski and Malgorzata Szczesniak's sets and costumes take these themes in an entirely unexpected and unpredictable new direction. So rich is the enigmatic ideas and imagery of the latter scenes of Die Gezeichneten, and so untethered to any kind of musical resolution, that you would expect a similarly free-associative and imaginative response from the director and he certainly delivers. There is an acceptance of art as a "realm of magic" and for Warlikowski the realm where all these concepts can be considered and explored is indeed that of the opera stage. So figures with heads of mice, virtually naked dancers, a reclining figure in a glass cage, all form part of the Elysium of the opera stage, where art is beauty, but it is also challenging and - vitally - alive.

The performances of John Daszak and Catherine Naglestad in particular are perfect fits for Warlikowsi's ideas. Daszak is simply outstanding, his voice lyrical and flexible, full of expression and capable of revealing a darker edge. Catherine Naglestad has a rather more robust soprano voice than the usual piercing but brittle edge of Straussian sopranos like Manuela Uhl or Anne Schwanewilms with whom we usually associate Schreker roles, but her voice brings a rich corrupting glamour to Carlotta. Christopher Maltman is a strong presence as Tamare. I'm not a fan of Tomasz Konieczny's bass-baritone voice and don't find it pleasant here, but as Duke Adorno it doesn't have to be and it strikes an appropriate note of discordance that lies within the music also.

Conducting the work, Ingo Metzmacher wrings all the troubling beauty out of chromatic lines that suggest that a resolution to the themes raised in the opera is unattainable, but between Schreker, Metzmacher and Warlikowski you almost feel that this is as close as the work can come to a state of transcendental perfection. An ambitious selection of works have been instrumental in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper's exceptional 2016-17 season, attaching creative directors to the projects, finding the right conductor and singers who can bring some new and original ideas to them, and Die Gezeichneten is no exception.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Vienna, 2017)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Alain Altinoglu, Marco Arturo Marelli, Adrian Eröd, Olga Bezsmertna, Simon Keenlyside, Franz-Josef Selig, Bernarda Fink, Maria Nazarova, Marcus Pelz

Wiener Staatsoper Live - 30 June 2017

Debussy's only completed opera Pelléas et Mélisande remains a one-of-a-kind opera that doesn't conform to the traditional format, and as such a production can't really be judged on the more familiar critical basis of interpretation and performance. Fidelity to the dramatic events is determined by the fact that Maurice Maeterlinck's play is incorporated wholly within the opera, but it's the mood determined by Claude Debussy's musical setting of it that is perhaps the most important consideration for a production to meet. Somehow, none of these unique requirements ever makes Pelléas et Mélisande any less intriguing a work, since even within the very specific requirements of the setting of the work, there is room for perhaps one or two little adjustments of emphasis and interpretation.

Within this work, a few minor adjustments can go a long way, and that's certainly the case with Marco Arturo Marelli's new production of Pelléas et Mélisande for the Vienna State Opera. Even more so than most productions of the work, the mood here is dominated almost entirely by the stage sets which emphasise the forbidding presence of the castle in Allemonde. We never seem to leave it, we never get a glimpse of anything natural outside the castle, not a hint of daylight, not even a garden with a fountain or an exterior Blind Man's Well. All of these, including Pelléas and Golaud's excursion to the caverns, all seem to take place within the walls of the castle in this production.

Bathed in monochrome shades of purple light, the emphasis on the location heightens the dark mood of the piece. The castle itself is a sinister Max Ernst-like rough-hewn tall grey block structure, decaying and slightly tilted, ready to tip into the stagnant waters that lie in its vaults. The atmosphere accordingly is dark and oppressive; the inhabitants all old, sick and dying or else subject to strange forces and accidents. We know this because Golaud and Arkel describe it as such, acknowledging how out of place Mélisande presence is there, but you really get an enhanced sense of it here.

In another adjustment of emphasis in this regard, the first scene of Marelli's production, just before he hears the sobs of a young woman, shows Golaud unable to go on not just because he is lost in the forest, but he about to shoot himself in the head with the gun placed under his jaw. Just to jump ahead of the chronology, since there is a kind of consistent rhythm (of music and language) and even a kind of circular symmetry to the opera, this is not just a throw-away image, but one which is returned to in the closing notes of the opera as Mélisande slips away and Golaud is left with his own demons once again and his gun.

Debussy certainly wasn't composing an opera for singers to demonstrate their prowess, but the casting of roles can evidently also adjust the emphasis and mood of Pelléas et Mélisande. If you put a singer, actor and performer like Simon Keenlyside into a role like Golaud, that character is going to feature strongly, and Golaud can often be the dominant figure in the work. Whether you take the castle as an outward expression of Golaud's moods, authority and dominance, or whether it's the castle that exerts its dark influence over his moods, the two are inextricably linked. Golaud wants to control and understand but is obdurate in his mindset, and it's his actions and the force of them that are the main cause of Mélisande's deep unhappiness which leads to the tragedy of what occurs between her and Pelléas.

Although they are more reserved in their expression, Pelléas and Mélisande are also subject to their own powerful forces and drives which are a reaction to their circumstances, and the Romantic desire to escape from them. Marelli extends that beyond the castle/Golaud darkness for both figures in a way that doesn't rely so much on the more traditional symbolism of the piece, although Pelléas's obsession with Mélisande's hair is still important here. We also see however the dying father of Pelléas in a silent role (who I've never really been aware of before), seemingly called Arzt. His role is never entirely clear or explored but it adds another element or layer of mystery on top of the drama. For Mélisande, her condition is associated with a boat.

You can't play around too much with the symbolism of Pelléas et Mélisande (and you don't really want to be explicitly interpreting it either), but the boat does manage to successfully become the dominant theme of the production. The upturned boat on a bench for repairs (decaying like everything else) is the tower from which Mélisande drapes her hair to Pelléas below. The boat is used as a ladder for Yniold to spy upon the couple, and it becomes the rock that Yniold cannot move. As such the boat comes to be a symbol of the essence of Mélisande, her desire, her freedom, an object that reflects her status as something that lies outside and apart from the rest of the citizens of the castle and Allemonde. It also becomes her 'bed' in Act V and eventually transports her into the sunset (still standing) at the conclusion.

The boat also of course ties Mélisande to another important symbol in the opera and that is the imagery of water. Here the freedom of boat and the water have a lot more resting on it, since Mélisande is already visibly pregnant at the start of Act IV. Water is present throughout on the stage and is given a darker context beyond the familiar symbolism of hidden depths holding unreachable objects. It's also a path of life, sometimes seen stagnating in the dark, at other times, offering the idea of movement and freedom - as in the beautiful sequence in Act 2 Scene 3, where Mélisande drifts into the scene guided by a semi-submerged Pelléas. Mélisande eventually leaves the castle in the boat, guided by the women servants, into a blazing red sunlight, leaving the dark creatures of Allemonde behind.

It's not all doom and gloom then, and you ought to be able to detect a hint of hope, if not quite optimism, in Debussy's concluding notes and perhaps even in Maeterlinck's words, as Arkel looks to Mélisande's child for the future in a place that - as it currently stands and has been repeatedly emphasised - is no place for children. Tapping into this moment of hope, or at least endurance, Marelli chooses to show Golaud's suicidal despair stayed by the hand of young Yniold, who also has a generally larger silent part to play elsewhere in this production and is characterised as such with expressive personality by Maria Nazarova.

The mood and tone are perfectly judged by Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the Vienna orchestra. The music is haunting and mesmerising as only this work can be, but Altinoglu's attention to the detail and flow demonstrate how Debussy's score really has a force of its own and is never mere accompaniment or mood music. Simon Keenlyside makes his presence fully felt as Golaud, Franz-Josef Selig is a luxury Arkel, his French enunciation beautifully clear and wonderfully phrased. Adrian Eröd plays Pelléas with enraptured romanticism and his voice is well pitched to sing it as such. If Mélisande remains somewhat distant and enigmatic, that's as it should be and Olga Bezsmertna's singing and performance conveys this perfectly.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live

Monday, 3 July 2017

Rossini - Semiramide (Nancy, 2017)

Gioachino Rossini - Semiramide

L’Opéra national de Lorraine, Nancy - 2017

Domingo Hindoyan, Nicola Raab, Salome Jicia, Franco Fagioli, Matthew Grills, Nahuel Di Pierro, Fabrizio Beggi, Inna Jeskova, Ju In Yoon

Culturebox - 11 May 2017

What a difference a voice makes. If you've watched more than one production of any opera, you'll already know that's a self-evident truth, but it isn't often you get the opportunity to compare two different productions of Rossini's Semiramide in close succession to see how it applies. Even a single viewing however is enough to realise why the work isn't put on too often; if you haven't got a singer of the calibre of Joyce DiDonato to sing the role of the Babylonian Queen - as in the recent Bayerische Staatsoper production - there's always the danger of Rossini's opera seria falling completely flat. The Opéra National de Lorraine however have some other ideas of their own about how to stage this difficult work.

The production of Semiramide at Nancy does indeed show what a difference a voice makes, but surprisingly, it's not where you might think. The Opéra National de Lorraine production actually has a very capable mezzo-soprano in the shape of Salome Jicia, who proves to be quite impressive in the role even if she doesn't have the extra spark that is needed to truly bring this work to life. The stage design and the direction in this production don't really have a great deal to contribute either in that respect, and it's doubtful that the production would have the necessary impact but for its casting of another role. Where this production takes its chances in its staging of Semiramide is in the casting of a countertenor for the role of Arsace: and obviously not just any countertenor, but Franco Fagioli.

Countertenors and contraltos or mezzo-sopranos can be interchangeable of course in many other works, but those are usually older baroque works where a female takes on the role originally written for a castrato, which for obvious reasons are no longer available to an opera house. In the case of Semiramide, the role of Arsace is a trouser role written for a contralto, so it is certainly rare and unusual (in a work that itself is rarely performed) to transpose the role over to a countertenor. The rationale for this I can only guess - perhaps Franco Fagioli was looking to extend his range into later repertoire? - but the results are fascinating and do change the whole dynamic and adjust the emphasis on where the heart of the work lies.

Whether it was done to find a new challenge for Fagioli or whether it was done purely for reasons of meeting the vocal requirements (superstar contraltos are thinner on the ground these days than countertenors I suspect), Fagioli does indeed make quite an impression. The Bayerische Arsace wasn't lacking the necessary qualities with Daniela Barcellona in the role, but with Franco Fagioli you have star quality and a voice that proves to be far more flexible to meet the very distinctive tessitura of the role. Fagioli is better placed to meet the considerable demands on the lower end of the register as well as navigating those tricky fluttering Rossinian sprints. His delivery of Arsace's arias is utterly rivetting to behold, his voice blending beautifully with the arrangements and in the Act II duets with Salome Jicia's Semiramide. The true effectiveness of his performance however is in how Arsace's role comes to dominate the proceedings.

The challenges of performing Semiramide convincingly go beyond merely being a star turn for the best singers of the day - although on that level alone it has to be admitted that it is a joy to hear performed as well as it is here. With Semiramide, Rossini was moving away from a style of opera that still had its roots in the baroque opera seria, and was developing into the form of Grand Opéra, so there are specific dramatic and theatrical requirements or conventions that are expected to be met in one way or another. Spectacle and entertainment are another factor, and on this level the Nancy production doesn't deliver quite as inventively as David Alden's recent Munich production.

The production doesn't set the opera in ancient Babylon but seems to settle for a period closer to the time of composition of the opera with - as a French opera production - an eye perhaps on the intrigue and downfall of the French royal court. It also establishes something of the play-within-a-play setting or semi-staged dress rehearsal for no particular reason that can be easily determined. A smaller stage is positioned to one side of the stage, with a rope pulley system and its own curtain. lowering Egyptian pillars with hieroglyphs as the queen acts out her declamations and announcements. The intrigues of Assur, Oroe and Idreno are carried out in the wings and develop on the stage, with a large mirror used to highlight when the characters reflect on what they see in front of them in the mirror and how it measures up to the image they have of themselves.

The direction of the acting is at least a little more naturalistic, leading to convincing characterisation without the old-fashioned operatic mannerisms that a work like Semiramide might attract. The musical arrangements under Domingo Hindoyan, a graduate of the Venezuelan musical education programme El Sistema, are a little bloodless, but it's hard to fault the performance for accuracy and pacing. Aside from the two main leads, the production also benefits from an excellent Assur in Nahuel Di Pierro. His voice carries force and authority, the singing clear and commanding, making Assur feel like a proper villain and not a caricature of one. The other roles are also very well sung and played with Fabrizio Beggi's Oroe seeming to be the manipulator here in a dual role that takes up the part of the Ghost of Nino. Matthew Grills also makes a good impression as Idreno, and Azema is sung well by Inna Jeskova although her role in the drama seems reduced here.

Links: L’Opéra national de Lorraine, Culturebox

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Verdi - Otello (London, 2017)

Giuseppe Verdi - Otello

Royal Opera House, London - 2017

Antonio Pappano, Keith Warner, Jonas Kaufmann, Maria Agresta, Marco Vratogna, Frédéric Antoun, Thomas Atkins, Kai Rüütel, Simon Shibambu, In Sung Sim, Thomas Barnard

Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live - 28 June 2017

Keith Warner nails his colours firmly to the mast at the start of the Royal Opera House's new production of Otello when Iago steps to the front of the stage before the storm explodes, holding a black mask of evil and a white mask of goodness, contemptuously discarding the white mask with an evil laugh; it's clear that this is going to be a 'black' Otello. That's as broad as the characterisation gets in Warner's abstract, incoherent and somewhat brutish production which rather stifles but doesn't entirely submerge the potential that lies elsewhere in the casting and performances.

Dividing along the lines of black and white is also as close as the production gets to making any kind of comment on the question of the Moor's ethnicity which ought to play at least a small part in how the drama unfolds. Despite persistent complaints and controversy about blacking-up in relation to this opera, race is rarely highlighted in Othello or Otello as the primary motivation behind Iago's ambition to utterly break the Moor, so although Jonas Kaufmann plays Othello with nothing more than a good tan, his fitness for the role is best judged by his vocal ability, and there can be little dispute about the quality of that.

His ability to sing the role - an immensely challenging role that I've rarely heard sung entirely successfully - is demonstrated brilliantly here, Kaufmann launching himself at those hugely expressive declarations like his life depends on it, with extraordinary control, volume and a rich timbre that prevents it from sounding like unseemly bellowing (although how long he can keep it at that level must surely be a concern). Unfortunately, as far as this production is concerned, Keith Warner doesn't appear to have given Kaufmann any real nuance or motivation in his direction and the expressionistic set designs don't offer much in the way of context either other than reflecting Othello's madness, and after a while you just feel bombarded by the lack of colouration on every front.

The set is minimal-abstract, resembling the physical location of the castle in Cyprus as well as the tower of Othello's personality that fractures and comes crashing down at the end. As the assistant director revealed in a pre-screening interview, that's illustrated mainly by shifting the walls around, opening up and closing down, with some random colouration that bears little relation to any kind of conventional colour coding or appropriateness to the drama. Act I is mainly black and masculine, with the sailors and troops in period-like costumes of leather bodices. Act II uses a plain white background that might suffice for Othello and Desdemona's love duet, but the brush strokes are too broad and it scarcely offers any nuance of Iago's underlying plotting and manipulation elsewhere.

There is a noticeable shift away from the clash of harsh realism with clear black and white moral lines in the second half of the production, but it's not any more 'illuminating', only further adding confusion as to how we ought to feel about the characters. Desdemona and a Herald arise out of gaps in the stage like apparitions in Act III as Othello's mind struggles to retain a grasp on reality, and there's a red wash of rage when the Venice delegation arrives symbolically dragging a huge statue of 'The Lion of Venice' which is seen overturned and broken in two at the end of the Act. Act IV, by way of contrast, gives prominence to the purity of Desdemona's enclosed white bedroom, but even Othello's harsh, rugged edges have softened here in a way that scarcely matches the psychological implications of what is played out there.

You certainly can't accuse Antonio Pappano of hedging his bets or any lack of coherence in his approach to Verdi's score. It's a thunderous account that sides entirely with Jonas Kaufmann's unrestrained full-force expression. I think I would prefer a little more light and shade in Otello, but there's no question that the more muscular approach is merited by the main thrust of the intense drama. It's all blood and thunder on the surface, but beneath that lies the seething web of Iago's manipulations of Cassio and Roderigo and his dedication towards anarchy and nihilism. In the context of this rather more heavy-handed approach, Marco Vratogna has no option but to settle for evil villain characterisation, which to be fair he does reasonably well.

If there is one aspect of the production worthy of unqualified praise (apart from a degree of respect for the laundry-person who has to get the stage-blood that spurts effusively from Othello's chest out of the white bed linen here) it's how it renews admiration for Verdi's score and astonishment at how successfully the composer directs everything towards the extraordinary last act of Otello in such a way the one anticipates it almost with a sense of terror. Maria Agresta ensures however that Desdemona's humanity shines brightly in contrast to the blackness laid on thickly elsewhere, her singing of the Willow Song and Ave Maria exemplary where it most needs to be. If the production lacked coherence and direction elsewhere that would draw the audience into the tragedy of the drama, the breathtaking conclusion to Act IV redeems it, if not quite justifies everything that comes before it.

Links: Royal Opera House, ROH Cinema Season

Monday, 26 June 2017

Reimann - Medea (Berlin, 2017)

Aribert Reimann - Medea

Komische Oper, Berlin - 2017

Steven Sloane, Benedict Andrews, Nicole Chevalier, Anna Bernacka, Nadine Weissmann, Ivan Turšić, Günter Papendell, Eric Jurenas

Opera Platform - 21 May 2017

Revived for this new production at the Komische Oper in Berlin, Aribert Reimann's Medea still sounds as wildly demented as it did when it received its world premiere in Vienna in 2010. Its harsh dissonance hasn't become any easier to listen to over the last seven years, but the purpose of the composer's choice of this particular classical Greek myth has certainly become clearer in how it reflects certain vital aspects of our modern society and how people behave when pushed to their limits.

For good reason then, Reimann's work is one that pushes well beyond the boundaries of tonality. It opens quietly, but it doesn't stay that way for long, building into a tumultuous cacophony that reflects Medea's utter desperation and anger by the end of Act I. The second half of Medea sounds like something has been broken, the music limping along with occasional blasts of brass and squealing strings, the voice of Medea straining to hold herself together, struggling between anger and supplication, between love and the desire for revenge.

It's not easy listening, but then it's not easy watching someone's life collapse in front of you. Medea's life might just fall apart within the framework of a Greek myth or an opera, but the challenge is to make this feel real, relevant and important in the world today. Somehow though, even though the musical force of the work made a striking impression on its own terms, it was hard to see how it could be applied to real life when it received its premiere in 2010. The composer, if I recall, made some remarks about Jason's social climbing ambitions and about the work being about wanting to make a better life for yourself, but it hardly seemed like a matter of pressing social relevance.

In 2017 however that has changed completely and, regardless of what Reimann's intentions might have been and whether or not there was an element of Delphic prophesy in his vision, the refugee crisis and its handling by our governments in the years in-between throws a different light on the work. The fear and mistrust of foreign ways that has been generated and the growing danger of terrorism surely couldn't be more obvious and relevant to the German public at the Komische Opera in Berlin, or indeed to any European or American audience. Whether prophetic or not, it's the undoubted acuity of Reimann's adaptation of Franz Grillparzer's version of the Euripides' tragedy and the intense musical accompaniment that underlines the human nature of Medea's dilemma and treatment with a terrible degree of truth and conviction.

Medea and Jason are indeed refugees, fleeing their homeland of Colchis, bringing fear and suspicion along with them to Corinth. Creon is already wary, having heard of Medea's reputation as a practitioner of the dark arts. When a messenger from the Amphictyonic League appears and adds further fuel to the fire by describing how Medea used spells and potions to murder King Pelias, he is painting her as a terrorist and warning that it would be unwise to let these refugees into the country. With a difficult choice to make, since Jason and Medea have children, Creon agrees to give Jason shelter, but banishes Medea and offers his daughter Creusa as a new mother for them.

Well, we've also seen the fate of the children of refugees caught up in the political disputes and war-mongering of governments, and with that in mind it's hard not to feel on an intensely visceral level Medea's desperation and how this leads to the death of her children. Reimann's Medea is not a political statement or overtly anti-war treatment of the Greek tragedy, but as someone who lived through the allied destruction of Germany during the Second World War (and who has summoned up the forces of Armageddon in his scoring for his opera Lear), the composer unquestionably characterises the nature of an individual human being - and specifically a mother - caught up in such a terrible event.

It's a deeply troubled interiorised world that Reimann scores, one that evidently bears some comparison with how Strauss psychologically probed Elektra in that Greek tragedy, but evidently Reimann takes the atonal dissonance even further. There is scarcely a note in Medea that isn't mangled or pitched at a level that assaults the ears of the audience; there's no flow or melody, just a fractured structure that makes Medea seem like she is in the middle of a nightmare, an edgy sense of her trying to hold it together and lashing out in explosive outbursts, the music clashing with singing that rises towards a scream.

Benedict Andrews's direction and the production design for the Komische Medea adopt a similar reflection of devastation of mood and mindset that could be seen in the rocky cratered landscapes of Marco Arturo Marelli's Vienna premiere production. If anything - and it may be very much to do with sudden realisation of real-world context - this production seems to strike an even darker tone. There is at least greater emphasis placed upon measuring the weight of the words of the libretto and their meaning. In the black ash of the landscape, Medea literally tries to bury her past, her potions, her memories, even the Golden Fleece. When the future seems to hold nothing for her, she eventually buries that as well, with devastating consequences.

There is no question that Reimann's score delivers every ounce of impact that is implicit in Medea's actions, and Steven Sloane's conducting of the Komische orchestra brings that out forcefully. It also has to be brought out in the intensely demanding vocal score that Reimann has composed for the role of Medea, and that is fully undertaken by Nicole Chevalier, who gives a fearsome performance that matches the singing challenges, and at the same time achieves some measure of sympathy for her predicament. There are excellent performances elsewhere that manage to rise beyond the individual and the mythological to a more universal application of the themes. Ivan Turšić's Creon embodies the difficult position of applying the rule of law, while Günter Papendell's Jason and Anna Bernacka's Creusa try to adopt a caring but practical approach to the problem that they face. None of it however will be enough to appease the rage of the abused and mistreated Medea or prevent the disaster that is about to be unleashed.

Links: Komische Oper, Opera Platform

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cavalli - La Calisto (Strasbourg, 2017)

Francesco Cavalli - La Calisto

L'Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2017

Christophe Rousset, Mariame Clément, Elena Tsallagova, Vivica Genaux, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Nikolay Borchev, Filippo Mineccia, Raffaella Milanesi, Guy de Mey, Vasily Khoroshev, Jaroslaw Kitala, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter 

Culturebox - 2 May 2017

There is a distinct tone of melancholic longing pervading La Calisto (1651) that sets it apart from most other Cavalli operas that we have since been able to rediscover in more recent years. That familiar tone is certainly there is the romps of Elena and Il Giasone, but those works encompass a much greater emotional range in their adventurous blend of farce and raw humanity, while La Calisto's melancholy tread through classical myth seems rather academic by comparison. La Calisto is however by no means any lesser a work, since what seems to be a narrower focus is actually a deeper and more expansive exploration of different aspects of one of the most agonising of human sentiments; the longing to love and be loved in return.

This single unifying theme that runs throughout the opera manifests itself however in a surprising number of ways. It may have a mythological treatment in Ovid's story that plays out between immortal gods, wood nymphs and satyrs in a setting of antiquity, but the sentiments that afflicts these poor creatures in Cavalli's treatment is recognisably human. The balance of humans aspiring to the godlike immortality that love conveys on them is also rather well brought out in this 2017 production directed by Mariame Clément for L'Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg.

There's no-one left unaffected by this sense of longing in La Calisto, but some of them know better than others what to do about it. It's the chaste nature of the goddess Diana who inadvertently sows much of the confusion. She can't help that Endymion composes rapturous verses to her, but his love might not be as hopeless as you would expect, and the goddess is strangely moved by his devotion. Young and old, no-one is immune from the torments of love. Even Diana's elderly nymph assistant Lymphea isn't too old to want a bit of love in her life (much like Helen's maid, Astianassa in Elena or Delfa in Il Giasone), but she's not that desperate that she will submit to the advances of the young satyr Satirino, although she'll happily play him along for a while.

Jupiter too is no novice at this game, and it's the poor nymph Calisto who is cruelly deceived this time by his tricks. Led on by Mercury, he disguises himself as Diana in order to seduce the young maiden. And, just like the inconsiderate rulers who are determined to have their own way against the run of nature in the subsequent opera seria treatment of such subjects, Jupiter's actions cause even greater consternation and misery for the lovelorn characters of La Calisto. Believing it to be Diana acting in this manner, the satyr Pan feels emboldened to pursue his own less than noble intentions for the haughty goddess, and he's prepared to use violent means to get what he wants.

There are a lot of unhappy lovers in La Calisto then, each involved in situations that are far from ideal. Let's not forget Juno either, who is married to such as louse, and once again having to deal with the fall-out of her husband's philandering. Cavalli has beautiful laments for each of them, and since it's not opera seria, there is nothing generic about any of them. And also since it's not opera seria, there are no sudden revelations of long lost princes believed dead or sudden gaining of a conscience by a ruler to sort everything out, so there remains a more realistic bittersweet character to the music and the sentiments expressed in La Calisto, where the realisation is reached that "The dying of one kiss gives birth to another", and that as a consequence "Joy is infinite".

The character of those heart-rending laments and beautiful melodies is brought out beautifully by Christophe Rousset even though this opera doesn't adhere to the strong rhythmic pulse that characterises his interpretations of much of the other baroque work of Lully and Rameau. Here, with the period instruments of his Les Talens Lyriques ensemble, there is a rich, delicate and sympathetic treatment of the music and the sentiments behind it.

Mariame Clément's direction and Julia Hansen's set and costume designs are also wonderfully sympathetic towards the work, maintaining much of its classical antiquity in terms of dress and a traditional depiction of mythological creatures, but framing it quite nicely within the more down-to-earth setting of a bear-pit in a zoo. That might not seem the obvious setting for La Calisto, but it is one that permits a bear to be used (Calisto is transformed into a bear by Juno before being redeemed into the Great Bear constellation by Jupiter). It's the ingenious stage-craft however that allows it to work so well, the production flowing seamlessly between a variety of scenes that they are able to set within the high walls of the pit, in the bear house and around it.

Clément's direction is also responsible for establishing the right kind of tone of the work, with a lightness of touch that doesn't undermine it with too much comedy. Most of the comedy is visual, whether it's Jupiter swaggering around with a cigar trying to emulate a female walk as Diana, or the dangly bits jiggled about by the satyrs. Nor is there too much reliance on the modern-day framing device. The antiquity seems to be a parallel telling of a modern-day office romance situation, where Endymion and Pan are rivals for the affections of their ice-maiden boss Diana. None of this is forced however, the production flitting between the situations as required, the costumes not strictly one period or another, with Jupiter and Juno dressed in formal evening wear from the 1940s, Mercury wearing 90s' street gear or transforming into a circus ringmaster according to the whims of the setting and music.

Elena Tsallagova is the bright star of the show - in more ways than one obviously). She gives a bright, youthful and sparkling performance as Calisto, her singing clear and controlled, handling the requirements of the role with great facility and expression. Vivica Genaux likewise provides an enjoyable turn as Diana (and Jupiter as Diana), fully in the spirit of the piece, bright and luminous, with just the right edge of goddess coolness that reflects the uncertainty of feelings that don't become her position. Without overplaying their hand, Giovanni Battista Parodi's Jupiter, Nikolay Borchev's Mercury and Filippo Mineccia's Pan and Raffaella Milanesi's Juno all contribute to the seemingly effortless lightness that Clément and Rousset weave around Cavalli's beautiful score.

Links: L'Opéra National du Rhin, Culturebox