Jordan, Philippe


ArabellaRichard Strauss - Arabella

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Marco Arturo Marelli, Kurt Rydl, Doris Soffel, Renée Fleming, Genia Kühmeier, Michael Volle, Joseph Kaiser, Eric Huchet, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Thomas Dear, Iride Martinez, Irene Friedli | Opéra Bastille, Paris, 10 July 2012

You might detect a small note of annoyance in the tone of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s letter of the 22nd December 1927 to Richard Strauss at one review of Der Rosenkavalier which criticised the failure to make the best use of the opera’s strongest character, the Marschallin. It’s tempting to think that, in this letter to Strauss discussing the composition of Arabella, Hoffmanstahl was indeed suggesting revisiting the 18th century world of old Vienna and addressing that criticism as well as improving the overall dramatic structure that was a little wayward in the earlier work. In many ways Arabella is indeed a more “perfect” version of Der Rosenkavalier, but it’s a work nonetheless that few would consider better than the earlier work, magnificent even with all its glorious imperfections. Given a sympathetic production, with the right kind of cast to draw out and linger over its elegance - such as the one assembled here for the Paris Opera - one would however have to seriously consider whether the latter isn’t worthy of comparison to its earlier incarnation.

Returning to the 18th century Viennese operetta setting, Arabella does indeed demonstrate the hand of a more experienced team capable of improving many of the elements that were slightly awkward and much too self-consciously clever in Der Rosenkavalier. The romantic Mozartian intrigue with identity problems and its cross-dressing farce fits better within the tone of the later work, the introduction of waltzes placed more naturalistically within the setting of a balls at a grand hotel. Everything runs smoothly along the narrative line laid out for the drama, with a musical continuity that effortlessly glides one right through the three acts. There’s always the danger of the music being a little too smooth with Strauss in this register, but there is an awareness of the darker side of the Vienna of Maria Theresia beneath the surface glamour.

This is one further significant difference between the conception of the two works. Der Rosenkavalier was composed in 1911 before the Great War, Arabella after it in 1933, and although both seem to wallow in a nostalgia for an idealised past, there are hints in the latter work - with its specific 1866 setting just after the war with Prussia - of a more meaningful reflection on the state of the post-war Austria of Hofmannshahl and Strauss’ time. There’s nothing too dark, just the hint that the world reflected in the monetary ruin and fall from grace of former military officer Count Waldner, is unable to sustain the illusion of living in the past much longer. What is wonderful about the work is how it manages to keep this within the spirit of what is essentially a comic melodrama, where one daughter Arabella will have to be married to a rich man, while the other daughter, Zdenka, must dress and act as a man, since the family cannot afford a marriage for two daughters, and Arabella is the better prospect.

Arabella moreover, despite the apparent light tone of the work, is indeed a more fully rounded human person that the Marschallin - who was more of a concept to embody the passing of time in the more philosophically-leaning Der Rosenkavalier, although fully and poetically developed in that respect - was never allowed to be. Arabella still has all the lush romanticism that Strauss and Hofmannstahl want to capture in this lost Viennese world for a time that, after the Great War, was ever more in need of it. Without denying that times can be difficult, that sacrifices need to be made, the opera offers up the hope that fairytales can happen, that goodness, fidelity and happiness have the chance to exist. With that kind of concept, Arabella can be played as too lushly romantic, too formally classical and over-elaborate in a manner that smothers the delicate balance that the music and the drama treads. Not so in this production at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, one of the final works of the current 2011-12 season.

The staging by Marco Arturo Marelli didn’t appear obviously special, but it worked wonderfully with the intended tone of the work. The whole purpose of Arabella is to create this world of 18th century Vienna in all its glamour - idealised though it may be - so there’s not a lot of point in changing the period or the setting. Marelli’s sets looked like the typical Opéra Bastille production, bright, with coloured lighting, filling the stage and making full use of the height of the stage, yet the luxury, smoothness and cleanness of the designs suited the tone of this particular work. The set was wonderfully designed also to match the flowing nature of the work, slipping elegantly from one scene to the next, although the actual stage direction for the characters within this was a little bit walk-on/walk-off. The cleverest touch was the fall of a blue silken curtain at the end of Act I, which managed to romantically set up the first wordless encounter between Arabella and Mandryka, to be taken up from the same position at the start of Act II.

With Philippe Jordan at the helm, there were some truly astonishing sounds coming out of the orchestra pit from the remarkable Orchestra of the Paris Opera. It seemed directed with a Wagnerian punch and heft that ought to be out of place with this light comic drama, yet it only served to underline the dramatic and romantic tone to its fullest extent. It was the intelligence of the wonderful singing performances however that really carried through the full beauty of the work and the complex depths that are suggested in Hofmannstahl’s libretto and Strauss’ music. Renée Fleming’s silken tones graced Strauss’ music with warmth, glamour and sensitivity, although her performance was certainly enhanced by Jordan’s direction and in her well-matched interaction with the other singers. Alongside Michael Volle, the pairing of Arabella and Mandryka felt every bit as perfect as it should, bringing the full romantic content out of the work, but Kurt Rydl as Waldner and Genia Kühmeier as Zdenka also impressed on every level, contributing to the overall richness of the piece and showing what it can be capable of in the hands of a strong team. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a spontaneous standing ovation for a production as a whole at the Paris Opera, but it was well-merited here.

PelleasClaude Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Robert Wilson, Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Franz Josef Selig, Elena Tsallagova, Anne Sofie Von Otter, Julie Mathevet, Jérôme Varnier | Opéra Bastille, 28 February 2012

The sheer perfection of the match of Debussy’s music to Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama Pelléas et Mélisande is unparalleled in the world of opera. It stands alone as a unique piece of music-theatre that is incomparable with any other opera - even Debussy was unable to repeat the experiment with unfinished attempts at some works by Edgar Allan Poe, and it remains the only opera he ever composed. It’s not possible to improve on perfection of course, but there is another element that is just as important when it comes to actually staging the work, and those are the choices made by the director. Robert Wilson’s production for the Paris Opéra, first seen in 1997 has been revived several times over the last 15 years, and is revived again in 2012 for good reason. Once seen, it’s hard to imagine Pelléas et Mélisande being staged in any other way. The match of Wilson’s unique vision to the opera is as close to perfection as Debussy’s music is to Maeterlinck’s drama.

Everything that has become familiar with Robert Wilson productions over the years is here in his production of Pelléas et Mélisande, but rarely has it been employed so evocatively, expressively, imaginatively and as a whole with the tone of the original opera work as it is here. Reflecting Debussy’s own Belle Epoque symbolist, oriental, ancient Greek and Egyptian influences in the arts (the subject of an exhibition in Paris at the same time as the opera is revived there), Wilson’s stylised imagery of hieroglyphics come to life is perfectly fitting. Placing angular figures in dramatic poses framed in silhouette against luminous pale blue backlit backdrops, with floating objects and geometric shapes placed prominently on a bare stage, subtle gradual shifts of light and the occasional flash of bold colour, the effect when matched with the moods of Pelléas et Mélisande is completely beguiling and utterly beautiful. What Robert Wilson brings to this particular opera however, more than just a bag of theatrical tricks that have been employed over the years to different effect in works as varied (and with varying levels of success it has to be said) as Aida, Madama Butterfly, Einstein on the Beach, Orfeo and Orphée et Eurydice, is a revelatory visual expression of the mystical haunted quality of the almost surreal fairytale.

The term haunted seems an appropriate way to describe the dreamlike experiences of the figures in Pelléas et Mélisande. Here in Wilson’s production, the characters seem to float or stand frozen in strange poses, as if they are ghosts compelled to reenact a series of actions that have been played-out time and time again, detached from their original context, their movements reduced to a series of mannerisms. They each inhabit their own space, crossing by each other without touching. So when Mélisande lets down her hair, it’s a mimed gesture, and when Pelléas wraps himself in it, he’s not even close to the tower where Mélisande is standing. Likewise, Golaud talks about lifting little Yniold to spy on his brother and his wife, but he doesn’t physically hold him, and nor does Yniold, reporting their actions, actually see them on the stage. When figures do actually touch, it’s at very specific moments and the impact is every bit as dramatic as the situations that the drama and the music describe.

Pelleas

Seen like this, much of the mystery that has surrounded Pelléas et Mélisande for over a century can suddenly be seen in a new light. It is indeed as if all the figures are merely spectres caught in a timeloop, doomed to continually play out their own part in the drama that has unfolded in an attempt to understand the mistakes they have made that has led to such a tragic conclusion. Nothing ever changes, they repeat empty gestures, coming no nearer to understanding the sequence of isolated events, and have no hope of averting the fate that is in store for them. Suddenly then the mystery of Mélisande’s strange appearance in the forest at the start of the opera and her cries of ‘Ne me touchez pas! Ne me touchez pas!‘ begins to make sense. She doesn’t know how she came to be there, but it’s as if she has a sense of the tragic destiny in store for her - the crown at the bottom of the water perhaps the one she later wears when she marries Golaud, the prince of Allemonde - and her words are a vain attempt to stop it before the train of events are set in motion once again. In Wilson’s production, Mélisande rises after she has been declared dead at the end of the final act, and the story seems to be about to recommence all over again.

One would think that a native French singer would be a prerequisite for the rhythms of the sung/spoke dialogue that Mélisande has to deliver (the dramatic singing qualities of Nathalie Dessay for example, who I’ve heard singing the part exceptionally well), but Elena Tsallagova is one of the more outstanding young Russian singers who have come to prominence through their association with the Paris Opera’s Atelier Lyrique. A magnetic, ethereal presence in her flowing, angular costume, she sang the role flawlessly - a perfect fit for the role. I can’t say I’ve ever seen characters actually smile in a Robert Wilson production, and one would think it even less likely in this melancholic work, but on the couple of occasions when such an expression came over Mélisande’s face, Tsallagova managed to make it seem quite unsettling. Stéphane Degout didn’t seem quite so comfortable striking poses as Pelléas, and his beautifully lyrical baritone seemed a little light for the role, but it complemented Tsallagova’s Mélisande well and suited the ethereal tone of the production.

Pelleas

The singing in the other roles was immensely powerful to balance the lightness in tone of the two main protagonists. Vincent Le Texier was a terrific Golaud, commanding and a little frightening in his rage, jealousy and suspicions - you can understand exactly why Julie Mathevet’s Yniold quivers the line ‘J’ai terriblement peur‘ in his presence. Franz Josef Selig’s deep warm bass and beautiful enunciation gave genuine warmth to his Arkel and Anne Sofie Von Otter was a likewise solid presence as Geneviève.

One of the greatest and most enigmatic works ever composed for the stage, it’s the endless fascination of its mysteries and its inescapable tragedy, as well as the feeling that the answers are there somewhere within and the words and actions of the characters and might eventually yield some clue as to its meaning, that ensures the work’s enduring popularity. Always thought-provoking, illuminating works in a new way, Robert Wilson is particularly brilliant with a work that has particular significance and a special place in the repertoire of French music. Performed live, Pelléas et Mélisande is one of those works that take on an entirely new dimension, and in such a context with the cast assembled at the Bastille in Paris, and with the terrific orchestra of L’Opéra national de Paris conducted by Philippe Jordan working its way through the intricacies of Debussy’s score, the effect is incomparable.

There will be a live internet steaming of the performance of 16th March 2012 via the Opéra National de Paris’ web-site. It will remain available for internet viewing until 16th June.

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?

Destin

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.