April 2012


NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 2012 | Stephen Betteridge, Chen Shi-Zheng, Franco Pomponi, Alfred Kim, June Anderson, Sumi Jo, Kyung Chun Kim, Peter Sidhom, Sophie Leleu, Alexandra Sherman, Rebecca de Pont Davies | ARTE Live Web, Live Internet Streaming, 18 April 2012

If the Live in HD broadcast last year of Adams’ Nixon in China direct from the Met in New York around the world served to remind one of the relevance of the work to the advancement of technology and the power of the media that forms one of the main themes of the work - the US President’s visit to China in 1972 broadcast to American primetime TV via satellite to impress the electorate back home - the latest live broadcast of a new 2012 production at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, made freely available for viewing on the internet courtesy of the TV channel Arte, certainly emphasises that point. On a rather smaller and more intimate scale however than the revival of the Peter Sellars production at the Met, it was the power of the opera itself and ultimately its message that came across even more strongly in the new Paris production.

Having recently listened to a number of modern operas sung in English, I was beginning to question again whether it’s a sufficiently musical language for opera. Even with John Adams’ rather more accessible rhythms, it’s not always the case that the English language fits smoothly with the flow and meter of the music, and that’s not even necessarily the case with Nixon in China itself, so it’s wonderful to hear the work sung, as it is here, with such a wonderful sense of integration with the music, and with feeling for the language and meaning of the libretto itself. There is a softer tone to the arrangements played by the Chamber Orchestra of Paris here, conducted by Stephen Betteridge with a wonderful sense for the rhythmic interweaving of the music and the voices, that seemed to bring a newfound lyricism to the sometimes obscure pronouncements and interjections of the protagonists in Alice Goodman’s libretto.

Nixon

In terms of production design, there’s not really a great deal you can do with Nixon in China, since it is indeed tied to the historical event of an official state visit of an American President to Communist China in 1972, and Shilpa Gupta’s set designs for Chen Shi-Zheng’s production accordingly don’t look greatly different from the original Peter Sellars’ production. There’s no taxiing onto the Peking runway of the ‘Spirit of ‘76’ here - President and Mrs Nixon descend on a pulley to the background of a Great Wall - and the set designs are quite minimal elsewhere (there’s little sign of a banquet at the end of Act I, and no actual beds in the closing bedroom scenes of Act III), but essentially apart from the Red Detachment of Women’s Revolutionary Ballet in Act II, there’s no great reliance on dramatic interaction in the work, the Heads of State for the most part addressing each other and the audience as the people and the watching public.

Leaving the stage fairly clear of props - those that are used are mostly suspended by cables - the production is directed then very much with a choreographer’s eye by Chen Shui-Zheng, often populated with Red Army troops and Chinese citizens of the Revolution who deliver the opera’s fabulous chorus work. And since the opera deals with a visit that is heavily “stage managed”, the management of the stage in this way is kind of appropriate, the effects achieved simply though the use of light, colouration and stage placement of the figures. The Act II ballet, which brings into focus the key central theme of “power fantasy” works wonderfully in this respect, looking marvellous, while also emphasising the delicate blurring between the disturbing reality of the ballet created by Madam Mao and the no less disturbing resonances it sparks off in each of those who view it.

Nixon

It doesn’t take Nixon long at the banquet in Act I to realise that he was wrong about China, and that although they may appear to be diametrically opposed in ideology, they are united by a common sense of purpose - world domination, or at least an evangelical belief in the mastery of the great over the small that can be achieved through manipulation of the reins of power. Nixon can’t help but admire the cult of personality the Mao inspires and recognises that whether it’s through a little red book or through satellite broadcasts on primetime TV, it’s an effective means of propaganda that appeals as much as to his sense of self-importance as his ideals. Act II’s ballet then represents different facets of this power fantasy to each person watching - on a political level as well as an interpersonal and gender level, the strong dominating the weak, the great demonstrating mastery over the small, individuality powerless against the force of the masses. Act III of course reminds us that each of the personalities involved are all too human and weak themselves, struggling with their own demons and their sense of insignificance in the greater scheme of things. That doesn’t however lessen the influence and capability for long-lasting damage that they can inflict through their beliefs and the image they desire to uphold before the media.

Nixon

This is fantastic production then of a work that continues to exercise a fascination and meaning way beyond its historical 1970s context. It looks good, it sounds great and it full gets across all the qualities, implications, undercurrents and relevance of the work. Getting the right balance between self-importance and self-parody, Franco Pomponi sings Richard Nixon masterfully with genuine feeling and a wonderful lyricism, but he’s wonderfully supported also by an impressive performance from June Anderson as Pat Nixon. There are a large number of Chinese and Korean singers and dancers here that contributes towards an ethnic realism, but all sing well in their own right, notably Alfred Kim as an enigmatic and impassioned Mao Tse-tung, Kyung Chun Kim a dignified and troubled Premier Chou En-lai and Sumi Jo coping well with the high vocal demands of the role of Mao’s wife, Chiang Ch’ing.

Recorded at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 18th April 2012, Nixon in China is currently available, free to view, from the Arte Live Web site.

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Opernhaus Zürich, 2005 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Martin Kušej, Eva Johansson, Marjana Lipovšek, Melanie Diener, Rudolf Schasching, Alfred Muff, Renhard Mayr, Cassandra McConnell, Christine Zoller, Andreas Winkler, Morgan Moody, Margaret Chalker | Arthaus Musik

I don’t know if Electra’s age is recorded in Sophocles’ account of ancient Greek mythology that forms the basis for the play and the libretto that Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote for Richard Strauss’ one-act opera, but in Martin Kušej’s 2005 stage production of Elektra for the Zurich Opera, at the time when she is plotting the death of her mother on Mycenae, Electra is a surly rich-kid teenager in a hooded top, with a shock of punkish blonde hair, who is contemptuous of the world around her and everybody in it, not least of which her parents. As far as this Electra is concerned, they can all just f-off and die. So when her sister urges her to grow up and get real, make life easier for herself otherwise her parents are going to ground her, she regards Chrysothemis as nothing more than a sell-out who has forgotten her principles and has bought into the glamour of her rich family’s decadent lifestyle.

This Electra evidently has a bit of an attitude problem, but that’s understandable even without the director’s modern interpretative touches. She has seen her father Agamemnon murdered by her own mother Clytemnestra, who has since gone on and married Aegisthus, so there’s no love lost between her and her mother and undoubtedly she nurses a deep hatred for the step-father who has taken his place, to say the least. There’s also undoubtedly considerable trauma involved in the events she has witnessed and experienced as a young child, and it’s this psychological element that is delved into deeply in Hofmannsthal’s writing, under the influence of the studies and the artwork contemporaneously being undertaken by other Viennese artists, intellectuals and philosophers around the turn of the 20th century. Richard Strauss would likewise reflect this psychological mindset in the most expressionistic and clinical musical language of Elektra that matches the traumatic experience in all its disturbing complexity.

Elektra

Electra is a victim of profound psychological damage, so when she talks about “the child who will never return… lingering there in chasms of horror”, it’s reflected in the discordant notes of the score and it’s reflected here in the stage direction where Electra buries a younger child version of herself within the dark cavern that she literally and metaphorically inhabits. Mixed in with this trauma are also feelings of rage, obsession and a desire for vengeance, which she believes will be carried out by her brother Orestes, even though she is told that her brother is no longer alive. But she has to believe in it, as it is the only thing that keeps her going. Once those drives are sated however, she has nothing left to live for and expires in a mad dance of release.

Despite the fact then that there is not a great deal of action that takes place on the stage, there is evidently then considerable complexity in the characterisation and psychology that represents a challenge for the stage director as much as putting it across in musical terms is a tremendous challenge for the musical director and the performers. Other than the dramatic events of the conclusion however, there’s not much room left in the extraordinarily intricate and acute characterisation of Strauss’s music for any additional interpretation to be imposed on the work, but there are certainly layers of sociological and psychological relevance that can be teased out of the work and can be explored without compromising the integrity of the piece as a mythological subject.

Elektra

Not unsurprisingly, considering his treatment of the De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander as well as his particular take on Schumann’s Genoveva, Martin Kušej also sees some kind of class conflict in the make-up of Electra. Certainly, she’s the daughter of a rich, noble family, but she’s been relegated to the status of a servant, who resides in what appears to be the cavernous basement of the house that is filled with mounts of dust, among the “rabble living in a cave”, and it’s from this lowly position that she sets herself up in opposition to the bloated self-interest and corruption of the elderly elite class. Whether this is meaningful or appropriate or even relevant is a matter of interpretation, but it’s an element that is worthy of consideration, putting the ancient mythology and feelings into a modern context that one can relate to.

At the very least then, the staging of the dark cavern with mounds of dust, with doors connecting this dark underbelly to seemingly every part of the house, is visually striking but it also seems to capture the expressionistic tone of the music and the dark undercurrents that can be read in the libretto. The performances work well in conjunction with the production, hitting all the dramatic and confrontational high points with requisite force and intensity, building in pitch towards that powerful conclusion that releases the ecstasy and the disillusionment in a frenzied dance of joy and death. Whether the inclusion of Brazilian Mardi Gras dancers at that stage at that point is appropriate or not is another matter however, but it fits with the stage invasions that occur throughout, showing perhaps that the pathology is more widespread than the confines of Electra’s mind and the cavern.

All the main roles are exceptionally well sung - Eva Johansson as Elektra, Marjana Lipovšek as Clytemnestra, Melanie Diener as Chrysothemis and Alfred Muff as Orestes. Rather than consider them in terms of individual qualities, it would be better to note that they constitute a relatively strong cast who work well with each other and match the tone of the production and the score. The sound recording or mixing doesn’t always allow them to be fully audible over the orchestra playing in the first half of the recording, but the full force of the work singing and the orchestration is evident certainly by the latter half and the conclusion. The new Arthaus release would seem to be a direct port of the previously released TDK edition (the disc itself retains the TDK labelling and artwork on my copy), with PCM Stereo and DTS HD-MA 7.1 audio options. On a BD25 disc, the 1080i full-HD image quality is excellent. The disc is All Region and subtitles are available in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. There are no extra features other than a booklet that has an essay and synopsis.

Oscar Bianchi - Thanks to my Eyes

Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2011 | Franck Ollu, Joël Pommerat, Hagen Matzeit, Brian Bannatyne-Scott, Keren Motseri, Fflur Wyn, Anne Rotger, Antonie Rigot | Bel Air Media, La Monnaie Internet streaming

Eyes

Writing his first opera, commissioned by the Aix-en-Provence Festival and premiered there in 2011, Swiss-Italian composer Oscar Bianchi took a French drama by Joël Pommerat (‘Grâce à mes yeux’) as the source of Thanks to my Eyes, but took the unusual step of asking the author to adapt the work into the English language for the libretto. The reason for the change of language, according to the composer, working very much in the modern musical idiom, was purely technical and related to the more discordant sounds and textures evoked by the work that suited English singing better than the more musical-sounding French. I can think of another reason not explicitly stated by the composer why you would be cautious about setting a French-language drama to music, and that’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Even then, while there might be the occasional reminder of the more spooky elements of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the chamber instruments, it still proves impossible to escape the huge influence of Debussy’s only opera and its extraordinary ability to fuse music to Maeterlinck’s already existing play, while keeping the original almost entirely intact. Bianchi’s approach to creating a musical ambience for Pommerat’s drama works - and works reasonably well to often striking effect, it has to be said - in a similar way. Cutting the original work back extensively to fit an opera work that is only about one hour and ten minutes long, the short scenes in Thanks to my Eyes have a similar feeling of incompleteness, interruption and open abstraction that is there in Debussy and Maeterlinck’s symbolist work. The similarities however exist more than just on the surface approach of connecting the music to the drama.

Eyes

While the story and themes are quite different to Pelléas et Mélisande, there are similarities in the theatrical representation of the drama. A young man, Aymar, timid and solitary, is dominated by his famous father, a great comedian who, in the first scene, is shown handing one of the suits he uses in his act to his son, clearly expecting him to follow in his footsteps. His dominance of Aymar however also extends to control over finding a suitable woman for the young man, suggesting and trying to influence Aymar into choosing a woman like his own mother, much as he chose his wife based on his own mother. Aymar however is torn between two women, a Young Blond Woman and a mysterious cloaked Young Woman in the Night who keeps her face covered, who he secretly meets on a mountain top away from the eyes of his family. He knows however that he must break off this relationship, but is too timid to even be able to take that step.

Reducing the drama down to key scenes, although maintaining a linear, serial flow, even if some of the scenes are rather abstract in nature, does have the impact of bringing any undercurrents and symbolism directly to the surface. Like Debussy however, even though he is working in a much different musical language, the intention of Bianchi is to convey a sense of deeper meaning and suggestion beyond actual language and physical expression. While on the one hand then the figures all fit into regular types - domineering father, passive mother, child seeking to find his own sense of self and expression apart from them - there are other intriguing elements that are indeed evoked by the drama scenes, lighting and the use of the atmospheric chamber music. It may not be the most memorable or melodic music, but its intent is to integrate more fully into the whole theatrical process as a Gesamkunstwerk, as does the expression through the singing.

Eyes

The singing on this recording at the opera’s world premiere run in Aix-en-Provence, is of an exceptionally high standard, and when I say exceptionally high, I’m not just referring to the unusual use of a countertenor voice for Aymar, sung by Hagen Matzeit. This is an appropriate choice for the figure, emphasising his difference from his (not unexpected) bass-baritone father, Brian Bannatyne-Scott. The singing and sometimes wayward phrasing weave in complex ways, and work well off each other in this context. Interestingly, while the two women are sopranos (both singing the roles wonderfully, Fflur Wyn in particular having to reach some extraordinary high notes), the mother has a speaking-role only, and speaks in French, as do the others when speaking to her. The dramatic reasons for this are remain unexplained - it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that their mother might be a native French speaker - but it does introduce another intriguing dramatic and vocal element that contributes to the overall complexity of the meaning contained within the overall soundscape.

The tone of the music and singing and the effect it creates is matched by the staging, directed by the original author and librettist, Joël Pommerat. Locations are generic - outdoors, indoors, on a mountain top, at a edge of a cliff - uniformly grey in the darkness (barring a sunrise and some atmospheric lighting effects here and there), sparse and solitary, clearly evoking an emotional landscape more than a literal one. On the whole, regardless of what you judge to be the qualities of the often obscure motivations and actions in the drama or whether you find the style of music pleasant or not, the work does indeed transport you into another world entirely and hold you in its thrall for over an hour.

Broadcast via the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt, (available on-line until 5th May 2012) this recording unusually isn’t of the current production running in Brussels, but a recording made at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2011. I’m not sure how this would have been presented on the stage, but the television recording allows the disparate scenes to flow and change without any breaks in the music, using frequent intertitles (in French) along the lines of “A few moments later, in the same place” or “That night, on the mountain top” to effect the rapid switches in time and location. Yes, Thanks to my Eyes is a rather strange, experimental piece of avant-garde music-theatre whose meaning may be difficult to fathom, with music and singing that may be challenging to the ears, but it does succeed in creating an alternative means of expression that comes across effectively on the screen and I’m sure even more so in a theatre.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Royal Opera House, London 2012 | John Eliot Gardiner, David McVicar, Leah Hausman, Ekaterina Siurina, Dimitri Platanias, Vittorio Grigolo, Matthew Rose, Christine Rice, Gianfranco Montresor, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora, Pablo Bemsch, Susana Gaspar, Zhengzhong Zhou, Andrea Hazell, Nigel Cliffe | Royal Opera House Cinema Season, Live in HD, 17th April 2012

I’ve rarely been entirely convinced by any David McVicar production I’ve seen (other than perhaps his Der Rosenkavalier for the English National Opera). I think I know what he’s doing, and it seems clear enough that he’s simply using whatever means necessary to create the right mood that is appropriate for a particular work, even if that means introducing a hotchpotch of incongruous and anachronistic elements into a nominally period set and costume design. That’s fine and I can live with that, even if it is often a little messy and inelegant, but I don’t think he always gives the same consideration or shows understanding of the characters when it comes to directing the performers.

Originally created in 2001, McVicar’s production of Rigoletto for the Royal Opera House comes under the stage direction of Leah Hausman for its 2012 revival (viewed here in a live HD broadcast part of Opus Arte and the Royal Opera House’s Cinema Season on 17th April 2012), but there’s not a lot of room for the director to develop beyond the oppressiveness of the production’s uniformly dark set design that somewhat overshadows the broader range of human emotions and behaviour that are part of Verdi and Piave’s magnificent account of Victor Hugo’s ‘Le Roi S’Amuse’. Fortunately, John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, along with some very fine singing performances from a strong cast, were enough to draw out some of the finer qualities that are missing in McVicar’s presentation of the work.

Rigoletto

If then Act I, Scene 1 of this Rigoletto in the palace of the Duke of Mantua is somewhat dark and grungy-looking, and has some trademark McVicar shock elements of topless women running around and full-frontal male nudity, it is at least in keeping with the depraved and sordid quality of the Duke’s entertainments that are indeed described in the libretto by Count Monterone as orgies. It’s appropriate to show this rather dark side of the Duke’s character emphasised by the abuse endured by Monterone’s young daughter who walks around in a state of nervous shock, an unpleasant side that is to set courtiers against him and result in the curse of vengeance that is to resound throughout the work. The sinister qualities of this behaviour laid out in Act I need to be sufficiently established, and McVicar certainly aims for that, even if such “realism” and naked cavorting proves to be distracting and not entirely convincing on the stage of an opera house. Verdi portrays this much more vividly in his music score than anything McVicar can visualise on the stage.

There’s no problem however with carrying this sinister outlook through to the second scene of Act I, since the references to Monterone’s curse against Rigoletto for his part in the Duke’s crimes continue to be recalled by the jester and echo throughout the score. So too does the introduction of the assassin Sparafucile and the abduction of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda add to the oppressive nature of a drama that leads to such a dark, melodramatic conclusion at the inn in Act III, a place that Gilda observes is like a scene from Hell itself. It probably doesn’t need any further emphasis from the director, who keeps the stage dark throughout, and retains the grungy feel with sheets of corrugated iron and wire-mesh fencing, but in its own way much of this reflects Rigoletto’s keeping of secrets and his protective attitude towards his daughter, which is to lead to such tragic circumstances. The skeleton masks used by the abductors at the end of Act I likewise suggest that the kidnapping of Gilda isn’t just fun and games, as if that isn’t already obvious.

Rigoletto

That’s all very well then, and certainly in keeping with the nature and tone of Verdi’s moody melodramatics, but there is much more to Rigoletto than this and a far more rounded view of the characters that is not really given sufficient coverage in the limiting darkness of McVicar’s production. There’s also love and protectiveness in the father/daughter relationship that stems from Rigoletto’s sentiments towards the mother of his daughter, a woman who was able to love a deformed specimen like himself. It’s a twisted kind of love certainly, as is the love of the Duke for Gilda - his nature not allowing him to treat her in any other way than how he treats other women - and it’s the inability to deal with the contradictions within that kind of love on the part of her father and the Duke of Mantua that in the end drives Gilda to make an otherwise inexplicable sacrifice. If you aren’t able to show both sides of the contradictions within the characters however, then the behaviour from each of them risks seeming irrational.

Fortunately for this production, not only does a close listening to Verdi’s writing for these figures reveal the kind of complexity that is missing from this production, but it’s brought out wonderfully in John Eliot Gardiner’s working of the Royal Opera House orchestra and it’s also sung with genuine feeling for the nature of the characters and their predicament by an exceptional cast. Dimitri Platanias is an earnest and tormented Rigoletto, one made even more complicit in the crimes of the Duke in this production, yet Platinias’s singing brought out the other finer qualities in the character well. Vittorio Grigolo, reprising a role he performed in 2010 live television broadcast of Rigoletto filmed in the actual locations in Mantua, seems to continue to grow in confidence and stature as the Duke here, likewise combining the charm of the character as well as his flaws. Ekaterina Siurina’s voice seemed occasionally lost among the strong voices around her, but then that’s the position the young Gilda finds herself here, and she rose to the other singing challenges of her role (including a beautiful ‘Caro nome’) marvellously and sympathetically. It all went a long way to adding the necessary lightness to McVicar’s otherwise shady production.

VogelWalter Braunfels - Die Vögel

LA Opera, 2009 | James Conlon, Darko Tresnjak, Désirée Rancatore, Brandon Jovanovich, James Johnson, Martin Gantner, Stacey Tappan, Brian Mulligan, Matthew Moore, Daniel Armstrong | Arthaus Musik

It’s interesting, although maybe not particularly useful, to speculate on the course that German opera might have taken were it not for the rise to power of the Nazi party, and were it not for the great suffering of two wars that would forever alter the course of history and society. In a more peaceful time, might not the influence of post-Wagner Romanticism and the ideals of German mythology have gained more of a foothold in the operatic music drama rather than being strangled at birth by the rather more harsh view of the reality of the world that would be reflected in the more discordant sounds of Berg, Schoenberg and Hindemith? Since many composers who might have had an influence during this period were lost to concentration camps or died during the conflicts, it is of course impossible to say, but it is surely possible to consider (or reconsider) the work of some of the composers who were able to continue writing – some indeed while imprisoned in a concentration camp – even if their work didn’t meet with the approval of the Nazi party and failed to achieve widespread recognition.

Much of that work has consequently languished in near-obscurity for decades as a reminder not just of what might have been in terms of German music history, but even as a reminder of the greater losses endured during those times, and it was with this in mind that the LA Opera launched their admirable Recovered Voices programme to rediscover some of the great “lost” works of composers like Viktor Ullmann, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Walter Braunfels. Braunfels, who had early on refused to write an anthem for Hitler’s Nazi party and was of Jewish heritage, was one of those who consequently did not find favour with new regime. His music falls most obviously into the post-Wagner category of mythological themes and neo-Romanticism, although I’m no expert. My only previous encounter with Braunfel’s work was in a recent 2012 radio broadcast of his extraordinary opera Verkündigung (‘The Annunciation’), its Christian mysticism theme and powerful leitmotifs reminiscent of Wagner’s Parsifal, but a wider view of the influences and Braunfel’s place within the progression of German music – up until that moment when the world forever changed – is more evident in his 1920 work Die Vögel.

Vogel

Perhaps the most obvious reference point for Die Vögel (‘The Birds’) is Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791) – or perhaps it’s more of a starting point than a reference point, for while Die Vögel seems to incorporate themes from Mozart’s work, there are also references to other works in direct linear progression from that work, particularly with a fairytale element, in such notable works of German opera as Der Freischütz (1821), Siegfried (1876) and Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919) – all works incidentally where birds play a significant part in the mythology. It’s probably not a coincidence either than one is often reminded in this context – particularly in this colourful production at LA Opera – of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel (1906). Die Vögel (1920) is practically a summation of all those works, and if it doesn’t indicate any kind of progression upon the themes of those other great works, it is nonetheless beautifully written and there is interest in considering how those themes might relate to the time in which it was composed.

Based on the play by Aristophanes, there’s a great deal of allegorical potential within the epic fairytale drama of Die Vögel. Two men, Ratefreund (Loyal Friend) and Hoffegut (Good Hope) who between them and even within themselves symbolise the qualities and weaknesses within mankind, leave behind the world of men, seeking out Hoopoe, the once human Emperor of the birds. They propose the building of a grand city in the skies, a new domain in which the birds will reassert their power, grandeur and majesty as in times of old, escaping from the tyranny of man and the gods. If there’s a certain idealism evident in this theme, it’s also reflected in the music itself, which could be seen as looking backwards towards the models of former times, and in the musical and dramatic models (seria/buffa) that the two men themselves can be seen as representing – one of them idealistically poetic and serious, the other more practical-minded and comic.

Vogel

If Act I of the opera is given over to the necessity of establishing the context of the drama and progressing it through Ratefreund’s actions, Act II seems to lose the dramatic drive in favour of musical reverie in Hoffegut’s love for the Nightingale, which is followed by in a ballet sequence of the marriage between Mister Pigeon and Miss Dove (yes, a ballet sequence – there aren’t many of those in 20th century opera) to celebrate the creation of a new kingdom of the skies. It all seems very academic, an occasion for Braunfels to demonstrate his considerable musical prowess, as well as expanding on the colour and variety of the work, and he does indeed do so beautifully. Despite appearances however, it is not at the cost the drama, and Braunfels has no compunction about breaking off the unfinished ballet when Prometheus turns up in the city with a warning about the fate of those who set themselves up to oppose the will of the gods.

While there may be metaphors that can be applied to the work (“where the small band together, they no longer fear the great”, the birds sing at one point in the Second Act), Braunfels doesn’t draw any specific parallels in the opera, which, for better or worse, comes across at times like an Ariadne auf Naxos without the self-conscious irony. LA Opera don’t seek to impose any reading either, preferring to focus on the colourful magical fairytale qualities of the work, leaving any interpretation to the viewer. The stage design by David P. Gordon is therefore simple yet brilliant, giving an impression of the spaciousness of the open skies with only a few touches of stylized coloured clouds and trees to the sides. Bold colours and lighting as well as some projections on the titled floor reflect atmospheric effects as well as the emotional content of the work, while bright colourful bird costumes evoke the ancient Greek drama as well as the fairytale elements. It looks marvelous and Darko Tresnjak’s stage direction makes the best use of it.

Directing the LA Opera orchestra, James Conlon brings out the precision and the richness of orchestration of Braunfel’s writing, with all its high Romantic influences. It’s even more of a joy to hear this rarely performed work sung so magnificently. There are some very demanding passages for the Zerbinetta/Queen of the Night-style role of the Nightingale that Désirée Rancatore navigates extremely well, only occasionally sounding a little bit harsh and strained. Brandon Jovanovich sings the Pamino/Bacchus-like role of Hoffegut wonderfully – lyrical but with the steel and clarity of a Heldentenor. James Johnson is a fine counterbalance to this in the Papageno-influenced role of Ratefreund, and Brian Mulligan’s deep baritone has a wonderful clarity and resonance in the role of Prometheus, but all the other roles were equally well sung and fitting with the characters. An absolute delight, there’s much to admire in Braunfel’s writing for Die Vögel, and this is a production that is worth coming back to for repeat viewing.

There is nice clarity and deep saturation to the wonderful colour schemes on the Blu-ray edition, but there are some movement issues with this particular release from Arthaus. It’s as if it were filmed in a different frame-rate and converted to 1080/60i. The detail and clarity is all there and I didn’t feel the movement issues were overly distracting, but it does tend to almost feel at times like there’s a slow-motion quality to movements. Audio tracks are PCM stereo and DTS HD-MA 5.1 and they give a wonderfully warm, full and clear account of the score and the singing. Optional subtitles are in German (matching the libretto), with English, French, Spanish and Italian options. The disc is BD25 and compatible for all regions.

EquivocoGioachino Rossini - L’Equivoco Stravagante

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Jan Schultsz, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Sabina Willeit, Daniele Zanfardino, Enrico Marabelli, Laurent Kubla, Julie Bailly, Daniele Maniscalchi | Live Internet Streaming, 28 February 2012

Written when the composer was only nineteen years of age, Rossini’s third opera L’Equivoco Stravagante (“The Curious Misunderstanding”), a drama giocoso, premiered in Bologna in 1811, playing only for three performances before it was banned by the police. It hasn’t been performed very many times in the intervening 200 years, so it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to see this rare early Rossini opera performed at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège (via internet streaming during its run there in February 2012), see it performed so well, and have the chance to consider the curious nature of the work and its history.

One thing that is immediately evident from this production is that even at this very early stage, the Rossini style is immediately recognisable in L’Equivoco Stravagante. It romps along with jaunty melodies and individual arias, the arrangements gradually building up to entertaining group finales with tricky vocal deliveries that match the content of the comic drama. The drama itself is, depending on your viewpoint, the typical nonsense of Italian opera buffa or a delightful farce, but it’s one that in this case is particularly outrageous – the material controversial enough to have the work censured and banned. Initially, it seems straightforward, the usual romantic complications ensuing from a situation where a wealthy landowner, Gamberotto, hoping to make a suitable marriage for his daughter – ie. one that is beneficial towards elevating his social position – has promised the hand of Ernestina to the wealthy but stupid Buralicchio. Ernestina has another suitor, Ermanno, but the penniless and timid young man would seem to have little chance of winning the favour of the bookish young woman, or persuading her father that he would make a good match.

Equivoco

That’s until the servant Frontino, hoping to assist Ermanno in his endeavours, comes up with an outrageous idea that is to lead to the “curious misunderstanding” of the opera’s title and, as it happens, the idea that also would lead to the work being banned. Buralicchio is fooled into believing that Ernestina is actually a man, Ernesto, the castrated son of Gamberotto, who only dresses as a woman as a means of evading military service. Buralicchio, incredibly, buys this rather implausible suggestion (he is extremely stupid after all), but when the military forces turn up at the Gamberotto household looking for the army deserter, it looks like Frontino’s plan could have backfired (and the composer’s when the police similarly brought down the curtain on the opera itself) .

Whether the libretto, by Gaetano Gasbarri, is as funny as it is supposed to be is difficult to say – there is a great deal of play on words and double meanings in the original Italian, but there were no subtitles on the performance of this production that I viewed when broadcast through the Opéra Liège web streaming service. The subject itself however is risqué enough, taking on two subjects that would have been controversial for its time through suggestions of castration (which was illegal), and dealing with desertion from the army. Without the ability to follow the original Italian libretto, it’s hard to say therefore whether the plot and libretto of L’Equivoco Stravagante is as funny as it is supposed to be or whether it’s just plain silly. All I can go on is the performances, and while they are all entertaining to watch and listen to, it’s obvious that the characters are broad buffo types – none of them particularly bright, and none of them entirely what they appear to be on the surface.

Equivoco

What is evident however, brought out particularly in the fine production by Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera which sets it in Hollywood during the 1920s or 1930s, is that there is some amount of social satire here on the class pretensions of the nouveau riche. The setting, in a Hollywood mansion adorned with fine art and a swimming pool at least makes that aspect of the aspirations for glamour and status from the non-hereditary wealthy more evident than it would have been if it were set during the Napoleonic era in which it was written, but it also means that the production looks wonderful. The casting is also good for the necessary appearances, and the singers, without exception, are marvellously adept at the buffo roles, as well as singing this particular work with the requisite Rossinian spirit and verve. Like most works of this type, it can be dramatically rather static on the stage, but the director and cast do their best to keep it all highly entertaining, as does the terrific performance of the music score by the Orchestra of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie under the musical direction of Jan Schultsz.

GenovevaRobert Schumann - Genoveva

Opernhaus Zürich, 2008 | Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Martin Kušej, Juliane Banse, Shawn Mathey, Martin Gantner, Cornelia Kallisch, Alfred Muff, Ruben Drole, Tomasz Slawinski, Matthew Leigh | Arthaus Musik

Genoveva (1850), Robert Schumann’s only opera, was composed around the same time that Richard Wagner was working on material for Lohengrin and the Ring of the Niebelungen and it represents an interesting alternative view of how folklore, mythology and legends could be used as an expression of essential Germanic characteristics elevated through the art of the opera or music drama. Genoveva however was regarded as a failure when it was first produced, and Schumann would consequently never compose another opera, so it’s the Wagnerian model that has succeeded as the dominant influence, but Schumann’s approach would appear to be more deeply rooted in relating these characteristics elevated in mythology back down to the nature of the individual, and that consequently makes the story of Genoveva rather an interesting one.

Ostensibly, the work is an account of the medieval legend of the martyrdom of St Genevieve, the story promoting the virtues of truth and purity when Genoveva, the Countess of Brabant, is unjustly accused of infidelity, imprisoned and (in the original legend) executed only for her innocence later to be discovered. Schumann’s approach to the work is rather more complicated in its focus and in its unconventional depiction of the varied characters. In the story, Genoveva rejects the advances of her head servant Golo while her husband Siegfried is away fighting in Charles Martel’s crusade against the Saracen army of Abdur Rahman that is threatening to invade Europe. Consumed by desire for the Count’s wife and smarting from her rejection, Golo conspires to have Genoveva denounced for adultery by arranging for another servant, an old man, Drago, to be found in her bedroom. While one should expect sympathy to lie with the unjustly maligned Genoveva and with the husband whose trust has been abused by his servant, a large part of the opera is given over to consideration of the “lower orders”, giving depth to Golo, Margaretha and Drago, and it’s there that we find, perhaps, more interesting facets of human nature and German character.

Genoveva

That approach is emphasised very much in Martin Kušej’s staging of the rarely performed work for the Zurich Opernhaus in 2008. As with his De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander, and perhaps even in his Bayerische Staatsoper production of Rusalka, there’s a sense of class conflict within the consuming passions that is emphasised also in Kušej’s Genoveva. Using a boxed-in set of pure white walls (although they don’t stay that way for long), the set design bears little resemblance to the medieval period setting of the work. Within this space, the four figures of the central drama are often present, even if they aren’t required to be on the stage. In the case of Siegfried, for example, even though we know he’s gone to fight in the crusades in Act II, he’s physically still present there on the stage while the drama unfolds between Golo and Genoveva, even if he doesn’t take part in the action. It’s a rather avant-garde Brechtian theatrical device, but it serves to keep the focus on the drama and the overheated emotions between each of the characters – other action usually takes place off to the sides of the boxed area – showing that the influence or “presence” of the key players is important, even if they aren’t actually there.

Kušej also makes use of his now trademark shock tactics of minor nudity and plenty of blood also to tremendous effect. Distancing techniques – the characters laughing uncontrollably during the overture, squashing invisible insects and wrestling with a slippery dead fish – are used to suggest that the libretto shouldn’t be taken entirely literally when Siegfried refers to Genoveva as “a woman of true German stock”, while she for her part observes that it’s “a blessing to be the wife of a hero”, and Schumann’s score would tend to suggest that this indeed shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. While such aspirations are noble, and one would be accustomed to accepting them as such in a Wagner opera, there are characters of lower orders present in Schumann’s opera with genuine grievances about their treatment and station, even if their means of wresting back some kind of justice can only be achieved through violence and subversion. Without taking anything away from the noble characteristics of Genoveva then (Siegfried is shown in a less heroic light by Schumann and certainly in Kušej’s staging, enjoying the pleasures of the witch Margaretha at the opening of Act III), the suggestion is perhaps that these figures have a voice that needs to be heard if such actions are to be avoided.

Genoveva

Kušej accordingly sets the opera in Schumann’s own period to reflect the social and political climate as he would have known it around 1848. Whether you buy into the devices and techniques employed by the director, the staging nonetheless has a striking, distinctive look that commands attention where the drama as it is outlined in the libretto ordinarily might not. Genoveva is not considered to be a dramatically strong work, and the criticism is often levelled against it that it’s a failed work because of this, so it’s even more to the credit of Kušej’s staging that it better reveals the distinctions of the characterisation that are clearly there. It is perhaps true that, musically at least, Schumann doesn’t manage to find a distinct voice for each of the characters – musically, it’s restrained, with few grand gestures and only some gentle choruses to punctuate the long monologues – but considerable impact can be drawn from the subject with commitment from the performers and a conductor who is keen to get to the heart of an important but underrated work in the history of German opera.

Fortunately, it has that not only with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the helm and a fine performance of the orchestra of the Opernhaus Zürich, but in the singing of an exceptionally fine and committed cast who are often called upon to sing in difficult positions and occasionally perform somewhat undignified or just plain bizarre actions. Juliane Banse in particular is outstanding in the rather demanding role of Genoveva, but Shawn Mathey is a committed Golo and Martin Gantner a fine Siegfried. Cornelia Kallish and Alfred Muff also make a strong impression in the roles of Margaretha and Drago. This is far from bel canto however, and if the singing appears unexceptional in some parts, the acting and commitment to the roles proves just as important. The booklet included with the BD includes a fine thought-provoking essay on the work by Ronny Dietrich, the principal dramatic advisor of the Zurich Opera. It may take some persuading to accept Kušej’s belief that Golo is the central figure of the work and not Genoveva, but it is worth considering that the composer would have probably identified with Golo in his troubled relationship with Clara Schumann’s father.

The quality of the Blu-ray presentation itself is good, and the image is relatively clear. Some minor blue-edges and a little bit of vertical shimmer could have been avoided with a BD50 disc instead of a BD25 for the two-and-a-half-hour opera. It in no way however detracts from the overall quality or sharpness of the image or the fine high quality audio tracks in DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 and PCM 2.0, where there is only a slight dullness in the voices at times due to the boxed-in stage set.

RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Ádám Fischer, Stefan Herheim, Myrtò Papatanasiu, Pavel Cernoch, Annalena Persson, Renée Morloc, Ekaterina Isachenko, Julian Hubbard, André Grégoire, Marc Coulon | La Monnaie, Internet Steaming, 14 and 16th March 2012

Watching Stefan Herheim’s production of Dvořák’s 1901 opera for La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels (performed in March 2012 and broadcast via their internet streaming service), I began to think that we are getting to a point now where it would be something of a novelty to see Rusalka done as a straight fairytale. From Martin Kušej’s brilliant envisioning for Munich of the water nymph as an abused young woman held in captivity in an underground basement to the recent debacle of the production for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which placed Rusalka in a brothel, there’s a predictable familiarity now to seeing Rusalka as an abused woman at the hands of men. Stefan Herheim’s production then may seem to adhere to this modern revisionism of the role by casting her as a prostitute, but by altering the perspective of the work to that of the Water Goblin, her “captor”, gives an interesting new view on the central theme of the corruption innocence.

This Rusalka is considerably different in temperament then from how Kušej and Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito view the character, or indeed from a traditional view of the water nymph. Here, on a street corner, on a remarkably lifelike stage set that could be a street corner on any middle or eastern European city (albeit with an English bobby on the beat), the streetwalking Rusalka is all glitter and glamour in the eyes of the old man, Vodník, who wants to possess her and keep her for his own pleasure – a femme fatale who, in the end, will drive him to commit a violent crime of passion. This Rusalka is no innocent – she’s street-smart and wise to the dangers that her lifestyle and clients like the old man represent and she dreams of a better life out of the dark world she lives in, but is she really cut out for the refinement of the world above? It’s this inability to deal with the disappointment that her unrealistic idealisation of what a normal life and love means, certainly as far as men are concerned, that is to be her tragedy here.

Rusalka

There’s quite a leap involved in making Rusalka a prostitute, and characteristically for this director – like his recent Eugene Onegin for De Nederlandse Opera – there’s a great deal of complexity to how the narrative is structured in order to make this idea work and a significant altering of traditional perspective. Perhaps surprisingly however, the director’s approach of actually listening to the music and not just the libretto would seem to justify and bear out his approach here. The musical theme for the Water Goblin is indeed threaded through the work as a leitmotif, and it gives Herheim the justification to consider how women are looked upon and objectified by men from a modern perspective, as well as from the older tradition.

This Rusalka consequently may not be the most flattering or politically correct view of women – witches, prostitutes and nuns feature, many of them with exaggerated female figures in quite obscene body suits, the nuns even taking part in an orgy – and there is a great deal of violence enacted against them in brutal stabbings, but it’s precisely through this kind of altered perspective that the director intends to show an idealisation that the reality doesn’t live up to. It’s fascinating then that Herheim does indeed manage to get to the root of Rusalka’s tragedy through this mirrored perspective – the old man/water goblin present on the stage as a witness almost throughout – as it is by being the object of the desires and ideals of men that Rusalka is prevented (kept silent by a curse) from expressing who she wants to be herself.

Rusalka

You have to work hard however to get to this realisation as there is a bewildering array of imagery on the stage and considerable twists to characterisation that will be difficult to disentangle even for someone very familiar with the work. This includes a wife for the Vodník, who is not in the original libretto, who has a non-singing role, although she is played by the same singer (Annalena Persson) who is the Foreign Princess. While this and some other doubling of roles may initially be confusing, it reflects the director’s view of mirroring reality with the fantasy “fairytale” view of world that is fabricated in the mind of the old man/water goblin. At the very least however, the sheer effort of trying to fit it all together commands attention and forces the audience to reconsider what the work is actually about. Unless you think Rusalka is just a lyric fairytale and is perfectly fine in that form without all the psychological probing.

Also commanding is the spectacle on the stage itself, which really is quite extraordinary. This production (originally staged for the first time in 2008 as a co-production between La Monnaie and Oper Graz) really is quite the most brilliant use of stage-craft I’ve seen in an opera for a long time. Some of it seems abstract and inconsistent with the themes, but you’ll probably find it fits in some kind of weird way, and is certainly never anything less than dazzling and thought-provoking. The street scene, designed by Heike Scheele, is remarkably realistic but, in keeping with the fantasy/reality theme, elements explode out and upward, as if you were looking at a children’s pop-up book – the counter of the corner café extending out into the street, an advertising pillar appearing out of the ground, on which Rusalka is perched as if on a pedestal, with a mermaid tail dipped inside the pillar. If you still can’t make sense of it all – it took me quite a little while to come around to the idea and the concept – the immensely powerful coup de theatre of the conclusion at least should bring the full impact and realisation of the meaning of the work in Herheim’s vision of its present day applicaiton as well as its relevance to Dvořák’s original work.

Rusalka

With performances as good as that of the principals cast here moreover, you’ll happily put up with some shock and befuddlement. As Rusalka and the Prince, Myrtò Papatanasiu and Pavel Cernoch are just magnificent. This Rusalka isn’t the usual wide-eyed innocent, but Papatanasiu nonetheless manages to bring across the vulnerability of her character as well as the inner strength of personality that seeks to express herself within this world dominated by the desires of men. She does that in her acting performance and she does it in her singing, and most impressively. The Prince can also be somewhat of a cipher, so it’s wonderful likewise to see the role sung so well and with some consideration of the duality of his nature. He can’t help himself when it comes to the beautiful vision in white that is Rusalka, or the attraction of the Foreign Prince who appeals to his baser desires. He’s only a man after all. There’s consequently steel in Cernoch’s voice as well as a wonderful lyricism.

Both Papatanasiu and Pavel Cernoch are both powerful enough singers in their own right – Willard White as the Water Goblin isn’t quite up to their level, but he is a strong presence nonetheless – but conductor Ádám Fischer ensures that they are never overpowered by the orchestra. The performance of the orchestra can perhaps feel a little restrained, but not unexpectedly, it seemed to capture the post-Wagnerian Romanticism of the piece well. Admittedly however, while the image quality is superb, the audio track on an internet stream wasn’t clear enough to hear the detail as well as it would sound on a High Definition Blu-ray disc. Superbly directed for the screen, this however is one spectacular production that certainly merits a wider HD release.

The internet stream of Rusalka at La Monnaie is available for viewing only until the 26th April (with French and Dutch subtitles only). The next production to be shown is Oscar Bianchi’s Thanks to my Eyes on 12 April, which will be available for viewing for 21 days.

Gioachino Rossini - Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia

Opernhaus Zurich, 2012 | Muhai Tang, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, John Osborn, Cecilia Bartoli, Peter Kálmán, Javier Camarena, Edgardo Rocha, Liliana Nikiteanu, Nicola Pamio, Ilker Arcayürek | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 8th March 2012

There’s always going to be some difficulty in staging Rossini’s Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia, and it’s not just because of the liberties that Rossini’s opera takes with Shakespeare’s work. True, the libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi doesn’t really keep to the development or characterisation of Shakespeare’s work, but it does manage to get to the heart of the drama and retain some of the dark mood of the piece. No, much of the difficulty with staging Otello is due to the often static nature of the work which is still tied closely to the conventions of opera seria, with long-winded expressions of agonising emotions and a great deal of repetition.

Otello

It’s only the brilliance of Rossini’s musical inventiveness in the scoring that makes it work so well as an opera, matching the music more closely to the moods, reducing recitative and solo lamentations in favour of concerted pieces that carry the drama through, playing out the drama through sung conversations. It doesn’t always manage to break free from the restrictions of the format however, which can be rather punishing on the singers and the audience, so a stage production requires a certain amount of inventiveness as well. Directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who failed to enliven Halévy’s semiseria Clari for the Zurich Opera, despite the best efforts of its champion Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn (also on board here), the team fare rather better with Otello, but one suspects that the reason for its success here – and why their previous collaboration wasn’t quite so successful – has much to do with Rossini’s rather more invigorating writing.

Initially, things don’t look promising in the rather dreary Act I. There’s nothing at all wrong with the updating the work to a modern setting, to a “corridors of power” wood-panelled waiting room, populated by figures in formal suits and high-ranking military naval uniforms, with rooms leading off in the background where various committees no doubt plan future strategies. It’s as good as setting as any for the plotting and scheming that lies at the heart of the work, but unfortunately, it proves to be rather dreary and static for the opening dramatic exposition. Figures standing around, there’s a bit of slow pacing up and down, and little to enliven the characterisation or solemn declamation as the Moor Otello returns battle, having defeated the Turks and regained Cyprus for Venice as the centre of the Adriatic Republic.

Otello

While there is professional jealousy over Otello’s success on the part of Rodrigo and Iago that is set-up in Act I, and some consideration of the Moor’s outsider status as a black-skinned African, evidently the main focus of the rivalry is over Otello gaining favour with Desdemona. In this version however, Otello is already secretly married to Desdemona, so when Iago suggests that she may be unfaithful, it really requires no great manipulation – Otello, insecure about his own position, is all too ready to mistrust Desdemona. Being somewhat opera seria in structure, the expressions of emotional turmoil are however given precedence over any consistency in characterisation or motivation, which makes this dramatically weak and inconsistent. The nature of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship has scarcely been established by the plot and by little actual confidences shared between them (Verdi would do this much better in his version), only in Desdemona’s expressions of her love to Emilia, her lady in waiting. If it’s all insufficiently established in dramatic terms, the music makes it much more compelling.

Act II and Act III in particular see Rossini at his best, breaking free of those operatic restrictions, using duets, ensembles and rising repetition to ramp up the tension and emotional fever pitch of the situation. Even if the stage direction gives the performers little to do in the absence of any conventional drama, Rodrigo’s ‘Che ascolto’ in Act II could hardly be more chilling, given a particularly powerful delivery here by Javier Camarena. In an opera that requires no less than three tenors in demanding singing roles, that intensity is matched in Otello and Iago’s Act II scene. If dramatically it’s less than convincing, musically it’s powerful, avoiding recitative and putting the emotion into the singing. Working with this kind of material, John Osborn does a good line in all-consuming jealousy in ‘Non m’inganno’ that is matched by Edgardo Rocha’s Iago enjoying the thrill of twisting people to his will, Rossini managing to encapsulate both emotions within the duetto.

Desdemona is rather less well-defined, carrying an over-urgency in everything she sings, which means that Cecilia Bartoli often sounds rather strident. No, not shrill – never that. Bartoli is still one of the finest – if not the finest – mezzo-soprano bel canto coloratura singers in the world, at her best when singing Rossini, and she is in terrific voice here. Barring her Act III ‘Willow Song’ however, the role is lacking in colour and shading, and it comes across more perhaps as exaggeratedly strident. It’s still an astonishingly display of singing virtuosity, Bartoli moreover also managing to bring real character to her role. She is absolutely chilling at the end of Act II and throughout Act III, making her inevitable fate at the hands of Otello (the scene had been reworked for a happy end, but the original is used here), dramatically shocking and highly effective. And does Act III contain the earliest example of a ‘mad scene’? It comes close and is certainly depicted as such in the production, Desdemona scrawling on the walls, the whole scene working well with the score.

Happily then, after the rather unimaginative first Act and start of the second, Leiser and Caurier’s stage direction picks up to meet the exceptionally high standard of the singing and the intensity of the musical arrangements – superbly conducted under Muhai Tang. The cold emptiness of Desdemona’s bedroom at the start of Act II and in Act III (perhaps this is how it’s intended to appear for a reason) are necessarily minimal, but the success of the production hinges on the playing out of the seeds of jealousy sown by Iago. This scene takes place in what looks like a seedy Turkish bar, with a fridge and a pool table. If the contrast to the preceding (and subsequent) scenes only underlines the outsider status of Otello, it’s effective, but it also proves to be the ideal place for the barroom brawl that erupts between the highly charged natures (wound up of course by Iago) of Otello and Rodrigo, the two men grabbing pool cues and heading for the back alley through the fire-doors at the back, despite Desdemona’s vain (over-urgent and strident) attempts to restrain them.

It’s clear then that the directors have recognised the difficulties of staging Otello and approached it well, using broader strokes in the sets to contrast the nature of the Moor with those of the state, using lighting effectively for mood, but also seeking to find smaller details to highlight. It isn’t always possible to bring any great subtlety to the work within the restrictions of the libretto and the almost opera seria-like arrangements, but this is more than compensated for by the vibrant delivery of the score and the outstanding singing performances.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2012 | Philip Arlaud, Christian Thielemann, Eike Wilm Schulte, Sophie Koch, Renée Fleming, Robert Dean Smith, Jane Archibald, Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners, Christian Baumgärtel, Roman Grübner, David Jerusalem, Michael Ventow, Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel, Lenneke Ruiten, René Kollo | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 12 February 2012

Much as I love the operas of Richard Strauss, I have conflicted feelings about Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m broadly with the composer on this one, agreeing with his initial reaction to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s proposal to basically structure the work as an opera within and opera (within an opera) as being much too confusing for an audience. And not just confusing, but worse, dramatically uninvolving. Combining an opera seria with an opera buffa sounds brilliantly clever on the page, setting the old against the new and allowing the difference of style and tone of the forms to work off each other (it worked so well in Der Rosenkavalier), with a clever construct in the Prologue (added after the original version failed) that accounts for this idea, but the work offers still little in conventional dramatic terms. How then do we account for the enduring popularity of Ariadne auf Naxos?

Ariadne auf Naxos is also a witty satire of opera patrons, opera composers, opera performers and even opera audiences, but I suspect its in-jokes appeal more to those putting on the work than those in the audience watching it, but even that doesn’t entirely account for the opera being one of Strauss’s most performed works. The musical qualities cannot be denied, even if there is a sense that it’s also one of those works which offers more to the diva who wants to demonstrate her range and sense of fun. If that were the only reason for putting on the work, drawing performers like the exceptional cast gathered for this 2012 production at Baden-Baden, then that’s perhaps justification alone for putting on the work, but there are evidently other aspects that make the work so attractive to international audiences, and that’s the fact that, as clever sounding as the concept is, the originality of Hofmannstahl’s libretto clearly inspired Strauss to write some of his most beautiful arrangements and inventive melodies that do ultimately touch on deeper truths relating to human nature and emotions.

Ariadne

Ariadne auf Naxos doesn’t function terrifically well then as a stage drama and it’s much too self-referential (I’d still happily dispense with the Prologue from the revised/definitive second version of the opera myself), offering little scope for a modern stage director who wants to impose his own personal vision on the concept. It’s also limiting to the performer who may find that the conventions of the opera seria and opera buffa elements are somewhat restrictive, particularly within this framework. What makes the work special however is the fact that it does come from the creative and fertile minds of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in their prime. Following on from such important works as Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and already working on the magnum opus that would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos may suffer from the same pretensions as those other works – even to a greater degree – but that doesn’t mean that it is really any less brilliant either. It may be clever-clever, but there is a complete sincerity in the musical, emotional and dramatic content of their work together as well as the belief that the unique construct and artifice of opera can raise those qualities to greater heights. The challenge for anyone putting on the work then is in actually getting this across.

Trying to be too clever with works that are already clever enough is always a potential pitfall with Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Claus Guth had a go at it, setting the Zurich production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a famous Swiss hotel without managing to bring anything particularly new or revelatory out of the work. The Baden-Baden production is more traditional in its setting. The stage is like… well… a stage – a Broadway musical arrangement, with a sweeping staircase behind on which the assembled well-off guests at the host’s party sit dressed in their finery (1920s style formal dress), watching the entertainment put on for them by “the richest man in Vienna”. If there doesn’t appear then to be a great deal that director Philip Arlaud brings to the table here – the separate buffa and seria elements are clearly divided and played out in a fairly straightforward manner according to their conventions – there is nonetheless a considerable challenge in actually making the opera’s difficult construct work as well as making it interesting and comprehensible to an audience, and that’s actually achieved exceptionally well here.

Ariadne

Simplicity is the key to making Strauss and Hofmannstahl work, even if that’s not as simple as it appears. Christof Loy’s 2011 Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, would appear to be trying to be overly clever with its concept (setting the fairytale in a post-WWII Viennese concert hall), but by stripping the work back of its trappings and allowing the music and the words to speak for themselves, the full power of the work is nonetheless made apparent. It’s the director’s job to give the work and the performers that necessary space to get that across, and that’s done here too. To a large extent then the weight of interpretation, of letting the piece speak for itself, should lie with the conductor and the singers and, as with the Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, we have one of the most attentive and sympathetic of Strauss conductors here in Christian Thielemann.

In the same way that there is a magic created between Strauss and Hofmannstahl, between the composer and the music, between the conflicting elements of Ariadne auf Naxos (and yes, I have to admit, even with its Prologue), there is also the magic (acknowledged in Strauss’s final opera Capriccio) that is created between the performer and the listener. The combination of Strauss, Thielemann and Renée Fleming and their relationship with the audience is one of the great musical wonders of our age, and that magic is abundantly in evidence here. As Ariadne – surprisingly her first time singing this role – Fleming’s line is beautiful, her legato smooth, with that famous richness of tone in a role and with a composer and a conductor who shows off her qualities to their best, while also bringing out the ecstatic beauty of the music in the opera itself.

Ariadne

It’s a recognition of this chemistry, already seen in Baden-Baden’s successful 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier that in some way accounts for the commission of this new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Reunited also from that earlier Strauss production is Sophie Koch as the Composer, wearing a Leo Sayer wig, singing the role wonderfully and bringing a nice note of commitment and sincere naivety to the role that belies the parody within it. That’s the case elsewhere in this production, which never plays it as a farce for the fiasco that arises from the central idea of pushing together two different operas in time for a fireworks display. Playing it perfectly seriously – like all good commercial productions, as the Broadway musical setting suggests, the show must always go on – Robert Dean Smith brought his slightly strained heldentenor to the role of Bacchus with similar commitment, and Jane Archibald took on the coloratura fireworks role of Zerbinetta reasonably well, but without ever making much of an impression. All of this contributes to a fine production, even if nothing threatens to overshadow Fleming’s Prima Donna/Ariadne. If I remain unconvinced that Ariadne auf Naxos works conceptually or dramatically, respectively lacking the beautiful concision of Capriccio and the musical cohesion of Der Rosenkavalier, the beauty of the piece and the inventiveness of Strauss and Hofmannstahl that accounts for its popularity was nonetheless wonderfully evident in the fine staging and singing of this production.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.