Armel Opera Festival

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.