Persson, Miah


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.

RakesProgressIgor Stravinsky - The Rake’s Progress

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Vladimir Jurowski, John Cox, David Hockney, Miah Persson, Topi Lehtipuu, Clive Bayley, Matthew Rose, Susan Gorton, Elena Manistina, Graham Clark, Duncan Rock | Opus Arte

Although it evidently depends on the opera in question, there is always room nonetheless for a wide range of expression and interpretation in how productions of operas are staged. There are however no hard and fast rules – a baroque opera composed according to very strict musical conventions can take on a new life when subjected to a modern, avant-garde stage production, while relatively modern and difficult works can be opened up by a traditional straightforward staging that reveals their references, origins and underlying intent. Few works however seem so perfectly matched and strike such a perfect balance between the intentions of the opera work and its presentation on the stage as David Hockney’s designs for the classic Glyndebourne production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

The measure of the success of the production is that it was first put on at Glyndebourne in 1975 and, as this 2010 performance at the festival shows, it is still delighting and wowing audiences thirty-five years later and will no doubt continue to be revived for many more years. There aren’t many productions that have that kind of staying power. A modern artist surely not to everyone’s taste, one might expect something relatively avant-garde from David Hockney when called upon to design the set for a 20th century opera, but in reality, his approach almost perfectly mirrors Stravinsky’s method of composition for The Rake’s Progress. Seeking inspiration directly from the source of William Hogarth original drawings made in the 1730s, Hockney’s sets reproduce the intricate cross-hatching in bold, colourful strokes on flat board backdrops – a modern interpretation of a classical design.

RakesProgress

It works so well because, after all, that’s exactly what Stravinsky’s opera does also. Composed in 1951, the composer working in the neo-classical form (before he moved on to serial composition), The Rake’s Progress accordingly plays to the conventions of the 18th century opera. Classically structured into three acts, with three scenes in each, Stravinsky’s 20th century composition even uses recitative with harpsichord continuo and da capo arias in his treatment of a subject that has many resonances with Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni, but has an even a greater range of references to draw from over the subsequent expansions of the form and subject through Donizetti, Rossini and Gounod, to name but a few.

Since it wears its references openly, the names of the characters even reflecting their types – Tom Rakewell leaving behind his beloved Anne Trulove on the instigation of his demonic alter-ego Nick Shadow for a life of dissolution in London – The Rake’s Progress can be an opera that is easier to admire more than to really love. The symmetrical construction of the opera conforms to a predetermined order of the classical subject – a young man, coming-of-age, uncommitted to settling down to a life of domesticity in marriage and a solid career, decides to explore the endless pleasures that life offers, only to find in the end that there’s something to be said for a more simple lifestyle. It’s an A-B-A structure that is even mirrored in the structure of the three scenes in each of the three acts. It’s all very clever but a little dull and constricting, and the opera can consequently be a little static when performed.

There are however compensating factors that prevent The Rake’s Progress from being merely a pastiche that is too clever for its own good. The libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman is quite beautiful – direct but allusive and elusive, knowing but hinting at deeper underlying truths. The same can be said of Stravinsky’s score, which doesn’t just reference various styles, but expands on them with extraordinary arrangements that do indeed force you to reflect on the nature of the characters as well as how their lives and relationships are constructed and revealed through opera techniques. The blending together of the libretto with the score through the singing isn’t always perfect – and the moral at the ending is a little trite (il dissoluto punito) – but there are some wonderful and dazzling ensemble pieces with duos and trios that are as good as anything by Mozart. Well, almost.

RakesProgress

What this particular Glyndebourne production has going for it as well, is of course the production by David Hockney and John Cox. If it’s a little static in places, that’s often more to do with the nature of the opera itself, which is more reflection than action, and the decision to adhere closely to the Hogarth arrangements. Every scene however is an absolute delight, breathtaking in some places, with marvellous little touches that bring out the humour of the situations well. Vladimir Jurowski treats the opera very much as a Russian work, while being mindful of its English and international aspects. These are brought out fully in the casting and the singing, which is of fine quality throughout, with Miah Persson and Topi Lehtipuu demonstrating perfect English diction. If their acting performances are unremarkable, it’s probably more a failing with the nature of the opera itself – but there are enough compensating factors in the singing, the staging and the performance to make this a highly entertaining experience.

With the kind of cross-hatching that you have in the production design, the last thing you want is aliasing in the transfer, but the transfer copes very well with only a faint hint of instability in one or two places in the textures of the costumes, particularly tweeds. It’s very minor however, and for me it just drew attention to the fact that the detail of the overall production concept is taken through to the costume design. Otherwise, the full impact of the colourful production is well captured in the High Definition transfer and in the actual filming. LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks capture the detail of the musical performance brilliantly and dynamically. Extra features include a Cast Gallery, a brief Introduction to The Rake’s Progress that contains recent interviews with Hockney and Cox about the production, and a wider look at the opera in a 12-minute Behind The Rake’s Progress featurette.

ScrewBenjamin Britten - The Turn of the Screw

Glyndebourne 2011 | Jonathan Kent, Jakub Hrůša, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Miah Persson, Susan Bickley, Toby Spence, Giselle Allen, Thomas Parfitt, Joanna Songi | Live HD Broadcast, 21st August 2011

Although Glyndebourne haven’t been associated with perhaps the most famous name in modern English opera until relatively recently – a longstanding feud between the Suffolk opera company and Britten creating a thirty-five year gap up that lasted until the 1980s – they have put on some notable productions since. Two of Britten’s most famous operas however have had to wait a considerable time before they made their first appearance on the Glyndebourne stage, but with a production of Billy Budd conducted by Mark Elder in 2010, and a 2006 production of The Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne can certainly be seen to have made amends for those notable absences. If it’s not quite as definitive a production as their remarkable staging of Billy Budd last year, The Turn of the Screw, Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production revived here for the latest season, recorded and broadcast live in HD, is however a very different kind of opera that demands a different kind of treatment and performance.

The Turn of the Screw is similar to Billy Budd – as Mark Elder oberved – in that it deals with the theme of the loss of innocence, but, adapted from a short novel by Henry James (1898), the loss of innocence seems even more distressing when it is applied to the corruption of young children. In some respects a ghost story – one of the most famous and enigmatic of ghost stories ever written – The Turn of the Screw is also one of the first works to consider its hauntings and apparitions in psychological terms, the sightings of sinister figures seeming to be extensions of the hysterical imaginings of a sexually repressed Victorian governess. Charged with looking after two young children, Flora and Miles, by their uncle who is always away elsewhere on business, the Governess – with perhaps a bit of a crush on the man she only meets once (he’s not seen at all in the opera version) and who has forbidden her having any further contact with him unless absolutely necessary – the desires of the woman and her own repressed emotions become reflected and even enacted out on the lives of the children.

There are however many possible readings of the material which defies easy analysis and intentionally – to rather more disturbing effect – leaves plenty of room for ambiguity and personal impressions. Britten’s opera plays on this, or at least takes account of the potential that can be drawn out further through the use of equally evocative, ambiguous and often disturbing musical motifs and even nursery rhymes. The opera can be seen as a ghost story where the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint are indeed present and interact with the children and the Governess, as a psychological reading where they are the manifestation of a heightened or disturbed mental state brought about by sexual repression (the Governess first sees Peter Quint on a tower after thinking about the children’s uncle, believing it to be him), and it is indeed also about the loss of innocence. It is not so much the suggestion of child abuse enacted upon the children by the malevolent servants – although that reading is certainly suggested – as much as the consideration that Flora and Miles will not remain innocent children for long, but will inevitably be “corrupted” by the world, by knowledge, and perhaps unwittingly even by the over solicitious behaviour of the Governess herself, conscious and feeling guilty about her own repressed adult desires.

Musically, all these thoughts and emotions are evoked magnificently in the chamber orchestration, where even the smallest of sounds, tones and emotional states have complex meanings and are often picked out by individual instruments. Jonathan Kent chooses to set the opera in the 1950s as the last period of innocence (a period and theme he would reuse in his 2010 Glyndebourne production of Don Giovanni for similar reasons), which doesn’t really add anything – although it does have additional significance as being the original period in which Britten’s opera was composed – but likewise, it doesn’t detract at all from the tone or the content of the opera. Much more importantly, Paul Brown’s set designs for the country house at Bly remain sparse and fluidly changeable, like the moods of the score and the tone of the whole piece itself. The walls surrounding the starkly lit set give an enclosed claustrophobic quality to the isolated drama being played-out, the centre of the stage dominated by a set of French windows that likewise suggest closedness, as well as showing a world outside, marked by a twisted tree branch. It’s a strong representation of the interior world in which Mrs Grose and the Governess want to keep the children protected and the external world which holds horrors that irresistibly attract them. Britten’s score likewise plays with this ambiguity, with plaintive violins relating to closed internal emotional states, while flutes and harps suggest the open air, as well as a more floating spiritual domain, but one that also has a more sinister touch.

The sets and music working in perfect accord, with concentric platforms swirling objects fluidly and hauntingly into place with perfect timing, the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra marvellously conducted by Jakub Hrůša to draw all the necessary tension out of the score, the singing was also perfect for the occasion. Really, it would be hard to say which side of the physical/spiritual divide held the upper hand, such was the strength of expression, deluded and dangerous though it might be, of Susan Bickley’s Mrs Grose and Miah Persson’s Governess, their terror over the apparitions powerfully delivered. They were however more than matched by Toby Spence’s Peter Quint and Giselle Allen’s Miss Jessel, who both asserted a forceful and appropriately sinister physical and vocal presence. The ensemble pieces with the children Thomas Parfitt and Joanna Songi were most effective in this regard, Songi in particular an impressive young talent. Pitched perfectly on every level, form and content working in perfect accord, this was a fine performance of another impressive Britten production at Glyndebourne.