October 2012


ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

Deutsche Oper, Berlin 2012 | Donald Runnicles, Philipp Stölzl, Mara Kurotschka, Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, Albert Pesendorfer, Matti Salminen, Klaus Florian Vogt, Thomas Jesatko, Evelyn Herlitzius, Burkhard Ulrich, Andrew Harris, Kim-Lilian Strebel, Annie Rosen, Paul Kaufmann, Matthew Pena, Hulkar Sabirova, Martina Welschenbach, Rachel Hauge, Hila Fahima, Annie Rosen, Dana Beth Miller | 25 October 2012

Director Philipp Stölzl’s approach to the Deutsche Oper’s new 2012/13 production of Parsifal in Berlin is immediately and firmly established by the extraordinary setting for the work’s Overture. On a rocky recreation of Golgotha, Christ hangs from a cross in a meticulously detailed tableau vivant representation of the Crucifixion. Surrounded by onlookers freeze-framed in various states of anguish and despair, with Roman soldiers guarding the area, one significantly (as far as this opera is concerned) with a lance, the figures move in slow motion as Christ dies on the cross during the length of the overture, his side is pierced by the soldier’s spear and the blood that runs from it is caught in the chalice and respectfully coveted by his followers. It’s a powerful way to start a performance of this work, and when you have as beautiful a piece of music as the Overture to Parsifal, why waste it on something less than monumental? Solemn, respectful and dignified, the scene is however also completely relevant to the opera’s Passion play exploration of suffering and redemption through death and rebirth and appropriate in how those concepts are tied up by Wagner into the symbolic images of the Lance and the Holy Grail.

Any performance of Wagner’s remarkable final work should indeed be something of a spiritual experience over the course of its four and a half hour length, but there was a sense that Philipp Stölzl’s production here (co-directed by Mara Kurotschka) was perhaps a little too solemn and reverential - or perhaps somewhat too grandiose - to really touch on the transcendental elements of the work. If there’s a touch of kitsch to the production - something characteristic of this director - it’s appropriate to one where the iconography and glorification of Christ’s passion adheres to a certain Catholic tradition. You don’t need to look too far beyond the condition of Amfortas - the Knight of the Holy Grail in agony from a perpetual wound caused by the lance, his suffering deepened by each display of the Holy Grail that gives sustenance and renewed vigour to its followers - to recognise that it’s the question of suffering that is central to the work in how it can be a redemptive force. There was certainly plenty of pain on display in the Deutsche Oper’s new production - the opera house celebrating its 100th anniversary - but little sense of it leading to any kind of transcendental enlightenment.

Despite the prettification of the visuals, every ounce of the earth-shattering, curtain-tearing pain depicted in Christ’s Crucifixion and the despair in the faces of his followers (most notably in one Mary Magdalene/Kundry figure at the margins) is there in the opening scene and retained to be built upon by the events recounted by Gurnemanz and enacted in Parsifal’s journey to recover the Holy Spear from the hands of Klingsor. Stölzl recognises that all that suffering shown in the opening scene is going to be caught up in the musical themes established by Wagner in the Overture, and it consequently becomes impossible to disassociate the suffering of Christ himself every time those leitmotifs swirl and swell throughout the remainder of the work. And just in case the musical expression isn’t powerful enough (and under the baton of Donald Runnicles it often was, even if lacked any real character or vision), the director also uses every visual element to emphasise and add to the near overwhelming display of agony and despair.

That can be as simple as the Monsalvat set design sharing many of the rocky structures and contours of the opening Golgotha scene, but the subsequent scenes also reflect the opening, being mostly static in arrangement, each scene like a 3-dimensional engraving of one of the Stations of the Cross, a single image frieze set in slow motion movement. The set designs by Conrad Moritz Reinhardt and Stölzl moreover allow every element of the work to be examined in detail and every character to be explored for their own personal suffering that contributes to the collective pain. Even every element of the backstory narrated at length by Gurnemanz is depicted visually in mini scenes, as beautifully arranged and brutal as a Caravaggio painting, that are played out in the background on the tops of rocky outcrops. This production of Parsifal is as visually striking as previous Stölzl productions I’ve seen (Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini and most notably his production of Wagner’s Rienzi, also for the Deutsche Oper), beautifully arranged, lit and coloured, more than a little kitch but - within its own designs - it’s also much more respectfully faithful here to the tone of the work in question.

It’s actually perhaps a little too literal and respectful for a work that should also have a life in a spiritual dimension. (That might sound like a pretentious statement for any other work, but not for this one). There’s no doubt that this production - musically as well as visually and conceptually - is completely faithful to the spirit of the work, but it never seems to get beyond it to illuminate or elevate the underlying meaning. That’s evidently a tall order for a work that is wrapped up in Wagner’s complex and contradictory ideas and philosophies, but while Stölzl’s production is not without its own personal touches in its examination of these concepts, they don’t really amount to much and don’t resolve into any kind of satisfactory conclusion. The confusion is best exemplified within the role of Amfortas - the Christ figure of the work - who is not healed by the lance at the end here, but allowed to escape from his pain through death at its touch. This perhaps relates to the very specific Good Friday notions of death and rebirth in a work that the composer described as a Bühnenweihfestspiel - “A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage” - but quite where the necessary rebirth/transcendence is supposed to come from is less than clear. There is a suggestion however that the key to this interpretation could lie within the figure of Kundry.

More so than Parsifal or Amfortas, or even Gurnemanz, the focus in this production is very much on that contradictory element of Kundry, whose role is one of the ambiguities that the work principally revolves around - the saint and the sinner, the serpent and the agent of salvation. In this production she’s there at the crucifixion in the guise of Mary Magdalene, and is therefore the single element of continuity (other than the Grail and the Lance) that runs through the whole work, appearing in Gurnemanz’s backstory, being instrumental in bringing about Parsifal’s self-enlightenment, and in the end recognising her role to serve the new protector of the Grail. Here however, in the very final scene of the production, she seems to become terrified of the prospect of the worship and power that this inspires in Parsifal and the Grail’s followers, and where such Christian fervour might lead - a reference perhaps to future religious conflicts or perhaps, since it now seems almost obligatory to acknowledge in a Wagner opera, a premonitory vision of the rise of Nazism. As depicted by Evelyn Herlitzius in the role, Kundry remains a (female) figure of considerable interest and ambiguity, but quite how it all ties together must - perhaps necessarily considering the nature of the work - remain a mystery.

If the work never comes together musically or conceptually in a way that entirely lives up to the proposal put forward in the audacious opening scene, it’s through no fault of the singing performances. Now 67, Matti Salminen was simply superb, fulfilling everything that is required of a Gurnemanz, his deep, beautifully weighted sonorous tones providing the solid basis and solemn gravity that anchors the work in the real world while simultaneously hinting at timeless mysteries. One would think that Klaus Florian Vogt’s light lyrical tenor voice would not be as well suited to the Heldentenor role of Parsifal as it is to his angelic Lohengrin (even though the two characters are mythologically related), but yet again he brings another vocal dimension to a familiar role, demonstrating a capability of pulling those deeper resonant chest sounds out where necessary - such as in his cry of ‘Amfortas!’ at the recognition scene of the meaning of pain, suffering and love - and filling them with an expressive lightness and sensitivity. Dramatically however and in expression of his character, he was given little to work with by the director. Evelyn Herlitzius on the other hand had a rather more substantial personality as this production’s Kundry and rose to the challenge exceptionally well, emoting and projecting the sentiments of the work through some fine singing. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester (Amfortas), Albert Pesendorfer (Titurel) and Thomas Jesatko (Klingsor) were more than adequate if they didn’t make quite as much of an impression as the principal roles, but there was also some lovely singing from the three Flowermaidens.

MilevaAleksandra Vrebalov - Mileva

Armel Opera Festival, Szeged, Hungary 2012 | Aleksandar Kojić, Ozren Prohić, Victoria Markaryan, Dan Popescu, Violeta Srećković, Vladimir Andrić, Jelena Končar, Branislav Jatić, Marina Pavlović Barać, Miljenko Đuran, Verica Pejić, Laura Pavlović, Maja Mijatović, Saša Štulić, Branislav Cvijić, Igor Ksionžik, Goran Krneta, Slavoljub Kocić | Internet streaming - ARTE Live Web, 12 October 2012

The Armel Opera Festival production of Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Mileva demonstrates the importance of a good libretto to the overall impact of an opera, or to be more exact, it demonstrates how detrimental a weakness in this area can be to the work as a whole. There is of course a variety of different disciplines that combine to create a work of opera, but they do not function independently, and a good musical score and strong singing performances are likely to be rendered meaningless unless it has a good subject and a strong libretto to express. It’s particularly frustrating that the libretto is so lacking here since the choice of subject is certainly an interesting one and in all other respects, the approach to the production is impressive. Mileva is a portrait opera of Mileva Marić, a native of Novi Sad in Serbia (also the composer Vrebalov’s hometown) who played a significant part in advancing the cause for women at the turn of the 20th century through her marriage to Albert Einstein and through her own studies and scientific research.

Actually, having just written that sentence, that in a nutshell is about as much as you’ll learn about Mileva Marić from this work - that she was a woman, that she broke conventions of what was expected as a woman, that she was involved in scientific research with Albert Einstein, and that she was married for a time to the world famous physicist. Written by Vida Ognjenović, based on her own play ‘Mileva Einstein‘, and adapted for the opera by the composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, the subject ought to be a lot more interesting than it is. It opens up with some promise, with a Serbian folk band playing in the night, as Mileva’s sister Zorka writhes around in a fit in bed, anxiously awaiting a letter from her sister who has gone to study in Zurich - the behaviour of the disturbed young woman and the anxiety of her parents powerfully scored with violent musical colouring by the composer. Elsewhere however, the circumstances of Mileva Marić’s experience are somewhat prosaically laid out in a rather simplistic and expositional manner. She is determined to be a successful academic and scientist, breaking new ground at least as far as challenging what is expected of a woman. Despite the example of Marie Curie however, Mileva is not taken seriously by her lecturer, who tells her to go home and do the cleaning (or something along those lines).

Despite her assistance to the young Albert Einstein (the opera doesn’t really examine the contentious area of how much personal input Mileva has into the development of his theories), it seems however that Mileva’s role is determined by the social expectations that come with her being a married woman and being pregnant. While Albert goes to Berlin then to make his great breakthroughs (”Oh planet, the true genius walks upon you!/ His great discovery will change the face of the planet/ The world is no longer the same from this day on/ The gods are jealous!” sing the chorus), it’s viewed as chasing fame, while his instructions to his wife (”You will make sure than my garments and undergarments are always clean“, “Expect no intimacy from me“, to which a chorus of faceless women in housewives’ clothes respond “I agree“) highlight how society and history view their respective achievements. It’s difficult to know then Einstein announces that his success “belongs to the two of us” whether Mileva’s contribution to it has been of the scientific or the domestic variety.

That’s about the height of the ideas and the characterisation explored in Mileva, the whole thing expressed in the most obvious, expositional and prosaic dialogue. Other than a token gesture of having Milena’s older self looking on and commenting on events - which works well, often in duet with her younger self - there’s little sense of the characters or the subject being explored with any depth or insight in the libretto. Vrebalov’s brilliant musical writing for Mileva however suggests rather a lot more, although it’s questionable how it relates to what is described in the limited character development and dramatic exposition that takes place. Vrebalov scores with broad strokes and bold gestures in lush orchestration. There’s no minimalist picking and plonking here and there, but huge swathes of strings and floating melodies with violent interjections of stabbing brass and percussion. The singing too is filled with melody and written for musical voices carrying a strong sense of personality and expression, but it’s telling that the merely vocalised closing section of Epilogue to the work is just as expressive, if not even more so, than the actual words of the libretto. Mileva doesn’t appear to have much to say, but it at least says it brilliantly.

Much the same thing could be said about the fine production design and the singing performances for the Armel Opera Festival in Szeged, Hungary (broadcast live on the 12th October via internet streaming by the French-German art channel ARTE). The opera festival presents fully staged productions of mainly contemporary works as a means of viewing young singers in competition. Mileva benefitted Georgian soprano Victoria Markaryan in the lead role more than it did Romanian bass Dan Popescu in a relatively minor part as Jakob Erat. Although the role did her no favours as far as establishing characterisation, Markaryan sang well, her voice only slightly too weak on a few occasions to always rise above the overwhelmingly powerful orchestration (superbly performed by the Serbian National Theater Opera under the direction of Aleksandar Kojić). She sounded marvellous however in her duets with Violeta Srećković, who also make a strong impression as the elder Mileva. Also worth mentioning is Jelena Končar’s powerful singing and chilling performance as Mileva’s sister Zorka. Vladimir Andrić was similarly light-toned as Albert Einstein in a way that worked well with Markaryan’s Mileva.

Ozren Prohić’s design and stage direction strived to bring a flow of continuity to the opera’s string of short scenes and succeeded most impressively, requiring little in the way of props, but relying more on the positioning of figures on the stage, using backscreen projections and effective lighting techniques with a consistency of tone that worked with the opera itself. Visually strong, musically impressive, with good singing performances, it was a pity that the libretto wasn’t able to make some rather more insightful points about the life of Mileva Marić, but this was a fascinating work nonetheless, wonderfully presented.

The Armel Opera Festival production of Mileva is currently available to view on-line from the ARTE Live Web site.

PenalPhilip Glass - In The Penal Colony

Armel Opera Festival, Szeged, Hungary 2012 | Petr Kofroň, Viktorie Čermáková, Jiři Hájek, Miroslav Kopp, Dominik Peřina, David Steigerwald, Nikola Pažoutová, Eva Rovenska, Andrea Svobodová, Antonín Kaška, Petr Brettschneider | Internet streaming - ARTE Live Web, 10 October 2012

In The Penal Colony derives from an interesting strand of Philip Glass’s wide and successful range of popular musical ventures that take in soundtracks and theatre music as well as more traditional classical forms of operas, symphonies and concertos. Written in 2000 and scored for a string quintet, In The Penal Colony - based on the short story by Franz Kafka - sits in that indeterminate category of the composer’s music that lies somewhere between theatre music and chamber opera, one that takes in scores composed for films with existing soundtracks (Tod Browning’s Dracula), his Cocteau soundtracks and operas (Les Enfants Terribles, La Belle et la Bête), and actual theatre music, of which Kafka’s Metamorphosis is already one of Glass’s best known and much quoted works, used as incidental music on countless television ads, documentaries and trailers.

Requiring only five musicians and two singers, a single act opera running to only 90 minutes in length - even more minimalist than usual for a minimalist composer - In The Penal Colony’s structural composition and the tone of its repetitive rhythms is nonetheless an arrangement that is perfectly suited to the ambience and ambiguity of one of Kafka’s most unsettling and enigmatic works. On the one hand, it exposes the irrational and unquestioning respect the individual has for authority, as a Foreign Visitor accepts an invitation to visit a penal colony, despite having no particular interest in going there, since it would appear rude not to accept the invitation of the camp’s Commandant. This is also tied into the likewise irrational concepts of nationality and the pride for one’s home country - “Who would we be, where would we be if we forget where we come from” - an attitude that gives the state the authority to wage war or carry out executions on one’s behalf such as the one about to be performed on one prisoner at the penal colony.

The visitor is expected to be impressed with the ruthless efficiency of the machine constructed by the former commandant at the colony, an apparatus with a harrow of sharp needles that will carve the words of the prisoner’s crime into his bound naked body - the immortal words of warning to all who disobey the laws of the land created by people better than ourselves - “Honour thy Superiors”. Being Kafka, the prisoner, of course, is allowed no defence and hasn’t even been informed of the crime he is supposed to have committed. He’s characterised as dog-like and, if left to roam the hills, likely to come back when whistled to face his execution. Being Kafka, the allegorical work is also about far more than just an exploration of the inhumanity of capital punishment, or indeed beyond even any simplistic attempts to associate it alongside other such equally complex longer works such as The Castle or The Trial as being about the individual being crushed by oppressive authority, faceless bureaucracy and uncaring governance, but it takes in some very personal responses of the author to his own position - particularly his relationship with his father - while also touching on so many other dark human characteristics, fears, responses and impulses relating to power, submission, humiliation and, of course, dehumanisation.

What’s marvellous about Philip Glass’s scoring of the In The Penal Colony, is that it works hand-in-hand with the simplicity of the surface relating of the story through its repetitive rhythms, while using the subtle variations of tone that can be detected in the clear transparency of the instruments and the playing of the small musical ensemble to suggest those other nuances. Any kind of larger operatic scoring would surely be overbearing and overemphatic when set to Kafka’s ideas, and Petr Kofroň, directing the chamber orchestra of the Josef Kajetan Tyl Theatre Opera of Pilsen in the Czech Republic (who better to interpret Kafka than a Czech ensemble?), clearly seems to be aware of this. The overall production - directed by Viktorie Čermáková - and the performance of the musicians are excellent in this respect, engaging the interest of the audience in the absurd but very real horror of Kafka’s dark parable through simple touches that show how important interpretation is for an opera than requires more than just the mere mechanical reproduction of simple rhythms.

It’s a work then that, for all the difficulties of characterisation that the absurd story represents, calls on a degree of interpretative skill from the singers as well as the musicians to make all the various levels that it works on meaningful. The Armel Opera Festival contestant involved here, baritone Jiři Hájek singing the role of the officer or commandant, certainly had every assistance from the production and the musicians and sang the role exceptionally well, if he was perhaps a little stiff and inexpressive in his performance. Unfortunately, particularly for a work that only has two singing parts, he wasn’t well supported by the tenor Miroslav Kopp as the Foreign Visitor, who in addition to struggling with English diction also strained to sustain notes and their pitch. This however was overall a fine production and performance of an intriguing work that worked incredibly well on the stage as an opera, opening up its myriad complexities and infinite meaning.

The Armel Opera Festival production of In The Penal Colony is currently available to view on-line from the ARTE Live Web site.

DeathWilliam Mayer - A Death in the Family

Armel Opera Festival, Sgezed, Hungary 2012 | Róbert Alföldi, Sara Jobin, Philippe Brocard, Adrienn Miksh, Vira Slywotsky, Gabriel Manro, Todd Wilander, Nora Graham-Smith, Sarah Belle Miller, David Neal, Joshua Jeremiah, Brooke Larimer, Ashley Kerr, Judith Skinner, David Gordon, Aaron Theno | Internet streaming - ARTE Live Web, 8 October 2012

Based on a novel by James Agee - the work unpublished at the time of the author’s death - A Death in the Family was created for New York’s Center for Contemporary Opera in 1983, the composer William Mayer, drawing also from Ted Mosel’s play ‘All the Way Home’ in the writing of the libretto. It’s a work that is seeped in the local colour of the deep American south and the period, set in Knoxville Tennessee in 1915, the score and libretto drawing music and imagery from gospel music and the blues to capture the tone of melancholy and sorrow that pervades the opera.

Evidently, Death is the big subject at the heart of the work and the one that contributes to establishing the overall tone, but as the title indicates, the idea of the family also has a significant role to play in drawing people together and providing some kind of buffer and protection from the harsh realities of the outside world. That sounds like a simple enough concept, but the work - not necessarily pessimistic, but certainly agnostic about the idea - also questions whether the gulfs of personality, social background, religious beliefs and simply individuality don’t make that connection impossible to really achieve, and whether gathering together as a family unit to deal with the trials of everyday life isn’t anything more than “tramps drawing around a fire in the cruellest winter“.

Those divisions are highlighted in the Follet family, in the experience of Jay and his wife Mary and their young son Rufus. Mary is pregnant and, religiously inclined, takes the advice and guidance of their local preacher Fr. Jackson on how best to break the news to her young son that he is due to have another brother or sister, telling him that the family is soon to have “a joyful surprise from heaven“. Her husband Jay - who is closer to the boy, enjoying Chaplin movies with Rufus that Mary disapproves of - doesn’t buy into religious “mumbo-jumbo” and would rather Mary be more direct with the boy, who has enough trouble understanding the workings of the world and is often taunted by older boys. Jay sets out one night to respond to a family emergency, his father having suffered a heart attack, and is killed in a car accident. The death in the family brings them together, but still no closer, Mary praying to God, her brother Andrew railing against God, Rufus wondering how this could be a “joyful surprise from heaven”, while rumours circulate that Jay might have been drunk while driving.

Despite the rather heavy nature of the subject dealing with big topics like Death, Family, Race and Religion, and the evocation of those themes through gospel music imagery with a great deal of emphasis on the sorrow and loneliness that form a significant part of the human condition, the work approaches its themes from a surprisingly wide and varied number of angles through the extended members of the Follet family. The things that give people a sense of personal identity and belonging are the same things that keep them apart, and time, distance, age, generational differences, the past give different meanings and values to different people. Yet despite the seemingly insurmountable differences between them, and the sense that they are growing apart from one another, Mary and Jay do seem to reaffirm their bond at the beginning of Act II, just before events cruelly take Jay away from them, leaving the other members of the family hurt and confused.

Considering the variety of threads that and the almost contradictory nature of how they serve to separate as well as draw together, Mayer’s construction and writing do well to bring them together into a cohesive drama. Keeping arrangements simple, using solitary notes sustained by strings and woodwind, as well as little piano interjections, the score sustains a sense of melancholy and tension, incorporating gospel and blues tones to provide that necessary sense of colour. As well as providing genuine melodies and singing that goes beyond mere spoken recitative that is common in modern English-language opera, this also allows A Death in the Family to deal with such big themes without melodrama or overstatement, showing how they relate to ordinary people, dealing with the nature of life and death, and with nature itself - and music is very much a part of that.

The staging, directed for the Armel Opera Festival by Róbert Alföldi, also strives for the same simplicity, using nothing more than a large box to represent the idea of home, of family togetherness, with panels that open out to embrace the wider world, or close up within itself. A balcony above the stage allows for further extension and separation beyond this world - such as when Jay and Rufus go to the cinema. It’s the arrangements of the people within this setting however that really establishes the connections and separations between them, grouping together, singing together, or - by the end of the opera - singing together individually within their own worlds. One other notable device, which works wonderfully, is the use of a ventriloquist dummy for Rufus, the dummy replaced at significant points by a real boy.

Apart from highlighting and premiering many contemporary opera works, the Armel Opera Festival also aims to support and develop new singing talent through competition that allows the finalists to be judged in the context of a full opera performance. The contest competitor in A Death in the Family was Philippe Brocard playing Jay, a role which has considerable challenges for a non-native English speaker, and Brocard coped with them admirably, delivering an sympathetic and well-sung performance. Mary was exceptionally well sung by Adrienn Miksh, but the performances were strong from all the singers, who worked well with each other to really bring out the qualities of an interesting work presented in a fine staging here in Szeged.

The Armel Opera Festival production of A Death in the Family is currently available to view on-line from the ARTE Live Web site.

ChenierUmberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier

Armel Opera Festival, Sgezed, Hungary 2012 | Tamás Pal, Géza Bodolay, Leïla Zlassi, Eduardo Aladrén, Attila Reti, Júlia Vajda, Zsófia Kalnay, Tamás Altorjay, Antal Cseh, Éva Szonda, János Szerekován, Szilveszter Szelpal, Ferenc Herczeg, Milán Taletovics, Zoltán Lorincz | Internet streaming - ARTE Live Web, 6 October 2012

There is only one standard repertory opera in the 5th Armel Opera Festival competition at Sgezed in Hungary - and even then Giordano’s verismo French Revolution piece Andrea Chénier is not that commonly performed - but it’s one that at least gives two of the competition finalists the opportunity to sing in a style that is a little more traditional than the other four modern works produced here. Although the demands of the work might be different, Andrea Chénier is however no less challenging in terms of the singing and acting ability that can only be measured in competition by performance in a fully staged work, and fortunately both competitors here proved capable and well suited here to the more classic style of performance.

Géza Bodolay’s staging of the work for the Szeged National Theatre obviously had to work with a budget considerably less than the one available to the Bregenz Festival for their 2011 lake staging (the entire stage modelled on a giant construction of the famous painting of the Death of Marat), but with good period costumes and making good use of the chorus for party-goers and crowd scenes, the director was able with the minimum of props and sets to get a sense nonetheless of the final decadence of the French aristocrats and the horrendous fate that awaits them in the coming Terror. The use of a dark silent figure with a white face to represent the Terror and the guillotine (although one of those was present on the stage as well) also served to heighten the reality and horror of the situation. It was the small touches that counted here, like the use of revolving panels at the back of the stage to depict the imprisonment and torture of Bersi and Chénier, but they also allowed crowds to quickly swarm onto the set. This would have been an effective strategy for the Act I confrontation organised by Gérard between the common people and the aristocrats, but the director chose to set the people among the audience for this key scene.

The choice of opera and the stage direction then provided a more than adequate platform to show the skills of Leïla Zlassi in the role of Maddalena and Eduardo Aladrén as Chénier. There were perhaps a few minor problems in with pitch and range in the Act 1 arias, but by-and-large both singers coped well with the singing and acting demands of the roles. Eduardo Aladrén made the necessary strong and charismatic impression as Chénier in Act I, and sustained this well in collaboration with Zlassi through the subsequent acts, the duets at the end of Act II and Act IV in particular being well presented. Zlassi’s Act III aria, ‘La mamma morta‘ was excellent, performed with real feeling and good technique. If there was anything lacking in the performances of both singers, it was perhaps that they lacked the necessary force and stamina required for the roles, but they were clearly capable of making the roles come to life and achieve the necessary impact.

The role of Gérard is no less vital for the work than Maddalena or Chénier however, and it needs a little more charisma and dynamism than Attila Reti’s was able to provide. Capably sung and performed, his baritone lacked any real colour and his acting was all directed out towards the audience. A strong overall production, the Szeged Symphony Orchestra directed by Tamás Pal giving a good account of the work, the strength of the performances right across the board in all the little colourful secondary characters and in the chorus work, provided a strong base for the work and demonstrated that it’s the little details that count and which give Andrea Chénier all the dynamic and character that lies within its verismo subject.

The Armel Opera Festival production of Andrea Chénier is currently available to view on-line from the ARTE Live Web site.

OrfeoChristoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Festival Castell de Peralada, 2011 | Gordon Nikolić, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Anita Rachvelishvili, Maite Alberola, Auxiliadora Toledano, Aline Vincent | Unitel Classica - C-Major

As an avant-garde experimental theatre group, continually expanding their techniques using the modern technology available, La Fura dels Baus don’t exactly do opera in a way that is respectful of tradition. With modern works that are less than respectful of the opera tradition itself - Weill’s anti-opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny or Ligeti’s anti-antiopera Le Grand Macabre - this can be a good thing, but it’s more questionable when applied to the works of reformist composers who had very specific ideas and theories about the nature of opera as drama. With the grand works of Wagner, on the Ring cycle and even with something like Tristan und Isolde, there is perhaps more scope for a more ambitious conceptual approach, but can the extravagant modern techniques and projections employed by La Fura dels Baus really be appropriate to a work as intimate and intentionally stripped-back to basics as Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice?

Orfeo ed Euridice was indeed the first of Gluck’s reformist works, but it would only really be in its later French incarnation Orphée et Eurydice (alongside the composer’s other important French operas Alceste and Iphigenie en Tauride), that many of the mannerisms of the Baroque opera seria were dropped. Gradually, Gluck’s works would forego the use of the harpsichord, ballet music, mechanical stage effects, recitativo secco, extravagant aria da capo singing or indeed any decorative effects that didn’t serve the progression and meaning of the drama alone, but some of these elements still remain in this first version of Orfeo et Euridice, the Vienna version from 1762. Still, it would seem to go against the spirit of a work that only has three principal roles - and the majority of it sung by only one person - to stage it as extravagantly, colourfully and spectacularly as it’s done here, using every technological tool available - projections, computer generated lighting effects, singers hanging from cables above the stage - as well as making every effort to fill the ample outdoor stage of the Castell de Peralada not only with chorus and supernumeraries, but even putting the orchestra up there on the stage as well. This surely wasn’t what Gluck intended.

Well, that depends on whether what is up there on the stage enhances the work or detracts from it, and while Carlus Padrissa goes a little overboard on special effects - he’s rather too fond of hanging singers above the stage from cables for my liking - it seems to me (as someone who holds this work in its varied incarnations in very high regard as one of the greatest works in all of opera) that everything works nonetheless in perfect accord with the music, the singing and the dramatic intent of the original work. There’s no reason why spectacle and dramatic purpose can’t co-exist. While Cupid might swing down a cable to a position above the stage then (a stunt-double is used while Auxiliadora Toledano sings off-stage), it can be seen as appropriate to elevate the messenger of the gods above the mortals below. Perching Orpheus on top of Eurydice’s stone monument could also be seen as being a little over-the-top, but the use of the same block as a tombstone to chart his descent into Hades and his ascent out of it with Eurydice, is also a relatively simple but highly effective image. It’s in the depiction of the dark fiery landscapes of Hades, the assembled masses of Furies, shades and spectres, the serene beauty of the Elysian fields and the visions of the Blessed Spirits however that the director’s vision most impressively rises to the challenges in the score with some inventive techniques, projections and lighting effects that work hand-in-hand with what the music and the drama are telling us.

The orchestra, dressed in unflattering skin-tight body suits sitting in small individual pits on a stage that is tilted towards the audience, play their part in this too. Their position leaves only a diagonal space for the funeral procession of Eurydice in Act I, which makes it look like Padrissa is simply just trying to just fill the stage and keep it visually interesting, but they also get up and move around, playing at the same time, during Act II’s descent of Orpheus into Hades. It may not be what Gluck had in mind exactly when he set about making music serve a purely dramatic function, but one could argue that the music of Orpheus does indeed have a function in fending off the Furies, and highlighting that element in visual terms is a valid technique. It is at least not just some random concept that distracts from the meaning, but is clearly one that comes from paying close intention to the drama itself, and seeking to find the best way of illustrating it. Much like Gluck did when composing the work 250 years ago, La Fura dels Baus’ production represents the same kind of modernisation of stuffy theatricality and musical academicism that the composer was reacting against, showing that opera is capable of being the most invigorating of theatrical experiences.

Whether Gluck’s score really needs all this spectacle, or whether it isn’t more than capable of being perfectly expressive in purely musical and more traditional dramatic terms, is of course debatable. I’d be less inclined to look favourably on this production if the spectacle detracted from the musical and singing performances, or if it was weak in those areas, but fortunately this is a superb account of the 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s not ideal of course to have the conductor Gordon Nikolić wandering about on the stage, leading as the first violin, and there are some minor lapses in timing when the singers don’t have visual contact with the pit, but for the most part the music, the singing and the drama all come together marvellously to pure dramatic effect to express the full power of this remarkable work. Considering the challenges then, the singers perform admirably. Anita Rachvelishvili carries the burden of the work as Orpheus well, correctly focussing on the delivery of the singing here - which isn’t always easy - and letting the score and the staging carry the dramatic intent and nuance. Maite Alberola is a powerful Eurydice, working well with Rachvelishvili dramatically and musically in their combination of voices. Auxiliadora Toledano has a wonderful brightness of tone that serves well in her role as Cupid and messenger from the Gods.

I’ve been critical of Carlus Padrissa in the past (notably for the misguided concept in the La Fura production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens), but it’s evident here from the scale that this Festival Castell de Peralada production of Orfeo ed Euridice is intended - as it should be - principally for the audience in the theatre. This presents some difficulties for the video director Tiziano Mancini, who is forced to resort to some extreme angle post-production on-stage shots, editing effects and cross-cutting, but by and large, it gets the full impact and the dynamism of the stage production across well on this Blu-ray release. The HD video transfer is superb - colourful and pinpoint clear, with good sound reproduction in PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is all-region playable, with subtitles in Italian, German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

RigolettoGiuseppe Verdi - Rigoletto

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Nello Santi, Gilbert Deflo, Leo Nucci, Piotr Beczala, Elena Moşuc, László Polgár, Katharina Peetz, Kismara Pessati, Rolf Haunstein | Arthaus Musik

Judged on its own merits, this 2006 production of Rigoletto from the Zurich Opera House is a good traditional production, more than competently played and sung, even if it doesn’t have any great qualities to distinguish it from countless other productions. Packaged here however as a budget-priced promotional release, including a full-length opera alongside 45 trailers from the Arthaus Blu-ray catalogue, this is a good value option that serves as an introduction to just how good opera can look and sound in the format, as well as providing samples of other catalogue titles. As one of the most impressive works in the repertoire, Verdi’s Rigoletto is also a fine accessible opera that sits well alongside the previous Arthaus catalogue samplers - La Traviata and Tosca - all good solid productions of works with proven dramatic and musical qualities and plenty of familiar melodies.

Gilbert Deflo’s staging is traditional then but it looks good, keeping things simple but effective in how they relate to the drama. The opening scene, for example, captures a sense of the decadence of the Duke of Mantua’s orgies at his palace, with extravagant period costumes and the hunchbacked Rigoletto appropriately devilish in a bright red jester’s costumes, taunting the Count of Monterone, whose daughter is being seduced by the Duke. There’s a similar sense of working effectively with the mood and situation in the subsequent scenes, in the blue-lit night-time alley where Rigoletto encounters Sparafucile, the assassin-for-hire and the contrasting sense of comfort in home surroundings where Rigoletto can be himself with his daughter Gilda. There’s no cleverness attempted in the balcony abduction of Gilda, nor in the stormy night setting at the inn in Act III, the sets designed to look good and not unduly trouble the performers as they move through the mechanics of the plot.

It’s all nice and tastefully done, with no modern cleverness to frighten the traditionalists, and the same can be said about the singing performances and the playing. It all feels a little too restrained however, lacking dramatic fire and urgency. There’s a pleasant transparent openness to the orchestration under Nello Santi which captures the lyrical beauty of Verdi’s score, but there little of the passion and the urgency that you ought to find in it and in the performances. Piotr Beczala is probably the best here as the Duke, singing well with a distinctive and robust tenor voice, but Elena Moşuc is also fine as Gilda. She’s a little unsteady in Act I’s ‘Gualtier Malde‘ aria and doesn’t always bring a great deal of acting fire to the role, but she comes through strongly where it counts in the Act II duets, in the fabulous Act III quartet and her sacrificial scene. Leo Nucci isn’t the strongest Verdi baritone and lacks the necessary personality to really bring out the conflict of fatherly emotions that lie behind the jester’s mask, but it’s by no means a bad performance, just one that fits in with the overall uninventive tone of the production.

All in all however, if it lacks any real edge and passion, this is nonetheless a solidly performed and dramatically effective production of a terrific opera that will serve - as it is intended here - as a reasonably good introduction to opera on Blu-ray for anyone - perhaps inspired by the Verdi bicentenary - who might be curious about sampling it. It’s looks good and sounds good in High Definition (with a PCM stereo and a DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1 mix), although the live sound recording is a little echoing and the lower-frequency sounds are a little booming. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. This particular edition of Rigoletto also includes 130 minutes worth of trailers from 45 opera, ballet and documentaries available on Blu-ray from Arthaus Musik, which can be very useful in determining the nature of the production and the singing and whether it might appeal to you or not. There are better productions of Rigoletto available elsewhere (and personally, I’d like to see a BD release for the fine 2010 Rigoletto with Plácido Domingo filmed live in the actual locations in Ferrara), but at around £8, you can’t really go wrong with this.

PrigionierGiovanni Battista Pergolesi - Il Prigionier Superbo & La Serva Padrona

Teatro G. B. Pergolesi, Jesi, 2009, 2011 | Corrado Rovaris, Henning Brockhaus, Antonio Lozano, Marina Rodríguez Cusí, Marina De Liso, Ruth Rosique, Marina Comparato, Giacinta Nicotra, Alessandra Marianelli, Carlo Lepore, Jean Méningue | Arthaus Musik

Last year saw the Blu-ray release of Adriano in Siria, the first Pergolesi opera made available through a new initiative by the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini to not only stage new editions of all the existing opera works by the composer - all of them rare, most all-but forgotten - but to have them all released to the public on DVD and, if we’re lucky, Blu-ray. The hopes raised by Adriano in Siria at the possibility of recovering some unheard of masterpieces are met with yet another extraordinary work (or should I say works, since the composer’s Intermezzos are also being recorded and paired with the main works) in the dramma per musica Il Prigionier Superbo (’The Proud Captive’), which is released here alongside the rather more famous, La Serva Padrona. And, happily, it’s another exceptionally well-performed production of a work that truly merits rediscovery and re-evaluation, which also looks and sounds just incredible in the High Definition Blu-ray format.

The originality and the brilliance of Pergolesi’s composition in comparison to other early Baroque works is evident right from the first notes of the overture of Il Prigionier Superbo, hammered out with rhythmic precision under the direction and harpsichord playing of Corrado Rovaris, with a sense of melody and use of instruments that sounds to me quite unlike anything else from this period. The work as a whole reveals similarities to other contemporaneous composers in certain respects, an unrelenting rhythmic force that reminds one of Agostino Steffani, with some furious Vivaldian flurries and a sense of Handelian dignity in the how it carries the affetto emotional core of the drama - to say nothing of the plot being a fairly standard opera seria one of a cruel king keeping lovers apart (most reminiscent in this case of Tamerlano with the father of the reluctant object of the king’s designs being held captive as a prisoner) - but there is at the same time something unique about the musical approach that gives further weight to the idea of Pergolesi being worthy of being regarded alongside those other illustrious composers. If he’s not quite as great as Handel in terms of opera writing (although Pergolesi only lived to the age of 26, so who knows what he may have been capable of in maturity), he’s at least up there with Vivaldi.

Recorded in the intimate and acoustically sparkling surroundings of the Teatro G. B. Pergolesi in Jesi, it’s the quality of the HD sound formats that reveal those telling details in the scoring and in the variety and use of the period instruments that Corrado Rovaris and the Accademia Barocca de i Virtuosi Italiani tease out of a work that would otherwise seem fairly conventional in form, the musical arrangements reflecting the rather involved circumstances and nature of Il Prigionier’s drama. In some respects, yes, it’s a fairly standard Baroque opera situation where the King of the Goths, Metalce has imprisoned Sostrate, the King of Norway, and is threatening to kill his prisoner unless Rosmene, Sostrate’s daughter, agrees to marry him. And, yes, it’s also fairly common for this to have other complications, with Metalce’s own wife Ericlea being somewhat displeased at the idea (to say the least - her emotional arias express her feelings much more forcefully) and Rosmene’s betrothed Viridate also being affected by the ruler’s romantic inclinations, to say nothing of the rumblings of discontent that this gives rise to among the populace who are stirred up further by the prince Micisda.

It’s how it’s all scored musically however - even more so than the usually long arias expressing love, rage and betrayal - that Pergolesi not only expresses the emotional content, but also suggests deeper conflicting sentiments and even connections between the characters and their individual motivations. Il Prigionier Superbo is surprisingly sophisticated in this respect, and there’s much in the music that is worth examining carefully. Set for some reason within a cave, Henning Brockhaus’ staging reflects the complications and sophistication of the arrangements, or at least it attempts to, but I’m not sure it doesn’t just end up needlessly complicating things further. You have to become familiar here not only with who all the principal characters are here - since the elaborate contemporary dresses they wear don’t necessarily reflect their position (although Metalce, the King of the Goths has a punky Goth hairdo and wears black leather and netting) or indeed their gender (only one of the three male roles - Sostrate - is played by a man) - and the complicated changing relations between them, but you have to associate them with the more traditionally attired near life-size marionettes (”artistic alter-egos” apparently according to the booklet) that also occupy the stage, each managed by puppeteers wearing executioner hoods. It makes it all a bit more visually interesting than the usually static nature of opera seria, enlivening the recitative sections in particular, but it’s also a little cluttered and doesn’t really add anything that couldn’t be expressed a little more conventionally by the singers alone.

I say that it’s the music that gives a certain weight and nuance to the arias, but the actual singing is no means neglected by Pergolesi for its power of expression, and, wonderfully, there is a very strong cast here to bring it to life. Although the work is obviously built mainly around individual arias - with one or two duets and trios and an ensemble finale - there is a sense of it being a true ensemble piece in terms of how each of the characters has an almost equally important role to play in directing the tone and structure of the piece as a whole. There’s almost an adherence to the purity of a Gluck or Wagner dramatic ideal already present in Pergolesi’s writing in this respect, with no main starring role and no show-stopping arias, but each performer nonetheless has the opportunity to express their ability and serve the dramatic purpose through wonderfully written individual arias or scenes, and each of them rises to the moment with some fine singing. The success of the production lies not just in the singers or the direction then, but in how they are marvellously brought together, with consideration for the nuances of the music and for the work as a whole.

It was the practice for Neapolitan opera to have a short comic farce for two or three singers played out in the intervals between the acts of the main dramma per musica, and Il Prigionier Superbo is paired here with its original Intermezzo - and the work that would come to eclipse it, at least in terms of historical importance - La Serva Padrona (’The Servant Turned Mistress’). It was this little comic interlude that would become the focus of a heated debate in France known as the ‘Querelle des bouffons‘ (1752) over the superiority of Italian comic opera over the rather stuffy long-winded academicism of the royalty-approved native French form. It’s not difficult to see why a work like La Serva Padrona would be so popular, its subject matter and irreverence showing a pre-revolutionary disrespect not only for the nobility, but also in how it takes opera further away from the myths, gods and legends of opera seria by making common people and their down-to-earth affairs the subject of the work. You can see the influence this might have had on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but La Serva Padrona goes one step further here with its suggestiveness and the outrageous situation where a shameless maidservant not only demands to be treated as an equal with her exasperated master, but also believes that she is worthy of marrying him.

That’s evidently not as shocking an idea now as it might have been back in 1732, and that’s maybe why the director Henning Brockhaus chooses not to rely on the traditional setting of the noble/servant relationship, but sets it instead in a circus which is perhaps more in keeping with the farcical, colourful nature of the work and its historical legacy. Again though, rather like the staging for Il Prigionier Superbo, this doesn’t really add anything to the work - which as an Intermezzo was never intended to be fully staged in any event - but it serves well enough for the comic elements that ensue through the scandalous behaviour and flirting of a circus performer, Serpina, who just won’t know her station and show deference to the commands of the ring master, Uberto.

Aside from its historical importance, La Serva Padrona’s reputation and fame is merited as a comic drama as well as in its musical arrangement. It’s only 50 minutes long and there is quite a bit of recitative within that (Corrado Rovaris’s harpsichord playing making this a little more musical that it otherwise might be), but there is also a great deal of humour in the situation and some lovely lyrical beauty in the arias which have the same effervescent character that is in all Pergolesi’s compositions. It’s sung and played reasonably well here with an appropriately light touch by Alessandra Marianelli and Carlo Lepore, even if it’s not the most witty staging or interpretation of the work. That impression however might be as much to do with seeing the Intermezzo placed in its original context for the first time in centuries alongside a work that now looks to be the superior achievement. With this and the previous DVD release of Adriano in Siria revealing the considerable qualities of Pergolesi’s dramma per musica work now placed alongside his religious compositions (his Stabat Mater and the recently rediscovered oratorio Septem verba a Cristo in Cruce moriente prolata) a re-evaluation to consider Pergolesi as one of the greatest composers of his time looks assured.

As indicated above, credit goes not just to Jesi and the Pergolesi Spontini Foundation for putting on these works, but also to distributors who are putting them out on Blu-ray, since the High Definition format allows these rare opera works to be fully appreciated by a much wider public. The quality of the A/V on this Arthaus release is impressive, all the more so for the detail that the audio mixes in particular bring out of the period instruments and playing of the Accademia Barocca de i Virtuosi Italiani. Unlike the interweaving of Adriano in Siria and Livietta e Tracollo one within the other, the Dramma and the Intermezzo here were filmed on separate occasions (one in 2009, the other in 2011) and you have to watch each piece separately, which is probably preferable for home viewing. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish and Korean.