Kwangchul, Yun


DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Philippe Jordan, Jean-Claude Auvray, Mario Luperi, Violeta Urmana, Vladimir Stoyanov, Marcelo Álvarez, Nadia Krasteva, Kwangchul Youn, Nicola Alaimo, Nona Javakhidze, Christophe Fel, Rodolphe Briand, François Lis | Opéra Bastille, Paris (via Internet streaming) 8 December 2011

Verdi’s Il Forza del Destino is one of those fascinating mature works by the composer – along with Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo in Maschera – which draw on the best elements from the composer’s earlier work in terms of melody, drive, pacing and plotting, but which have the benefit of a little more complexity in the orchestration, hinting at the greatness of the later final opera compositions – Don Carlos, Aida, Otello and Falstaff. The characters in La Forza del Destino, like the other works from this period, are somewhat limited by the conventionality of the melodramatic plotline, but Verdi’s score hints that there are other depths that can be drawn from the work. Consequently it’s a work that requires a little more thought given to the staging and a cast of performers who have the ability not only to meet the singing demands, but be able to give something to the acting. The direction of the current production for the Opéra National de Paris unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to those challenges, but that doesn’t prevent their La Forza del Destino from being any less brilliant musically.

I’m not sure it helps at all to displace the opera’s famous Overture, but it’s become something of a convention now (and not just here, but also recently in the Amsterdam production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes) and here it’s delayed until after the first act. The Overture of La Forza del Destino is now so familiar that it can be easy to forget that it has a dramatic function, and it’s the contention of Philippe Jordan, the musical director of the production, that it works better in that context as an introduction to the opera’s themes following Act 1, which is really just a prologue. Whether that’s the case or not is debatable, but what is not in question is just how impressively it is delivered. The filmed recording of the production, broadcast in French cinemas and available for Internet streaming from the Paris Opera web site, demonstrates Jordan’s controlled and precise direction of the Overture and confirms my belief from recent visits (Lulu, Tannhäuser) that the Paris Orchestra is one of the best in the world at the moment. The same musical intelligence and virtuosity is evident not just in the Overture, but throughout this production.

Destin

While the staging and the performances of a strong cast are more than adequate, they aren’t given anything much to do in a storyline that doesn’t quite deserve the beauty and intelligence of Verdi’s score, which is moving away from the convenienze of Italian opera and the yoke of the cabaletta towards a purer musical form of dramatic expression. That’s the case with most of the composer’s melodramas during this period, where there are moments of greatness and brilliance, but overall there isn’t an entirely satisfactory match between content and the growing confidence and complexity of Verdi’s musical arrangements. The religious themes, the question of honour and duty and the fighting of a duel remind one of Stiffelio, while the music and Spanish setting tug more in the direction of Don Carlos.

Despite some of the superficial similarities in the outline, La Forza del Destino is a Verdi opera that is far beyond the straightforward dramatic plotting of a work like Stiffelio. The religious and philosophical questions behind La Forza del Destino are, like the title itself (The Force of Destiny), rather more allusive for a Verdi opera, most of which are named directly after its principal character (Oberto, Rigoletto, Don Carlo) or an historical event (Il Battaglia di Legnano, Les Vêpres Siciliennes). It’s a title that, particularly in the context of the religious themes of the work, got Verdi into trouble with the censor, the opera indeed seeming to consider the power of destiny and fate and man’s attempts to control it through war, debts of honour or religious observance. Those seemingly subsidiary elements of the opera – Preziosilla, the fortune teller, Melitone, the monk and the soldiers going to war – are in the end just as important, if not more so, than the melodrama of Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo di Vargas. Where do the common people, torn between sinning and God, asked to take part in these wars, fit into the greater scheme of things?

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As such, it should be possible for an innovative director to make something of those contradictions and the darker undercurrents in the score or the libretto as with Tcherniakov for Macbeth, or Christof Loy for Les Vêpres Siciliennes, but Jean-Claude Auvray’s production doesn’t attempt anything quite as radical. It’s not unusual for directors to update the older historical periods of Verdi operas to the composer’s own time and align the revolutionary elements of the plots with the struggle for the reunification of Italy, the Risorgmiento, and that’s the case here, but the Viva V.E.R.D.I. (“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia”) slogans and flag-waving fit awkwardly and confusingly with the Spanish setting of the opera. The religiously sparse and ascetic sets however make the environment less concrete, allowing the wider dimension of the opera’s themes to be applied, where the backdrops, like the changes and whims of fate, are fluid, temporary and changeable, capable of being rolled-up and spirited away at a moment’s notice.

Somehow however – and it’s not necessarily a fault with the direction, since the opera itself is imperfect in this respect – the main characters lack substance within such an environment, caught up in extraordinary coincidences and twists of fate. It’s hard therefore to make that in any way realistic, despite the best efforts of Verdi’s score, the outstanding performance of it by the Paris Opera orchestra, and the generally fine singing of a strong cast. Marcelo Álvarez demonstrates why he is one of the most sought-after and foremost Verdi tenors at the moment, a fiery Don Alvaro, but one who embodies a sense of conflict and honour in his struggle with the cruel twists of fate that occur. Violeta Urmana also seems to be the Verdi soprano of choice at the moment, but isn’t always the most versatile of singers or the best of actresses. She has some fine moments here and is generally impressive, but she clearly struggles with the high notes in places and it’s by no means a distinguished performance. There’s good solid support however from Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo, Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, Kwangchul Youn as Padre Guardiano and Nicola Alaimo as Brother Melitone – all of which are enough to make this a solid and entertaining La Forza del Destino, even if it is somewhat lacking in adventure.

The Opéra National de Paris’ La Forza del Destino is available for viewing on their website until February 2012.

LammermoorGaetano Donizetti – Lucia di Lammermoor

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Patrick Summers, Mary Zimmerman, Natalie Dessay, Joseph Calleja, Ludovic Tézier, Kwangchul Youn | The Met: Live in HD - March 19, 2011

Donizetti’s bel canto operas, with their emphasis on elaborate ornamentation of extremely challenging vocal parts that would give their lead players an opportunity to demonstrate the virtuosity of their singing, were considered somewhat old-fashioned even by the end of the nineteenth century when the huge influence of Richard Wagner put dramatic content back at the heart of the music-drama. Of all Donizetti’s operas, it’s the dramatic tragedy of Lucia de Lammermoor (1835) that is considered to be the opera that gives its prima donna the opportunity to demonstrate her vocal prowess.

It’s a role therefore that Natalie Dessay, along with perhaps La Fille du Regiment, is most associated with, and it’s clearly a role that the French soprano relishes. Dessay starred in the first run of the oft-criticised Mary Zimmerman’s much-maligned 2007 production, and, indulged by the current conductor Patrick Summers, she clearly delights in adding a capella embellishments to the coloratura – particularly in Lucia’s “Mad Scene” at her wedding. There were some worrying signs at the start of the performance that her voice might no longer be quite up to it or that it was showing signs of tiredness perhaps from rather overdoing things in the current run of performances (this Live in HD broadcast was the last Lucia of the season), but Dessay in her interval interview put it down to a dry throat, and certainly didn’t let it affect her extraordinary performance elsewhere.

What is even more wonderful about her performance is that, while fully rising to the challenges of Lucia’s vocal parts, she also managed to remain focussed on her character’s dramatic journey of gradual disintegration. Lucia is torn between she man she loves, Edgardo di Ravenswood, and the duty towards her family, the Ashtons, and comes to feel that she is being used in the great feud that has existed between the two families. Those concerns are heightened by her own fragile state of mind, one perhaps made fragile because of the long-running rivalry that has seen other tragic events take place, events in the past that leave ghosts in the grounds of Lammermoor castle that still haunt Lucia.

Based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, this is the stuff of pure melodrama however, and it can’t honestly be said that Donizetti seeks to give it any greater psychological depth or dramatic credibility, either through the playing out of the intense scenes or through any subtlety in the musical composition of the piece. It’s straightforward blood-and-thunder melodrama fuelled by jealousy and political rivalry (one can see the huge influence the piece has on the works of Verdi in this respect, as well as in some of the musical arrangements), with expressions of deeply romantic and forbidden love, swooning heroines, challenges to duels – the restored Wolf’s Crag scene, often cut, is intact here at the beginning of Act 3, only adding to an already over-heated situation – and of course a descent into pure madness and death with thunderstorms raging outside.

Lammermoor

All of which would seem to give credence to the rather old-fashioned nature of the opera as little more than a dramatic piece for the leading diva to show off her credentials, and in some cases even make a name for herself. To mess about with any of these elements or to try to downplay those excesses could prove fatal to the sheer crowd-pleasing enjoyment that the opera, with its beautiful melodies and dramatic sense of purpose nevertheless contains. This production somehow manages to successfully retain all these elements, while also managing to give a little more depth to the piece, or at least, by even including the presence of real ghosts, throw up other elements for consideration.

Partly, that’s down to the fine production that stirs up echoes of the best cinematic equivalents – the likes of Hitchcock’s Rebecca, the 1943 Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine and even Dreyer’s silent film Michael – films likewise of a bygone age, made during the silent period or shortly afterwards, made to a style that is somewhat old-fashioned now, but still retaining an enormous power of the “they don’t make them like that anymore” kind. They don’t make operas like Lucia di Lammermoor anymore either, but they should be cherished and lavished with a sympathetic presentation and that is fully achieved in the elaborate sets that reach upwards, like an old film in academy ratio rather than in widescreen. If filmed, and shown in black-and-white, this Lucia di Lammermoor could convincingly pass for a film from the late 1930s or early 1940s, in its style, in its content and in its production values.

Given that kind of stage to work with, each of the singers fully enter into the spirit of the drama, but some try to bring a little more shading to the characters. Vocally, all fully meet the demands – Dessay, evidently, but Joseph Callejo is a bit of a revelation, with a classic tenor voice that, with a bit more robustness and fitting of it into a more solid dramatic context, will be a fine singer of bel canto and Verdi dramas. In his interval interview, Ludovic Tézier made some interesting observations about his Enrico, seeing him not just as a stereotypical baritone baddie, but as a character who is as cracked and has been pushed as close to madness as Lucia, adding a further dimension to the tragedy.

On the actual Met Live in HD production itself, Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the more fascinating broadcasts of the season from a backstage point of view, Renée Fleming presenting and managing to get a wealth of behind-the-scenes information from the performers, from the Irish Wolfhound handlers and from backstage crew managers. The two intervals drew out a relatively swift moving opera to excessive lengths (there have been some criticisms of this in the press), but the sheer scale of the elaborate production was revealed in such fascinating detail that the audience at the cinema I attended sat glued to the screen watching the stage-hands manoeuvre it all into place. Along with the success of this particular performance, the clever promotion for the next production, Le Comte Ory, another star-studded bel canto opera, will ensure that the growing attendance at these broadcasts will all be back for more of the same in two weeks time.

WalkureRichard Wagner - Die Walküre

Bayreuther Festspiele 2010 | Christian Thielemann, Tankred Dorst, Johan Botha, Kwangchul Yun, Albert Dohmen, Edith Haller, Linda Watson, Mihoko Fujimura, Sonja Mühleck, Anna Gabler, Martina Dike, Simone Schröder, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Wilke te Brummelstroete, Annette Küttenbaum, Alexandra Petersamer | Opus Arte

Traditionally, Die Walküre is seen as the start of the Ring story proper, the previous episode Das Rheingold being only a prelude, musically as well as thematically, for what is to follow. It’s in Die Walküre moreover that what is seen as the human element enters into the story after the mythological struggle of dwarves, giants and gods in the first part. Personally, I’d argue that the human element is there from the first notes of Das Rheingold, the origins of the Ring being inextricably tied up in Wagner’s philosophy towards the creation of a new German art form, and the expression and attainment of those highest ideals that humanity can aspire to is evident in every aspect of the mythological symbolism of the whole work, as well as in its method of operatic expression. That’s perhaps a debate for another time, but in as far as it concerns this 2010 Bayreuther Festspiele production, one would have hoped to see more of the underlying humanism in the story brought out than is actually achieved here.

As if mindful of the need to relate the great struggle that continues to be fought out largely on an epic scale level to some kind of human level, Tankred Dorst introduces a few irritating and ultimately pointless elements into the staging. The opera opens with a very brief sequence showing a modern-day family, seemingly on a picnic, wandering through a deserted, semi-ruined manor house, the young boy unveiling the figure of Sieglinde and in the process setting off the retelling of the ancient myth that is to follow. In Act 2, the father sits in the background throughout, reading his newspaper, his bicycle by his side, while Wotan and Fricke carry on what I suppose could be termed a domestic argument, albeit one on which the eventual fate of all humanity depends.

As pointless as these kind of intrusions are, they are minor and easily blocked out, feeling little more than half-hearted attempts to introduce an underlying concept that doesn’t bear much scrutiny and doesn’t in the end impose much of a presence either. The minor tweaks to the staging relating to the position of the sword in a lamp-post that has fallen through the wall of the ruined hunting lodge, is likewise a minor conceit that doesn’t affect the overall purpose of the drama or how it is played out. It does in fact introduce a strong sense of ruin and decline that is to be the eventual fate of the gods, and indeed the inevitable end for all those who strive for ultimate power. Elsewhere however the staging feels a little anonymous and unimaginative, even somewhat restrictive, the performers not really given anything to do for most of the time other than statically sing their parts and attempt to express everything through the poetry of the libretto and the voices alone.

Fortunately, in that respect, the singers are all exceptionally good, if not quite good enough for the most part to make up for the deficiencies elsewhere in the production. Only Johan Botha really stands out, and he may even be considered to be one of the best Siegmund’s you’re ever likely to hear, with a wonderful voice that contains all the warmth of humanity that should be in his character’s make-up. That characteristic is just a little bit lacking in the others, although Edith Haller sings wonderfully and interacts well with Botha. Part of the problem might well be Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the Bayreuther Festspiele orchestra. Thielemann is a superb conductor of Strauss and Wagner when working with material that suits his style, but that style is often too clinical, intellectualised and, particularly in the case of Die Walküre, a little too aggressive. Whatever the reason, the richness in the melody and the wealth of the emotional content of the tragedy just isn’t found here.

Overall however, this is a worthwhile production, fairly traditional in its setting (not something you can always say about Bayreuther Festspiele productions), and more than competently performed – exceptionally so in the case of Botha and Haller – lacking only a little spark of warmth or inspiration that might have made all the difference. It’s presented well on the Opus Arte Blu-ray with a fine, detailed and strongly coloured picture, with the usual strong PCM stereo and DTS HD Master-Audio 5.1 mixes. There’s a good 18 minute made-for-television featurette on the production on the disc, which is not in-depth, but sets the scene well (barring a horribly inappropriate modern jingle-style soundtrack).