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

Friday, 16 June 2017

Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer (Caen, 2015)

Richard Wagner - Der fliegende Holländer

Théâtre de Caen, 2015

François-Xavier Roth, Alexander Schulin, Alfred Walker, Ingela Brimberg, Marcel Reijans, Maximilian Schmitt, Liang Li, Kismara Pëssati 

Culturebox - May 2017

It's not popular with a lot of people, but there can be good reasons for not staging an opera in realistic sets that are representative of the original setting. It doesn't have to be a deconstructive or post-modern analysis of the work either, sometimes it can be enough to merely place the work in a more abstract space where mood can be just as instructive to the piece as narrative. There's already narrative aplenty in Der fliegende Holländer, most of it related in long monologues by the principal characters, but there's a great deal of other characteristics in Wagner's opera that you can work with to great effect. The 2015 production at the Théâtre de Caen offers one such way of looking at it afresh.

Alexander Schulin's direction and Bettina Meyer's sets for the Théâtre de Caen's Der fliegende Holländer liberates what is after all a fairytale legend from its earth-bound, sea-rolling imagery in order to get closer to the Romantic heart of the tale. It might not follow the letter of the libretto in every respect, but alongside François-Xavier Roth's conducting of the Orchestre Les Siècles, there is an attempt here to capture something more important about the essence of dreams and desires, or dream-fuelled desires. Not deconstructive or psychoanalytical, this production unashamedly aims straight for the Romantic impulse at the heart of the work.

And it doesn't have to be suicidal about it either at the conclusion, because the implication seems to be that Senta is already dead at the start. We seem to be in the mind of the dead woman as Act I takes place in an abstract boxed-in space with geometric blocks topped with bands for light and projection. During the stormy overture, we do indeed see images of the drowned woman in the midst of the more familiar images of a raging sea and sky. A reanimated Senta calls the sailors to her command to be buffeted, spinning and whirling by the winds and rain of the coming storm. She also cradles a rather creepy gargoyle-like arm puppet of the Dutchman, whose lips can be made to move.

When the apparition of the Dutchman himself takes the stage, wonderfully atmospheric, dragging what looks like an oil slick behind him, it takes on another quality altogether with Senta is there on the stage with him, her romantic desires made real. Here, the Dutchman, intoning the nature of his entrapment, can be seen to have more of a Jokanaan-like quality to Senta's Salome-like obsessive and taboo desire. Senta is also there to direct negotiations between Donald (as Daland is known in the 1842 Paris version performed here) and the Dutchman, and immediately - in a way that might otherwise be lost - we gain a deeper insight into Senta's desires, and indeed the nature of desires, than we normally would from her first singing appearance in Act II alone.

The performance of the three-act Paris version of Der fliegende Holländer in a single flowing sequence plays well with this abstract dream quality, and permits some free-association of images that don't tie the work down in harsh reality. The sailors wives then might look like they are spinning the wheels of their sewing machines, but looking closer it looks more like they each are working with a screw-down vice. Darned (ho-halla-ho!) if I know what that means, but nothing feels distracting, the work flowing along according to its own dream-death logic. Senta's (dead) presence here, with her strange obsessions, her grotesque doll and ghost story feels just as out of time and place as it did in the first Act.

The abstract dream quality and the underlying desire that fuels it is supported wholeheartedly by the music and singing performances. Every one of the main roles impresses. Right from the outset the ringing clarity of Maximilian Schmitt's Helmsman and the soft resonance of Liang Li's wonderfully mercenary Donald have the presence to draw us into the haunting beauty of the compelling set-up for this production. Alfred Walker's Dutchman carries every ounce of the kind of dangerous charisma that has captivated Senta, his bass-baritone rich and dark, booming menace and anger that switches to a handsome romantic lyricism in Act II. The sincerity in Marcel Reijans' singing and characterisation of Georg (otherwise known as Erik) however makes him a worthy and sympathetic rival for Senta's hand.

This Senta however is completely in the thrall of the legend of the Dutchman, and the extent of that High Romantic obsession is very well brought out by the fact of her having already sacrificed herself to it before this production even begins. It's also fully characterised in this deeply romantic death-wish aspect by the performance of Ingela Brimberg. If that means that Senta doesn't meet the end that is usually reserved for her in the final moments of the opera, her final high notes nonetheless achieve exactly the same impact and bring to a climax the feverish mood that has been established in the previous three acts.

As good as the singing is, the nature of the mood is best captured by the musical performance of the Orchestre Les Siècles conducted by François-Xavier Roth. With perhaps not as big an orchestra that you usually find for Der fliegende Holländer, the character and detail of the playing was beautifully evident with a feeling for the mood that matched the production. There is more of a Classical feel to the performance that makes the work's influences and the spirit of Beethoven in it more apparent. There is also a wonderful consistency to the tone, with Donald and the Dutchman's duet in Act I not sticking out like a sore thumb as it often can, but feeling more of a piece with the work as a whole, permitting the production to also flow beautifully for all the inconsistencies introduced by its death-dream-logic setting.

Links: Culturebox, Théâtre de Caen

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Glyndebourne, 2016)

Gioachino Rossini - Il Barbiere di Siviglia 

Glyndebourne, 2016

Enrique Mazzola, Annabel Arden, Danielle de Niese, Alessandro Corbelli, Björn Bürger, Taylor Stayton, Christophoros Stamboglis, Janis Kelly

Opus Arte BD

The work of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, along with some ambitious projects in other European opera houses, have shown us that there is considerably more to Rossini than Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, and much else that is worthy of attention, revival and even deeper exploration. That doesn't mean that there aren't qualities still worth exploring in those two famous staples in the composer's catalogue, and in case you've forgotten what the unique characteristics are that keep bringing audiences back to see the Barber of Seville, Annabel Arden's 2016 Glyndebourne's production makes it perfectly clear; this is a work of unique charm.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a veritable 'best of' collection of many of Rossini's techniques and tricks of the trade. It's light, dazzling, invigorating and humorous. It has Beaumarchais's playful characters and situations, including many of the same characters that Mozart found so inspiring in The Marriage of Figaro, and Rossini likewise is capable of doing much with them. It's a virtuoso piece that gives opportunities for the musicians to shine as much as the singers, and it's not just all for show. There's a sense of Rossini touching quite brilliantly on the romantic and adventurous spirit of each of his characters.

The Barber of Seville is romantic, adventurous and essentially also youthful in its impetuous and irreverent nature. The great thing about Glyndebourne's 2016 production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia is that is provides a young cast who embody this spirit of youthful effervescence, who at the same time are quite capable of meeting its particular singing demands. Youth - as the recent UK election has shown us - can be a decisive factor in overturning the old, corrupt conservatism and self-interest of the likes of Dr Bartolo and Don Basilio. The world is theirs for the taking, but as we've also seen, having youth on your side isn't always enough to win an election... or indeed to carry off Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Nor is merely being capable, and there's a sense that the Glyndebourne production seems to have settled for capability and put their trust in the charm of the work to be enough. And for the most part it is enough, but - as singers like Joyce Di Donato and Juan Diego Flórez have demonstrated - it often needs considerable personality as well as exceptional voices to truly do justice to Rossini, to really make it come alive and sparkle. And indeed, it's in the more experienced contingent of this production that Glyndebourne's production more often hits the mark.

Danielle de Niese's Rosina, Björn Bürger's Figaro and Taylor Stayton's Almaviva all have their charms, look wonderful and sing well, but they also come across as a little bland. Rosina is a tricky proposition for a lyric soprano, and only really has fire I think when it's sung by a mezzo-soprano or a contralto, but to her credit de Niese comes over well here. Mainly, it's because she puts a great deal of effort into coming across as bright and sparkling in her performance, and that makes up for any weaknesses in her voice. By way of contrast however, the old-hands of Alessandro Corbelli's Dr Bartolo and Janis Kelly's Berta seem almost effortlessly amusing and more interesting in comparison.

The production design and the direction don't really help, again relying too much on the charm of the work itself to be sufficient. It looks wonderful, the set designs are bold and colourful, the backgrounds semi-abstract with patterns that evoke an idea of Moorish Spain, but there isn't enough done with the characters. To bring Le Nozze di Figaro back into it, you really want the underdogs to overcome the odds stacked against them by the ruling establishment and Mozart makes that an attractive and desirable proposition. Rossini does it too - and there are productions of Il Barbiere di Siviglia that really play up to this - but here the situations just amble along and fall into place without there being much at stake or much doubt about the favourable outcome.

How successful that can be will be partly down to how the characters are played, and it can also be down to whether the production and direction can throw up enough amusing situations, but above all it has to be there in the music. I have no doubt that Enrique Mazzola understands Il Barbiere di Siviglia well and knows how it works - he sums up its qualities eloquently enough in the extra features on this DVD release - but it doesn't come across with sufficient fire from the London Philharmonic in the pit at Glyndebourne. It's lovely and classical sounding, but it's also smooth and unexciting, lacking an edge of fire and personality. Understatement is the order of the day here in Glyndebourne's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but fortunately the inherent charm of the work is just about enough to carry it off.

The colourful nature of most Glyndebourne productions always comes across well in Opus Arte's High Definition Blu-ray releases, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia is no exception. In terms of image it's near perfection, beautifully lit and coloured, but neither the HD surround mix nor the uncompressed LPCM stereo track are sufficiently dynamic, which is disappointing. The extra features are good, including not only a short 7-minute making of feature, with some good thoughts on the work by Mazzola and Arden, but a full-length commentary track featuring Mazzola and Danielle de Neise. The enclosed booklet also has a short Q&A with Annabel Arden and a synopsis. The BD is all-region compatible, and there are subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Glyndebourne

Monday, 12 June 2017

Puccini - Tosca (Baden-Baden, 2017)

Giacomo Puccini - Tosca

OsterFestspiele, Baden-Baden - 2017

Simon Rattle, Philipp Himmelmann, Kristine Opolais, Marcelo Álvarez, Marco Vratogna, Peter Rose, Alexander Tsymbalyuk, Peter Tantsits, Douglas Williams, Walter Fink

ARTE Concert - 17th April 2017

It's too easy to write Tosca off as either a tawdry thriller or as a pure romantic melodrama. Those aspects are central to Puccini's verismo adaptation of Sardou's drama, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the characters have to be one-dimensional. There can be a little more nuance to how each of the three principal protagonists meet their fate in three of the most dramatic deaths in all opera, and a lot more to Puccini's dramatic music than heavy-handed underscoring. The Baden-Baden 2017 Easter Festival production of Tosca attempts to draw this out in Philipp Himmelmann's updating, while Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic make a strong case for the musical qualities of the work.

The conventional view of Tosca is a fairly black and white one of good guys and bad guys. On one side we have Scarpia as evil personified, twisted by the power that gives him freedom to indulge his lusts and baser instincts. On the other side we have the painter Cavaradossi as a brave rebel who stands up to arrest and torture by refusing to betray Angelotti, a colleague who has escaped from prison and hidden in the chapel where the painter is finishing a portrait of the Madonna (a very saintly enterprise). It's Tosca who takes Scarpia on directly, turning his lusts against him to buy time and escape.

All the main characters are however eventually doomed in their enterprises and it's not just cruel twists of fate; they can be seen in no small part to be the agents of their own destruction. For Tosca, it is jealousy that leads Scarpia's men to Cavaradossi's house. For Cavaradossi, it's a foolhardy embarking on revolutionary activism from what seems to be a matter of honour than for any real political conviction. Scarpia; well, his flaws are clear enough but his actions are twisted into some kind of delusional invulnerability conferred upon him by his religious devotion. In some ways, all of then can be seen to regard their fame and celebrity rendering them immune from any real harm.

As an opera, Tosca certainly merits more however than just playing to the stereotypes of sneering villainy and noble self-sacrifice. Those elements are an enjoyable element that are a necessary part of the character of the work, but there are other considerations that can provide a rather more thoughtful drama. The Baden-Baden production chooses to dispense with the Napoleonic flavour of the work for a more modern perspective, but it doesn't want to boil the baby in the reheated bathwater, to somewhat mangle a metaphor and likewise risk missing its intent.

Act I of the Baden-Baden Tosca takes place in a bright and airy cathedral, not at all like the dark ornate enclosures we are accustomed to seeing. There's space here for Cavaradossi to set up his computer and project the image he is working on onto a larger canvas. Tosca is dressed in a much more stylish bright red trouser suit and Scarpia, wearing a suit with his blond hair tied back in a ponytail, arrives with the finger-snapping efficiency of a business executive or politician with his underlings. Act II also presents a refreshingly modern outlook that gets rid of all the heavy drapes and candlesticks of a Napoleonic chamber.

There's no point in modernising Tosca however unless you can find a way to capture the same sense of menace and oppression that is in the original setting and Philipp Himmelmann finds a modern equivalence in the surveillance society of an authoritarian power. Scarpia's office is a wall of screens that are used to monitor and control the behaviour of its citizens. There is even a camera used to record his interrogations and, in an extra-creepy way, his seductions of women like Tosca that he can use to exert further influence and control over them. It's an effective enough modern context for how power is used and abused that doesn't in any way lessen the impact of the original.

Whether the singing meets similar expectations that an audience demand is another question, but again comparisons have little relevance. Everyone has their own favourite performances of past Toscas, and the cast here are unlikely to challenge any historic greats, but then opera is not a singing competition. That said, the performances are all good, and certainly effective in bringing a degree of characterisation and personality to the roles, as well as making sure that it serves to bring about the necessary impact.

Marcelo Álvarez gives the most assured performance as Cavaradossi. There's never been much doubt about his ability to sing this role before, even if he is inclined towards standing and delivering old-fashioned operatic arm-spreading gestures out to the audience. Here he is better directed and proves to be a much more competent actor: and it makes all the difference. It's a performance of intense feeling that has all the drama heroics you might like, while also singing the role exceptionally well.

Kristine Opolais may not have the commanding presence of some of the more notable Toscas in the history of opera, but by the same token she doesn't rely on the mannerisms of old. If she initially shows a few areas of weakness, they are scarcely worth drawing attention to and she gives a fine performance that grows in confidence as the drama progresses and her own character grows in response to the situations. There is no question that she hits every one of those key moments effectively and nails her 'Vissi d'arte'. Opolais also establishes an intense struggle of wills against Marco Vratogna's Scarpia in the second Act, where again the direction helps bring out Scarpia's calculating menace.

As is often the case now, Act III plays out with Cavaradossi being under no illusions about his fate, taking a more realistic view in spite of Tosca's protestations that she has their rescue all figured out. The use of lethal injections to the head instead of a firing squad deprives the audience of the traditional dramatic conclusion and from Tosca's famous leap from Castel Sant' Angelo, which is always a risky thing to do. Tosca's final cries however never fail to hit their mark, and with Simon Rattle harnessing the full power of the Berlin Philharmonic, the vital impact isn't lessened in the slightest. It all goes to show that you may get tired very easily of all the familiar imagery and costume drama, but Puccini's Tosca is bigger than that and the efficacy of its drama endures.

Links: Baden-Baden, ARTE Concert

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Wagner - Lohengrin (Dresden, 2016)

Richard Wagner - Lohengrin

Semperoper, Dresden - 2016

Christian Thielemann, Christine Mielitz, Georg Zeppenfeld, Piotr Beczala, Anna Netrebko, Tomasz Konieczny, Evelyn Herlitzius, Derek Welton, Tom Martinsen, Simeon Esper, Matthias Henneberg, Tilmann Rönnebeck 

ARTE Concert 

Although there are many more interesting ways of exploring the themes within them, you can probably get away with presenting Der fliegende Holländer or Tannhäuser in straightforward traditional productions and trust that Wagner's compositions will speak for themselves. The composer's more mature works on the other hand have philosophical content and personal with complex and competing layers and levels that merit the deeper exploration and elaboration of a strong directorial vision. And then you have the problem of Lohengrin.

Lohengrin remains a tricky and a controversial work to approach on account of its nationalistic sentiments and the later appropriation of them by Hitler and the Nazis, who twisted those ideals to appeal to their own ideology of national and racial purity. Wagner's own view is rather more nuanced - although perhaps not quite so much in this work where the composer was just beginning to formulate a view of art, culture, tradition and mythology (to which he was making a not entirely modest contribution) as the founding common values that define a nation, a banner under which to put one's faith and trust as much as in any ruler or religion.

Those values espoused in Lohengrin are perhaps not the same values that persist today, so either the work has to be considered in the context of the time it was written or it must be re-evaluated for its relevance to the present day. Wagner, as a composer, is far too important to remain for his works to remain stagnant relics of a past time. To play the opera straight and ignore the historical legacy of the work however is surely negligent and potentially troubling, but if there is a place where those somewhat conservative values can still have meaning and resonance, it's Dresden.

Christine Mielitz's production of Lohengrin for the Dresden Semperoper in May 2016 is resolutely period and traditional, the treatment serious and respectful, with not a trace of irony or a whiff of modernism. The sets and costumes are lavish, the inhabitants of Brabant all dressed as wealthy burghers and nobles, with even the common people who stray into the dispute over the Duchy that King Heinrich has been called to resolve - and who will no doubt be called upon to fight in his God-ordained war with Hungary - also seemingly dressed in neatly cleaned and pressed rags.

The direction holds to a straight representation of the original stage directions and a broad view of the characterisation. There's no exploration for any deeper or more nuanced characterisation: good and evil hold to their strict Manichean divisions. There's no experimentation or commentary on the work's themes, no rats in a Hans Neuenfels' Bayreuth laboratory, just complete adherence and blind faith in the ability of Wagner's music to speak for itself, just as the work appears to advocate putting one's faith and trust in God and King Heinrich to point the way towards keeping a nation pure. And with a music director like Christian Thielemann at the helm at the Semper that faith isn't entirely misplaced.

Having established (at some length) that there's not a lot to grasp onto here in terms of concept or direction, the Dresden production has more to offer in terms of actual performance. Thielemann captures the full extent of the warm lush Romantic strains of the score, and the choruses are just glorious. Wagner's music for Lohengrin practically glows here. It's in the division of the singing roles however that the interest is likely to be focussed, with seasoned traditional Wagnerians on one side of the divide and a somewhat less conventional line-up on the other side. All perform very well indeed, if not quite in the way you would expect, but the contrasting styles do bring an interesting dimension to the work that isn't otherwise there in the stage production and the direction.

On the Wagnerian 'dark side' (if I may also include Heinrich in there), I have to get Georg Zeppenfeld out of the way first, since his performance as Heinrich is every bit as reliably brilliant as you might expect, particularly if you've seen him sing this role faultlessly and with considerable character several times already. Although he can sing with more colour and expression in Strauss, I find that Tomasz Konieczny's baritone singing for Wagner sounds rather harsh and steely. It's perhaps a little better suited to the villainous Telramund here than Wotan however. Evelyn Herlitzius can also be variable in her Wagner roles, and her high pitch and delivery sounded a little too close to toppling right over the edge, but again that can work within the context of the characterisation for Ortrud, and Herlitzius, as she often does, certainly makes an impression.

The Wagner virgins (if I may be permitted to describe them as such) are nonetheless two of the finest singers in the world today, better known for their performances in the very different Italian and principally Verdi repertoire. Who wouldn't be fascinated to hear Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala sing the roles of Elsa von Brabant and Lohengrin? Netrebko had at least road-tested the role of Elsa just prior to her performances in Dresden with a run at the Mariinsky in Moscow, and she's typically assiduous in her preparation and technique, demonstrating here that she is well up to the demands of the role. Her German diction leaves something to be desired however, her enunciation rather woolly and almost completely indecipherable.

That aside - and it will be a bigger deal for some to dismiss so easily - her dramatic performance is good and it really is fascinating just to hear that type of voice and the sheer quality of Netrebko's voice in this role. The same goes almost exactly for Piotr Beczala, particularly when Klaus Florian-Vogt's distinctive light lyrical tone has more or less monopolised the role of Lohengrin in recent years. It's not exactly a Heldentenor voice, but there is a heroic delivery and brightness here, Beczala taking on the role with the kind of confidence and charisma that it requires. If Mielitz's direction doesn't have anything new to bring to Lohengrin, Netrebko luxurious tones and Beczala's warm brightness blend gorgeously with the golden glow of Thielemann's conducting in a way that suggests a whole new way of hearing the work.

Links: Dresden Semperoper, ARTE Concert

Monday, 5 June 2017

Hosokawa - Matsukaze (Brussels, 2017)

Toshio Hosokawa - Matsukaze

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2017

Bassem Akiki, Sasha Waltz, Barbara Hannigan, Charlotte Hellekant, Frode Olsen, Kai-Uwe Fahnert

ARTE Concert - March 2017

Using music as a means of bringing out or fusing the drama with another more spiritual dimension is I imagine is something that most opera composers attempt to do, but based on the few works that I've heard from him, it seems to me that Toshio Hosokawa manages to do this rather better than most contemporary composers. It's perhaps because Hosokawa shares an affinity with traditional Japanese Nôh drama, an aspect that was alluded to in Hosokawa's most recent opera, Stilles Meer, but which is even more apparent in direct adaptation in his earlier 2011 opera Matsukaze.

Still, it's not easy to translate expression of the stylised movements and gestures from Nôh to the western form of lyric drama, and it usually requires other techniques and instruments to bring out a sense of the other. Adapting two Nôh dramas in her 2016 opera Only The Sound Remains, for example, Kaija Saariaho made effective use of the otherworldly sounds of the Finnish kantele harp. Hosokawa often uses recordings of sounds of wind, rain and waves as well as other instruments to evoke nature, but he also makes effective use of other Nôh elements not commonly used in opera to such an extent: movement and dance.

And to that end, Hosokawa has dance choreographer Sasha Waltz as an effective collaborator and in La Monnaie an opera company willing to explore such new collaborations and extend the range modern opera by commissioning such experimental works. Musically, theatrically, dramatically, in terms of performance and yes perhaps even spiritually, Matsukaze is one of the most successful new productions of contemporary opera and its 2011 production revived here for La Monnaie's 2016-17 season demonstrates this beyond any question.

As with Stilles Meer, Hosokawa takes time to establish a sense of mood and place that is outside of the common experience and the common opera tradition. To the sound of wind through trees and the distant sound of the sea, grey and white clad figures spin, swirl, roll and interweave like crashing waves, crosswinds or perhaps invisible spirits. Into this space walks a priest (Frode Olsen), again singing in a manner not typical of the western tradition, but more like a ritual chant or prayer. Hosokawa paints the scene of this introduction with a flurry of percussion, shimmering strings and whispering flutes that gasp and blow.

In an adaptation of the original 14th century Nôh drama, Matsukaze relates the story of two women, Matsukaze (Wind in the Pines) and her sister Marasame (Autumn Rain), whose names the priest sees carved in a memorial on a pine tree. In a dream, the ghosts of the sisters tell their tale, how they became the lovers of Yukihara, a courtier exiled to Suma for three years. Soon after his departure, the women learned of his death and died from grief. Unable to let go of their earthly longing however, they are condemned to remain tied to the world of mortals.

Although the question of abandoning earthly attachments in order to pass over to another state of is an important aspect of the Buddhist doctrine, there doesn't appear to be any deeper message or moral to be drawn from Matsukaze than this. As in the original Nôh drama however, the true meaning or value of the work is in the ritual and the expression of the drama in performance, and it's here that Hosokawa's music conducted by Bassem Akiki, its use of sounds and silence, the dance moves of Sasha Waltz and the set designs of Pia Maier Schriever and Chiharu Shiota all create an effective environment for Barbara Hannigan and Charlotte Hellekant to struggle to cast off those powerful human emotions.

The darkened stage following the priest's discovery of the memorial to the women related to him by a fisherman, opens up (to the rippling of a stream) to reveal a webbed background of black threads, representing the seaweed that the women gathered, as well as a barrier that separates the spirit world from the world of mortals (not unlike the curtains and barriers in Peter Sellars' production of Saariaho's Only the Sound Remains). Scurrying high up in the tangle of the netting are Matsukaze and Marasame, who descend - their white robes turning to black robes - to re-enact the story of their own entanglement with Yukihara in the mortal domain that they have not yet escaped.

The production, like the original Nôh drama, uses a variety of means to relate the story and find other ways to delve beneath the surface and represent the less tangible emotions that are in conflict. Much of that in the opera is taken up by the dancers, some of whose movements and roles are somewhat abstract and difficult to define. One figure with his upper face and eyes masked could be 'blind desire'. The use of props are limited, but a hat left behind by Yukihara is used as a representation of Matsukaze's emotional attachment to the material world, which is also represented in the latter part of the production as a large boxed frame. Within and without this the dancers also shift and gather to form the pine tree that is a representation of Matsukaze's love. Her sister Marasame is able to resist being wound up into the tree and consequently succeeds in eventually passing over to the other side.

The role of the singers then is somewhat unusual as in addition to the considerable singing challenges and differences that define the two sisters, Barbara Hannigan and Charlotte Hellekant also have to move, interact and dance with these abstractions, fluidly moving from one state to another. Hosokawa's score, conducted by Bassem Akiki, also works fluidly with Sasha Waltz's choreography to give the simple tale of Matsukaze's fate a sense of momentum and urgency. Matsukaze's ghost would appear to be doomed to remain unable to depart entirely from the physical plane, but Hosokawa and Waltz suggest a more peaceful if unclear resolution as an older woman, dressed in white, moves slowly across the stage as all the other elements fall away into a silence broken only by the rippling of water.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt

Monday, 22 May 2017

Vivaldi - Arsilda (Bratislava, 2017)

Antonio Vivaldi - Arsilda, Regina di Ponto

Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava - 2017

Václav Luks, David Radok, Lucile Richardot, Olivia Vermeulen, Kangmin Justin Kim, Fernando Guimarães, Lisandro Abadie, Lenka Máčiková

Culturebox - 9th March 2017

Composed for Venice in 1716, Vivaldi's fourth opera, Arsilda, Regina di Ponto is a typical example of the established opera seria form, a royal intrigue filled with disguises and mistaken identities that cause much confusion and turmoil in the political and romantic concerns of the kingdom. What can't be disguised however is Vivaldi's lively and vigorous approach to the music, which is vividly brought out in this performance of the opera by the Czech baroque ensemble Collegium 1704 conducted by Václav Luks in the first staged performance of the work in 300 years. It's the stripping away of disguises to the heart of the true sentiments underneath that also forms the basis for the Bratislava production directed by David Radok.

Like most early baroque operas, there is a little bit of a backstory to the considerable complications that have arisen which need to be resolved over the course of the opera. Following the death of the King of Cilicia, the Queen has managed affairs until her son Tamese is of the age to rule. A marriage has also been arranged between Tamese and Arsilda, the daughter of the King of Pontus to consolidate the throne and secure the kingdom from threats from their enemies. Unfortunately Tamese is believed drowned at sea in a shipwreck, so the Queen, needing a successor to the throne, has disguised Lisea, Tamese's twin sister, to take his place.

As the opera starts, Arsilda isn't happy that her fiancé hasn't shown much in the way of amorous intentions towards her. Since she is also being pursued by Barzane - formerly the fiancé of Lisea - this causes her some confusion and doubts about the marriage. Lisea, disguised as Tamese and feeling betrayed at Barzane's behaviour, is no less confused about how she is going to make this arrangement work. Without any plan, she puts her faith in the passing of time and unexpected events to sort things out. This is a wise policy which it has to be said is not often taken by meddling rulers in opera seria, because - you will not be surprised to find out - Lisea's twin brother Tamese is not actually dead, but alive and unaccountably employed in the court as a gardener. Not that this makes the ensuing complications any less troubling for all those involved.

Nor indeed does it make the complications any easier for the audience to figure out. Aside from the confusions over identity - which is indeed very hard to keep up with and which I'm not even going to attempt to unravel - the plot itself, the sentiments behind them and the path to resolution aren't that difficult to grasp. Basically, everyone thinks they are in love with the wrong person not knowing that they are actually the right person, but in disguise. At the same time, just to add to their woes, they don't really believe they love the person they are with, even if they can't quite figure out that the person they think they are with is not the person they think.

It sounds complicated, but all it is really illustrating is how love is never as straightforward and as simple as we might like to think it ought to be. In Arsilda, Regina di Ponto, the heart that knows its own mind and can't be denied without it resulting in much unhappiness and regret. And long arias of woe of course, although on that front Vivaldi is rather more concise and punchy in delivery, without all the endless da capo reiterations. And when you get down to the root cause of all their concerns about whether she/he (or indeed in the travesti/castrato make up of baroque opera is he/she actually a she/he?) is in love with them, it very much sets the same sense of confusion and fear about whether we will find our true love.

If you're Lisea (disguised as Tamese), you could put your faith in time and events sorting things out for themselves, but the matter is more easily resolved than that in Vivaldi's opera: everyone eventually simply removes their disguises and goes back to being who they truly are. If that's not the cleverest plot development I've ever come across in the complicated love entanglements of an opera seria, it's certainly one of the neatest, with the added benefit that everyone seems to come out of the arrangement happy. It also has a more down-to-earth quality than the clemency or wisdom of a great ruler handing down a solution, and it has the more basic universal truth of 'be yourself' within it.

If David Radok's direction and the ravishing costume designs of Zuzana Ježková don't contribute a great deal to making it clear who exactly is who they say they are and who they really are, they certainly set about illustrating that essential underlying theme. For the first two thirds or so of the opera, everyone is dressed in elaborate and somewhat stylised 18th century court costumes, with heavy wigs and considerable make-up. Gradually, each of the characters strips out of those costumes, down to rather more simple modern suits and slips as they strip themselves of their false identities and reveal their true self. Stripped of all their royal finery and away from the court intrigue they are ordinary people with everyday human feelings. It's a simple gesture, but one that neatly encapsulates everything that the opera seems to be about.

There's not a great deal of insight or elaboration that you can make out of the plot of Arsilda without unnecessarily over-complicating it further, but Vivaldi's music has its own charm that ensures that there is never a dull moment and that you don't really have to care if you haven't grasped who each of the characters are. All the more so with a riveting performance of the period instrument Collegium 1704 ensemble under Václav Luks that makes the work sound so fresh and alive. All the singing performances are also an absolute delight; Olivia Vermeulen's Arsilda is impressive, as is Fernando Guimarães's Tamese, but it's Lucile Richardot's Lisea and Kangmin Justin Kim who manage to touch more deeply on the underlying simplicity that Luks and Collegium 1704 find at the heart of Vivaldi's score, the opera ending on a reflective note of peaceful simplicity and harmony.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Janáček - Kátja Kabanová (Vienna, 2017)

Leoš Janáček - Kátja Kabanová

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2017

Tomáš Netopil, André Engel, Dan Paul Dumitrescu, Misha Didyk, Jane Henschel, Angela Denoke, Leonardo Navarro, Thomas Ebenstein, Margaret Plummer, Marcus Pelz, Ilseyar Khayrullova, Caroline Wenbourne

Staatsoper Live - 27th April 2017

In some ways the tale of Kátja Kabanová fits the opera template perfectly, not least in its story of a tragic heroine who is destroyed by the hypocrisy of the society around her. Janáček's treatment of Ostrovsky's drama 'The Storm' however is a rather more unconventional opera in terms of its dramatic structure and musical arrangements. Perhaps no more so than any of the composer's other operas, it nonetheless has a unique blend of elements that is distinctly Janáček; the music incorporating folk elements, its rhythms and vocal lines matching those of the spoken voice, creating a unique fusion between the characters and the society around them as well as giving expression to the composer's own personal life experiences.

More than simply play along a conventional line of dramatic points, Kátja Kabanová attempts to let the essence of the experience arise naturally out of a number of little episodes. It's an evocation of time and place, specifically a small provincial village on the Volga in Russia around 1860, but as the issue isn't forced, it's possible to recognise the more universal qualities that can relate to other similar situations, particularly in the context of a young woman feeling hemmed in by a loveless marriage and the pressures of social expectation that restrict free expression of her own personality.

It could easily be relocated then to other times and places. The first time I saw the opera staged was in Paris in 2004, where Christoph Marthaler's production (originating from the 1998 Salzburg Festival) depicted the drama and the social oppression as one existing in an old Soviet tenement block, the Volga a fountain in the courtyard. Robert Carsen, by way of extreme contrast made the Volga the centre of the drama, filling the whole stage with water, the romantic free flowing river reflecting Kátja inner nature while also serving as a grim and constant reminder of the stagnation of her own waterlogged life.

André Engel's production of Kátja Kabanová for the Vienna State Opera sets the drama in what looks like a poor East European immigrant community in New York sometime in the first half of the 20th century. The Volga that Vána Kudrjás admires at the start of the opera, in what is one of only a few stranger twists applied to permit the relocation to work, is actually a bottle of imported Russian vodka. Corresponding locations to the Russian village of the original are not hard to find in this city setting, with a grim tenement block the home of the small immigrant community, a rooftop location the place for her secret assignation with Boris, a yard to shelter from a thunderstorm and a back alley leading to the river all filling in adequately for the original locations.

It's not a spectacular set - it's certainly nothing like Carsen's drowned world - but it does speak of the impoverished life lived by these people. Not necessarily in monetary terms - although there is very much a distinction and class snobbery that divides the business men and the ordinary people - but in spiritual terms also. In another of similar contrasts or paradox, religion also determines behaviour in this community, but there is very little that is spiritual about it, religious morality being used hypocritically on the part of Dikój and Kabanicha to satisfy their own particular desires or ambitions and put down those who they accuse of not measuring up to expectations.

The production at least highlights these social divisions as the cause of Kátja's unrest by putting a little more emphasis in certain places. Dikój and Kabanicha's little affair is shown to be a little more sordid, Kátja's prayers are made before a priest, and the guilt and accusations that she applies to herself in Act III are emphasised by her oppressors appearing nightmare-like dressed in mourning black to haunt her. Kátja's tragedy is that she places too much faith and trust in practices employed by these hypocrites that are used to repress her true and better nature. It's not Kátja who throws herself into the Volga but her accusers who urge her on, as they would have done in with adulterers in the past. Kabanicha's disrespect for the drowned young woman in this production adds another level of shock to an already dark ending.

Tomáš Netopil also finds the darker edge that lies in the music but also recognises that Janáček's music is not so plainly descriptive of the drama or even one single underlying mood, but carries within it a number of contrasting emotions. The choral refrains of folk songs in the final scene are haunting but also beautiful, reflecting the contradictions within Kátja's mind, longing to be free as a bird, but caught in the pull of the flow of the Volga. The musical performance matches the impassive realism of the work, which is restrained and interiorised, binding those contradictory sentiments to the world and the society that gives rise to them.

Although it is effective in its own way, the slight over-emphasis of the production doesn't bind itself to the drama quite as well as the music. Neither does the singing. Interestingly for me, this production has the same Kátja and Kabanicha's as the Paris production I saw 13 years ago. Too long ago to assess how Angela Denoke and Jane Henschel compare in those roles now. Certainly Henschel still cuts a formidable figure as Kátja's tormentor, but Angela Denoke on this performance alone is less than ideal. Although reaction tends to be mixed to some of her recent performances, she is still be a force to be reckoned with when dredging up deep emotional turmoil in characters like Kundry and Alceste. She characterises Kátja well, but her pitch is too wild and erratic to sustain the flow of Janáček's vocal writing and its relationship to the music. Misha Didyk's voice can also be something of an acquired taste and it doesn't always work for every role, but he is a good Boris, singing the role with all that pitiful romantic passion that is helpless against the social order and ineffectual when it comes to Kátja's dilemma.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Handel - Radamisto (Belfast, 2017)

George Frideric Handel - Radamisto (Belfast)

NI Opera, Irish Chamber Orchestra, Belfast - 2017

David Brophy, Wayne Jordan, Doreen Curran, Aoife Miskelly, Kate Allen, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Richard Burkhard, Adrian Powter, Michael Patrick

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 14th May 2017

Although Northern Ireland Opera and Irish Youth Opera collaborated on an Irish tour with Agrippina in 2015, I can't recall that there has ever been a fully-staged Handel opera performed in Belfast. As a possible first then, the opera seria Radamisto is by no means the obvious choice to introduce Handel's operas to a Belfast audience. It's not filled with memorable arias, the music doesn't have the melody and harmony of the composer's best works, and the plot isn't the most dramatic. Without some invention and unless you have some very good singers capable of bringing the roles to life, Radamisto can be a very dry affair indeed. Fortunately the NI Opera production was outstanding not only in its playful direction and superb singing, but David Brophy and the musicians of the Irish Chamber Orchestra also found the beating heart of the work beneath its pounding rhythms.

It's the simplicity of Radamisto's relatively straightforward plot and its refinement down to six principal characters that actually works to its advantage. Although all the figures are all drawn from real-life, there is little of historical accuracy in the Nicola Haym's libretto for the opera. Based on a text, L'amor tyrannico, originally written for the composer Francscso Gasparini by Domenico Lalli, Radamisto is happy to play fast and loose with history in order to put across a direct moral message about resistance to tyranny. That's a message that may have spoken to the audiences of 1720 and perhaps it can still have a message to an audience who has been carefully following the development of world events in the news 300 years later.

In 53 AD however, the tyrant is Tiridate, the ruler of Armenia, who has invaded Thrace and enslaved its king Farasmane, despite being married to the king's daughter Polissena. The reason for this act of aggression however soon becomes clear; Tiridate is in love with Zenobia, the wife of Radamisto, the son of Farasmane and brother of Polissena. Despite the pleas of Tigrane, the Prince of Pontus who is an ally of Tiridate and in love with her, Polissena refuses to renounce her husband. Tigrane nevertheless assists in saving her brother Radamisto from the siege that Tiridate is waging on the city, disguising him and introducing him into the court of the tyrant in the hope of assisting his wife Zenobia, who believes he is dead, and rescue her from the clutches of Tiridate.

The emotional content of most opera seria can be rather generic, with arias often treated as interchangeable by composers (Handel included) who would rework and reuse them in other operas. Radamisto however doesn't seem to manufacture situations to suit the guidelines of emotional trajectory and aria distribution or to meet the demands of the original singers. The familiar complications and conventions of the opera seria are certainly there, with sons seeming to betray their fathers, young love being thwarted by the demands of a cruel and selfish ruler, and a prince believed dead returning in disguise, but they don't seem to be there to provide a series of anguished arias on the cruel twists of fate, love and power. Rather, everything in the opera essentially revolves around the insanity of Tiridate's obsession with Zenobia and Handel uses this one very strong central situation to explore the more uplifting sentiments and human values that it provokes.

I could be mistaken, but I get the impression that this what is alluded to in Wayne Jordan's introduction of a silent actor into the proceedings. Whether it's the intention or not, Michael Patrick's presence, intervention and cavorting fitted in perfectly and served to enliven what might otherwise be a quite static delivery of one recitative and aria after another. Dressed in a modern formal dress suit, quite at odds with the gothic-oriental meets east European puppet-show look of Annemarie Woods' attractive and suitably otherworldly costume designs, it was tempting to see the actor as the director of the proceedings (or indeed the composer himself), intervening and manipulating, placing characters into suitable positions that matched the definable little variations in the detail of Handel's music.

Despite all his efforts to bend the characters to his will, the actor like Tiridate finds that human emotions are not so easily defined or manipulated and seems surprised at how, when placed under such controlling and tyrannical restrictions, they nonetheless manage to resist. And not only resist, but quite inexplicably, despite all that they have been through, they become stronger and still manage to show mercy, understanding and forgiveness. It's a credit to Handel and his ability to overcome the normal restrictions of the opera seria format that the belief in these sentiments doesn't feel forced to suit a moral, but seems to come naturally from the inherent humanity within the characters.

It's there in the music and superbly brought out by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under David Brophy. Using bassoon, oboes, flutes and horns, Handel makes use of a variety of instruments to bring colour to each of the situations that brings a deeper and more nuanced character far beyond the words on the page. Sung in English here, it wasn't always easy to hear the words being sung, but every detail of the situation could be heard if you paid attention to the music. More than just the use of obbligato, it's astonishing how much warmth and emotion can be found in the writing for the instruments that carry the rhythm and recitative. It's rare that individual musicians get a mention in opera reviews, but the contributions of Christian Elliott on principal cello and Julian Perkins on harpsichord were outstanding, playing with genuine feeling that brought out the underlying humanity in the score, not to mention the evident genius of Handel's writing.

The singing carries much the same effect, with a beautiful balance that puts the strengths and predicaments of each of the characters onto an equal footing of conflict. Whether she's singing Bach or Barry, Schoenberg or Mozart, Glanert or Rimsky-Korsakov, Aoife Miskelly never fails to impress, so it was no surprise that her expressive coloratura as Polissena was just dazzling. Originally composed for a soprano, then rewritten for the castrato Senesino, mezzo-soprano Doreen Curran consequently had a very difficult role to fill as Radamisto but managed to bring the full dramatic potential out of the character, working particularly well alongside Sinéad Campbell-Wallace's Zenobia. It's Zenobia who faces the greatest challenges in the drama and it's important that the strength of her resolve remains consistent with her inner humanity in order for the conclusion to be credible, and that was all there in Campbell-Wallace's singing.

The same ability to give an indication of the inner workings of the character and how it is reflected or distorted by their actions is important for all the characters. While the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Michael Patrick helped make this a little more evident, it was also there in Kate Allen's bright Tigrane, in Richard Burkhard's wonderfully sonorous Tiridate and even in Adrian Powter's Farasmane. It's hard to say that the production spoke directly to us about tyranny in the world today, but there was no question that the strengths of this performance proved that Handel's Radamisto still has something meaningful to communicate that resonates 300 years later.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Mussorgsky - Sorochintsy Fair (Berlin, 2017)

Modest Mussorgsky - Sorochintsy Fair

Komische Oper, Berlin - 2017

Henrik Nánási, Barrie Kosky, Jens Larsen, Agnes Zwierko, Mirka Wagner, Alexander Lewis, Ivan Turšić, Tom Erik Lie, Hans Gröning, Carsten Sabrowski

Opera Platform - March 2017

Who knew that Mussorgsky composed and left unfinished another opera in between the unfinished masterpieces of Boris Godunov and Khovanschina? I didn't anyway, so all credit to Barrie Kosky and the Komische Oper in Berlin for uncovering this little known and almost never performed work by one of Russia's greatest composers. The question however is whether there might be a reason for Sorochintsy Fair being relatively unknown. Is it any good?

Happily, the answer is a resounding yes, and what a pleasant treat this surprise opera turns out to be. Then again it's hard to imagine any Mussorgsky lyrical piece not being worthy of performance other than for sake of its incompleteness, and that indeed is yet again the case with Sorochintsy Fair, the opera being completed after the composers death by Vissarion Shebalin. Sorochintsy Fair is not a grand epic masterpiece like Boris Godunov or Khovanschina, but it has one essential quality that all Mussorgsky's work has: it's essentially Russian.

It could hardly be anything but essentially Russian, but based on a story by Nikolai Gogol (the same source as Tchaikovsky's similarly themed Cherevichki), Sorochintsy Fair has a more down-to-earth, common people quality elevated to a mythical or surreal folk-legend status that demonstrates colourful and lyrical qualities that we don't often see in Mussorgsky. And another side and feature of the Russian character that we would not expect from a composer more associated with historical epics; a devilish sense of humour.

Sorochintsy Fair demonstrates brilliantly where Gogol's macabre folk tales of grotesque characters and surreal situations often find their origin: in drink. All good intentions for selling his wheat and the mare go out of the window when merchant Cherevik has a few drinks at the market in Sorochintsy with his friend Chumak. Clearly he has been laid astray by the devil while celebrating his acceptance of a proposal by a young peasant lad, Gritsko, to marry his daughter Parasya.

Cherevik's wife Khivyra however, quickly hiding her lover away inside a large pig she is cooking, is less than pleased by the developments. She has ideas of a better match for her daughter than the son of a peasant and gives her foolish husband, who comes back home roaring drunk, no small amount of abuse for failing to sell their produce. With the wheat unsold, how are they supposed to pay for a wedding?

You can see how the ghost stories of supernatural events arise from explaining all those bumps in the night. The husband staggering in drunk, the wife hiding the lover in a wardrobe (or pig) have to be explained somehow, and clearly it's all the work of the devil. Parasya and Gritsko however realise that they can make this work to their advantage also, Gritsko making a deal to sell oxen to the gypsy at an advantageous rate if he plays up the legend of the Red Overcoat at the Sorochintsy fair.

Mussorgsky illustrates all these colourful situations of bedroom farce, marital discord, slapstick falling around drunkenness and innocent romance with the most glorious musical compositions. He also captures the colour of the fair in the opening sequence with the most wonderful choral songs. Demonstrating that the Russian idiom can be effectively played by non-Russians, the musical performance under Henrik Nánási is richly colourful, and who better to illustrate these kind of colourful situations than director Barrie Kosky.

I'm sure that the Intendant and chief artistic director at the Komische Oper has already overspent their budget with a host of extravagant productions this year. This one is a little more pared down but it still moves brightly along, keeping the limited dramatic situations engaging and fun.  And that suits the nature of the work, where the pleasures are simple ones and where there is time for both reflection and irreverence. Sorochintsy Fair is a work that in many ways carries its own spectacle, with Gritsko's dream of the 'Sagana' devil's feast. It's a choral extravaganza that couldn't be anything but a show-stopper, and indeed it works terrifically here with demonic figures in red coats and pig heads tormenting the young lovers.

The Komische's ambition is also well served by a wonderful cast who demonstrate that roles of such deeply Russian character can also be sung well by a wide mix of international talent. The singing and acting performances are just outstanding, fully in the spirit of Gogol, Mussorgsky and Kosky. Jens Larsen's Cherevik's has a thoroughly Russian deep bass clarity and resonance; Agnes Zwierko entertains with a well-sung comic performance as Khivyra; Mirka Wagner and Alexander Lewis as the young couple Gritsko and Parasya offer a lighter lyrical delivery that adds complementary vocal textures to the more strident choruses and comic declamation.

Links: Komische Oper, Opera Platform