February 2011


IphigenieChristoph Willibald Gluck - Iphigénie en Tauride

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Stephen Wadsworth, Susan Graham, Plácido Domingo, Paul Groves, Gordon Hawkins | The Met: Live in HD - February 26, 2011

It was through his French opera works that Christoph Willibald Gluck would bring to fruition the reforms to opera he had begun in Vienna in 1762 and 1767 with Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste (which themselves would later be revised in French versions), culminating in his 1779 masterwork Iphigénie en Tauride. Returning to the origins of where opera derived – an attempt to recreate ancient Greek drama with the accompaniment of music – Gluck’s intention was similarly to strip back anything that didn’t serve to primarily support and enhance the drama.

Gone then are the excessive arias with their da capo repetitions designed to show of the coloratura of the star singers, gone is the recitativo secco left to fill in the narrative, and gone is the inexpressive sound of the harpsichord of Baroque opera. In its place Gluck would use the orchestration, continuo singing, and significantly make stronger use of the chorus, to enhance and give psychological depth to the characterisation and the drama, to the extent that, famously in Ihpigénie en Tauride, characters can say one thing while the music reveals the contradicting meaning to what they are saying. The reforms of opera instigated by Gluck were hugely influential and very important, leading the way towards the more modern form of opera as we know it today.

It’s that sheer depth of human emotion and psychological drama that comes out of the Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Ihpigénie en Tauride for the Metropolitan Opera, their production to be broadcast live in HD. Less cerebral than Claus Guth’s 2001 Freudian interpretation of the Euripides drama for the Opernhaus Zurich, the Met orchestra is also rather fuller than William Christie’s period arrangements for that production, but both in their way get to the heart of the human tragedy of Greek proportions that are at the core of the opera. There’s not too much scene setting in this version of Iphigenia in Tauris, a silent dramatic prelude re-enacting the horror of Iphigenia’s execution at the hand of her father Agamemnon at Aulis, in an effort to appease Artemis on his way to fight the war in Troy, only to be spirited away at the last moment by the goddess Diana (the event recounted in an earlier Gluck opera, Iphigéne en Aulide). After 15 years in Tauris, a priestess now to King Thoas, the trauma remains so deep that she is unable to recognise her brother Orestes, who has arrived in shipwrecked in Tauris, and who is about to be sacrificed to the Gods by his sister, according to the custom of the land.

Iphigenie

Dramatically, Iphigénie en Tauride is a sequel to Iphigéne en Aulide then, but it has links also to Elektra (where Orestes has just taken revenge on his mother Clytemnestra for the murder of his father Agamemnon, and is equally as traumatised by the experience), and the brooding melancholy of Gluck’s score in some ways sets the tone that Strauss would match, even more discordantly, some time later in his opera Elektra. The same qualities of deep remorse mixed with guilt lie at the heart of both – the traumatic events that Ihpigenia and Orestes have endured have had a profound impact on their personalities (one indeed with pre-Freudian connotations, as in the initial encounter between brother and sister when Orestes, coming out of a nightmare, calls out “Mother” on seeing Iphigenia) – and, like Elektra, Iphigénie en Tauride is likewise stripped down to its pure emotional core, the singing is allowed to stand alone and express the heart of the drama more through the voice than through any narrative drive.

The split stage is effective, reducing the stage down into distinct areas where the psychological drama can be enclosed and heightened in suffocating prison cells and sacrificial tombs. It may have just been the sound mix to the cinemas or perhaps the less than perfect French diction of the singers, but the staging also seemed to affect the acoustics of the voice. Scarcely a word could be made out of Gordon Hawkins’ delivery as Thoas, but Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo’s singing also seemed to have a little too much reverb. Both however were in fine voice – and wonderful voices they are – despite both suffering from a cold. There were noticeable sniffles from Graham in Act 1 and 2, but whatever remedy she was taking kicked in after the interval, resulting in a commanding singing and dramatic performance in the final two acts. Domingo seemed to be holding back and conserving his energy, but by the same token he is not a grandstanding scene-stealing kind of performer and played within the confines of the role (as I’m sure Gluck would have approved), graciously allowing both Graham and Paul Groves to give full account of their voices and the roles they played.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

English National Opera, London | Mark Wigglesworth, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iain Paterson, John Tomlinson, Tom Fox, Stuart Skelton, Jane Dutton, Andrew Greenan | The Coliseum, London - February 19th, 2011

Wagner’s final opera, written and first produced in 1882, a year before his death, takes around four hours to relate a story that could be easily summarised in a couple of lines. It’s about a group of knights, protectors of the Holy Grail, who hope one day to recover the equally holy spear that pierced Christ’s side while on the cross. It has been prophesised that only a pure innocent holy fool will be able to achieve this, wresting it from the clutches of the evil Klingsor and thereby bring about redemption for Amfortas, the leader of the knights who suffers from an eternal wound that the spear has inflicted upon him. The person who comes along to fulfil this prophecy is Parsifal.

It seems like a very simple storyline and not one that would fill four hours of an opera, one would think – or at least one would think that were they not familiar with Richard Wagner. The key word in the above description is ‘suffering’, and, no, I’m not describing what an audience listening to four hours of Wagner has to undergo. On the contrary, Parsifal is filled end to end with some of the most exquisitely beautiful, thoughtful and indescribably sublime music that the composer, or indeed any composer, has ever written. The opera, rather, was inspired by Wagner’s attempt, late in his life, to come to terms with the idea of suffering, endless suffering, life as sufferance, and question what humanity gains through endurance of such torment.

Parsifal

There’s evidently a heavily Christian undercurrent to Parsifal then (although Wagner was in fact largely inspired by Buddhist teaching on the matter), with many of the characters undergoing Christ-like trials and torments to ultimately achieve purification for humanity, rediscover innocence, peace and an end to suffering, and through this the inspiration to continue to wage a holy war against infidels and those whose blood is less than pure. That makes the concept that Parsifal explores rather more complicated, not to say, in the light of the composer’s notorious anti-Semitic sentiments, even somewhat sinister.

The huge undertaking of the various concepts, and the Christian ideals that are explored in Parsifal however can be seen not even as an undercurrent, but in the very overt subject matter of the Holy Grail itself and the powerful symbolism of this image – according to Wagner “The most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion”. One need only think of how the term is applied in a modern context as the be all and end all, the ultimate aim, aspiration and desire of every human being – something that they are prepared to sacrifice everything for and endure so much suffering to attain.That’s why Parsifal takes four hours to express its ideas, since this is something that has to be worked for, won through long suffering, endurance and purity of purpose. Almost all of the characters in the opera are single-minded in their pursuit of this aim, and it is not too difficult to fathom their motivations, but there are some, Amfortas, and particularly Kundry, who have conflicting behaviours and rather more complex personalities, and it is ultimately through them, as much as through Parsifal, that true enlightenment is reached. All of the characters however are given infinitely more depth through Wagner’s sensuously contemplative score that lifts the piece out of any earthly existence and out into a realm “beyond time and space”.

Parsifal

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s superb 1999 stage production, revived here for its final performances at the English National Opera, brilliantly works on multiple levels, creating a place that seems to exist in an otherworldly domain, while at the same time being resolutely physical and austere in its expression of the nature of the characters and their struggles. In stark contrast to Mike Figgis’ first attempt at opera direction with Lucrezia Borgia, seen on stage at the Coliseum the previous night, Lehnhoff – renowned for his productions of Wagner’s music dramas – demonstrates a deep understanding of Parsifal and, in what can be a very static opera, makes full use of the stage to express it. The restlessness of the characters and their relation to one another is played out in their movements and proximity to one another, lighting and colouration used for emphasis and to highlight the tones expressed by the music. And not only is full use of the stage made in this respect, but, like the score, it even takes it beyond the confines of the physical dimensions of the Raimund Bauer’s set designs. That sounds like hyperbole, but the staging and Wagner’s remarkable orchestration is so persuasive that it really does take the audience into another dimension.

The playing of the orchestra of the English National Opera, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, could not be faulted, nor could individual performances by a uniformly strong cast or the powerful presence of the chorus. It would be unfair to single out any one singer when every element works together in such a fashion, but John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz proved to be an impressive narrator to anchor the opera with his wonderful bass tone and clear English diction. There are only a few performances of this opera left at the Coliseum, and although it has been recorded for posterity and is available on Blu-ray disc, it is still well worth making the effort to see it in a live performance before it disappears from the stage forever.

LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

English National Opera, London | Paul Daniel, Mike Figgis, Claire Rutter, Michael Fabiano, Elizabeth DeShong, Alastair Miles | The Coliseum, London - February 18th, 2011

Even without reading the programme notes for Mike Figgis’ production of Lucrezia Borgia for the English National Opera, it’s clear from very early on that the medium isn’t an environment that the film director feels entirely comfortable with. Even before the opera proper starts, some flashback scenes written and filmed in Rome by Figgis as a background to what takes place in the opera, are projected onto a white screen hanging over the stage, making it clear that he has approached the opera in much the same way that he would make a film.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – opera is open to incorporating many disciplines and giving them varying weight, as well as being open to the kind of reinvention that new technology and modern ideas can bring to it – and there has accordingly been a healthy cross-over of film directors between the cinema and opera. While the short films that accompany the opera then are not at all needed, they are nevertheless a valid response to what the director sees as a need to give psychological, real-world depth to a character who is larger than life and, in Donizetti’s opera, played larger than life. There are, one could say, inconsistencies in the characterisation and gaps in credibility that arise out of its novelistic source in the work of Victor Hugo and its attempts to provide redemption for a complex and really quite notorious historical figure whose vile nature and her murderous inclinations towards anyone who criticises her family name is scarcely tempered by her love for her lost son, Gennaro.

In this case however, the impression is given that not only does Figgis not know his audience – an opera audience does not need the same kind of literal, realist approach as cinema, with the psychological background of the characters laid-out in this way – but it seems that he doesn’t understand opera, and the fact that, in a strong well-written opera (and Lucrezia Borgia certainly falls into that category), all the explanations that are needed, all the expressions of personality and the motivational factors – the guilt and the passion that lies at the heart of the characters – are all contained within the music and within the singing itself, even more so than in the narrative of the libretto, which can otherwise seem contrived and scarcely credible.

This failure to understand and get to grips with the medium he is working in or the audience he is working for, results in a rather over-literal, static and reductive approach for a director who can otherwise be quite avant-garde and experimental when it comes to filmmaking (Timecode, Hotel, COMA). A measure of his mistrust of opera, his audience and his own reaction towards it is in his choice to play Orsini (a female playing the role of a male), as a female, as if an opera audience couldn’t possibly grasp this convention that is so far removed from the rather more literal approach of cinematic realism. On his approach to the actual staging, there is also some merit to reducing the amount of clutter and glitz that usually accompanies a period, bel canto opera, and just letting the music and singing stand on its own. For the most part, the performances are certainly up to that task, particularly from Claire Rutter in the role of Lucrezia, but there is also a strong performance (particularly in the brindisi scene) from Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini, and the bond of love and friendship that lies between them actually does take on an interesting dimension and create other resonances with Orsini played as a female.

Lucrezia

There is however an additional constraint that Figgis finds himself struggling with, and that is the policy of the English National Opera to perform opera in English wherever possible, regardless of the suitability of the opera. Admittedly, some opera can work surprisingly well in English – Wagner’s Parsifal, seen at the same opera house the following night – worked no less effectively in English than it does in German, but bel canto opera, for me at least, is entirely associated with the qualities and sounds of the Italian language. Conductor Paul Daniel worked on the translation himself, and really, he failed to do justice to the work, with some of the choices made provoking chuckles from the audience at inappropriate points, not at all helping to establish the desired tone, and making Figgis’ attempt at psychological depth and realism all the more difficult. Significantly, the short film segments made by Figgis himself were in Italian with English subtitles.

The reduction of the staging and the simplification of movements does have some impact then in reducing the over-the-top propensities of the opera that Figgis evidently feels need to be constrained, and while it restricts the dynamic and results in what is not the most eye-catching of productions, it does at least focus the attention on the singing. One gets the impression however that the reduction of the staging into smaller areas is an attempt by Figgis to scale down the canvas, as per the framing in his film work, and break it down into discreet, static, sections that can be brought together when reworked for the cinema or television screen. As such, it would seem that Mike Figgis has been brought in more with the first ever 3-D Live opera broadcast in mind (tomorrow 23rd February 2011 for Sky Arts 2 HD and for cinema). Here one can imagine the director being more at home, progressively experimenting in a filmed medium, using simultaneous action and multiple angles. As such however, unfair though it might be for the theatrical audience, his stage production of Lucrezia Borgia feels like an unfinished product that will only come to fruition when it is brought to the screen.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | World Premiere - February 17th, 2011

A few eyebrows will have been raised, and no little amount of scepticism expressed, when it was announced that Mark-Anthony Turnage would be writing an opera for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden about Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007. In reality, however there’s nothing at all new about opera dealing with women who live scandalous lives and come to an untimely end. If Turnage’s Anna Nicole is unlikely however to be considered a masterpiece on the scale of Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, La Traviata or Lulu, it at least has the advantage of dealing with a contemporary subject with the kind of social lifestyle and aspirations that a modern audience can relate to more easily. And if the merits of Anna Nicole as an opera can certainly be questioned, there is at least no doubt, judging from the headlines and media attention that it has generated, that is indeed a worthy subject of great interest to the general public.

Commissioned by the Royal Opera House under the direction currently of Antonio Pappano – a great supporter of opening up opera to a wider audience – the general public would at least have been no doubt familiar with the subject of the opera, Anna Nicole Smith, and have some familiarity with the nature of her “career” and the circumstances of her death at the age of only 39. What was rather less certain was the tone that would be adopted by Mark-Anthony Turnage (Greek, The Silver Tassie) – a composer who can be rather experimental in his work, and is known for incorporating jazz and other forms of modern music into his compositions. It didn’t take too long for it to be established that the tone of the opera would be heavily influenced by the choice of Richard Thomas as librettist, the resulting barrage of rhyming couplets, with a high swearword quotient, bring Anna Nicole closer to Thomas’ work on Jerry Springer the Opera than to Turnage’s Greek.

Initial and surface impressions however prove to be deceptive, for while Anna Nicole Smith’s early life, her escape from the “shithole” backwater of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah, we are told, as if it gives the town some kind of distinction) and her first marriage to Billy Smith is very much the kind of material that US daytime TV shows thrive on, it does nonetheless have a relevance to how a large proportion of society live and it reflects their aspirations, unpalatable thought they may appear to an opera-going audience. Just as significantly, the manner in which the opera is initially presented and the tone it strikes is vitally important, and indeed it ought to match and be appropriate to the content. The decision then to present it through the medium of a chorus of TV hosts to whom Anna Nicole, already dead but looking back over her life in the manner of a reality TV show and tracing the path that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke, imbuing the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The opera darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in her life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

AnnaNicole

While there are certainly plenty of eye-catching sights in the imaginative, colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs (by Richard Jones) to provide entertainment, with strong language and even a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles – all things that are, I think it’s safe to say, not all that common on the stage of the Royal Opera House and likely therefore to generate interest and headlines it’s easy to be distracted from what is going on musically and in the opera as a whole. Richard Thomas’ rhyming couplets, which deliberately clearly signal their intentions to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, actually manage to cut through the niceties directly to harsh realities of the circumstances of Anna Nicole’s life in a tone that is appropriate and understandable to a modern-day audience. It’s reality-TV language, but there’s something in the phenomenon and popularity of reality-TV as a representation of the American Dream that is worth examining, and Thomas’ libretto gets to the hard truths and the tragedy of it all, wrapping it up cleverly in pithy, satirical and witty phrases.

It’s easy also to be distracted from what Turnage is doing musically, but he, likewise, succeeds allowing the nature of the opera’s subject to establish the correct tone rather than imposing his own upon it. In doing so moreover, Turnage nonetheless finds a perfect expression for his own musical language and the often American influences that he draws from and incorporates into his music. Anna Nicole Smith’s leaving of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah), for Huston, where she works in a Wal-Mart store, is set to a blues rhythm that matches the zombie-like movements of its employees, a swinging jazz percussion accompaniment is used for the strip-club scene, while other scenes evoke George Gershwin. Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, succeeded in allowing the music score to assert its presence at such times, darkening the tone considerably in the tragedy of the Second Act, by which stage the audience were thoroughly in the grip of the piece and solemnly mindful of where it was leading. Much credit for the embodiment of the tragedy that Anna Nicole’s life would represent has to go to the Eva-Maria Westbroek. As a Wagnerian soprano, her voice wasn’t at all tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sang exceptionally well and managed to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing it to descend into parody.

Whether Anna Nicole is ultimately considered a success as an opera – it received a very warm reception at its World Premiere from the audience at Covent Garden and a guardedly positive response from the national press – it is at least a success as far as the Royal Opera House is concerned, selling out its initial short run of six shows, but more importantly generating more interest and front page headlines than any other important opera event, premiere or any drawing of the biggest names in the opera to the house have achieved. Beyond its artistic merits, whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – all of which are debatable and subjective – what Anna Nicole demonstrates is that opera can still be a vital artform that can address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that connects with a modern audience.

MediumGian Carlo Menotti - The Medium

NI Opera / Second Movement | Oliver Mears, Nicholas Chalmers, Doreen Curran, Yvette Bonner, Will Stokes, David Butt Philip, Jane Harrington, Alison Dunne | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey - February 15th, 2011

One of a number of smaller scale events being organised by the newly formed Northern Ireland Opera prior to their official inaugural multi-staged version of Tosca, where each act will be performed in different locations in Derry-Londonderry, the staging of Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1946 chamber opera at the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey last night was a promising taster, one hopes, of a sign of the company’s adventurousness in its attempts to raise awareness of opera through performances of lesser-known works and through events that are less traditional in their presentation.

Menotti’s The Medium, a short 65 minute two act piece which has been adapted for film and television in the past, can hardly be called adventurous, but its production by Second Movement under the direction of NI Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears, proved to be musically refreshing and the opera itself opened up some interesting ideas. Based on a real-life experience of the composer’s at a séance while holidaying in Austria with Samuel Barber, it’s tempting to compare the piece to Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, if only because of the sparseness of the orchestration and the ability of the instruments to evoke a spooky atmosphere, but while it remains similarly ambiguous on the question of what is real and what is imagined or projected by the protagonists, The Medium, with its more variably toned score, seems to touch on wider aspects of self-delusion and even mass-hysteria than Henry James’ tale of Victorian sexual repression.

Prior to this production, the only piece I would have been familiar with from this opera, or indeed from Menotti for that matter, would have been Monica’s Waltz, recorded by Renée Fleming on her album I Want Magic, and delicately performed here by Yvette Bonner, with a tone more appropriate to the age of her young character than Fleming’s dramatic rendition. It’s this piece, sung at the start of Act 2 by Monica the daughter of the false medium, Baba – or Madame Flora as she is known – to Toby, a young orphan with no voice found on the streets of Budapest and taken into the household as a servant, that opens up the opera to wider aspects than its central dramatic subject of a fake séance that goes terribly wrong. In it, the young girl projects onto the silent Toby all her romantic desires for going out dancing and to the theatre, giving him the voice that she longs to hear.

MediumMonica’s desires are no different from those of the customers who come to Madame Flora looking to get into contact with their dead children – Jane Harrington’s recounting of the drowning of the Gobineau’s two-year old child was delivered most effectively and chillingly, fully expressing those emotions that bring them to the medium – as an attempt to fill the void that has been left in their lives. Even Baba actions, as can be judged by her rescuing of an orphan – even the fact that she mistreats him – her alcoholism and her attempts to feel important as Madame Baba, speak of a deeper void that needs to be filled, and Doreen Curran’s well-sung performance of the role is dramatically commanding and emotionally sensitive in this respect as her drink-addled confusion and fears of tapping into something more sinister pushes her into near-hysteria.

With each of the characters suffering from self-induced delusions of one kind or another, it might not be pushing it too far, considering the immediate post-war writing of The Medium, to consider this kind of mass hysteria and the dangerous places it can lead to as a reaction to the Second World War. There is nothing specific in the opera that leads one to consider it in those terms, but there is undoubtedly a correlation between the séance and a nation looking to someone like Hitler to give them a voice and sense of meaning, and – particularly in Toby, the opera’s silent character, one who significantly plays with glove puppets – there’s enough ambiguity to make wider associations. It’s in this necessary space that an audience is likewise expected to project their own desires, and it’s there that the opera is ultimately successful.

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | John Adams, Peter Sellars, Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly, Robert Brubaker, Russell Braun, James Maddalena, Richard Paul Fink | The Met: Live in HD - February 12, 2011

The Live in HD broadcast of Nixon in China from The Met in New York was a special event in a number of ways. Most notably, it was the first time the opera had been performed at the Met, and for the occasion, many of the original team involved in its original production were reunited and their involvement made even more pronounced. Not only was it opera’s debut at the Met, but it was also the debut there of the colourful, sometimes controversial, but ever intelligent Peter Sellars as stage director – and not just of the stage, Sellars directing also directing the filmed live broadcast. With composer John Adams conducting his own opera, the broadcast proved to be a good opportunity then to re-evaluate whether a work from 1987, tied very much into the political climate of the period in which it is set, had any relevance today and whether it would go on to stand the test of time.

Although the political ramifications of the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972 and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung shouldn’t be underestimated, the state visit breaking down old enmities and opening up the world stage for a different kind of global politics where there is a recognition on both sides that it’s for their mutual good to work with each other, Nixon in China is, and has to be, more than it being an opera about a specific historical incident. The realisation that the world is a smaller place through satellite broadcasts and new technology is recognised by Nixon, who is acutely aware of how his international statesman act is going to play back home on primetime news at a time when he is seeking re-election. How significant then is it that this technology is now able to broadcast a performance of this opera across the world as it is played live in New York?

The production and the broadcast were accordingly upscaled for the Met stage, and quite marvellously, not least in the additional impact of a larger chorus, particularly during the banquet scene at the end of Act 1. Mindful of the impact that can be achieved, Sellars ensured that the HD cameras were right there in the middle of the action, the camera striving for close-ups wherever possible that were most effective when projected onto a cinema screen. Again, it’s difficult on such an occasion not to see the significance and importance of presentation of events played out on a world stage through satellite broadcasts, of playing to a wider audience and the increased importance under such circumstances of stage management – one delightfully reflected in the Chian Ch’ing’s pointing out “here are some children having fun” while giving the Nixons their official guided tour. It’s not enough to show, an audience sometimes needs to be directed towards what to feel.

Nixon

The only minor problem with Act 1 was that James Maddalena, reprising a role that he helped originate and has performed over 150 times, was suffering from a frog in his throat that severely restricted his ability to hold sustained notes. A few discrete coughs, put into the character of Nixon clearing his throat before speaking, didn’t dispel the problem. It’s a pity, since most of his best work is done in the first act. The impact that this might have had was lessened however by the strong singing performances of Robert Brubaker’s Mao Tse-tung and James Braun’s Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The aging and infirm Mao, prone to making obscure and impenetrable remarks, remains an enigma however, but James Braun brought out the sense of dignified confusion and ambivalence about the nature of the visit, mindful – as becomes more evident later – of his own mortality.

Act 2 was given over principally to the female characters, the opera dealing with the considerable contrasts between the respective First Ladies, while in the process noting the growing importance of their role in the US Presidency. Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Pat Nixon, her voice flawlessly meeting the demands of the opening scene of the second act, while at the same time capturing the human side of her character’s charm sincerity and personal fears – an aspect that was emphasised in an equally flawless acting performance where every gesture was captured by Sellars in extreme close-up. Kathleen Kim as Chian Ch’ing, was likewise most impressive in technique and delivery.

Thereafter, the opera becomes a different beast, Alice Goodman’s libretto slipping into abstraction as it becomes more about ideas than the personalities involved. Despite their efforts to stage-manage and direct the course of world events, it’s clear that they are only weak individuals, frail and flawed human beings, with doubts about their own achievements and the legacy they will leave behind. It’s something that they can never know and that only time and history will prove. The opera likewise needs to rise above the depiction of personalities – no matter how historically important they may be – and touch on those deeper subjects that the Nixon’s visit to China gives rise to. Ultimately then, it was the fact of this performance of the opera being on the day when Hosni Mubarek was forced to step down as leader of Egypt in a revolution facilitated by advancements in modern technology that justifies the opera’s approach and suggests that Nixon in China is still relevant and may stand-up well in the years ahead.

OrfeoClaudio Monteverdi - L’Orfeo

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2009 | Rinaldo Alessandrini, Robert Wilson, Georg Nigl, Roberta Invernizzi, Sara Mingardo, Luigi de Donato, Raffaella Milanesi | Opus Arte

The minimalist staging of Robert Wilson’s opera productions is not something that is to everyone’s taste, but it is certainly unique and idiosyncratic, and no matter how familiar you are with a particular opera, you can be sure that Wilson’s stage direction will provide a new way of looking at a piece and bring out elements or propose ideas that you might never have considered before. It is however not suited to every kind of opera. His production for Aida several years ago at the Royal Opera House was visually striking in its beauty and in the wondrous and carefully considered colour-coded light schemes, but the static nature of the production simply sucked the life out of one particular opera that merits a slightly more vibrant approach, if not necessarily always quite as flamboyant as Zeffirelli’s.

On the other hand, the stripped-down staging works better, it seems to me, when applied to more abstract subjects or at least the more archetypal matters of Greek mythology in opera seria and Baroque opera. Wilson’s work for the Paris Châtelet productions of Alceste and Orphée et Eurydice, for example, is appropriate and perfectly in accordance with Gluck’s reforming of over-elaborate and long-winded opera. The same should apply, one would think, to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the work that is considered the first opera proper - first performed in Mantua in 1607 - and, for many, the model to which opera should aspire. All the huge archetypes are there in its mythological subject - Heaven and Hades, with Eros, Fate, Hope and, most significantly, Music itself personified and indeed the main narrative force who introduces and tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as the means by which the opera expresses itself.

This is the kind of material that is perfect for Robert Wilson’s interpretations, and all the familiar characteristics of his approach are here in this production for La Scala in 2009 - static figures making strange poses with enigmatic hand movements, stage props reduced to geometric shapes, the colour scheme a limited palette of greys, pale blues and pale green. In contrast to his non-specific approach to Orphée et Eurydice, L’Orfeo is practically period - in the period of Monteverdi, that is - inspired by Titian’s Venus with Cupid and an Organist (1548), with Thrace a Renaissance version of the Garden of Eden, by way perhaps of Gainsborough. On a first viewing, I’m not convinced that such a staging brings anything new from Monteverdi’s famous opera this time, but it is interesting and worth considering.

As for the opera and its performance, well, L’Orfeo is a masterpiece that does indeed wield a heavy influence over the artform, or for at least a hundred and fifty years afterwards. It’s a celebration of man’s ability, intellect and ingenuity, taming nature and the seas, speaking with the voice of the Gods through music and, through Orpheus, even challenging Death itself through his singing and its expression of the finest human passions and sentiments. It’s a worthy subject for what is generally considered the first opera - an artform that would unite so many artistic qualities, not least of which is music and singing. Monteverdi’s opera accordingly lives up to the high standards it sets.

L’Orfeo is more detailed in its scoring and specification of instruments than Monteverdi’s final opera Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria, for example, but how it is performed is highly interpretative nonetheless. Early music specialist Rinaldo Alessandrini’s conducting of the opera of La Scala is therefore not for me to criticise, but I would find it hard to find any serious fault with it other than the actual sound mix not quite having the transparency of other versions I’ve heard - notably the Pierre Audi 1997 recording for DVD at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. I would however state a preference for John Mark Ainsley’s lyrical Orpheus in that version over the rather deeper tenor of Georg Nigl. The contrasts and differences should be appreciated however, as it is through them that new thoughts and ideas still arise out of an opera that is now over 400 years old - and on that basis, this is a fine production.

The quality of the presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray is as good as you would expect, with a clear 16:9 High Definition transfer, PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The only extras on the disc however are a Cast Gallery and an Illustrated Synopsis. The thin booklet presents some background on the history of the opera, but there is no information at all on the production itself.

Giacomo Puccini - Madama Butterfly

L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille | Maurizio Benini, Robert Wilson, Micaela Carosi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Anna Wall, James Valenti, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Carlo Bosi, Vladimir Kapshuk, Scott Wilde | L’Opéra National de Paris, 4th February 2011

What is the colour of Madama Butterfly? You could see it in crude terms of the national flags of the two nations involved in the opera, the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes in a clash with Japan’s the Rising Sun (or indeed, more likely in this particular case, with the pink of chrysanthemums). Such a superficial reading of Madama Butterfly, based on David Belasco’s play, a sentimental tearjerker, could perhaps be justified, Puccini’s score even explicitly evoking the American flag in its Star Spangled Banner refrain and attempting to incorporate Japanese music into the score. If you close your eyes however, listen to the emotional core of the music – a much more delicate and sensitive affair than you might at first think – you might visualise the tone of Madama Butterfly as pale green. Or pale green through to deep blue, with an infinite variety of shades in between, illuminated perhaps at various points with flashes of violent red.

Butterfly

Robert Wilson is the master of conveying the emotional tone of an opera in terms of colour and his reading of Madama Butterfly is convincing on this account. No matter that just about every Robert Wilson production works in shades of blue, green and grey – perhaps those are the colours of opera itself. Nonetheless, even operating within such a limited palette as just a personal signature still provides plenty of scope for the director (although I personally found it very restrictive in his production of Aida for the Royal Opera House a few years ago), and it’s particularly effective in this 1993 production revived for the Paris Opera’s 2010-11 season. In terms of staging and props, the production is unexpectedly minimal – ultra-minimal even, perhaps even more sparse than usual for a Robert Wilson production. “Tutti i fiore” there are certainly not in preparation for the return of Pinkerton at the end of Act 2, and is this a dagger I see before me at the conclusion? No, it’s a mimed one.

Aside from his work for Philip Glass, I’m not used to seeing Robert Wilson’s stage productions in anything other than a mythological or generic antiquity setting, which allows plenty of room for personal touches. Madama Butterfly however is a comparatively modern opera, or one at least in a recognisable period and specific cultural setting, but that’s unimportant as far as Robert Wilson is concerned. Everyone is still dressed in togas and tunics, albeit with an almost science-fictional Oriental touch. Overall however, it’s an approach that works well for this opera, stripping it down, the action rarely extending beyond formalised gestures and hand movements that suit if not imitate Japanese social interaction, effectively undercutting the heart-tugging sentimentality of the traditional kitsch faux-Japanese setting. It also makes use of space effectively – there’s no marriage of worlds here – they sit apart, each with their own ideals and needs, and never the twain shall meet.

Butterfly

Toning down the staging is one thing, toning down the music or the singing in Puccini would however be fatal, and consequently the Orchestra of the Opéra de Paris plough on marvellously, not regardless of the staging, but mindful of the simplicity and the subtlety contained within Puccini’s arrangements, as well as the bombast. James Valenti however didn’t find that balance in his Pinkerton. He has a pleasantly toned voice, but it was much too gentle for this role, and he failed to cut an imposing figure as the American imperialist, even ducking some of the higher notes. He certainly didn’t please some sections of the Paris audience at the performance I attended. Micaela Carosi (introduced in the recent Paris Opera production of Andrea Chénier) was announced as being unwell, but took to the stage nonetheless and performed marvellously. She was everything you could want of a Cio-Cio San (barring ethnicity) and, despite her illness, completely mastered a difficult singing role made all the more complicated by the very specific movements, poses and gestures required for this particular production.

Ultimately, Madama Butterfly is any colour you want it to be, but it fits in rather well with Robert Wilson’s uniquely personal palette and stylisations, not detracting from the power of the opera in the way that his work did for Aida, but giving the characters and their emotional lives space, enhancing and supporting the emotional tone in a manner that draws out its subtleties without over-emphasising, vulgarising or sentimentalising the opera’s crowd-pleasing qualities.

Riccardo Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini

L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille | Daniel Oren, Giancarlo Del Monaco, Svetla Vassileva, Louise Callinan, Wojtek Smilek, George Gagnidze, Roberto Alagna, William Joyner, Grazia Lee, Manuela Bisceglie, Andrea Hill, Carol Garcia, Cornelia Oncioiu | L’Opéra National de Paris, 3rd February 2011

Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini is the composer’s most famous opera, but it hasn’t been staged in Paris since its first performances nearly a century ago. For anyone unaware of what to expect from what is a relatively little-known opera, The Paris Opera promised a revival that would at least make a strong impression. They weren’t wrong about that.

Francesca

The biggest impression was made during Act One, Giancarlo del Monaco’s elaborate gothic-tinged nature morte set for Polenta Palace gardens in Ravenna resembling a colourful version of Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents (an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw). It proved to be the perfect setting for the lush romantic and at the same time faintly sinister tone of the First Act, Zandonai’s score emphasising the sweepingly romantic element of Francesca and her ladies awaiting the arrival of Giovanni Malatesta, the man she has been arranged to marry, while minstrels offer foreboding songs of Tristan and Isolde and Galahad and Guinevere. The build-up to the arrival of the young man is incredible, the ladies of the household wound-up to a level of near hysteria at his imminent arrival, presaged by a strident rising crescendo that descends into a reverent hush, a murmur reminiscent of the humming song from Madama Butterfly (coincidentally also being performed at the Paris Opera in the current season), as Paolo el Bello, Paolo the Beautiful, arrives on stage. Roberto Alagna doesn’t even need to sing a note in the first Act – the curtain descends and the audience, if not necessarily impressed, are at least left somewhat dumbfounded.

The tragedy, as a careful reading of the above description will reveal, is of course that it is Paolo and not his brother Giovanni who arrives, so Francesca is badly mistaken when she immediately falls in love with the young man (and who wouldn’t with an entrance like that!), because in reality Giovanni, as she is about to discover, is a much less inviting prospect – harsh, cruel, ugly and crippled. As in Verdi’s Don Carlo – which Roberto Alagna played in the recent Met production – it’s another unfortunate in a love match that is over before it has really begun, and there are similar romantic complications, family troubles and political consequences that ensue. While there is accordingly similar sweeping romantic scoring, there is nothing thereafter quite as pronounced as in the First Act. That section was Zandonai’s Puccini, while what follows thereafter shows up his other two major influences, Wagner and Strauss. It’s almost as if Zandonai picks and mixes according to the mood and requirements of the scene. A light outside a bedroom as the signal for Paolo to steal surreptitiously into Francesca’s room evokes Tristan und Isolde, and Zadonai accordingly evokes Wagner.

Rather than being a jumble of influences and references however, Francesca manages to form a coherent musical whole, retaining a character of its own, one that, although it has a strong literary basis in the works of Dante and D’Annunzio, is certainly far from the Italian verismo school that the composer is usually associated with. But it’s not quite impressionistic either, as some of the Paris Opera’s writing on the opera in the programme notes suggest. Francesca da Rimini rather is romantic in a Verdi sense – political and romantic intrigues conflated, with a touch of Wagner Romanticism and post-Wagner modernism leading towards a more mid-twentieth century style. Ultimately however, it is fairly traditional in its operatic plot and intrigue, not offering any great surprises in the narrative development, in the romantic expressions of impossible love or in its inevitably tragic finale. Yet, every moment is perfectly judged by the composer and carried off impressively.

Francesca

Giancarlo del Monaco’s staging – always a matter of questionable taste – does however match the tone of the opera perfectly, drawing inspiration from the home and gardens of the story’s writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s villa the Vittoriale deglo Italiani. The sets are never as elaborate after Act 1, but matching the tone of the music, they provide solid, traditional, period rooms that are sparse but with significant bold touches. It would be unfair to say that Roberto Alagna has all his work done for him by the score, particularly after the huge Act 1 build-up, but rather it’s more a case that he often has to fight hard to keep above the huge sound of the orchestral accompaniment that underscores every emotion and utterance. He proves to be more than capable and is understandably and justifiably the big name attraction for his return to the Paris opera, but it is Svetla Vassileva as Francesca who impresses most. Both have challenging roles, with little pause or parlando – everything is sung and the opera is beautifully written for the voice, particularly for the female roles. The fascinating score, the dynamic arrangements and the sometimes unusual instruments featured gave the Orchestra of the Paris Opera at the Bastille a chance to show what they could do and they were most impressive, playing with clarity and precision.