Bregenzer Festspiele


ChenierUmberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2011 | Ulf Schirmer, Keith Warner, David Fielding, Héctor Sandoval, Norma Fantini, Scott Hendricks, Tania Kross, Rosalind Plowright | Unitel Classica – C-Major

If you want to convey a sense of the outrageous decadence of pre-Revolutionary France and blithe ignorance of the rich with regards to the reality of conditions for the poor in a production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, you would be hard pressed to match the extravagance of the one staged on the lake at Bregenz in 2011, where a huge head and upper torso of Marat, based on Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting ‘The Death of Marat’, seems to rise out of the water with Lake Constance as his bathtub. The open-air lake stage at the Bregenz is traditionally an opportunity for spectacles to rival the Arena di Verona, but that doesn’t mean that it comes at the cost of attention to detail in the direction of the opera itself or towards the quality of the singing, and that’s certainly the case with this production.

It’s vital of course to set the tone right from the outset, since Act I of Andrea Chénier sets the scene for everything that is to follow since. Dressed in colourful, gaudy costumes and balancing enormous wigs on their heads, it’s here that the guests of a soirée at the Château de Coigny are to have their cozy little gathering interrupted and their privileged position challenged by the first stirrings of revolution. Attending the event is the humanitarian and poet André Chénier, who is goaded by Madeleine de Coigny into reciting a verse as a party piece. The beauty of Chénier’s words shames Madeleine and the company, showing them up as being detached from reality and sincere feelings. But there is worse to come when their dancing is rudely interrupted by the butler Gérard who turns up with a bunch of beggars and speaks up for the suffering and mistreatment his family and fellow servants have suffered at the hands of the noble hosts and their kind. All these ominous signs of discontent confirm the Abbé’s warnings and his admonitions that all is not well at the Royal Court.

Chenier

Act II takes place four years later in the aftermath of the revolution, and the opera develops – inevitably – into a romantic situation between Chénier and a contrite Madeleine de Coigny who comes to him looking for help. In a situation that Puccini would mirror to some extent later in Tosca – the similarities not surprising since Luigi Illica wrote the libretto for both – their happiness is threatened not only by an inescapable involvement in the politics of the revolution (Chénier disillusioned by the Reign of Terror is being urged to flee Paris), but also by Gérard, who is now one of the main figures of the Revolution and in love with Madeleine himself. Romance is to the fore in Andrea Chénier, but it’s aligned very closely with the history, politics and sensibilities of the period. Even Gérard has come to doubt the cause, or at least the methods used by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and questions whether there can be redemption in love or in giving oneself over to sensuality, again not so different from the dilemma faced by Scarpia and the choice he has to make between God and Tosca. The situation, taken similarly to arrest and execution, is however scarcely any less dramatic here in Andrea Chénier.

Despite the opportunities to rather over-play the drama, Keith Warner’s production is relatively restrained and in keeping with the content. It is grand spectacle certainly, but the designs are well used for the purpose of keeping the drama moving. Not only is the extraordinary set by David Fielding decorated with several platforms so that action can play out simultaneously on different stages, but there are several other hidden recesses that open up on occasion to disgorge additional horrors as the Reign of Terror takes hold over the course of the opera. Performers even have to travel by rowing boat from the main stage to another floating platform that represents the St Lazare prison. There are a few stunts where extras and doubles plunge into the lake itself, but it doesn’t feel excessive in the context. Additional Interludes – the end of Act I for example showing the popular uprising set to a screeching electric guitar playing the Marseillaise – may however be taking things a little too far.

Chenier

In this context, climbing staircases from one level to the next, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the performers in the main roles might have been chosen for their level of fitness and for having a head for heights (both of which are undoubtedly necessary here), but they are also fine singers. Mexican tenor Héctor Sandoval is in the classic romantic tenor mould as Chénier, and he is well matched with Norma Fantini’s Madeleine. Baritone Scott Hendricks however almost steals the show as a spirited Gérard. None of them seem at all disconcerted or the least put-out by the tricky manoueuvring and stage placements that are required. Radio mics are inevitable on a set like this and are not so discreet, but while it’s not ideal the sound recording is good and well mixed for both the singing and the orchestra on the Blu-ray disc, which also boasts a fine High Definition image. There are no extra features on the disc other than trailers for other releases, but the enclosed booklet has a synopsis and a brief interview with Keith Warner on the production.

Passenger Mieczyslaw Weinberg – The Passenger

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2010 | Teodor Currentzis, David Pountney, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski, Svetlana Doneva, Angelica Voje | Unitel Classica - NEOS

Is an opera dealing with Auschwitz automatically worthy of acclaim simply through its dealing with a subject that can’t help but be powerful and emotive? Or are some subjects are just so taboo that they shouldn’t be turned into art, since any attempts to do so will almost certainly diminish them? The approach to Schindler’s List, for example, with its theatricality, its glossy, immaculately-lit and carefully composed cinematography, is certainly questionable, as is the means through which Spielberg chooses to approach the Holocaust, but surely even dealing with the subject and bringing awareness to a wider younger audience has its merit? Written in 1967-8, it’s taken over 40 years for Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Passenger to receive its World Premiere at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2010, and on the basis of this remarkable production, it seems that opera is the perfect and perhaps the only art-form really capable of dealing with the complex questions that the subject give rise to.

Dealing with events that took place in Auschwitz from the perspective of looking back on what happened, those questions relate here to the issues of guilt and conscience, specifically over the involvement and culpability of ordinary German people in the atrocities committed during the war in the Nazi concentration camps. The subject is raised as a German official, Walter, is about to set sail with his wife to take up a diplomatic post in Brazil during the 1960s. His wife, Lisa, becomes upset however when she sees a passenger on the ship, a woman who reminds her of a dark episode in her past that she has never told her husband about. The woman reminds her of Marta, a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz, where Lisa was an SS camp overseer.

This is an extraordinary subject to make an opera about, and, as you would expect, it’s treated with the utmost seriousness and gravity and has the potential to be deeply upsetting, the imagery and the setting taking on further significance through its performance in Austria, close to where similar events took place in the past. More than just dealing with the subject in a grim manner – which is easy enough to do through the dramatic situation alone – Weinberg’s The Passenger brings an incredibly more powerful dimension to the subject by making everyone, Nazis and Jews alike, sing. The power of the singing voice can be taken for granted in an opera, but rarely has it been aligned to a subject that is so emotive in its own right, and it serves to intensify both the evil pronouncements of the Nazi camp attendants as well as the laments of the prisoners. But it also has relevance to the story – yes, even in Auschwitz, music was played, and the image this evokes is truly pitiable.

Passenger

The libretto by Alexander Medvedev, based on a novel by camp survivor Zofia Posmysz (the only one of original writer involved in the opera still alive and present at this performance), manages to evoke these deep and dark sentiments through disturbing poetic imagery (included in full in an accompanying booklet and well worth reading on its own) of the “Pitch black wall of death, the last thing you saw before oblivion“.  That brings to mind the “huge black wave” of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the influence of Shostakovich is evident also in the music.  Weinberg’s extraordinary arrangements include jazz, swing music, waltz and simple theatrical accompaniments but it also has folk laments and dark jabs of strings, woodwind and percussion that underscore emotions of a kind that are rarely, if ever, dealt with in opera. Libretto and score combine then to get to the heart of the subject in the most direct and powerful manner, questioning the attempt of Lisa and Walter to wipe away the memory of the past and move on with their lives, comparing it to the Nazi’s looking for an easy solution to dispose of 20,000 bodies a day. This horrifying concern over practicalities seems to dominate over guilt and conscience and over any deeper consideration of what those actions mean.

The staging at Bregenz is remarkably effective, with incredible multi-level set designs that keep the action fluid, retaining the connection between past and present, the ship above the concentration camp below – an arrangement that culminates in Lisa’s spectacular metaphorical descent into hell. It’s the genius of the opera also that it primarily considers the subject from the viewpoint of Lisa, a former SS Overseer in Auschwitz. It takes in not just those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis, but also necessarily takes into account the people who carried out the atrocities, and tries to consider how they can live with themselves afterwards. Forgiving and forgetting, however, is not an option.

The video quality of the Blu-ray release is superb – possibly the best I’ve seen in High Definition – the whites and creams of the ship scenes contrasted with the sepia tones in the Auschwitz scenes, which show remarkable detail for being so dark. The audio is not perfect on account of it being a live performance and with the difficulties of setting up microphones. The music booms and is a little echoing in places, occasionally overwhelming the singing, but more often it’s clear enough to hear the detail and the colour. There is only one track, DTS HD Master-Audio 5.0, which is centrally focussed, but it downmixes to stereo quite well for those with only a 2-speaker option. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Polish and Russian, with an additional Multilingual option for the libretto which uses several languages. A superb half-hour documentary ‘In der Fremde’ covers the background of Weinberg and the history of the opera, including an interview with Zofia Posmysz.