Tcherniakov, Dmitri


TrovatoreGiuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Marc Minkowski, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Scott Hendricks, Misha Didyk, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Marina Poplavskaya, Giovanni Furlanetto | La Monnaie Internet Streaming - 15 June 2012

There’s a case to be made for putting a little distance between the drama and the telling of it in Verdi’s potboiler, Il Trovatore. The plot is a difficult one to carry-off convincingly - a gypsy curse, a witch burned at the stake, a child kidnapped in revenge and thrown into the burning embers by the daughter of the gypsy, the whole affair creating hidden secrets and unrevealed identities. As it happens, all of these melodramatic events are kept at a certain distance already, the dark history related at the start of the opera by the Captain of the Guard at the start of Act I, and with a different spin put on it by the gypsy Azucena in Act II. Storytelling is moreover part and parcel of the whole work, Leonora relating her encounter and love for a handsome dark stranger, the opera itself getting its title from a troubadour, a wandering lyrical storyteller.

It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Dmitri Tcherniakov stages Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore at La Monnaie in Brussels with the framing device of it being related, relived and re-enacted at some date in the future by the main protagonists. Considering the bloody fates of many of those characters, it is however a bit of a stretch to imagine them meeting up some years later on the instigation of Azucena. Like some Agatha Christie mystery where the main suspects have been assembled, the five main characters in Verdi’s drama turn up in the silent prologue - Leonora in a dark wig and wearing sunglasses, Manrico in a snakeskin jacket - greet each other after years of separation or warily edge around each other as Azucena locks the door to the room, keeping them captive there to work through the events that have occurred in order to “shed light on the tragic past that has united their destinies”.

In this way the director also removes many of the old traditional stage conventions and tired mannerisms that have become associated with this old standard, which itself has become a story that is just related, its heavy delivery and declamation detaching the work any sense of real meaning that might once have lain behind it (although one doubts that there are any serious intentions behind this Verdi opera). In Tcherniakov’s production this is no 15th century Spain in the Aragon region, there are no Biscay mountains here, no convent or nuns and there’s no traditional Anvil Chorus. The chorus is there, but they remain off-stage at all times, the work - one of Verdi’s most bombastic - reduced in the process to a chamber piece. Most significantly, the cast are thus reduced entirely down to five people, Inez and Ruiz among those roles which are not actually suppressed but sung through the doubling up of roles in the small cast - an idea that fits in fine with the role-playing concept. The whole opera is there, it’s just reduced to taking place within the confines of a single room.

If the intention is to similarly downplay the singing, then that’s achieved with the performances here, although some might think that the singing lacks the necessary dynamic, power and expansiveness. It’s an interesting cast then, but not one that particularly impresses. Scott Hendricks comes across the best here as the Conte di Luna, letting himself go with the flow of the concept, although he does also have perhaps the most expressive role in the opera. Misha Didyk is not my kind of Verdi singer, although with his choked back anguished delivery lacking any variety in vocal expression and showing no real acting ability, I’m not fond of his style of singing in Russian opera either. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is a smaller-scale Azucena than is usually required, but she suits the tone here, as does Marina Poplavskaya as Leonora. Her technique isn’t always the smoothest when making the transition to the higher notes, but she has exactly that kind of expressive voice that is needed to bring depth to characterisation. She looks a little uncomfortable here however, a little restricted perhaps by the concept, and was surprisingly absent from the curtain call (”unwell” according to conductor Marc Minkowski when he took to the stage). Giovanni Furlanetto sang well as Ferrando (and Ruiz).

Overall however, Tcherniakov’s direction felt a bit weak, cutting away much of the baggage of the work certainly, but also restricting the drama with a concept that didn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. One might be happy to make some allowances in credibility to see something fresh and new brought out that would shed new light on Il Trovatore, but other than one or two scenes - the closing bloodbath ending certainly registered the requisite shocks - this was rarely achieved in dramatic terms. Musically however, Marc Minkowski’s conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra - his first time conducting Verdi - was much more interesting, his treatment suiting Tcherniakov’s idea of a chamber production, while at the same time indeed finding the strengths in Verdi’s score and successfully getting its underlying power across without unnecessary overemphasis. Otherwise the overall impression was that there was quite a bit of heat generated here, but not enough fire.

CarmelitesFrancis Poulenc - Dialogues des Carmélites

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Kent Nagano, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Alain Vernhes, Susan Gritton, Bernard Richter, Sylvie Brunet, Soile Isokoski, Susanne Resmark, Hélène Guilmette, Heike Grötzinger, Anaïk Morel, Kevin Conners | Bel Air Classiques

Clever modern concept stagings of opera are all very well in the right place and with the right kind of opera. Sometimes however, it just seems perverse to take them out of their original context, particularly when the opera applies to a specific historical period or event that is explicitly referred to in the libretto. There seems little value then in “updating” Poulenc’s 1956 opera Dialogues des Carmélites away from its French Revolutionary setting or the historical incident in 1794 where sixteen nuns from a Carmelite convent in Compiègne were executed for resisting the confiscation of the church’s assets and the dissolution of the order.

You just know however that a controversial director like Dmitri Tcherniakov is never going to go down a conventional route, or even find an intermediary space (like the fine 2008 Nikolaus Lehnhoff production in Hamburg), where the actual themes of the opera beyond the historical setting can be examined, themes relating to the question of life in the face of death, fear of death and the nature of martyrdom for a cause. No, Tcherniakov doesn’t follow any expected route, but what clearly is his intention – as it is in all his productions, whether they actually work for an audience or not – is to attempt to cut the distance between the themes that are sometimes obscured by an overly elaborate and literal period setting, and strip back the staging in order to give the music and the singing the necessary environment that will allow provoke a reaction in the viewer towards the subtext. In the right kind of opera, it’s not so much about imposing a concept or an interpretation or being deliberately obscure for the sake of it, as allowing the audience the space to relate to the themes in their own personal way.

Whether that is achieved in this production of Dialogues des Carmélites recorded at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich is however debatable, as the staging seems to do its utmost to actually distance itself from the audience and box it into its own little world (the box within a box idea is also used in Tcherniakov’s staging for Verdi’s Macbeth, released by Bel Air alongside this). The period is non-specific but modern (even though the De la Force family still have a servant and chauffeur-driven coach), and Blanche de la Force certainly doesn’t enter any traditional kind of convent where the nuns wear habits. Perhaps reflecting Blanche’s fear of the world outside – and despite the Prioress Madame de Croissy’s insistence that it is not a refuge – the convent does resemble a women’s refuge, with all the sisters wearing heavy woollen cardigans and sensible skirts, all nursing mugs of hot tea.

There is no reason however why the questions that arise in the opera – making sense of life in the face of approaching death, finding order and meaning in it, and examining how each person individually comes to terms with their mortality – can’t be examined outside of the historical context of the French revolution. Poulenc based the opera on a play by Georges Bernanos, which in turn was based on an original 1931 novel by Gertrud von le Fort (’Die Letzte am Schafott‘), which itself used the subject as a means of commenting on German social disorder following the fall of the Weimar Republic – so it’s certainly artistically valid for Tcherniakov to update the work if it’s in the service of throwing a new light on the themes. What is rather more controversial is that the director radically changes the original ending – which is a really powerful conclusion. Tchernaikov’s finale, which practically turns the original on its head, is just as powerful and dramatic in its own right, but whether it “improves” or casts any further light on the actions of Blanche de la Force is debatable. It could just be that it’s the complete disregard of the traditional approach that is what is really shocking about the ending here, and it results in an equal amount of audible booing and cheers at the director’s curtain call.

At the very least however, Tcherniakov’s staging forces the audience to think about the subject again in a different way, and it’s an opera that really does have a lot of deeper subtexts to be drawn out of it. What makes this production even more worthwhile in this respect is the conducting of Kent Nagano. The music in Dialogues des Carmélites can be a little strange and unsettling, even with some hauntingly beautiful melodies that evoke Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélissande, but Nagano seems to bring out those ambiguous qualities of the opera and its similarities to Debussy even more strongly, with a greater sense of warmth and harmony than, for example the Hamburg production. That harmony and warmth is also more evident in the singing – although not in every case – so I wouldn’t necessarily say that one is better than the other, but I certainly find the interpretation here much more intriguing, creating new resonances and opening up the opera in an unexpected way.

Whether the staging works or not in a live context, it certainly doesn’t come across well on DVD or Blu-ray. The majority of the opera takes place (as you can see from the cover) within a boxed room on the stage. This means that crossbeams frequently get in the way, obscuring the view of the singers, which is further hampered by a gauze screen that softens the image, desaturates the colours and causes hazy netting effects. The HD reproduction of this consequently isn’t good, and the encoding doesn’t really help matters, looking rather blurry in movements. Between the net effect and the encoding, this does appear to be a visually substandard release. (Although the cover states it’s a BD25 disc it is however, as you would expect, BD50 – ie. dual-layer). The audio tracks are better, the singing mostly clear, the orchestration warm and enveloping, but also revealing a good amount of colour and detail. It’s no match for the precise crystalline clarity of the DTS HD-MA 7.1 mix on the Hamburg Staatsoper production, and if you would prefer a more faithful version of the opera I would highly recommend that release, but there are enough intriguing elements in the Nagano/Tcherniakov production to make this certainly worth your time.

MacbethGiuseppe Verdi - Macbeth

Opéra National de Paris, 2009 | Teodor Currentzis, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Dimitris Tiliakos, Violeta Urmana, Furruccio Furlanetto, Letitia Singleton, Stefano Secco, Alfredo Nigro, Yuri Kissin | Bel Air Classiques

Dmitri Tcherniakov (now there’s a name to strike fear into the heart of every lover of traditional opera stagings) comes up with an interesting concept for this 2009 production for the Paris Opera. He sees the Scottish play in terms of a kind of American Beauty satire of modern life, with GoogleEarth-style 3-D overhead projections zooming into the map of a small surburban town, where we are treated to a peak through the windows into the drawing room of one particular moderately wealthy middle-class family. There erupts a power battle of social climbing, domestic disputes, vanity and identity crises that culminates in moral, social and personal breakdown.

That’s all very well, but Macbeth is Macbeth and American Beauty is American Beauty, and I imagine that some people would rather that the two remain entirely separate entities – except Verdi’s Macbeth was never really Shakespeare in the first place. Verdi does revenge and revolution well, and he also does drawing room melodrama well (it’s hard to beat La Traviata for that), and it’s hard to see Verdis Macbeth – which is certainly more domestic than political – as anything other than a Verdi opera, resounding with cries of “Vendetta!”. In the Italian translation, there’s little of Shakespeare’s poetry here (although the English subtitles do attempt to bring it back to the source drama), so if it’s all right for Verdi to adapt it to his favourite themes, isn’t it ok for Tcherniakov to adapt it in a way that it relates to a modern-day audience?

Well, evidently that’s for the individual to decide, but although it’s not without its problems, this production of Macbeth is spectacularly staged and sung, with real feeling for the piece and the underlying psychology that it exposes. Principally, there are only two real sets, one for the drawing room drama, the other for the people of the revolution (the people and the three witches converted into a kind of neighbourhood watch) – which perfectly captures the Verdian division of the essence of the drama. The sets are simple, but imaginatively employed, with dark clouds projected over the street scenes, the 3-D graphics superb for all the scene-setting that is required, and the drama within them is brilliantly and effectively staged. Banco’s death, for example, avoids all the usual on-stage dramatic clichés, and he is found left slumped on the ground as a whirlwind of people disperse.

Whether you buy into the staging or not, the performances are absolutely marvellous. Dimitris Tiliakos’ beautifully soft-toned baritone and his sensitive acting performance (again no opera theatrics here) make for a complex and nuanced Macbeth, working in perfect coordination with an equally intriguing Violeta Urmana, who also avoids all the usual Lady Macbeth clichés and even manages a few conjouring tricks while singing with conviction and personality. Furruccio Furlanetto, in duffel coat, is a superb Banco and Teodor Currentzis conducts the Paris orchestra through a powerful and dynamic rendition of the opera, which is as it should be.

Although quite minimalist, Tcherniakov’s set causes some problems with audio and video reproduction, but the issues are relatively minor. With much of it taking place within a box on the stage, the sound isn’t always as dynamic as it could be, and the choruses aren’t quite as full-bodied as you might like, but the detail is there and the impact is fully achieved with a definite woomph to those big Verdi moments. The staging also takes place behind a fine mesh screen, which slightly softens the image (although it suits the tone and lighting of this production), but the netting is only really evident in close-up and is not a major problem. The disc also includes an excellent 32 minute feature which gives a good idea of the ideas and personalities behind the production, with interviews and rehearsal footage.

GamblerSergei Prokofiev - The Gambler

Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin, 2008 | Daniel Barenboim, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Vladimir Ognovenko, Kristine Opolais, Misha Didyk, Stefania Toczyska | Unitel Classica - C-Major

Dostoevsky’s short novella The Gambler is usually paired in book form with Poor Folk, the two stories reflecting rather contrasting themes and styles, but also in a way complementing each other. In Poor Folk, (if memory serves me correctly) a letter-writing couple find that their choices are limited, and the nature of their love defined and denied by the more pressing efforts put into simply struggling to exist. The characters in The Gambler on the other hand may appear to have so much money that they can fritter thousands away on the spin of a roulette wheel, but in reality they are similarly trapped in a lifestyle that restricts and distorts their course of their lives and their actions towards other people. In many ways both stories say a lot about social distinctions, but more in a way that reveals various attitudes and aspects of the Russian character.

Prokofiev’s opera version of The Gambler adheres fairly closely to the characters, themes and narrative of Dostoevsky’s book, the action set in a resort town of Roulettenburg, where the General, his family and entourage are staying at a hotel and making use of its casino. Alexsy, the tutor, has recklessly lost all of the General’s step-daughter Polina’s money on a game of roulette, but is determined to do everything he can to not so much win it back – though that would help – as much as win her favour. Polina however is toying with him, at the same time as accepting the advances of the Marquis, urging Alexsy on to act outrageously towards Baron and Baroness Wurmerhelm. The General meanwhile is in serious debt to the Marquis, but is expecting to gain an inheritance from the imminent demise of his mother. His engagement to Blanche rests on this inheritance also, since it is clear that she will not stick around unless the money comes through. To everyone’s great surprise however, the ailing old lady, Babulenka, thought to be on the point of death, turns up in Roulettenburg, with her own ideas on how to spend her money.

Composed in 1916, The Gambler is a little-known and rarely performed early Prokofiev work, and it’s not the easiest opera to like. It’s filled with unsympathetic, rather hateful characters whose sense of reality and the nature of their relationships with other people have been corrupted by money.  The music and singing moreover are not exactly harmonious – you won’t find any hummable arias here. On the other hand, the rising fever pitch that eventually explodes in Act 4 (with some magnificent singing in the last two Acts) is perfectly appropriate for qualities and themes of Dostoevsky’s work, and those are brought out exceptionally well in controversial director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging for the 2008 production at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin. A modern-day staging (there’s nothing in this opera that fixes it in any period, and the themes are completely relevant and modern), Tcherniakov assists in putting across the complexity of the relationships between the characters by allowing different rooms of the hotel and casino to be seen simultaneously in a kind of split-screen form, adding to the picture we have of the personalities, even contradicting and contrasting what is being said by the characters with what is really going on behind the scenes.

Prokofiev’s score does much the same thing, underscoring the behaviour of the characters with emphatic woodwind trills, staccato strings and deep notes from the brass section. The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the Blu-ray disc is marvellous for capturing the huge dynamic range of the score, balancing the mix superbly between the singing and the orchestra. Partly that’s down to the scoring being composed not to compete with the singing but rather support it, partly that’s down to Barenboim’s management of the orchestra, and partly it’s down to the excellent surround mix. Consequently the singing dominates and is strong and clear, but when the orchestral parts and flourishes are called for, they are almost overwhelmingly powerful. The 1080/60i transfer is perfectly clear, the direction for television (with some side-stage angles) capturing the flow of what is occurring on the stage. Other than some brief notes in the booklet, there are no extra features on the disc.