Selig, Franz-Josef


PoppeaClaudio Monteverdi - L’incoronazione di Poppea

Gran Theatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2009 | Harry Bicket, David Alden, Miah Persson, Sarah Connolly, Jordi Domenèch, Franz-Josef Selig, Maite Beaumont, Ruth Rosique, Dominique Visse, Guy de Mey, William Berger, Judith van Wanroij, Francisco Vas, Josep Miquel Ramón, Marisa Martins, Olatz Saitua | Opus Arte

As if it’s not enough to be attributed with inventing opera itself – the first through-composed work being L’Orfeo in 1607 – Monteverdi advanced the artform even further with his last work, L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643), written at the age of 76. Previously operas were based only on classic mythological subjects – opera being a 17th century attempt to return to the ideals of Ancient Greek drama, which was then believed to have had a musical form – but, having moved into public theatres, and no longer a diversion for royalty and nobility, L’incoronazione di Poppea would be the first opera to deal with a historical subject and real people. The composer (there is still uncertainty about the authorship of the work, some believing that parts of the work at least may have been written by one of Monteverdi’s students) takes full advantage of this fact, revelling in the possibilities of extending the qualities associated with the musical-dramatic form to show less elevated and more down-to-earth human behaviour.

Directing Monteverdi’s final opera for the Liceu in Barcelona in 2009, David Alden emphasises this aspect in his colourful, modernised production (first produced in Munich in 1997) which certainly takes liberties with the characters and the setting to draw out the bawdiness and humour that is undoubtedly a part of the work, while Harry Bicket’s sensitive conducting of the Liceu’s Baroque orchestra finds the delicacy and sensitivity that it also part of the make-up of the human historical figures caught up in the drama of Nero’s reign in Rome around AD72. It’s a tricky proposition not only to achieve that magnificent balance, but also to find a way to make a 350 year-old work as vital and meaningful to a modern audience as it would have been to its original intended public. There’s no one right way to this, but it helps if you can achieve some balance between the traditional and the modern that captures the spirit of the work.

For Monteverdi, the Prologue to the opera sets out this clash between classicism and modernity in his new approach to representing historical drama in opera, where the typically allegorical figures of Virtue and Fortune battle it out for supremacy only to concede that it’s Love that holds greater sway in human affairs. In this story of revenge, infidelity, murder, lies and deceit, Virtue really doesn’t get a look in. Within this framework, away from the classical allusions to gods and mythological figures, Monteverdi finds a whole new wealth of emotions and personalities – most of them not entirely noble or honourable – to be explored through his innovative musical approach to continuo instrumentation, recitative and arioso. Busenello’s libretto also revels in the irreverence of the satire of these historical figures and the scandalous behaviour depicted, and, in its own way, Alden’s production taps into this for its rich vein of humour and presents it in a way which may be more meaningful to a modern audience.

Poppea

If that approach at times resembles that of a Carry On film, that’s perhaps not as inappropriate as it sounds for this particular work. There is a great deal of sauciness in how Monteverdi and Busenello treat the scandalous behaviour of Nero’s infidelities and Poppea’s scheming. There is real passion in the seductive lines in which Nero and the music describe the hold that Poppea has over him, and there is some suggestiveness and homoeroticism in Nero and Lucan’s drunken celebration at having overthrown the stabilising influence of Seneca, but the activities of the Emperor and his affair with Poppea seems to promote a general licentiousness and scheming elsewhere among their associates. Brought together in this way, if Drusilla were to ask Ottone “Is that an axe in your trousers or are you just pleased to see me?”, or Nero to exclaim, “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in f’ me!”, it wouldn’t be any more out of place than what is actually suggested there in the music and the libretto itself.

That’s essentially how Alden approaches this aspect of the work, using incongruity to play up the humour in the situation. Hence we have Roman soldiers lolling about on a red leather sofa-bed, much play on the cross-dressing and travesti roles (Nero is usually played by a female soprano, as it is here, but it can be done with a tenor), and obvious visual jokes such as the page Valletto being dressed as an old-fashioned hotel pageboy from 1930s movies, and the Nurse dressed in – yes, you guessed it – a medical uniform. The production creates a recognisable environment then for the modern viewer to relate to, one that is attractively designed with plenty of variety in the arrangements, beautifully lit and coloured, witty, ironic and referential without being overly-clever, keeping the spirit of that aspect of the work intact.

There is however much more to L’incoronazione di Poppea than that and the directorial approach is not quite so successful when it comes to approaching the more lyrical qualities of the work. This is best demonstrated by Seneca’s death scene, which should be one of the most moving moments in the whole opera, but it fails to strike the right tone here. Musically, it’s perfect. Harry Bicket’s arrangement and Franz-Josef Selig’s bass have the right measure of gravity, nobility and tragedy, but the staging and the curiously dressed pupils of the philosopher work against the deeper implications that this event is to have on the subsequent course of events. Much of the balance in the production is left then to Bicket and the Baroque orchestra of the Liceu to pick up and, indeed, they do so brilliantly. It’s a sparser arrangement that doesn’t have the same rhythmic verve as the 1993 René Jacobs recording (on Arthaus DVD) that I am familiar with, but every note of the sparingly used chitarrone and harpsichord continuo is beautifully weighed and balanced, all the more to highlight the flute, harp and other affetto instrumentation that gives colour to the characters and emotions through their arias.

Poppea

The emotion and verve of the singing and acting performances also makes up for the slight lack of dynamic in the staging. Miah Persson is terrific as Poppea – much more animated and lyrical here than in anything else I’ve heard her sing (Britten and Stravinsky) – and Sarah Connolly is a fine impassioned Nero, not essentially evil, but in thrall to his passions and power. Jordi Domenèch is a little light as the countertenor Ottone, but the variety of his tone balances the other singers well. Maite Beaumont is outstanding as Ottavia and Franz-Josef Selig, as mentioned earlier, suitably dignified as Seneca. The real highlight of this production however is Dominique Visse, who is also the Nutrice in the above mentioned René Jacobs version, but here he takes on the contralto roles of the Nurse and Arnalta, fully entering into the spirit of Alden’s production. It’s the variety of singing parts that is one of the great qualities of L’incoronazione di Poppea and the casting here is superbly balanced in this respect.

Just as important, in this context, is the quality of the recording, and this release is absolutely stunning to look at and listen to in High Definition. There is a beautiful clarity to the singing and the instrumentation with a wonderful sense of ambience. This is sheer perfection as far as technical specifications go and, as far as this production is concerned, it brings out all the qualities of an extraordinary work of early opera. Extras on the DVD and Blu-ray consist only of a Cast Gallery and a narrated Synopsis, while an essay in the booklet takes a closer look at aspects of David Alden’s production. The subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Catalan.

PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Robert Wilson, Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Franz Josef Selig, Elena Tsallagova, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Julie Mathevet, Jérôme Varnier | Opéra Bastille, 28 February 2012

The sheer perfection of the match of Debussy’s music to Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande is unparalleled in the world of opera. It stands alone as a unique piece of music-theatre that is incomparable with any other opera - even Debussy was unable to repeat the experiment with unfinished attempts at some works by Edgar Allan Poe, and it remains the only opera he ever composed. It’s not possible to improve on perfection of course, but there is another element that is just as important when it comes to actually staging the work, and those are the choices made by the director. Robert Wilson’s production for the Paris Opéra, first seen in 1997 has been revived several times over the last 15 years, and is revived again in 2012 for good reason. Once seen, it’s hard to imagine Pelléas et Mélisande being staged in any other way. The match of Wilson’s unique vision to the opera is as close to perfection as Debussy’s music is to Maeterlinck’s drama.

Everything that has become familiar with Robert Wilson productions over the years is here in his production of Pelléas et Mélisande, but rarely has it been employed so evocatively, expressively, imaginatively and as a whole with the tone of the original opera work as it is here. Reflecting Debussy’s own Belle Epoque symbolist, oriental, ancient Greek and Egyptian influences in the arts (the subject of an exhibition in Paris at the same time as the opera is revived there), Wilson’s stylised imagery of hieroglyphics come to life is perfectly fitting. Placing angular figures in dramatic poses framed in silhouette against luminous pale blue backlit backdrops, with floating objects and geometric shapes placed prominently on a bare stage, subtle gradual shifts of light and the occasional flash of bold colour, the effect when matched with the moods of Pelléas et Mélisande is completely beguiling and utterly beautiful. What Robert Wilson brings to this particular opera however, more than just a bag of theatrical tricks that have been employed over the years to different effect in works as varied (and with varying levels of success it has to be said) as Aida, Madama Butterfly, Einstein on the Beach, Orfeo and Orphée et Eurydice, is a revelatory visual expression of the mystical haunted quality of the almost surreal fairytale.

The term haunted seems an appropriate way to describe the dreamlike experiences of the figures in Pelléas et Mélisande. Here in Wilson’s production, the characters seem to float or stand frozen in strange poses, as if they are ghosts compelled to reenact a series of actions that have been played-out time and time again, detached from their original context, their movements reduced to a series of mannerisms. They each inhabit their own space, crossing by each other without touching. So when Mélisande lets down her hair, it’s a mimed gesture, and when Pelléas wraps himself in it, he’s not even close to the tower where Mélisande is standing. Likewise, Golaud talks about lifting little Yniold to spy on his brother and his wife, but he doesn’t physically hold him, and nor does Yniold, reporting their actions, actually see them on the stage. When figures do actually touch, it’s at very specific moments and the impact is every bit as dramatic as the situations that the drama and the music describe.

Pelleas

Seen like this, much of the mystery that has surrounded Pelléas et Mélisande for over a century can suddenly be seen in a new light. It is indeed as if all the figures are merely spectres caught in a timeloop, doomed to continually play out their own part in the drama that has unfolded in an attempt to understand the mistakes they have made that has led to such a tragic conclusion. Nothing ever changes, they repeat empty gestures, coming no nearer to understanding the sequence of isolated events, and have no hope of averting the fate that is in store for them. Suddenly then the mystery of Mélisande’s strange appearance in the forest at the start of the opera and her cries of ‘Ne me touchez pas! Ne me touchez pas!‘ begins to make sense. She doesn’t know how she came to be there, but it’s as if she has a sense of the tragic destiny in store for her - the crown at the bottom of the water perhaps the one she later wears when she marries Golaud, the prince of Allemonde - and her words are a vain attempt to stop it before the train of events are set in motion once again. In Wilson’s production, Mélisande rises after she has been declared dead at the end of the final act, and the story seems to be about to recommence all over again.

One would think that a native French singer would be a prerequisite for the rhythms of the sung/spoke dialogue that Mélisande has to deliver (the dramatic singing qualities of Nathalie Dessay for example, who I’ve heard singing the part exceptionally well), but Elena Tsallagova is one of the more outstanding young Russian singers who have come to prominence through their association with the Paris Opera’s Atelier Lyrique. A magnetic, ethereal presence in her flowing, angular costume, she sang the role flawlessly - a perfect fit for the role. I can’t say I’ve ever seen characters actually smile in a Robert Wilson production, and one would think it even less likely in this melancholic work, but on the couple of occasions when such an expression came over Mélisande’s face, Tsallagova managed to make it seem quite unsettling. Stéphane Degout didn’t seem quite so comfortable striking poses as Pelléas, and his beautifully lyrical baritone seemed a little light for the role, but it complemented Tsallagova’s Mélisande well and suited the ethereal tone of the production.

Pelleas

The singing in the other roles was immensely powerful to balance the lightness in tone of the two main protagonists. Vincent Le Texier was a terrific Golaud, commanding and a little frightening in his rage, jealousy and suspicions - you can understand exactly why Julie Mathevet’s Yniold quivers the line ‘J’ai terriblement peur‘ in his presence. Franz Josef Selig’s deep warm bass and beautiful enunciation gave genuine warmth to his Arkel and Anne Sofie Von Otter was a likewise solid presence as Geneviève.

One of the greatest and most enigmatic works ever composed for the stage, it’s the endless fascination of its mysteries and its inescapable tragedy, as well as the feeling that the answers are there somewhere within and the words and actions of the characters and might eventually yield some clue as to its meaning, that ensures the work’s enduring popularity. Always thought-provoking, illuminating works in a new way, Robert Wilson is particularly brilliant with a work that has particular significance and a special place in the repertoire of French music. Performed live, Pelléas et Mélisande is one of those works that take on an entirely new dimension, and in such a context with the cast assembled at the Bastille in Paris, and with the terrific orchestra of L’Opéra national de Paris conducted by Philippe Jordan working its way through the intricacies of Debussy’s score, the effect is incomparable.

There will be a live internet steaming of the performance of 16th March 2012 via the Opéra National de Paris’ web-site. It will remain available for internet viewing until 16th June.

SerailWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Christof Loy, Christoph Quest, Diana Damrau, Olga Peretyako, Christoph Strehl, Norbert Ernst, Franz-Josef Selig | Unitel Classica - C-Major

There’s an in-built difficulty in Mozart’s earliest ‘mature’ comic opera that every modern opera stage director must consider a challenge – the long passages of spoken dialogue and recitative that are scattered throughout. Yes, the actual drama of Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is a bit silly too and the libretto isn’t the most sophisticated, but even if you manage to make the plot work dramatically (having good singers can help gloss over the inconsistencies which is certainly the case here), you’re still left with those lulls between Mozart’s beautiful musical passages that can potentially kill the opera dead in its tracks. This production by Christof Loy at the Liceu in Barcelona, aided and abetted by an outstanding cast and an exhilarating performance of the score from the Liceu orchestra under Ivor Bolton, crucially takes account of those weaknesses, and if the result is still not entirely convincing, it’s nonetheless still one of the best versions of this Mozart opera that you’re ever likely to come across.

Traditionally, the way of handling the recitative in Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is to heavily trim the dialogue and just get it out of the way as quickly as possible so as to move on to the music, but such an approach fails to adequately take into account the fact that the main dramatic drive of the opera actually lies in between the musical numbers and arias. In some respects, it could be argued that the spoken parts are equally as important as the arias, if not even more so in this particular case since Mozart’s music for Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail is not the most lyrically attuned to the emotional content. At this stage, even if there are occasional flashes of genius in the work, Mozart’s compositions are conventional and still very much mired in the Baroque tradition. How does Belmonte express his desire to be reunited with Konstanze in his Act I aria? “I tremble and falter, I waver and hesitate. My heart leaps in my breast.” - “O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig…” “How ardently and fearfully my loving heart beats”. Like the majority of the arias in the opera, it’s lovely but dull, and hardly advances the plot or even describes any complex emotional state.

Entfuhrung

Christof Loy attempts to address the vacuity of the arias and the dead-space of the spoken dialogue by getting the singers to act properly. In terms of opera performance, that can often be as simple as just toning down on the theatrical delivery, but Loy clearly believes that there are deeper sentiments and qualities to this opera, particularly in the spoken passages, which he retains in full and gives them rather more attention than they would normally receive. The treatment of the dialogue and how it works alongside the musical pieces is immediately apparent at the arrival of Pasha Selim. Arriving on-stage to that ringing chorus of the people, he seems weary of the acclaim, his position as ruler made only more weighty by his inability to win the heart of the woman he loves. This is not an uncommon position for a ruler to be in, particularly in Baroque opera, but it’s rarely treated with this kind of realism, and Loy takes advantage of the fact that – uncommonly for a major character in an opera – the Pasha is a non-singing role, and he accordingly makes the fine Christoph Quest the central acting focus for the others to work off.

What pervades the opera and characterises the approach to the spoken passages in this production, even before the appearance of the Pasha, is an air of melancholy. There’s nothing particularly new about viewing Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail in that regard, but such a sentiment is usually drawn from the arias and it’s rarely extended in any kind of realistic way to the recitative. There is no declamation of the lines here as they would more commonly be expressed, but rather Loy directs the performers to deliver dialogue naturalistically and makes use of their silences in the same way that he makes use of space on the stage to define the relationship between them. That use of space is as effective here as elsewhere in Loy’s work, even if the set for the Liceu’s production is not as sparse as the director usually decorates them. Yes, there are a usual few chairs scattered around, and little more than a painted backdrop of the sky for the most part (which is blithely lifted whenever Pedrillo makes an entrance), but other more decorated and naturalistic sets are shown, although they often remain viewed as if through a window in the background while the main action takes place in the foreground stage. Inevitably, the costumes don’t reflect any specific period, but there is a nod towards a middle-eastern flavour in some of the attire.

Entfuhrung

Loy’s direction isn’t really geared towards appeasing traditionalists then, but it should at least be evident that it is a respectful production that is aimed towards making the best out of what is imperfect opera, one that the director clearly thinks deserves to be considered more than just a lightweight entertainment. He doesn’t always succeed, but it’s an impressive attempt that does manage to make a strong case for the work and bring it closer to the latter Mozart operas, the relationships and structure here more evidently a prototype for characters better developed in The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. It helps that Ivor Bolton also brings out a terrific, lively account of the score that works well in conjunction with the staging, revealing its qualities and making those connections to later works evident. If you’ve been less than convinced by this particular Mozart opera, this performance reveals just how dazzlingly clever and brilliant it can be.

You shouldn’t need to be convinced that there are great and quite demanding arias in the opera, but it is terrific to see them delivered so well in such a sympathetic production. The performance of Diana Damrau deserves to be singled out as it’s not only one of the best Konstanze’s you’ll ever hear, but when placed in the context of this fine treatment of the opera, it’s an incredible tour de force performance that highlights the extraordinary abilities of one of the best sopranos in the world today. Most pleasingly for the sake of the opera, rather than being merely a showcase for the soprano, the singing is of an exceptionally high standard right across the board. Really, it’s just thrilling to hear Die Entführung Aus Dem Serail sung and acted so well – everything working together in perfect harmony. Franz-Josef Selig’s rich bass and cool deliberation makes his Osmin more than just a second-rate Monostatos, while the performance of Olga Peretyako and Norbert Ernst makes the Blonde and Pedrillo partnership more than just a subsidiary relationship to the more complicated main ones. Christoph Strehl is perhaps the weakest element, but he works well in the context of the casting, where the tones of all the singers are perfectly complementary, always bringing out the best of Mozart’s ensemble writing.

An exceptional production – one of the best I’ve ever seen – the Blu-ray is just as impressive. There are no extra features, but the HD image quality and the sound reproduction are amazing. Region-free, BD50, 1080i, subtitles are in German, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Chinese and Korean.