Monday, 11 December 2017

Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande (Berlin, 2017)

Claude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Komische Oper, 2017

Jordan de Souza, Barrie Kosky, Jens Larsen, Nadine Weissmann, Dominik Köninger, Günter Papendell, Nadja Mchantaf

OperaVision - 15 October 2017

Proving that he has more than one trick up his sleeve, Barrie Kosky's production of Pelléas et Mélisande for the Komische Oper in Berlin glides along in a minimalist design production on a reduced stage with practically no props at all. Recognising that Pelléas et Mélisande tends to respond better to minimal intervention, Kosky is able even to remove all the familiar symbolism from the work and anything to do with nature, other than perhaps the most important aspect of it as far as this opera is concerned - human nature. But it's not all take, and Kosky has other ways of giving something else to the work that does succeed in bringing out its essential characteristics.

Primarily however, as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing anyone can do that can bring anything more to Pelléas et Mélisande than Debussy's music, and the real success of this production lies in the ravishing performance that Jordan de Souza, the new Kapellmeister of the Komische Oper Berlin, brings out of the house orchestra. The shimmering beauty and flow of the work is all there, but that suggests hazy impressionism and actually there is beautiful clarity and detail brought out of individual instruments and groups of instruments here, as well as a fully expressed dynamic - particularly to the instrumental interludes - that occasionally made it feel like you were hearing passages for the first time.

Listening to the conductor talk about his approach to the work in the interval feature, it's clear that he has a profound understanding of the workings and merit of Debussy's score, but I think it also comes out that there is a strong collaboration with Barrie Kosky that ensures that there is a strong connection between the orchestra pit and what takes place on the stage. Kosky is able to reflect the dynamic in the musical performance on the stage, and the means by which he achieves that - within the context of a minimal set design - is very interesting indeed.

Kosky cites Edgar Allan Poe's blend of horror and eroticism as a reference for Pelléas et Mélisande and it's an unusual but valid comparison. Rather than head in the direction of gothic melodrama however, Kosky takes a much less obvious route to express those characteristics. The set throughout is nothing more than a recessed set of framing borders that reduce the stage down into a claustrophobic cave. The oppressiveness of the set becomes more apparent later in the work when there are more characters all crammed together at the back of the stage, where a revolving panel brings characters onto and off the stage.

Elsewhere, the characters enter and leave by gliding around on the revolving sections of the stage. They never seem to walk on or walk off, but once on the stage are able to move around a little more freely, except when they can't; which amounts to the kind of volition they have and control over their actions and lives at any given time. In terms of movement and position, everything is relational to the geometric patterns of the stage, and within that human nature in Pelléas et Mélisande is something of a chaotic element, even as it flows gracefully in time with Debussy's score.

It's in such subtle contrasts that Kosky seeks to bring out the gothic horror of Pelléas et Mélisande, but it's not entirely hands-off, and there are subtle shifts of emphasis that are applied. Some feel random and designed to do nothing more than jar with your impressions and preconceptions (such as Mélisande swallowing her ring rather than drop it into the Blind Man's Well); others however are perfectly acceptable interpretations of the suggestive and ambiguous undercurrents that lie within the work and which exert such fascination. Sometimes Kosky works with the moods and other times against them, just to see how the opera responds, and it does prove to be extraordinarily responsive to the slightest of touches and shading. Pelléas et Mélisande is that kind of work.

Despite conventional psychological exploration being largely replaced by suggestion and symbolism, there is actually a great deal of leeway in how these enigmatic characters can be interpreted and in how they interact. While it's often possible for Golaud to be the central figure of the work and even a sympathetic character, Kosky directs Günter Papendell towards a more aggressive Golaud in this production. He manhandles Mélisande quite brutally and kicks her when she is pregnant, soon after Arkel is seen creepily pawing over her. The suggestion is that Mélisande later miscarries in a bloody manner that is far from the quiet deathbed conclusion you usually find in this opera.

Golaud and Arkel's behaviour is contrasted with a Pelléas and Mélisande who play up to nature of their childlike games ('jeux d'enfants'), or at least initially. Whether that develops into something more erotically charged or whether that is a projection of Golaud's fevered mind is always an ambiguous matter, and it remains so here even as it is vividly depicted. The singing performances are outstanding, distinct and expressive, with a similar clarity and precision that can be found in the orchestration. When you hear the voices and music performed in this way, the miraculous unique quality of Debussy's approach to opera is all the more evident and impressive.

Links: Komische Oper, OperaVision

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Lully & Molière - Les Amants magnifiques (Rennes, 2017)

Jean-Baptiste Lully & Molière - Les Amants magnifiques

L’Opéra de Rennes, 2017

Vincent Tavernier, Hervé Niquet

Actors: Laurent Prévôt, Pierre-Guy Cluzeau, Maxime Costa, Mélanie Le Moine, Benoît Dallongeville, Quentin-Maya Boyé, Olivier Berhault, Claire Barrabès, Marie Loisel
Solistes: Lucie Roche, Eva Zaïcik, Margo Arane, Laurent Deleuil, Clément Debieuvre, Martial Pauliat, Victor Sicard, Virgile Ancely, Geoffroy Buffière 

Culturebox - 27 January 2017

The comédie-ballet Les Amants magnifiques (The Magnificent Lovers) can't really be described as an opera; it’s essentially a play by Molière with musical interludes or ‘intermèdes’ by Lully. The opportunity to see one of these rare collaborations performed however is not to be missed. Created in 1670 as a royal entertainment for Louis XIV and not staged anywhere since, Les Amants magnifiques is an unusual kind of lyric drama, a "comédie en cinq actes en prose, mêlée de musique et d’entrées de ballet" where the music, the drama and the ballet all have their distinct place and yet combine to create the most wonderful entertainment; an entertainment fit for kings indeed.

If there's any one form that dominates the proceedings, it's Molière's play, with Lully providing music for the opening, for a ballet-opera interlude and for the conclusion. In practice, the comédie-ballet is very much a combined effort, conceived of as a whole, with the music, the drama and ballet intended to combine with stage spectacle to create a more complete work of entertainment, but allowing a greater flexibility an opera or even an opéra-comique would permit. At this point in the history of French opera, these comédie-ballets were a stage towards music having a larger role in the tragédies en musique and tragedies-lyriques that Lully would later create, and as a consequence these earlier works for the lyric-dramatic-ballet stage have been largely neglected and forgotten.

It is probably also the case - as Richard Strauss discovered when it attempted a modern version of intermèdes in his first version of Ariadne auf Naxos, combining it with the drama of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme - that no-one could blend the drama and music with such facility as Molière and Lully. Certainly on the evidence of Les Amants magnifiques, which is played with all the French humour and lightness of touch that you would expect from the specialist baroque theatre company Les Malins Plaisirs at the Opera de Rennes, with Hervé Niquet directing Lully's music from the pit.

There's plenty of time for Lully to set the scene, foregoing the usual tributes to the Sun King (which seem to be reserved for the grand conclusion instead), for a lengthy prologue in homage to Neptune and the gods of the sea, where a turbulent storm seems to reflect the one that lies within the heart of the Greek general Sostrate, who is wandering through the woods wearing a melancholic disposition. The court servant Clitidas doesn't need to consult the court astrologer to identify the problem; he can see in Sostrate's eyes that he is in love, and hopelessly in love, since he knows that the Princess Eriphile is far beyond the reach of a lowly soldier. The most Sostrate can hope for is to be able to die before his secret is found out.

Well, Clitidas doesn't think much of that plan and is determined to do something about it. It's going to take some clever work however - not so much on the part of Eriphile, since Clitidas knows that the Princess also has feelings for Sostrate that a lady in her position can't declare either - but because her mother Princess Aristione has other marriage plans for her. Two princes, Iphicrate and Timoclès, have come looking for her hand, and Eriphile is being pressed to make her choice. Tired of her daughter's prevarication, Princess Aristione calls on Sostrate to find out which of the two she is going to make her mind up to choose.

At this stage the drama is interrupted by a musical interlude which takes the form of a pastorale. The drama within a drama tells the story of a humble shepherd Tircis who falls in love with beautiful Calisto, but is unable to speak of his love for her and wishes to die. Sound familiar? The drama within a drama has however been hijacked by Clitidas, who gives the players the revised script in order to drop a big hint to all involved of the viability of a marriage between Sostrate and Eriphile, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. It's easy to get distracted admittedly, as Lully's mini-opera composition for this scene is just beautiful.

There's further work to be done then and happily it involves plenty more opportunities for music, ballet, spectacle, with the other players also trying to manipulate the situation with fake astrology and special effects in a grotto. It's hard to argue with flying dragons and the intervention of the goddess Venus who appears to tell them who to pick, and almost everyone is content to have the decision taken for them. The ruse however is undone when Sostrate proves his worthiness to marry the daughter by saving the life of the mother from an attacking wild boar - a true message from the gods if ever there was one. Or at least convincing enough to bring Les Amants magnifiques to a spectacular, dramatic and joyful conclusion with much dancing and music courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Lully.

The collaboration of Molière and Lully on this work really is a thing of joy. It's thoroughly French in nature, a work of complete entertainment, and its qualities are presented as such in this Rennes production directed by Vincent Tavernier. It's the blending and contrasting tones and colour that make it such a delight, the drama giving way to music and dance, the drama itself being a masterful blend of romance, mythology and comedy. There's almost a pantomime quality to Les Amants magnifiques, the romance and drama mostly played straight, with the comic intervention, pauses, asides of irreverent Clitidas mocking the timorous lovers and the foolish behaviour of the rest.

The comic timing and acting of Pierre-Guy Cluzeau is instrumental in establishing this character, preventing all of the extravagant musical and dramatic situations from taking themselves too seriously. All of the actors of the Les Malins Plaisirs theatre company however are clearly well versed in how to play and deliver this kind of material and it's a joy to see how they progress the drama. On top of that you have a cast of bright young singers to bring out the lyrical side of Lully's contribution, Hervé Niquet to manage the rhythms for the dancers, and a colourful set that uses traditional effects and props that manage to look both cheesy and spectacular. Les Amants magnifiques is a right royal entertainment.

Links: L’Opéra de Rennes, Culturebox

Friday, 24 November 2017

Fagerlund - Autumn Sonata (Helsinki, 2017)

Sebastian Fagerlund - Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata)

Finnish National Opera and Ballet, Helsinki - 2017

John Storgårds, Stéphane Braunschweig, Anne Sofie von Otter, Erika Sunnegårdh, Tommi Hakala, Helena Juntunen, Nicholas Söderlund

Opera Platform - 23 September 2017

Ingmar Bergman's films manage to strike such a fine balance between realism and heightened drama that it's hard to imagine that they would gain anything from being adapted into an opera. Bergman however was always a director keen to experiment in film expression and indeed even a creative opera director himself, his filmed version of The Magic Flute in particular showing that perfect balance between dealing with the practicalities of the dramatic stage and sparking the imagination.

Adapting Bergman to the stage is particularly challenging in the case of working with one of Bergman's intense late works of family drama and personal crisis from the late seventies onwards. Autumn Sonata, like Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Saraband, are all characterised not only by fraught situations of lives in pain with brutal exchanges that cut to the bone, but there is also often a less tangible element in them dealing with death and ghosts, or ghosts of the past.

Both elements weigh heavily on Autumn Sonata, and Sebastian Fagerlund addresses them immediately from the start of his new opera Höstsonaten, setting the dramatic and musical tone for what is to follow. There's an anguished exchange between Eva and her husband Viktor while they are expecting the arrival of Eva's mother who is visiting them. She hasn't seen her mother in seven years, Charlotte having largely neglected her family for the demands of her career as a famous international concert pianist.

There are issues on both sides that suggest that tensions are likely to arise. In the seven years of her absence, Charlotte has not only missed the birth of Eva and Viktor's son Erik, but she didn't even return when the boy died, drowned a day before his 4th birthday. Charlotte herself has recently lost her husband Leonardo, also a musician, who has died a slow, agonising death. To add to the tensions Eva has been looking after her mentally disabled sister Helena, and Charlotte is still reluctant about dealing first-hand with her child, and would have preferred to have her out of the way in a nursing home where she had been committed.

Those however are only the most recent and present issues that are likely to be the source of tension between mother and daughter; the latent animosity between them goes back further and deeper than that. Eva has a lifetime of hurt, pain, disappointment, lack of affection and validation left unspoken that she holds against her mother. It's been building up in her and it's time she had her say. She doesn't hold back, airing all her grievances, reproaches and recriminations in wild outbursts like "I love you" and "You hate me".

Some might expect a little more from an opera than self-absorbed people involved in a full-blown domestic dispute, and there's no doubt it's all more than a little overstated, but that's the point. Bergman's attempt to lay bare the stark reality of mother/daughter relationships is incisive and beautifully crafted, and essentially, the parent/daughter melodrama is no lesser a theme and treatment of the subject than many of Verdi's operas (Simon Boccanegra or Rigoletto). Still, the challenge remains for Sebastian Fagerlund to justify Autumn Sonata's translation from cinema screen to opera stage, and he does that well.

As the title indicates, there is an implicit musical dimension to Autumn Sonata that connects creativity to artistic inspiration. "Where do you draw it from? The brilliance, the pain" the chorus ask, Charlotte's public always with her and in the back of her mind. The question is not just where the artist draws their inspiration from but the hard price they often have to pay for it in the failure of their personal lives is also realistically considered here. Charlotte's career has left her in severe physical pain, and her taking of sleeping pills and painkillers compound her failure to be a good and understanding mother. Above all however, her public comes first.

Fagerlund interweaves all these elements well, pitching the music towards the emotional tenor of the work without letting it add to the high melodrama that is being expressed on all sides. The scoring for the voices is particularly good in this respect, permitting arias of reflection, duet duels and competitive trios of overlapping sentiments spilling over one another as they vie for attention. Fagerlund even permits the rarely lucid Helena her moment of vocal expression. With a chorus always ready to well up also in the background, temperatures are raised in intensity as Charlotte's visit descends into increasingly violent verbal blows.

The other critical factors contributing to Autumn Sonata working as an opera are of course the singing performances and the staging. All the roles are well sung and all the different voices here play a significant part in the work as a whole, but the principal roles are very much tied into the mother/daughter relationship of Eva and Charlotte. Erika Sunnegårdh is compelling and credible in her expression of Eva, and Anne Sofie von Otter shows none of the weakening that has been detected in other traditional roles, but is actually in superb voice in her creation of the role of Charlotte. The only fragility she shows here is her character's inability to continue to deny the damage she has done to her family.

With expression of personality and interaction of characters of primary importance, it's all very well directed by Stéphane Braunschweig, who also designs a set that helps express the multiplicity of views and sentiments. The stage is broken down into rooms and compartments, with backgrounds that open and close in response to the various levels that the libretto and characterisation operate on, showing parallel scenes, flashbacks, ghosts and even expressions of inner-life in the case of Helena. Without question, Bergman proves to be well suited to opera, and Fagerlund serves Autumn Sonata well.

Links: Opera Platform

Monday, 20 November 2017

Mozart - Così Fan Tutte (Belfast, 2017)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così Fan Tutte

NI Opera, Belfast - 2017

Nicholas Chalmers, Adele Thomas, Kiandra Howarth, Heather Lowe, Samuel Dale Johnson, Sam Furness, Aoife Miskelly, John Molloy

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 17 November 2017

Opera in Ireland is going through a period of change at the moment with a new national opera company being formed in the south of the country and a new director taking over the running of opera in the north. Considering how successful Northern Ireland Opera has been over the last few years, there would undoubtedly be some interest to see how Walter Sutcliffe would follow, taking over from Oliver Mears. I don't think there would have been any concerns about a high standard being maintained, but it remained to be seen whether there would be any change in repertoire and style. I'd say that things have got off to a very good start with Così Fan Tutte.

It's been a while since I've seen anyone approach Così Fan Tutte as a pure comedy. With Mozart's third collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte is often regarded as being a lesser work than The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, perhaps because it is a little more overtly frivolous. In order to give it the true stature that many think it undoubtedly deserves and address the genuine social commentary that is hidden behind the gender comedy, directors like Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré have tended to work extra hard to try and give the opera a little more of contemporary edginess that is worth exploring, but perhaps doesn't really match the true spirit of the work.

It was refreshing then to see that this first new production with Walter Sutcliffe in charge of NI Opera didn't set out to make a statement, or if there is a statement to this Così Fan Tutte it's that the intention is to be true to the spirit of the works rather than impose any kind of inappropriate modern revisionism upon them. That doesn't mean either that there can't be a refreshing and original approach taken to the work, and one interesting development is that this Così Fan Tutte opera is directed by Adele Thomas, who - judging from her biography in the programme - is a theatre director with no previous experience of opera.

Whatever her background, there's no question that Thomas's setting of Così Fan Tutte in the era of the Hollywood silent movies of the 1920s is completely in the spirit of the work. Or it is for the first half of the opera anyway; the second half perhaps needed a little more. For the first half of this production however there was a permanent grin on my face all the way through to the interval. Conducted by Nicholas Chalmers with attention to mood and played with spirit and a lightness of touch by the Ulster Orchestra, this was joyous, glorious Mozart at his most playful, buoyant and brilliant.

Trying to give some credibility to the rather innocent couples of Così Fan Tutte can be difficult, unless one does indeed set it in a more innocent age. The 1920s is not such an innocent age as an idealised one, where the excess and indulgence of an America that hadn't fully experienced the horrors of the Great War in Europe and had yet to suffer the impact of the Wall Street Crash at the end of the decade. For many, particularly in Hollywood, this life was an endless party and not to be taken too seriously. And it's delightfully depicted that way in this production, with a few bottles of champagne always ready to hand and a conga line of revellers with balloons and streamers weaving through the proceedings at regular intervals.

For the first half of the opera at least, this captures the spirit that Mozart weaves through Così Fan Tutte perfectly, and you could even say that it anticipates the darker side of the opera in the second half when the party inevitably comes to an end and the characters have to pick up the pieces. Heedless of the consequences, they belatedly discover that there is a price to be paid when the fun comes to an end, and that life can also involve deception, betrayal and disappointment. In Hollywood, the reality would also hit home with scandals, affairs and alcoholism destroying the promising careers of many of the silent film actors - the lifestyle ending more careers than the advent of talkies.

Adele Thomas tries to bring out this aspect in the direction of the characters and Nicholas Chalmers certainly finds the rich sophistication of how Mozart depicts those contradictory sentiments, but the necessary tone isn't quite as well established in the second half of the production. I think the limitations of Hannah Clark's set designs don't extend as well into the second half. Wonderfully colourful and vibrant, with curtains revealing stages within stages to match the play acting of the comic drama, a little more could have been done perhaps with flickering projections or silent-movie imagery to differentiate or vary the tone in the latter part of the show.

Thomas however clearly worked hard with the singers to bring real personality to each of the characters, and it's a measure of the individual performances that each one of them made a good impression. The most confident performances were from the most experienced members of the cast; John Molloy and Aoife Miskelly. Molloy was an outstanding Don Alfonso, neither calculating nor manipulative, but one rather who wanted to enlighten the younger innocents with his experience of life. The role was comfortably within Molloy's range and he sang it unimposingly but with characteristic aplomb and with deference to character and situation. His double-act with Aoife Miskelly's similarly unshowy, comically nuanced and delicately expressive Despina was a joy to watch.

As you would expect, there was a playful innocence to Flordiligi, Dorabella, Guglielmo and Ferrando that was well brought out in the production, and the casting of young lyrical singers is key to making that convincing. There was nothing sinister suggested in the male roles, which are played with the same kind of youthful fervour as the female roles. If there was perhaps a tendency to overact by Samuel Dale Johnson and (more so) by Sam Furness in the male roles, that could however be seen in keeping with the silent movie acting style. The girls were really deserving of the production's focus however, Kiandra Howarth impressing as Fiordiligi and Heather Lowe bringing that extra little characterisation to Dorabella with little interpolations, gasps and sighs fitted into the singing expression.

And it was in Italian! That might not be the most significant change of direction in the new NI Opera, and I'm sure other works (such as the forthcoming Threepenny Opera) will suit the previous English language singing only policy, but it's a good to have a more flexible approach and Mozart's well-known operas always work better in the original language. It also meant that the occasional 20s-era touches to the surtitles, which might have been inaudible in singing performance, took some of the sting out of Da Ponte's libretto and got plenty of laughs. The lyrical Italian singing and rapid-fire recitative (to a suitably silent-movie like fortepiano) certainly posed no problems for the cast. Or the chorus, who were in wonderful voice and an energetic presence. Hugely entertaining, this was a very promising start to a new NI Opera season.

Links: NI Opera

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Berg - Wozzeck (Salzburg, 2017)

Alban Berg - Wozzeck

Salzburg Festival, 2017

Vladimir Jurowski, William Kentridge, Matthias Goerne, John Daszak, Mauro Peter, Gerhard Siegel, Jens Larsen, Tobias Schabel, Huw Montague Rendall, Heinz Göhrig, Asmik Grigorian, Frances Pappas - 27 August 2017

Like Alban Berg's only other stage work Lulu, Wozzeck is an opera where the music and the drama are intricately connected. Quite how Berg manages to achieve this synthesis in both pieces is complex and would take years to analyse, but there's not really any need for it to be interpreted; the power of these two remarkable works and how they are expressed speaks for itself. It's not really for a director to interpret Lulu or Wozzeck, as you think an artist like William Kentridge might do, as much as provide mood and context. Kentridge, as with his production of Lulu, does this well in this Salzburg Festival production, staging a Wozzeck that firmly has his own individual stamp (what Kentridge staging doesn't?) while not letting that vision get in the way of the work itself.

Georg Büchner's Woyzeck is a study of a man's - or man's - physical and mental limitations. In the 24 quite harsh and gruelling fragments of the unfinished drama, a body and a mind are tested as far as they can be pushed before their owner goes over the edge. Is there just one thing that proves to be too much for Franz Woyzeck, or is it an accumulation of miseries and torments of a wretched existence? Woyzeck is perhaps not so much a bleak account of how miserable life can be as how much strength is required to deal with the daily vicissitudes of life and how delicate and fragile a balance the human psyche rests on.

There is no strict order to the fragments of Büchner's Woyzeck, which is a factor that tends to work in its favour, preventing it from being a simple matter of cause and effect leading to madness and murder. Whatever way you look at it though, in the case of both Büchner and Berg it's apparent from that Franz Wozzeck is cracking. A common soldier, he is brutalised by the captain in his unit, he is experimented on by the doctor, he takes on odd jobs and consequently has little time or thought for his unmarried partner Marie and their child. The dissatisfied Marie's lewd affair with a handsome drum major is just one other factor that beats him down physically as well as mentally.

But Wozzeck also has another element that is less easily identified or rationalised; Franz is affected by hallucinations. Is this just a reaction of his body reacting to the pressures it is undergoing, an indication that his mind is breaking, or a sign of his ability or desire to see something greater beyond the material world? Franz certainly longs for meaning in order, for life to adhere to a structure that makes sense, but instead he finds nature cruel and capricious. Everyone is either looking for power, fame, recognition or satisfaction of their own private desires. To the doctor for example hoping that his experiments on Franz will make him famous, Wozzeck is "a mere human being" not worth losing sleep over, "The death of a salamander would be far more serious".

The world that Wozzeck inhabits is one where horizons are being closed down, where hopes are being dashed, where darkness is gathering. William Kentridge's production at Salzburg is one then that compartmentalises each of the scenes down into little vignettes, brief little areas of illumination in the dark apocalyptic world of the mind. The doctor's cabinet is like a small toilet space, other scenes open up and close, connected by rickety platforms, where only a watery death at the bottom awaits. The set of Wozzeck's mind is filled of course with projections of Kentridge's animated thick-line black ink sketches, depicting life, war, with grotesque figures wearing distorted face masks. War imagery features prominently, suggesting that Wozzeck's disintegrating mind might be caused by PTSD or, in a wider context, that it is the world that has been distorted beyond recognition by the horrors of war.

Kentridge's concepts and drawings are brought to life by the set designs of Sabine Theunissen and co-directed by Luc De Wit, and they do manage to connect everything and bring a continuity here that's not there in Büchner's scenes. But it feels illustrative and doesn't come anywhere close to expressing the madness or despair that is at the heart of Wozzeck, nor the sense of an order of madness that Berg's music constructions suggest. The tavern scene, for example, should be a scene where in Wozzeck's perspective the whole world "writhes and rolls in fornication", but there's little sense of this, nor in the direction of Wozzeck himself do we really get a sense of him buckling under the pressures of his tormentors and his own delusions.

Kentridge might not get to the heart of Wozzeck then - and maybe that's a place we don't really want to delve into too deeply - but as a performance and a spectacle illustrative of a work of infinite richness, there's still a great deal to admire and provoke thoughts in the 2017 Salzburg Wozzeck. There's much to find of interest in the musical performance of the Vienna Philharmonic directed by Vladimir Jurowski (much too much to take in on a single listening), and the singing performances are all good, although I found little in them that was really satisfying in terms of characterisation and continuity. It's more important for Franz and Marie that the other cast of grotesques, and in that respect Matthias Goerne could certainly have done with a little more direction, and Asmik Grigorian just didn't the lusty verve or the earthy complexity of Marie's emotional openness.

In a work as complex and delicately balanced as Wozzeck, it's important to establish a connection between the music and the drama, and Kentridge sets the mood, illustrates it well and allows Berg's musical score to fill in the areas where it is best placed to probe the deeper questions raised in the work. But Berg's opera still needs more than that. There's a human element that is admittedly submerged in some very dark and abstract ideas, but - like Lulu as well - it is essential that the singers don't just perform it, but are able to bring something human and personal that allows the audience to relate to and find a context for the difficult experiences that Franz and Marie undergo. The Salzburg production has much to admire, but it doesn't have the essential human involvement.

Links: Salzburger Festspiele,

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Alfano - Risurrezione (Wexford, 2017)

Franco Alfano - Risurrezione

Wexford Festival Opera, 2017

Francesco Cilluffo, Rosetta Cucchi, Gerard Schneider, Anne Sophie Duprels, Charles Rice, Romina Tomasoni, Louise Innes

National Opera House, Wexford - 2 November 2017

Late in his life, Leo Tolstoy embraced a radical form of Christianity and would look back with disgust at the indulgence and sin of his former aristocratic upbringing. Adopting a more ascetic lifestyle he would also come to repudiate his greatest works, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina, believing that art and literature had no purpose unless it was instructive. Some of his descriptions of his former life of dissolution can be found in the early semi-autobiographical work Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, and a more reflective and penitent side of his rebirth can be found in later works like The Kingdom of God is Within You, The Forged Coupon and Resurrection.

The idea of penitence and rebirth is evidently very much to the fore in Resurrection. It might seem primarily like an exercise in guilt, but Resurrection is not so much about wallowing in self-pity and self-abasement as much as reflecting on how one's actions affect others, and whether any real good can be brought about by repentance and a change of heart. Tolstoy reportedly wasn't impressed by the indulgence of Resurrection being adapted into an opera that caters to a well-off audience, but you can also see why Franco Alfano's Risurrezione didn't set the world alight and even now remains a neglected piece. It is a gloomy affair for the most part and Alfano's treatment of the work is as serious as it gets, but it is also beautiful and ultimately uplifting.

The opera is structured neatly into four parts that, since the story is instructive and not bogged down with distracting sidelines, are easily summarised. Prince Dmitri reflects Count Tolstoy's early life of indulgence of the aristocratic lifestyle, without a thought or care for the needs and feelings of others. In Act I he seduces the maid Katiusha on a fleeting visit to the family mansion and then disappears again, forgetting about her.  In Act II we discover that Katiusha is pregnant from this encounter and as a consequence she has been thrown out of the house and her life has fallen into ruin. She abandons an attempt to tell Dmitri about the situation when she discovers him with a prostitute.

Dmitri belatedly discovers Katiusha's fate, which has ended up with her becoming a prostitute and falsely imprisoned, and he tries to make up for what has happened in Act III, visiting the fallen woman in prison. He pleads that he knew nothing of what had happened, that he is still in love with her and that he can help get her released from the harsh prison environment so that they can marry, but Katiusha remains impervious to his entreaties and doesn't believe that he can really change his ways.

Alfano sets Risurrezione very much in the Italian verismo style of the day, which proves to be quite appropriate, at least for these first three acts. It's actually not unlike La Bohème, the meeting of Dmitri and Katiusha in Act I similar to that of Rodolfo and Mimi; on shaky ground from the start, the brief spark between them soon extinguished by the cruel reality of their circumstances. In Risurrezione, Act II and III also relate closely to the situation in Act III of La Bohème, where attempts to rekindle the spark seem even more unlikely; the couple despairing of the impossibility of their union. Surely death is also on the horizon in Risurrezione?

Well yes and no, and that's the point of Tolstoy's work. Hard lessons have to be learned, there needs to be an acceptance of one's true self and true repentance and reparation. Dmitri tries to show this, but it is worthless without Katiusha's acceptance and forgiveness, which can also only come with an acceptance of her own true self. This is visually represented in Rosetta Cucchi's impressive Wexford production by a young girl seen briefly throughout, but to be fair it's hinted at in Alfano's score, which is not as relentlessly downbeat as it sounds, but alive to dynamic and emotional tone.

The focus is very much on Dmitri and Katiusha for most of Act I, much of Act II, the latter part of Act III and all of Act IV.  Considering the challenging nature of their characters' predicaments, that places a lot of pressure on Gerard Schneider and Anne Sophie Duprels, but both take their parts exceptionally well, remaining strong and consistently lyrical throughout. Alfano does however break the story down into memorable scenes with a greater variety of dramatic situation than might be expected, even if variation of the overall despairing tenor of the work up to the final scene is negligible.

That makes Risurrezione quite a challenging work also for a conductor trying to harness Alfano's verismo score towards the true character of Tolstoy's original work. Francesco Cilluffo however drew a magnificent performance out of the Wexford Festival orchestra that was entirely sympathetic to the sensibility of the work and the composer's treatment, holding to a consistent through-line while finding the right adjustments of volume and tempo to allow the score to hit all of its dramatic points. The Italianate orchestration might seem at odds with the spiritual Russian side of the work, but Cilluffo uses the verismo aspects of the score as another way of trying to find "truth", albeit in a very different way from Tolstoy.

The conclusion then in Act IV is worth waiting for, even though the treatment up to that point never drags or begs indulgence but is rather just earnest and purposeful. For the climactic moment of enlightenment Alfano has to abandon his verismo principles for a heavenly choir as an inner revelation dawns (literally) on both Dmitri and Katiusha and takes them to a spiritual awakening. It really does strike the perfect note of transcendental attainment that the work should be aiming to reach. The traditional operatic death that might be expected at the conclusion then is replaced by a metaphorical death, a letting go of the past and to ways that have held both Dmitri and Katiusha back from being open to their better nature, allowing them to be reborn, resurrected.

Links: Wexford Festival Opera

Friday, 10 November 2017

Foroni - Margherita (Wexford, 2017)

Jacopo Foroni - Margherita

Wexford Festival Opera, 2017

Timothy Myers, Michael Sturm, Yuriy Yurchuk, Matteo d'Apolito, Alessandra Volpe, Andrew Stenson, Giuliana Gianfaldoni, Filippo Fontana, Ji Hyun Kim

National Opera House, Wexford - 1 November 2017

The opera semiseria is a deeply unfashionable form of opera, but if anyone can give an unknown and unfashionable opera like Jacopo Foroni's Margherita an airing and bit of polish it's the patron saint of lost operas, the Wexford Festival Opera. The rediscovery of the rare and wonderful has more or less been their mission over the 66 years the festival has been running in Ireland, to such an extent that they are even experts on Jacopo Foroni, having staged the similarly obscure Cristina, Regina di Svezia back in 2013.

And Margherita similarly seems to be well worth the effort. It's a beautifully constructed piece and wonderfully entertaining - but it definitely needs all the skills of a sympathetic conductor and orchestra, a fine chorus and singers who are capable of making something more of this type of opera and bring it to life. Wexford's lavish production gifts Foroni's opera with all that, but Margherita also gets the additional sparkle that it really needs from a suitable direction that knows exactly what to do with it.

I can't say I've been convinced by other examples of opera semiseria that I've seen by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti or Halévy. The comedy tends to sit rather uneasily with the melodrama for a modern audience who have a different concept of opera, and the plots - usually involving a young maiden in a Swiss village whose virtue is unjustly impugned - are often banal and ludicrous. Bellini barely gets away with it in La Sonnambula, and Donizetti's Linda di Chaumonix has its merits, but a firm directorial hand can help in these cases and Michael Sturm's direction of Margherita for Wexford gets the tone exactly right.

The life-or-death romantic plot of Margherita, unsurprisingly, doesn't really add up if you look too closely at it. Margherita's dream of marrying Ernesto is put into jeopardy soon after he returns from the war, when he is accused of having killed a man. The supposed victim was seen by Giustina arguing with two men in the woods, but his identity is unknown and there's no body. Despite this the Mayor, Ser Matteo with the backing of the community see fit to have Ernesto locked up and face a death sentence on the basis that his hat was found in the vicinity of the scuffle.

It suits the Mayor of course, partly because he is too lazy to look into the matter, but also because his nephew Roberto has intentions to marry Margherita himself and inherit a fortune that will pay off his debts. Margherita agrees to sign an agreement to marry Roberto, who promises that he will use his influence to have Ernesto released from prison. What a dilemma for the young woman. One can only hope that the 'victim', Count Rodolfo, turns up on time to explain what has happened and prevent this terrible injustice for occurring.  Which, evidently, is exactly what happens...

If the plot doesn't give you much to engage with, the quality of the singing is excellent. Foroni and librettist Giorgio Giachetti ensure that everyone is generously given their moment in the spotlight and they all take it well, with Alessandra Volpe as Margherita and Giuliana Gianfaldoni as Giustina particularly entering very much into the spirit of the piece. Andrew Stenson's Ernesto lives up to his name and is a little more earnest - but that seems to be his nature and the male roles are rather less well-defined than the female roles here. The other male roles tend to rely on comic timing and interplay, and that is handled well by Matteo d'Apolito and Filippo Fontana as Matteo and Roberto.

As thin and ludicrous as the plot is in Margherita, you somehow feel inclined to go along with it. That's principally down to Foroni I think, who sweeps you along persuasively with the most gorgeous, melodic, effervescent music, keeping the dramatic developments progressing well (even if not convincingly), without too many of the tedious side developments (weddings, dances) that usually litter the opera semiseria. Even the new mayor's opening ode to laziness is relevant to his character and nature. It's also a clever strategy on the part of the director Michael Sturm that he doesn't feel the need to present this in any kind of naturalistic fashion.

That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to go cartoonish (as was the case with the Zurich production of Jacques Fromental Halévy's Clari), but rather the director Michael Sturm and set and costume designer Stefan Rieckhoff play to the nature of the work itself. Or even play up to its absurdities, so that Ernesto, for example, isn't just thrown into prison but rather more dramatically led up a hangman's scaffold to ramp up the drama to the scale of the sentiments. At the same time it's essential to keep up a flow and momentum going so that the audience don't have to think too hard about what is going on and start questioning the dubious aspects of the plot.

It's not so much to cover-up deficiencies, and direction shouldn't be about trying to make Margherita more credible; what is important is capturing the spirit of the work, and that's done here very cleverly here. The background remains a war-torn village street scene where the idea of a community is established in lively choral scenes. The other scenes are superimposed and layered on top of that, whether it's the interior of Margherita's bedroom, a prison or a scaffold, with sparing use of projections and a tree or a moon lowered into place when required. It gives the work cohesion and flows beautifully in this way, carrying the audience along on its buoyant rhythms and melodies.