Ollé, Àlex


MacabreGyörgy Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2011 | Michael Boder, Àlex Ollé, Valentina Carrasco, Werner van Mechelen, Chris Merritt, Frode Olsen, Ning Liang, Barbara Hannigan, Brian Asawa, Inès Moraleda, Ana Puche, Francisco Vas, Simon Butteriss | Arthaus Musik

Although it may be one of the most popular works of contemporary opera, you aren’t going to see too many productions of György Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre due to its demanding nature and its limited appeal to a rather specialised opera audience. So when the Liceu in Barcelona (with La Monnaie in Brussels and the ENO in London) decide to put on a rare production of the work and go as far as to make a world premiere video recording of it, you can be thankful that the challenge of finding an appropriate look for the all-important visual representation of this work has been given to La Fura dels Baus, the experimental Catalan production team perhaps most in tune with such an unusual work and capable of relating to its status as an “anti-anti-opera”, which is not quite the same thing, as you might imagine, as just an opera.

Le Grand Macabre most certainly isn’t “just” an opera, but it is one that fully exploits the full range of dramatic, musical and singing opportunities for expression that the medium is capable of. Often dissonant and cacophonic, it’s not however unmusical and indeed is made up of quite expressive musical passages and “quotations” that draw from a wide range of classical influences that demand a certain musical virtuosity, creating a complex soundscape of musical language and sonic textures. The singing in particular is extremely demanding, full of flourishes and vocal gymnastics in near-impossible tessitura. The difference between Le Grand Macabre and this kind of musical expression in other Ligeti compositions lies however in the visual and dramatic nature of opera, which is equally if not even more important for this particular work, and in that respect this extraordinary production, spectacularly imagined and directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus with Valentina Carrasco, enables the viewer to experience the work in its fullest expression.

Based on the play ‘La balade du Grand Macabre‘ by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, quite what the opera is an expression of however can be rather difficult to determine from the playful wordplay, gross vulgarity and nonsense dialogue that makes up most of its libretto. Like the musical accompaniment however, the tone of the words and the highly expressive delivery of them all serve to add to the sonic picture of its depiction of the imaginary Breughelland, with all the grotesque characterisation and the end-of-times connotations for our own reality that the name suggests. In the midst of all the absurd, lascivious, perverse and violent activity of the characters on the stage however, the main narrative thread is clear enough when Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, arrives in Breughelland and announces to Piet the Pot that the end of the world is nigh. The moral, when this prediction is proved to be false, is made clear at the end and delivered in traditional operatic fashion - face fear and it will pass, enjoy life without worrying about death or putting your faith in those who would claim to know better acting as guides and leaders.

All men on earth must perish” - even Piet the Pot knows that, “…but no-one knows the hour“, Nekrotzar, tells him. Àlex Ollé appropriately seems to choose to set the production of the Liceu’s Le Grand Macabre indeed during the few seconds preceding the imminent death of an overweight woman - seen in a short video introduction - who has enjoyed the excesses of a Big Mac-abre junk-food feast and is lunging for that last pizza slice when she suffers a heart attack. A huge model of this woman in her death throes dominates the stage, her face contorted in agony, those final moments and the excess that has clearly been part of her life, drawn out and encapsulated within the surreal and nightmarish situation depicted by Ligeti through the operatic medium. The huge splayed naked body revolves 360-degrees between the four scenes of the two acts and is clambered over and dissected in a disturbing fashion, with a wiggling tongue, detachable nipples and other moveable parts and orifices that the characters delve into and appear from. Costumes too are cleverly designed to suggest body parts, organs and musculature. Technically, with the impressive use of projections, it’s a theatrical tour-de-force by La Fura dels Baus, but more than just spectacle, it’s a brilliant interpretation that adds further levels of resonance and involvement to a work already quite rich in symbolism and suggestion.

I don’t think this work could be performed in any other way than with complete abandonment of any sense of propriety or dignity - and perhaps even comprehension - but it does demand extraordinary discipline on the part of the singers and commitment to the unusual methods of expression that Ligeti resorts to. The English diction isn’t always perfect here with some of the Spanish members of the cast, but it’s hardly the most important consideration. That’s not a problem for Barbara Hannigan, but her challenges lie elsewhere in the vocal exertions that are demanded from her in the roles of Venus and Gepopo, the Chief of Secret Police. She not only handles these with astonishing facility, but also with verve and character, as difficult as the roles must be to play. Similar commitment and flights up and down the vocal range are called for from Chris Merritt as Piet the Pot and Frode Olsen as the Astronomer Astradamors, but really, there isn’t anyone in this cast who doesn’t impress on a number of levels in how they rise to the challenges presented by this work.

Le Grand Macabre is still a rather demanding work that can be loud, vulgar and disorienting in its absurdity and nonsense, not seeming to have anything particularly enlightening to reveal for all the effort that is required to view and listen to it, but this is all undoubtedly an essential part of what the work is about. As an anti-anti-opera, it does seem to work both within the framework and as a reaction to the original anti-opera inclinations of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, exploring similar field of the baseness of human impulses that can be found in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny (also impressively produced by La Fura dels Baus recently at the Liceu and also available on DVD and BD), not in any elevated or theatrical manner, but in a way that revels in and supports the basic (or base) intents that lie at its heart. This production and its performance at the Liceu in Barcelona can hardly be faulted for the imaginativeness of its vision, the boldness of its interpretation and the technical brilliance of its presentation.

Undoubtedly a production that it would be better to experience live in the opera house, Le Grand Macabre nonetheless comes across very well on the small screen. It’s very well filmed to focus on the details of the performance, while keeping you in mind of the larger picture that, in any case, would be hard to ignore. The quality of the High Definition Blu-ray transfer is excellent, the 2-hour work fitting comfortably onto a single-layer BD25 disc, the image quality near-flawless, handling the darkness of the stage lighting well. The audio tracks are a vital aspect of the whole experience and they come across well in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The BD also includes a good in-depth conference-style Making Of feature that has all the key players in the stage production discussing the development of the ideas, influences and technical considerations behind the concept, and an interview with Michael Boder on the musical side of things. The BD is all-region, full-HD, with subtitles in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Catalan.

MahagonnyKurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Teatro Real Madrid, 2010 | Pablo Heras Casado, Alex Ollé, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Jane Henschel, Donald Kaasch, Willard White, Measha Brueggergosman, Michael König, John Easterlin, Otto Katzameier, Steven Humes | Bel Air Media

When it was originally composed in 1930, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht intended Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) to be as much a satire of opera and a reaction to the state of the Weimar Republic. Now, when taken alongside such like-minded work contemporary works by Hindemith and Berg, it just sounds like great opera – but it still functions as a scathing satire on all the subjects it deals with, particularly the nature of capitalism, on which it still has very relevant points to make.

You can call it music theatre if you like, but Weill’s score for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is considerably more sophisticated than that, working in a variety of styles to create a deliberate alienating effect, drawing on specific references, creating dissonance and unsettling arrangements, using unexpected plot points to keep the listener engaged and keep them from complacently and unquestioningly accepting operatic conventions. It does all that and it has great tunes as well, the most notable of which, Alabama Song, sung by down-and-out prostitute Jenny Smith (”Oh, show me the way to the next Whisky Bar“), is almost like the flip-side of the Libiamo sung in celebration at the party of La Traviata’s courtesan, Violetta Valéry.

If you need any convincing that Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny can aspire to great opera however, this 2010 production at the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by La Fura dels Baus might be just the ticket. I’m not the biggest fan of La Fura – I’ve seen several of their productions fall well short of the mark – but when they get it right and are working with the right kind of material, they can succeed in a spectacular fashion. Their unconventional approach to opera staging, which could even be considered anti-theatre, certainly has a Brechtian influence, so it’s no surprise to find that that the Catalan group are absolutely perfect for this particular work.

Mahagonny

Directed by Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa, there are no projections this time – other than the titles of each of the sections (in Spanish here, not translated on the screen) – no elaborate designs, no wire acrobatics or off-the-wall concepts. Everything is tailored directly towards the expression of the ideas in the work, finding the most imaginative and impactful way of putting it across, without relying on stagy conventions. The decision then to have the the trio of Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses arrive as if dumped from a refuge collection and set about founding the City of Mahagonny on the edge of a rubbish dump is perfect for the nature of their intentions to make as much money as cheaply as possible by appealing to the lowest nature of their visitors, offering them booze, girls and boxing.

It’s important to get the basic concept in place, but the directors find the right tone for each scene, with many wonderful little touches – from Jimmy’s imagined return sea journey to Alaska with the raised legs of the hookers forming the waves, to his trial taking place in a circus ring – all of which give an additional satirical edge that not works along with the material, showing an understanding of its nature, its playfulness and its bitterness, without feeling the need to over-emphasise or add on any additional commentary. The opera is satirical of all these subjects – from the expectations of the individual to the concept of justice – all within the umbrella of the capitalist system, and it doesn’t need any specific or easy-target anti-American agenda attached for the concept to stand on its own and be applied by the listener to their own experience of the system.

Mahagonny

I’m not sure why it was chosen to use the US revision of the original opera, singing it in English and changing Jimmy Mahoney to Jimmy MacIntyre, particularly as there are a few native German speakers in the cast here and others, like Henschel, have a strong footing in German opera. If it’s another attempt at alienation effect to keep the audience guessing, then it works here. Most importantly however, the casting and singing is superb. Jane Henschel is superbly capable in the whole range from singspiel-like dialogue to more conventional opera singing, as well as being a fine actress in the role of Widow Begbick. Jenny Smith is an important piece of casting, and Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman makes an incredible impression, oozing sensuality and absolutely electric in her scenes with Michael König’s fine Jimmy MacIntyre. The balance right across the board in the other roles seems perfect, consistently hitting the right note, as do the Chorus of the Teatro Real, who give their all in the scantiest of costumes and in the most… well… indelicate situations. One can’t fault the commitment either of the Madrid orchestra under Pablo Heras Casado.

I don’t know if it’s to do with the encoding, but Bel Air releases often look a little juddery in motion on both my Blu-ray set-ups (most evident here when the Spanish captions move across the screen), and can lack definition in the darker scenes. I haven’t heard anyone else mention any issues with previous releases, so perhaps it’s specific to one’s set-up. Generally however, the image is fine, and even if movements aren’t smooth, I didn’t find it too distracting. The audio tracks, in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, are both fine, but there’s not much to choose between them. I found the PCM worked better using headphones to keep the sound focussed, and it’s very impressive this way. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a synopsis in the booklet.

TristanRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Opéra de Lyon | Kirill Petrenko, Àlex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus, Clifton Forbis, Ann Petersen, Christof Fischesser, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Nabil Suliman, Stella Grigorian, Viktor Antipenko, Laurent Labardesque | Lyon, France - June 22, 2011

As someone who is not entirely convinced by the opera productions of the experimental Catalan theatrical group La Fura dels Baus – which in my experience tend to strive towards spectacle and concept (usually a rather ridiculous one) over fittingness, let alone fidelity, to an opera – I was a little concerned that Àlex Ollé’s talk of taking a symbolic view of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for this new production at the Opéra de Lyon since “a descriptive or figurative staging would make no sense”.  It’s true that the themes of the opera are internalised and conceptual in nature, but the idea of two of opera’s most famous lovers hanging suspended from wires -as is often the case in La Fura dels Baus productions - floating above the mundane reality below, was a worrying prospect. Surprisingly then, particularly since the rather minimalist stage directions for Tristan und Isolde allows for some extreme interpretations, it turned out this particular production is surprisingly restrained and almost traditional, saving its spectacle effectively for those moments where the romantic nature of the opera really merits those special effects.

Tristan und Isolde is indeed rather straightforward and single minded in the purity of its romantic notion of love, but that doesn’t mean that the opera is in any way rational or easily defined. It’s littered with a richness of symbolism, conceptual imagery and contradictory elements relating to day and night, light and dark, to questions of time and distance, to life and death, all of which simultaneously define the nature of love while at the same time acknowledging its contradictions, its indefinability and its irrationality. Any attempt to take in all these allusions would result in a cluttered concept (it’s to Wagner’s credit and genius that this isn’t the case with the opera itself, propelled as it is by its own inner musical force and coherence), and, in my experience, it wouldn’t be beyond La Fura to attempt to do just that, and add a few of their own half-baked concepts as well. Instead, and to my pleasant surprise, Àlex Ollé focusses, as you must, on one aspect of the opera and builts the concept around that. In this case, it is the romantic tug and persuasion of the moon, whose gravitational force affects not only the tides, but is believed by many to affect human moods, behaviours and irrationality in people, as well as hold an irresistible romantic presence.

Tristan

Act 1 then makes use of a basic platform to represent the deck of the ship which is transporting Isolde from Ireland to Cornwall where she will be married to King Marke, with computer generated projections of the rolling sea on a screen behind. The platform revolves 360°, very slowly in one turn over the course of the First Act, while the moon appears as a blurred but bright sphere that solidifies in clarity as the nature of the relationship between Isolde and Tristan itself becomes clear. Superbly realised by the mood, the staging and the lighting, the emotional turmoil that each of them go through up to the moment of this realisation is reflected also in the motion of the waves, stormy at first, crashing against each other, until the moment of utter calm and abandonment arrives when they give themselves up to an expected death that does not come, but instead frees them of their inhibitions.

The moon becomes a concave sphere in Act 2 that stands for King Marke’s Cornwall, within which Tristan and Isolde’s love is trapped, as if within its own bubble. The contrast of darkness and light – the omnipresent imagery within the libretto for the Second Act – is reflected in the lighting and shifting shadows of trees that weave complex forms, building up to the moment when the burning desire within the protagonists explodes, and is expressed through a magnificent ring of fire effect. The illusory nature of their protective bubble collapses again through some fine projections that show the spherical edifice crumbling around them, as King Marke and his men discover the infidelity of his wife and his most trusted companion. For Act 3, this sphere is reversed, becomes convex, suggesting Tristan’s expulsion from the protective curve of Isolde and King Marke’s land, the desolation of the moon projected upon it evoking Tristan’s mood and state of mind, up until the moment that an extraordinarily effective glow of golden light is beamed through it at the consummation of their life in the death at the ‘Liebestod‘.

The singing was wonderful, particularly from Ann Petersen, who has all the necessary strength in her voice, but also a wonderful creamy tone that is deeply attractive, particularly for this role. (She will be singing Isolde for the Welsh National Opera at Cardiff in 2012, so look out for that). Clifton Forbis also has an attractive tone to his tenor voice, and although not always up to the level of Petersen, has all the necessary conviction where it counts. The two worked well together in this respect, and Forbis certainly made Tristan’s torment in Act 3 real and fully felt. The overall strength of the opera was rounded out by solid performances from Stella Grigorian’s Bragäne, Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Kurwenal and Christof Fischesser’s King Marke, the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon conducted well by Kirill Petrenko. Although solid and impressive on all fronts, in the performance and in the appropriate tone found throughout in the staging, ultimately for me however the production didn’t quite have the full emotional force or find that spark of magic that lies at the heart of Tristan und Isolde. A wonderful production nonetheless, visually imaginative and deeply involving in a way that certainly held the audience in its thrall.