Paterson, Iain


GotterdammerungRichard Wagner - Götterdämmerung

Metropolitan Opera, New York 2012 | Fabio Luisi, Robert Lepage, Deborah Voigt, Wendy Bryn Harmer, Waltraud Meier, Jay Hunter Morris, Iain Paterson, Eric Owens, Hans-Peter König, Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford, Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton | The Met: Live in HD, Feb 11th 2012

The evolution of the Metropolitan Opera’s Ring cycle has been gradual but noticeable through each of the four parts spread across its 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons. Initially in the prologue, Das Rheingold, the spectacle of Robert Lepage’s Machine was clearly an impressive and revolutionary piece of stage technology, but its concept and purpose were not entirely proven. At the very least however, the opening section of the Met’s Ring cycle delighted with a stunning display of powerful singing. Neither the staging nor the singing were entirely consistent across Die Walküre nor Siegfried, but as James Levine’s illness forced him to gave way to Fabio Luisi on the conductor’s podium, a more equitable balance seemed to develop between the production and the performance that played to the strengths of Wagner’s masterwork, even if that meant a little less power in the vocal delivery. If Siegfried held out the promise that Lepage’s vision could end up being a memorable Ring production, that promise was satisfyingly achieved in its epic final evening. With Götterdämmerung, the Met’s Ring has come full circle.

Following on from Siegfried, Fabio Luisi again conducted a Wagner of Romantic sweep over the traditional heavy Germanic declamation, perhaps in favour of two leads who don’t have the full force that is usually demanded for the roles of Siegfried and Brünnhilde – Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt. The toning down of the dramatics and tone also worked fittingly with a subtlety in the stage design that belies the sheer weight and imposing presence of the Machine. Like Wagner’s score for Götterdämmerung, the underlying power of the tools at one’s disposal can be a temptation for overstatement, but it can be even more effective if that huge mass of force is suggested and used only sparingly. Clearly both Luisi and Lepage understand that. This is a Ring for the 2010s then, faithful to Wagner’s vision of the power of mythology and of the music drama as the highest expression of human artistic endeavour, taking it to a new level through the modern technology that is at the disposal of an imaginative director.

Gotterdammerung
Lepage’s vision for the production didn’t appear to yield any grand conceptual theme other than how best to make Wagner’s daunting and problematic series of operas work in a modern context without all its accumulated history and tradition. Particularly in the earlier parts, the morphing planks and projections worked mainly on a literal basis to create the imposing presence of Valhalla, an impenetrable forest or a mountain cave housing a dragon, but as the cycle progressed, the emphasis shifted more towards the abstract conceptual. The polymorphous nature of the technology was still well-employed to give solidity to the physicality of the story – the riverside playground of the Rhinemaidens for example actually looking more realistic here than how it was projected during Das Rheingold – but the colours, lighting and abstract patterns elsewhere in Götterdämmerung seemed to be more attuned to mood.

It may seem like making excuses for slightly underpowered performances, but it was actually refreshing to find a Siegfried and a Brünnhilde playing not as mythical god-like figures, but as the human characters they essentially and necessarily are. No excuses however need to be made, even for the fact that both Jay Hunter Morris and Deborah Voigt were taking on enormous challenges way beyond anything they have ever done in their careers; on their own terms their performances were exceptionally good and fitting for the production. The chemistry that seemed to be there between them at the end of Siegfried didn’t extend however through to the first act of Götterdämmerung, both seeming a little overwhelmed, the lack of lower depth in both their voices even more noticeable when combined. Voigt however raised her game when paired with the formidable and experienced Wagernian mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier as Brünnhilde’s sister Valkyrie, Waltraude. Their sequence together was simply magnificent. For his part Morris won through from sheer determination and stamina in a severely testing role that demands a concentrated effort for six hours, but he also had a down-to-earth personality and charm that made the final scenes of the opera intimate and touching as well as being epically apocalyptic.

Gotterdammerung

If there were any misgivings about the appropriate Wagnerian tenor of the main roles not quite matching the earlier powerhouse performances of the likes of Bryn Terfel, Stephanie Blythe, Eric Owens and Jonas Kaufmann, there was again magnificent support here not only from Waltraud Meier, but Wendy Bryn Harmer proved to be a fine Gutrune, Hans-Peter König a formidable Hagen – blankly sinister in acting, but deeply menacing in tone of voice – and there was another impressive turn from Eric Owens who made the brief reappearance of Alberich more than memorable, particularly as his character is a vital link (and leitmotif) that sustains the overarching development and tone of the entire work. Only Iain Paterson failed to make his presence felt either as Gunther, but his weak-willed character was at least dramatically appropriate and fitting, and certainly not a weak element.

I can’t say what the experience would have been like in the theatre, but there was no evidence during the HD-Live broadcast of any noise from the stage equipment, or indeed any of the problematic breakdowns that have been the cause of complaints in some quarters. Everything on the stage flowed smoothly and impressively. On the big screen, Götterdämmerung was as grandly spectacular and as intimately moving as it ought to be, perfectly attuned to the score and the performances. The camerawork – directed a strong visual flair as usual by Gary Halvorson – was also well-judged to pick out the strengths in the performances and the production design, working with it, flowing with the mood of the piece. Although there are a few Ring productions still to come this year and next (the Munich one in particular should be interesting), when eventually viewed together as a full Ring cycle (it will be interesting to see if the first two are revised slightly to suit Luisi’s approach to the work) I think the full impact and consistency of this Met Ring will be better appreciated and it may even be regarded as one of the best of recent times.

Billy BuddBenjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Glyndebourne, 2010 | Mark Elder, Michael Grandage, London Philharmonic Orchestra, John Mark Ainsley, Jacques Imbrailo, Phillip Ens, Iain Paterson, Darren Jeffery, Ben Johnson, Jeremy White | Opus Arte

Mark Elder, the conductor for this production of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne 2010 notes that all Britten’s opera works are in some way about the loss of innocence. It’s an interesting observation that, if too neat and reductive a way to describe the qualities and the approach that Britten takes on the subject in Billy Budd, at least shows that it’s a subject that means something important to the composer. Elder, of course, isn’t intending to summarise the power and complexity of this opera or Britten’s work in a single phrase, and his deep understanding of the wider themes of Billy Budd is evident in his conducting of this remarkable production.

More than just being about the loss of innocence, it’s the different manner in which that innocence is corrupted in each of Britten’s operas (Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw), that makes them such intriguing works, works that are consequently capable of creating a deep impression on the listener. And although on the surface, Billy Budd, adapted from a short novel by Herman Melville, seems simple enough in its broad depiction of the malicious and deliberate destruction by cruel and heartless authorities of an innocent young man – a common sailor on board the HMS Indomitable in 1797, hard-working, of good heart, kind to his comrades, respectful of his superiors and loyal to the crown – the question of what motivates such behaviour (in the form of John Claggart, the ship’s master-of-arms) and how it is sanctioned, or at least tolerated (in the weakness of Captain Vere) is a much more complex and interesting subject that the opera touches upon.

According to James Fenton, writing about the opera in the Guardian in 2005, “Because this sort of surreptitious persecution and its counterpart, favouritism, are familiar to us from childhood as among the injustices that affect us most deeply, there is a power in the story of Billy Budd that grips us by analogy with our own experience. We want to know what motivates Claggart to persecute Billy.” That’s a complex question to which there might be no real satisfactory answer, but it is undoubtedly the principal reason why the opera holds a compelling fascination for the listener and touches deeply. There is certainly a sense that Claggart sees the respect and love that the crew have for Billy Budd’s innocence, kindness and beauty as a threat or a rebuke to the position of respect he has gained through the cruelty and fear that he exercises over the men, and he wants to show that such innocence is weakness has no place in a world where it can be mercilessly crushed.

Billy Budd

What experiences have led Claggart to this view aren’t clear, but it is certainly a part of the on-board culture of the British Navy during this period (where Budd, like the other new recruits, has been press-ganged onto the crew) and in the differences of class, rank and education. Much in the way that Turn of the Screw is about the repressed sexuality of a Victorian governess, there is very definitely a sense of repressed homosexuality and homoeroticism in Britten’s treatment of the story, particularly in the libretto of E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier. The use of language is magnificent in this respect, using nautical references and period idiom as well as playing on the sweetness of Billy Budd’s name (he’s frequently called Baby Budd and Beauty), all of which give a wonderful tanglible quality to the nature of the characters and life aboard the Indomitable, while also creating other resonances and connotations. Britten’s powerful score adds to those impressions, with sea shanty musical references and an emotional heart that is perfectly attuned to the dramatic content, binding characters, forging a sense of solidarity between them in some powerful chorus work, but also probing to the nature of their differences.

The nature of those drives that lead to such abuse of the innocent and the inexplicable failure of those with intelligence and authority to do anything about them might not be fully comprehensible, but the nature of how they are expressed in the opera and the wider implications of the piece is given a masterful comprehensive presentation in this production at Glyndebourne in 2010 by Mark Elder and Michael Grandage with the London Philharmonic. This is an outstanding production in every respect, conducted and played with verve and passion, capturing the full dynamic and range of the score, bringing it vividly to life. The set design by Christopher Oram is most impressive, aiming for solidity and period authenticity, while also being magnificently designed to keep the fluidity that Britten strove to achieve in the reduction of the opera to two acts. The singing and characterisation is great across the board, Jacques Imbrailo singing wonderfully while expressing all the innocence and passion of Billy Budd in every movement and gesture, Philip Ens a charmingly sinister presence as Claggart, and John Mark Ainsley a superb Captain Vere, the conflicted heart and mind caught between the polar extremes of the two men’s position. With all this, and fine performances in the other roles, this exceptional staging of Billy Budd is never less than gripping, dazzling and thought-provoking.

A fantastic, near-definitive production of the opera, it’s given an equally fine presentation on Blu-ray from Opus Arte. Directed for the screen by François Roussillon, the production looks magnificent, striking a perfect balance between close-ups and letting the full impact of the staging to be experienced. The image is clear and detailed, the sound mix both in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 dynamic and resoundingly powerful. Extra features consist of a 10 minute overview of the opera and the production, and a look at the costume designs.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

English National Opera, London | Mark Wigglesworth, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iain Paterson, John Tomlinson, Tom Fox, Stuart Skelton, Jane Dutton, Andrew Greenan | The Coliseum, London - February 19th, 2011

Wagner’s final opera, written and first produced in 1882, a year before his death, takes around four hours to relate a story that could be easily summarised in a couple of lines. It’s about a group of knights, protectors of the Holy Grail, who hope one day to recover the equally holy spear that pierced Christ’s side while on the cross. It has been prophesised that only a pure innocent holy fool will be able to achieve this, wresting it from the clutches of the evil Klingsor and thereby bring about redemption for Amfortas, the leader of the knights who suffers from an eternal wound that the spear has inflicted upon him. The person who comes along to fulfil this prophecy is Parsifal.

It seems like a very simple storyline and not one that would fill four hours of an opera, one would think – or at least one would think that were they not familiar with Richard Wagner. The key word in the above description is ‘suffering’, and, no, I’m not describing what an audience listening to four hours of Wagner has to undergo. On the contrary, Parsifal is filled end to end with some of the most exquisitely beautiful, thoughtful and indescribably sublime music that the composer, or indeed any composer, has ever written. The opera, rather, was inspired by Wagner’s attempt, late in his life, to come to terms with the idea of suffering, endless suffering, life as sufferance, and question what humanity gains through endurance of such torment.

Parsifal

There’s evidently a heavily Christian undercurrent to Parsifal then (although Wagner was in fact largely inspired by Buddhist teaching on the matter), with many of the characters undergoing Christ-like trials and torments to ultimately achieve purification for humanity, rediscover innocence, peace and an end to suffering, and through this the inspiration to continue to wage a holy war against infidels and those whose blood is less than pure. That makes the concept that Parsifal explores rather more complicated, not to say, in the light of the composer’s notorious anti-Semitic sentiments, even somewhat sinister.

The huge undertaking of the various concepts, and the Christian ideals that are explored in Parsifal however can be seen not even as an undercurrent, but in the very overt subject matter of the Holy Grail itself and the powerful symbolism of this image – according to Wagner “The most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion”. One need only think of how the term is applied in a modern context as the be all and end all, the ultimate aim, aspiration and desire of every human being – something that they are prepared to sacrifice everything for and endure so much suffering to attain.That’s why Parsifal takes four hours to express its ideas, since this is something that has to be worked for, won through long suffering, endurance and purity of purpose. Almost all of the characters in the opera are single-minded in their pursuit of this aim, and it is not too difficult to fathom their motivations, but there are some, Amfortas, and particularly Kundry, who have conflicting behaviours and rather more complex personalities, and it is ultimately through them, as much as through Parsifal, that true enlightenment is reached. All of the characters however are given infinitely more depth through Wagner’s sensuously contemplative score that lifts the piece out of any earthly existence and out into a realm “beyond time and space”.

Parsifal

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s superb 1999 stage production, revived here for its final performances at the English National Opera, brilliantly works on multiple levels, creating a place that seems to exist in an otherworldly domain, while at the same time being resolutely physical and austere in its expression of the nature of the characters and their struggles. In stark contrast to Mike Figgis’ first attempt at opera direction with Lucrezia Borgia, seen on stage at the Coliseum the previous night, Lehnhoff – renowned for his productions of Wagner’s music dramas – demonstrates a deep understanding of Parsifal and, in what can be a very static opera, makes full use of the stage to express it. The restlessness of the characters and their relation to one another is played out in their movements and proximity to one another, lighting and colouration used for emphasis and to highlight the tones expressed by the music. And not only is full use of the stage made in this respect, but, like the score, it even takes it beyond the confines of the physical dimensions of the Raimund Bauer’s set designs. That sounds like hyperbole, but the staging and Wagner’s remarkable orchestration is so persuasive that it really does take the audience into another dimension.

The playing of the orchestra of the English National Opera, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, could not be faulted, nor could individual performances by a uniformly strong cast or the powerful presence of the chorus. It would be unfair to single out any one singer when every element works together in such a fashion, but John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz proved to be an impressive narrator to anchor the opera with his wonderful bass tone and clear English diction. There are only a few performances of this opera left at the Coliseum, and although it has been recorded for posterity and is available on Blu-ray disc, it is still well worth making the effort to see it in a live performance before it disappears from the stage forever.