Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Rossini - William Tell (London, 2015)

Giacomo Rossini - Guillaume Tell

Royal Opera House, 2015

Antonio Pappano, Damiano Michieletto, Gerald Finley, John Osborn, Malin Byström, Alexander Vinogradov, Sofia Fomina, Enkelejda Shkosa, Nicolas Courjal, Eric Halfvarson, Michael Colvin, Samuel Dale Johnson, Enea Scala

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The Royal Opera House production of William Tell caused a bit of an uproar over some explicit content that some thought had no place in Rossini's opera, specifically a scene depicting the rape of a young village woman by Gesler's soldiers. As is often the case, it appears that one scene has come in for undue attention, taken out of context of the production as a whole. While it is uncomfortably long it's meant to make the audience feel uncomfortable, and if so Damiano Michieletto succeeds in getting across the reality of military oppression and war crimes, which is surely what the legend of William Tell and Rossini's opera is all about. Or is it?

Well, there's an argument to be made on both sides. For a start, Michieletto is not recounting the legend of William Tell and the Swiss rebellion against the oppressive Austrian Habsburg regime in the 14th century, but rather updates it to a more modern setting that looks more like it takes place in one of the Balkan states, the Ukraine or Crimea. It's not just that the director wants to de-romanticise the William Tell legend, since it's apparent to anyone who listens closely to the score that Rossini by no means romanticises the subject of military oppression and genocide. All Michieletto is doing is bringing the underlying reality of that to the stage rather than hide it behind costume drama theatrics.

There's a case to be made however that Rossini's music - in that controversial scene certainly - doesn't depict that kind of brutal realism. And even if it has been toned down a little for this video recording, do we really want to see it acted out in this way on the stage? We wouldn't watch it if it was on the news and surely acting out a rape scene on the stage and choreographing it to Rossini's music risks cheapening the horror of the reality. Well, that's why we have directors to make decisions about how far to go in the visual staging of an opera and Damiano Michieletto takes sensitivities on both sides into account in the Royal Opera House production.

Rossini's music might indeed suggest more of mythological hero of the kind that Jemmy reads about in his comic books, while playing with his toy soldiers, as we see during the famous four-part overture that Rossini devises for the opera - an overture that is unlike any of his previous dashed-out-in-minutes-just-before-the-opening-night overtures for his earlier operas. The overture captures the sense of human suffering and endurance, buoyed by a sense of unquenchable spirit for heroic resistance, and finally acceptance of the human reality and the cost that must be paid for it. It's all there in Rossini's overture, it's expanded on (considerably) over the long opera, and all that is there in Michieletto's production as well.

The romantic image of the 14th century folk legend and what he stands for is there in Jemmy's imagination; a figure who steps off the comic book page in this production and gives the strength and inspiration of the ideal to those living with the reality. The Robin Hood-like figure tries to rouse the people of the little village of Bürglen with his arrow, but the despairing villagers are clearly too terrified having suffered at the hands of the brutal Austrian governor of the region, Gesler. William Tell, all too aware of the bitter reality that they have to live with on a daily basis, is himself is disgusted at his son's nonsense, and is reluctant to take up the quiver presented to him by the ghostly figure of legend.

But take it up he does. He first attempts passive resistance (refusing to bow before Gesler's hat) and appeasement (shooting the apple from his son's head), before realising that other more direct and violent means are necessary. It's not acceptable to just heroically storm in there and Rossini's opera, based on Friedrich Schiller's play, incorporates a variety of real human responses, not just through Tell and his family, but also the suffering endured by Arnold Melchtal through the murder of his father, and the compromised position he is in with regards to his post in the Austrian army and his relationship with Mathilde. Family, above all is what is important, and it's complicated. There's also a sense of the community as a family and it is in the realisation of the greater good being served for the sake of this family that the path to action becomes clearer.

Michieletto's production takes all of this into account, placing great emphasis on the family connections and the depth of feeling that Rossini's score gives them in the opera. He contrasts this - in sharp lighting with long shadows - with the devastation that had been done, the landscape a wasteland with uprooted trees featuring prominently. Nature has been defiled. At the same time, it's important that the turning point that is reached is one that justifies Tell's actions. The horror of Tell having to shoot an apple off the head of his own son is vividly depicted in the opera, but the folk legend is unlikely to have the same impact for a modern audience used to seeing worse horrors on the TV every night, and if Michieletto deems it necessary to elaborate on a scene that is discreetly alluded to in the libretto in order to make the work function dramatically, well, that's his job.

Obviously not everyone will agree with the means employed, but regardless of the merits of the production designs and the concept employed, the musical and singing performances make a convincing case for the brilliance of Rossini's masterpiece. The Royal Opera House orchestra under Antonio Pappano put in an outstanding performance, forceful, lyrical and dynamic, never over-playing or over-emphasising Rossini score into grand opera mannerisms, but remaining sensitive to the pace and varied moods of the piece. It's often dazzling, particularly with the uncompressed high quality audio mixing on the Blu-ray disc.

The casting too is of the highest order for what is undoubtedly an extremely challenging and a long work to sing for all its principal performers. I'm not sure why I never get terribly excited about Gerald Finley as a leading performer, but perhaps it's because there are just never any airs or showiness attached to his performances. That doesn't mean that he is ever merely filling a role functionally; his William Tell here is faultlessly controlled and expressive in singing, his acting performance completely within character. John Osborn is one of the most underrated Rossini tenors out there, and one of the few who can really do justice to a role as challenging as Arnold. He's quite brilliant here. I've been hard on Malin Byström in the past, but she amply demonstrates how good she can be here and is simply extraordinary as Mathilde. Keeping the emphasis essentially on the family theme, Sofia Fomina presents a lively, spirited Jemmy and Enkelejda Shkosa a touching Hedwige. Nicolas Courjal is a force to be reckoned with, as you would expect Gesler to be. The chorus also play their important role in the opera exceptionally well.

Links: Royal Opera House

Monday, 14 August 2017

Dean - Hamlet (Glyndebourne, 2017)

Brett Dean - Hamlet

Glyndebourne 2017

Neil Armfield, Vladimir Jurowski, Allan Clayton, Barbara Hannigan, Sarah Connolly, Rod Gilfry, John Tomlinson, Kim Begley, David Butt Philip, Jacques Imbrailo, Rupert Enticknap, Christopher Lowrey

Medici - 6th July 2017

The creation of a new opera based on 'Hamlet' is no minor event in the opera calendar and with all eyes on Glyndebourne and a streamed live performance of the new works, there must be considerable pressure to do this Shakespeare work right and make an impact. All credit to the creators and performers involved then, since Brett Dean's Hamlet proves to be a not only a very good adaptation of Shakespeare but a strong operatic drama in its own right.

The challenge with making an opera out of 'Hamlet' would I imagine be much the same as any other many attempts to adapt Shakespeare, only more so. It involves keeping the essence and tone of the work intact, while having to make drastic cuts, and 'Hamlet' is one of Shakespeare's longest, most complex and surely difficult plays to work with, involving such difficult choices even for the dramatic stage.

As with Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet, it's essential to keep key scenes and speeches, but that alone is not enough - certainly not in the case of Thomas. Brett Dean and his librettist Matthew Jocelyn however have one major advantage over most other opera adaptations of Shakespeare in that they can retain much of the original English text and the rich poetry of the original. Dean's Hamlet then is not exactly word-for-word, but often close to the original, paying particularly attention to the delivery of the play's most famous and important lines.

The other critical factor in making it work as a dramatic piece which can't be underestimated (and again something that applies equally to any performance of the stage play), is finding capable performers with the ability to breathe life and personality into the characters. With an extraordinarily strong cast that includes Allan Clayton, Barbara HanniganRod Gilfry, Sarah Connolly and John Tomlinson, Glyndebourne's world premiere performances certainly have the strongest assembly of singers possible for these roles.

Allan Clayton gives it everything as Hamlet, but crucially finds that essential need to make the Prince's wilful madness sympathetic and not just morbidly obsessive or a raging madman. To do that, you also have to make Claudius and Gertrude convincing and - critically - establish those connections and contrasts of outlook in their interaction. This is something that is brought out not only through the medium of Ophelia (played with agonising sincerity and determination by the outstanding Barbara Hannigan who brings the mad scene back into modern opera in a spectacular fashion) and her father Polonious, but also by the supporting characters (in the fullest sense of supporting and character) by Horatio, by Laertes and even by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Essentially then, there are no 'supporting characters' as such, as its the interaction between them all that creates a complex situation of conflicting purposes and personalities. And the Glyndebourne casts it as such with Rod Gilfry and Sarah Connolly stamping their personality all over Claudius and Gertrud with tremendous singing performances, but also with the likes of Jacques Imbrailo singing Horatio, Kim Begley as Polonious and John Tomlinson singing the ghost of Hamlet's father, one of the players and the gravedigger. All of these figures could easily be side-lined by the need to cut and condense, but it's to the credit of the opera that there is recognition that they are not just there to provide colour, but have a vital dramatic role to play in the work.

The question remains however whether Shakespeare gains anything from being adapted to the opera stage, and perhaps it never really does. The real question however is whether - again like any stage production of the play - it serves the work and can bring a certain character of its own to bear on a great work. Musically, Dean's music rarely calls attention to itself, and certainly doesn't over-assert itself over the inherent force of the drama and the language, but rather it controls mood and pacing, hinting at deeper tensions and stirring trouble, bringing some dramatic emphasis where necessary. It does well in the manner that the music and repetition can highlight certain words and phrases, overlaying them in a way that traditional theatre cannot to bring opposing views into even starker contrast.

Brett Dean's Hamlet can then be quite difficult to follow in a single viewing, even for those familiar with the play. Actually, familiarity with 'Hamlet' can even make things more difficult, since you find yourself looking for dramatic cuts and variances, looking for interpretation of familiar themes and considering how it measures up to the original. That can lead to the music not being given the same due attention for the role it plays that the singing performances receive, but together there is no question that Dean's Hamlet grips and holds attention and relates the story of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark with considerable fidelity as a good opera drama, as well as having something of its own to contribute to its telling. The finale, as good a measure of a 'Hamlet' as any other scene, is outstandingly staged and musically set. All the more for having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die an on-stage death at this point along with almost everyone else.

The stage direction of Neil Armfield and the conducting of Vladimir Jurowski have no small part to play in the success of the endeavour. The set design is all tall panels from a rich mansion that shift and slide to reveal the darkness behind, the opera flowing seamlessly from one scene to the next. The costumes are modern-dress, the nobles wearing suits and formal dresses, the others a little shabbier, with Hamlet and Ophelia's descents into madness (whether feigned or real) reflected in the increasing disarray of their outfits. Everyone is pale pansticked white-faced. It's a thoroughly nightmarish 'Hamlet' world. Jurowski handles the complexities and lovely idiosyncrasies of the musical arrangements well, the score and the performances allowing the qualities of the libretto and the singing the fullest expression.

Links: Glyndebourne, Medici

Monday, 7 August 2017

Handel - Acis and Galatea (Dublin, 2017)

George Frideric Handel - Acis and Galatea

Opera Theatre Company, Dublin - 2017

Peter Whelan, Tom Creed, Susanna Fairbairn, Eamonn Mulhall, Edward Grint, Andew Gavin, Peter O'Reilly, Sinéad O'Kelly, Fearghal Curtis, Cormac Lawlor

Opera Platform - 11 April 2017

It certainly comes as a bit of a surprise and does initially seem a little jarring to find the mythological content of Handel's pastoral opera Acis and Galatea located in a little provincial Irish pub. In the Opera Theatre Company's 2017 production, Handel's fable opens with the nymphs and shepherds coming in from the fields for a quick half and then changing out of their work clothes to take part in a line-dance hoedown.

It's certainly not the first image that comes to mind when you think of nymphs and shepherds in the bucolic setting of a pastoral opera, but there's ample justification for it. Checking the definition on Google, it says that a pastoral is a work that portrays an idealised version of country life, and when you put it like that and apply it to an Irish setting, the connection not only seems obvious in an equivalent modern context, but the way that the tale plays out in this setting also serves to touch on the true spirit of the piece.

This is always a key point when it comes to bringing Handel to the modern opera stage, particularly in those pieces that are more choral or oratorio in format like Acis and Galatea. It's essential not to ironically poke fun at the easy target of its idealised sentiments, but it doesn't serve the works particularly well either to play them in some kind of kitsch notion of traditional period that a modern audience will find impossible to respond to in the way that they might have 300 years ago.

On the other hand, the idea of idealisation is at the heart of Acis and Galatea, but to make it meaningful, there has to be some basis for it in reality. Tom Creed's Irish setting isn't just modernisation for the sake of being clever, it finds a way to touch more deeply on the sentiments at the heart of the work and bring that across to the audiences on the Opera Theatre Company's Irish tour. It does it so well that there's every reason to believe that it can communicate that to a wider audience in its streamed broadcast on the Opera Platform.

Adjusting expectations, bringing a clear head to lofty ideals and rushes of emotions is very much what Acis and Galatea is about, but it's also about transforming reality or creating something greater out of it. For the nymphs and shepherds, it's about celebrating the end of the day in a song and a dance (and maybe a drink or two). The semi-divine nymph Galatea (here a barmaid, much the same thing after that transformative drink or two) is troubled by the far too lofty ideals she holds in her love for the shepherd Acis, and it needs some helpful intervention from Damon to caution both of them to have a little more restraint.

The same goes for the monstrous ogre Polyphemus (here a belligerent drunk), who thinks he can gain the love of Galatea by force. Again, Damon suggests that a more gentle approach might win a fair maid ("Would you gain the tender creature"). The reaction of Acis is perhaps over-solicitous ("Love sounds th' alarm") and again he is cautioned to be more moderate in his behaviour ("Consider, fond shepherd, how fleeting's the pleasure that flatters our hopes in pursuit of the fair"). It's to no avail, as an inebriated Polyphemus staggers in and clobbers him with a brick to the head ("crushed beneath a stone") in a barroom brawl.

Acis and Galatea is not just a morality tale that warns of giving excessive licence to the sentiments, it's more about recognising them - good and bad - and being able to transform them into something more noble. In this way, humans can aspire towards the divine, and even in death Acis is transformed into a fountain. Tom Creed's handling of this vital scene is critical to the success of the production and its overall message. The flashing lights of the emergency services outside the bar, the ambulance men working on the fatally injured man in the foreground all hit home the reality of the death of Acis, while the 'fountain' supplies his friends with a drink to his memory, the commemoration of which will hopefully serve to transform the lives of others.

Music and opera is also an essential element of the transformative experience, turning stories of love and tragedy into something instructive and ennobling, and that's where Handel comes in. Musically, Acis and Galatea is one of the composer's most beautiful works, all its richness compressed into a short work that if filled with memorable melodies and songs. In the context of the performance by the Irish Baroque Orchestra conducted by Peter Whelan, some of the flute playing even delightfully evokes a sense of traditional folk music, cementing the connection between the mythology and its relocation perfectly.

Paul O'Mahony's revolving set provides a lovingly detailed Irish pub interior, exterior and backroom for the cast to move about and give far more expression than you might expect from a work with little dramatic playing. The cast all take their roles well, with a soft gentleness of expression that is perfect for the overall sentiments of the work and its more down-to-earth reduction of the choral parts. Andrew Gavin's Damon is the gentle spirit of temperance that tries to moderate Edward Grint's Polyphemus - played perfectly as more of an awkward drunken fool than an evil monster. Susanna Fairbairn's Galatea and Eamonn Mulhall's Acis bring the same kind of measured dynamic to those roles, keeping them grounded in the realism that the production strives to achieve, while still matching the opera's aspirations to create something greater.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Handel - Semele (Karlsruhe, 2017)

George Frideric Handel - Semele

Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe - 2017

Christopher Moulds, Floris Visser, Jennifer France, Ed Lyon, Dilara Baştar, Katharine Tier, Terry Wey, Edward Gauntt, Hannah Bradbury, Yang Xu, Ilkin Alpay

Opera Platform - May 2017

If you consider it in simple dramatic terms, not a great deal happens in Semele. It's a tale of Jupiter up to his old tricks again, spiriting down to mingle with mortals and have his pick of whatever attractive lady takes his fancy, much to the displeasure of his long-suffering wife, Juno. Based on the classical legend from Ovid's Metamorphoses, there's a basic moral about Semele's pride in consorting with the gods and thinking herself their equal, but primarily it's a poetic subject, with any relatable human context submerged in flowery language and mythological matters of the gods.

The range of sentiments and the manner in which they are couched however provide perfect material for Handel to demonstrate what he could achieve at this stage in his career. Semele's subject matter and treatment would make it more suitable for the English oratorio format than the Italian opera form that the composer had by this stage abandoned. The story's distinct scenes offer a variety of musical responses that Handel undertakes with grace, wit and invention. Producing the non-religious subject of Semele as an oratorio for the Lent season of 1744 stirred up some resentment and controversy, but Handel was never one to let tradition overrule musical imperatives and his own desire progress and develop the music-drama form.

Despite Handel's wonderful variety of musical moods - and a few famous arias - Semele can still be a little dry in its subject matter, in its repetition of banal statements and its delivery of solemn declamations, so it undoubtedly helps if you can enliven a dramatic presentation and bring the gods a little more down-to-earth. The Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe production directed by Floris Visser does that in a very clever manner that updates the context of the story of Semele while at the same time retaining near complete fidelity towards character and purpose. Just as importantly, the production fully captures the essential spirit and charm of Handel's musical arrangements for the work. It's not profound, but it's certainly clever, charming and - with Handel's music behind it all - enchanting.

A lovely little dramatic play over the intro sets the scene quite perfectly in the Karlsruhe production. Here Jupiter is a philandering American President with an eye for the ladies (take your pick - most of the costume designs and Ed Lyon's appearance suggest JFK era, but the use of technology and a Monica Lewinsky reference in the closing scene give it a more timeless application). Recently inaugurated, it's not long before the first lady Juno catches the President carrying on with his secretary Semele (daughter of Cadmus, the King of Thebes, who no doubt has the influence to get her a post at the White House as an intern). Furious, the President's wife arranges for the threat to be neutralised by arranging a marriage for the young woman to Athamas, a promising young military officer.

Act I of the oratorio/opera then opens with the familiar setting of the unfortunate playing out of those wedding arrangements, the somewhat drawn-out wedding situation at least engaging the interest in seeing how this modern twist can be made to fit in with the mythological content and whether any real-world message can as a consequence cut through the old-fashioned trappings of antiquity. With numerous inventive responses - I imagine that a certain amount of credit for that must go to the creative and meaningful development of the dramaturgy by Klaus Bertisch - the Karlsruhe production does that very well and makes it thoroughly entertaining into the bargain.

To cite just a few examples, the wedding of Act I has a timeless feel, with character types and situations that are much more recognisable in this context. In place of the thunderbolts that herald Jupiter's intervention, we see instead the President directing a SWAT operation that provides just as much storm and drama without the hokey imagery of gods descending on clouds and chariots. Nor are there dragons with a "thousand fiery eyes" that guard Semele's hidden mountain retreat, but a video of an armaments test of new helicopter technology by Juno's PA Iris achieves much the same impact and effect.  

Aside from the clever technical solutions provided, Floris Visser also ensures that the characters also respond appropriately to this world view, without straying too far away from the essence of what the drama is striving to convey. Juno and Iris provide the most fun, knocking back a bottle of Jack Daniels as they plot revenge on Jupiter. Somnus, the God of Sleep who they engage/blackmail to help them storm Jupiter's hideaway, is a dozy porn-addicted computer geek who will hack the system in return for sexual favours. The magic mirror that Juno uses to appeals to Semele's vanity is a camera, and it's also at the hands of the press - flashbulbs replacing bolts of lightning - that Semele is undone and realises too late her mistake in consorting with the 'gods' who play by their own rules with little thought for the consequences it has for 'ordinary' people.

This all brings a welcome sense of fun and significance that is wholly appropriate for the work, but it doesn't neglect the greater variety of mood and emotions that Handel was able to develop outside the restrictions of the Italian opera format. There's tenderness in the situations of Athamas and Ino; there's a jaunty smugness to Juno and Iris at the success of their plotting and of course; there's considerable breadth of character to Semele and the experience she undergoes beyond the normal fluctuations between joy and despair. Visibly pregnant at the end of Act I, with a couple of fantasy dream sequences illustrating her illusions, her predicament is made rather more meaningful and clearer than their child mystically arising out of her ashes at the conclusion (the birth of Bacchus no doubt a boon for those two dipsos Juno and Iris).

Christopher Moulds conducts the score with the requisite attention to pacing, rhythm and mood, perhaps smoothing the edges out a little, but it's hard to determine that from a compressed audio stream. The singing too holds up its side of the deal that is required to make this production work so well, with engaging performances throughout. Jennifer France is a lively and assertive Semele, not just a floozy for the President, impressive in her characterisation of the role, which is sung wonderfully. Ed Lyon, more presidential than god-like, gives an engaging performance; Terry Wey's lovely alto countertenor brings a measure of sweetness and sympathy for Athamas; Katharine Tier and Hannah Bradbury make a great team and provide some of the most entertaining moments as Juno and Iris. The demands of the English diction are a challenge for Dilara Baştar and her Ino sounds overly harsh at first, but she comes into the role well.

Links: Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, Opera Platform