Hannigan, Barbara


LuluAlban Berg - Lulu

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2012 | Paul Daniel, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Barbara Hannigan, Natascha Petrinsky, Frances Bourne, Tom Randle, Dietrich Henschel, Charles Workman, Pavlo Hunka, Ivan Ludlow, Albrecht Kludzuweit, Rúni Brattaberg, Mireille Capelle, Beata Morawska, Benoît De Leersnyder, Gerard Lavalle, Charles Dekeyser, Anna Maistriau, Rosalba Torres Guerrero, Claude Bardouil | La Monnaie Internet Streaming

As a work that it was necessary to subject to some interpolation of the music score on account of its final Act being left largely unfinished by the composer at the time of his death in 1935, there’s a richness to Lulu that leaves it open to infinite rearrangement of its elements. The openness of its subject - the eternal ambiguity that is Lulu, or indeed the eternal ambiguity that is the fate of a woman in the modern world - and the nature of the writing means that even within the two acts that were fully scored by Alban Berg, there is a multiplicity of meaning that can be applied to its themes through the imposition of emphasis on different elements of the work. For Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski in his 2012 production for La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels (viewed here via the opera house’s internet streaming service), the principal idea that is emphasised - the one that expresses the inner nature of Lulu before it becomes corrupted by the reality of her circumstances - is that of her childhood ambition to be a successful dancer.

To add further weight to this idea - a valid idea that doesn’t needs any further justification - Warlikowski refers to a little-known biographical detail in Berg’s life, an unacknowledged daughter, Albine, who he fathered with a woman twice his age who worked for the family. Later in life, Albine - a painter and a model - made contact with Berg, looking for a father or a father-figure, but also hoping perhaps to be taken seriously through her association with Berg in her dream of being an artist. For the director, it’s hard not to consider that the nature of this relationship would have found its way into the composition of Lulu, and it’s certainly an interesting detail that adds to the mystery and ambiguity of the work. Tied in with this is the parallel writing, incorporating elements of Lulu that would be used for the scoring of the unfinished third act in 1979 by Friedrich Cerha, of the violin concerto which would become a requiem for the 17 year old daughter of Alma Mahler and architect Walter Gropius. Another less likely reference that Warlikowski seems to drawn upon to express this desire to be a successful artist, the internal pressures that reveal cracks in the female psyche and the requiem “to the memory of an angel”, is Darren Aronofsky’s lurid melodrama ‘Black Swan‘.

The most obvious reference to this is in an extended dance sequence added to the end of the first act, where a dancer in a black tutu (Rosalba Torres Guerrero), stripping down to waist, performs the dance of the dying swan with extraordinary intensity, but there are other rather disturbing references that have a David Lynch quality (particularly with dual-killing at the end of the work of the blonde Lulu and the dark Countess Geschwitz), with dark masked figures always on the stage, in the background and on occasions taking over the roles of other characters who are complicit in her downfall. Young girls in ballet outfits also populate the stage, often within a glass cage - at least one of whom is presumably meant to represent Lulu’s innocence - but others reflect explicit references in the work to the sale into prostitution and the exploitation of women. Most directly however, Lulu herself is frequently dressed in tutus and dancer costumes, moves around en pointe, dancing to her doom.

Barbara Hannigan throws herself fearlessly into the role, but there’s really no other way to play Lulu. There’s a necessary balance that must be struck between a sense of abandon to her fate and the discipline that is required to maintain her sense of self, and playing the role as a dancer works very well with this idea. Hannigan was involved with the dance/opera collaboration in her last role this season at La Monnaie - Pascal Dupasin and Sasha Waltz’s Passion - and she puts the strength, flexibility and stamina demanded in that role to good use here, being metaphorically flung around and twisted, but also physically rolling around, holding dance poses and singing at the same time, while also being in a state of undress in provocative positions. Hannigan’s superb control of her high range and light soprano was perfect for the role of Lulu, and evidently it was tested to its limits here, with additional demands placed on the role by the nature of the dancing, but she was impressively capable throughout. She perhaps doesn’t have the robustness or the experience required for the darker side of her character’s development and downfall in the latter half of the work, but it could also be that the direction and the limitations of the concept (or its expansiveness) didn’t really give her a clear enough focus to work with. Regardless, Hannigan brought her own focus and intensity to the part and, by any standard, this was simply an extraordinary performance of Lulu.

There are many personalities and realities wrapped up within the complex powerplay of characters, in Berg’s extraordinary score and in Friedrich Cerha’s completion of the work that make this a difficult work to grasp entirely, and this production at least tries to capture the whole range of possibilities that this gives rise to within its design. It looks terrific, with a great deal going on in the foreground and the background - almost too much to take in really. Effective use is made of screens and projections, with additional dancers and figures presenting a disturbing freak-show display in a glass cage and a final act that is set in a ballet school dormitory (by way of an underground station) that feels frightening and exploitative. This Lulu was decadent where it ought to be, wild and abandoned, but also precise and intense on the points that matter. With a lavish production filled with ideas and resonances, Lulu’s extremely complex cast of personalities was given additional force through an all-round strong cast. Natascha Petrinsky brought a softer, more vulnerable but strong sensibility to the usually difficult to characterise Countess Geschwitz, Charles Workman was a handsomely voiced and driven Alwa, and Dietrich Henschel suitably and impressively menacing as Dr. Schön and Jack The Ripper.

This production of Lulu is available to view on-line for free for 21 days until 28th November, through the La Monnaie web site. Subtitles are available only in French and Dutch.

MacabreGyörgy Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SkinGeorge Benjamin - Written on Skin

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun Mehta, Rebecca Jo Loeb, Allan Clayton | ARTE Live Web, Internet streaming, Aix-en-Provence - 14 July 2012

Commissioned by the Aix-en Provence Festival to have a Provençal theme, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin takes an interesting approach to the task in his second opera. With a libretto written by Martin Crimp, Benjamin mixes classicism with the avant-garde to powerful effect in his 21st century perspective on a 12th century legend composed by the troubadour poet Guillaume de Cabestany. It’s not just in the unusual mix of musical instruments that have been used however - the orchestration coloured by as varied a range as a viola de gamba, mandolins and glass harmonica - or even the use of a countertenor in a modern opera, but it’s the necessity of viewing the past through the eye of the present, of breaking down myth into reality, that is evident throughout every element of the production. Viewed here via internet streaming during its world premiere run at Aix on 14th July 2012, Written on Skin is consequently an intense operatic experience.

The story itself seems to be a relatively minor one, but it does nonetheless make some interesting observations about the nature of self-deception, the exercise of power over others and the difficulty of coming to terms with an understanding of one’s true nature. The drama plays out principally between only three main characters - a man, a woman and a boy. The man, known as the Protector, is a landowner, a man “addicted to purity and violence”, proud of his achievements (”I own the fields, I own everyone in them”) who likewise regards his wife as part of his property. He engages the Boy, an artisan, to create an illuminated book for him to record his great achievements and to depict the glorious ascent to Paradise that awaits him. The woman, Agnès, however seeks something else in the Boy, is attracted to him and asks him to create “another woman” for her, one who can open the eyes of her husband to his failings. For the Protector, the book is to put a spin on his belief in himself as a great man, for Agnès, it’s an opportunity to reveal the real woman and her desires that are suppressed by the man. Vanitas vanitatem. The outcome is inevitably tragic.

What makes this simple story rather more interesting is in how it is viewed from a modern perspective. The story is narrated by three Angels - the Boy is also one of the Angels, the other two play the parts of Marie, the sister of Agnès and her husband - who seem to exist in a separate dimension, and along with other stagehands, they seem to be recreating the events, directing the actors into their places, viewing the sequence of events as they play out and commenting on them. All the characters recite their words as if reading them from a narrative text - Boy:”What do you want, says the Boy”, Agnès: “To see, says the woman”. Vicki Mortimer’s stage designs, the stage divided into discreet locations seem to emphasis these separations between the reality and the meta-reality, between the story and its creation, between action and commentary on it. Most of the drama takes place in a thin lower strip of the stage, wooden, brown coloured that becomes a room and a bedroom leading to an exterior or a staircase, while the “angels” and their assistants look on form a modern blue-lit side-room and upper level “back office”.

While you are made aware of the characters relating their own words, playing a role, recreating events, it in no way however takes away from the intensity with which the story is depicted through the singing, the performances and in the brooding, probing, revealing musical score - the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted here by Benjamin himself - and through Katie Mitchell’s stage direction. The strength and power of the voices, as well as their combination of soprano, baritone and countertenor, are well arranged to achieve the necessary impact, but the actual casting of Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves and Bejun Mehta is critical in the ringing clarity of tones and in performances that push the violent passions to their limits. “Shatter the printing press. Make each new book a precious object written on skin“. Can you exhume and invoke the passions of the past and bring them to back to life in a manner that makes them meaningful and immediate to a modern audience? With opera - and the richness of musical and theatrical resources that it places at the disposal of a composer with the necessary ability - apparently you can.

Written on Skin is currently available to view via internet streaming on the ARTE Live Web and on the Medici website. Some region restrictions may apply. The new work will also be able to be seen at the De Nederlandse opera in Amsterdam and at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden later this year.