Shrader, Alek


TempestThomas Adès - The Tempest

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Thomas Adès, Robert Lepage, Simon Keenlyside, Audrey Luna, Alan Oke, Isabel Leonard, Alek Shrader, Toby Spence, William Burden, Kevin Burdette, Iestyn Davies, Christopher Feigum, John Del Carlo | The Met Live in HD, 10th November 2012

Following the furore surrounding his controversial high-tech production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera across their past two seasons, Robert Lepage returns somewhat to his roots as a traditional theatre director for a work that may not be equal in scale and stature to Wagner’s epic work, but is ambitious and challenging nonetheless, to say nothing of a bit of a commercial gamble. Lepage, as was made clear repeatedly in interviews and in programme notes, has directed Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest‘ eight times in his career, so you would expect him to know what works and what doesn’t (something that might not have been so clear in his handling of the Ring). An opera based on ‘The Tempest‘ is however a different prospect altogether, particularly one that has been necessarily condensed and ‘translated into English’, and requires a very different approach to staging. Fortunately, in this production for the Metropolitan Opera, ambitiously broadcast live in HD to cinema theatres across the world, Lepage was considerate of the different requirements that opera and Shakespearean theatre demand. It’s fortunate also that composer Thomas Adès also has a very clear view of the work and brings it across marvellously and musically in The Tempest.

Shakespeare usually has to be considerably reworked when adapted to an opera, meaning that it is necessarily condensed, streamlined and stripped largely of its poetry. Having a kind of musical element of its own, ‘The Tempest‘ however would appear to be a work that is more open to musical adaptation than most other Shakespeare works. Considering its scope and range - taking in comedy, family drama and political intrigue - but most notably having a supernatural and musical element that takes in the spirits of the spheres through Ariel and the baseness of the earthy Caliban, the whole drama taking place on a magical island of “noises sounds and sweet airs” - The Tempest would appear to be both a challenge and a gift for a capable musician. Adès manages to integrate all the rich elements of Shakespeare’s work wonderfully, not just accompanying the various strands of comedy, drama and romance that are rather compressed in the dramatic playing, but making up for the lack of poetry in the libretto by deepening the sentiments through the musical dimension. It’s not always the most melodic of arrangements, but it’s wholly appropriate to the context of the scenes, never discordant and often quite beautiful in its symphonic sweep.

The most difficult element - from the point of view of composition, from the nature of the singing challenges and from the assault on the ears of the listener - is undoubtedly in the tricky characterisation of Ariel. It’s necessary that Ariel appear to be a spirit creature from another, higher dimension, but held under the power of Prospero the pain of his captivity and his desire to escape from earthly bonds should also be an element in the character’s make-up. Adès expresses this in the highest extremes of the soprano range, which is by no means easy on the ear or even entirely intelligible, but it does have an otherworldly quality. That however is just the most extreme example. Elsewhere Adès shows himself capable of strong individual characterisation in each of the roles and personalities, in the comedy of Stefano and Trinculo, in the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, in the dark scheming of Antonio and Sebastian, and in the nobility of the King of Naples in his grief for Ferdinand whom he believes dead. What is marvellous about Adès’ writing for The Tempest is that he not only fully characterises and enriches expression of each individual character - without having recourse to themes or leitmotifs - but that he makes them coexist and work together. In drama that’s difficult enough, but to bring those musical elements together into a coherent piece is much more challenging. That’s however where opera traditionally excels and Adès shows wonderful facility for this necessary ability.

And then, of course, there’s Prospero, with his thoughts of revenge for having being usurped from the throne of Milan by his brother, his enslavement of Ariel and Caliban, his exercise of power over the island and his daughter Miranda, and the relinquishing of all those powers and claims by the end of the work. Not only must the development of Prospero’s character arc encompass all these elements, but his personality must be seen (and heard) to exert an influence over everything that happens - his watchful eye monitoring the activity of the crew that his storm has shipwrecked on the island. If the final realisation and capitulation of his powers still seems a little hurried and arrived at without too much deliberation or conflict, Adès nonetheless manages to characterise this as successfully as it could possibly be. Much inevitably depends on the quality of the singer, and Simon Keenlyside (reprising a role that he helped create in the original 2004 Covent Garden production of the work) is a commanding presence that brings Prospero to life and brings a necessary degree of humanity to the part. It’s an extremely challenging role - particularly in the singing - and Keenlyside did show a little strain in places, but nothing that couldn’t be seen as characterisation of Prospero’s own personal conflicts and dilemmas.

The singing and characterisation was marvellous almost right across the board here, and it went some considerable way towards making a difficult work much more accessible and enjoyable. Audrey Luna was simply astonishing as Ariel, as lithe and agile in her movements as in her voice (Lepage effectively keeping Ariel almost exclusively floating up and above or outside the drama as a mischievous but otherworldly sprite), and the casting of Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader as the beautiful couple of Miranda and Ferdinand - the great hope for the future - could hardly be more perfect. Leonard’s rich and luxurious mezzo-soprano was wonderfully expressive with clear diction and real strength of character, blending wonderfully with Shrader’s handsome tenor voice. Caliban might have been a little marginalised as a character here, never really working his way into the main drama, but Alan Oke made something wonderful of the role in his singing and performance, interacting well with the character pieces of Stefano and Trinculo. Countertenor Iestyn Davies - who made a strong impression in last season’s Rodelinda at the Met - again demonstrated a voice of incredible beauty and clarity. Adès’ writing is so strong that it provides notable roles also for Toby Spence (the original Ferdinand) as Antonio and particularly William Burden who gave wonderful expression to the grief-stricken sentiments of Naples. Only bass-baritone John Del Carlo seemed to struggle with the difficult range of the vocal writing of Gonzalo, but nonetheless sang his Act III solo piece (not quite an aria) very well.

If the singing went some way towards making a potentially difficult work more accessible, Robert Lepage’s stage direction and Jasmine Catudal’s clever set designs played their part in helping it all flow together marvellously. The importance of the direction shouldn’t be underestimated, as it any one element in the machinery of an opera can impact on all the others, and - working perfectly in accord with the music as opposed to a preconceived idea of Shakespearean ought to look like - Lepage’s contribution was a perfect fit for the work. The setting of the first act within a reproduction of the La Scala theatre certainly ties in with the notion of music, theatre, opera and even Prospero’s claim to be Duke of Milan, but more than being notional, it provided a conceptual approach to the theatricality of the staging, with figures slipping beneath the platform of the stage, and dropping into the prompter’s box. The Native Indian tattoos and markings on Prospero beneath his military greatcoat, with feathers woven into his hair, and the shaman-like appearance of the disinherited Caliban hinted at some of the underlying themes in the work relating to colonisation and exploitation of native populations, without needing to take this any further and over-complicate the progression of the drama.

The colour and spectacle of the production was well-served then by the simple magic of theatre props and machinery, the planks of the stage replacing the rather more high-tech planks of the unwieldy (but nonetheless impressive) Machine for Lepage’s Ring cycle - and it was a simplicity that worked alongside the music and with the themes here rather than try an impose a presence on them. As a consequence, with the composer Thomas Adès himself directing the orchestra from the pit, working to the strengths of the singing and to the movements on the stage, this felt like a truly complete opera production, one where all the elements work with and support the other to create that particular magic that comes only from this particular fusion of music and theatre - opera.

RavelMaurice Ravel - L’Heure Espagnole, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Glyndebourne, 2012 | Kazushi Ono, Laurent Pelly, Elliot Madore, François Piolino, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Alek Shrader, Paul Gay, Khatouna Gadelia, Elodie Méchain, Julie Pasturaud, Kathleen Kim, Natalia Brzezinska, Hila Fahima, Kirsty Stokes | Live Internet Streaming - 19 August 2012

It seems only natural to bring together the two short one-act operas by Maurice Ravel, the only two opera works written by the French composer, but they are strangely - perhaps on account of the different challenges presented by the two works - more commonly performed separately or alongside short works by other composers (Zemlimsky’s fairytale Der Zwerg is often seen as a younger audience-friendly companion for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges than the risqué comedy of L’Heure Espagnole). Glyndebourne’s production for the 2012 Festival therefore provides an interesting opportunity to compare two works that aren’t often performed, all the more so since they are both directed for the stage by Laurent Pelly, a director with a good affinity for the works who is able to highlight both their commonalities and their contrasts.

One thing that both operas have in common, even if they use different means of expression, is Ravel’s playful and inventive approach to musical accompaniment. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges might be made up of apparently more conventional set pieces for singing, while L’Heure Espagnole is more declamatory in recitative than sung, but both make use of American influenced jazz and ragtime and other unconventional arrangements and instruments in order to express the variety of situations, movements, gestures and attitudes that take place from moment to moment over the course of both of the works.

Ravel

Set inside a clock shop in Toledo, if the music of L’Heure Espagnole isn’t conventionally rhythmic outside of the famous synchronised ticking of three different clock times at its intro, there is nonetheless a definite metronomic timing to the pace of the opera itself. While the clockmaker is out of the shop for an hour - by deliberate arrangement - checking the town clocks, the presence of a customer, the muleteer, forces his wife Concepción to have her lovers transported pendulum-like back and forth to and from her bedroom inside grandfather clocks by the unwitting but brawny muleteer. The opera has all the timing and rhythm of a typical French farce of slamming doors and hiding of a succession of lovers in wardrobes, and the rhythm of all these comings and goings even reflects the sexual implications that are suggested but not shown.

If that seems a bit of a limp subject for an opera, well imagine how this only reflects the disappointment felt by the clockmaker’s wife at the disappointing performances of the poet Gonzalve and the banker Don Iñigo Gómez who talk a good line but prove to be not really up to the job - unlike the muleteer Ramiro who handles all the exertions demanded of him by Concepción unfailingly. All such considerations are taken into account by Ravel, as lightweight as they might seem, including the suggestive double-entendres that come along with talk of pendulums, and the work is scored accordingly with flirtatious melodies, bursts of bluster, and shrill lines of frustration and disappointment, everything moreover seeming to play to the deliberate pace dictated by the presence of the muleteer. Ravel’s knowing treatment belies the apparent lightness of the work - the nod-and-a-wink ensemble finale offers no moral other than the intention of the work to “stress the rhythm, spice up the lines, with a soupcon of Spain” - but it’s never so clever as to get in the way of the genuine comic potential and satire of the subject.

Ravel

L’Heure Espagnole is not an opera that you would think requires much in the way of sets or props, but set designers Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard pull out all the stops for this Glyndebourne production, fitting out the Toledo clock shop with a variety of timepieces, religious icons and assorted junk. It serves the purpose of being eye-catching as well as perfectly functional for the farcical operations of the plot, but it also serves that perfect sense of situation that you find in Laurent Pelly productions, where you feel not so much in a real-world location as in the world of the music itself. Evidently, in such a work it’s all about the timing and Pelly, along with conductor Kazushi Ono, find that ideal pace of rhythm and direct the five-person cast through the work wonderfully well.

The singers too realise that it’s all there in the music and match the tone of their performances to the sense of comic timing and the intricacies of the score. Stephanie d’Oustrac is alternately flirtatious and ferocious as the man-eater Concepción, commandingly delivering lines that demand obedience and satisfaction. Alex Shrader puts on a fine comic performance as the poetry-spinning Jim Morrison-lookalike Gonzalve, with a lovely tenor voice to match his lyrical musings, while Paul Gay’s bass-baritone seems better suited to the lighter comic delivery of Don Iñigo Gómez here than the heavier dramatic roles such as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust that I’ve seen him sing before. Elliot Madore was excellent in the vital role of Ramiro, as was François Piolino as Torquemada.

With its surreal imagery, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a stage designer’s dream (or perhaps nightmare), but there is a deeper psychological element to author Colette’s original libretto of a naughty schoolboy and its treated to some ravishingly beautiful as well as inventive and playful arrangements by Ravel. In the case of the Glyndebourne production, it’s definitely a dream to have the imagination of Laurent Pelly set loose on a work like this. You get a sense of being somewhere unique with Pelly at the best of times, but it’s even more the case with a work like this. By the laugh raised from the Glyndebourne audience right from the moment the curtain opens on an over-large table and chair that miniaturises Khatouna Gadelia as an ‘enfant’, you can tell that the stage design has already made the right kind of impact. But there are still considerable challenges that have to be met not only to have the child’s mother appear as a grown-up within this set (it’s very well done), but in the rapid changes of scene that are required over the course of the rest of this short work that also relies on the keeping of a regular rhythm.

Having a tantrum at being told he has to do his homework, the victims of the child’s violent and selfish actions come back to haunt him as enchanted objects, each forming a little scene of their own. A dancing Sofa and an Armchair give way to a spinning Clock, than a Teapot and a China Cup, the Flames from the fireplace and then the Shepherd and Shepherdess from the wallpaper that the child has torn in his bad temper, each of them scolding the child for his behaviour, the Princess from the ripped-up storybook making him tearfully aware of the consequences of his actions. The separate pieces slip in and out of the dark like flitting figments of a child’s imagination, each imaginatively assembled, but contributing to create a surreal mood that has more sinister, or perhaps just deeper psychological significance that becomes clear with the final cry of ‘Maman’ at the arises out of the musical arrangements as much as from the psyche of the child.

The challenge of staging the work then is not just in keeping that procession of scenes moving, but in linking them together in a way that they lead to that natural conclusion. That progression is there in the music too, which seems to be made up of a variety of styles, some melodic, others less so, some abstract and playful, such as the song of the Cats, whose mewling vocalises their discontent just as effectively as an words. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges does feel at times like it’s trying to be too clever in this regard - and exercise in mood expressed very precisely and evocatively in musical and visual terms - all the more so considering the light subject of a naughty child being scolded by the objects that he has inflicted his anger upon, and it might indeed come across like that were it not for the ending in Colette’s libretto and the interpretation placed on it by the strong combination of Pelly’s direction and Ono’s approach to the score.

That really comes together then, as it should, in the final scenes where the knife-scored trees and the creatures of the woods - squirrels, dragonflies and frogs - bring us back to nature and, through them, to the essential nature of the child itself. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges isn’t just a clever theatrical show of animated objects and anthromophism - well, it is and it needs to be, but it’s also more than that. The director and conductor have their part to play in making the work more meaningful than that, in making its meaning come to life, but the singers have a large part to play in that as well, and it’s a work that is just as challenging in that regard. Khatouna Gadelia isn’t the strongest of singers to rise above this cacophony, but she doesn’t have to be, and it’s much more important that she gets across that this is the journey of a child’s experience. Kathleen Kim takes on the challenge of the coloratura Fire, Princess and Nightingale roles well, but there’s strong work here also from L’Heure Espagnole’s team of d’Oustrac, Gay, Madore and Piolino. The work of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus was also instrumental in maintaining that continuity within the work as well as in the combination of the two works as a fascinating double-bill.

The Ravel Double Bill was reviewed here from the Live Internet Streaming broadcast via The Guardian.

MedeaGiovanni Simone Mayr - Medea in Corinto

Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Hans Neuenfels, Nadja Michael, Ramón Vargas, Alastair Miles, Alek Shrader, Elena Tsallagova, Kenneth Robertson, Francesco Petrozzi, Laura Nicorescu | Arthaus

The Medea myth has provided great material for opera composers over the years, and it’s not difficult to see why. It has all the ingredients – as it’s played here in this version – for the operatic favourite, the ‘melodramma tragico’. A Greek mythological tale of royal kingdoms at war, marriage alliances and a sorceress who seeks to disrupt it all, it’s a storyline nonetheless that can be accessible to a modern audience, dealing with very real human emotions. There’s a joyous wedding – between Creusa and Jason – but a psycho ex-wife, Medea, who still represents a threat to the union, and a struggle over custody of the kids from her and Jason’s previous marriage, which he wants annulled based on the fact that the witch cast a spell over him. Don’t they all. And would you believe it, the ex turns up at the wedding and causes a bit of a scene. Nightmare.

There are many other facets to this storyline, from the classical mythological view of the relationship between humans and the gods to the character-driven human drama full of emotional turmoil and conflicts between duty and desire. It’s a subject consequently that has been covered many times in opera over the centuries, and is still returned to even by modern composers, with Aribert Reimann’s 2010 Medea viewing Jason’s entering into prestigious marriage to Creusa as an act of social climbing, leaving behind his past for an alliance with Corinth. For the director of this production of Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto, Hans Neuenfels, the story is about people living in fear and acting out of fear. You might not get that quite so much from the original score and libretto, but that at least is the spin put on this production of a rarely performed opera recorded in 2010 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Medea

In Medea in Corinto, the forthcoming union between Creusa and Jason (Giasone in Italian) is a promise to the end of the long wars that have devastated the nation and an end to living in fear. But right from the beginning, Neuenfel’s radical staging puts forward a view that Corinth – perhaps on account of having to deal with the constant threat of violence – has become a corrupt and violent police state, with a cruel and sadistic king, Creon/Creonte. There are threats to the marriage also not only from Medea, who has turned up demanding an audience with Giasone, but – in this version – from Aegeus/Egeo, who is still engaged to Creusa and has brought his own personal army with him to push forward his claim to the throne.

Much of this interpretation of the myth is, it has to be said, suggested by the staging rather more than anything in the score or the libretto. That kind of practice can often be a valid exercise of theatrical interpretation, but it’s perhaps a little more dubious here since it seems to be acting in a way that is contrary to the intent of the piece, the kind of director-imposed regietheater view that is despised by a certain (intransigent) section of the opera-viewing public. In the opening scenes then, while Creon is talking about peace, he and his troops are at the same time engaged in the abuse, torture and execution of ordinary citizens in a sadistic manner that clearly evokes Pasolini’s Salò (thankfully without its worst excesses). In other scenes, either the director doesn’t trust the singing to be strong enough or the score to be deep or interesting enough, and includes silent background figures of Hymen and Amor, who play out mimes in the background, as well as solo musicians to highlight and contrast the actions with the words of the libretto.

Whether it’s true to Mayr’s vision of the Medea myth, this kind of reworking of the material is of course valid in the context of the nature of the opera’s theme of shifting political agendas, where the stated aims of those in power is often contrary to their actions and their actual intent. More than that however, without a little bit of subversion to enliven it, Medea in Corinto might otherwise be a very dull opera indeed. Musically, the studied classicism of Mayr’s arrangements – stately Mozart-like opera seria without the recitative and singing that is heading towards bel canto – is quite beautiful, but can come across as rather bland, certainly when compared to Cherubini’s fiery version, which is an evident model here. Although the qualities of his composition here are debatable, or at least unfashionable as far as modern opera tastes go, the composer now almost forgotten in the history of opera, Mayr could once count both Bellini and Donizetti as pupils, and Medea in Corinto is consequently not without a considerable amount of interest.

Medea

If the Bayerische Staatsoper production then is somewhat radical, it at least tries to make the classical themes relevant to a modern audience, the three-level stage reflecting the three periods through which the audience view this opera – a modern view of Mayr’s period interpretation of classical antiquity. The motivations and intentions can however be a bit dubious in some other respects – Medea first appearing in a witch-doctor costume, Aegeus bizarrely killing his own men in the second act – but it certainly holds the attention better than a more straightforward traditional production might. The production however also benefits here from some fine singing, Nadja Michael in particular delivering a fabulous rich deep almost mezzo performance as Medea – here as elsewhere a real showpiece role – but the singing all round is of a very high quality. A slimmed-down Ramón Vargas is notable as Giasone, but the role requires a deeper near-baritone range in some parts that the Mexican tenor can’t reach with sufficient force. Unfashionable it may be, but if you are looking to study the often fascinating intricacies and colour of the score, it’s superbly delivered by the Bayerisches Staatsorcheter under Ivor Bolton.

Enjoyment of this rare opera is assured however by the High Definition quality of the Arthaus Blu-ray release. The image quality is flawless, the filming making use of frequent close-ups, but also allowing the (sometimes distracting) background drama to be followed. The audio tracks are LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.0, both of which are simply outstanding with remarkable clarity and bass presence, and only a little reverb of stage ambience on occasion from the microphone placements. Extra features include a 30-minute Making of – which is made up entirely of interviews with the cast and production team – and a very informative 16-minute Interview with the president of the Simone Mayr institute.