Borchev, Nikolay

DevereuxGaetano Donizetti - Roberto Devereux

Nationaltheater, Munich 2005 | Friedrich Haider, Christof Loy, Edita Gruberová, Roberto Aronica, Albert Schagidullin, Jeanne Piland, Manolito Mario Franz, Steven Humes, Nikolay Borchev, Johannes Klama | Deutsche Grammaphon

Sometimes when it comes to deciding how to stage an opera, whether in a traditional style or otherwise, it’s more than enough to just set the scene in as simple a fashion as possible and let the work speak for itself. This can be tricky in the case of a bel canto opera, particularly with Donizetti and certainly with his Tudor trilogy of operas (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux), where there is often not a great deal going on dramatically. Many directors will try to cover up the lack of dramatic action with elaborate sets and costumes, but not Christof Loy. Even though there isn’t indeed a great deal to the sets here in this 2005 production for the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and, yes, even though it is inevitably taken out of its original historical Tudor setting, Loy nonetheless clearly recognises where the real strengths of the work lie and gives them prominence through attention to character and the acting performances, particularly in how they are expressed through the singing.


What passes for a plot in the case of Roberto Devereux is not particularly complex and not exactly faithful to historical fact in the first place, but it does deal with recognisable and timeless operatic themes like love and betrayal. There doesn’t appear to be a lot going on musically to explore these themes and the emotions they give rise to in any kind of depth or complexity, but you might be surprised at how much can be drawn from it if the work is treated respectfully and with a keenness of observation. The opera is actually quite compact, neatly structured and balanced in how it blends the political issues with the romantic ones and plays them off against each other. Devereux, Earl of Essex, faces a charge of treason for being merciful to the enemy forces he has routed in Ireland, but Queen Elizabeth I, in love with him, is of a mind to be lenient herself and save him from a sentence of death. As long as he is true to her and the ring that she has given him as a token of her protection. Devereux however is too concerned with his feelings for Sarah who has abandoned him and married Nottingham while Devereux was in Ireland. What is clever about the arrangement is the swapping of tokens (a ring and a scarf) which at the same time could save Devereux or see him condemned to death. There are worse kinds of betrayal than political failure.

While there is a neat symmetry to the construction, the strengths of the work lie not so much in the plot or the libretto as much as in how the drama is expressed musically - through exquisite melodies, arias and, of course, through the expressive ornamentation of the coloratura. which in this case is admirably much more restrained than is typical for a bel canto lyrical tragedy. The interpretation given by the singers is therefore of primary importance, and in a theatrical environment that can be enhanced further through a considered stage direction that gives the performers the necessary space for expression. It’s this sense of dramatic potential and expression that I’ve always found to be one of the strengths of Christof Loy as a director. With a terrific cast here in the four main roles to take care of the singing confidently - particularly with Edita Gruberova as Queen Elizabeth I - Loy places the emphasis on the central theme and ensures that the acting and interaction between the characters works to bring that out to the fullest. The result is a simply chillingly and powerful account of a work that - like Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda - has far more going for it than just being a romanticised historical drama.


For director Christof Loy, his principal interest in the work is indeed the human feelings that lie beneath the surface impressions of a woman in power. It’s not surprising then, considering the English setting, that in updating the work to a modern context, Loy makes reference to a woman more recognisable than Elizabeth I and more politically powerful and dangerous than Elizabeth II. There’s unquestionably a similarity to Margaret Thatcher here in the dress sense and hair styling of Edita Gruberova’s Queen Elizabeth. With a wry sense of humour then, nearly all the action takes place indeed in Westminster, but in a modern-day government press-office that is all wood panelling and leather armchairs, where the functionaries in smart business suits gossip by the water cooler over the latest headlines in the tabloid press - “Seducer Returns”, “Off With His Head”. It’s a nice touch, one that makes the most of the chorus, showing them muttering to each other, whispering rumours and rolling eyes, creating the kind of environment of gossip and scandal played out in public that drives the intrigue throughout.

It’s remarkably effective, characteristically Christof Loy, maximising the potential of the conflict between faithless treacherous men and blazing vengeful women at the heart of the drama in the simplest way possible, giving it an air of naturalism that one isn’t accustomed to find in a production of an operatic historical drama. The same kind of detail, with particular attention to the acting, is of course evident in all the main performances. There is a fine performance from Roberto Aronica as Devereux, which includes a lovely heartfelt Act III ‘A te dirò negli ultimo singhiozzi’ and a fine ‘Dacché tomasti, ahi misera’ duet between Devereux and Jeanne Piland’s excellent Sarah. Albert Schagidullin demonstrates a fine legato line and beautifully clear diction as Nottingham, his soft dignified bass befitting the nature of his character. It’s Edita Gruberova however who delivers the truly standout performance of the evening. Given terrific motivation through the direction, her performance is committed and perfectly controlled, delivering vengeful utterances with ringing authority and conviction, drawing full expression out of the magnificent coloratura. Her crumbling self-destruction at the end of the opera is simply devastating and it brings the house down.


The DVD from Deutsche Grammaphon also includes a fine 20-minute documentary on the making of the production. Half of the featurette is on the production itself, with input from Christof Loy and Friedrich Haider, who interestingly calls Roberto Devereux “the Elektra of bel canto opera, and you can see where he’s coming from. The other half of the featurette focuses on the filming of the production by Brian Large, getting behind the scenes and showing the work and planning involved in recording an opera for the screen. The quality of the DVD itself is excellent in terms of audio and video quality (in widescreen). Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.

AriodanteGeorg Friedrich Handel - Ariodante

Theater Basel, 2012 | Luca Tittoto, Franziska Gottwald, Maya Boog, Nikolay Borchev, Christiane Bassek, Agata Wilewska, Noel Hernández Lopez | Basel, Switzerland, 17 May 2012

This is obviously very much a personal view, but the best approach to staging Baroque opera seems to be to avoid the traditional approach at all costs. By all means stick to the traditional in terms of singing and period instrumentation - there really isn’t any alternative that works better - but in my experience, if you want to find a way to engage a modern audience and take them through the rather static drama and the rather stiff conventions of the repetitive da capo arias of Baroque opera, it helps if there is some inventiveness and an imaginative approach to the staging. Done straight, it can be difficult to lift or support the emotions that are being expressed at length in the long arias between the few moments of dramatic content - although this obviously depends on the composer and Handel is certainly an exception - but until relatively recently, it was supposed that hardly any Baroque opera, not even Handel, could ever be presented to a modern audience.

Thankfully, through painstaking research, restoration and training in period instruments from Baroque musical experts like William Christie, Jordi Savall, René Jacobs and Christophe Rousset, have proved that these works are of much more than just interest to music historians. Staging these works however is another matter altogether, and it often requires a radical approach. I’m thinking of Doris Dörrie’s Noh-theatre inspired direction of Handel’s Admeto, the Royal Opera House’s 2010 production of Steffani’s Niobe or, as when I last visited the Theater Basel, the WWII updating of Gluck’s Telemaco, but as seen with William Kentridge’s production of Die Zauberflöte, there are also a wider range of tools that can be at service to a director of personal vision and imagination. In my experience - again this is very much a personal viewpoint - it’s surprising just how successful some of the more radical presentations can be in this respect, the more abstract conceptual stage approach tapping into the emotional content over and above the dry recounting of the narrative of the libretto. I don’t think however that I’ve ever seen anything quite as ambitious as director Stefan Pucher and the Theater Basel’s wonderful willingness to experiment with Baroque opera through modern theatrical tools in their extraordinary 2012 production of Handel’s Ariodante.


When you speak about the stage direction here however, it’s necessary to consider the input from the innovative and visually impressive set design by Barbara Ehnes and the costumes of Annabelle Witt, as Stefan Pucher’s stage direction is truly a multimedia event. It’s through these different layers - along with the lighting, the use of projected images and even filmed sequences projected onto the sets - that the different layers of the music, the interaction of the characters and the heightened emotions are fully explored, much more so than the usual static delivery of the long arias. It’s not that all the necessary qualities aren’t already there in Handel’s exquisite compositions that capture the sentiments of its characters so well, but the staging simply allows an audience to see them visualised and respond to those qualities from an older operatic tradition that would otherwise seem almost unfathomable to anyone used to a more modern or traditional approach.

There’s nothing particularly inspiring about Ariodante’s late-eighth century Scottish setting, but theatre director Stefan Pucher - in his first opera production - clearly recognises that this ancient setting and the opera seria music that accompanies it is so far removed from what we are familiar with as to be practically abstract anyway. What is still relevant is the opera’s human story of love, jealousy, deception and revenge, and that was given utmost consideration. Act I then accordingly provided a tartan overload in the most extravagant of colours and weaves that, if they might not relate to any specific clan, certainly gave each of the figures their own strong definition. The tartan stretched to the brightly lit and visually impressive set designs that seems to create an enhanced 3-D effect through the still images, gothic paintings (by 17th century artist Otto Marseus van Schrieck), slow moving projections and lighting effects on the foreground screens, while the singing platform was set back on a revolving stage within a wide inverted cross. The sets inside were rather minimal, with a few eccentric touches in keeping with the Schrieck imagery such as giant bugs and slugs in an orange room in Act 1, but the frequent refreshing of the set from scene to scene all contributed to keep attention from flagging.


Even this would eventually have become tiresome over the course of the whole opera, but the designers also managed to find a distinct visual look for each of the subsequent two acts, if it was never a look that related naturalistically to any location specified in the libretto. A kick-boxing match standing-in for the battle between Polinesso and Ariodante on the jousting grounds was perhaps the strangest sight in Act III. Showing that there was a complete understanding of the structure of the works however and the necessary impact that was written into the chorus and ballet finales of each of the acts, the director pulled out all the stops at these points, inviting the audience to sing along to ‘Sì godete al vostro amor’ from music sheets handed out to the audience when entering the theatre (a surprisingly invigorating experience), and using filmed outdoor sequences featuring the cast, which was also extremely effective in suggesting the depths of Ginevra’s madness and inner turmoil at the end of Act II. More than just being visually stunning, the whole multimedia experience encompassed the tone and the intent of the music score, as well as drawing in the viewer and involving them fully in the experience. It made the production - the finest I think I’ve seen during the 2011-12 season - absolutely riveting.


It was not so riveting however that attention wouldn’t occasionally be drawn to the wonderful playing of this magnificent opera on period instruments by the La Cetra Barockorchester Basel under the direction of Andrea Marcon. Even they were visually integrated into the spectacle, placed on a platform that would rise and sink at the start and end of each act like an old-fashioned cinema organist, allowing the music to take centre stage where appropriate. Just as importantly, there was full attention given to the direction of the performers, who were never allowed to become just singing props that fitted into the overall package, and with the kind of singing we were hearing here, there was even less likelihood of them being overwhelmed by the spectacle. Mezzo-sporano Franziska Gottwald demonstrated a breathtaking range and facility for the demanding arias assigned to Ariodante, and was particularly impressive in Act II’s ‘Scherza infida’. Maya Boog however was just as impressive as Ginevra, handling the arias with aplomb, but also acting with genuine emotional and dramatic conviction throughout. There were however no weak elements in the casting which also included Agata Wilewska as Dalinda, Luca Tittoto as the King, Nikolay Borchev as Lurciano and Christiane Bassek as a disturbingly moustachioed, long-haired villain Polinesso, and Noel Hernández Lopez as Odoardo.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2012 | Philip Arlaud, Christian Thielemann, Eike Wilm Schulte, Sophie Koch, Renée Fleming, Robert Dean Smith, Jane Archibald, Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners, Christian Baumgärtel, Roman Grübner, David Jerusalem, Michael Ventow, Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel, Lenneke Ruiten, René Kollo |, Live Internet Steaming, 12 February 2012

Much as I love the operas of Richard Strauss, I have conflicted feelings about Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m broadly with the composer on this one, agreeing with his initial reaction to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s proposal to basically structure the work as an opera within and opera (within an opera) as being much too confusing for an audience. And not just confusing, but worse, dramatically uninvolving. Combining an opera seria with an opera buffa sounds brilliantly clever on the page, setting the old against the new and allowing the difference of style and tone of the forms to work off each other (it worked so well in Der Rosenkavalier), with a clever construct in the Prologue (added after the original version failed) that accounts for this idea, but the work offers still little in conventional dramatic terms. How then do we account for the enduring popularity of Ariadne auf Naxos?

Ariadne auf Naxos is also a witty satire of opera patrons, opera composers, opera performers and even opera audiences, but I suspect its in-jokes appeal more to those putting on the work than those in the audience watching it, but even that doesn’t entirely account for the opera being one of Strauss’s most performed works. The musical qualities cannot be denied, even if there is a sense that it’s also one of those works which offers more to the diva who wants to demonstrate her range and sense of fun. If that were the only reason for putting on the work, drawing performers like the exceptional cast gathered for this 2012 production at Baden-Baden, then that’s perhaps justification alone for putting on the work, but there are evidently other aspects that make the work so attractive to international audiences, and that’s the fact that, as clever sounding as the concept is, the originality of Hofmannstahl’s libretto clearly inspired Strauss to write some of his most beautiful arrangements and inventive melodies that do ultimately touch on deeper truths relating to human nature and emotions.


Ariadne auf Naxos doesn’t function terrifically well then as a stage drama and it’s much too self-referential (I’d still happily dispense with the Prologue from the revised/definitive second version of the opera myself), offering little scope for a modern stage director who wants to impose his own personal vision on the concept. It’s also limiting to the performer who may find that the conventions of the opera seria and opera buffa elements are somewhat restrictive, particularly within this framework. What makes the work special however is the fact that it does come from the creative and fertile minds of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in their prime. Following on from such important works as Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and already working on the magnum opus that would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos may suffer from the same pretensions as those other works – even to a greater degree – but that doesn’t mean that it is really any less brilliant either. It may be clever-clever, but there is a complete sincerity in the musical, emotional and dramatic content of their work together as well as the belief that the unique construct and artifice of opera can raise those qualities to greater heights. The challenge for anyone putting on the work then is in actually getting this across.

Trying to be too clever with works that are already clever enough is always a potential pitfall with Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Claus Guth had a go at it, setting the Zurich production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a famous Swiss hotel without managing to bring anything particularly new or revelatory out of the work. The Baden-Baden production is more traditional in its setting. The stage is like… well… a stage – a Broadway musical arrangement, with a sweeping staircase behind on which the assembled well-off guests at the host’s party sit dressed in their finery (1920s style formal dress), watching the entertainment put on for them by “the richest man in Vienna”. If there doesn’t appear then to be a great deal that director Philip Arlaud brings to the table here – the separate buffa and seria elements are clearly divided and played out in a fairly straightforward manner according to their conventions – there is nonetheless a considerable challenge in actually making the opera’s difficult construct work as well as making it interesting and comprehensible to an audience, and that’s actually achieved exceptionally well here.


Simplicity is the key to making Strauss and Hofmannstahl work, even if that’s not as simple as it appears. Christof Loy’s 2011 Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, would appear to be trying to be overly clever with its concept (setting the fairytale in a post-WWII Viennese concert hall), but by stripping the work back of its trappings and allowing the music and the words to speak for themselves, the full power of the work is nonetheless made apparent. It’s the director’s job to give the work and the performers that necessary space to get that across, and that’s done here too. To a large extent then the weight of interpretation, of letting the piece speak for itself, should lie with the conductor and the singers and, as with the Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, we have one of the most attentive and sympathetic of Strauss conductors here in Christian Thielemann.

In the same way that there is a magic created between Strauss and Hofmannstahl, between the composer and the music, between the conflicting elements of Ariadne auf Naxos (and yes, I have to admit, even with its Prologue), there is also the magic (acknowledged in Strauss’s final opera Capriccio) that is created between the performer and the listener. The combination of Strauss, Thielemann and Renée Fleming and their relationship with the audience is one of the great musical wonders of our age, and that magic is abundantly in evidence here. As Ariadne – surprisingly her first time singing this role – Fleming’s line is beautiful, her legato smooth, with that famous richness of tone in a role and with a composer and a conductor who shows off her qualities to their best, while also bringing out the ecstatic beauty of the music in the opera itself.


It’s a recognition of this chemistry, already seen in Baden-Baden’s successful 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier that in some way accounts for the commission of this new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Reunited also from that earlier Strauss production is Sophie Koch as the Composer, wearing a Leo Sayer wig, singing the role wonderfully and bringing a nice note of commitment and sincere naivety to the role that belies the parody within it. That’s the case elsewhere in this production, which never plays it as a farce for the fiasco that arises from the central idea of pushing together two different operas in time for a fireworks display. Playing it perfectly seriously – like all good commercial productions, as the Broadway musical setting suggests, the show must always go on – Robert Dean Smith brought his slightly strained heldentenor to the role of Bacchus with similar commitment, and Jane Archibald took on the coloratura fireworks role of Zerbinetta reasonably well, but without ever making much of an impression. All of this contributes to a fine production, even if nothing threatens to overshadow Fleming’s Prima Donna/Ariadne. If I remain unconvinced that Ariadne auf Naxos works conceptually or dramatically, respectively lacking the beautiful concision of Capriccio and the musical cohesion of Der Rosenkavalier, the beauty of the piece and the inventiveness of Strauss and Hofmannstahl that accounts for its popularity was nonetheless wonderfully evident in the fine staging and singing of this production.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the web site.