Grötzinger, Heike


GodunovModest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2013 | Kent Nagano, Calixto Bieito, Alexander Tsymbaluk, Yulia Sokolik, Eri Nakamura, Heike Grötzinger, Gerhard Siegel, Markus Eiche, Anatoli Kotscherga, Sergey Skorokhodov, Vladimir Matorin, Ulrich Reß, Okka von der Damerau, Kevin Conners, Goran Jurić, Dean Power, Tareq Nazmi, Christian Rieger | ARTE Internet Streaming, March 2013

A modern updating of a historical subject is always going to be controversial, particularly when it’s a production by Calixto Bieito. In the case of a work like Boris Godunov however, you have to ask whether the purpose of Mussorgsky’s opera is to provide a character portrait of a 16th century ruler of Russia or whether the opera is more concerned with more universal questions on the nature of power, leadership and the cost that has to be paid for it. Even performed in a traditional historical context it would be hard not to feel the full force of those themes expressed in Mussorgsky’s magnificent score, so what advantage would there be in attempting to make a parallel between the past and the present? Surprisingly, the purpose of Bieito’s production would seem to be not to use Boris Godunov to make a comment about the present day as much as use familiar images to help us better relate to the past.

One of the qualities of art, and particularly opera in this context, is that it can indeed illuminate and provide new living insight on a figure who existed nearly 500 years ago by simply looking at human nature itself today, since that hasn’t changed greatly in all that time. Placing Boris Godunov in a historical context however can place a distance between the subject and a modern audience - although, as I said, Mussorgsky’s music makes it fully relatable - but a modern setting can make those situation more real and immediate without betraying the essential sentiments and the spirit of the work. Calixto Bieito’s staging has a considerable part to play in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production, but it must operate in accordance with the music, and Kent Nagano’s musical direction ensures that this is a thoughtful and powerful account of a great work.

The actions and the will of the people play just as important a part in history as its more famous leaders and Mussorgsky’s gives them equal voice in Boris Godunov. Calixto Bieito finds a modern-day equivalent of the voice of the people and their relationship with their leaders here in what looks to be an anti-globalisation protest at a G8 summit, or perhaps even an anti-austerity protest. The people, herded in by police in riot-gear, are looking for someone to lead them out of crisis. They don’t carry icons of the saints here, but instead wave placards in the air showing images of Sarkozy, Putin, Cameron, Holland and other world leaders. Only one lone protester - a punk in a Sex Pistols T-shirt advocating anarchy - rejects all of them and is beaten to the ground by the police. Is this a fair representation of the intent of the opening scene of Boris Godunov? It certainly captures the nature of the situation without tying it directly and imperfectly to any specific modern political context. It also sets the tone well for the underlying violence that isn’t always entirely explicit in the work, but which is undoubtedly an important part of the power dynamic.

There are inevitably a few curious touches that Bieito adds to highlight this characteristic, but all of them feel entirely appropriate to the work. Boris Godunov tries to be a good ruler to the people, but he feels the pressure of responsibility, hears the murmurings of discontent and fears the uprising of a new Pretender. His conscience - like anyone who has to dirty their hands to get into a position of power and influence - isn’t entirely clear either, and he has the blood of the young Tsar on his hands, tormenting him in nightmares. Bieito’s version, again highlighting the power and responsibility of the common people in their choice or acceptance of leaders, shows them exercising that power by putting weapons (guns) into their hands, making this bloody period of history even more realistically violent. The Pretender too executes Boris’ children at the end of the opera, which fits in with the theme of the cycles of history and violence and gives it greater force.

All of this must be borne out in the music of course, and the Bayerische Staatsoper production in Munich took an equally interesting approach to the complicated history of the work and its various revisions. This was a stripped back production that used Mussorgsky’s 1869 original version as its basis, but further removed any other diversions - the Fountain scene and the Polonaise (basically the whole of Act III) - that weren’t directly related to expression of the work’s fundamental themes. This enabled the entire opera to be performed as a single two-and-a-quarter hour performance without any breaks. There were considerable benefits to be gained from this approach. On the one hand, we had all the force of Mussorgsky’s scoring with its conversational language rhythms and unique expression, but with a greater fluidity that brought unity to each of the separate scenes. With Kent Nagano conducting with complete sensitivity for those rhythms, we didn’t lose any of the beauty of the orchestration that is found in Rimsky-Korsakov’s revisions either. As a result, the work maintained its epic immensity, force and beauty.

So too does the singing here, particularly Alexander Tsymbaluk as Boris and Anatoli Kotscherga as Pimen. Both evidently are vital roles that carry the action and the spiritual elements of the work, and much of that is brought out through the grave, deep tone of the singing itself. Not only were the casting and performances superb in this respect for those roles, but the same consideration was given to all the casting elsewhere. There was scarcely a weak element anywhere here, all of the cast and chorus coming together - alongside a considered production and musical performance - to give full force to this remarkable work. The set designs also played an important part in keeping up this momentum, fluidly moving from one scene to the next, providing a meaningful dark and minimal setting that served the situations without being over-literal or too incongruously modern either.

This performance of Boris Godunov was broadcast on ARTE Live Web and is currently still available for viewing via internet streaming. Depending on whether you use the .fr or .de sites, subtitles are either in French or German. The Bayerische Staatsoper will broadcast another live performance of this production via their own Live Streaming service during their summer Opera Festival season on the 26th July. The next live streaming event from Munich is Verdi’s Macbeth on 11th May, directed by Martin Kušej and conducted by Massimo Zanetti.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Pietari Inkinen, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Heike Grötzinger, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, Alisa Kolosova, Elena Zilio, Simon Keenlyside, Pavol Breslik, Ain Anger, Ulrich Reß | Live Internet Streaming, 25 March 2012

The manner in which elements of Eugene Onegin relate closely to the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s own life have often been remarked upon, and it undoubtedly contributes to the deep emotional and romantic sweep of the opera, so it’s surprising that – to my knowledge at least – the unspoken subtext within the work hasn’t really been brought out explicitly before in any modern production.

That subtext is, of course, related to Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality. At the same time that the composer was writing Eugene Onegin, he had himself started a correspondence with the patron of many of his works, Nadezhda von Meck, an intimate relationship that held a certain awkwardness since the two of them were reluctant to meet each other in person. In May 1877, Tchaikovsky also received a love letter from a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova. Believing that destiny was in some way playing a hand, and that marriage would help him deny his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky ill-advisedly married Milyukova in July 1877, and immediately regretted the decision. The marriage was a complete failure and led to a mental breakdown and attempted suicide on the part of the composer.

In the opera that Tchaikovsky was writing at the same time, Eugene Onegin, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Onegin famously receives a gushing letter from a devoted admirer, Tatyana, a young, bookish, innocent, romantic girl living on a country estate who immediately falls in love with the handsome visitor introduced by their neighbour Lensky. Cruelly rejecting her declaration of love, Onegin claims that he’s not cut out for marriage, cannot bear the idea of being tied down when he is young and when there are so many other options to explore, certain that any marriage between them would inevitably become dull and routine.

Onegin

There would have undoubtedly been some identification on the part of Tchaikovsky with this situation, which certainly at least contributes to the lush romanticism of the score, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that Onegin may well have similarly rejected the young girl because he is gay and that, at the end when he comes to regret his callous dismissal of Tatyana after a life of empty and purposeless abandon, it’s possible to see something of the composer’s own dilemma, hoping unrealistically and impossibly for the security of a marriage relationship that would be more acceptable to society.

Actually, having made the parallel and having watched the Bavarian State Opera’s attempt to put something similar across on the stage, I can see why there’s a reluctance to characterise Eugene Onegin as a gay man. It takes some nerve to update a classic work in this way, altering the sexual orientation of the main character in one of the most romantic works ever written, no matter how closely it mirrors the actual real-life circumstances of the composer. As a subtext, it’s certainly something interesting to keep in mind, but it’s a bit more difficult to make it work convincingly on the stage. Accordingly, there’s a sense that while the director might like to make more of the idea, there’s undoubtedly a need to tread carefully with the material at the same time. So in some respects, while there is a feeling that there is some holding back from taking these ideas too far, even what there is here in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production is more than controversial enough.

Rather delightfully, the production is set in the 1970s, a period that is by no means arbitrary, coinciding with the age of growing sexual expression and liberty where coming out was more acceptable in a way that Tchaikovsky – or indeed Onegin – could never have done in their day. I’m not sure that this would have been the case in Russia in the seventies, but (quite the opposite of the recent De Nederlandse production by Stefan Herheim) there’s nothing here in this production that is culturally specific to Russia. So while the first act is by no means anything like the Larina country estate, it at least looks like a fairly well-off family anywhere in Europe during the seventies. I say delightful, and that’s because it’s a loving recreation of the decade in terms of design and colour, with vinyl chairs, bell bottom trousers, coloured leather armchairs and moon landings on the TV, the stage animated by disco lights and dancing queens.

Onegin

It’s the idea of dancing queens however that is the most controversial aspect of Warlikowski’s production, which features Full Monty routines and shirtless males in cowboy hats and some even in bikinis, shuffling around through the famous Polonaise of the opera. I say shuffling, because it’s very tame stuff indeed, lacking the nerve and the verve to really make the production challenging, even if it is still more than enough to make traditional opera-goers very uncomfortable indeed. I don’t know what the Munich audience made of this or of Onegin’s kiss with his “close friend” Lensky, but I thought it was delicately handled within the context – the spat between the two men a rejection of Onegin’s advances, leading Lensky to throw down the challenge of a duel to defend his honour and reputation before a watching public.

If it wasn’t much to look at, and at times rather more static and all-purpose than one would like, the stage design suited the context setting well, looking most of the time like a 70s’ discotheque, but capable of being transformed reasonably effectively into a family living room or Tanya’s bedroom, allowing the first two acts to flow together without an interval. The duel between Onegin and Lensky takes place over a bed, which was something of a daring touch, but one that worked surprisingly well, principally due to the fine performances – in terms of both singing and acting – of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik. Keenlyside in particular carried the weight of Onegin’s inner struggle without appearing arrogant, adding to the tragedy of the outcome and his final breakdown. Ekaterina Scherbachenko perhaps didn’t carry the vocal strength or force of some of the best recent more mature Tatyanas (Renée Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova), but she expressed the youthful innocence, confusion and mortification of her character much more convincingly, singing well and without mannerisms.

The idea of approaching Eugene Onegin from a gay perspective is a challenging one, as is setting it in the 1970s, and there were accordingly some inconsistencies in taking this approach and a static quality at times to the stage direction. The strength of the singing and dramatic performances however – notably from Keenlyside and Tatyana – and a good account of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful, heart-breaking score by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Pietari Inkinen, combined to brilliantly bring out the real strength of the work as well as the underlying subtext that undoubtedly contributes to its power and tragedy.

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.