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.

GodunovModest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2013 | Kent Nagano, Calixto Bieito, Alexander Tsymbaluk, Yulia Sokolik, Eri Nakamura, Heike Grötzinger, Gerhard Siegel, Markus Eiche, Anatoli Kotscherga, Sergey Skorokhodov, Vladimir Matorin, Ulrich Reß, Okka von der Damerau, Kevin Conners, Goran Jurić, Dean Power, Tareq Nazmi, Christian Rieger | ARTE Internet Streaming, March 2013

A modern updating of a historical subject is always going to be controversial, particularly when it’s a production by Calixto Bieito. In the case of a work like Boris Godunov however, you have to ask whether the purpose of Mussorgsky’s opera is to provide a character portrait of a 16th century ruler of Russia or whether the opera is more concerned with more universal questions on the nature of power, leadership and the cost that has to be paid for it. Even performed in a traditional historical context it would be hard not to feel the full force of those themes expressed in Mussorgsky’s magnificent score, so what advantage would there be in attempting to make a parallel between the past and the present? Surprisingly, the purpose of Bieito’s production would seem to be not to use Boris Godunov to make a comment about the present day as much as use familiar images to help us better relate to the past.

One of the qualities of art, and particularly opera in this context, is that it can indeed illuminate and provide new living insight on a figure who existed nearly 500 years ago by simply looking at human nature itself today, since that hasn’t changed greatly in all that time. Placing Boris Godunov in a historical context however can place a distance between the subject and a modern audience - although, as I said, Mussorgsky’s music makes it fully relatable - but a modern setting can make those situation more real and immediate without betraying the essential sentiments and the spirit of the work. Calixto Bieito’s staging has a considerable part to play in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production, but it must operate in accordance with the music, and Kent Nagano’s musical direction ensures that this is a thoughtful and powerful account of a great work.

The actions and the will of the people play just as important a part in history as its more famous leaders and Mussorgsky’s gives them equal voice in Boris Godunov. Calixto Bieito finds a modern-day equivalent of the voice of the people and their relationship with their leaders here in what looks to be an anti-globalisation protest at a G8 summit, or perhaps even an anti-austerity protest. The people, herded in by police in riot-gear, are looking for someone to lead them out of crisis. They don’t carry icons of the saints here, but instead wave placards in the air showing images of Sarkozy, Putin, Cameron, Holland and other world leaders. Only one lone protester - a punk in a Sex Pistols T-shirt advocating anarchy - rejects all of them and is beaten to the ground by the police. Is this a fair representation of the intent of the opening scene of Boris Godunov? It certainly captures the nature of the situation without tying it directly and imperfectly to any specific modern political context. It also sets the tone well for the underlying violence that isn’t always entirely explicit in the work, but which is undoubtedly an important part of the power dynamic.

There are inevitably a few curious touches that Bieito adds to highlight this characteristic, but all of them feel entirely appropriate to the work. Boris Godunov tries to be a good ruler to the people, but he feels the pressure of responsibility, hears the murmurings of discontent and fears the uprising of a new Pretender. His conscience - like anyone who has to dirty their hands to get into a position of power and influence - isn’t entirely clear either, and he has the blood of the young Tsar on his hands, tormenting him in nightmares. Bieito’s version, again highlighting the power and responsibility of the common people in their choice or acceptance of leaders, shows them exercising that power by putting weapons (guns) into their hands, making this bloody period of history even more realistically violent. The Pretender too executes Boris’ children at the end of the opera, which fits in with the theme of the cycles of history and violence and gives it greater force.

All of this must be borne out in the music of course, and the Bayerische Staatsoper production in Munich took an equally interesting approach to the complicated history of the work and its various revisions. This was a stripped back production that used Mussorgsky’s 1869 original version as its basis, but further removed any other diversions - the Fountain scene and the Polonaise (basically the whole of Act III) - that weren’t directly related to expression of the work’s fundamental themes. This enabled the entire opera to be performed as a single two-and-a-quarter hour performance without any breaks. There were considerable benefits to be gained from this approach. On the one hand, we had all the force of Mussorgsky’s scoring with its conversational language rhythms and unique expression, but with a greater fluidity that brought unity to each of the separate scenes. With Kent Nagano conducting with complete sensitivity for those rhythms, we didn’t lose any of the beauty of the orchestration that is found in Rimsky-Korsakov’s revisions either. As a result, the work maintained its epic immensity, force and beauty.

So too does the singing here, particularly Alexander Tsymbaluk as Boris and Anatoli Kotscherga as Pimen. Both evidently are vital roles that carry the action and the spiritual elements of the work, and much of that is brought out through the grave, deep tone of the singing itself. Not only were the casting and performances superb in this respect for those roles, but the same consideration was given to all the casting elsewhere. There was scarcely a weak element anywhere here, all of the cast and chorus coming together - alongside a considered production and musical performance - to give full force to this remarkable work. The set designs also played an important part in keeping up this momentum, fluidly moving from one scene to the next, providing a meaningful dark and minimal setting that served the situations without being over-literal or too incongruously modern either.

This performance of Boris Godunov was broadcast on ARTE Live Web and is currently still available for viewing via internet streaming. Depending on whether you use the .fr or .de sites, subtitles are either in French or German. The Bayerische Staatsoper will broadcast another live performance of this production via their own Live Streaming service during their summer Opera Festival season on the 26th July. The next live streaming event from Munich is Verdi’s Macbeth on 11th May, directed by Martin Kušej and conducted by Massimo Zanetti.

ItalianaGioachino Rossini - L’Italiana in Algeri

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2013 | Bruno Campanella, Emilio Sagi, Enkelejda Shkosa, Carlo Lepore, Daniele Zanfardino, Mario Cassi, Liesbeth Devos, Julie Bailly, Laurent Kubla | Grand Théâtre de Liège, 9 February 2013 - ARTE Live Web

The Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège have a good track record with Rossini and bel canto work, particularly on works that have a more comic edge. One of Rossini’s big melodramas or opera seria works would present a greater challenge and require some big guns to do it justice, but as they demonstrated most recently with the little known early Rossini opera L’Equivoco Stravagante, with a little bit of resource and imagination, there can be considerable colour and entertainment to be drawn out of the lighter Rossini dramma giocoso works. The requirements for L’Italiana in Algeri lie somewhere in-between. It’s a popular comedy, but like Il Barbiere di Sevilla it also requires a good balance between strong singers, comic timing and a sense of style or panache to really make it work. Liège do pretty well on all fronts in their latest production.

Director Emilio Sagi puts the emphasis of the production on style, and there’s good reason for that. Much of the comedy of L’Italiana in Algeri (An Italian Girl in Algiers) relies upon the premise of the exoticism and glamour of its Eastern setting, in the palace of Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, with his seraglio of wives, slaves and eunuchs. The Bey however is tired of his wife Elvira and wants Haly, the captain of his corsairs, to procure an Italian wife for him, so the opera also has to present the idea of Italian style and women as being just as exotically attractive as a North African harem. You can of course make even that idea alone funny - and there’s lots of spaghetti eating here to play with that in the Pappataci scene - but the idea of Italian exoticism works best if you set it, as Emilio Sagi does here, in the glamorous age of the Dolce Vita of the 1960s.

The production achieves this impressively with the simplest of means. Enrique Bordolini’s sets provide a few pointed Byzantine arches to give a flavour of an Eastern palace, working with the colouration of Eduardo Bravo’s lighting and Renata Schussheim’s costume designs to make this a most attractive production that works perfectly with the playful tone of Rossini’s writing for L’Italiana in Algeri. There’s solid work from Bruno Campanella in the pit that is similarly well-attuned to the content. This is consequently a sophisticated Rossini production that emphasises how well the composer could bring his musical resources, his sense of structure and timing to bear to play out a series of entertaining and sometimes silly comic situations. It is not as raucously funny as it might be - some of the recitative is cut, reducing the effectiveness of the situation between Lindoro and Elvira - but the direction and the tone established in Sagi’s production is consistent and entertaining.

With only a few minor reservations, the casting is also excellent and certainly as good as it ought to be for this opera. Liège get the right balance of freshness from their regular Italian opera regulars for the secondary roles (solid performances from Julie Bailly, Liesbeth Devos and Laurent Kubla as Zulma, Elvira and Haly) and combine it with experienced singers in the more challenging main roles. Not so much Daniele Zanfardino - last seen in Liège’s production of Rossini’s L’Equivoco Stravagante - as Lindoro, but he has the right timbre of voice for a Rossini tenor, if not quite the strength or range. That’s not so much of an issue here, and he copes well with the demands of the role.

Much more critical to establishing the tone of the dramma giocoso is the range and the interplay between Isabella and the Bey, and the Royal Opéra de Wallonie had two excellent singers in these roles. Carlo Lepore’s singing is beautifully grave and musical, his bass working well alongside the other singers, round out in the duets and ensembles. In acting terms, his handling of Mustafa’s comic potential was also perfect, suitably commanding, faintly ridiculous and comically lecherous. He needs however a feisty Isabella to be a bit more spirited than the comparatively weak Elvira that he wants to get rid of, but she also has to be demanding enough to knock him into place, and that’s exactly what you got with Albanian mezzo-soprano Enkelejda Shkosa.

That’s about all you want from L’Italiana in Algeri - a sense of style, a little bit of exoticism, a bit of unstrained comedy and some good singing that doesn’t stand out or draw attention just for the sake of ornamentation. The latest Liège production to be broadcast via Internet Streaming, L’Italiana in Algeri can be enjoyed for free for the next few months on the ARTE Live Web site.

White RoseUdo Zimmermann - The White Rose

Angers Nantes Opéra, 2013 | Nicholas Farine, Stephan Grögler, Elizabeth Bailey, Armando Noguera | Angers Grand Théâtre, 29 January 2013 - ARTE Live Web

There are some minimalist stage directors who like to reduce a set to a bare wall and chairs, but there are some operas where the setting is entirely appropriate and where there is no better way to highlight the impact of the work and what it is about. Udo Zimmermann’s The White Rose (Die Weiße Rose, 1967, revised 1986) is one such work. Set in a prison cell in Munich on the 22nd February 1943, brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, aged 24 and 21, are only hours away from being executed by their Nazis captors. Members of the White Rose group, responsible for publishing and distributing leaflets and painting slogans on walls denouncing Hitler and the Nazi’s crimes, Hans and Sophie have spent three days in a cell, imprisoned but undefeated. There’s only one way to depict their circumstances - stark grey concrete walls, two chairs, a mound of dirt on the floor.

Some composers - most modern composers - also like to work with discordant sounds, crashing percussion and minimalist screeching of string instruments, but some subjects also can’t be expressed in any other way. The White Rose, a chamber opera in 16 scenes, is one of those works. It’s the hammering of the score that beats the two young students more brutally than any image of an officer in a Nazi uniform. It’s the plaintive squeal of a violin too that reflects the attempts to silence their defiance and their efforts to keep up their morale. Aware of the fate that is in store for them, Hans and Sophie Scholl’s words rise above the cacophony, the two of them striving to picture a world beyond the confines of their prison, trying to convince themselves that the world still exists outside, that it will endure and that nature will purify the horror that has been inflicted on it.

Only one hour long, The White Rose is an intense, harsh and powerful opera, but there are also some beautiful moments of reflective lyricism in the pure young voices ringing out in the dark, finding hope in their despair. They have confidence and optimism that their cries have been heard, that the word will spread, that their defiance and dedication to the truth will be an inspiration. Udo Zimmermann’s music might not be the most melodic then, but it is highly expressive, with rhythmic pulses, waltz music and lone flutes and violins picking out the moods and the extreme conditions of the piece. The musical director Nicholas Farine is a specialist in Baroque music, which might not seem the most suitable qualification for a modern opera work, but the requirements for expression of the chamber arrangements, the need for musical precision and the importance of timing probably aren’t all that different.

If the music can be said to largely represent the violence enacted against the two imprisoned students - although as indicated there are a wider range of musical styles and some lyricism applied - the spiritual quality of the work is expressed primarily in the libretto and the singing. As with Zimmermann’s revision of the score, the original 1967 libretto by Ingo Zimmermann was revised in 1986 with a new libretto by Wolfgang Willaschek and it’s the revised version of the opera that is played here. The libretto is philosophical and poetic in its imagery, drawing from the same inspirational sources that informed the leaflets and slogans of the students’ White Rose group - from the Bible, Novalis, Aristotle, Goethe, Lao tzu and the teachings of their university philosophy professor, Klaus Huber. Those sentiments are expressed powerfully in the performances of the two singers who play Sophie and Hans, the young English soprano Elizabeth Bailey and Argentinean tenor, Armando Noguera.

This Angers Nantes Opéra production of The White Rose was performed at the Grand Théâtre Angers and broadcast live on the 29th January 2013 via internet streaming on the French/Geman television, ARTE. Stephan Grögler’s set and direction of the work, as indicated earlier, is relatively straightforward in its depiction of the harsh conditions of the prison setting. The direction and the use of lighting however doesn’t just reflect the harsh discordance of the music, but works with the libretto and the singing to fully express everything that is contained in this compact and powerful work.

Udo Zimmermann’s The White Rose can be viewed for free via internet streaming from the ARTE Live Web site. The opera is performed in German with French subtitles only.

Perfect AmericanPhilip Glass - The Perfect American

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013 | Dennis Russell Davies, Phelim McDermott, Christopher Purves, David Pittsinger, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret, Rosie Lomas, Zachary James, John Easterlin, Juan Noval-Moro, Beatriz de Gálvez, Noelia Buñuel | / ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming, 5th February 2013

It’s not too hard to see the point being made about in Philip Glass’s new opera based on the last days of Walt Disney. The irony is hammered home repeatedly and with no great subtlety in either the libretto or the musical arrangements. His animation and the safe family-friendly ideals they espouse may be revered by generations of children and their parents, but those values are derived from a rather more flawed human individual. An old-fashioned, smalltown country-boy with Republican ideals, intolerant of progress and union activity, Walt Disney is depicted in The Perfect American as a megalomaniac who not only took the credit for the hard work and talent of others, but he treated them appallingly as well. So he wasn’t a nice guy. Why make an opera about him? Well, if Walt Disney and his works are held up as being the epitome of “The Perfect American”, even ironically, then there might be some merit in exploring prevailing bigoted attitudes and intolerance. If that’s its purpose however, the opera singularly fails to make its case.

Whether Walt Disney should be accorded the stature of being the subject for opera isn’t so much in question then as much as whether a study of the animation giant as the “Perfect American” really has as much to say about the society we live in today as the subjects of previous Glass biographical works - Einstein (Einstein on the Beach), Gandhi (Satyagraha) or the great reforming Egyptian pharaoh (Akhnaten). Whatever you think of Walt Disney or his children’s animation films, he’s not exactly the first person who comes to mind when you look around for a representative icon of American values. Yes, the Disney animation studio was certainly one of the earliest and biggest exports of American family values, the empire of the Mouse and the Duck expanding to conquer and achieve universal recognisability in even the most remote corners of the world. As for whether the personal attitudes of Disney persist and hold influence, there’s a case could certainly be made for that, but not laid specifically at the door of Walt Disney the man.

The idea that he may have been as important as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford may form a part of Walt Disney’s self-delusion, but there is no reason given why the audience should believe it or even any suggestion that anyone takes the comparison seriously. This is a fault that lies throughout the whole premise of the opera. Based on a novel by Peter Stephen Jungk, a fictionalised account of Walt Disney that recounts the last few months of his life, The Perfect American seems to be attempting to suggest that the flaws and delusions of one man have some kind of wider implication, but in reality it just presents the twisted views of one small-minded individual that seem to have no place or purpose on the operatic stage. The same could perhaps be said about Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, but the tragic story of the rise and demise of Anna Nicole Smith could arguably be said to reflect the pitfalls in following the American Dream with a broader historical scope (Marilyn Monroe) and more cutting social observation, at least on the compromised position of women within that Dream.

Like Anna Nicole, The Perfect American similarly relies heavily on a depiction of the corrupting influence of smalltown America. But whereas Anna Nicole Smith saw it as a “shithole” that she had to escape from, Walt Disney - in the kind of obvious expositional language that is prevalent throughout Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto (”Everything that I’ve become has its roots in Marceline“), looks back fondly on his origins, seeing in his hometown all the good old-fashioned American values that he holds dear. Just to emphasise his position as a reactionary and an unpleasant man, his relationship with Wilhelm Dantine - an animator on ‘The Sleeping Beauty‘ - and their fall-out over union activities is the linking element between the three acts, but Dantine is still devastated when Walt dies. The libretto’s idea of any other kind of character development is limited to snappy mottos (”Never say die!“), common clichés (Mickey Mouse being “more famous than Santa” and “more recognisable that Jesus“) and banal observations (”That’s what he does, spares everyone the worst“) that don’t so much highlight the nature of Disney as illustrate the lack of imagination of the libretto and the treatment.

Even those areas where the work tries a less literal approach, the implications are no less obvious and at the same time no more revealing of the man other than the scale of his self-delusion. He expresses his desire to a nurse at the hospital to be cryogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future, and hubristically compares his cartoons to Greek gods, believing that his work and his beliefs in good conservative American values will “live forever”. A little more colour is added when Walt is contrasted with Andy Warhol, who was born in the same year, or in a sequence where Walt has a conversation with a robot Abraham Lincoln, but even there, it seems like just thrown in as an opportunity to allow Disney to express some pretty distasteful views on the abolition of slavery leading to the degradation of traditional American values.

The latter sequences allow director Phelim Mc Dermott and designer Dan Potra a bit more freedom to experiment with the staging, but to be honest, it’s impressive throughout. It’s not on the same scale of brilliance of McDermott and his Improbable Ensemble’s work for Glass’s sublime Satyagraha a few years ago, but that narrative-free work called out for a strong collaborative theatrical expression. Here however, they still manage nonetheless to find an imaginative way to work with the rather more banal reality of The Perfect American, keeping it visually engaging and thematically relevant through projected animation sequences and supernumeraries playing the larger-than-life rabbits of Disney’s mind, avoiding any Mom and Apple-Pie clichés or overly literal depictions of small-town Americana.

The performances of the cast at the Madrid world premiere run in the Teatro Real (viewed via Internet streaming) were also exceptionally good. Christopher Purves was an outstanding Walt Disney, but all the cast managed to inject some personality into their characters and even some sense of melody into their singing. As scored by Glass however, there wasn’t much of that in the lifeless orchestration of bland repetition that lacked and real dynamic or variety in tempo and seemed to have no sense of a distinct dramatic character or expression for the work. It’s a long way from Glass at his most original and operatic best in Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten, but Glass has shown himself in more recent times to still be creatively inspired when the subject (Kepler) or the source (Kafka, Cocteau) are worthy. Walt Disney and The Perfect American doesn’t seem to fire the composer’s imagination this time, and it seems hardly likely to excite audiences when it comes to the English National Opera this summer.

The Perfect American is available to view via internet streaming - with some region restrictions in the UK - on and on ARTE Live Web.

Second WomanFrédéric Verrières - The Second Woman

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, 2012 | Jean Deroyer, Guillaume Vincent, Jean-Yves Aizic, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Elizabeth Calleo, Jeanne Cherhal, Marie-Ève Munger, Philippe Smith | ARTE Live Web Internet streaming, 22 December 2012

At first, with long patches of spoken dialogue and little musical accompaniment, it’s difficult to establish where The Second Woman lies in the boundaries between theatre, music theatre and opera. Composed by Frédéric Verrières, the work is inspired by the John Cassavetes film ‘Opening Night‘ (1977), the story of an actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands), who goes through a mental breakdown following the accidental death of a fan, drinking heavily and behaving erratically during rehearsals just before the opening night of a play called ‘The Second Woman’. Life and art start mirroring each other for Myrtle to the extent that it becomes difficult to establish where the performance ends and the real person begins.

It’s probably appropriate then that Verrières’ opera proves similarly hard to define or pin down. Rather than being set during the rehearsals for a play, The Second Woman is a behind-the-scenes view of the preparations for the first performance of a new opera which is called - just to blur the lines further in a very post-modern way - The Second Woman. (I wonder what the actual rehearsals for this must have been like - the mind boggles). The opening scenes therefore take place as a rehearsal for a performance, with a répétiteur at the piano and a director struggling with his temperamental (is there any other kind) artists to block out the dramatic action, get the lighting right and deal with the personal conflicts, animosity and artistic differences between the performers. Everything comes together eventually for an actual straight performance of the short opera in Act III, which even then is not entirely without incident and disruption.

There is of course a precedent for this in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, the prelude of which outlines a farcical situation that leads to two entirely different operas, one serious and one a comedy, being put on together at the same time due to time restrictions. There is also some self-reflexive musing on opera and the creative process by Strauss and Hofmannsthal in Capriccio and essentially, the purpose of The Second Woman isn’t that far removed from such considerations. It may all look haphazard, no-one seems to know what they should be doing - least of all the “director” - or at least they all have very different personal views on what they want to bring to the work, but that’s how the collaborative creative process works. It starts from an idea, and if allowed to develop naturally, it can bring in other references and inspirations and acquire personal interpretations that allow it to take unanticipated form and substance.

Since The Second Woman is both an opera and an opera-within-an-opera, it’s difficult to make a distinction then between what is original and what is, so to speak, second-hand - although I’m not sure it’s even meaningful to make a distinction between them. The songs in the rehearsals take place to piano accompaniment, and most of the dialogue in the earlier scenes is unaccompanied, but there is also a more modern use of sampled sounds and ambient drone noises, as well as specific operatic references which include mention of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore and a duet between the “cantatrice” and her coloratura sister (the opera’s woman-in-the-mirror equivalent to the dead fan in ‘Opening Night‘) that is re-worked from the ‘Viens, Mallika‘ duet in Delibes’ Lakmé. Outside of the rehearsals, the actual opera (or “opera”) is made up of a patchwork of different styles and references that takes in folk, pop, Steve Reich-like minimalist passages and even Baroque stylisations.

In between the rehearsals and the actual opera, and through its specific layering of operatic and other musical references, The Second Woman does manage to peel back the layers of its characters, or at least that of the singer, the cantatrice. Born into an artistic family, her father a tenor singing Verdi and Puccini, she and her sister would create their own operas, and her latter-day personal identity crisis seems to come about from being regarded in her childhood as “nothing but a voice”. It’s little wonder then that the crisis that develops in The Second Woman can only be expressed in musical terms.

Director Guillaume Vincent has his work cut out trying to unravel these layers in a way that makes it comprehensible to an audience, as does American soprano Elizabeth Calleo as the singer, but they achieve this remarkably well, slipping fluidly between the musical styles, between English dialogue and French singing (with some Italianate references), between the humour and the drama, the reminiscence and reverie, the rehearsal and the opera, and the actuality of the real performance. The audience at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris certainly found the whole playing up of the artistic temperaments and personal differences very amusing, but there was a wit and intelligence to the music also, directed from the back of the stage - curtain after curtain falling along with the layers of the drama - by Jean Deroyer.

Broadcast live via Internet Streaming, The Second Woman is still available for viewing on the ARTE Live Web site. The work is performed mainly in French and English, but there are no subtitles provided.

StradellaCésar Franck - Stradella

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2012 | Paolo Arrivabeni, Jaco Van Dormael, Marc Laho, Isabelle Kabatu, Werner van Mechelen, Philippe Rouillon, Xavier Rouillon, Giovanni Iovino, Patrick Mignon, Roger Joakim | ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming

The choice of opera for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s 2012-13 season at the restored Théâtre Royal in Liège was an unusual one. Stradella is an unfinished work by César Franck - better known for his symphonic writing and pieces for the piano and organ - written in 1842 when the composer was just 15 years old and only rediscovered in 1984. There may not be too many classic Belgian opera composers to choose from, much less one who was actually born in Liège, but in the event, the production team and the completion of the orchestration by composer Luc Van Hove filled out the sweep of Franck’s lush Romanticism to make something more of this otherwise relatively slight work in its first ever staging. Directed by filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael (Toto le Héro), with some strong singing performances, it was moreover an appropriately near all-Belgian opening production and as such a memorable way to mark the occasion.

The plot of Stradella is relatively simple and unburdened with anything like psychological motivation or even depth of character. The Duke of Pesaro has ordered his lieutenant Spadoni to abduct the beautiful maiden Leonor in the middle of the Carnival in Venice. Having locked her away in his mansion, the Duke tries to win her love by employing the famous singer Stradella to woo her, unaware that Stradella and Leonor are actually an item. As well as being one mighty coincidence, one would think the Duke might have taken some time to investigate Leonor’s love-life, but as I say, such details seem to be of little concern to the young Franck, who instead focuses his attention on exploring the romantic tragedy aspects that this situation gives rise to. Franck’s symphonic scoring is certainly influenced by Wagner to some extent, but the composer clearly favours the more melodic approach of Gounod - Faust sounding like an influence in the ‘À demain‘ duet between Stradella and Leonor early in the first act before the abduction - and it bears a close relation with the composer’s near-contemporary Massenet in this regard.

With an abundance of water on the stage that on occasion tended to get in the way of the performance, the production certainly favoured spectacle over musical or dramatic integrity. It was dramatically justified to some extent by the opera’s Venetian Carnival setting of the opera, but the fact that just about everyone was kitted out in wetsuits or wearing Macs and carrying umbrellas should tell you that there was rather a lot more water than was strictly necessary both on the stage itself - the singers wading waist deep in it for most of the performance - but also in the English summer amount of rain (yeah, that much!) falling from the skies for long sections of the performance. Vincent Lemaire’s sets looked spectacular however, creating a fabulous atmosphere, but it was also more than a little noisy - particularly in one or two scenes from the First Act when Leonor is abducted by the Duke’s men from a canal in the middle of a thunderous downpour. It did however, particularly in the brilliantly staged finale with a floating fish, come over as something of an impressive technical achievement.

The deluge of water (45,000 litres apparently) and the design of the sets however had something of an absorbing effect or dampening of the sound (in more ways than one!) that didn’t really show off the acoustics of the theatre or allow the musical qualities of the work to carry, and it certainly did no favours to the singers who had to remain semi-submerged in it for the entire length of the work. Soprano Isabelle Kabatu had the necessary range and depth for the role of Leonor, but struggled nonetheless on one or two occasions to rise above the stage noise and the orchestration. There were so such problems for the Belgian lyric tenor Marc Laho however, who let none of the bizarre stage directions get in the way of a well-delivered performance, his singing clear and resonant with lovely tone, expression and diction. Bass-baritone Werner van Mechelen was a worthy counterpart to Laho’s Stradella as the Duke’s lieutenant Spadoni, but other than wearing a surreal floating cape borne aloft by black balloons Philippe Rouillon didn’t really make a strong enough impression as the Duc de Pesaro.

Under the musical direction of Paolo Arrivabeni and artistic direction of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, this was overall an impressive gathering of Belgian opera talent for an interesting and eye-catching opener to the 2012-13 season at the Théâtre Royal in Liège following their ambitious run at the temporary Palais Royal venue last year. Franck’s recently rediscovered early opera doesn’t prove to be a major work by any means, but it’s a lovely little piece nonetheless and a fascinating addition to the French-Belgian repertoire.

Recorded on the 25 and 27th of September 2012, Stradella was viewed via an internet streaming broadcast on the ARTE website, where it can still be viewed - in French language, with no subtitles - up until October 2013.

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.

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