Fischer, Ádám


Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

La Monnaie, Brussels, 2012 | Ádám Fischer, Andrea Breth, Simona Šaturová, Salomé Haller, Carole Wilson, Sébastien Guèze, Scott Hendricks, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Till Fechner, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Guillaume Antoine, Gijs Van der Linden, Matthew Zadow, Kris Belligh | Internet streaming, 15 December 2012

Let’s not beat around the bush here, because this controversial new production of Verdi’s La Traviata directed by Andrea Breth for La Monnaie in Brussels certainly makes its point directly and in no uncertain terms right from the outset. Prostitution is a nasty business. Courtesans, like Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, may once have had a glamorous allure, but the reality was and is quite different. The ultimate fate of any woman in those circumstances as the years and the lifestyle takes its toll, as they struggle to maintain appearances and simply survive, dependent upon the goodwill of others, is not a pretty one. Giuseppe Verdi acknowledged this as far as censorship allowed in La Traviata - and even then it would not allow the work to be depicted as Verdi wanted as a contemporary drama - showing a ‘fallen woman’ unable to find love and happiness. Director Andrea Breth goes much further.

Violetta’s origins are shown right from the outset of the La Monnaie production during the Overture, the young woman being brought in from some East European country via a human trafficking operation and sold off to a prostitution ring. The opening party scene of the work then retains the forced glamour depicted by Verdi’s setting of the scene, while at the same time showing that the underlying reality is not so pleasant. Semi-naked women pose glamorously from display windows behind a party that seems to be taking place in a high-class brothel, one that does a line in S&M, of which Violetta appears to be the Madame. Amid the drunken revelry, one of the guests, wearing a plaster cast, his trousers half on and half around his ankles, vomits over one of the semi-conscious female guests. At the end of the evening as Violetta ponders the shy advances of a new young admirer Alfredo (’Ah! Fors’è lui…‘), one straggling reveller, in a state where she is unable to find her stockings and shoes, snorts some cocaine in the background.

That’s not a typical way to depict Act I of La Traviata, but the brilliance of this production - a controversial one certainly that has stirred up a great deal of debate and which eventually forced La Monnaie to issue a statement with backing from other artists on the freedom of artistic expression - is that it remains musically and thematically faithful to the strengths of Verdi’s writing and the subject, making it contemporary and realistic in a way that the composer himself was prevented from doing by the censor. It’s not out to shock through a controversial treatment as much as to shock the audience into understanding and relating to the reality that Verdi was trying to get across. It’s a measure of the success of the treatment that this version of La Traviata - a work that unfortunately has all too often become a glamorous star turn for a big-name diva - is one of the most powerful of recent years, revitalised and sparkling, modern and relevant. It’s what La Traviata is all about.

The modern revisionist elements and the controversial sexual content of the production elsewhere similarly manage to strike a near-perfect balance between modern relevance and fidelity to the original intentions of the work. Scene 2 of Act I does little more than show an Alfredo so transported with love that he paints some graffiti love messages on a residence that currently has the workmen in. It’s the depiction of the revelry however in the pivotal Act II confrontation that is the most troubling part of the work - and it should indeed be a troubling scene. Keeping to the theme of the unpleasant reality of prostitution and the exploitation of women, Breth uses strong imagery and behaviour that is reminiscent of Pasolini’s film ‘Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom‘. (No, that’s not chocolate that one of the older guests is smearing over a young under-aged schoolgirl’s face). As a very difficult, near-unwatchable work about the dehumanisation and commoditisation of the human body, the corruption of wealth and power (money speaking just as much in Verdi’s day as in the present), Salò is a relevant work to reference. It isn’t taken to quite the same lengths in La Traviata here, but there’s enough to make a point in the strongest way possible, and enough evidently, to cause quite a stir in the world of opera.

As troubling as all this is intended to be, the ultimate degradation of Violetta and women in her position should be just as forceful in the final Act, as Breth’s vision proves to be quite as perceptive and capable of conveying the full intent and force of the underlying meaning with all the necessary impact. Violetta’s maidservant Annina is forced to pay the doctor through services provided on her knees, out on streets in a dark alley where her mistress is dying, wrapped up in plastic sheeting, as a heroin user shoots up further down from her. It’s as powerful an expression as you can imagine of the abject misery that is more than likely to be the fate of any aging prostitute who is seriously ill and has bills to pay. It may not be the romantic death of a tragic heroine through consumption in the bedroom of an elegant Parisian mansion that is more commonly shown in productions of this opera, but this version gets more directly to the heart of what Verdi was writing about and it is actually relatively mild to the harsh daily reality of the violence, abuse and exploitation that takes place on the streets in real life.

While the dramatic and thematic concept has been carefully thought through and put across with fidelity and a sense of purpose, that’s only half the battle with putting on La Traviata. The singing and performance of the work itself needs to be just as considerate of the work, and fortunately the casting and the conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra by Ádám Fischer were perfectly in accord with the staging. Early on, I liked how rhythm and tempo employed during Violetta’s ‘Sempre libera‘ matched Violetta’s tentative exhilaration at the discovery of love, tempered at the same time by the first signs of her illness. The judgement of each of the subsequent scenes however is just as sensitive and precise to the characterisation and the content, while also finding a way to make those diverse scenes and emotions flow naturally one after another. A most impressive account.

The singing is more of a mixed bag, but by and large it worked hand-in-hand with the drama. I always find it difficult to adjust to a new singer in one of the most famous roles in opera, but if Simona Šaturová didn’t have the force or technique of some of the more notable sopranos who have sung the role, she nonetheless made a deep impression and gained greater credibility and strength as the work progressed. All the roles were well-cast from the point of view of age and looks - that doesn’t often happen - and if Sébastien Guèze wasn’t the strongest singer who has ever sung the role, he reflected Alfredo’s youth and inexperience well, and with some degree of distinction and personality. Scott Hendricks wouldn’t be my ideal Giorgio Germont, but he also fits in well with the production. He can be a bit wayward and over-enthusiastic, but here he was relatively restrained, if still a little mannered and imprecise. In his ‘pura siccome un angelo‘, there’s a neat twist where the father uses its seductive appeal as a come-on to Violetta - another instance of the abuse of power - and Hendrix makes it work. It’s just one example of how the relationships have been thought through here - the father/son relationship between Hendrix and Guèze also works well - creating a convincing and realistic dynamic, showing a fine and considered understanding of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

There’s a reason why La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world. Verdi’s magnificent writing is of course the primary reason.  The composer’s later works are more sophisticated with greater dramatic expression and through-composition, but La Traviata is unmatched for the brilliance of melody and situational invention that brings its drama to life. But it’s also notable for the universality of the uncompromising sentiments the work and the music expresses on human relationships, on love, betrayal and mortality that still have the ability to reach us and touch us through their relevance. La Traviata was designed to show off Verdi’s brilliance as a composer - and it does - but it was also intended to create a scandal in its frank depiction of the attitudes of a corrupt and hypocritical society towards “fallen women” who strayed outside the boundaries of what was deemed respectable. This scandalous production at La Monnaie is a thrilling reminder of just how vital a work La Traviata remains.

The live broadcast of the 15th December performance of La Traviata is still available for free viewing on the ARTE Live Web site, without subtitles. La Monnaie’s recording of the production, taken from performances of 15th and 18th December, is also available for free viewing from their own website, with French and Dutch subtitles only.

RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

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

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

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

Rusalka

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

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

Rusalka

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

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

Rusalka

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

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

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

ClariJacques Fromental Halévy - Clari

Opernhaus Zürich, 2008 | Adam Fischer, Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier, Cecilia Bartoli, John Osborn, Eva Liebau, Oliver Widmar, Giuseppe Scorsin, Carlos Chausson, Stefania Kaluza | Decca

It’s very rare to see any work by Jacques Fromental Halévy performed nowadays, and he may indeed be an unjustly neglected composer, but discovered by Cecilia Bartoli while exploring the repetoire of the famous Rossinian mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, this early work, Clari from 1828, composed to allow her to demonstrate her extraordinary range, is certainly one of his most obscure and forgotten works by the composer. Respectfully played with period instruments by the Zurich La Scintilla orchestra under the baton of Adam Fischer, treated to a fresh production from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier to give some character to a dreary and uneventful plot, and with Bartoli demonstrating her wonderful vocal range, Zurich Opera certainly give the opera a fair shot, but whether Clari is an opera that merits such treatment is debatable, and the overall feeling is that it really wouldn’t have been such a great loss if it had remained buried.

Composed for an Italian libretto, before Halévy’s more famous, or at least more celebrated, French opéra comique work, Clari is an opera semiseria, which doesn’t mean that it’s only half-serious and plays its silly plot out with tongue firmly in cheek (although the production half-heartedly and perhaps out of necessity plays it that way). Rather, it’s a kind of mixture of opera seria (long after it had gone out of fashion even in 1828) and bel canto, full of long arias pondering internalised emotions expressed with extravagant coloratura in the da capo singing. This is fine if an opera has an involving plot and strong characterisation that can bear the weight of all the deep expressions of guilt and shame that are agonised over in Clari, but the story is not so much ludicrous as flat and pedestrian.

It involves a young peasant girl, Clari, who leaves her family in the provinces and runs off with a rich Duke in search of wealth, a better life and, most importantly love – or at least at the bare minimum, marriage. The Duke however hasn’t fulfilled his promises in this respect – to the great shame of her parents – and when he starts referring to Clari as his cousin, the young woman is further dismayed with the situation she is in. When the Duke’s servants Germano, Bettina and Luca put on a play for Clari before assembled guests at a birthday party in her honour, the story so resembles her own situation that Clari – believing it to be real (!) – faints out of shame. That’s about as far as any plot goes in Act I. Act II has each of the characters agonise over the situation until Clari eventually recovers from the shock and decides she has to run away, returning to her home in the country to try to gain the forgiveness of her parents in Act III.

As far as dramatic and emotional content, that’s about as far as it goes. One doesn’t necessarily expect a complex or credible plot in a bel canto opera, but really, the libretto, by Pietro Giannone, is pretty banal and sparseness of the plot and hollowness of the emotional charge scarcely merits all the moaning and wailing about wanting to die of the shame and guilt of it all that is expressed at length in the arias. None of it feels sincere, although it not for want of trying on the part of the performers or the stage direction team. Leiser and Caurier go for a non-specific relatively modern time period, glitzy and colourful with big props in the style of Richard Jones, adding humorous and self-knowing little touches, but none of it is enough to breathe any life into this corpse of an opera, and their efforts consequently feel leaden and fall flat.

The Zurich audience don’t seem to be sure what to make of it either, laughing politely at one or two places, but are clearly bewildered about what to make of the character of Clari herself or the amount of effort and technique Cecilia Bartoli expends on the empty phrases of the libretto, all in the vain attempt to make her character come to life. It’s only in Act III that they belatedly decide to applaud the efforts of John Osborn’s Duke and give an enthusiastic and deserved ovation for Bartoli – but one feels they might have mistaken her garguantuan efforts as signaling the end of the opera a little before its time. Eva Liebau as Bettina and Carlos Chausson as Clari’s father also make notable contributions, but it’s hard to take their roles seriously or indeed “semiseriously”.

Released on DVD only as a 2-disc set, the colourful qualities of the staging suffer a little from the lack of a High Definition presentation. The image looks reasonably well in the brighter sequences, but it’s a little murkier in the scenes at the end of Act II and start of Act III. Perhaps being spoilt by DTS HD-Master Audio mixes, the quality of the audio lacks precision of tone, particularly on the lower frequencies, but it’s actually not bad on either mix, although I think the LPCM Stereo wins out over the DTS 5.1 Surround. There are no extra features on the DVD set, but there is a worthwhile booklet enclosed which includes an interview with Bartoli, an introduction to the work, productions notes, a synopsis and even a photo-novella of the opera.