Guth, Claus


ArianePaul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2011 | Stéphane Denêve, Claus Guth, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, José van Dam, Patricia Bardon, Gemma Coma-Alabert, Beatriz Jiménez, Elena Copons, Salomé Haller, Alba Valldaura, Pierpaolo Palloni, Xavier Martínez, Dimitar Darlev | Opus Arte

There are many meanings and cautionary messages that can be drawn from the fairytales of Charles Perrault, but ‘Bluebeard‘ - the tale of an aristocratic serial killer who murders his wives - is surely one of the most gruesome and darkly enigmatic. Even more so in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, the version penned by the Symbolist Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande, who himself adapted the work - again practically intact - as a libretto for the French composer Paul Dukas. Comparisons with Debussy’s opera - written only five years previously in 1902 - are inevitable, but if the musical influences that Dukas draws from are more evident and less distinctive than Debussy, the turn of the 20th century psychological exploration of the characters through the combination of Maeterlinck’s words and Dukas’s music is no less endlessly fascinating and deeply compelling.

In Maeterlinck’s hands, the perspective of the Bluebeard folktale is rather different from Perrault’s, the dark horror and cautionary note of the serial killer storyline rather less prominent than the exploration of the psychology of the female protagonists who seem to willingly submit to the thrall of masculine power and domination through marriage. The story here does indeed touch on the dark fascination of female curiosity for the violent danger of a male sexuality that simultaneously attracts and repels. In Maeterlinck’s story, Bluebeard’s latest bride, Ariane, has given herself in marriage to the notorious aristocrat who is believed to have murdered his previous five wives, but she has not submitted entirely to his authority. The six silver keys he has given that open doors to wonderful treasures represent the rewards and the boundaries of what Ariane can expect by following the rules set out by the marriage - each of the doors opening to rooms containing amethysts, sapphires, pearls, emeralds, rubies and, finally, diamonds - pure and eternal. That doesn’t stop Ariane however from opening the forbidden door locked by the gold key - “After diamonds, there can only be fire and death”, she observes.

The final door inevitably holds the secret to the fate of Bluebeard’s previous five wives, and it relates to some extent to a female curiosity based on an urge on the part of Ariane to explore the sexual history of her husband. While there is some psychological exploration of that impulse that verges on self-destructive, Maeterlinck and Dukas use that drive towards a more progressive feminist view in Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Ariane may driven by unknown impulses and working to guidelines set out by Bluebeard, but she is not in the thrall of the “enchantment” of her husband in the same way as the other wives. Their charms - the flaming hair of Mélisande, the delicate arms of Ygraine, the fair shoulders of Bellangère - have been hidden by marriage, whereas Ariane is forceful and secure in asserting her own personality and determined to help the other women achieve their own independence and expression. Like Pelléas et Mélisande however, Maeterlinck’s work and symbolism defies any simple allegorical meaning and one shouldn’t be strictly be applied to the exclusion of other resonances and mysteries that lie within it.

Although it is rather more emphatic in highlighting the specifics of the drama and the words than Debussy, Dukas’ score also hints at those other meanings and ambiguities. The references to Debussy’s impressionism may be apparent - just as Maeterlinck uses characters from his other works (like Mélisande) for Bluebeard’s wives - but Dukas more obviously draws from Wagner and particularly Strauss in Salome (in the scoring of the dark undercurrents in the relationship between Salome and Jochanaan) for more explicit, direct expression. It’s a fascinating and rich musical exploration by Dukas in his only opera work, powerful, beautiful and modern, possibly even more influential than Debussy’s unique and inimitable opera, with the associations and female psychology explored here evidently influential on Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s fairytale-like Die Frau ohne Schatten and its extraordinary use of female voices is matched only by Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

Considering the psychological nature of the work and the necessity of allowing its openness, ambiguity and symbolism to speak for itself, it’s perhaps not surprising that director Claus Guth doesn’t follow the libretto too literally. He avoids what would now be considered clichéd imagery in the opening scene of mobs of angry townspeople bearing pitchforks and firebrands, as the latest young bride seems to go willingly to her doom in Bluebeard’s castle. The castle here is nothing more than a modern suburban residence, but it’s what it represents that is important, and evidently the house is Bluebeard himself and it’s the uncomfortable and dangerous nature of the masculinity that Ariane examines, challenges and delves into, not only opening doors, but breaking through the surface of the floor to the horrors that lie underneath. The set design works well in this respect, keeping the visuals clean, simple and symbolic, allowing the singers the necessary space to express the layers of meaning that lie within Maeterlinck’s libretto and Dukas’ seething score.

Much of the power of the work is indeed delivered through the scoring for powerful mezzo-soprano and contralto female voices and this cast proves to be highly effective in conveying its force. Ariane requires a strong Wagnerian soprano to express her character’s inner strength of personality and purposefulness and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s rich tone is commanding and persuasive, yet sensitive to the shimmering suggestion of the score. She is well supported by an equally strong and wonderfully measured Patricia Bardon as the nurse, but all of the female cast here are impressive here as the other wives, although Gemma Coma-Alabert’s fiery Sélysette is the only one with a significant role. As the male at the centre of the work, Bluebeard is evidently an important role in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, even if the singing is limited to only a few lines. José van Dam - who has mostly retired from big-scale stage productions - is no longer in possession of a voice as commanding as it once was, but there’s consequently a vulnerability as well as a necessary strength of personality here that puts an interesting spin on his Barbe-bleue.

This is an extremely rare work but one that deserves to be better known, and - appearing for the first time on either DVD or Blu-ray - this is a marvellous production of a fascinating work, emphatically delivered with force and sensitivity by the orchestra of the Liceu under Stéphane Denêve. The quality of the Blu-ray’s HD image and high resolution sound mixes ensures that the performance is given the best possible presentation. I personally found the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix a little too open, and that it suited the more direct stereo PCM mix better, with the full detail of the orchestration clearer through headphones. Other than a Cast Gallery, there are no extra features on the disc, but the booklet contains a good essay by Gavin Plumley, whose reading of Ariane striking out towards the 20th century while the others refuse to take the freedom offered is a good one, and there’s a full, detailed synopsis. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Japanese and Korean.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Claus Guth, Alexander Pereira, Michael Volle, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Guy de Mey, Elena Moşuc, Emily Magee, Gabriel Bermúdez | TDK

Claus Guth’s opera productions are known for being psychologically-based – delving into an old, familiar work – as in his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, or in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – and seeing whether a more modern outlook and a wider consideration of the composer’s intentions can’t illuminate some aspects of the characters’ behaviour. As such, it would seem that Guth has had all his work done for him when it comes to this 2006 production for the Opernhaus Zürich of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about the composing of an opera that is so self-reflexive that it surely doesn’t need any further deconstruction.

One wonders whether Strauss was thinking in part about his own opera Der Rosenkavalier, when he came to write Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about an opera that mixes opera seria with opera buffa, that is played out in the most farcical, old fashioned and self-absorbed manner, while at the same time making a comment on serious deeper underlying aspects that the farce helps illuminate. Der Rosenkavalier is even self-reflexive itself on the nature of opera composition, on the history of opera, on the ability of opera to mix singing, drama and music, to be able to mix serious elements and low-brow comedy and through this unusual combination of elements be able to reach deeper truths about life, about love, about time and our place in it all.

It’s already been done in Der Rosenkavalier, so is there anything else that can be brought out of the idea by making the idea the entire purpose of Ariadne auf Naxos? Well, in the very premise – a wealthy patron decides to combine two operas that he has commissioned, one a commedia dell’arte farce, the other a serious treatment of a classical subject, so that both will be finished in time to entertain his guests with a fireworks display at 9 o’clock – there’s certainly a satire on the commerce of opera. Opera can aspire to high art, but it also needs to entertain and the two need not be mutually exclusive. There’s also a great deal of satire involved at the expense of the precious composer who cannot bear to see others destroy all his work and serious intentions, who also has to deal with the conflicting demands of his leading singers and their egos.

If the prologue is almost stultifyingly predictable in its high-brow cleverness and in the so-called comedy of this set-up – played out largely unmusically in near-recitative parlando – the proof of the concept is in the “opera” itself. Even using commedia dell’arte standard character type and classical archetypes, the manner in which they collide with each other brings out underlying truths about human nature in each of them, aided and assisted by the power of music, “the holiest of arts”. Thus the humble Zerbinetta, seemingly at ease and taking pleasure in the nature of love affairs between men and women, is nonetheless able to understand the deep suffering that Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, is undergoing, but although “the grief of illustrious and noble persons mustn’t be measured by the standards of mere mortals”, Zerbinetta asks, “But are we not both women?”, and she herself has been abandoned to countless desert islands. When Bacchus arrives then, himself in torment, Ariadne recognises that her suffering hasn’t been in vain, but rather leaves her born anew, with a new god to worship – not man as a god, but the love that springs up in this new ground that lies between them – and Zerbinetta smiles in silent recognition.

In some ways, the truth of Ariadne auf Naxos and the collision between life and art is borne out in the actual difficulties of its composition and the struggle between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to strike a balance between communicating ideas through the words and expressing it in the music – an idea developed further in Capriccio – making the opera entertaining and having something important to say, while also being comprehensible. Out of the dialectic collision in Ariadne auf Naxos (and Der Rosenkavalier) of the German opera influences of Mozart’s buffa tragic-comedies and Wagner’s lyrical romanticism, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hope to demonstrate their theory and move towards a more modern form of opera. It may not be considered as important or as revolutionary as Wagner’s theories (the musical and thematic concerns of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are very evident in Ariadne auf Naxos), or Gluck’s before him, and the balance between theory and practice may not be entirely satisfactory, but it would lead the way to further developments in Strauss’s career and have an undeniable impact on the modern form of opera as we know it today.

Ariadne

That the opera itself is set in the present, or in a relatively modern context as opposed to its antiquity or commedia dell’arte setting, isn’t unexpected from Claus Guth – but what is strange is that at least up until the close of the double curtains, there is never any sense of it being an opera – a compromised opera – within an opera. The meta-level of the Prologue is kept almost completely separate from the main opera (apart of course from the flawed human actors who are metamorphosed through the magic of opera into exquisite beings) and it is played completely straight, notwithstanding the fact that the setting – not an island, but a detailed representation of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich, where Ariadne is lamenting her woes over a bottle of wine – is much too elaborate to be a small production for assembled guests at a dinner party.

Going to such detail and with such realism, one has to conclude that Guth clearly wants to make the opera meaningful to a Swiss audience, drawing lines between the aristocracy and the lower classes in the split between the serious and the comedy, between the mythological characters and the opera buffa characters, and is trying to find something relevant to the operas themes in this opera-class conflict. Perhaps a Swiss audience is able to derive some deeper meaning from this than myself, but it’s certainly a valid aim to present a 21st century take on an opera that is itself a 20th century take on older styles of opera composition, continually refreshing it and exploring the contrasts for some new resonance.

Much as I find some aspects of Ariadne unsatisfying as an opera – mostly with it trying just too hard to be clever and witty – it does at least have this to always making it interesting and always capable of revealing new ideas. If that fails – and I’m not sure it works terribly well in this case, only adding to the self-referential complexity – there is at least always the most beautiful music and singing in the monologues of Ariadne and Zerbinetta, Strauss as ever writing beautifully for women’s voices, and in particular putting some of the most challenging singing in the entire opera repertoire into the role of Zerbinetta. The singing in this production is superb – Elena Moşuc a vibrant Zerbinetta, Emily Magee a strong, elegant Ariadne, Roberto Saccà a beautifully lyrical tenor Bacchus – but then in this opera, it really can’t be anything else.

TDK’s Blu-ray of the production is fine, the transfer showing the detail in the well-lit sets. Audio options are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1, the surround track having the advantage of the wider range and sounding marvellous. Other than a couple of Trailers, there are no extra features, interviews or looks behind-the-scenes.

GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festspiele, 2008 | Wiener Philharmoniker, Bertrand de Billy, Claus Guth, Christopher Maltman, Erwin Schrott, Anatoly Kocherga, Annette Dasch, Matthew Polenzani | Euroarts

Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni seems to be the one with themes that make it more open to modern day re-envisioning and reinterpretation. And it’s not so much the subject of the amorous activities of a philandering nobleman that make the opera so timeless as much as the underlying themes of passion, revenge, power and conquest, or - as in this particular production for the 2008 Salzburg Festval - the question of honour.

Accordingly, there’s something of a Godfather feel to the tempestuous Latin passions of love and revenge here that feels perfectly appropriate, the production approaching the opera from a different angle while remaining perfectly true to the strengths of Mozart’s score and the themes of Da Ponte’s wonderful libretto, full of wit and wisdom. It’s certainly more complex and nuanced on the subject of relationships between male and female than their rather more buffa treatment of the subject in Così Fan Tutte. To cite just one example, look at Donna Elvira’s complex feelings for Don Giovanni, expressing hatred, contempt and frustration for Giovanni, but at the same time her actions are fuelled by a deep love and an irrational but no less sincere hope for his redemption.

The staging here is limited entirely to a dark woods setting, but imaginatively deployed on a revolving stage which gives a wonderful three-dimensional quality to the production (well directed for the screen, as ever, by Brian Large). As well observed as the references and updating are - the staging never compromising the integrity of a truly great opera - the performances here are just as nuanced, powerful and dramatic, Christopher Maltman’s near-deranged, wild-eyed obsessive Don Giovanni brilliantly balanced and vocally matched with Erwin Schrott’s amusingly twitchy Leporello. The score is magnificently interpreted, drawing the full darkness and energy out of the opera, as well as bringing out its underlying tenderness and tragedy. In this respect, in addition to strong singing you would expect from all the major roles, Matthew Polenzani gives one of the most sensitive and sympathetic readings of Don Ottavio that I’ve seen for this opera.

The image quality on the Blu-ray - once it takes its time to actually load-up onto the player - is fine, while the orchestration is given a fine presentation in the DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix, centrally located and unshowy on the surrounds, and beautifully toned. The singing initially seems a little echoing in this mix, occasionally overwhelmed by the music, but it’s generally good and seems to improve by the end of the first Act. The PCM Stereo mix gives the singing a better stage, but at the cost of the fine separation of the orchestration.

This is not the most traditional production of Don Giovanni, and it certainly isn’t the best I’ve seen or heard, the limitations of the woods setting losing some of the familiar elements that usually make it work so well as a drama (traditionalists will be disappointed by a bus timetable in place of a Register of the Don’s conquests, no masks on the wedding guests, a Burger King take-away for a dinner-party, twigs for the Commendatore’s statue and certainly no flames at the finale), but that’s balanced with a reasonably fresh take on the themes, some strong singing and fine acting that is more naturalistic than the usual operatic gesturing, and a fascinating visual presentation in terms of its design and conceptualisation.