Massis, Annick


ZauberfloteWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2013 | Simon Rattle, Robert Carsen, Pavol Breslik, Ana Durlovski, Dimitry Ivashchenko, Kate Royal, Michael Nagy, Chen Reiss, Annick Massis, Magdalena Kožená, Nathalie Stutzmann, José van Dam, James Elliott | ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming, 1st April 2013

There’s not much magic in Robert Carsen’s new production of The Magic Flute for the 2013 Easter Festival at the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. There’s a flute at least, and you can’t always take that for granted - but Carsen very purposely brings this production very much down to earth. There are no big entrances and no grand effects, the settings are all related to nature and death. A rather grave Die Zauberflöte, you could say, which doesn’t provide much in the way of spectacle. Mozart’s music however can sustain that, but that might be more to do with the fine account of the score given by Berlin Philharmonic under the direction of Simon Rattle and some strong singing performances than with anything that Robert Carsen brings to the production.

Carsen at least applies a viable and consistent concept to the work, cutting through all the Masonic rituals and ceremonies to the heart of the conflict that lies between the opposing forces of the Queen of the Night and Sarastro. It does a little more than that and actually attempts to update some of the work’s less-enlightened views on women to give a more equality-minded view of the differences between the two sexes in regard to the rational and the emotional capacity of all human beings. One is not necessarily superior to the other here. Despite some of the inconsistencies with this position within the work itself - which only enhances its ambiguity and richness - it’s the joining of those two forces through the union of Tamino and Pamina to create a better world that undoubtedly forms the heart and the meaning of the work.

Carsen merely emphasises this union by showing it not so much in contrast to the entrenched positions of Sarastro and the Queen of the Night, as much it being the beginning of a new age that has the blessing of these once mortal enemies. In Carsen’s staging, both Sarastro and Königen present a united force, putting aside differences for the sake of a better future, coming together even in scenes where they don’t usually appear together to offer silent support to the other side, even if their stated position indicates the opposite. You’ll find women (and even Königen’s Three Ladies) then alongside the men in Sarastro’s temple and - just to get the point across - even the Three Boys are transformed into Three Girls wearing dresses to call Pamina back from her despair and attempted suicide.

This all requires a bit of an adjustment from viewer used to the traditional certainties within Die Zauberflöte, of which there are few enough as it is. In place of the old-fashioned obscure Masonic imagery and rituals - and indeed the traditional spectacular set-pieces - Carsen’s staging takes the opera back to a more natural setting, with the emphasis on Life and Death. There are no big spectacular effects scenes here, the location consisting for the most part of a cemetery of open graves set against the backdrop of a projection of woods. The opening scene then merely sees Tamino scramble out of a grave to be rescued from what isn’t anything more than a big snake by the Three Ladies in dressed in mourning attire. Papagena makes her first appearance during Papageno’s trial of silence not as an old hag, but as a skull-faced corpse climbing out of a coffin. Even the orchestra, surrounded by a platform, seem to be contained within one big pit.

There’s a constant and deliberate attempt to cut back on the flash and wonder. There’s no grand entrance even for Königen der Nacht, who simply walks onto the stage with a minimum of ceremony. If she still presents a formidable figure, that’s conveyed in the singing delivery of that famous opening aria, and that alone is more than enough. In keeping with the sober funereal imagery, Monostatos is a gravedigger here, the Three Boys are just three boys (when they aren’t Three Boys dressed as girls) with no magic flying balloons to transport them. The Speaker and Sarastro are also dressed in formal mourning coats, wearing blindfolds. In the one place where you would at least expect to see magic effects, the playing of the magic flute, we merely see shadows of birds flitting around in the trees in the background.

Carsen’s staging then does take away a lot of the wonder and the humour that contributes to the richness of Die Zauberflöte without really bringing anything new out of it. What holds the viewer however, and what the staging only emphasises, is the richness of the music itself and the quality of the performances. Die Zauberflöte wouldn’t be part of the normal repertoire of the Berlin Philharmonic, but perhaps because of that they seem to relish in the beauty of the work’s symphonic qualities. You’d hardly think Die Zauberflöte was just a Singspiel, but of course the work is much more than that and Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker give a warm account of the work that contrasts with Carsen’s direction but at the same time enhances it. It may give every visual appearance of being a dark, morbid version of the opera, but there’s more warmth and forgiveness here that you usually find in what can sometimes be a cold and rigidly performed work. It’s hugs all around at the end here with even Monostatos being welcomed back into the big love-in finale.

The casting and the singing also make this an absolutely gorgeous Die Zauberflöte to listen to. With his pure lyrical tenor and fresh, sincere delivery, Pavol Breslik is a natural for Tamino. Alongside Kate Royal’s Pamina, a more idealistically perfect couple would be hard to find. Both look good, can act well and have simply beautiful singing voices. Royal’s ‘Ach ich Fühls‘ in particular is just exquisitely heartbreaking. And there are no disappointments elsewhere in the cast. Ana Durlovski stepped in at short notice to replace an unwell Simone Kermes as Königen der Nacht and did so very impressively. Dimitry Ivashchenko’s Sarastro sounded fine, but had a tendency to work to his own timing rather than follow the conductor. The toning down of the comedy and strong principals meant that there was not danger of Michael Nagy’s Papageno stealing the show here, but rather it was a fine performance that was still funny but fitted in well with the overall production.

This production of Die Zauberflöte at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus was recorded on the 1st April 2013 and broadcast via internet streaming throught the ARTE Live Web site, where it is currently still available for viewing until July. Subtitles on the broadcast are in German only.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2012 | Luciano Acocella, Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, Annick Massis, Xavier Cortes, Giovanni Meoni, Alexise Yerna, Cristiano Cremonini, Julie Bailly, Roger Joakim, Ziyan Atfeh, Patrick Delcour, Marcel Arpots, Iouri Lel, Marc Tissons | Live Internet Streaming, 26 April 2012

It’s almost becoming de rigueur for nudity and topless women to feature in opera productions these days, but up until Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera’s production for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, I’d never seen it done before in La Traviata. A popular repertory work, Verdi’s La Traviata is usually done in a straightforward traditional period manner, but Verdi - himself subject to gossip and rumour about his relationship with Giuseppina Strepponi at the time of writing the work - wanted the opera to challenge contemporary attitudes towards unconventional relationships, and the frank directness of the La Traviata was indeed quite shocking for its time. Now all we have to “shock” an audience is a flash of a topless woman. I don’t want to be seen to be making excuses for the practice, but you can see how it could be valid in the context of Verdi’s other shocker of this period, Rigoletto, where nudity featured during the orgies of the Duke of Mantua in David McVicar’s production at the Royal Opera House, and I suppose the same case could be made for La Traviata. When you think about it, Violetta Valéry’s profession as a courtesan - the “fallen woman” of the opera’s title, necessarily treated with circumspection due to censorship restrictions in Verdi’s time - is likewise often also delicately glossed over in stage productions. Not so here.

One could make a case then that the use of nudity in all three acts in the Liège production is not just there for shock or titillation, but that it’s relevant to the themes and tied in with the structure of La Traviata itself. Originally titled ‘Love and Death’ during its composition, these two themes are vital to the impact of the work and they are where Verdi places the most emphasis in his scoring, with Violetta considering the possibilities of true love in the beautiful ‘Ah, fors’è lui’ in Act I, and reflecting on her death in ‘Addio del passato’ in Act III. On their own, certainly, these pieces are strong enough to encompass the beauty, the tragedy and complexity of emotions that have been engendered in Violetta over the short period of her time with Alfredo, but if the staging can draw the attention of the audience to what is being expressed, then so much the better. In Act I then, the aria is set alongside beside the revelry of the guests on a huge bed during ‘Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora’, while in Act III, there is an echo of a reminder of these times as Violetta hears the revelry of party-goers from her death bed. Act II meanwhile uses the nudity effect of the “bella ritrosetta” (“saucy little beauty”) to emphasis the connection between Love and Death in the play of Gastone and the Bullfighters, which otherwise seems like a piece of entertainment unconnected with the work.

Traviata

Unfortunately, while there is relevance in how this all fits in with the opera and its themes - scored brilliantly by Verdi at his most melodic and inventive - there’s not a great deal else that stands out in the direction of this production, which struggles to find any interesting way to respond to the challenge of staging the familiar settings of the work. The first scene of Act II in particular really drags along. As heartfelt as the emotions are during the long scene between Violetta and Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont as he tries to persuade her to give up her love affair with his son for the sake of his reputation and his family, and as well sung as these key moments of appeal are from both sides here during ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ and ‘Ah, dite alla giovine’, they gain nothing from having the two principals sit at the front of the stage and sing out towards the audience. There needs to be a little more connection felt, or at least tension between them over their respective desires and fears, and that’s hard to achieve without some good stage direction.

Aside from the use of brief nudity, the other two acts and the second scene of Act II then are otherwise unexceptional, but the staging does at least serve its function reasonably well. Even if the budget doesn’t always stretch to elaborate sets and designs, the Opéra at Liège under the direction of Mazzonis di Pralafera, seem to me at least to always manage to include a few original touches that allow them to strike a strong balance between traditional theatricality and some personal character. There are a few other minor touches here - Alfredo clutching Violetta’s bloodstained white nightgown during the overture, the guests at the society parties seated as if to watching the unfolding of the latest theatrical developments in society - which are interesting without straining the traditional narrative too much. The same principal would apply, it would seem, to the casting of singers who more than meet the demands of the work if not perhaps with any great distinction. As Alfredo, Xavier Cortes sings well - clear, strong and resonant, and Giovanni Meoni is a grave and dignified Germont Snr., but neither bring any great interpretation to the roles and they don’t look like they have been given a great deal of acting direction either.

Traviata

Demonstrating however, in line with the rest of the production, that they know exactly the right places to place the emphasis, the performance of the orchestra under Luciano Acocella is marvellous and Annick Massis stands out as an exceptional Violetta Valéry. Even during the otherwise dull staging of the Germont/Violetta duets in Act II, the tempo and balance is considered throughout to give the performers the opportunity to really enter into the emotions of this critical scene. If the staging doesn’t work in favour of the singers there, elsewhere it has all the necessary impact, particularly in those aforementioned key moments of Act I and III, and their fine delivery by Annick Massis. She perhaps doesn’t have the fragile delicacy of Violetta in Act I, hitching up her skirt, hopping on a table with a glass of champagne and kicking off her shoes for her ‘Sempre libera’, but it captures the nature of the extraordinary new sensations awakened within her and it’s sung with strength, passion and character. On the flipside of those emotions, her ‘Addio del passato’ is filled with all the longing and heartrending emotion that likewise underpins the strength of the third Act. It’s a superb performance.

If the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s production then doesn’t always demonstrate great originality, it does nonetheless manage to find its own character within the limitations of the setting, but more significantly, it knows exactly where to place the emphasis for the maximum impact and it takes great care with the casting to ensure that those moments can be achieved. With Annick Massis as an impressive Violetta Valéry, particularly strong in the Act III conclusion, and with Luciano Acocella directing the orchestra through a terrific performance that draws all those considerable qualities out of Verdi’s great score, this production, broadcast live via the website of the Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège, amounted to a very fine and occasionally impressive La Traviata.