February 2012


RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Royal Opera House, London, 2012 | Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito, Camilla Nylund, Petra Lang, Byran Hymel, Agnes Zwierko, Alan Held, Daniel Grice, Gyula Orendt, Ilse Eerens, Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard, Justina Gringyte | Covent Garden, 27 February 2012

It’s somewhat surprising that Dvořák’s gorgeous Lyric Fairytale opera Rusalka has never been performed before at Covent Garden. One hundred and eleven years after its composition, its February 2012 premiere at the Royal Opera House was therefore long overdue, but under conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin it was at least a fine introduction to the musical qualities of the work. The far from traditional stage production however - premiered at Salzburg in 2008 and revived here with many of the original cast - without necessarily detracting from the work, certainly confused the audience about the intentions of the piece, the directors attracting a fair share of booing on the opening night performance.

The intentions of the work and its source in European folklore - notably Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid may not be easily apparent other than it being merely a fairytale, but even on that level there is a richness of imagery and some typical themes in such work on the corruption of innocence, particularly in the context of the destruction of the purity of nature by the actions of humanity. It’s also a tragic love story of a water nymph who falls in love with a prince in the woods and wants to become human. Escaping from the tyranny of the water goblin, with the help of a witch in the woods, she manages to grow legs and appears as a beautiful but mute vision before the prince hunting in the woods. Unable to cope with the complex and inconstant nature of human beings, Rusalka however finds herself banished from her sisters and home, unable to fit into the human world either, and ultimately cursed to live in a limbo state between them.

Rusalka

Quite how the production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito came to be set in what looked like a brothel then and whatever intentions were behind this choice were unclear, but it’s not the first time that the opera has been subjected to a radical reworking. Martin Kušej’s 2010 production of Rusalka for the Bavarian State Opera managed to graft the story of young girls being held captive in a dank cellar and abused by a Josef Fritzl-like water goblin quite successfully onto the work’s theme of the corruption of innocence, finding in Rusalka’s dilemma a parallel to the profound psychological damage that abused women in captivity must endure for the rest of their lives. There would appear to be something similar attempted with this production, but its muddled intentions were far less coherent and nowhere near so successfully or powerfully seen through to the fullness of their dark intent.

The key to understanding the production’s concept comes perhaps in its treatment of the Rusalka’s three wood nymphs. Reflecting Rusalka’s innocence of the fact that she is growing up in a brothel - the set dressed with lurid colours and red curtains - in Act 1 the three semi-naked figures in transparent dresses writhe around like exotic creatures of a young girl’s imagination, but it’s only after leaving her home - losing her mermaid tail and literally learning to stand on her own two feet - and having been subjected herself to the acts and whims of men, that the young woman’s illusions are shattered. In Act 3 then, the three “nymphs” are seen more for what they really are, dressed far more conventionally (albeit still in theatrical fantasy terms in unbelievably skimpy outfits rather than with any sense of naturalism) as cheap prostitutes. The scales have fallen from Rusalka’s eyes and, no longer able to return to the world of childhood innocence, the idea of living in a world with this knowledge becomes intolerable.

Rusalka

That’s one interpretation - the best I can come up with - but its manner of expression in the production is far from consistent, mixing this stylised theatrical realism with pantomime-like fairytale imagery, often to bizarre effect. Rusalka quite literally has a mermaid fish tail at the start, which is removed from her by the witch Jezibaba’s giant person-in-a-big-furry-costume black cat familiar. The revolving stage set with its red curtains is asked to stand-in for a variety of locations and the fit isn’t always good, the imagery and mix of concepts proving rather confusing. I’m not sure where the religious elements and use of neon crosses come into the work, although perhaps it views religious intolerance and hypocrisy as being antithetical to Rusalka’s pure and natural paganism.

Regardless of how it’s interpreted, the progression of the storyline and the impact of Rusalka’s dilemma still comes through, expressed principally and convincing by a strong performance from the Royal Opera House orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. They captured the Wagnerian romanticism of the work rather more successfully however than the folk rhythms that Dvořák beautifully blends into the opera, coming across a little too aggressively in such places. It was the quality of the singing however that carried the work through in spite of the peculiarities of the production. Camilla Nylund’s performance and delivery were flawless, meeting not only the technical demands of the singing, but injecting the right note of wistful romanticism into Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” aria, and a sense of distraught confusion at the harsh reality of being a human that leads to her tragic fate. Bryan Hymel was equally as emotive in his delivery of the rather more human failings of the Prince, his singing strong and resonant.

There were moreover no weak elements even in the secondary characters with Petra Lang a formidable foreign princess, Agnes Zwierko compelling as the witch Jezibaba and Alan Held a strong Water Goblin. Particularly impressive however were the Rhinemaiden-like figures of the three wood nymphs, Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte. This was consequently a solid performance of Rusalka, exceptionally well-sung by a strong cast, even if the production didn’t always capture the lyricism of this beautiful work in the orchestration or the stage direction.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Royal Opera House, London, 2012 | Constantinos Carydis, Francesca Zambello, Erwin Schrott, Alex Exposito, Carmela Remigio, Ruxandra Donose, Pavol Breslik, Kate Lindsey, Matthew Rose, Reinhard Hagen | Covent Garden, 26 February 2012

It never ceases to amaze me how it is possible to play Don Giovanni in so many different ways, with subtle shifts of emphasis that can change one’s whole view of the work. That’s possible with most great operas in the hands of an imaginative director, but I find that it is particularly the case with Don Giovanni, a work that was brilliantly designed to be open and ambiguous, giving the appearance of moral rectitude where the villain is punished and his misdeeds reflected over in an epilogue, but in reality being much more complicated than that. I didn’t find that Francesca Zambello’s 2002 production, revived here at the Royal Opera House under director Barbara Lluch, had a whole lot to add to the various interpretations that have added different layers to the character of Don Giovanni, but the joy of the opera is that the Count is often defined by the other characters in the work and that leaves a lot of room for reinterpretation.

There was nothing new in the relationship between Don Giovanni and Leporello here then - the Don is a loveable rogue who can’t help himself when it comes to women, and Leporello is his admiring comedy sidekick, enjoying his adventures in seduction across Europe up until the moment that Don Giovanni’s wicked ways start to catch up with him. If there was a lack of imagination in how this is played out, it’s at least an enjoyable way to see the familiar pleasures of opera, and it may even have been an intentional decision on the part of the director Francesco Zambello, in order to place more emphasis on the female characters and allow them to take more of a central role. The women are by no means overlooked or underdeveloped by Mozart and Da Ponte, but they are often seen as secondary foils who are only there to unravel Don Giovanni’s schemes and bring him to justice for his crimes.

Under Francesca Zambello’s direction, the women are often positioned together, forming a kind of bond of sisterhood. In Donna Elvira’s Act II aria ‘Mi tradì quell’ alma ingrata‘, where she laments her inability to give up her unfaithful man, she is joined in silent sympathy by both Donna Anna and Zerlina, who both have their own problems not only with Don Giovanni, but with the other men in their life. Their bonding is celebrated again with hugs in the opera’s epilogue, but it’s not some kind of proto-feminist solidarity at their success in overthrowing the tyranny of male domination represented by the descent into hell of Don Giovanni - that would be inappropriate for the 18th century setting and contrary to the characterisation as it is defined in the libretto. Rather it’s an acknowledgement of the women of their nature - falling for good looks and charms of a man they know is no good for them, whose words can’t be trusted, who will seduce and abandon them, but who nonetheless makes them feel desired and special. Think how that would feel if he really meant it. That’s an irresistible prospect and the women just can’t help themselves and are powerless against their own impulses and these drives that Don Giovanni awakens in them.

Giovanni

I wouldn’t however give too much credit to Francesca Zambello for bring out this aspect of the work - like so many other interpretations it’s all there in the brilliant libretto and the stunning musical arrangements of the original work and just waiting to be explored - particularly as in most other respects the production here is surprisingly lacking. The stage sets may be well designed to fluidly switch between all the complicated location arrangements that take place in two long acts of the opera, but they are ugly and clunky, the huge bulky woodwork not remaining in the background, but swinging out over the whole of the stage, the positioning of the actors within it meaning that depending where you are seated, they can be often hidden from view. At best the set is functional - it didn’t hamper the progression of the drama or detract from the enjoyment of the fine performances - but it’s unwieldy and unattractive.

If there is not a great deal that’s new to be gained from this particular production, the audience at least has the pleasure of seeing a great work well performed. The last time I saw Erwin Schrott in a production of Don Giovanni (a 2008 Salzburg production on Blu-ray), he was a wonderful twitchy Leporello, but he can do the role of the master just as effectively, making it look effortless. Don Giovanni may not have any arias in the opera, but it’s a difficult role to carry off convincingly. It’s not just that Schrott fulfils the necessary bari-hunk credentials that one needs for the role nowadays, rather gratuitously in this production having to strip down to the waist, (although as he demonstrated to a lady in the Stalls Circle Left at the Royal Opera House, he has no shortage of magnetic charm), but his singing was assured and in character. A little comic exaggeration doesn’t go amiss in Don Giovanni, but when required, Schrott could carry the necessary noble contemptuousness for others while giving the impression of being utterly irresistible in his charms. It wasn’t required here as much as in other productions, but I’m sure he could carry off the nasty and cruel streak in Don Giovanni if the emphasis in a production were in that direction.

The fact that it wasn’t a dark and dangerous Don Giovanni however is by no means a flaw, but a matter of interpretation, particularly when one wants to draw on other aspects of the work. In order to shift the balance over to the female perspective however, it needs very strong singers in the more challenging roles of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. Carmela Remigio and Ruxandra Donose met the necessary criteria as far as the demands of the production required, the two of them together certainly representing a formidable force to challenge Don Giovanni, their singing strong and filled with character, even if they didn’t always hold up to the technical demands of the more difficult arias. Kate Lindsey was a little anonymous in the role of the flighty Zerlina, and her voice wasn’t the most delicate of tones, but her interaction with the excellent Matthew Rose as Masetto was fine.

If you could say there was a weakness in the female make-up that didn’t necessarily compromise their position as far as the aims of this production went, there was in comparison a general solidity to the all the male roles, with Pavol Breslik an earnest Don Ottavio and Reinhard Hagen a commanding Commendatore. Seen recently as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, Alex Exposito clearly specialises in strong, comic Mozartian character parts and he fully entered into the spirit of Leporello, with all the comic exaggeration that the role often demands, singing well, as ever, with heartfelt passion. There was no lack of commitment or fire in any of the performances - the orchestra also in form under Constantinos Carydis - and if fire is what you like, there was plenty of that in the final scene of Don Giovanni’s descent into hell, where the heat of the flames could be certainly be felt in the front rows. If the stage directions were questionable elsewhere, the orchestration of the final scenes were well-judged for maximum impact, not least in the final postscript where Don Giovanni seems to be quite at home in the underworld.

John Adams - The Death of Klinghoffer

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Baldur Brönnimann, Tom Morris, Alan Opie, Christopher Magiera, Michaela Martens, Edwin Vega, Sidney Outlaw, Richard Burkhard, Kathryn Harries, James Cleverton, Lucy Schaufer, Kate Miller-Heidke | The Coliseum, 25 February 2012

There wasn’t much evidence of anything too controversial in the English National Opera’s premiere of John Adams’s 1991 opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, nor any sign of anyone in the audience taking offense at its treatment of politically sensitive material relating to the situation in the Middle East, yet it’s an opera that no American company has risked producing since the furore it caused on its initial run there twenty years ago. But then there are influential groups with vested interests in that part of the world and there’s perhaps not much of an appetite in the post 9/11 America for anything that treats terrorists as real people and could be seen as giving a voice to their anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiments.

Relating to the hijacking of the cruise liner the Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in 1985 and the murder of an elderly disabled Jewish American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, who was shot and thrown off the ship in his wheelchair by the terrorists, what should be evident to anyone who actually listens to the work - and it seemed to find an interested, considerate and attentive audience at its opening night at the Coliseum - is that the opera’s treatment of the subject is actually a sensitive and moving account of the meaningless of the killing of an elderly gentleman that ultimately furthered the agenda of no-one. That is certainly the overwhelming impression that is gained by a viewing of the opera, but inevitably with this particular subject, things are a little more complicated and the event cannot be considered in isolation.

Klinghoffer

Where however do you start trying to set the background of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into context? How can you do it in a fair and impartial way, and particularly how can you represent it accurately in the difficult medium of music and theatre? The approach taken by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman is naturally very different from the rather more satirical view they took with their previous work Nixon in China, but essentially, using choruses and individual testimonies from various passengers, they employ similar methods of poetic reflection mixed with everyday mundanity to allude to the difficult-to-define larger picture while reminding us that these are essentially ordinary people - yes, even terrorists are people - with their own backgrounds, personalities and human flaws.

The problem with this however, and where the controversy arises, is that not everyone believes that terrorists should be given a platform to express their views or that they should even be treated as human beings. It’s abhorrent - understandably for anyone involved since this is about a real-life incident - that the four Palestinian hijackers should be able to talk about being historically downtrodden, of having suffered hardship and deprivation in refugee camps, should be shown as having caring mothers, and of being capable of expressing future hopes and dreams. Yet, if one doesn’t take the time to consider where their grievances arise from, how can it ever be possible to do treat the subject truthfully? Haven’t recent events - and it’s here that the subject of the opera is shown to be even more relevant today - shown that demonisation simply breeds more terrorists?

Showing the Palestinian hijackers as humans, seeking to provide a balanced view of terrorists on one side and innocent captives on the other, and to do so on equal terms, is a difficult enough undertaking and a risky one for such a sensitive topic, but what makes The Death of Klinghoffer an even more complicated prospect is the medium of opera itself. Music is apolitical and one of the most human of arts - it doesn’t take sides. As if it’s not controversial enough to allow the terrorists to state their case, John Adams scores their situation here with some of the most beautiful music he has ever composed. The subject is an uncommon one for opera and Adams rises to the challenge of finding a inventive means of expression, far beyond the relatively more simple rhythms of his earlier minimalist works.

Klinghoffer

Music may be apolitical, but words are another matter. Alice Goodman’s libretto for The Death of Klinghoffer however seeks to find balance in allowing both sides to express their views. That’s not as simple as it sounds and the method is accordingly difficult to define, switching between rousing expressions of cultural and national identity in choruses of historical reflection, to dealing with the practicalities and horrible banality of being in the present-time of the hijacking, with reflective outlooks on the future that both the terrorists and the passengers hope to see beyond their current situation. As much as the individual viewpoints of the events are important, it’s the soaring choral arrangements that underpin the work however, taking the divisions beyond the merely political, the Chorus of the Exiled Palestinians and the Chorus of Exiled Jews that open the opera superseded by Chouses of Day and Night and the Ocean and the Desert - a larger perspective that takes the work to different levels.

Tom Morris’s set design has quite a challenge in reflecting all these varied viewpoints and grander concepts, but it manages relatively well. The importance of the imagery of land and sea means mixing the sand of the desert onto the desk of a ship, but as well as allowing for those theatrical shifts in location and between memory and present, it also succeeds in bringing them together. Extensive use is made of projections, just as successfully, allowing the complex musical and lyrical imagery and the concepts to be expressed in visual theatrical terms that are not strictly literal. The simple proof of the effectiveness of the production design is in how it supports the delicate equilibrium of the work itself. The human predicament of the Captain of the Achille Lauro, the shocking fate of Leon Klinghoffer, the nightmare endured by his wife and their fellow passangers all come across with immediacy, while around them, in the dancing, in the projections, and in the choruses, the wider significance of it all is brilliantly expressed.

Just as with the score itself, the outstanding contribution to the success of The Death of Klinghoffer and the solid foundation that it is built upon, comes though the chorus work, and the Chorus of the English National Opera were in magnificent voice on this first performance of the work at the Coliseum. The orchestra under Baldur Brönnimann captured the vast, complex lyrical sweep of Adams’ score just as effectively as some of the more discordant arrangements (I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard electric drums in an opera score and the effect is strangely and no doubt intentionally unsettling). With strong choreography for the dance, as well as stage arrangements for the scenes of on-board terrorism, the sensitive but impactful treatment over the actual on-stage killing of Leon Klinghoffer was only emphasised by the fine performances of the main cast, notably from Michaela Martens as Marilyn Klinghoffer and Alan Opie as Leon.

If anyone goes into The Death of Klinghoffer with any doubts or suspicions about where the sympathies of the work and the creators might lie, those apprehensions are quickly dispelled by the sensitive and moving portrayal that the work and these performances give to the figures of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer. No-one viewing this production at the English National Opera will leave it unmoved at the beautiful manner in which The Death of Klinghoffer deals with such a terrible affair.

RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Edward Gardner, David McVicar, Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Shore, Madeleine Shaw, Adrian Thompson, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, Jaewoo Kim, Mark Richardson | The Coliseum, 24 February 2012

If the previous night’s production at the Coliseum of the Richard Jones directed The Tales of Hoffmann was an example of throwing everything at a production to less than optimal effect, David McVicar’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier the following night was a lesson in the virtue of understatement. Understatement is not a quality you often associate with either Richard Strauss or indeed David McVicar, and the use of the term is indeed relative. This revival of the English National Opera’s 2008 production is by no means minimalist, the stage lushly decorated in authentic-looking period design and costumes, but it makes the most effective use of that set design across all three acts with thoughtful arrangements and little fuss.

This is undoubtedly the best way to approach Strauss’s most extravagant and lushly detailed work. Every single word and gesture is already expressed, enhanced and accompanied by carefully considered notes and instruments to add layers of meaning and significance, and what they don’t need is for the stage direction to ignore them or work against them. That approach might be valid for introducing or bringing out notes of irony in relation to the subject in another opera, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s playful farce set amongst the nobility of mid-eighteenth century Vienna is already loaded with ironic intention and musical references to Strauss waltzes and to Mozart’s comic operas of lecherous nobles. It doesn’t need any other layers to confuse matters or disrupt the delicate balance in a manner that tips it over into being far too clever by half.

Rosenkavalier

Surprisingly for this director, McVicar even chose to figuratively draw a veil (or stage curtain) over any on-stage visualisation of Strauss’s famous musical expression of the opening bedroom romp between the Marshallin and her young lover Octavian, preferring to let the stage bask in the golden afterglow of the morning after. Without any further stage devices other than the subtle shifts of golden light, Act 1 serves up the gorgeous luxuriousness of Strauss’s expression of those moments, the subsequent encounter with Baron Ochs and the Levée without any unwelcome distraction, intrusion or interpretation. Simply creating an appropriate environment for the detail of the score and the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier to work its own magic is sufficient, and that is brilliantly achieved here.

That makes it sound easy, but there is actually a lot of consideration put into actually understanding what the opera is about. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in a review of a recent Baden-Baden production, the opera is more than just a satire of 18th century Viennese society or a fond tribute to the Mozartian class comedy, but, setting it in an idealised past, it’s very much concerned with the passing of time, with the ways of the old making way for the way of the new. That’s not only expressed directly in the libretto, particularly in Marschallin’s reflections at the end of Act 1, or in the tradition of the Rosenkavalier itself for arranging marriages of convenience, but it’s reflected in the very fabric of the music, each of the long three acts taking place in real time where every second and every nuance of every moment, every expression of every character, individually and sometimes together, is crystallised in the most exquisitely detailed musical arrangements. Occasionally, it can feel excessive and over-elaborate, over-generous in its emotional expression to almost Puccini-like levels, leaving little for the listener to interpret for themselves, and leaving them merely as observers, but, my goodness, what brilliance to simply sit back and luxuriate in!

It’s a willingness on the part of director McVicar and conductor Edward Gardner to refrain from adding any personal touches or interpretations and simply take the cues from the score and the libretto, that serves the ENO’s production so well here. That’s not a matter of stepping back however and not being involved, but rather directing their efforts to where it is best employed, and that is in service of the performers on the stage. The drama moves along here so fluidly, with all its enjoyable little moments of visual humour and personal interaction, that it’s clear just how much consideration has been placed in giving the opera its best possible presentation, never getting bogged down in the cleverness of the detail, but with an eye to the bigger picture. Never in my experience of this work have those three acts of Der Rosenkavalier felt so perfectly a whole, with not a note out of place, not a gesture unwarranted, not a single moment that wasn’t simply thoughtful, delightful and entertaining.

Rosenkavalier

A very great deal of the success of the work, no matter how thoughtful the attention given to the other elements of the production, lies in the casting, and the ENO’s current line-up delivered performances of astonishing quality. Individually, it would be hard to improve on a cast that includes Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson and Sophie Bevan, but collectively they also work well together, giving appropriate weight and balance to the characters. A high-profile soprano in the role of Marschallin can tip the balance too much towards sentimental reflection, but while Amanda Roocroft is undoubtedly one of the top English sopranos she never let her character’s dilemma over-dominate proceedings. Marschallin’s self-sacrifice to the happiness of the young couple at the end was consequently deeply moving, particularly in the light of the perfection of how the production handled Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s setting of the scene.

The overbearing nature of Baron Ochs can also lead to this character dominating the show - the opera was indeed originally conceived with Ochs to the forefront and even went under the title of Ochs auf Lerchenau while it was being written - and that is certainly a possibility with as fine a singer as John Tomlinson in the role. Not only was the diction of his bass clear, musical and beautifully resonant, but his playing of the role of Ochs made the old goat genuinely sympathetic, without contradicting the less pleasant aspects of his character. He played Ochs not as a buffoon but as a throwback to the “old ways” of the privilege of nobility, formerly secure of his position, dishonourably regretting the reduction of his influence, but ultimately accepting of it as being in the nature of the passing of time and the way of youth to usurp the place of their elders.

The fact that Roocroft and Tomlinson impressed so greatly without over-dominating the proceedings is not only testament to the fine handling of the stage direction, but to having equally fine and impressive singers in the roles of Octavian and Sophie. Sophie Bevan was a spirited Sophie, her youthful innocence and purity matched by the depth of her feelings expressed so beautifully in her words to Octavian and in their delivery. Fitting in with the overall approach to the work, Sarah Connolly’s Octavian was a model of how to make an impact and have presence through understatement, or at least without overstatement. There’s a balance to be maintained between the comic and the serious elements in Octavian’s make-up, between his youthful enthusiasm and growing maturity, his sensitive delicacy and his hotheadedness, and as performed by Sarah Connolly, you could see that character develop in real-time over the course of the opera. She was in fine voice.

Certainly one of the best all-round performances I’ve ever seen of Der Rosenkavalier, the ENO production was also one of those all too rare occasions when the full potential of a great opera was fully realised and its impact could be felt throughout the house.

HoffmannJacques Offenbach - The Tales of Hoffmann

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Antony Walker, Richard Jones, Barry Banks, Georgia Jarman, Clive Bayley, Christine Rice, Iain Paton, Grame Danby, Simon Butteriss, Catherine Young | The Coliseum, 23 February 2012

For his final opera - his only opera proper, since his prolific output up to 1880 consisted principally of comic operetta - Jacques Offenbach found a suitably inventive and imaginative mind to “collaborate” with in the shape of ETA Hoffmann. Using three of the writer’s fabulous stories, interlinked through involving their original author in the relating and playing out of the stories, finding common connections in character types that allow them to be played and sung by singers in multiple roles, The Tales of Hoffmann is consequently a very rich work where the contributions of the composer and the original author can be played upon to interesting effect. The English National Opera’s new production of the opera (already seen in Munich as a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera) seems to find a like-minded stage director of inventiveness and imagination in Richard Jones, but while his stage design for the production delivers everything you would expect from this type of match, it also feels a little too neat and obvious and doesn’t yield any unexpected results.

There’s a balance between playfulness and tragedy to be achieved in The Tales of Hoffmann and Jones (as seen most famously recently in his Royal Opera House production for Turnage’s Anna Nicole) can be good at showing an underlying dark unease beneath the surface kitsch and colour. As if it’s all conjured up from within the fevered imagination of an alcoholic writer at his wits end (only a little licence involved in relating this to the real-life circumstances of ETA Hoffmann), the action in each of the acts takes place in a uniformly shaped, trompe d’oeil twisted room, with a bed, a bookcase, a sink, a writing desk and several other elements that change subtly in form and colouration according to each of the three gothic romances that Hoffman relates to his assembled (imaginary?) audience, three affairs that have taken him to the edge of despair and self-destruction. The sense that this fevered imagination is enhanced by the smoking of mind-altering substances is reinforced by the repeated appearance of Hoffmann, his muse and three gentlemen smoking pipes in between each of the stories, the smoke forming the names of the three women involved - Olympia, Antonia and Giuletta.

Hoffmann

Each of those three parts then is deliriously coloured to emphasis the fairytale quality of the original stories along with the dark undercurrent of gothic horror and tragedy that underpins them, and Richard Jones’s designs couldn’t be faulted for being eye-catching and imaginative in this respect. Just as in Offenbach’s score, there’s room for those familiar broader comic touches as well as for the more sensitive plays of character and emotion that lies within the situations, but it often feels perfunctory when compared to Offenbach’s wilder flights of fancy in his opéra comique, and merely playing on opera conventions. The production mirrors the nature of the work perfectly well in this respect, in other words, but it doesn’t manage to make anything more of those links and contrasts in the stories, in the differing views that Hoffmann and Offenbach bring to them, or in how they even relate to each other.

Some lovely melodies aside, The Tales of Hoffmann isn’t the most sophisticated work, and there perhaps isn’t much to delve into beneath the surface, but these elements and contradictions could be exploited further in the hands of a more adventurous director. Considering that the theme of the banal realities of life being enhanced by the imagination of a disturbed character or lunatic form a core part of the films of Terry Gilliam, I couldn’t help think that this opera would have been a more interesting vehicle for the former Python than Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the ENO (notwithstanding his success with that) - whereas with Richard Jones, The Tales of Hoffmann just feels in safe hands. It’s all very entertaining and visually impressive, but personally, I think this particular opera, with its rather old-fashioned storytelling devices relating a confusing and strange narrative needs rather more than a straightforward telling. Jones gets the surface down well, but there’s not a whole lot of sense or depth in it as a whole.

Hoffmann

It’s left to the singers then to try and bring something more memorable out of the production and, while the performances are terrific, it’s not enough to bring any new qualities out of the work. Barry Banks sings his heart out, but without any depth to the work or the production, he seems, like the character of Hoffmann in his choice of women (and like Offenbach himself), to be expending an awful lot of energy and investing a lot of emotion in something that doesn’t seem worthy of his efforts. Georgia Jarman acquits herself admirably across a notoriously difficult singing of the opera’s multi-part soprano role, bringing some genuine sensitivity to the character of Antonia at least, if he is unable to do much within the staging for the other parts. Christine Rice also brought some heartfelt emotion and character to the muse disguised as Nicklausse - indeed surpassing the otherwise unimaginative director’s interpretation of the character. Clive Bayley sang well and was suitably sinister as the villain of the pieces.

Antony Walker’s conducting of the score was excellent, but like all the other aspects of the production, it didn’t raise the work to any new levels - but that might perhaps be asking for too much. That perhaps sums up my overall impression of the ENO’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which on its own terms was a delightful and entertaining account of the work, marvellously performed with skill and commitment, but anyone looking for something a little more thoughtful or challenging from Richard Jones’s production could well feel a little bit disappointed.

SalomeRichard Strauss - Salome

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011 | Stefan Soltesz, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Angela Denoke, Alan Held, Kim Begley, Doris Soffel, Marcel Reijans, Jurgita Adamonyte | Arthaus

It’s somewhat difficult to grasp the nature of the concept behind director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2011 production of Strauss’ Salome or understand quite how it works, but it is delivered so powerfully in this Festspielhaus Baden-Baden staging that it’s not so hard to get a sense that he’s doing something absolutely right. The best thing you can do – and this ought to come naturally anyway if it’s done properly – is just focus on the singing and the music of this extraordinary, ground-breaking work of opera and the rest will fall into place, even if you don’t really understand why. There’s certainly a sense of dislocation then when you initially view this production, which has none of the superficial visual reference points that you would normally associate with its biblical Judean setting, and little even of the stylised imagery of moonlight nights and shadows of death suggested by a text derived from Oscar Wilde’s beautifully decadent overwrought imagery. Yet, as the opera itself takes shape, the surroundings fall into the background and instead simply provide an appropriate environment with space that allows Richard Strauss’ music to take centre stage.

In some respects you can see Lehnhoff’s work here as an extension of his approach to the symphonic tone poems of his Strauss and Wagner productions, most notably in Parsifal and, as a companion piece to this work, his Baden-Baden production of Elektra. Partly, those productions are representative of an interior mindset – particularly the latter – but they also are abstractly expressive of the tones and textures of the music itself and the themes that arise from the subject. The fractured, slightly titled landscape here in Salome suggests a psychological imbalance, while the contrasts that are expressed in the music and the characters are reflected in the textures of the walls and floors of the unconventional stage arrangement, with a dark glossy reflective centre-stage surrounded by crumbling plaster, broken tiles and rotting whitewashed wooden panels.

Salome

It’s far from naturalistic, but then there’s nothing naturalistic about the situation or the aggressive music that pushes the boundaries of the tonal system. Strauss’ Salome (drawn from imagery suggested by the paintings of Gustave Moreau and elaborated on by Flaubert, Mallarmé and Wilde) is far from a straightforward biblical tale, but rather an expression of dark sexual pathology, of the fulfilment of dangerous desires, of obsession and lust, a lurid study of the power that those perverse drives confer on both the object and the subject of those desires and how it differentiates men and women. That dark fascination of this Liebestod situation and conflict is there in Strauss’ orchestration, the composer scoring directly in response to the flow and the tone of Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde’s drama, and the music is accordingly intense, intimate, perverse and disturbing, but with a romantic sweep that captures the grander epic nature of the lurid melodrama.

In his notes for the production – included in the booklet with the DVD/BD – Lehnhoff refers to the idea of the setting as taking place on the edge of a volcano. Whether this is meaningful to the viewer or not, it proves to be an effective analogy that not only suits the music and the drama, but gives it the appropriate space to work within without becoming over-imposing. Initially, the characters and the action take place on the outer rim of the stage, but gradually, as the focus of the drama and the music tightens on the nature of Salome, Jochanaan and Herod, the drama moves to the centre of this cauldron towards the centre piece Dance of the Seven Veils and a conclusion that shocked the censors back in 1905 and which still has a tremendous impact today. The tone of the production is vital to support the impact of these two key scenes, which should be dark, melancholy and perversely sordid as well as erotically suggestive, and that’s certainly the case here. The head of Jochanaan is also, I have to say, one of the most frighteningly realistic I’ve ever seen in a production of Salome. Theatrical prosthetics have come a long way over the years.

Salome

The approach to the tone of the drama and the music and how it is reflected is important, but equally as important is how it is interpreted. The cast assembled here for the Baden-Baden production deliver superb performances to match the attentive detail that is brought out of the score by the orchestra under Stefan Soltesz. Angela Denoke plays Salome as if she is in thrall to the bizarre situation and the potential that it suggests, and that suits the production perfectly. There’s a rising intensity in the performance that is in line with the score and she seems to be attuned to the slightest variations of tone within it. Alan Held is a rather more animated Jochanaan than others I have seen, less mystical and more of a firebrand prophet, and that works well with the heightened aggression on display. The singing is extremely good elsewhere, from Kim Begley as Herod and Doris Soffel as Herodias, but Marcel Reijans and Jurgita Adamonyte also make an impression in the smaller parts of Narraboth and the Page.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus is of the usual exceptionally high standards. The image is crystal clear to catch the full lighting, colour and contrasts of the set. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, breathtaking in High Definition clarity. This is really an amazing way to view and listen to this extraordinary work. The production, incidentally, is clearly a live performance, but there are no signs of an audience being present at the opening or close of this one-act opera – much like the Lehnhoff sister production of Elektra for Baden-Baden, already available on DVD. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains a good essay on the work, a full synopsis and notes on the production by the director. The disc is BD25, region-free, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are German, English, Italian, French, Spanish and Korean.

BoccanegraGiuseppe Verdi - Simon Boccanegra

Teatro alla Scala, Milan 2010 | Daniel Barenboim, Federico Tiezzi, Plácido Domingo, Ferruccio Furlanetto , Massimo Cavalletti, Ernesto Panariello, Anja Harteros, Fabio Sartori, Antonello Ceron, Alisa Zinovjeva | Arthaus

Coming just before the mature final works, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra – along with Un Ballo in Maschera, Les Vêpres Siciliennes, La Forza del Destino and Don Carlos – occupy a strange but fascinating hinterland in the career of the composer. Each of the operas, influenced by Verdi’s political involvement in the Risorgimento for the reunification of Italy during the period, are very much concerned with the exercise of power, but they all rely on typically operatic conventions of bel canto and French Grand Opéra in their use of personal tragedies and unlikely twists of fate to highlight the human feelings and weaknesses that lie behind their historical dramas. Written in 1859, but revised by the composer in 1881, Piave’s libretto given an uncredited reworking by Arrigo Boito, Simon Boccanegra is consequently one of the more interesting works from this period, certainly from a musical standpoint. Aware of the flaws in the earlier version of the opera, Verdi can be seen to be striving in its revised form to take it away from the aria/cabaletta conventions towards the more fluid form of music-drama and expression of character that would come to fruition in Otello.

In many ways, the central relationship that defines the tone and the nature of the drama in Simon Boccanegra – a father-daughter relationship that is common in Verdi’s work – is similar to the one played-out in Rigoletto. The mother is dead (in the case of Simon Boccanegra, the wife happening to be one of the daughters of Jocopo Fiesco, the head of a rival Genoa family), and Simon must necessarily keep his relationship with his daughter secret. The difficulties of the political situation, and a desire to keep his daughter (who has been lost only to be conveniently rediscovered 25 years after the opera’s prologue in the house of his rival) out of the complicated political affairs, and some over-protectiveness on his part with regards to her choice of men, affect Boccanegra’s judgements and open up those weak points at a time of vulnerability during his reign as Doge. This kind of situation leads to an old-fashioned but quite literally blood-and-thunder conclusion in Rigoletto, which is the most masterful of Verdi’s work in this style, but while the plot twists and conclusions are no less dramatic in Simon Boccanegra, the musical treatment – certainly in the revised version of the opera at least – is less reliant on convention and closer to the purer and personal mature Verdi style that is deeper, intricate and more nuanced in characterisation.

Boccanegra
It’s perhaps with this in mind that the 2010 production of Simon Boccanegra from La Scala in Milan adopts a kind of hybrid form of traditional staging with some modernist touches that, like the opera’s own make-up, don’t blend together entirely successfully, but are no less fascinating for how they throw their contradictory elements into relief. There’s nothing too jarring or experimental in Federico Tiezzi staging – this is La Scala after all – nothing that distracts from the essential directness of the drama or Barenboim’s conducting of the powerful musical accompaniment that drives it relentlessly forward to a gradually building tragic conclusion that, like Don Carlo, has a sense of the Shakespearean grandeur that the composer was working towards. The staging is perfect in terms of giving a sense of historical 14th century period, the costumes beautifully designed with eye-catching colour schemes that make the divisions between the rival factions clear, the stage itself uncluttered – as Verdi himself specified – evoking mood, character and location as much through the lighting as any props. There are one or two more modern touches of stage technique however – descending trees onto the stage in Act II, a sea of blocks that suggests seismic activity and a huge reproduction of Casper David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer – that suggest that this shouldn’t be taken simple as a straightforward historical drama, but as one that has greater conceptual meaning with regards to the questions of the nature of power and the place of human relationships within it.

This style of presentation works perfectly with the imperfection of the opera itself and the contradictions inherent within these concepts. It would be less than satisfying however if the opera itself didn’t have the kind of casting that it really needs to carry them off and, fortunately, that’s where the real strength of this particular production lies. With the likes of Plácido Domingo, Ferruccio Furlanetto and Anja Harteros this opera could hardly be in safer hands. Domingo, of course, isn’t the true baritone that is required for the role, but he had all the necessary qualities and experience – as he approached his 70th birthday – to take on the challenge of two significant Verdi baritone roles in 2010 (and it’s probably no coincidence that the other was that complementary character of Rigoletto). His tone of voice, so dramatically attuned, brings a great deal of that necessary flawed humanity to the role of Boccanegra. Ferruccio Furlanetto is of course one of the great Verdi basses of our time and it’s particularly wonderful to watch two such fine performers and voices complement each other so well in this rival roles. Their Act III ‘Piango, perché me parla’ is absolutely stunning. Harteros sings Maria/Amelia well – as you would expect – but I didn’t get the same sense of father/daughter chemistry that existed when Domingo was paired with Marina Poplavskaya for the Covent Garden production of this opera the same year.

Boccanegra

This is a fine, marvellously looking production then, meticulously directed and conducted to bring out the full conceptual nature of the staging and the abstraction of the opera’s music, but it’s the human interpretation that is perhaps the most vital aspect of Simon Boccanegra. It’s not just experience that is required either on the part of the singers, but rather the ability of Domingo, Furlanetto and Harteros to inhabit their characters and give them a deeply human sense of expression through their delivery that ultimately lifts this production above being merely a faithful and appropriate treatment to one that explores the intriguing potential of the opera, with all its fascinating flaws and contradictions.

The Blu-ray release from Arthaus presents the production exceptionally well, with a clear, sharp full-HD image, and two sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that are superbly detailed and toned. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a brief essay on the opera and the production in the enclosed booklet. A synopsis to explain the historical context of the opera’s setting would have been useful, but I imagine you can find that on line somewhere if necessary. Region-free, BD25, 1080i, subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean.

SerailWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Christof Loy, Christoph Quest, Diana Damrau, Olga Peretyako, Christoph Strehl, Norbert Ernst, Franz-Josef Selig | Unitel Classica - C-Major

There’s an in-built difficulty in Mozart’s earliest ‘mature’ comic opera that every modern opera stage director must consider a challenge – the long passages of spoken dialogue and recitative that are scattered throughout. Yes, the actual drama of Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is a bit silly too and the libretto isn’t the most sophisticated, but even if you manage to make the plot work dramatically (having good singers can help gloss over the inconsistencies which is certainly the case here), you’re still left with those lulls between Mozart’s beautiful musical passages that can potentially kill the opera dead in its tracks. This production by Christof Loy at the Liceu in Barcelona, aided and abetted by an outstanding cast and an exhilarating performance of the score from the Liceu orchestra under Ivor Bolton, crucially takes account of those weaknesses, and if the result is still not entirely convincing, it’s nonetheless still one of the best versions of this Mozart opera that you’re ever likely to come across.

Traditionally, the way of handling the recitative in Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is to heavily trim the dialogue and just get it out of the way as quickly as possible so as to move on to the music, but such an approach fails to adequately take into account the fact that the main dramatic drive of the opera actually lies in between the musical numbers and arias. In some respects, it could be argued that the spoken parts are equally as important as the arias, if not even more so in this particular case since Mozart’s music for Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is not the most lyrically attuned to the emotional content. At this stage, even if there are occasional flashes of genius in the work, Mozart’s compositions are conventional and still very much mired in the Baroque tradition. How does Belmonte express his desire to be reunited with Konstanze in his Act I aria? “I tremble and falter, I waver and hesitate. My heart leaps in my breast.” - “O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig…” “How ardently and fearfully my loving heart beats”. Like the majority of the arias in the opera, it’s lovely but dull, and hardly advances the plot or even describes any complex emotional state.

Entfuhrung

Christof Loy attempts to address the vacuity of the arias and the dead-space of the spoken dialogue by getting the singers to act properly. In terms of opera performance, that can often be as simple as just toning down on the theatrical delivery, but Loy clearly believes that there are deeper sentiments and qualities to this opera, particularly in the spoken passages, which he retains in full and gives them rather more attention than they would normally receive. The treatment of the dialogue and how it works alongside the musical pieces is immediately apparent at the arrival of Pasha Selim. Arriving on-stage to that ringing chorus of the people, he seems weary of the acclaim, his position as ruler made only more weighty by his inability to win the heart of the woman he loves. This is not an uncommon position for a ruler to be in, particularly in Baroque opera, but it’s rarely treated with this kind of realism, and Loy takes advantage of the fact that – uncommonly for a major character in an opera – the Pasha is a non-singing role, and he accordingly makes the fine Christoph Quest the central acting focus for the others to work off.

What pervades the opera and characterises the approach to the spoken passages in this production, even before the appearance of the Pasha, is an air of melancholy. There’s nothing particularly new about viewing Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail in that regard, but such a sentiment is usually drawn from the arias and it’s rarely extended in any kind of realistic way to the recitative. There is no declamation of the lines here as they would more commonly be expressed, but rather Loy directs the performers to deliver dialogue naturalistically and makes use of their silences in the same way that he makes use of space on the stage to define the relationship between them. That use of space is as effective here as elsewhere in Loy’s work, even if the set for the Liceu’s production is not as sparse as the director usually decorates them. Yes, there are a usual few chairs scattered around, and little more than a painted backdrop of the sky for the most part (which is blithely lifted whenever Pedrillo makes an entrance), but other more decorated and naturalistic sets are shown, although they often remain viewed as if through a window in the background while the main action takes place in the foreground stage. Inevitably, the costumes don’t reflect any specific period, but there is a nod towards a middle-eastern flavour in some of the attire.

Entfuhrung

Loy’s direction isn’t really geared towards appeasing traditionalists then, but it should at least be evident that it is a respectful production that is aimed towards making the best out of what is imperfect opera, one that the director clearly thinks deserves to be considered more than just a lightweight entertainment. He doesn’t always succeed, but it’s an impressive attempt that does manage to make a strong case for the work and bring it closer to the latter Mozart operas, the relationships and structure here more evidently a prototype for characters better developed in The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. It helps that Ivor Bolton also brings out a terrific, lively account of the score that works well in conjunction with the staging, revealing its qualities and making those connections to later works evident. If you’ve been less than convinced by this particular Mozart opera, this performance reveals just how dazzlingly clever and brilliant it can be.

You shouldn’t need to be convinced that there are great and quite demanding arias in the opera, but it is terrific to see them delivered so well in such a sympathetic production. The performance of Diana Damrau deserves to be singled out as it’s not only one of the best Konstanze’s you’ll ever hear, but when placed in the context of this fine treatment of the opera, it’s an incredible tour de force performance that highlights the extraordinary abilities of one of the best sopranos in the world today. Most pleasingly for the sake of the opera, rather than being merely a showcase for the soprano, the singing is of an exceptionally high standard right across the board. Really, it’s just thrilling to hear Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail sung and acted so well – everything working together in perfect harmony. Franz-Josef Selig’s rich bass and cool deliberation makes his Osmin more than just a second-rate Monostatos, while the performance of Olga Peretyako and Norbert Ernst makes the Blonde and Pedrillo partnership more than just a subsidiary relationship to the more complicated main ones. Christoph Strehl is perhaps the weakest element, but he works well in the context of the casting, where the tones of all the singers are perfectly complementary, always bringing out the best of Mozart’s ensemble writing.

An exceptional production – one of the best I’ve ever seen – the Blu-ray is just as impressive. There are no extra features, but the HD image quality and the sound reproduction are amazing. Region-free, BD50, 1080i, subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Chinese and Korean.

Vera CostanzaFranz Joseph Haydn - La Vera Costanza

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2012| Jesús López-Cobos, Elio De Capitani, Federica Carnevale, Andrea Puja, Arianna Donadelli, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, Cosimo Panozzo, Elier Munoz, Gianluca Margheri | Live Internet Streaming - 31 January 2012

Watching this delightful production by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège of a rarely performed 1779 opera by Franz Joseph Haydn, a romantic comedy of amorous and unfaithful aristocrats mixing with the lower classes, it’s difficult not to be reminded of several of the works of Mozart – a contemporary of Haydn – and it’s inevitable that one is going to drawn to make comparisons. The verdict is never going to be in Haydn’s favour, but living in the shadow of Mozart has always been Haydn’s fate, the genius of the younger man recognised and admired even by Haydn himself. Taken on its own terms however, particularly when viewed in such a production that gets right to the heart of the wonderful interplay between the music and the drama, La Vera Costanza has much to recommend.

Commissioned as Kapellmeister to Prince Eszterházy, the composer in residence at the family’s palatial Einsenstadt residence, was something of a blessing and a curse for Haydn. Coming from a humble background, the post gave Haydn the security and freedom to compose some great works, but he and those works remained largely out of the eye of the Viennese public, many of them created in isolation for the entertainment of the Eszterházy court. As a consequence of this arrangement, Haydn never developed the kind of dramatic or musical instinct of someone like Mozart, who – to his cost – refused such kept positions, but by the same token Haydn never had the opportunity to work with a librettist of the quality of Lorenzo Da Ponte, or with material as explosive and revolutionary as that of Beaumarchais.

La Vera Constanza doesn’t perhaps then have the satirical bite of Mozart’s best work in this genre – The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni or Così Fan Tutte – but it can hold its ground to rather more lightweight and conventional treatment of questions of romantic constancy and fidelity as they are played out in something like Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail, Hadyn’s work having more than its own share of beautiful arrangements and charming melodies that are characteristic of the composer. The plot of La Vera Costanza is certainly dramatically contrived, opening with a conventional storm and gratuitous shipwreck that brings the Baroness Irene and her party to the fishing village of Rosina and her brother Masino. The Baroness wants to put an end to an improbable romance between the humble fisherwoman, Rosina and her nephew the Count Errico, and plots to marry her off to the Villotto, who is fabulously rich, but rather ugly and foppish. She is unaware however that Rosina and Errico have already been married in secret, but that he has now abandoned her, without knowing that she has had a child by him.

Costanza

The opera then reveals these ties across the course of its three acts, with stirring emotional journeys along the way where the fidelity and love of one or other of the parties is doubted and agonised over, and with a few additional complications thrown in by the machinations of the Baroness, her consort Ernesto – a noble who wants to marry the Baroness by winning her favour – and by Villotto. Even Errico, doubting the fidelity of the woman he has abandoned, at one point plots to have Rosina murdered by Villotto, only to immediately repent when appraised of her true constancy (“la vera costanza”) by the maid Lisetta. There are no great surprises in other words, it’s all laid out in a conventional manner, set to lovely arias and musical arrangements, and all the complications are eventually ironed out without feathers getting overly ruffled.

The approach to the staging under the direction of Elio De Capitani then is best summed up in a brief interview given during the Internet live-streaming broadcast by assistant director, Clovis Bonnaud. When asked whether the class satire of the opera had any relevance to today, his response is a straight, emphatic and unelaborated, “No”. La Vera Costanza is not the kind of opera then that bears up well to reworking or modern revision – it’s firmly of an old tradition, written as an entertaining diversion and nothing more. Here, at Liège, it looks like, is dressed like, and plays like a colourful pantomime, with attractive set designs that transforms beautifully in Act II to a forest for Errico to be an Orpheus rescuing his Eurydice, and imaginatively uses drops of the Baroness’ forged letters to “tie the knot” again between Errico and Rosina, who have seen through them. It all looks lovely, perfectly suited to the material and the singers clearly have a lot of fun with it, falling into the rhythm measured by conductor Jesús López-Cobos that dictates their movements, gestures and delivery.

Costanza

It helps also that the cast are almost entirely made up of fresh, new, young singers and this kind of opera gives them the perfect opportunity to test their ability, gain experience and show what they can do, and all of them enter fully into the spirit of the piece. It’s an opera that is designed to showcase individual talents, each of the principals given the opportunity to deliver charming arias, but there’s nothing too demanding or extravagant. Some trims to remove excess repetition helps also to make the piece work for a modern audience. The opera was very well-sung and performed at Liège, Federica Carnevale in particular singing Rosina’s arias with heartfelt sincerity and charm, Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani’s bringing a sympathetic touch to the otherwise fickle Errico, with Gianluca Margheri enlivening proceedings and presenting a good sense of comic timing in his singing and performance as Villotto. As with another recent production of a rare Haydn opera – Il Mondo della Luna – it just shows how well a youthful freshness and vitality can serve these kind of little-known and somewhat out-of-fashion works.

La Vera Costanza was broadcast live on the Internet from the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège on 31 January 2012 and rebroadcast from 10th – 12th February 2012. The next free live internet broadcast from the opera house is a rare early Rossini opera, L’Equivoco stravagante on Tuesday, February 28, 2012.  See the Opéra Liège live web page for details.

GotterdammerungRichard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Metropolitan Opera, New York 2012 | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Waltraud Meier, Jay Hunter Morris, Iain Paterson, Eric Owens, Hans-Peter König, Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford, Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton | The Met: Live in HD, Feb 11th 2012

The evolution of the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring cycle has been gradual but noticeable through each of the four parts spread across its 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons. Initially in the prologue, Das Rheingold, the spectacle of Robert Lepage’s Machine was clearly an impressive and revolutionary piece of stage technology, but its concept and purpose were not entirely proven. At the very least however, the opening section of the Met’s Ring cycle delighted with a stunning display of powerful singing. Neither the staging nor the singing were entirely consistent across Die Walküre nor Siegfried, but as James Levine’s illness forced him to gave way to Fabio Luisi on the conductor’s podium, a more equitable balance seemed to develop between the production and the performance that played to the strengths of Wagner’s masterwork, even if that meant a little less power in the vocal delivery. If Siegfried held out the promise that Lepage’s vision could end up being a memorable Ring production, that promise was satisfyingly achieved in its epic final evening. With Götterdämmerung, the Met’s Ring has come full circle.

Following on from Siegfried, Fabio Luisi again conducted a Wagner of Romantic sweep over the traditional heavy Germanic declamation, perhaps in favour of two leads who don’t have the full force that is usually demanded for the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde – Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt. The toning down of the dramatics and tone also worked fittingly with a subtlety in the stage design that belies the sheer weight and imposing presence of the Machine. Like Wagner’s score for Götterdämmerung, the underlying power of the tools at one’s disposal can be a temptation for overstatement, but it can be even more effective if that huge mass of force is suggested and used only sparingly. Clearly both Luisi and Lepage understand that. This is a Ring for the 2010s then, faithful to Wagner’s vision of the power of mythology and of the music drama as the highest expression of human artistic endeavour, taking it to a new level through the modern technology that is at the disposal of an imaginative director.

Gotterdammerung
Lepage’s vision for the production didn’t appear to yield any grand conceptual theme other than how best to make Wagner’s daunting and problematic series of operas work in a modern context without all its accumulated history and tradition. Particularly in the earlier parts, the morphing planks and projections worked mainly on a literal basis to create the imposing presence of Valhalla, an impenetrable forest or a mountain cave housing a dragon, but as the cycle progressed, the emphasis shifted more towards the abstract conceptual. The polymorphous nature of the technology was still well-employed to give solidity to the physicality of the story – the riverside playground of the Rhinemaidens for example actually looking more realistic here than how it was projected during Das Rheingold – but the colours, lighting and abstract patterns elsewhere in Götterdämmerung seemed to be more attuned to mood.

It may seem like making excuses for slightly underpowered performances, but it was actually refreshing to find a Siegfried and a Brünnhilde playing not as mythical god-like figures, but as the human characters they essentially and necessarily are. No excuses however need to be made, even for the fact that both Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt were taking on enormous challenges way beyond anything they have ever done in their careers; on their own terms their performances were exceptionally good and fitting for the production. The chemistry that seemed to be there between them at the end of Siegfried didn’t extend however through to the first act of Götterdämmerung, both seeming a little overwhelmed, the lack of lower depth in both their voices even more noticeable when combined. Voigt however raised her game when paired with the formidable and experienced Wagernian mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier as Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyrie, Waltraude. Their sequence together was simply magnificent. For his part Morris won through from sheer determination and stamina in a severely testing role that demands a concentrated effort for six hours, but he also had a down-to-earth personality and charm that made the final scenes of the opera intimate and touching as well as being epically apocalyptic.

Gotterdammerung

If there were any misgivings about the appropriate Wagnerian tenor of the main roles not quite matching the earlier powerhouse performances of the likes of Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eric Owens and Jonas Kaufmann, there was again magnificent support here not only from Waltraud Meier, but Wendy Bryn Harmer proved to be a fine Gutrune, Hans-Peter König a formidable Hagen – blankly sinister in acting, but deeply menacing in tone of voice – and there was another impressive turn from Eric Owens who made the brief reappearance of Alberich more than memorable, particularly as his character is a vital link (and leitmotif) that sustains the overarching development and tone of the entire work. Only Iain Paterson failed to make his presence felt either as Gunther, but his weak-willed character was at least dramatically appropriate and fitting, and certainly not a weak element.

I can’t say what the experience would have been like in the theatre, but there was no evidence during the HD-Live broadcast of any noise from the stage equipment, or indeed any of the problematic breakdowns that have been the cause of complaints in some quarters. Everything on the stage flowed smoothly and impressively. On the big screen, Götterdämmerung was as grandly spectacular and as intimately moving as it ought to be, perfectly attuned to the score and the performances. The camerawork – directed a strong visual flair as usual by Gary Halvorson – was also well-judged to pick out the strengths in the performances and the production design, working with it, flowing with the mood of the piece. Although there are a few Ring productions still to come this year and next (the Munich one in particular should be interesting), when eventually viewed together as a full Ring cycle (it will be interesting to see if the first two are revised slightly to suit Luisi’s approach to the work) I think the full impact and consistency of this Met Ring will be better appreciated and it may even be regarded as one of the best of recent times.

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