Tue 31 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Blu-ray
, Opus Arte
, Arts Florissants, Les
, Christie, William
, Debono, Claire
, Cavalli, Francesco
, La Didone
, Herve-Léger, Clément
, Bonitatibus, Anna
, Spicer, Kresimir
, Sabata, Xavier
, Streijffert, Maria
, Wey, Terry
, Watson, Katherine
, Goldstein, Tehila Nini
, Théâtre de CaenNo Comments
Francesco Cavalli - La Didone
Théâtre de Caen, 2011 | William Christie, Clément Herve-Léger, Anna Bonitatibus, Kresimir Spicer, Xavier Sabata, Maria Streijffert, Terry Wey, Katherine Watson, Tehila Nini Goldstein, Claire Debono, Joseph Cornwell, Victor Torres, Valerio Contaldo, Mariana Rewerski, Matthias Vidal, Francisco Javier Borda | Opus Arte
Depending on the work, depending on who is playing it and depending on how it is staged, Cavalli’s operas - some of the oldest works in existence - can struggle to hold the attention of a modern audience. They can be long, usually based on classical subjects, consist of long stretches of recitative accompanied principally on harpsichord and lyrone basso continuo with a limited range of period string instruments. There’s little in the works that lends itself to exciting staging in the way of, for example, the French regal entertainments of Lully and Campra, with all their ballet sequences and choral arrangements. There are no such difficulties with this particular work - one of Cavalli’s earliest operas first performed in 1641 - a version of the familiar story of the Fall of Troy and the love story of Dido and Aeneas, and with the production being in the hands of William Christie and his company, Les Arts Florissants, there are no concerns either about the musical interpretation of La Didone, which is staged with dramatic intensity by Clément Herve-Léger.
What makes La Didone rather more accessible than some works of early opera is the libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello, the librettist responsible for Monteverdi’s ground-breaking L’Incoronazione di Poppea, an opera that daringly put real characters onto the stage for the first time rather than the gods and heroes of ancient mythology. Even though La Didone is related to the mythological figures of Virgil’s epic Latin poem ‘The Aeneid‘, it benefits nonetheless from Busenello’s wonderful humanising of the characters and indeed the gods. The libretto isn’t made up of the usual vague pronouncements and declarations, but is dramatically and poetically expressive of the range of human emotions and passions that are brought out by this expansive work. In the first half - in the model followed by Berlioz in the now more familiar Les Troyens - the libretto captures the true horror and nature of the experience of war, the destruction of one’s country and with it one’s hopes and dreams. The second half also corresponds with Berlioz’s division, with Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage and with the trials that are brought by love and betrayal, expressed in a variety of ways, through Dido’s love for her dead husband, her rejection of Iarbas, and in her love for Aeneas’ that is curtailed by his sense of duty (to the gods) to abandon her and strike out for Italy.
This wonderfully rich story is brilliantly described in Busenello’s libretto, but if it truly achieves the same kind of expression of human passions that can be found in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, it’s also due to the musical compositions of Cavalli, himself a pupil of Monteverdi. William Christie directs this from the harpsichord and the rhythms and tone are clear, precise and dynamically attuned to the emotional content of the work, emphasising the horror with driving chords and accompanying the delicate laments and love-songs with heartfelt lyricism. Even without a synopsis (there isn’t a detailed one with this DVD/BD release unfortunately), it’s not difficult to follow what is going on thanks to the clear libretto where figures introduce themselves naturally, and due to the musical accompaniment that defines them. This is particularly strong in the tricky first Act, where in addition to gods directing the events, numerous figures wander around the dark ruins of Troy in despair, terrorised by marauding Greeks - Coroebus dying in the arms of Cassandra, Hecuba’s despair for the fate of the women, Aeneas’s wife Creusa murdered and returning as a ghostly figure. Appropriately then, it all looks and sounds like the Hades of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo supplanted into the hell of a destroyed Troy.
Things actually become a little more confusing in the Carthage sections in this production with the doubling up of roles, when the same singer who played Aeneas’ dead wife Creusa in Act 1 (Tehila Nini Goldstein) turns up in Act 2 as Juno trying to destroy him. Even trickier, Cupid disguises himself as Aeneas’ son Ascanio in Act 2 to bring about the love between Aeneas and Dido, so although it makes for a convincing disguise when both Cupid and Ascanio are played by the same person (Terry Wey), it could be just a little confusing. (The chaptering, available as a pop-up on BD, will however clarify any other confusion over which characters are singing at any time). The fact that it works is down to the strong direction and staging working in perfect accordance with the music and the drama of the libretto. Clément Herve-Léger keeps the sets simple, employing only one or two large and effective symbolic gestures. It’s not period, but other than the inappropriate scaffolding for the down-to-earth gods and Venus lugging a suitcase for her journey to Carthage - an effort to humanise the appearances of the gods in line with the nature of the work and against the tradition of big fanfares and mechanical stage entrances - there are no distracting modern anachronisms.
With the simplicity of the staging and the sparseness of the orchestration, compared to conventional opera, much depends on the quality of the singing here. Populated extensively from Christie’s ‘Jardin des Voix‘ school for new young talent, the singing is exceptional right across the whole cast. Anna Bonitatibus is a clear, powerful and resonant Didone (Dido), and Kresimir Spicer a gentle lyrical Enea (Aeneas), both of them commanding and deeply expressive in the central roles, but the cast - clearly trained for this kind of singing - is made up of youthful voices filled with passion, clarity and a purity of tone that is well suited to early opera (some however - such as Francisco Javier Borda playing both Ilioneo and Mercury - try a little too hard). La Didone is still not without some longeurs for anyone unfamiliar with early opera, but this is certainly one of the more accessible works of this period, treated to a beautiful looking and fresh sounding production from Les Arts Florissants, that brings a much needed vitality to this rare 370 year-old work.
Opus Arte’s Blu-ray release comes with impressive specifications in terms of High Definition image and sound. The period instruments in particular have a wonderful clarity of tone within the natural reverb of the Caen theatre. It sounds a little bright and there’s no low-frequency range at all in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it’s distributed well emphasising the fragility of the delicate playing and the strength of the vocal expression. The PCM Stereo mix is also clear and true. The BD is dual-layer BD50, 1080i and all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French and German only. There are no extra features other than a Cast Gallery and a booklet with an essay on the work which has a brief outline of the story, but there is no detailed synopsis.
Sun 29 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
, Panzarella, Anna-Maria
, Petibon, Patricia
, Aix-en-Provence Festival
, Internet streaming
, Luperi, Mario
, Lindsey, Kate
, Nozze di Figaro, Le
, Rhorer, Jérémie
, Brunel, Richard
, Szot, Paulo
, Byström, Malin
, Ketelsen, KyleNo Comments
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro
Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | Jérémie Rhorer, Richard Brunel, Paulo Szot, Malin Byström, Patricia Petibon, Kyle Ketelsen, Kate Lindsey, Anna Maria Panzarella, Mario Luperi, John Graham-Hall, Emanuele Giannino, Mari Eriksmoen, René Schirrer | Aix-en-Provence - 12 July 2012
In all my time watching opera I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad production of The Marriage of Figaro. No matter how familiar the Mozart’s score is, no matter how well known all the little twists and quirks of Da Ponte’s libretto, the opera is always simply just a delight - dazzling, witty, virtuoso, it’s simply one of the greatest works of opera. That will always be the case no matter what kind of production it’s given, whether period or modern-day, traditional or experimental, and that in my experience always comes through even if the singing isn’t of the very highest standard. The production of Le Nozze di Figaro for the 2012 Aix-en-Provence festival, for example, combines a modern staging with a fresh light touch in the musical direction which finds an appropriate rhythm for the comic situations that entertains and delights even if the singing doesn’t always come up to the mark.
Richard Brunel’s production updates the action from the mansion of the libidinous Conte di Almaviva to the modern-day office of the Count’s legal practice. This changes the social and class satire context of the original work where he is attempting to seduce his wife’s maid Susanna before she is married to Figaro, making it more a case of sexual harassment in the workplace against a female employee. That at least is a situation more recognisable for a modern audience who might not have heard of ‘droit du seigneur‘ (which is actually called the ‘le droit de cuissage‘ in French), but in a work that had already stripped away most of the revolutionary class satire from Beaumarchais’ original controversial drama, it doesn’t greatly alter - or indeed add to - the situational comedy of the relationships between men and women that is the focus of the actual opera. It is interesting however to see those situations enacted in an office environment, Susanna and Figaro’s forthcoming marriage celebrated as an office romance by their colleagues amid the shredders and photocopiers, even if their employer offering them a back-office room behind the filing cabinets to set up their marital bed doesn’t quite fit into that concept quite so well.
Otherwise, Brunel’s production works quite well in this universally recognisable modern-day environment. In this office, a smart-suited Figaro is Almaviva’s junior law secretary and Cherubino is the junior office boy (looking uncannily, whether intentionally or not, like Gareth from the TV comedy series ‘The Office’). Office politics play a part in the everyday life of the employees and there is some friction between Susanna and one of the older ladies employed there, Marcellina, which descends into a cat fight where they end up throwing ladies underwear at each other - for some reason. The legal practice also works well with the judicial case taken out by Bartolo and Marcellina against Figaro, as well as providing an appropriate occupation where Almaviva has a responsibility to behave in a manner that is in accordance with his position. Chantal Thomas’ stage set moves fluidly then between each of the locations, between the office, the store room and the bedroom with its siderooms, giving you a good cross-section view of events even if the actual layout and configuration isn’t the neatest for the comedy that is enacted between them.
If the dramatic and musical qualities of Le Nozze di Figaro make it somewhat foolproof as a brilliant and dazzlingly witty entertainment, it’s not however immune to weak casting in the singing roles. The main roles here at the 2012 Aix production are mostly fine, some of them good, but it’s fortunate that Jérémie Rhorer conducts the Le Cercle de l’Harmonie with a lightness and delicacy, as most would be drowned out by the usual full orchestral arrangement. If the musical accompaniment is bright and perky, the acting and the passions aren’t fully conveyed with the necessary abandon in the relatively lightweight singing of the majority of the cast. Kyle Ketelsen’s Figaro is the best here, a strong and confident baritone who seems to fit into the modern-day office role for his character perfectly. Paulo Szot’s Almaviva also looks the part. He’s not quite the fearful an employer you would expect the Count to be, but just as the Count isn’t entirely sure of his position in the enlightened times of the original period of the work, so too the lawyer - or magistrate - Almaviva is unsure how far he can push his attentions here as an employer for fear of being brought up before a tribunal for harassment. Szot gets this across and sings well, and if he doesn’t have the necessary weight for the role, it’s the right size of voice for this particular production as a whole.
The same could be said of Kate Lindsey’s Cherubino. Her ‘Voi che sapete‘ is sung well enough, and if it isn’t the showiest display of singing nor as impassioned as it could be, you could put that down to the relatively youthful naivety of the character. Still, it lacks the kind of impact you would expect in the singing, although the role is delightfully played for its comic potential. If Patricia Petibon is also not exactly what you expect from a traditional Susanna, again rather lighter and more naturally toned without the usual operatic mannerisms, she does however in this way make the role her own. Personally, I found Anna Maria Panzarella disappointing as Marcellina. She’s a fabulous singer, powerful in her Baroque opera roles, but here the role of Marcellina didn’t seem a good fit for her talents. It’s not easy to make any such excuses for Malin Byström, who just didn’t have a voice with the range or colour necessary to convey the emotional journey of the Countess, singing without any real conviction or feeling for the role. Her ‘Porgi amor‘ and ‘Sull’aria‘ duet with Susanna are sadly thrown away, which is a real pity.
Yet, Le Nozze di Figaro still survives these weaknesses. The stage design is a little cold and, other than subverting the happy ending with the suggestion that a leopard can’t change its spots and that Almaviva has already turned to his old philandering ways, the concept doesn’t really add anything particularly new to the work. The set is at least lovely to look at and it functions quite well. Likewise, if the singing performances don’t deliver all the verve and energy you might like with this opera, it’s made up for by the precise tempo and delicate playing of the orchestra which brings out plenty of detail in the arrangements. The production reviewed here was viewed via Internet streaming and is currently still available for viewing on the ARTE WebLive site.
Fri 27 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
, Aix-en-Provence Festival
, Boussard, Vincent
, Internet streaming
, Spering, Andreas
, Balzer, Colin
, Claire, Layla
, Pregardien, Julian
, Labin, Ana Maria
, Robard-Gendre, Julie
, Devieilhe, Sabine
, Chest, JohnNo Comments
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - La Finta Giardiniera
Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | Andreas Spering, Vincent Boussard, Colin Balzer, Layla Claire, Julian Pregardien, Ana Maria Labin, Julie Robard-Gendre, Sabine Devieilhe, John Chest | ARTE Live Web, Internet streaming, Aix-en-Provence - 10 July 2012
Written in 1774 for performance in Munich when Mozart was just 18 years of age, La Finta Giardiniera (’The Fake Gardener‘) is never likely to be regarded as anything more than the work of an inexperienced composer who wouldn’t really find his own distinctive voice until the composition of Idomeneo (1781). Mozart had however already written seven operas by this time, and if La Finta Giardiniera doesn’t sparkle with the brilliance of those later mature masterpieces, there are nonetheless interesting parallels and prototypical characters here that would be depicted with greater detail and finesse in The Marriage of Figaro. In its own right however, La Finta Giardiniera is still an enjoyable little opera buffa of modest ambition that seems well suited to the surroundings of a summer evening in the gardens of the Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean in Aix (even if you are viewing it via internet streaming).
As performed by the orchestra of Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, conducted by Andreas Spering, the music of La Finta Giardiniera is as sprightly, pleasant and beautifully arranged as a Haydn opera, with delicate arias and recitative to play out the comic situation, and even if the work is mostly fairly conventional, it does have some delightful Mozartian touches. Dramatically, the situation doesn’t add up to much more than the typical opera seria plot given a bit of a buffa treatment, but even then, consisting of the old standard of mismatched couples finally finding their proper arrangement, it never really takes off dramatically or extends much beyond that. The most dramatic incident has already taken place before the opera even begins, with the Marquise Violante having survived an attack on her person by her fiancé the Count Belfiore in a fit of jealous rage. He believes that he has killed the woman that he loves, but in reality, Violante, along with her servant Roberto, calling themselves Sandrina and Nardo, are working in disguise as gardeners on the estate of the Podestà.
The opera itself operates within the romantic complications that arise out of this situation where there are characters in disguise and believed dead. The Podestà is in love with Sandrina, which infuriates his maid Serpetta. The rejected Serpetta is therefore in no mood for the attentions of Nardo who is persistently pursuing her. The Podestà moreover hopes to make a marriage of his niece Arminda to a rich noble, who turns out to be none other than the Count Belfiore. Don Ramiro, who is in love with Arminda, is evidently displeased by this. When the Count arrives for the wedding, Sandrine faints and the Count recognises her. Could it really be Violante? His love reawakened and his sense of guilt, Belfiore declares that he cannot marry Arminda. Everyone evidently is deeply unhappy and they spend their time moping and decrying their woes in arias. “Oh, how terrible things are, I don’t know what to do”, kind of sums up the content of these arias that describe their feelings of indignation, betrayal, unjust treatment and their confusion.
Oh yes, there’s lots of confusion, but evidently the idea is to somehow sort out all these mismatched couples and bring everything to a happy conclusion. In contrast however to the rather more accomplished and richly characterised Marriage of Figaro, for example, there is something rather pleasantly slapdash about the approach to resolution in La Finta Giardiniera, which is brought about by not much more than endless pleading after which the Podestà finally declares “Oh just marry whoever you want” to them all. The fact that there is an odd number of characters - seven - also means that at least one going to be left out of the rearrangements. Dramatically then, it’s far from satisfactory, since there is very little that happens to sustain interest in this situation for nearly three hours.
Musically however, the work is far from slapdash, though it is conventional and shows little in the way of inspiration or imagination. There are however one or two lovely little touches. In Act I, the Podestà describes his feelings for Sandrina as a symphony in the aria “Dentro il mio petto“, evoking instruments and sounds that the orchestra play to accompany his florid declarations. Breaking away from the strict solo aria, duet, recitative and ensemble arrangements, Mozart also manages to have the characters interact in these ensembles rather than all sing together or at cross purposes. It’s far from the complex Figaro arrangements however, as is the rather less well-developed dark garden setting for the confusion of identities and declarations of true feelings that ensue at the end of La Finta Giardiniera’s second Act, where Belfiore and Violante bewilderingly believe themselves to be Greek gods.
There are then modest pleasures to be found in La Finta Giardiniera, and they are brought out well in this production at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Filmed on an outdoor stage, the sun setting during Act 1, the exterior location suits the garden setting beautifully. Accordingly, there is little need for stage props, the reflective floors, white chairs and the long-stemmed white roses that double as lamps providing the additional illumination and effects required for the limited drama. The sound recording is wonderful for an outdoor shoot, with no sign of intrusive microphones attached to the performers, the tone lovely and warm, with natural reverb coming from I don’t know where. The singers appear to be all new young artists, all very well cast for their respective roles with sweet voices well-suited to this early Mozart. There’s nothing too strenuous expected in the acting or the singing, and all sound and play this light buffo drama marvellously. If it’s slightly dull in places, lacking in any real verve or personality, that’s unfortunately down to the nature of the work itself.
La Finta Giardiniera is currently available to view via internet streaming on the ARTE Live Web site. Some region restrictions may apply.
Tue 24 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Mehta, Bejun
, Aix-en-Provence Festival
, Purves, Christopher
, Internet streaming
, Benjamin, George
, Mitchell, Katie
, Hannigan, Barbara
, Written on Skin
, Loeb, Rebecca Jo
, Clayton, AllanNo Comments
George Benjamin - Written on Skin
Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Allan Clayton | ARTE Live Web, Internet streaming, Aix-en-Provence - 14 July 2012
Commissioned by the Aix-en Provence Festival to have a Provençal theme, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin takes an interesting approach to the task in his second opera. With a libretto written by Martin Crimp, Benjamin mixes classicism with the avant-garde to powerful effect in his 21st century perspective on a 12th century legend composed by the troubadour poet Guillaume de Cabestany. It’s not just in the unusual mix of musical instruments that have been used however - the orchestration coloured by as varied a range as a viola de gamba, mandolins and glass harmonica - or even the use of a countertenor in a modern opera, but it’s the necessity of viewing the past through the eye of the present, of breaking down myth into reality, that is evident throughout every element of the production. Viewed here via internet streaming during its world premiere run at Aix on 14th July 2012, Written on Skin is consequently an intense operatic experience.
The story itself seems to be a relatively minor one, but it does nonetheless make some interesting observations about the nature of self-deception, the exercise of power over others and the difficulty of coming to terms with an understanding of one’s true nature. The drama plays out principally between only three main characters - a man, a woman and a boy. The man, known as the Protector, is a landowner, a man “addicted to purity and violence”, proud of his achievements (”I own the fields, I own everyone in them”) who likewise regards his wife as part of his property. He engages the Boy, an artisan, to create an illuminated book for him to record his great achievements and to depict the glorious ascent to Paradise that awaits him. The woman, Agnès, however seeks something else in the Boy, is attracted to him and asks him to create “another woman” for her, one who can open the eyes of her husband to his failings. For the Protector, the book is to put a spin on his belief in himself as a great man, for Agnès, it’s an opportunity to reveal the real woman and her desires that are suppressed by the man. Vanitas vanitatem. The outcome is inevitably tragic.
What makes this simple story rather more interesting is in how it is viewed from a modern perspective. The story is narrated by three Angels - the Boy is also one of the Angels, the other two play the parts of Marie, the sister of Agnès and her husband - who seem to exist in a separate dimension, and along with other stagehands, they seem to be recreating the events, directing the actors into their places, viewing the sequence of events as they play out and commenting on them. All the characters recite their words as if reading them from a narrative text - Boy:”What do you want, says the Boy”, Agnès: “To see, says the woman”. Vicki Mortimer’s stage designs, the stage divided into discreet locations seem to emphasis these separations between the reality and the meta-reality, between the story and its creation, between action and commentary on it. Most of the drama takes place in a thin lower strip of the stage, wooden, brown coloured that becomes a room and a bedroom leading to an exterior or a staircase, while the “angels” and their assistants look on form a modern blue-lit side-room and upper level “back office”.
While you are made aware of the characters relating their own words, playing a role, recreating events, it in no way however takes away from the intensity with which the story is depicted through the singing, the performances and in the brooding, probing, revealing musical score - the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted here by Benjamin himself - and through Katie Mitchell’s stage direction. The strength and power of the voices, as well as their combination of soprano, baritone and countertenor, are well arranged to achieve the necessary impact, but the actual casting of Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Bejun Mehta is critical in the ringing clarity of tones and in performances that push the violent passions to their limits. “Shatter the printing press. Make each new book a precious object written on skin“. Can you exhume and invoke the passions of the past and bring them to back to life in a manner that makes them meaningful and immediate to a modern audience? With opera - and the richness of musical and theatrical resources that it places at the disposal of a composer with the necessary ability - apparently you can.
Written on Skin is currently available to view via internet streaming on the ARTE Live Web and on the Medici website. Some region restrictions may apply. The new work will also be able to be seen at the De Nederlandse opera in Amsterdam and at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden later this year.
Mon 23 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Verdi, Giuseppe
, Didyk, Misha
, Poplavskaya, Marina
, Minkowski, Marc
, Tcherniakov, Dmitri
, Hendricks, Scott
, Internet streaming
, Furlanetto, Giovanni
, La Monnaie/De Munt
, Trovatore, Il
, Brunet-Grupposo, SylvieNo Comments
Giuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore
La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Marc Minkowski, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Scott Hendricks, Misha Didyk, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Marina Poplavskaya, Giovanni Furlanetto | La Monnaie Internet Streaming - 15 June 2012
There’s a case to be made for putting a little distance between the drama and the telling of it in Verdi’s potboiler, Il Trovatore. The plot is a difficult one to carry-off convincingly - a gypsy curse, a witch burned at the stake, a child kidnapped in revenge and thrown into the burning embers by the daughter of the gypsy, the whole affair creating hidden secrets and unrevealed identities. As it happens, all of these melodramatic events are kept at a certain distance already, the dark history related at the start of the opera by the Captain of the Guard at the start of Act I, and with a different spin put on it by the gypsy Azucena in Act II. Storytelling is moreover part and parcel of the whole work, Leonora relating her encounter and love for a handsome dark stranger, the opera itself getting its title from a troubadour, a wandering lyrical storyteller.
It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Dmitri Tcherniakov stages Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore at La Monnaie in Brussels with the framing device of it being related, relived and re-enacted at some date in the future by the main protagonists. Considering the bloody fates of many of those characters, it is however a bit of a stretch to imagine them meeting up some years later on the instigation of Azucena. Like some Agatha Christie mystery where the main suspects have been assembled, the five main characters in Verdi’s drama turn up in the silent prologue - Leonora in a dark wig and wearing sunglasses, Manrico in a snakeskin jacket - greet each other after years of separation or warily edge around each other as Azucena locks the door to the room, keeping them captive there to work through the events that have occurred in order to “shed light on the tragic past that has united their destinies”.
In this way the director also removes many of the old traditional stage conventions and tired mannerisms that have become associated with this old standard, which itself has become a story that is just related, its heavy delivery and declamation detaching the work any sense of real meaning that might once have lain behind it (although one doubts that there are any serious intentions behind this Verdi opera). In Tcherniakov’s production this is no 15th century Spain in the Aragon region, there are no Biscay mountains here, no convent or nuns and there’s no traditional Anvil Chorus. The chorus is there, but they remain off-stage at all times, the work - one of Verdi’s most bombastic - reduced in the process to a chamber piece. Most significantly, the cast are thus reduced entirely down to five people, Inez and Ruiz among those roles which are not actually suppressed but sung through the doubling up of roles in the small cast - an idea that fits in fine with the role-playing concept. The whole opera is there, it’s just reduced to taking place within the confines of a single room.
If the intention is to similarly downplay the singing, then that’s achieved with the performances here, although some might think that the singing lacks the necessary dynamic, power and expansiveness. It’s an interesting cast then, but not one that particularly impresses. Scott Hendricks comes across the best here as the Conte di Luna, letting himself go with the flow of the concept, although he does also have perhaps the most expressive role in the opera. Misha Didyk is not my kind of Verdi singer, although with his choked back anguished delivery lacking any variety in vocal expression and showing no real acting ability, I’m not fond of his style of singing in Russian opera either. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is a smaller-scale Azucena than is usually required, but she suits the tone here, as does Marina Poplavskaya as Leonora. Her technique isn’t always the smoothest when making the transition to the higher notes, but she has exactly that kind of expressive voice that is needed to bring depth to characterisation. She looks a little uncomfortable here however, a little restricted perhaps by the concept, and was surprisingly absent from the curtain call (”unwell” according to conductor Marc Minkowski when he took to the stage). Giovanni Furlanetto sang well as Ferrando (and Ruiz).
Overall however, Tcherniakov’s direction felt a bit weak, cutting away much of the baggage of the work certainly, but also restricting the drama with a concept that didn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. One might be happy to make some allowances in credibility to see something fresh and new brought out that would shed new light on Il Trovatore, but other than one or two scenes - the closing bloodbath ending certainly registered the requisite shocks - this was rarely achieved in dramatic terms. Musically however, Marc Minkowski’s conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra - his first time conducting Verdi - was much more interesting, his treatment suiting Tcherniakov’s idea of a chamber production, while at the same time indeed finding the strengths in Verdi’s score and successfully getting its underlying power across without unnecessary overemphasis. Otherwise the overall impression was that there was quite a bit of heat generated here, but not enough fire.
Wed 18 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Strauss, Richard
, Opera review
, Kelly, Janis
, Buxton Opera House
, Buxton Festival
, Gadd, Stephen
, Best, Jonathan
, Poulton, Robert
, Kennedy, Andrew
, Unwin, Stephen
, Madlala, Njabulo
, Roberts, RichardNo Comments
Richard Strauss - Intermezzo
Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Janis Kelly, Stephen Gadd, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Best, Njabulo Madlala, Robert Poulton, Richard Roberts, Colin Brockie, Susanne Holmes, Martha McLorinan | Buxton Opera House - 13 July 2012
Intermezzo is, of course, an opera notoriously based on the real-life domestic circumstances of its composer Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline de Anha, a turbulent but happy marriage between two quite different personalities. The reason we know so much about the nature of their marriage is that Strauss depicted it in frank and some would say vulgar detail in his symphonies and in aspects of his operas. There’s no disguising the fact however that Intermezzo is unprecedented for the level of detail in which the composer’s domestic affairs, specifically two notable incidents, are exposed to the full view of the public. Whether the opera is vulgar or not is open to question and undoubtedly interpretation, but if there’s a case to be made for it, it was made here with the wonderful production at the 2012 Buxton Festival.
Coming after such important works as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Intermezzo can’t help but appear to be a minor work with a rather trivial subject unworthy of a composer of Strauss’s stature. A light comedy, a farce, a domestic drama of minor disputes and marriage difficulties, played out in short chapters like edited scenes from a movie (cinema an influence to some extent on the work, and reflected in the staging here), played out in music that accompanies and supports conversational arrangements rather than imposes its own expressive presence, Intermezzo hardly seems like a subject that would appeal to the lofty ambitions of Strauss’s regular librettist at this time Hugo von Hofmannstahl. Yet, in taking this unexpected direction with a new librettist, Strauss himself shows himself to be just as ambitious and willing to experiment with a subject and a style that is far from what is traditionally expected of an opera work.
Adapting to this new form, Strauss’s glorious compositions prove to be surprisingly musical and dramatic. It’s a typically detailed score from this composer, attuned to the smallest emotional gestures as well as to the broader ones called for by the farcical situations that ensue when Christine, the temperamental wife of a famous composer, Robert Storch (not much disguising of identities going on there), reads a love letter sent mistakenly to her husband and promptly, to the complete bewilderment and distress of Storch, sues for divorce. Working in another incident drawn from real-life where the lonely Christine - her husband frequently away working and conducting - is deceived about the nature of a friendship she strikes up with a young man who claims he is a baron, but is really looking for someone to pay his bills for him, Strauss balances our sympathies in his depiction of the complex and difficult personality of Christine with flashes of humour and compassion.
Despite the apparent triviality of the subject and autobiographical content that seems a little self-aggrandising - particularly in the manner in which it is richly scored here by Strauss - Intermezzo is by no means vulgar entertainment. It’s thanks to this work that we have real insight into the Strauss household, the personality, temperaments and the passions that fuel the composer’s work, but it’s not entirely self-regarding and self-important. These are fully-fleshed out characters, their personalities, whims, mannerisms and deeper natures expressed with tremendous skill by Strauss. The extraordinarily detailed score may be aligned with a very different kind of dramatic content to the classical subjects of earlier works - to humour, to flashes of wit, jealousy, rage, love and passion rather than the death lust of Salome or the revenge fantasies of Elektra, but really, the scoring is no less precisely nuanced. These are much more human emotions, glorified (perhaps more a little over-glorified) by Strauss’s perceptive, impressionistic swells and rhythms, but it’s honest, it’s witty, it’s human and it’s real.
It’s surprising then that Intermezzo is not more frequently performed on the stage, as it is undoubted much more of a theatrical work than is it musical. The fact that this theatrical conversational drama can come across with such musicality and works so well on the stage however depends entirely on the nature of the production, and in just about every respect, this Buxton Festival production was simply outstanding - fully aware of the potential of the piece and capable of putting it across. The stage design, the costumes and the direction were an absolute joy. Every single scene struck the exact right note, with simple sets that were nonetheless pinpointed with delightful period detail. There was also remarkable precision in the setting of tone and circumstance through the use of lighting, the drama able to slip between a drawing room and a brief encounter on a ski slope with barely a pause for the cinematic intertitles to indicate the scene change. Everything about Stephen Unwin’s direction was perfectly in line with Strauss’s score and the dramatic tone and intent of the work.
Even so, Intermezzo is a work that would still be rather difficult to pull off effectively were it not able to make the characters seem human and sympathetic. In this respect Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Christine, a tremendously challenging role that despite the surface impression given is actually much warmer and human than just about any other character to be found in Strauss’s work. Utterly mesmerising, her attention to detail was evident not just in the terrific singing, but in her bearing and in the manner and timing of her delivery, which was that of a consummate actress. This was a delightful performance that drew all the potential out of the role, as well as giving something personal to it as well. Stephen Gadd was also exceptionally good as Robert Storch, similarly finding warmth and humour in the personality of the composer, singing the role well and in perfect accord with the performance of Janis Kelly. The two roles are the obviously the most vital, supported well by the reminder of the cast, all of them achieving a wonderful rapport with the fluid performance of the orchestra conducted by Stephen Barlow. Intermezzo was undoubtedly, the most accomplished achievement of this year’s Buxton Festival.
Tue 17 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Opera review
, Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai
, Buxton Opera House
, Buxton Festival
, Sibelius, Jean
, The Maiden in the Tower
, Kashchei the Immortal
, Stratford, Stuart
, Lawless, Stephen
, Ladner, Kate
, Selway, Emma
, Berkeley-Steele, Richard
, Poulton, Robert
, Gilhooly, OwenNo Comments
Jean Sibelius - The Maiden in the Tower
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - Kashchei the Immortal
Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stuart Stratford, Stephen Lawless, Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton, Owen Gilhooly | Buxton Opera House - 12 July 2012
Even though they are both very different in style, approach and meaning, there is at least one very obvious common theme between the two exceptionally near-contemporaneous rare one-act operas brought together in Buxton’s “Festival Double Bill” - both clearly deal with young women held captive in a tower by an evil, oppressive figure of power. If Jean Sibelius’s The Maiden in the Tower (Jungfrun i tornet), the composer’s only opera work, is the slighter and more superficial of the two in its treatment of this theme - both in narrative and in musical terms - it’s contrasted nonetheless to good effect in this clever pairing with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsahov’s Kashchei the Immortal, which is characteristically a richer and more complex reading of fantasy fairytale elements for this composer, aligning its themes and concept towards making a very real statement about the political situation in the Russia of its time.
The Buxton Opera production smartly avoids making reference to any early Russian turn-of-the-20th-century social or political messages, which though interesting are far from relevant today and perhaps one of the reasons why the work is so rarely staged outside of Russia. Instead, Stephen Lawless’s direction cleverly links the two works through having the same singers play corresponding/contrasting roles in both works, allowing the characterisation of the earlier Sibelius work to influence the meaning of the Rimsky-Korsakov. Removing the original context of a work and replacing it with another artificial background is of course not an uncommon practice in opera productions, but usually it is achieved through an updating or reworking of the stage setting, period and location. It’s highly unusual to see a work given a different musical background as a basis in this manner but it’s cleverly and most successfully done here in a way that doesn’t distort the deeper meaning of the two works.
It’s probably the Sibelius work however that gains the most from this double-bill enhancement. The Maiden in the Tower has a very simple storyline set at a children’s birthday party, although one immediately thinks of Oscar Wilde’s fairytale ‘The Birthday of the Infanta‘ and how dark and twisted that can be. The Maiden in the Tower does indeed set out with just such an intent, emphasised during the short overture in this production where the bailiff’s son, at his birthday party, is seen cruelly twisting off a doll’s head and furtively peeking up its skirt before donning a demon mask, effectively summarising his character is a few brief stokes - as does Sibelius in the score. When the bailiff’s son’s advances are rebuffed by a young uninvited guest, the boy has her locked away in a tower intent on having his wicked way with her. The girl’s reputation is mocked by the other guests, but her young boyfriend discovers the truth and tries to rescue her, fighting the bailiff’s son. A governess intervenes and releases the girl and the party continues without the birthday boy.
As a version of the Britten-like theme of the corruption of innocence, The Maiden in the Tower is not a terribly complex or insightful affair, the dialogue straightforward and declarative, and it’s not scored in any particularly subtle way either by Sibelius. It does however sound ravishing, with a Tchaikovsky-like Romanticism in its symphonic and folk-tinged arrangements which give strong dramatic punctuation to the Cherevichki-like folk and fairytale elements, with some wonderful chorus work that strikes those moments home even further. The piece is however given a little more edge from the stage direction which plays on the awkward age of innocent children approaching sexual awareness and makes the most of the singers evidently looking older than the children they are playing. This takes on another layer of depth when placed alongside Kashchei the Immortal. Is the kind of childish devilment and humiliation that has been inflicted at an early age capable of developing into something rather more unsettling and dangerous in later life?
Kashchei the Immortal, despite its more obviously fantastical setting, does actually suggest that this could indeed be the case with its evil magician. Played by the same actor/singer who played the bailiff’s son in The Maiden in the Tower, Kashchei has not only imprisoned a princess in his tower (Kate Ladner again the unfortunate captive), but he has brought-up his daughter Kashcheyevna to seduce and kill men in order to avenge himself “for past humiliations”. Seeing in his magic glass (an old flickering TV set here) the threat of the Princess’s lover Ivan, he dispatches the Storm Wind to warn Kashcheyevna, but his daughter finds herself unable to carry out her evil deeds despite having Ivan at her mercy. The Storm Wind, who had been held captive by Kashchei, spirits Ivan to the castle to rescue the Princess. Realising that she is in love with Ivan, who rejects her, Kashcheyevna weeps, and in displaying such emotion she brings about the destruction of Kashchei.
As well as using the same singers for similar roles, the connection between the two works in this production is evident in the subtle transformation of the same set used in both pieces and the connecting element of the demon mask, but nothing else is over-emphasised to the extent that the shadow of Sibelius lingers over Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. It does however feel appropriate that the moral of goodness triumphing over the seemingly immortal power of evil and being rewarded as promised in childhood stories does indeed be seen to be true in later adult life. In an additional twist at the conclusion however, the production realistically considers that such experiences do not come without a human cost. It’s not just “happily ever after”. The Princess, released from her captivity, the cruel ruler destroyed, curls up beside the defeated Kashchei as if having endured the captivity, she is unable to recognise freedom or in some way her inherent goodness sympathises with his predicament. It’s a truthful touch that shows that the situation has been realistically considered just as thoughtfully as Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of the work itself with its underlying real-world meaning.
The performances in this production were simply marvellous across the board, the five main singers - Kate Ladner, Emma Selway, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Robert Poulton and Owen Gilhooly - equally strong, alive to the possibilities within these enhanced characters, giving them perfect expression in the singing and in the acting. The Northern Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Stuart Stratford also delivered a stirring performance that played to the strengths of these two very different musical works in a way that also made the most of their complementary contrasts.
Tue 17 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Handel, George Frideric
, Opera review
, Bickley, Susan
, Buxton Opera House
, Buxton Festival
, Christophers, Harry
, Wake-Walker, Frederic
, Gilchrist, James
, Keith, Gillian
, Best, Jonathan
, Purefoy, William
, Karani, ElizabethNo Comments
George Friedrich Handel - Jephtha
Buxton Festival, 2012 | Harry Christophers, Frederic Wake-Walker, James Gilchrist, Susan Bickley, Gillian Keith, Jonathan Best, William Purefoy, Elizabeth Karani | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012
Staging a Handel oratorio is an attractive proposition, since they often contain some of his most beautiful and stirring compositions in a much freer and more varied form outside of the restrictions and conventions of the Italian opera seria, but they inevitably present certain challenges when it comes to dramatising them for the stage. Works such as Theodora and Belshazzar are indeed semi-dramatic, their religious subject sometimes the only reason preventing them being staged as operas due to English censorship restrictions of the time on the staging of biblical subjects, and they have been successfully adapted as staged opera works, as even has Messiah. Categorised as a “dramatic oratorio in three acts”, Jephtha however doesn’t actually have all that much happening in the way of action, but the qualities of the music in Handel’s final oratorio, finished while partially blind and losing his sight completely soon after, mean that it’s certainly worth trying to find a way to present it to a modern audience.
The libretto by Dr Thomas Morell presents the biblical story of Jephtha from the Book of Judges in the oratorio style of repeated declamations and pronouncements, the devout sentiments expressed in a poetic fashion with only small sections of recitative to link them together. Not a lot actually happens in the relatively straightforward story, where Zabul asks his brother Jephtha to lead the Israelites into battle against the Ammonites. If successful, Jephtha will continue to rule and he vows that if God helps him, he will sacrifice the first thing he sees on his return. It’s his daughter Iphis however who he encounters, come to meet her father. Jephtha agonises over what has happened, but intends to carry out his promise, only to be prevented at the last moment by the intervention of an angel. The biblical story is filled out (and given a happy ending) by Morell by way of Euripides, with some scenes featuring Iphis’s beloved Hamor, and Jephtha’s wife Storge lamenting the premonitions she has had of what is to befall her family.
Like opera seria work from this period, it’s difficult to stage such scenes naturalistically, and particular so in a work that was created as an oratorio, where not only is there much expression of interiorised emotions, but those expressions are particularly ‘elevated’, by which I mean relating to religious convictions and conceptual ideas more so than simply reacting to circumstances. A conventional stage setting won’t work, and might even work against such a particular means of expression, so director Frederick Wake-Walker’s approach is appropriately conceptual. Initially, the staging seems to take a leaf from the book of Christof Loy, the stage bare but for five chairs, the singers dressed formally, taking their places as if for a rehearsal of a performance, walking forward to sing from the stand placed at the front of the stage, with some brief interaction between them. The idea of it being a performance remains throughout, coming through again at the presentation of flowers at the end, but there are other elements at play here that are more difficult to pin down.
It’s left to the chorus - an important element in Handel oratorios, and the principal attraction for staging such works - to take on the task of enhancing the meaning or deeper expression in this Buxton Festival production of Jephtha. Dressed in black robes, with ruffs around their neck, quite what their movements and placements on the stage mean can’t really be defined, but in many respects, they are the embodiment of the scenery, the sentiments and the whole mood of the piece. I know that sounds like grasping for meaning, but meaning is there for the individual to find in the work and its presentation, and if you are attempting to express dark thoughts and “scenes of horror”, then this approach is much more appropriate than setting it in a countryside location or some such naturalistic location. The measure of whether this approach works or not is in whether the full force of the work comes across without the need for literalism (which would be difficult to find in this work in any case), and there was no question that it served Handel and Morell’s work exceptionally well.
Just as vital, if not evidently more so, is the musical accompaniment and the singing, and in that respect, the staging supported what was being expressed here and didn’t detract from it. The playing from the Orchestra of the Sixteen in the pit conducted by Harry Christophers was marvellous, finding the drama in the music itself and working in accord with the singers. The role of Jephtha has the widest variety of emotions, from angry declamation and fervent passion though to complete dejection and soft humility, and James Gilchrist matched the tone and delivery for each sentiment perfectly. This is a wonderful work however for the variety of voices and in how they work together side-by-side in individual sections, but also in unison in duets and trios. Susan Bickley’s Storge, Gillian Keith’s Iphis and countertenor William Purefoy’s Hamor were all outstanding in this respect, each fully characterising their roles through the voice even more so than through the expression of somewhat obscure pronouncements. Jonathan Best and Elizabeth Karani in the smaller roles of Zebul and Angel fitted wonderfully into this arrangement, an arrangement of voices and expression that is amplified by Handel’s choral writing, delivered passionately by the Festival Chorus.
Mon 16 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Opera review
, Vivaldi, Antonio
, Buxton Opera House
, Buxton Festival
, La Serenissima
, Chandler, Adrian
, Johnstone, James
, Williams, Richard
, Gadd, Stephen
, Lloyd, Rachael
, Bruce-Payne, Sally
, Poole, Louise
, Elliott, Marie
, Lawson, Mhairi
, Gunthorpe, JonathanNo Comments
Antonio Vivaldi - L’Olimpiade
La Serenissima, 2012 | Adrian Chandler & James Johnstone, Richard Williams, Stephen Gadd, Rachael Lloyd, Sally Bruce-Payne, Louise Poole, Marie Elliott, Mhairi Lawson, Jonathan Gunthorpe | Buxton Opera House - 11 July 2012
You might think that the Olympic games would be a perfect subject for a Vivaldi sprint, but the composer’s approach to this frequently covered libretto by Metastasio actually adopts a pace more akin to a marathon - which I suppose is an appropriate description for a lengthy opera seria. Thankfully, the directors for this Buxton Opera Festival production were better able to resist the predictable sporting cliches than myself with L’Olimpiade, all the more impressive since everyone else is tying cultural events with considerably less relevance into the London 2012 celebrations.
L’Olimpiade features the usual Metastasian setting of star-crossed lovers, unable to be with the one they love - usually on the dictate of a cruel and selfish king - their lives made even more unbearable by twists of chance, circumstance and no small amount of coincidence in work that has a convoluted backstory you need to be aware of before the opera even starts. Eventually however the king is persuaded to come to his senses and in his wisdom put everything back into the natural order, joining or reuniting the distressed lovers into the arms of their loved ones. It’s the setting of the Olympic games however that puts an interesting if somewhat notional spin on proceedings in L’Olimpiade, one of the most covered Metastasio librettos.
In the Buxton production, the set is staged as if for a wedding, but it looks like a gloomy affair that no amount of coloured balloons is going to enliven. The reluctant bride-to-be is Aristea, and the reason for her despair (despair is not too strong a word to describe the fevered outpourings expressed in typically overwrought da capo arias) is that her father, Clistene, the King of Sicione, has promised her to the winner of the Olympic games. She however is in love with the super athlete Megacle, but her father has a dislike for Atheneans, and has banished him from the kingdom. In the substantial backstory prior to the opera, Megacle has however been rescued during his exile from bandits by Licida, the son of the King of Crete. Owing his life to his new friend, Megacle agrees to enter the Olympic games under Licida’s name, unaware that the prize he is competing for on behalf of his friend is his lost love.
That’s just the simple outline, but being a Pietro Metastasio libretto, there are evidently other complications, not least of which is Argene’s despair (yes, yet more despair) that the man she loves, Licida, has abandoned her (again by regal decree, since she is not of noble birth) and now has his desires set on marrying Aristea. There’s also a situation in the past where Clistene had ordered the death of his own son - Aristea’s twin brother - after a fortune-teller warned that his son would one day attempt to kill him, but, as you can imagine, the only reason for introducing this element is to ensure a nice twist at the end when the son is revealed to be alive and actually turns out to be… well, you get the picture. Nothing remotely naturalistic, just a wonderful opera seria situation for opportunities to decry one’s woes at the cruel whims of fate in long elaborate repetitive arias
Vivaldi’s approach to this once very popular libretto is not the typical energetic Vivaldian style, although those familiar fast-paced rhythms evidently have their place here, but the work - one of the composer’s later works from 1734 in the then fashionable Neapolitan style - is rather more varied in its efforts to suit the finer sentiments and the sorrow expressed throughout. The majority of those sentiments are delivered in solo arias or ariosos, with only a little chorus work, the variety being in the tempos and the fine melodies Vivaldi creates for them. There is one beautiful duet that stands out from this however, Act I’s ‘Ne’ giorni tuoi felice‘, between Megacle and Aristea, sung wonderfully here by Louise Poole in the castrato role of Megacle, and Rachel Lloyd as Aristea.
L’Olimpiade is a work that relies on the quality of the singers to give its improbable story some character and the singers here helped make that possible, Sally Bruce-Payne’s Argene and Stephen Gadd’s Clistene in particular standing out, but really, this was a concerted effort with the right range of voices to fit the roles. Richard Williams’ stage dressing was basic, but the choice of setting, notionally present-day, was perfect, the whole event looking like one of those wedding parties where everything kicks-off as old grievances are brought to light. Rare though they are, Vivaldi operas are notoriously difficult to stage and this set the tone perfectly and in a much more appropriate location than some sports stadium. With La Serenissima’s Adrian Chandler on violin and James Johnstone on harpsichord driving those Vivaldi rhythms on period instruments, the whole thing came together wonderfully, showing that there’s life in these old works yet.
Sun 15 Jul 2012
Posted by keris9 under Strauss, Richard
, Opera review
, Opéra National de Paris, L'
, Fleming, Renée
, Marelli, Marco Arturo
, Volle, Michael
, Kaiser, Joseph
, Huchet, Eric
, Jordan, Philippe
, Soffel, Doris
, Rydl, Kurt
, Kühmeier, GeniaNo Comments
Richard Strauss - Arabella
Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Marco Arturo Marelli, Kurt Rydl, Doris Soffel, Renée Fleming, Genia Kühmeier, Michael Volle, Joseph Kaiser, Eric Huchet, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Thomas Dear, Iride Martinez, Irene Friedli | Opéra Bastille, Paris, 10 July 2012
You might detect a small note of annoyance in the tone of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s letter of the 22nd December 1927 to Richard Strauss at one review of Der Rosenkavalier which criticised the failure to make the best use of the opera’s strongest character, the Marschallin. It’s tempting to think that, in this letter to Strauss discussing the composition of Arabella, Hoffmanstahl was indeed suggesting revisiting the 18th century world of old Vienna and addressing that criticism as well as improving the overall dramatic structure that was a little wayward in the earlier work. In many ways Arabella is indeed a more “perfect” version of Der Rosenkavalier, but it’s a work nonetheless that few would consider better than the earlier work, magnificent even with all its glorious imperfections. Given a sympathetic production, with the right kind of cast to draw out and linger over its elegance - such as the one assembled here for the Paris Opera - one would however have to seriously consider whether the latter isn’t worthy of comparison to its earlier incarnation.
Returning to the 18th century Viennese operetta setting, Arabella does indeed demonstrate the hand of a more experienced team capable of improving many of the elements that were slightly awkward and much too self-consciously clever in Der Rosenkavalier. The romantic Mozartian intrigue with identity problems and its cross-dressing farce fits better within the tone of the later work, the introduction of waltzes placed more naturalistically within the setting of a balls at a grand hotel. Everything runs smoothly along the narrative line laid out for the drama, with a musical continuity that effortlessly glides one right through the three acts. There’s always the danger of the music being a little too smooth with Strauss in this register, but there is an awareness of the darker side of the Vienna of Maria Theresia beneath the surface glamour.
This is one further significant difference between the conception of the two works. Der Rosenkavalier was composed in 1911 before the Great War, Arabella after it in 1933, and although both seem to wallow in a nostalgia for an idealised past, there are hints in the latter work - with its specific 1866 setting just after the war with Prussia - of a more meaningful reflection on the state of the post-war Austria of Hofmannshahl and Strauss’ time. There’s nothing too dark, just the hint that the world reflected in the monetary ruin and fall from grace of former military officer Count Waldner, is unable to sustain the illusion of living in the past much longer. What is wonderful about the work is how it manages to keep this within the spirit of what is essentially a comic melodrama, where one daughter Arabella will have to be married to a rich man, while the other daughter, Zdenka, must dress and act as a man, since the family cannot afford a marriage for two daughters, and Arabella is the better prospect.
Arabella moreover, despite the apparent light tone of the work, is indeed a more fully rounded human person that the Marschallin - who was more of a concept to embody the passing of time in the more philosophically-leaning Der Rosenkavalier, although fully and poetically developed in that respect - was never allowed to be. Arabella still has all the lush romanticism that Strauss and Hofmannstahl want to capture in this lost Viennese world for a time that, after the Great War, was ever more in need of it. Without denying that times can be difficult, that sacrifices need to be made, the opera offers up the hope that fairytales can happen, that goodness, fidelity and happiness have the chance to exist. With that kind of concept, Arabella can be played as too lushly romantic, too formally classical and over-elaborate in a manner that smothers the delicate balance that the music and the drama treads. Not so in this production at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, one of the final works of the current 2011-12 season.
The staging by Marco Arturo Marelli didn’t appear obviously special, but it worked wonderfully with the intended tone of the work. The whole purpose of Arabella is to create this world of 18th century Vienna in all its glamour - idealised though it may be - so there’s not a lot of point in changing the period or the setting. Marelli’s sets looked like the typical Opéra Bastille production, bright, with coloured lighting, filling the stage and making full use of the height of the stage, yet the luxury, smoothness and cleanness of the designs suited the tone of this particular work. The set was wonderfully designed also to match the flowing nature of the work, slipping elegantly from one scene to the next, although the actual stage direction for the characters within this was a little bit walk-on/walk-off. The cleverest touch was the fall of a blue silken curtain at the end of Act I, which managed to romantically set up the first wordless encounter between Arabella and Mandryka, to be taken up from the same position at the start of Act II.
With Philippe Jordan at the helm, there were some truly astonishing sounds coming out of the orchestra pit from the remarkable Orchestra of the Paris Opera. It seemed directed with a Wagnerian punch and heft that ought to be out of place with this light comic drama, yet it only served to underline the dramatic and romantic tone to its fullest extent. It was the intelligence of the wonderful singing performances however that really carried through the full beauty of the work and the complex depths that are suggested in Hofmannstahl’s libretto and Strauss’ music. Renée Fleming’s silken tones graced Strauss’ music with warmth, glamour and sensitivity, although her performance was certainly enhanced by Jordan’s direction and in her well-matched interaction with the other singers. Alongside Michael Volle, the pairing of Arabella and Mandryka felt every bit as perfect as it should, bringing the full romantic content out of the work, but Kurt Rydl as Waldner and Genia Kühmeier as Zdenka also impressed on every level, contributing to the overall richness of the piece and showing what it can be capable of in the hands of a strong team. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a spontaneous standing ovation for a production as a whole at the Paris Opera, but it was well-merited here.
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