Tuesday, 20 March 2018

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

Luigi Dallapiccola - Il Prigioniero
Wolfgang Rihm - Das Gehege

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2018

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

La Monnaie MM Streaming -  January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: La Monnaie,

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Puccini - Turandot (Turin, 2018)

Giacomo Puccini - Turandot

Teatro Regio Torino, 2018

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

OperaVision - January 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Teatro Regio Torino, OperaVision

Monday, 12 February 2018

Rossini - Le Comte Ory (Paris, 2017)

Gioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2017

Louis Langrée, Denis Podalydès, Philippe Talbot, Julie Fuchs, Gaëlle Arquez, Éve-Maud Hubeaux, Patrick Bolleire, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Jodie Devos, Laurent Podalydès, Léo Reynaud

Culturebox - 29th December 2017

There's a general consensus that Rossini's final opera Guillaume Tell is the pinnacle of the composer's relatively short but prolific period as an opera composer (around 40 operas in just 20 years), but there are other lighter and more playful pieces in Rossini's late French works that are equally as accomplished as William Tell. True there may arguably be greater masterpieces among the earlier Italian works like Mosè in Egitto and - who am I to dispute it? - the perennial charm of Il Barbieri di Siviglia - but leaving aside the re-works of Le siege de Corinthe and Moise et Pharaon, the operas composed for a French audience like Il viaggio a Reims and Le comte Ory are remarkable confections that combine a lightness of touch and crowd-pleasing numbers with extraordinarily beautiful and inventive melodic arrangements.

Le comte Ory might not have much of a plot to speak of, but the musical writing is equally as impressive and sophisticated in its expression and arrangements as the work that preceded it, Il viaggio a Reims, an opera that was written for the one-off occasion of the coronation of Charles X in 1825. Believing music too good to be lost (as it would actually be for 150 years or so), Rossini reused much of it for the composition of Le comte Ory. The earlier work had more of a variety show numbers feels to it (Rossini ahead of the game there, much as he was in his development of grand opéra and bel canto, or unforgivable depending on your viewpoint, although he can hardly be blamed for the excesses or banality of others in those fields), so Rossini had to be a little creative in how he reworked the musical material to fit a dramatic plot for Le comte Ory.

You can hardly call the plot sophisticated, as the first half of the opera involves a nobleman, the Count Ory, who disguises himself as a wise hermit so that he can seduce the credulous wives of all the men who have left them alone and unloved and gone off to fight in the Crusades. In the second half, the licentious young comte Ory puts into play a suggestion that his page Isolier has concocted as a way that might get himself close to the Countess Adèle, sister of the lord of Formoutiers, who he is in love with. Using the page's idea for himself, Ory disguises himself and his men as nuns on a pilgrimage so that they can gain access to the otherwise inaccessible womanly delights that are locked away in the Countess's castle, fearful of the storm outside and looking for comfort.

As a way of providing a variety of colourful scenes for the composer to apply his melodic and effervescent music to however, Le comte Ory gets the job done. And with considerable style and aplomb. It's almost casually brilliant in making it all seem effortlessly light and entertaining. In fact, the work is filled with dramatic and comedic expression, allowing opportunities for individual virtuosity that impress as much as they amuse. The extravagant coloratura and high notes are more often used for comic emphasis and expression of the whirlwind of emotions that are stirred up rather than just being thrown in for the sake of showing-off. Boosted by a capella harmonised ensembles and invigorating choruses, the work transmits that sense of joyful abandon to the audience in the most direct and engaging way that any opera should.

The perceived silliness of the plot however often - in the relatively rare occasions when it is performed - leads modern directors to add a distancing effect (The Met, Pesaro) that actually has the effect of diluting the wholly intentional silliness and comedy of the situation. Why can't they just play the comedy 'straight', so to speak? Well that's what Denis Podalydès does in this wonderfully entertaining production at the Opera Comique (the Paris opera house that knows the real value of light French comic opera) with the result that the work just sparkles with the natural verve and brilliance of its composition. Not to mention that it has a superb cast capable of bringing out all those inherent qualities in the work.

Podalydès doesn't need any clever device or framing structure to make this confection any sweeter. The comedy is in the situation itself and the director just ensures that the performers play them up to the hilt and for all they are worth. Eric Ruf's set for Act I is no more than a country church and Ory is disguised more as an eccentric priest than a hermit, but I guess you might think that the distinction is negligible as far as giving people false hopes in mystical advice to a gullible congregation while serving one's own interests. It functions dramatically, other than the intentional thinness of the count's disguise of course. Act II's set places a group of anxious women huddling from the storm in a rather austere castle interior that protects their virtue from the likes of the Count Ory, where rather than a bed, the Countess seems to sleep on a stone tomb.

While the setting heightens the contrasts between the repressed women and libidinous behaviour of Ory and his men, the humour in Act II is mostly derived from men, some of them with beards, all disguised as nuns forgetting to act demurely and in a holy way and instead hiking their skirts up and singing boisterous drinking songs. And if that's not funny, I don't know what is. Well, apart from some ménage-a-trois bedroom farce antics of course and Podalydès direction ensures that it is played entirely for as much laughs as it's possible to get out of the situation. In a nice little twist he also makes the Countess not quite as credulous and submissive as you might think, entering fully into the bed-hopping shenanigans which, with Isolier in a trouser role, already has some gender-ambiguous suggestiveness.

If there's a reason why Le comte Ory is actually considerably funnier in performance than it might sound on paper it's got a lot to do with Rossini's music, and it's given a vigorous outing here by Louis Langrée. Sophistication and precision aren't always a prerequisite for a Rossini musical performance, sometimes what it needs more is fervour and passion, but Langrée's musical direction enjoys the best of both worlds. There's detail in the colouring of the instrumentation as well as precision, pace and passion in the rhythm and rich melodic flavours of the scenes and the arias. The singing, which is extraordinarily challenging for such a light comic piece, is handled with aplomb and character by Philippe Talbot's Comte Ory, who has a lovely lyrical timbre that carries even to the high notes. Julie Fuchs is a sparkling countess, putting her high notes to good use as exclamations and release of repressed emotions. The singing and performances are a joy from all the cast, with Gaëlle Arquez an impressive Isolier and Éve-Maud Hubeaux an irrepressible Dame Ragonde.

Links: L'Opéra Comique, Culturebox

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Weill - The Threepenny Opera (Belfast, 2018)

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill - The Threepenny Opera

Northern Ireland Opera, Lyric Theatre -  2018

Sinead Hayes, Walter Sutcliffe, Kerri Quinn, Matthew Cavan, Orla Mullan, Tommy Wallace, Jolene O'Hara, Paul Garrett, Richard Croxford, Jayne Wisener, Brigid Shine, Maeve Smyth, Mark Dugdale, Steven Page, Gerard McCabe

Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 30 January 2018

An opera that isn't really an opera is an interesting choice for the directorial debut of Northern Ireland Opera's new Artistic Director, Walter Sutcliffe. His predecessor, Oliver Mears however opened his tenure in a similarly non-traditional and low-key fashion with Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium - also in a theatre rather than the opera house - the indication being possibly that opera has much more to offer than La Traviata and Madama Butterfly, and that it can and should be accessible to everyone. Indeed Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's street-theatre piece The Threepenny Opera has precisely the same ideal of breaking down traditional barriers, and if anything that's the real beauty of the work, and not a bad statement of intent either if you want to see it that way.

Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera is just one in a long tradition of works that have brought a taboo-breaking common touch to opera. The Threepenny Opera was modelled on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), putting a glamorous criminal 'Mack the Knife' and the low-life of society at the heart of an opera, filling it with popular accessible music and bawdy scenes. If you want, you can go right back to Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea for similar daring shifts in the subject of opera to appeal to a wider audience, and you could take it right up to Thomas Adès's scandalous Powder her Face, a work which indeed has also recently made its mark in Belfast at the Lyric Theatre in an NI Opera production. In that respect, Walter Sutcliffe's production of The Threepenny Opera continues a tradition of exposing audiences to opera that challenges and entertains.

It's difficult then to judge a production of The Threepenny Opera by traditional standards. It has to be judged on its own terms, and perhaps its aims - to challenge and entertain - aren't so different from those presented to its original audience in Berlin in 1928. Leaving aside whether it really meets the criteria of opera - where boundaries are flexible and are still being pushed forward in works like Evan Gardner's Gunfighter Nation, where the musicians are also the dramatic and singing performers - the basic principle of putting on a show with musical numbers that tells a story is there in place in The Threepenny Opera, and it can be used as a means of expressing or exposing social attitudes or issues in the world today. Some things - money, greed, criminality, corruption - never change or go out of fashion, it seems.

Walter Sutcliffe makes perhaps only a token effort at any contemporary political or local social reference, but the nature and structure of the work itself with its Brechtian theatre innovations can be the best vehicle for making us think about what The Threepenny Opera tells us about the world today; ie. there's a lot of theatre involved. The focus then is rightly about making this an engaging piece of musical theatre with grotesque exaggerated characters, bold sets, colourful costumes, colourful language too and swinging musical numbers that, thanks to it becoming a swing standard over the years, even has an instantly recognisable bona-fide classic hit in its repertoire, the wonderful 'Mack the Knife'. If that doesn't draw you straight into The Threepenny Opera, nothing will.

There were perhaps just a little bit of self-consciousness and nerves early in the preview shows of the NI Opera production at the Lyric Theatre, but then director Walter Sutcliffe doesn't make it easy for the cast by making practically the entire stage a steep cabaret staircase with narrow steps for them to teeter down on heels while singing the famous opening number. Dorota Karolczak's sets and costumes however are entirely appropriate, telling us - as if it isn't already apparent from the garish costumes, heavy make-up and colourful wigs - that this is purely a theatrical confection; don't be expecting any hard-hitting social realism here. This is a show, and we're here to entertain you.

And although it might take a little while to warm to the exaggerated and unfamiliar form of 1920s German jazz-cabaret theatre, entertain it does. By the time we get to the conclusion, we've been caught up in the sordid little dealings and womanising polygamy of 'Mack the Knife' Macheath, the money-making exploitation of the poor beggars by Jonathan Peachum, the mistreatment of the Wapping prostitute Jenny Diver and her girls, the bribery and corruption of police superintendent Jackie 'Tiger' Brown and his officers, and even the compicity of the church is called out in Reverend Kimball's blessing of the union of Mack and Polly Peachum. There's plenty there played out in broad strokes to entertain, and if it no longer shocks in the same way, it's at least a shock that such goings-on are now nothing more than we've come to expect from celebrities, politicians and the establishment.

Other than the inclusion of the local vernacular, Sutcliffe is probably wise not to draw any obvious comparisons to current affairs and political events in the world today, in this particular work anyway. There's only one overt contemporary reference where the famous image of Syrian refugees marching into Europe is displayed. It's a reminder, in the spirit of the original, that even behind the fiction and glamour the dealings of this little group of individuals relies on the exploitation of the less fortunate masses whose fate is casually ignored. Mack being saved from the gallows at the final moment may be a moment of Brechtian theatre drawing attention to the artificiality of dramatic narrative, but in its own way it also points to the truth that those with power, money and influence write their own story and, unlike the people whose lives they destroy, they tend to come out of such scandals relatively unscathed.

Judging it by the casting alone, which is made up more of actors more familiarly seen on the Lyric stage than the Grand Opera House, The Threepenny Opera is more musical-theatre than opera in the traditional sense. That doesn't mean however that the standards that need to be met aren't just as high, nor that they weren't indeed met.  Even if there's a measure of musical-theatre belting it out, there were some very impressive singing performances. Jayne Wisener's Polly Peachum has a light voice, but it's sung in a way that was a perfect match for her character's delightfully ambiguous moral outlook, her calculated ruthlessness and casual indifference to all manner of criminal activity and moral depravity masked by a disarming sweetness. Brigid Shine's Lucy Brown showed an impressive range and control in her singing, again matching the feistiness of her character. Mark Dugdale has plenty of experience in music theatre and carried the role of Mack with a confident swagger and charm. Where caricature and exaggerated counted more than singing ability, Matthew 'Cherrie Ontop' Cavan's Mrs Peachum and Richard Croxford's scouse Jackie Brown all delivered wonderfully entertaining performances, and in baritone Steven Page's Jonathan Peachum you had the best of both disciplines.

Behind all the exaggeration and caricature, fleeting moments of human sentiment and character emerged, principally in the character of Jenny Diver, sensitively performed and well sung by Kerri Quinn. If The Threepenny Opera is to deliver that kind of range between crowd-pleasing belters and moments of quieter reflection it needs to be well managed from the point of view of the music. The musical rhythms are vital, charming and engaging, with unusual instrumentation and harmonies to throw us off and hint at an underlying unease and sleaze. Sinead Hayes brought that out with a somewhat more refined arrangement, the restraint allowing for greater emotional expression and sensitivity than you might expect from the smoky swagger of Kurt Weill's score. The placement of the orchestra to the wings of the staircase - all dressed in character - also provided a perfect balance and stereo separation between the music and the singing. Look out, old Macky is back.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Gardner - Gunfighter Nation (Berlin, 2016)

Evan Gardner - Gunfighter Nation

Opera Lab Berlin, 2016

Musashi Baba, Antoine Daurat, Manuel Nawri, Michael Höppner, Yuka Yanagihara, Gina May Walter, Lena Haselmann, Georg Bochow, Martin Gerke, Enrico Wenzel, Shin Joo Morgantini, Jone Bolibar Nuñez, Matthew Conley, Jack Adler-McKean, Matthias Koole, Evoxia Filippou, Alexandros Giovanos, Mia Bodet, David Eggert

Wergo - DVD

From the pieces of music that you can find of the Berlin-based American composer Evan Gardner on SoundCloud, you might expect his opera work to be somewhere in the same style as Salvatore Sciarrino. Gardner's chamber pieces are often similarly sparse of instrumentation but complex in composition and sonic reverberation, creating a world of whispering voices, scratching strings and flurries of flute set against a background of ominous silence, with the occasional more lushly orchestrated composition. While evidence of that style can be heard in Gunfighter Nation, Gardner's second opera, the composer applies and indeed extends extended techniques to a new idea of opera performance, using a bolder musical expression to meet the demands of the rather brash nature of the all-American theme of the work.

Gunfighter Nation was created for Opera Lab Berlin. a company founded in 2014 by Gardner with theatre director Michael Höppner with the intention of breaking down the usual strict demarcations between the roles of singer and musician, and indeed composer or conductor. Evidently in this "instrumental theatre" world the audience aren't treated entirely as passive recipients either, separated from the performance by an orchestra pit, but are rather seated in and around the musicians/actors/singers/performers, and - in the case of Gunfighter Nation - invited to wear Indian feathers and headbands to better fit in with the whole theatrical experience.

The use of such conventional - some might say hackneyed - stereotypical imagery is however very much a part of Gunfighter Nation, which evidently relies to a large extent on satire, ideas and symbols, as well as using existing cut-up texts and materials to present the concept rather than create a narrative-based libretto. As an America composer living in Berlin, Gardner is aware of the power of American iconography in Europe and across the world, so stereotypical imagery it might be, but these are nonetheless strong universally recognised visual reference that are American writ large. As if there is any other kind. The characters consequently are dressed in costumes that are American to the core; cowboys and Indians, Superman, an American football player, rednecks, an evangelical preacher, Dolly Parton, Marilyn Monroe, Al Jolson and Michael Jackson, a soldier, a McDonalds employee, a cheerleader and a hooker.

Created as a sequence of scenes with no defined order, if there is one unifying theme that comes out of all these random American symbols and if you can derive one narrative arch or theme that reaches from one end to the other, it's money and expansion. The native American Indians who are pushed off their land in the opening section are seen adopting all-American ways and drinking Coca-Cola by the end of Gunfighter Nation, or indeed to put it much more satirically and cynically, the pregnant Indian squaw actually gives birth to and nurses a bottle of Coca-Cola, the ultimate symbol of America taking over the world.

That perhaps makes it sound crass or even similar to Philip Glass's rather weak satire of the kind of American values espoused by Walt Disney in his opera The Perfect American, but there is nothing conventional about the way that these ideas are conveyed to the audience. The texts are a blend of cut-up material and satirical improvisations of songs, spoken texts, etiquette manuals, speeches and treatises. The cowboy song 'Home on the Range' ('Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam...") is blended in with texts and references that include 'America the Beautiful', John L. O'Sullivan's 'The Great Nation of Futurity' (1839), and even Ingmar Bergman's very non-American film 'Scenes From a Marriage', which is referenced in a domestic dispute.

Aside from the audience being scattered around in the same theatre space as the performers, the most significant difference between instrumental theatre and conventional opera that soon becomes evident is that the musicians are all singers/actors/performers. Inevitably this demands an extensive and specialised range of skills to be able to sing, perform and play in individual scenes, as well as part of an ensemble. In one scene a preacher walks around swinging his cello using it to emphasise the fervour of his pronouncements; an American footballer with a Dobro guitar duels with an American soldier on tuba in a macho display, raising the stakes with casino chips; a trio of 'good-time girls' blow seductively and suggestively on wind instruments; and a redneck couple conduct a domestic dispute on percussion instruments.

This obviously allows a closer connection between the music and the 'drama' (albeit non-narrative drama) than you would find in a conventional opera or indeed even the most avant-garde contemporary opera works. While it might appear somewhat exaggerated and caricatural, the multidisciplinary ability and talent of the performers is impressive, and surprisingly effective as a manner of theatrical expression. Some scenes work better than others, some points are too obvious, others obscure, others just irritating, but personally I found it hugely engaging and involving. I daresay such theatre demands physical presence in the theatre to be truly effective, but it's a tribute to how well that the performance is filmed for this DVD release that it holds the attention thoroughly. Occupying the same space as the performers that could have been no mean feat, but the recording captures all the energy, creative interaction and indeed, the impressive efforts that have gone into the staging of Gunfighter Nation as a compelling piece of opera theatre.

Gunfighter Nation is released on DVD in a CD-sized jewel case. Aside from the full performance of Gunfighter Nation recorded at Ballhaus Ost in Berlin in November 2016, the DVD also includes three audio-only tracks by Evan Gardner - Sonic Voyager II, Scandinavian Knitting, and No Thanks: Five Poems by e.e. cummings. The DVD is in PAL format, Region free, with English and German subtitles.

Links: Evan Gardner, Opera Lab Berlin

Monday, 29 January 2018

Wagner - Die Walküre (Munich, 2017)

Richard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2018

Kirill Petrenko, Andreas Kriegenburg, Simon O'Neill, Ain Anger, John Lundgren, Anja Kampe, Nina Stemme, Ekaterina Gubanova, Daniela Köhler, Karen Foster, Anna Gabler, Michaela Selinger, Helena Zubanovich, Jennifer Johnston, Okka von der Damerau, Rachael Wilson

Staatsoper.TV - 22 January 2018

Based on the live streaming broadcast of Die Walküre, there doesn't appear to be any grand concept applied to Andreas Kriegenburg's Munich Ring cycle, but after a few recent Ring cycles that have been heavily weighed down by all manner of symbolism and interpretation (Bayreuth, Mannheim), it's refreshing at least to step back once in a while and just let the music speak for itself in Wagner's epic work, as it's surely strong enough in that respect. It's perhaps easier to get away with that though when you have Kirill Petrenko conducting and an exceptional cast of the level assembled here, but Kriegenburg's direction isn't without some ideas and character, even if it's difficult to determine just what it is from this part of the cycle alone.

There certainly doesn't seem to be any grand vision here as Kriegenburg's Die Walküre plays the familiar story out in a fairly straightforward fashion on relatively minimalist sets. It's an approach that is rather more in keeping with the recent move away from the more extreme kinds of interpretation we have been accustomed to seeing at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The production is unobtrusive, it doesn't call attention to itself, but by the same token it's not particularly attention-grabbing. The intentions of the director however would appear to be working not so much with drama as with the 'space' around it, using supernumeraries and dancers who "represent the reality that surrounds the singers" rather than interfering with the work itself.

Act I, for example, is dominated by a huge tree in Hunding's lodge, which is decorated it seems by desiccated corpses. Siegmund is initially kept at a fairly large distance away from Sieglinde on the large open set that has only a few indications of a home environment, the space filled rather by 'invisible' servants who pass the drinks and set up a long dinner table between them, as well as (curiously) tend to dead bodies in the background. Wearing torch lights strapped to their palms, they also reflect light and appear to be directing or highlighting the invisible tensions between the twins and Hunding. Other than establishing that undercurrent of menace and confusion, there isn't a lot else you can do with characterisation here to bring any real drama out of the scene, but the musical and singing performances take care of it well enough. The richness of the score and how Petrenko manages it is clearly evident even at this stage, the Act flowing from cold menace to warm wonder, with Ain Anger's menacing Hunding fully conveying one end of that scale and Simon O'Neill and Anja Kampe bringing us gloriously through to the other.

Act II is of course an even greater challenge with its long scene between Wotan and Fricka. Kriegenburg plays around with the various tones of this Act, opening with an epic Valhalla intro in swirling mists, but then settling for a tone set by the extra figures around the singers that establishes itself as business-like. In a bare wood-paneled wide office space, with a large prestigious painting hanging on the wall. Wotan is more of a businessman or lord of a vast estate, playfully engaging with his daughter Brünnhilde, but he has documents to sign, matters to arrange. Up to now, like the servants who even form a throne for him to sit on, everything bends to his will and it's been a relatively simple matter of sending Brünnhilde and the Valkyrie warriors to carry out his orders. That way of working, as we all know, is about to change.

Dancers are used to set up the war-like environment that prefigures Act III's Ride of the Valkyrie, with warriors (in business suits), impaled on top of spears. It's a strong image, but the actual appearance of the Valkyrie is disappointing. With no mounts of any kind, their reins are attached to the poles and it's a bit undramatic. The singing again makes up for any shortcomings here, as does Petrenko's conducting which works hand-in-hand with the action and the demands of the singers. Act III is critical and regardless of the strengths and qualities of a production, the musical performance, no Die Walküre is going to have the necessary impact unless it has a convincing Wotan and Brünnhilde, and no-one could surely be disappointed with John Lundgren and Nina Stemme in those roles.

If Andreas Kriegenburg's production is successful (provisionally as far as Die Walküre is concerned, without having seen the other parts of this Ring cycle), it in how he (and the performers) manage to bring out the father/daughter relationship as the true heart of the work. It's much more than just a regular parent/child relationship that you would find, for example, in a Verdi opera. With his daughter as an outward expression of Wotan's will, it's also about the wielding of power and how the exercise of it can corrupt and have other unforeseen consequences. As Stemme alludes to in her interval interview, it's also about becoming human, emancipating oneself from older ways, and Brünnhilde makes mistakes but makes them honestly with the best of intentions. Critically, through Siegmund and Sieglinde she learns about true love and doesn't so much lose her divinity as become more human.

Stemme, seeing this character though all three Ring operas in which she has a role in this Munich Ring cycle, sings terrifically as you would expect, but also displays a wonderful warm, sympathetic relationship with Lundgren's superbly sung Wotan. Lundgren has already demonstrated his capability in this role at Bayreuth, and here he just seems to have assumed the personality of Wotan completely. The Wotan/Brünnhilde relationship is a vital element in Die Walküre, and whether you put it down to the quality of the singing or the direction, or both, it's really nailed here. Although important as the lynch-pin that the drama of Die Walkure turn on and a formidable character in her own right, Fricka's role has less room for interpretation and motivation. She acts out of wounded pride at the evidence of Wotan's betrayals making a mockery out of her office of marriage, compounded by the brother and sister relationship of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and can consequently come across as strident and harsh in her judgements, but Ekaterina Gubanova sings the role well and succeeds in showing Fricka as someone with a sense of what is right and how false actions can have consequences.

Occasional cutaways to the orchestra pit during the broadcast showed just how much Kirill Petrenko was not only managing the detail and dynamic of the score, but clearly enjoying himself immensely with the wonders on offer. The musical director of the Munich house seems to have a strong affinity with Wagner, and indeed with the Bayerisches Staatsorchester if the broadcast performances this season and last are anything to go by. Everything you want from Die Walküre is there in terms of drama and romantic sweep, but Petrenko never lets the work get carried away into bombast, finding the deeper sensitivities in the anguish and tragedy of the final act, giving them voice and allowing room for the singers to fill these epic characters of legend with real human feelings. And the singers assembled are more than capable of doing that.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden (Paris, 2017)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Snow Maiden

L’Opéra National de Paris, 2017

Mikhail Tatarnikov, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Aida Garifullina, Yuriy Mynenko, Martina Serafin, Maxim Paster, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Elena Manistina, Vladimir Ognovenko, Franz Hawlata, Vasily Gorshkov, Carole Wilson, Vasily Efimov,Vincent Morell, Pierpaolo Palloni, Olga Oussova 

ARTE Concert - 25 April 2017

Rimsky-Korsakov's telling of the fairy tale of The Snow Maiden is by no means a straightforward narrative. The story itself is simple enough and easy to follow, but it's elaborated on by the composer with all the colours and adornments of an epic Russian legend, with songs, dances, musical interludes, ceremonial folk dances and choruses. This however is not Sadko or The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, and as beautiful as the scoring is, it risks losing sight of the simple message at the heart of the story about love and time, about the seasons bringing change and renewal. You have to wonder then whether Dmitri Tcherniakov doesn't risk adding another level of distance in his production for the Paris Opera that takes it further away from the fairy tale moral.  

The Snow Maiden isn't performed as often as other works by Rimsky-Korsakov and it's only recently that we've really had a chance to get to experience a wider selection of the composer's work. It has to be said that for all the controversy that he brings with him, Dmitri Tcherniakov has been at the forefront of introducing rarely heard Russian masterpieces to the West and presenting them in a new meaningful light, and Rimsky-Korsakov works have been very much a part of that. The Snow Maiden however is clearly something of a challenging work to stage effectively. John Fulljames directed a beautiful and wonderfully illuminating production of The Snow Maiden for Opera North last year, but even that failed to thaw the icy heart of the work.  

The nature of Ostrovsky's work as a piece of folklore with a very Russian character and a magical fairy tale element shouldn't necessarily present a difficulty to a director like Tcherniakov who wants to modernise it to some extent, but his production of The Snow Maiden seems to fall somewhere in between. Not unexpectedly, the dispute of Mother Spring and Father Frost is seen in a rather more contemporary domestic light, with the unfortunate off-spring of their ill-matched union - the Snow Maiden - being given up for adoption to a old Berendeyan couple. The Berendey village in the woods however, while apparently some kind of little commune, still can't help but retain an old Russian folk character in its dress and customs.

Big and colourful, recreating a small village arrayed in a small semi-circle with a wood of tall trees behind, it's another one of Tcherniakov's extravagant sets that presents a busy stage for all of Rimsky-Korsakov's rich arrangements and choruses. It certainly captures the sense of a close community, and Tcherniakov's direction also creates an impression sense of real meaningful drama between the characters in as far as he is able. He can't resist having Tsar Berendey nod off for a few seconds as Kupova starts on an elaborate answer to the simple question of who has offended her honour, but it's playful and not mocking, recognising that there's a lot of filler and conventionalism in the telling of the story.

The connection between the tides and seasons of nature of those that bring about changes in the nature of man however isn't drawn quite as cleverly as John Fulljames' production for Opera North. Everything that needs to be said however is said fairly directly in the libretto; "The hearts of people are getting colder. I see less warmth in their love", Tsar Berendey observes. If Dmitri Tcherniakov doesn't really draw out or highlight the folk elements and rhythms of nature in his direction, nor find anything new or insightful to bring to it, his direction doesn't quite go as far as obscuring the intentions and the moral of the story. But when it does come to life, it seems to be more to do with the lovely performance of the Paris orchestra and the fine singing performances.

The fact that Rimsky-Korsakov's score is sumptuously beautiful is clearly apparent, but under the direction of conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov, the skill with which the composer has matched the score to the dramatic and narrative side of the work is even more evident here. It also works beautifully hand-in-hand with the singing. Aida Garifullina has everything you want of a snow maiden, glowing youth and freshness and a voice that soars not with confidence, but with an otherworldly beauty. It was quite extraordinary to hear Lel sung not by a female contralto, but by a male countertenor. Yuriy Mynenko brought out another dynamic out of the work, a persuasive beauty that Lel's songs should really possess.

Musically and in terms of the singing performances, the Paris production is indeed beyond reproach, with other fine performances to enjoy in Martina Serafin's Kupova, in Maxim Paster's Tsar and Thomas Johannes Mayer's Mizguir. Aside from the opening introduction sequence, which appears somewhat at odds with fairy tale nature of the remainder of the production, Dmitri Tcherniakov's direction actually tells the story clearly and without over-complicating matters and it looks marvellous. With its naturalistic approach to the simple folk lifestyle of living life out in the woods, it does promote more of a back-to-nature sentiment as a way of opening one's heart to the radiant flame of life, but despite the exquisite beauty of the work, it still feels a rather cold and lifeless affair that never really connects to human emotions in the way that you would like. Cold and beautiful however might just be the actual nature of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden.

Links: L’Opéra National de Paris, ARTE Concert