Mehta, Bejun


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.

OrlandoGeorge Frideric Handel - Orlando

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2012 | René Jacobs, Pierre Audi, Bejun Metha, Sophie Karthäuser, Kristina Hammarström, Sunhae Im, Konstantin Wolff | Internet Streaming, 12 May 2012

As conductor René Jacobs observes in the programme notes for this production of Orlando for La Monnaie-De Munt (watched via their Internet streaming service), Handel - like many other composers who have tackled the subject - must have felt somewhat inspired by the subject of Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’, for in contrast to some of his works for the Kings Theatre in London where he reworked music from other earlier pieces, Orlando is composed of entirely new music. It may even be the case that Handel took a hand in the writing of the libretto itself, drawing from a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, introducing some new characters and arrangements to suit his own ideas.

Ever the businessman, there is clearly a calculated approach to Handel’s arrangements for Orlando, which works within the strict conventions of opera seria that audiences and singers would have expected, but seeking to make Italian opera a success in London, Handel also ensured that there is something in it for everyone. Even within the limitations of dramatic action that you can expect from such Baroque work, Handel extended the frame of the unrequited love story between the great warrior Orlando and Angelica, the Queen of Cathay through the introduction of the characters Dorinda and Zorastro - neither of whom appear in Ariosto’s source work - bringing a lighter element and even some comedy with the former and a supernatural aspect with the latter. This gives Handel scope to extend the emotional range of the work to some extent, but the majority of the work is still based around the expression and hiding of feelings between characters who still conform very much to commedia dell’arte types.

Orlando

The origins of the work extend back to ‘Le Chanson de Roland’, written by a monk at the end of the 11th century, which relates the tale of Roland (who becomes Orlando the story was developed into Italian by Ariosto) set against the background of Charlemagne’s campaign against the Saracens in 778. At the heart of the work is the supremacy of reason - symbolically shown with the appearance of an eagle in the third act - which helps quell the fires of passion that have been aroused during the romantic complications that have taken place. Dorinda is in love with Medoro, the wounded soldier she has been tending, but he is in love with Angelica, who shares his feelings. Orlando however is also in love with Angelica, but she can’t bring herself to admit to the heroic warrior who has saved her life that she is really in love with Medoro and, having been warned by Zorastro of Orlando’s jealous rages, she is somewhat frightened of the consequences should Orlando find out about her love for Medoro. And she has good reason to be cautious, for when Orlando discovers their names carved together on a tree, he burns down Dorinda’s house with Medoro inside and attempts to murder Angelica, until Zorastro’s intervention finally brings him back to his senses.

Concerned very much with inner feelings and emotions expressed and kept hidden, their force given expression through a descent into madness, Orlando does inevitably present a challenge when it comes to staging it. For Pierre Audi, the director of the De Nederlandse Opera, Orlando is very much a psychological drama, and his production accordingly uses the burning of Dorinda’s house as the key symbol of Orlando’s state of mind throughout. It’s certainly a valid way to approach the work, but Audi’s method introduces a few complications that don’t always seem to be entirely coherent or successful. The decision to portray Orlando as a fireman in Act I is a strange one - although one can see how it relates to a modern depiction of his heroism and the esteem that he is held in, as well as relating it to the notion of playing with fire, the fire of passion, and the pyromaniac actions that ensue later - but apart from the wearing of a helmet and some barrels and hoses on the stage, this occupation isn’t over-emphasised. Perhaps even more difficult to grasp however is the fluid approach towards the timeline of events that Audi sees as a reflection of Orlando’s perspective in his madness.

Orlando

In Act I then, Dorinda’s house has already been burned, the charred remains of its frame are all that are left of it, and Orlando and his firecrew are gathering the hoses back in. An altered view of the destroyed house is shown in the second act, which is where the derangement of Orlando’s nightmare is most pronounced, believing himself to be on the banks of the Styx and drawn to the land of the dead. Projections are used to emphasise his delirium, with repeated imagery of Orlando walking through fields of fire. Act III, where the house is actually burnt down, instead focuses on reconstruction, with a new frame being built, although - in line with the open ending - the rebuilding is necessarily left incomplete. Audi’s other idea for the stage treatment is to often have the characters remain on the stage even after their have sung their aria and should normally be making their exit. This is a fairly standard Brechtian device now, revealing the construct behind the drama, and it has relevance to the psychological nature of the opera’s themes, reflecting the mindset of Orlando’s nightmarish descent into madness, the jumbling of timelines in his mind and his presence at scenes where he is not normally involved reflecting his imagining or reconstruction of events in his mind.

Orlando

I’m not sure that this reorganisation of the events or their altered perspective really makes anything any clearer, whether it really gets into the mind of the character, or even that it makes the stage action any more compelling to watch, but it does seem to work well with the rather complex psychology and inner turmoil that is sung about and reflected in the score. That is brought out wonderfully by René Jacobs and the playing of the Baroque Orchestra B’Rock, Jacobs making the most of the freedom open to the conductor and the resources at their disposal by expanding the instrumentation for the basso continuo for the brief excerpts of recitative for a more fluid arrangement. The casting for this production is also very strong for all five main roles. Bejun Metha sings Orlando with an otherworldly quality that doesn’t however always seem to get to the heart of his passion and rage, but he is a very fine countertenor. Sophie Karthäuser is a marvellous Angelica and mezzo-soprano Kristina Hammarström handles the role of Medoro well, but again, you never feel any of them completely get to grips with the characters. In line with Handel’s revisions of the character dynamic in the work however, Sunhae Im displays the most personality as Dorinda, singing with a light beautiful Mozartian voice, and Konstantin Wolff adds the necessary weight as Zorastro.

Orlando is available for viewing free online on the Internet streaming service of La Monnaie-De Munt until 2nd June 2012.

BelshazzarGeorge Frideric Handel - Belshazzar

Grand Théâtre de Provence, Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2008 | Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik, RIAS Kammerchor, Christof Nel, René Jacobs, Kenneth Tarver, Rosemary Joshua, Bejun Mehta, Kristina Hammerström | Harmonia Mundi

Belshazzar, written in 1744, was among the first English oratorios composed by Handel after he had abandoned the Italian opera form, and consequently has an interesting place among the composer’s works, still retaining some the dramatic content and style of opera composition. The dramatic content comes about due to the nature of the subject, which is biblical in nature, if not entirely a religious piece of work. So while there are contemplative hymns to God and fervent pleas for deliverance sung throughout, the historical and religious conflicts means that there is a bit more variety to the content and the tone, as well as the opportunity for a staging to apply other meaningful references that could have some present-day significance.

Taking place in 539BC, the Babylon of King Belshazzar is under siege from Cyrus, Prince of the Medes and Persians. The king’s mother Nitocris has a grim foreboding that the city will fall, and this is confirmed by the prophet Daniel. Cyrus has comes up with a plan to divert the Euphrates, and enter the city through its channel while Belshazzar and his men are celebrating the feast of Sesach, the god of wine. Despite warnings and pleas from Nitocris and Daniel, Belshazzar uses the occasion to extend the drunkenness to sacrilegious behaviour that horrifies the Jewish population that are held in captivity in the city. Cyrus enters the city and liberates the Jews from bondage, promising to set up a new Jerusalem.

The plot is not overly complicated for a three-act, almost three-hour oratorio, but there is a certain amount of dramatic ground to cover, which means that there is more opera seria-like recitative in Balshazzar, and consequently, it may not be always quite as musical and melodious as later Handel oratorios. And if the individual sections are not the most memorable or notable Handel however, the impact of the oratorio is on a dramatic level and in the piece as a whole. It’s staged here for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008 by Christof Nel in a manner that doesn’t set any modern agenda or updated interpretation of the work, letting the dramatic action be dictated by the words of the libretto. One can see nonetheless that Belshazzar is not just a biblical or historical work, but that it applies as much to the role of a monarch or ruler, which has meaning for the period that the work was written, as well as having relevance to present-day conflicts not so far away from where this is set in antiquity.

René Jacobs conducts the Berlin Akademie für Alte Musik and the RIAS Kammerchor through a fine live performance of Belshazzar at Aix. The singing in English, from principals and chorus soloists alike, is uniformly wonderful across the whole range of voices – tenor, counter-tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass and male alto – that Handel brilliantly composes for and blends together. Bejun Mehta (whose crystal clear countertenor can also be heard to terrific effect in a recent production of Handel’s Theodora) is notable here as Cyrus and Kenneth Tarver is fine as Belshazzar, but even more impressive are Rosemary Joshua as Nitocris and Kristina Hammerström as Daniel. Such fine singing could not have been easy either with the acting demanded – a drenched Tarver clearly finds it too much – but a good balance between both is achieved in the staging.

I’m not entirely happy with the HD transfer on the Blu-ray from Harmonia Mundi. Even though it’s on a BD50 disc, the encoding is not great, resulting in a faint jerkiness and blurring when there is movement on the screen. The effect may be variable on different players with better refresh rates, but this is the first BD I’ve come across with such a problem. There isn’t enough movement on the screen for this to become a significant issue, but it could be a minor irritation. The audio tracks are in the standard PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and are both fine for the demands of the orchestration and the singing. Subtitles are in English, French and German only. Other than a text synopsis, there are no extra features on the Blu-ray disc.

Castor et Pollux George Frideric Handel - Theodora

Salzburg Festspiele, 2009 | Christof Loy, Ivor Bolton, Freiburger Barockorchester, Salzburger Backchor, Christine Schäfer, Bejun Mehta, Joseph Kaiser, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Bernarda Fink, Ryland Davies | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Presented at the Salzburg Festival in 2009 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, Theodora isn’t a Handel opera, but rather a staged version of his 1750 oratorio. It would however be more accurate to say that this is semi-staged, and perhaps even more accurate to say it’s barely staged at all. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination, and it certainly doesn’t place any demands on the costume or set designers, to scatter a few chairs about the stage and have the chorus and principal singers dress in the modern formal black evening-dress of a concert performance, unless there’s some hidden significance in updating the martyrdom of Theodora and Didymus from Antioch in 3AD to a concert stage. It’s semi-staged in that rather than face the audience, the singers move around a bit, remove the occasional item of clothing and put a little more acting into the singing.

As it turns out though, it doesn’t matter in the slightest if it seems like the production team earned an easy paycheque for this one, because it works. Theodora is not an oratorio that lends itself easily to a dramatic staging and attempts to do so (such as Peter Sellars’ Glyndebourne production) can potentially detract from the true qualities of this remarkable work, so thankfully this version hasn’t been messed around with at all. The oratorio considers the fate of Theodora, a Christian woman who tries to hold her virtue from the assaults of the Roman governor Valens and refuses to worship Jupiter, who is eventually martyred along with a young Roman soldier Didymus who attempts to help her escape from the life of forced prostitution that is her punishment. It’s a religious work, made up of contemplative prayers that espouse virtue and chastity, but, along with the fate of Didymus, who loves Theodora in a pure fashion, there are other noble sentiments in the work that celebrate valour in the face of tyranny and martyrdom.

The music itself – really some of the most exquisite music Handel ever composed – expresses this perfectly and as evocatively as you could imagine. The music is warmly rapturous, the singing heavenly and the choruses inspiringly uplifting. The producers clearly recognise where the strengths of the piece are and give them centre stage, doing nothing in the loose dramatisation that could interfere with the singing performances. Those performances are magnificent, the English diction perfect in every case, with Christine Schäfer’s Theodora exhibiting fragility turning into steely determination, Bejun Mehta a glorious countertenor Didymus and Joseph Kaiser a fine, emotionally moved Septimus. Ivor Bolton conducts the Freiburger Barockorchester with great sensitivity through a breathtaking performance. This is a stunningly beautiful work, perfectly performed and very well presented in High Definition, with a terrifically detailed image and two fine audio tracks in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, where every element of the mix is crystal clear and perfectly balanced.