Padrissa, Carlus


BabylonJörg Widmann - Babylon

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Kent Nagano, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Claron McFadden, Anna Prohaska, Jussi Myllys, Willard White, Gabriele Schnaut, Kai Wessel, August Zirner | Internet Streaming

The first opera for the new 2012/13 season of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich was something of a bold statement of intent. A new modern opera receiving its world premiere, Babylon is an almost three-hour long epic with lavish production values that seem to fly in the face of European austerity measures and defy restraints on budgets in the arts. With a libretto written moreover by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and music composed by Jörg Widmann, the 39 year old student of Hans Werner Henze, it seemed something of an omen that Henze should die mere hours before the opening performance, leaving the way for his protégé to make a mark on modern opera with an important new work. There was consequently a weight of expectation surrounding the opening of Babylon, and with a visually astonishing production from Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus that was perfectly in accord with the colourful nature of the work, the opera certainly made an impression, even if its impact was inevitably somewhat reduced for those watching it (and experiencing technical difficulties) with its Live Internet Streaming broadcast on the 3rd November.

Babylon relates back to Biblical times and ancient Mesopotamian mythology, to human sacrifice practiced by the Babylonians and the repudiation of it by the Jews, to the destruction of the walls of Jericho and the founding of urban civilisation. Central to the work then, with its invocations of the mystical number seven, is the formation of order out of chaos, an order associated with numerology that is reflected in the establishment of the seven days of the week. It’s a love story that is both the cause of the chaos that ensues as well as what brings about redemption and order. Widmann’s opera opens then with a prologue showing a scene of apocalyptic devastation, a scorpion man walking through the ruins, before the Soul arrives to open up the first of the opera’s seven scenes, mourning the loss of Tammu, a Jewish exile living in Babylon who has fallen in love with Inanna, a Babylonian priestess in the Temple of Free Love.

The visions of chaos and destruction continue unabated as Tammu lies with Inanna, and is awoken through love and some herbal induced visions - the seven planets and even the Euphrates itself bearing testimony - to the truth that their world is founded on chaos that the Gods have unleashed upon the universe. (Mozart and Schikaneder’s The Magic Flute is obviously drawn from the same sources - Tamino and Pamina recognisably relating to Tammu and Inanna). It’s this chaos that the Babylonians hold at bay through human sacrifice, a “truth” that is hidden by Ezekiel in his teachings of the Jewish law and the stories of Noah and the flood. When Tammu is chosen as the next human sacrifice however and is executed by the High Priest following the New Year celebrations, Inanna joins with the Soul in her lament for his loss. Inanna pleads with Death to allow her to journey to the Underworld to bring Tammu back.

Undoubtedly the most striking thing about Babylon is the direction of this vast undertaking by Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus, with its spectacular production designs by Roland Olbeter. Every element of the ambitious libretto, with all its mystical symbolism, dreams, visions and mythology, is presented in visual terms that aren’t merely literal, but connect on an intimate level with the music and the concepts wrapped up within it. In its seven scenes (with a prologue and an epilogue) a Tower of Babel is erected and destroyed, the seven planets appear during Tammu’s visions, the River Euphrates is personified as well as represented by a stream of words and letters that flood and overflow, seven phalluses and vulvas appear with seven apes during the New Year celebrations, flaming curtains give way to sudden downpours during the sacrifice of Tammu, and Innana wades through a seething mass of (projected) bodies, discarding seven garments (a dance of the seven veils), as she journeys into the Underworld. The stage is never static, there’s an incredible amount going on, with extraordinary detail in background projections, processions, with supernumeraries in all manner of costumes and guises.

Babylon is therefore, opera in its purest sense. The music and singing alone don’t stand up on their own, the spectacle alone isn’t enough, but the work needs each of the elements of the libretto, the music, the performance and the theatrical presentation to work together and in accord to put across everything that is ambitiously covered in the work. Widmann perhaps takes on too much across its great expanse of scenes and musical styles - cutting suddenly between twelve-tone dodecaphony, jazz, cabaret and Romanticism - to the extent that it can feel episodic and difficult to take in as an integral and consistent work. Babylon however has a solid foundation in its subject, in Kent Nagano’s marshalling and conducting of the orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper, in Padrissa’s impressive command of the visual elements, and in Anna Prohaska’s extraordinary performance as Innana that goes beyond singing. Babylon is opera in the purest sense also in that it undoubtedly needs to be experienced in a live theatrical context in order for its full power to be conveyed. On a small screen, viewed via internet streaming, the rich scope, scale and ambition of the work were nonetheless clearly evident.

OrfeoChristoph Willibald Gluck - Orfeo ed Euridice

Festival Castell de Peralada, 2011 | Gordon Nikolić, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Anita Rachvelishvili, Maite Alberola, Auxiliadora Toledano, Aline Vincent | Unitel Classica - C-Major

As an avant-garde experimental theatre group, continually expanding their techniques using the modern technology available, La Fura dels Baus don’t exactly do opera in a way that is respectful of tradition. With modern works that are less than respectful of the opera tradition itself - Weill’s anti-opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny or Ligeti’s anti-antiopera Le Grand Macabre - this can be a good thing, but it’s more questionable when applied to the works of reformist composers who had very specific ideas and theories about the nature of opera as drama. With the grand works of Wagner, on the Ring cycle and even with something like Tristan und Isolde, there is perhaps more scope for a more ambitious conceptual approach, but can the extravagant modern techniques and projections employed by La Fura dels Baus really be appropriate to a work as intimate and intentionally stripped-back to basics as Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice?

Orfeo ed Euridice was indeed the first of Gluck’s reformist works, but it would only really be in its later French incarnation Orphée et Eurydice (alongside the composer’s other important French operas Alceste and Iphigenie en Tauride), that many of the mannerisms of the Baroque opera seria were dropped. Gradually, Gluck’s works would forego the use of the harpsichord, ballet music, mechanical stage effects, recitativo secco, extravagant aria da capo singing or indeed any decorative effects that didn’t serve the progression and meaning of the drama alone, but some of these elements still remain in this first version of Orfeo et Euridice, the Vienna version from 1762. Still, it would seem to go against the spirit of a work that only has three principal roles - and the majority of it sung by only one person - to stage it as extravagantly, colourfully and spectacularly as it’s done here, using every technological tool available - projections, computer generated lighting effects, singers hanging from cables above the stage - as well as making every effort to fill the ample outdoor stage of the Castell de Peralada not only with chorus and supernumeraries, but even putting the orchestra up there on the stage as well. This surely wasn’t what Gluck intended.

Well, that depends on whether what is up there on the stage enhances the work or detracts from it, and while Carlus Padrissa goes a little overboard on special effects - he’s rather too fond of hanging singers above the stage from cables for my liking - it seems to me (as someone who holds this work in its varied incarnations in very high regard as one of the greatest works in all of opera) that everything works nonetheless in perfect accord with the music, the singing and the dramatic intent of the original work. There’s no reason why spectacle and dramatic purpose can’t co-exist. While Cupid might swing down a cable to a position above the stage then (a stunt-double is used while Auxiliadora Toledano sings off-stage), it can be seen as appropriate to elevate the messenger of the gods above the mortals below. Perching Orpheus on top of Eurydice’s stone monument could also be seen as being a little over-the-top, but the use of the same block as a tombstone to chart his descent into Hades and his ascent out of it with Eurydice, is also a relatively simple but highly effective image. It’s in the depiction of the dark fiery landscapes of Hades, the assembled masses of Furies, shades and spectres, the serene beauty of the Elysian fields and the visions of the Blessed Spirits however that the director’s vision most impressively rises to the challenges in the score with some inventive techniques, projections and lighting effects that work hand-in-hand with what the music and the drama are telling us.

The orchestra, dressed in unflattering skin-tight body suits sitting in small individual pits on a stage that is tilted towards the audience, play their part in this too. Their position leaves only a diagonal space for the funeral procession of Eurydice in Act I, which makes it look like Padrissa is simply just trying to just fill the stage and keep it visually interesting, but they also get up and move around, playing at the same time, during Act II’s descent of Orpheus into Hades. It may not be what Gluck had in mind exactly when he set about making music serve a purely dramatic function, but one could argue that the music of Orpheus does indeed have a function in fending off the Furies, and highlighting that element in visual terms is a valid technique. It is at least not just some random concept that distracts from the meaning, but is clearly one that comes from paying close intention to the drama itself, and seeking to find the best way of illustrating it. Much like Gluck did when composing the work 250 years ago, La Fura dels Baus’ production represents the same kind of modernisation of stuffy theatricality and musical academicism that the composer was reacting against, showing that opera is capable of being the most invigorating of theatrical experiences.

Whether Gluck’s score really needs all this spectacle, or whether it isn’t more than capable of being perfectly expressive in purely musical and more traditional dramatic terms, is of course debatable. I’d be less inclined to look favourably on this production if the spectacle detracted from the musical and singing performances, or if it was weak in those areas, but fortunately this is a superb account of the 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s not ideal of course to have the conductor Gordon Nikolić wandering about on the stage, leading as the first violin, and there are some minor lapses in timing when the singers don’t have visual contact with the pit, but for the most part the music, the singing and the drama all come together marvellously to pure dramatic effect to express the full power of this remarkable work. Considering the challenges then, the singers perform admirably. Anita Rachvelishvili carries the burden of the work as Orpheus well, correctly focussing on the delivery of the singing here - which isn’t always easy - and letting the score and the staging carry the dramatic intent and nuance. Maite Alberola is a powerful Eurydice, working well with Rachvelishvili dramatically and musically in their combination of voices. Auxiliadora Toledano has a wonderful brightness of tone that serves well in her role as Cupid and messenger from the Gods.

I’ve been critical of Carlus Padrissa in the past (notably for the misguided concept in the La Fura production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens), but it’s evident here from the scale that this Festival Castell de Peralada production of Orfeo ed Euridice is intended - as it should be - principally for the audience in the theatre. This presents some difficulties for the video director Tiziano Mancini, who is forced to resort to some extreme angle post-production on-stage shots, editing effects and cross-cutting, but by and large, it gets the full impact and the dynamism of the stage production across well on this Blu-ray release. The HD video transfer is superb - colourful and pinpoint clear, with good sound reproduction in PCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is all-region playable, with subtitles in Italian, German, English, French, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

MahagonnyKurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Teatro Real Madrid, 2010 | Pablo Heras Casado, Alex Ollé, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Jane Henschel, Donald Kaasch, Willard White, Measha Brueggergosman, Michael König, John Easterlin, Otto Katzameier, Steven Humes | Bel Air Media

When it was originally composed in 1930, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht intended Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) to be as much a satire of opera and a reaction to the state of the Weimar Republic. Now, when taken alongside such like-minded work contemporary works by Hindemith and Berg, it just sounds like great opera – but it still functions as a scathing satire on all the subjects it deals with, particularly the nature of capitalism, on which it still has very relevant points to make.

You can call it music theatre if you like, but Weill’s score for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is considerably more sophisticated than that, working in a variety of styles to create a deliberate alienating effect, drawing on specific references, creating dissonance and unsettling arrangements, using unexpected plot points to keep the listener engaged and keep them from complacently and unquestioningly accepting operatic conventions. It does all that and it has great tunes as well, the most notable of which, Alabama Song, sung by down-and-out prostitute Jenny Smith (”Oh, show me the way to the next Whisky Bar“), is almost like the flip-side of the Libiamo sung in celebration at the party of La Traviata’s courtesan, Violetta Valéry.

If you need any convincing that Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny can aspire to great opera however, this 2010 production at the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by La Fura dels Baus might be just the ticket. I’m not the biggest fan of La Fura – I’ve seen several of their productions fall well short of the mark – but when they get it right and are working with the right kind of material, they can succeed in a spectacular fashion. Their unconventional approach to opera staging, which could even be considered anti-theatre, certainly has a Brechtian influence, so it’s no surprise to find that that the Catalan group are absolutely perfect for this particular work.

Mahagonny

Directed by Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa, there are no projections this time – other than the titles of each of the sections (in Spanish here, not translated on the screen) – no elaborate designs, no wire acrobatics or off-the-wall concepts. Everything is tailored directly towards the expression of the ideas in the work, finding the most imaginative and impactful way of putting it across, without relying on stagy conventions. The decision then to have the the trio of Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses arrive as if dumped from a refuge collection and set about founding the City of Mahagonny on the edge of a rubbish dump is perfect for the nature of their intentions to make as much money as cheaply as possible by appealing to the lowest nature of their visitors, offering them booze, girls and boxing.

It’s important to get the basic concept in place, but the directors find the right tone for each scene, with many wonderful little touches – from Jimmy’s imagined return sea journey to Alaska with the raised legs of the hookers forming the waves, to his trial taking place in a circus ring – all of which give an additional satirical edge that not works along with the material, showing an understanding of its nature, its playfulness and its bitterness, without feeling the need to over-emphasise or add on any additional commentary. The opera is satirical of all these subjects – from the expectations of the individual to the concept of justice – all within the umbrella of the capitalist system, and it doesn’t need any specific or easy-target anti-American agenda attached for the concept to stand on its own and be applied by the listener to their own experience of the system.

Mahagonny

I’m not sure why it was chosen to use the US revision of the original opera, singing it in English and changing Jimmy Mahoney to Jimmy MacIntyre, particularly as there are a few native German speakers in the cast here and others, like Henschel, have a strong footing in German opera. If it’s another attempt at alienation effect to keep the audience guessing, then it works here. Most importantly however, the casting and singing is superb. Jane Henschel is superbly capable in the whole range from singspiel-like dialogue to more conventional opera singing, as well as being a fine actress in the role of Widow Begbick. Jenny Smith is an important piece of casting, and Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman makes an incredible impression, oozing sensuality and absolutely electric in her scenes with Michael König’s fine Jimmy MacIntyre. The balance right across the board in the other roles seems perfect, consistently hitting the right note, as do the Chorus of the Teatro Real, who give their all in the scantiest of costumes and in the most… well… indelicate situations. One can’t fault the commitment either of the Madrid orchestra under Pablo Heras Casado.

I don’t know if it’s to do with the encoding, but Bel Air releases often look a little juddery in motion on both my Blu-ray set-ups (most evident here when the Spanish captions move across the screen), and can lack definition in the darker scenes. I haven’t heard anyone else mention any issues with previous releases, so perhaps it’s specific to one’s set-up. Generally however, the image is fine, and even if movements aren’t smooth, I didn’t find it too distracting. The audio tracks, in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, are both fine, but there’s not much to choose between them. I found the PCM worked better using headphones to keep the sound focussed, and it’s very impressive this way. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a synopsis in the booklet.

TroyensHector Berlioz - Les Troyens

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, 2009 | Valery Gergiev, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Lance Ryan, Daniela Barcellona, Elisabete Matos, Gabriele Viviani, Giorgio Giuseppini, Stephen Milling, Eric Cutler, Oksana Shilova, Zlata Bulicheva | Unitel Classica - C-Major

In principle, I’m all for the approach and the use of new technology that the experimental Catalan theatre group la Fura dels Baus bring to opera productions. In practice however, I can never get past the dumb ideas that they sometimes base their concepts upon. Although I have avoided it myself, a lot of people like their Valencia Ring cycle, and I can see how their approach to total music theatre would work with Wagner (a recent production of Tristan und Isolde was handled very appropriately) – much as it suits, in principle, the dramatic theatricality of Hector Berlioz (they’ve done La Damnation de Faust in the past). In practice however, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work for me in the case of Les Troyens.

I’ve seen Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte destroyed by la Fura’s “concept” of the split in the hemispheres of the brain that could be seen as marking the divisions between enlightenment and obscurantism in that opera taken to the extreme of putting inflatable brains on the stage with the singers hanging suspended over them – a wooly concept taken over-literally that added nothing to Mozart (I won’t even get into them removing the recitative and replacing it with poems read out by French actors). The same sense of facile concept not thought-through in any meaningful way and taken over-literally applies also to the approach taken in this Fura production of Les Troyens. Thinking of the notion of a Trojan Horse in modern computer technology parlance, they apply the concept to the computer network of ancient Troy being the victim of a computer virus. Seriously.

What genius (that would be Carlus Padrissa) though it would be a great idea to take the metaphor of the Trojan Horse virus back to its source and make it literal? The phrase, “Beware of Greeks or other outside hostile agencies bearing gifts of laptops carrying viruses that may compromise the integrity of your system”, doesn’t really have all that great a ring to it. Even if you were to find this feeble concept worthy of more than a minute’s consideration, there’s little to support it in this staging, which is an impressive spectacle certainly (you are always guaranteed that at least from la Fura dels Baus), but it’s also a complete hotchpotch of ideas and concepts that look a complete mess and don’t come across particularly well on video. There’s little sense of and physical location of Troy in the first part of the opera (presented here in its entirety as originally intended as a 5-act opera, rather than two operas), but I suppose in this version it is supposed to be a virtual world. Quite why the cast are dressed in sports padding, hockey helmets, Tae kwon-do outfits and what looks like Stormtroopers costumes from Star Wars is however anyone’s guess.

Troyens

There are nonetheless impressively staged scenes mixing projections and live action – and inevitably, much wire work, hanging singers and acrobats from cables – which enhances the nightmarish visions of Cassandra and representing the death of Laco’on well in the first half. The idea of designing Carthage as a particle accelerator to represent the idea of a modern technical paradise in the second half of the opera (Acts III to IV) at least carries the concept through, the Trojans spreading their virus before leaving for an ideal (in Mars!) and it looks impressive – but really, does this bring anything meaningful out of the work, or is it just half-baked concepts and Cirque du Soleil spectacle? More often however, the spectacle doesn’t really come to life, failing to find anything meaningful to do in the ballet sequences – a boxing match? a fashion parade of warrior fetish costumes? – and it is actually quite static, particularly when compared to the active, inventive and always impressive production at the Châtelet.

Conducted by Valery Gergiev, the Valencia production at least remains hugely entertaining from a musical viewpoint, although I wouldn’t put it above the John Eliot Gardner version. The singing is mostly of a good standard, particularly the two female leads Elisabete Matos (Cassandra) and Daniela Barcellona (Dido), but again, personally, I prefer the performances of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Susan Graham in the Châtelet production. Gregory Kunde is however certainly a better Aeneas than Lance Ryan here, who I thought delivered everything in a dreary declamatory fashion and in a tone that becomes unpleasantly nasal on the high notes. His poor diction moreover painfully murders the French libretto.

The quality of the Blu-ray itself – the entire opera on a single BD50 disc – is reasonably good, the image as clear as it can be on a dark stage that uses a lot of back and front-screen projections. The audio tracks – PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 HD master audio – are both fine, if there is little to choose between them. Overall, if you don’t think too much about the terrible concept and are able to simply just enjoy the spectacle of the staging, this isn’t a bad version of Les Troyens, and it’s certainly well performed – but there is a much better version out there already on Blu-ray in terms of production values, spectacle and overall quality of the performance.