Miles, Alastair


MeistersingerRichard Wagner - Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg

Glyndebourne, 2011 | Vladimir Jurowski, David McVicar, Gerald Finley, Marco Jentzsch, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Alastair Miles, Anna Gabler, Topi Lehtipuu, Michaela Selinger, Colin Judson, Andrew Slater, Henry Waddington, Robert Poulton | Opus Arte

It’s tempting to make a snap judgement about a production of a Wagner opera right from the first note, and it’s surprising how just accurate that judgement can often turn out to be. I’d suggest that you can get a feel for the tone of the whole 2011 Glyndebourne production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg just from Vladimir Jurowski’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra through the opera’s beautiful overture. Being Wagner, everything is there upfront in the Vorspiel to Act I, and in such a work with its richness of meaning and infinite ways of interpretation, you could aim for an approach that is respectful and serious, emphatic and declamatory, sensitive and romantic, even playful and irreverent and you would still be touching on vital ingredients that are all part of the make-up of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. You might well pick up elements of those qualities in this Glyndebourne production - and by rights they should all be in there - but from the very first note my overriding impression was that there was a particularly English touch to the delivery that emphasises the qualities in this remarkable work that one doesn’t find so readily in the composer’s other grand music dramas - a lightness, a warmth, a sense of humour and an air of melancholy, the tug of deep human emotions bound up in something great and beautiful.

Fortunately, the whole production is working from the same hymn sheet - quite literally, as the curtain rises in Act I on the domed arches of the interior of St Catherine’s Church in Nuremburg, the figures in the pews suffused in the bright midsummer morning light, and the youthful, lyrical voices of this production’s Walther, David, Eva and Lena confirm the initial impression. Die Meistersinger however is a work of magnificent balance and it needs to be. The lightness of the ecstatic emotions of youthful love and idealism expressed in the opening scenes must be tested against the realities of the world when Walther realises that his only hope of marrying this beautiful girl Eva is to win her by proving himself as a Meistersinger. It’s a mark of the depth of his love, a proof of his own individual worth and talent, and a sign of respect for the tradition, the hard work and the craft of the townspeople of Nuremburg. It’s not enough here then for Wagner to focus on the all-consuming passion of love (we have Tristan und Isolde for that), but here he explores how that kind of idealistic purity - expressed in the singing in the music - can find its own voice while respecting tradition and achieving the acceptance of the wider public.

That encompasses a lot of intangibles - expressed powerfully nonetheless in Wagner’s near-miraculous score - relating to the feelings and the experience of the older generation, as personal, unfathomable and unreachable in the past (in the case of Hans Sachs) or as ridiculous (as in the case of Beckmesser) as they might sometimes appear to the youthful apprentices. Wagner accords equal importance to the lives of these characters, respecting their traditions and the craft, finding beauty and truth in it, something that the younger generation can learn from, expand upon and develop into something new, original and personal, yet at the same time something still inherently German. Evidently, the opera - apart from everything else - is also a case of special pleading for Wagner’s own reform of the music-drama and art as the highest expression and extension of true German tradition and values, and he could hardly make a finer case for it than Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, the work demonstrating the poetic beauty and complexity of the composer’s writing at its highest maturity, not weighed down by the heavy declamation and language of ancient myths, nor overburdened with leitmotifs and symbolism as in some of his other works, but the one Wagner opera most open to the wonder of the human soul, as expressed in the human voice and in musical accompaniment, in art or simply in the craft of honest labour.

This is a light, delicate and sensitive treatment of a beautifully balanced, thoughtful and considered work then, a far cry from the most recent Bayreuth production. I don’t always like the odd touches that David McVicar adds to his productions and I often find him weak on a cohesive concept, but I can rarely fault him on his ability to hit on the perfect mood and find the most effective way of expressing it through the performers and in their relationship with all the other aspects of the production and musical performance. His work for this Glyndebourne production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg is just about flawless. It’s perhaps a little unadventurous - setting the work within the years of Wagner’s “apprenticeship” around 1820 rather than the original 16th century setting - but his handling of the diverse moods and rhythms of the work is masterful throughout. Having established that mood in the church scene of Act I and achieved the balance though the sacred test of Walther’s Meistersinger ambitions, McVicar likewise strikes the perfect balance between the tricky mood swings of Act II, between the romantic idealism of Eva, the melancholy of Sachs, the despair and hope of Walther through to the comedy of Beckmesser’s serenade and the uproar of the finale. It’s a complete night of midsummer madness, and absolutely riveting. The incredible journey of Act III’s even wider range of emotions that has Hans Sachs at its heart, takes in all the melancholy of the Vorspeil, the slapstick of Beckmesser’s interfering, the community aspect of the festival and the ‘Prize Song’ without ever missing a beat or hitting an incongruous note that isn’t suggested by the score.

Everything about the production respects this, having a cohesiveness in the period design, in the enclosed sacred locations - the church as much as the craftsman’s workshop or the community square - in the lighting, in the little touches of humour and irreverence. There’s also a recognition that everything important that needs to be expressed is there in the music itself, within the very structure of Wagner’s composition which is the very definition of his views on the strength and power of the music-drama, the two aspects conjoined and inseparable, each supporting the other to create a rhythm and balance between the surface drama and the inner nature, with all the contradictions and complexity that this implies. It’s enough to give the work room to breathe and allow the performers of the music and the singing to consider the detail, interpret it and express it through their individual strengths of personality. There’s never a moment where you are waiting to get to the next more interesting scene, every moment has its own magic and Jurowski and McVicar give the singers all the opportunity they need to luxuriate in the beauty and the rich wonder of Wagner’s incredible score, revealing it in all its majestic glory.

Gerald Finley’s performance of Hans Sachs is the best example of this. Rarely have I ever seen Finley look so at home in a role, his lovely baritone sounding warm, rounded and unforced, not over-expressive, but arising naturally out of consideration for his character, rolling around the beauty and the very sound of the words, taking the time to consider their meaning and luxuriate in their phrasing. But it’s far from the only impressive singing performance, the clear lyrical lightness of Marco Jentzsch’s Walther and Topi Lehpituu’s David both perfect foils for Anna Gabler’s emotional Eva and Michaela Selinger’s Lena. If their singing could be considered to lack traditional Wagnerian force, the work gains from their youthful sincerity of feeling. On the other side of the coin, but perfectly complementary, Alastair Miles displays a studious good natured gravity and solemnity as Pogner with a tone that is as beautiful as it is expressive. You could listen to this for hours. Beckmesser’s comic value is easy to overplay and demonise and the role consequently has a tendency to be underrated in comparison to the earnestness of the other characters, but he’s no less a vital component to the overall structure and tone and Johannes Martin Kränzle brings colour and personality to the role, with lots of comic grimacing, slapstick and double-takes, all of which fit in perfectly with the tone presented here.

This is as memorable as Meistersinger as any you’ll find, one that capitalises on the intimacy of the Glyndebourne theatre and finds an appropriate tone in the performance, the staging and the singing to delve more deeply into the particular human qualities that are unique to this Wagner music-drama, expressing everything that is great about this work on levels I’ve never considered before. The Glyndebourne effect and the challenges of staging Wagner there is explored in the concise extra features, in interviews with Jurowski, McVicar and Finley, with particular consideration on the approach taken for this work. The Glyndebourne relationship with Wagner is also covered in the accompanying booklet, which also contains a full synopsis. The quality of the Opus Arte Blu-ray production is exemplary in every respect, from the screen direction by François Roussillon, to the well-lit High Definition image and the lovely detail revealed in the HD audio mixes. The 2-disc BD set is of course compatible for all regions, but includes only English, French and German subtitles.

MedeaGiovanni Simone Mayr - Medea in Corinto

Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Ivor Bolton, Hans Neuenfels, Nadja Michael, Ramón Vargas, Alastair Miles, Alek Shrader, Elena Tsallagova, Kenneth Robertson, Francesco Petrozzi, Laura Nicorescu | Arthaus

The Medea myth has provided great material for opera composers over the years, and it’s not difficult to see why. It has all the ingredients – as it’s played here in this version – for the operatic favourite, the ‘melodramma tragico’. A Greek mythological tale of royal kingdoms at war, marriage alliances and a sorceress who seeks to disrupt it all, it’s a storyline nonetheless that can be accessible to a modern audience, dealing with very real human emotions. There’s a joyous wedding – between Creusa and Jason – but a psycho ex-wife, Medea, who still represents a threat to the union, and a struggle over custody of the kids from her and Jason’s previous marriage, which he wants annulled based on the fact that the witch cast a spell over him. Don’t they all. And would you believe it, the ex turns up at the wedding and causes a bit of a scene. Nightmare.

There are many other facets to this storyline, from the classical mythological view of the relationship between humans and the gods to the character-driven human drama full of emotional turmoil and conflicts between duty and desire. It’s a subject consequently that has been covered many times in opera over the centuries, and is still returned to even by modern composers, with Aribert Reimann’s 2010 Medea viewing Jason’s entering into prestigious marriage to Creusa as an act of social climbing, leaving behind his past for an alliance with Corinth. For the director of this production of Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto, Hans Neuenfels, the story is about people living in fear and acting out of fear. You might not get that quite so much from the original score and libretto, but that at least is the spin put on this production of a rarely performed opera recorded in 2010 at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

Medea

In Medea in Corinto, the forthcoming union between Creusa and Jason (Giasone in Italian) is a promise to the end of the long wars that have devastated the nation and an end to living in fear. But right from the beginning, Neuenfel’s radical staging puts forward a view that Corinth – perhaps on account of having to deal with the constant threat of violence – has become a corrupt and violent police state, with a cruel and sadistic king, Creon/Creonte. There are threats to the marriage also not only from Medea, who has turned up demanding an audience with Giasone, but – in this version – from Aegeus/Egeo, who is still engaged to Creusa and has brought his own personal army with him to push forward his claim to the throne.

Much of this interpretation of the myth is, it has to be said, suggested by the staging rather more than anything in the score or the libretto. That kind of practice can often be a valid exercise of theatrical interpretation, but it’s perhaps a little more dubious here since it seems to be acting in a way that is contrary to the intent of the piece, the kind of director-imposed regietheater view that is despised by a certain (intransigent) section of the opera-viewing public. In the opening scenes then, while Creon is talking about peace, he and his troops are at the same time engaged in the abuse, torture and execution of ordinary citizens in a sadistic manner that clearly evokes Pasolini’s Salò (thankfully without its worst excesses). In other scenes, either the director doesn’t trust the singing to be strong enough or the score to be deep or interesting enough, and includes silent background figures of Hymen and Amor, who play out mimes in the background, as well as solo musicians to highlight and contrast the actions with the words of the libretto.

Whether it’s true to Mayr’s vision of the Medea myth, this kind of reworking of the material is of course valid in the context of the nature of the opera’s theme of shifting political agendas, where the stated aims of those in power is often contrary to their actions and their actual intent. More than that however, without a little bit of subversion to enliven it, Medea in Corinto might otherwise be a very dull opera indeed. Musically, the studied classicism of Mayr’s arrangements – stately Mozart-like opera seria without the recitative and singing that is heading towards bel canto – is quite beautiful, but can come across as rather bland, certainly when compared to Cherubini’s fiery version, which is an evident model here. Although the qualities of his composition here are debatable, or at least unfashionable as far as modern opera tastes go, the composer now almost forgotten in the history of opera, Mayr could once count both Bellini and Donizetti as pupils, and Medea in Corinto is consequently not without a considerable amount of interest.

Medea

If the Bayerische Staatsoper production then is somewhat radical, it at least tries to make the classical themes relevant to a modern audience, the three-level stage reflecting the three periods through which the audience view this opera – a modern view of Mayr’s period interpretation of classical antiquity. The motivations and intentions can however be a bit dubious in some other respects – Medea first appearing in a witch-doctor costume, Aegeus bizarrely killing his own men in the second act – but it certainly holds the attention better than a more straightforward traditional production might. The production however also benefits here from some fine singing, Nadja Michael in particular delivering a fabulous rich deep almost mezzo performance as Medea – here as elsewhere a real showpiece role – but the singing all round is of a very high quality. A slimmed-down Ramón Vargas is notable as Giasone, but the role requires a deeper near-baritone range in some parts that the Mexican tenor can’t reach with sufficient force. Unfashionable it may be, but if you are looking to study the often fascinating intricacies and colour of the score, it’s superbly delivered by the Bayerisches Staatsorcheter under Ivor Bolton.

Enjoyment of this rare opera is assured however by the High Definition quality of the Arthaus Blu-ray release. The image quality is flawless, the filming making use of frequent close-ups, but also allowing the (sometimes distracting) background drama to be followed. The audio tracks are LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.0, both of which are simply outstanding with remarkable clarity and bass presence, and only a little reverb of stage ambience on occasion from the microphone placements. Extra features include a 30-minute Making of – which is made up entirely of interviews with the cast and production team – and a very informative 16-minute Interview with the president of the Simone Mayr institute.

LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

English National Opera, London | Paul Daniel, Mike Figgis, Claire Rutter, Michael Fabiano, Elizabeth DeShong, Alastair Miles | The Coliseum, London - February 18th, 2011

Even without reading the programme notes for Mike Figgis’ production of Lucrezia Borgia for the English National Opera, it’s clear from very early on that the medium isn’t an environment that the film director feels entirely comfortable with. Even before the opera proper starts, some flashback scenes written and filmed in Rome by Figgis as a background to what takes place in the opera, are projected onto a white screen hanging over the stage, making it clear that he has approached the opera in much the same way that he would make a film.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – opera is open to incorporating many disciplines and giving them varying weight, as well as being open to the kind of reinvention that new technology and modern ideas can bring to it – and there has accordingly been a healthy cross-over of film directors between the cinema and opera. While the short films that accompany the opera then are not at all needed, they are nevertheless a valid response to what the director sees as a need to give psychological, real-world depth to a character who is larger than life and, in Donizetti’s opera, played larger than life. There are, one could say, inconsistencies in the characterisation and gaps in credibility that arise out of its novelistic source in the work of Victor Hugo and its attempts to provide redemption for a complex and really quite notorious historical figure whose vile nature and her murderous inclinations towards anyone who criticises her family name is scarcely tempered by her love for her lost son, Gennaro.

In this case however, the impression is given that not only does Figgis not know his audience – an opera audience does not need the same kind of literal, realist approach as cinema, with the psychological background of the characters laid-out in this way – but it seems that he doesn’t understand opera, and the fact that, in a strong well-written opera (and Lucrezia Borgia certainly falls into that category), all the explanations that are needed, all the expressions of personality and the motivational factors – the guilt and the passion that lies at the heart of the characters – are all contained within the music and within the singing itself, even more so than in the narrative of the libretto, which can otherwise seem contrived and scarcely credible.

This failure to understand and get to grips with the medium he is working in or the audience he is working for, results in a rather over-literal, static and reductive approach for a director who can otherwise be quite avant-garde and experimental when it comes to filmmaking (Timecode, Hotel, COMA). A measure of his mistrust of opera, his audience and his own reaction towards it is in his choice to play Orsini (a female playing the role of a male), as a female, as if an opera audience couldn’t possibly grasp this convention that is so far removed from the rather more literal approach of cinematic realism. On his approach to the actual staging, there is also some merit to reducing the amount of clutter and glitz that usually accompanies a period, bel canto opera, and just letting the music and singing stand on its own. For the most part, the performances are certainly up to that task, particularly from Claire Rutter in the role of Lucrezia, but there is also a strong performance (particularly in the brindisi scene) from Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini, and the bond of love and friendship that lies between them actually does take on an interesting dimension and create other resonances with Orsini played as a female.

Lucrezia

There is however an additional constraint that Figgis finds himself struggling with, and that is the policy of the English National Opera to perform opera in English wherever possible, regardless of the suitability of the opera. Admittedly, some opera can work surprisingly well in English – Wagner’s Parsifal, seen at the same opera house the following night – worked no less effectively in English than it does in German, but bel canto opera, for me at least, is entirely associated with the qualities and sounds of the Italian language. Conductor Paul Daniel worked on the translation himself, and really, he failed to do justice to the work, with some of the choices made provoking chuckles from the audience at inappropriate points, not at all helping to establish the desired tone, and making Figgis’ attempt at psychological depth and realism all the more difficult. Significantly, the short film segments made by Figgis himself were in Italian with English subtitles.

The reduction of the staging and the simplification of movements does have some impact then in reducing the over-the-top propensities of the opera that Figgis evidently feels need to be constrained, and while it restricts the dynamic and results in what is not the most eye-catching of productions, it does at least focus the attention on the singing. One gets the impression however that the reduction of the staging into smaller areas is an attempt by Figgis to scale down the canvas, as per the framing in his film work, and break it down into discreet, static, sections that can be brought together when reworked for the cinema or television screen. As such, it would seem that Mike Figgis has been brought in more with the first ever 3-D Live opera broadcast in mind (tomorrow 23rd February 2011 for Sky Arts 2 HD and for cinema). Here one can imagine the director being more at home, progressively experimenting in a filmed medium, using simultaneous action and multiple angles. As such however, unfair though it might be for the theatrical audience, his stage production of Lucrezia Borgia feels like an unfinished product that will only come to fruition when it is brought to the screen.