November 2011


Hansel and GretelEngelbert Humperdinck - Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera, 2011 | Oliver Mears, David Brophy, Niamh Kelly, Aoife O’Sullivan, Graham Clark, Doreen Curran, Paul Carey Jones, Aoife Miskelly, Rebekah Coffey | Grand Opera House, Belfast - 25 November 2011

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the annual Christmas pantomime had arrived just slightly earlier than usual at the Grand Opera House this year judging by the number of parents with kids, the rustling of crisp packets and a lack of the normal respectful silence one would be accustomed to during the overture to an opera production at the august Belfast venue. But that’s the beauty of Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel, which has the traditional fairytale elements that appeal to children, but also has a sumptuous score for opera lovers that lies in the Wagnerian tradition, if somewhat on the lighter side of the Teutonic scale. It’s also the beauty of the new approach to opera being taken by the director of NI Opera, Oliver Mears, who has not only gone out to smaller venues throughout Northern Ireland to seek out a new audience, but, as in the company’s approach to Tosca earlier this year with each of the three acts taking place in Derry in separate venues with local significance, he has also taken into consideration new ways to engage an audience and new ways to present an opera production.

The broad appeal characteristics of Hansel and Gretel however can still make it difficult to judge at what level to pitch it. As NI Opera’s first full-scale production at the Grand Opera House, following a number of smaller chamber works in other venues across the province, there must be an equal temptation to appease the traditional opera fans in the audience as much as play-up the fairy-tale elements and appeal to a new, younger audience who will undoubtedly engage with the strong mix of music, comedy, drama, horror and spectacle that the opera offers. To his credit, Mears doesn’t appear to attempt to steer the opera in any single direction, but instead pays close attention to the composition itself and allows the inherent playful but sinister qualities of Humperdinck’s work to find their own expression without having to make concessions to one audience or the other.

Like most fairytales, and certainly in the case of many of the works of the Brothers Grimm, the cautionary stories often have dark origins. Those are certainly there in Hansel and Gretel, they are there in Humperdinck’s opera and they are not at all underplayed or softened for a younger audience in this production. While the image of the gingerbread house filled with sweets is the most attractive and memorable image associated with the story there’s a warning about the dangers of gluttony in the fattening up of Hansel to be a tasty meal for the witch in the woods who uses her abode to lure young children to their doom. There’s evidently a cautionary element there also relating to the dangers of taking sweets from strangers – the unsettling posters of missing children in this production highlighting that this is more than just children lost in the woods – which takes the story into very dark territory indeed. There are also darker undercurrents in the story and in the opera concerning the relationship of the parents – an authoritative, even perhaps abusive mother and an alcoholic father – and how this relates to the children running away.

Hansel and Gretel

NI Opera’s production consequently avoided all the sugary-sweet Bavarian fairytale elements normally associated with the story, and instead set Act 1 in a rather more familiar modern home setting, even if some of the elements had a rather disturbing but delightfully subversive David Lynch feel to them. Much in the manner in which Lynch’s nightmares seep into the real world, a painting made by the children of a yellow stickman in the dark woods and stuck onto the fridge, forms the backdrop to Act II, the Sandman stepping eerily out of the painting to sprinkle sleep dust onto the children. In contrast to the chatter throughout Act 1 and enjoyment of the childish antics of the two children on the stage, you could have heard a pin drop at this moment, and undoubtedly terrifying as it might appear to the younger children in the audience, it’s an image that would certainly make a strong, memorable impression. Hansel and Gretel’s subsequent dream of the magical angels doesn’t bring any comfort to the children in the audience either, depicting a birthday feast where the mother’s head is presented on a platter.

Act III appears to go into full pantomime mode, with Graham Clark’s Witch almost rivalling May McFetteridge as the Belfast stage’s long-standing traditional pantomime Grand Dame, ending up spinning hilariously and eventually splattered gorily across the window of the giant microwave oven that emerges to dominate the set, but again, there is no holding back on the dark elements that are there in the plot and indeed in the deliciously rich musical score that does indeed have mystical Das Rheingold qualities. Like David Brophy’s conducting of the Ulster Orchestra, each of the singers played their part in reaching into the characters themselves for those deeper dark elements, but managed to balance this with a playful way that they are often expressed. Neither the score nor the singing could always compete with the spoken-out-loud reactions of the children in the audience, but Niamh Kelly’s mischievous Hansel, Paul Carey Jones’ strong deep baritone Father, Rebekah Coffey’s creepy Sandman and Graham Clarke’s well-judged performance and presence all commanded attention.

Performing Hansel and Gretel for an untypical opera audience no doubt presents some difficulties, but NI Opera, in their first full production as the new local opera company, seem once again to have got the balance absolutely right. They clearly know how to reach their audience, and it’s not by talking down to either the newer, younger audience or by aiming to satisfy expectations of traditional opera-goers. Rather, as previous productions have likewise shown, there has evidently been careful consideration given to the selection of works to present, less familiar operas certainly, but ones which ultimately can reach out and engage a modern audience. The NI Opera production of Hansel and Gretel, with the Ulster Orchestra, demonstrates that this needn’t involve any artistic compromise, but that through close attention to the score and the libretto itself, trusting in the strength of the characters and in the depth that is accorded to them through Humperdinck’s score, the work can be, should be and indeed was, eerie, enchanting and engaging in equal measures for the whole audience.

SatyagrahaPhilip Glass - Satyagraha

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Dante Anzolini, Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, Richard Croft, Rachelle Durkin, Molly Fillmore, Maria Zifchak, Mary Phillips, Kim Josephson, Bradley Garvin, Richard Bernstein, Alfred Walker | The Met: Live in HD - November 19, 2011

It’s taken a long time for Philip Glass to find acceptance in his home city of New York, his success and popularity as a living modern composer undoubtedly regarded with some suspicion by music critics, as well as his ability to blur the lines between classical and modern music through the writing of numerous film scores and symphonies based on David Bowie albums. Mainly however, it has to be admitted, the criticism has been principally on a failure to grasp the value of his minimalist approach to music that consists of long sections of repetitive rhythms with slowly changing parts, music that seems to be more mathematical in its structure and precision than relating in any meaningful way to human emotion or expression. It’s a valid criticism, but it’s one that a serious consideration of Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha very strongly refutes, and with this production at the Metropolitan Opera, it seems as if recognition for the brilliance of the work – one of the greatest opera works of the late 20th century – and for Philip Glass has finally been achieved.

The Met have of course been more receptive towards Philip Glass than the music critics, with his first opera Einstein on the Beach – an abstract avant-garde theatrical project that is undoubtedly one of the composer’s more difficult works – performed there in 1976. It was the Met who also commissioned Glass to write The Voyage (1990), an opera to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, which, if it approached the subject from a typically oblique angle, was however rather more conventional in its musical form. Of all Philip Glass’ opera works, Saytagraha remains one of the most interesting, shaped as it is by period of its writing with Glass still in minimalist mode but moving towards a more conventional use of classical orchestra instrumentation. Forced by necessity of the size of the orchestra pit of the commissioning house in Rotterdam, Satyagraha is distinctive also for making use only of strings and woodwind instruments, with no percussion or brass, and some supplemental electronic organ to hold the rolling sequences of rhythms.

Satyagraha

There is however one more vital component to the sound and the score for Satyagraha that doesn’t require space in the orchestra pit, and that is the composer’s remarkable and unconventional use of the voice in the opera. Apart from the ensemble arrangements for duos, quartets, sextets and choir, what is significant and unconventional about how the voice is implemented in Satyagraha, is that it the libretto is sung in Sanskrit, the words broken down into syllables that give additional force, rhythm and another layer of instrumentation on top of the orchestration. The choice of Sanskrit is, of course, not random, but inextricably tied into the purpose, the themes and the expression of the subject of the opera, which deals with Mahatma Gandhi, specifically his early years in South Africa where he first formulated his principles of non-violence and civil disobedience working as a lawyer for the immigrant Indian population there.

The entire libretto of Satyagraha, written and arranged by Glass and Constance De Jong, is drawn from an ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavada Gita, and what is highly unusual about its use is not just that it’s sung in Sanskrit, but that this sacred text replaces any kind of conventional narrative spoken by the principal characters. Gandhi would have meditated on the Bhagavada Gita, and rather than use any external means of expression through the libretto for the actions of Gandhi and his supporters during this period in their following the path of truth (the meaning of the word “satyagraha” is roughly “truth force”), Glass chooses to have his characters look inward as a means of dealing with the increasing violence, prejudice and injustice enacted by the European South Africans against the blacks and Indian immigrants. Used in this way, the rhythmic intoning of the verses of the Bhagavada Gita are attuned Janacek-style to the tone and inflections of the voice with a mantra that seems to bear the sacred voice of truth. Working in conjunction with the barest outline of the setting of the real-life events, the words of the libretto and their delivery combine to create a near-religious purity of expression that has all the sincerity, conviction and spirituality of a Handel oratorio.

It starts as one voice, initially Gandhi alone (sung well in this production by Richard Croft), who has just arrived in South Africa as a young lawyer, and has immediately been put off the train for failing to give up his seat to a white man. In a moment of silence before the music and singing commences, he looks at his suitcase lying in the dust as if trying to decide whether to just give up and go home. Instead he turns his thoughts inward, finding the determination to go take up the struggle in the Bhagavada Gita’s description of the great conflict between the Kuruvas and the Pandavas. That voice is taken up by others as the opera progresses, his secretary Miss Schlesen, Kasturbai and Mrs Naidoo, culminating in an extraordinary sextet by all the principals through the New Castle March of Act III, each of them finding truth in the words and the strength to stand up to the injustice of the South African government’s racially discriminatory laws. There are few real dramatic reconstructions, not one word written that attempts to describe the narrative playing out of events or the interaction between the characters. The characters for the most part face the audience and express the truth as it is written in the Bhagavada Gita, and find their strength and unity through this.

Satyagraha

That’s very difficult to get across on the stage, particularly as the ancient Sanskrit text is not translated into English surtitles for the audience, but the opera is only difficult if the audience is expecting a conventional narrative. Words, and attempts to define or interpret their meaning, would just get in the way here. The meaning should come through the intoning and recital of the vocal arrangements themselves, driven forcefully with the accompaniment of the orchestra. It helps however if there is something visually interesting and relevant to focus on in the place of dramatic action. That might not have been there in previous very rare productions of the opera (the Stuttgart production of Satyagraha by Achim Freyer, currently the only version available on DVD), that perhaps haven’t been able to bring the meaning across quite as well as it’s done here. Directed by Phelim McDermott, with the set designs by Julian Crouch and the Improvisational Puppetry of their Improbable theatrical company’s skills ensemble, this production manages to find a balance between the stylised setting of the events in Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 and 1913, the words of the libretto – some of which are projected in English onto the set designs – and the wider context of the opera and the meaning of satyagraha, past, present and future (in Tolstoy, Tagore and King).

I first saw this production of Satyagraha when it premiered in London at the English National Opera in 2007 (and again when it was revived in 2010), and even then it was clear how those subjects and the broader meaning of Gandhi’s message in the opera were still relevant and successfully put across by the inventive but unfussy production that combined spectacle with meaning. That relevance is perhaps even more pronounced at the present time, with the power of non-violence and peaceful demonstration evident in upheavals in the Arab world, but also in events closer to home at St Paul’s in London and, not so far away from the Metropolitan Opera itself, contemporaneously on Wall Street. The timing seems fortuitous, resulting in deserved recognition belatedly given to Satyagraha and Philip Glass in standing ovations at the Met global broadcast around the world in HD-Live, but the truths expressed in the opera itself have always been there, only needing the means to spread the word and find an audience who will be receptive to it. It’s gratifying to see then that the same global communications technology that played such a vital part in the Arab revolutions as a new Indian Opinion could, albeit in a much less important way, help gain wider appreciation for this particular work, but – who knows? – some might even find deeper inspiration from the truths expressed in it.

ChenierUmberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2011 | Ulf Schirmer, Keith Warner, David Fielding, Héctor Sandoval, Norma Fantini, Scott Hendricks, Tania Kross, Rosalind Plowright | Unitel Classica – C-Major

If you want to convey a sense of the outrageous decadence of pre-Revolutionary France and blithe ignorance of the rich with regards to the reality of conditions for the poor in a production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, you would be hard pressed to match the extravagance of the one staged on the lake at Bregenz in 2011, where a huge head and upper torso of Marat, based on Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting ‘The Death of Marat’, seems to rise out of the water with Lake Constance as his bathtub. The open-air lake stage at the Bregenz is traditionally an opportunity for spectacles to rival the Arena di Verona, but that doesn’t mean that it comes at the cost of attention to detail in the direction of the opera itself or towards the quality of the singing, and that’s certainly the case with this production.

It’s vital of course to set the tone right from the outset, since Act I of Andrea Chénier sets the scene for everything that is to follow since. Dressed in colourful, gaudy costumes and balancing enormous wigs on their heads, it’s here that the guests of a soirée at the Château de Coigny are to have their cozy little gathering interrupted and their privileged position challenged by the first stirrings of revolution. Attending the event is the humanitarian and poet André Chénier, who is goaded by Madeleine de Coigny into reciting a verse as a party piece. The beauty of Chénier’s words shames Madeleine and the company, showing them up as being detached from reality and sincere feelings. But there is worse to come when their dancing is rudely interrupted by the butler Gérard who turns up with a bunch of beggars and speaks up for the suffering and mistreatment his family and fellow servants have suffered at the hands of the noble hosts and their kind. All these ominous signs of discontent confirm the Abbé’s warnings and his admonitions that all is not well at the Royal Court.

Chenier

Act II takes place four years later in the aftermath of the revolution, and the opera develops – inevitably – into a romantic situation between Chénier and a contrite Madeleine de Coigny who comes to him looking for help. In a situation that Puccini would mirror to some extent later in Tosca – the similarities not surprising since Luigi Illica wrote the libretto for both – their happiness is threatened not only by an inescapable involvement in the politics of the revolution (Chénier disillusioned by the Reign of Terror is being urged to flee Paris), but also by Gérard, who is now one of the main figures of the Revolution and in love with Madeleine himself. Romance is to the fore in Andrea Chénier, but it’s aligned very closely with the history, politics and sensibilities of the period. Even Gérard has come to doubt the cause, or at least the methods used by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and questions whether there can be redemption in love or in giving oneself over to sensuality, again not so different from the dilemma faced by Scarpia and the choice he has to make between God and Tosca. The situation, taken similarly to arrest and execution, is however scarcely any less dramatic here in Andrea Chénier.

Despite the opportunities to rather over-play the drama, Keith Warner’s production is relatively restrained and in keeping with the content. It is grand spectacle certainly, but the designs are well used for the purpose of keeping the drama moving. Not only is the extraordinary set by David Fielding decorated with several platforms so that action can play out simultaneously on different stages, but there are several other hidden recesses that open up on occasion to disgorge additional horrors as the Reign of Terror takes hold over the course of the opera. Performers even have to travel by rowing boat from the main stage to another floating platform that represents the St Lazare prison. There are a few stunts where extras and doubles plunge into the lake itself, but it doesn’t feel excessive in the context. Additional Interludes – the end of Act I for example showing the popular uprising set to a screeching electric guitar playing the Marseillaise – may however be taking things a little too far.

Chenier

In this context, climbing staircases from one level to the next, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the performers in the main roles might have been chosen for their level of fitness and for having a head for heights (both of which are undoubtedly necessary here), but they are also fine singers. Mexican tenor Héctor Sandoval is in the classic romantic tenor mould as Chénier, and he is well matched with Norma Fantini’s Madeleine. Baritone Scott Hendricks however almost steals the show as a spirited Gérard. None of them seem at all disconcerted or the least put-out by the tricky manoueuvring and stage placements that are required. Radio mics are inevitable on a set like this and are not so discreet, but while it’s not ideal the sound recording is good and well mixed for both the singing and the orchestra on the Blu-ray disc, which also boasts a fine High Definition image. There are no extra features on the disc other than trailers for other releases, but the enclosed booklet has a synopsis and a brief interview with Keith Warner on the production.

Richard Wagner - Siegfried

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Patricia Bardon, Jay Hunter Morris, Gerhard Siegel, Bryn Terfel, Eric Owens | The Met: Live in HD - November 5, 2011

I’m sure there are few productions of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen tetrology – the most ambitious and gargantuan production for any opera company to undertake – that are not beset with numerous difficulties and set-backs (even Bayreuth seem to be finding it difficult to engage a director willing to take on such a challenge at the moment), but the Metropolitan Opera in New York certainly haven’t made it easy for themselves with their 2010-12 production. The new technology designed and constructed to meet Robert Lepage’s concept was certainly an ambitious and innovative solution to maintaining the necessary consistency, commonality and fluidity that runs through each of the four Ring operas, but it has had more than its share of teething problems across Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The news that the maestro James Levine’s health problems had forced him to stand down from Met conducting duties this season was also quite a blow to the production. All of this however seems relatively minor in comparison to the challenge of finding a Siegfried to replace the one who has just succumbed to illness only weeks before the opening of the critical third instalment.

Siegfried

Enter tenor Jay Hunter Morris from Paris, Texas to replace the indisposed Gary Lehman, seemingly unfazed by the challenge of stepping into one of the most difficult roles in the entire opera repertoire on one of the biggest stages in the world of opera. A man either with no concept of the notion of fear or one who acts out of blithe innocence for a heroic endeavour, and as such, there can be no more perfect a match for the role of Siegfried. Jay Hunter Morris fits the bill on this count and in the other areas that matter. He’s not the most lyrical or dramatic heldentenor you will ever hear in the role, but there are few enough Wagnerian tenors in the world that fit that description that are capable of stepping into the role of Siegfried at a few weeks’ notice and Morris sings the role exceptionally well, carrying it off with courage, enthusiasm, stamina and personality, looking every inch a classic Siegfried. He’s certainly capable of slaying this particular dragon and that he does it so confidently is quite an achievement.

An achievement also, I’m happy to say now that we’re fully into the third part, is the gradual evolution of Lepage’s vision of the Ring cycle. Relying entirely on a huge heavy and complex piece of machinery, with no backdrops other than the computer generated images and lighting projected onto it, and little even in the way of props, the Machine was a risky gamble, and yes, it’s had its technical problems along the way. How well it works on a conceptual level is also debatable, but in terms of how it allows consistency, balance and fluidity, tackling complex scene changes, without unnecessary distraction or taking the focus away from the singers, is perfectly judged and balanced. Although undoubtedly difficult and complex to achieve, here in Siegfried it gives the impression of simplicity, managing to morph quickly and impressively from one scene and mood to the next without being overly showy. Less is definitely more when it comes to dealing with Wagner’s blend of myths and concepts – Lepage understands this, Jay Hunter Morris understand this, and so too does Fabio Luisi, taking over capably from Levine and dealing admirably with the challenges that this difficult stage in Wagner’s masterwork presents.

Siegfried

There is however no element and no minor role that doesn’t present challenges for the individual singers and the performers in Siegfried, or for the director and conductor who has to keep a consistency between them and with the other parts of the tetraology. The dwarf Mime can be played and sung with too much comic exaggeration, but Gerhard Siegel has the experience to enter more fully and thoughtfully into the role, and fits in well with the tone already established in the production. There’s a darker impulse and desire lying beneath that chimes with the nature of his brother Alberich, re-evoked here again after Das Rheingold in the gorgeously rich deep tones of Eric Owens. Much of this is just colour to the overall purpose of Siegfried, but it’s vital that it fits in with the richness of the colour that Wagner interweaves into the musical tapestry for the interaction and motivations of main characters. There are perhaps too many echoes and motifs to juggle satisfactorily in this particular opera and not enough depth of plotting to gve it sufficient character of its own – although it’s a work of absolute genius on the part of Wagner to develop and extend this method – and consequently it’s not always done as well as it is managed here.

What helps ground the opera however are the importance of the roles and the performances of the central characters of Wotan, the Wanderer and Brünnhilde. Having grown steadily into the role after a solid but unimpressive Das Rheingold followed by a significantly more commanding Die Walküre, Bryn Terfel’s first Seigfried Wotan is simply wonderful here. His character’s motivations and personal conflicts of interest are difficult to make work dramatically, but if you just take Wotan at his word in song – and this production allows him the space to explore the character deeply that way – then he is an utterly convincing, flawed, tragic character. It’s a great performance. Scarcely less of a challenge dramatically and vocally, Deborah Voigt might not entirely satisfy critics of her Brünnhilde in Die Walküre – weak only in only some areas, I thought – but she rose to the challenge here in Siegfried, her casting fortuitously seeming to work well not only with Terfel’s Wotan in the previous Ring instalment, but complementing well with the humanity in Jay Hunter Morris’ performance.

I’m not sure that the Metropolitan Ring will be ever considered a classic or a revolutionary new look at Wagner’s masterwork, but through good choices in the casting – along with more than a little bit of luck – and through a thoughtful, considered and balanced approach to the score and the production design, those performers are given full range of interpretation and expression, which if it is not revelatory, is at least consistent and of the highest quality. The standard has been set at a high level and the scene is now set for the Twilight of the Gods. Bring on Götterdämmerung.

SonnambulaVincenzo Bellini - La Sonnambula

Royal Opera House, 2011 | Daniel Oren, Marco Arturo Marelli, Andreas Leisner, Celso Albelo, Eglise Gutiérrez, Elena Xanthoudakis, Michele Pertusi, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora | Covent Garden, London - 2nd November 2011

It’s tempting to make excuses or a rationale for the limited musical arrangements and the somewhat contrived situation that leads to a melodramatic crisis in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Updating the period and setting it in an Alpine sanatorium in the 1950s, influenced to some extent by Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain‘, director Marco Arturo Marelli attempts to provide some psychological depth to the work, but in reality only confuses the issue further. Like most bel canto opera, it probably just better admitting that the only real reason for its scarcely credible plotline is to provide plenty of opportunities for virtuoso singing, and on that level alone, La Sonnambula – and indeed this production of it – more than justifies its existence.

For some commentators, it’s this simplicity that is in fact the key virtue of Bellini’s approach to the work. Its two act structure is a model of dramatic form, but it also reflects the simple attitudes that exist in its village-life setting in regard to the central issues, where a young woman Amina, is accused of infidelity to her fiancé Elvino on the eve of her wedding, having been found in the bedroom of a recently arrived stranger. Unaware that it’s her habit of sleepwalking that has led to her unfortunate night-time excursion, the opera’s theme then is based around the simple notion of purity as seen through the eyes of smalltown moralists who purport to uphold it yet question it in its sincerest form in Amina.

Judged purely on musical terms, you have to admit that Bellini gets it perfectly right. There’s not too much in the way of ambiguity in the characterisation or in the musical arrangements that underscore this straightforward conflict. Provided, that is, that you have a singer in the role of Amina with the kind of voice that can suggest simplicity and purity wronged and give it an air of authenticity in the ringing high notes and coloratura that express her innermost love for her husband-to-be and the sincerity of her intentions. And when you consider that this is a role for a Callas or a Sutherland, you can understand why it’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds.

Sonnambula

Fortunately, the Royal Opera House had two strong leads in Eglise Gutiérrez and Celso Albelo, both of whom were capable of reaching the extraordinary vocal challenges of the opera, even if they were both a little lacking in the charisma and the acting demands required to give their roles the kind of depth that Marco Arturo Marelli was undoubtedly looking for. There have been some criticisms of Gutiérrez’s Italian diction and the fact that her voice became increasingly thin on the high notes, both of which are true. Normally, I’d be inclined to regard such questions of technique as secondary in importance to the overall characterisation, but in the case of bel canto opera, characterisation is indeed subsidiary to the technique and is all about the singing. There are few enough singers in the history of opera, let alone around today, who are capable of meeting both demands in this kind of work however, so expectations surely need to be adjusted, and personally, I was impressed by how both leads met the challenges presented by this particular opera. No excuses need be made however for Elena Xanthoudakis as Lisa or Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo, both dramatically more convincing and dynamic as characters, both singing impressively, with real feeling for the work.

The use of chorus was also brilliantly employed. Choral work is not usually something you associate with bel canto opera – at least not until Verdi found a way of harnessing its possibilities as a means of popular expression – but it’s used here in just such a manner as the voice of public opinion, who watch and comment approvingly or disparagingly on everything that develops. Accordingly, they change with the wind, from “How could she, the faithless wench!” (I’m paraphrasing) and “How can this be anything but what it seems?” to “We always knew she was pure and true”. It’s realistic to the situation, but inevitably feels a little overstated, working contrary to the director’s intentions of giving the piece a realistic psychological or sociological treatment. So too, unfortunately, does the role of Elvino, whose change of heart and preparations to summarily dump Amina on their wedding day and marry Lisa instead is not only questionable, but his lack of faith in Amina is surely unforgivable.

A lot then depends on the dramatic twist to make it all work and fall into place, since it not only precipitates the drama, but also ultimately resolves it. Sleepwalking is an interesting notion that is worth exploring – the sleepwalker acting out unconscious inner thoughts and desires – but Marelli’s staging isn’t really able to do anything with it here in La Sonnambula, or make it any more dramatically convincing. There are no true human characteristics realistically expressed, no great revelations opened up, not even any real sympathy or comprehension shown along the way. Everything is as it appears and purely reactive to outward appearances.

Sonnambula

Which in a way sums up not only La Sonnambula, but this particular production as well. The score and the treatment here are perfectly in touch with its subject, the stage design impressive to look at and well-suited to the drama (if it isn’t able nonetheless to make the most of Amina’s famous perilous sleepwalking scene), and there’s genuine skill and talent evident on every level, but ultimately there’s no great depth to the work and it’s a disservice to the opera, the singers and to the audience to attempt to suggest that there’s anything more to La Sonnambula than is apparent on its enjoyably exquisite but hollow surface. That however, is more than good enough.

UnderworldJacques Offenbach - Orpheus in the Underworld

NI Opera & Scottish Opera, 2011 | Derek Clark, Oliver Mears, Rory Bremner, Nicholas Sherratt, Jane Harrington, Máire Flavin, Ross McInroy, Brendan Collins, Daire Halpin, Gavin Ring, Maire Claire Breen, Olivia Ray, Christopher Diffey | Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, 31 October 2011

Written in 1858, Offenbach’s first full-length comic operetta was by no means intended to be merely just a retelling of the classic Greek myth, not indeed even just a satire on the use of the subject in so many operas, but it was also intended to be a satire of the times. Who better then to take on the necessary task of updating it for our own times (it’s hardly going to be meaningful to parody 19th century Parisian society), while retaining all the risqué humour and the political edge than impressionist comedian and satirist Rory Bremner for this joint production between Scottish Opera and Northern Ireland Opera of Orpheus in the Underworld (’Orphée aux enfers’).

You might think that celebrity marriages, society scandal and gossip were only a recent phenomenon introduced by tabloid newspapers and the publication of ‘Hello’ and ‘OK’, but no, it was clearly as much a subject of interest in Offenbach’s time as it doubtless was long before that, and a subject just as worthy of sending up. Here, Eurydice is enjoying life as a WAG, her husband the celebrity musician Orpheus (although she has a severe allergic reaction to his music), and Bremner’s witty working of the libretto captures all the glamour as well as the vacuousness of the celebrity lifestyle. Even though both Eurydice and Orpheus can’t stand each other any longer and are cheating on each other, they are concerned about Public Opinion (a character in the opera), and about what a divorce would do to their reputations.

Underworld

Unfortunately, Eurydice’s gym instructor with whom she is having an affair is not Aristaeus, as she believes, but Pluto, the God of the Underworld in disguise. The collusion between Pluto and Orpheus isn’t really brought out in this production, but in any case the end result is the same – an unfortunate “accident” that kills Eurydice, allowing Pluto to whisk her off to Hell. Public Opinion is not impressed, although Orpheus doesn’t seem too concerned, and she insists that he set matters right and appeal to the Gods on Olympus. They’re a decadent bunch but rather fed-up with the high-life and the meaningless little affairs that they’ve been carrying on, so the idea of slumming it in Hell on a rescue mission to recover Eurydice sounds like fun to them. Apollo, who can’t keep it in his pants, as we all know, also sees the chance of upstaging an old rival by stealing Eurydice for himself right from under Pluto’s nose and on his own turf.

Off they go, partying in the Underworld, dancing the Can-Can (the famous music of the Moulin Rouge indeed originating from this Offenbach operetta), to such lively arrangements, sordid liaisons and bitter rivalry, that Orpheus in the Underworld has all the ingredients for a classic opera plot, if it’s not exactly the way the classical subject is more often played out. Not least of the imaginative arrangements in this humorous treatment is Apollo, disguised as a giant fly, getting it on in a vibrating buzzing way with Eurydice. Perhaps surprisingly, such racy material and irreverence is all there in Offenbach’s original work, and – without wishing to take anything away from Bremner’s often funny and cleverly rhyming English update – it only takes a tweak or two to spice it up with some modern pop-culture references (and some local topical ones, depending on the venue).

Underworld

Still, that’s making it all sound a little easier than it really is. In order to carry off this kind of comic opera, you not only need good performers who can act as well as sing, but they also need to have a good sense of comic timing and rapport with each other. If you have that – and there’s no doubt that this was certainly the case in this production – when combined with the zippy, witty and dazzling arrangements from Offenbach that belie the apparent lightness of the material, you have a winning combination. Surprisingly, Orpheus isn’t one of the major characters in the opera, but Nicholas Sherratt worked well alongside Jane Harrington’s terrific characterisation of Eurydice (by way perhaps of Katie Price and Victoria Beckham). Handling the comedy acting and the singing parts with equal aplomb, she was a delight whenever she was on the stage. The meatier roles however were given over to Brendan Collins and Gavin Ring as Apollo and Pluto, who both managed to strike the right tone throughout, as well as carry off the more outrageous moments of comic interplay. The all-important satirical sense of moral outrage mixed with salacious prying and interference was brilliantly brought out in Máire Flavin’s schoolmarmish Public Opinion, but all the cast fully entered into the spirit of the piece.

Conducted by Derek Clark, the chamber arrangement played by the NI Opera Orchestra worked perfectly with the intimacy of the venue at Newtownabbey’s Theatre at the Mill, but with appropriate zest and timing that fully supported the outrageous on-stage activities. Following the Northern Ireland tour, the production travels to the Young Vic in London for a number of dates between the 1st and 10th December and this is one show that is well worth catching if you can-can.

MahagonnyKurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Teatro Real Madrid, 2010 | Pablo Heras Casado, Alex Ollé, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Jane Henschel, Donald Kaasch, Willard White, Measha Brueggergosman, Michael König, John Easterlin, Otto Katzameier, Steven Humes | Bel Air Media

When it was originally composed in 1930, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht intended Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) to be as much a satire of opera and a reaction to the state of the Weimar Republic. Now, when taken alongside such like-minded work contemporary works by Hindemith and Berg, it just sounds like great opera – but it still functions as a scathing satire on all the subjects it deals with, particularly the nature of capitalism, on which it still has very relevant points to make.

You can call it music theatre if you like, but Weill’s score for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is considerably more sophisticated than that, working in a variety of styles to create a deliberate alienating effect, drawing on specific references, creating dissonance and unsettling arrangements, using unexpected plot points to keep the listener engaged and keep them from complacently and unquestioningly accepting operatic conventions. It does all that and it has great tunes as well, the most notable of which, Alabama Song, sung by down-and-out prostitute Jenny Smith (”Oh, show me the way to the next Whisky Bar“), is almost like the flip-side of the Libiamo sung in celebration at the party of La Traviata’s courtesan, Violetta Valéry.

If you need any convincing that Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny can aspire to great opera however, this 2010 production at the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by La Fura dels Baus might be just the ticket. I’m not the biggest fan of La Fura – I’ve seen several of their productions fall well short of the mark – but when they get it right and are working with the right kind of material, they can succeed in a spectacular fashion. Their unconventional approach to opera staging, which could even be considered anti-theatre, certainly has a Brechtian influence, so it’s no surprise to find that that the Catalan group are absolutely perfect for this particular work.

Mahagonny

Directed by Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa, there are no projections this time – other than the titles of each of the sections (in Spanish here, not translated on the screen) – no elaborate designs, no wire acrobatics or off-the-wall concepts. Everything is tailored directly towards the expression of the ideas in the work, finding the most imaginative and impactful way of putting it across, without relying on stagy conventions. The decision then to have the the trio of Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses arrive as if dumped from a refuge collection and set about founding the City of Mahagonny on the edge of a rubbish dump is perfect for the nature of their intentions to make as much money as cheaply as possible by appealing to the lowest nature of their visitors, offering them booze, girls and boxing.

It’s important to get the basic concept in place, but the directors find the right tone for each scene, with many wonderful little touches – from Jimmy’s imagined return sea journey to Alaska with the raised legs of the hookers forming the waves, to his trial taking place in a circus ring – all of which give an additional satirical edge that not works along with the material, showing an understanding of its nature, its playfulness and its bitterness, without feeling the need to over-emphasise or add on any additional commentary. The opera is satirical of all these subjects – from the expectations of the individual to the concept of justice – all within the umbrella of the capitalist system, and it doesn’t need any specific or easy-target anti-American agenda attached for the concept to stand on its own and be applied by the listener to their own experience of the system.

Mahagonny

I’m not sure why it was chosen to use the US revision of the original opera, singing it in English and changing Jimmy Mahoney to Jimmy MacIntyre, particularly as there are a few native German speakers in the cast here and others, like Henschel, have a strong footing in German opera. If it’s another attempt at alienation effect to keep the audience guessing, then it works here. Most importantly however, the casting and singing is superb. Jane Henschel is superbly capable in the whole range from singspiel-like dialogue to more conventional opera singing, as well as being a fine actress in the role of Widow Begbick. Jenny Smith is an important piece of casting, and Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman makes an incredible impression, oozing sensuality and absolutely electric in her scenes with Michael König’s fine Jimmy MacIntyre. The balance right across the board in the other roles seems perfect, consistently hitting the right note, as do the Chorus of the Teatro Real, who give their all in the scantiest of costumes and in the most… well… indelicate situations. One can’t fault the commitment either of the Madrid orchestra under Pablo Heras Casado.

I don’t know if it’s to do with the encoding, but Bel Air releases often look a little juddery in motion on both my Blu-ray set-ups (most evident here when the Spanish captions move across the screen), and can lack definition in the darker scenes. I haven’t heard anyone else mention any issues with previous releases, so perhaps it’s specific to one’s set-up. Generally however, the image is fine, and even if movements aren’t smooth, I didn’t find it too distracting. The audio tracks, in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, are both fine, but there’s not much to choose between them. I found the PCM worked better using headphones to keep the sound focussed, and it’s very impressive this way. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a synopsis in the booklet.