Hendricks, Scott


Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

La Monnaie, Brussels, 2012 | Ádám Fischer, Andrea Breth, Simona Šaturová, Salomé Haller, Carole Wilson, Sébastien Guèze, Scott Hendricks, Dietmar Kerschbaum, Till Fechner, Jean-Luc Ballestra, Guillaume Antoine, Gijs Van der Linden, Matthew Zadow, Kris Belligh | Internet streaming, 15 December 2012

Let’s not beat around the bush here, because this controversial new production of Verdi’s La Traviata directed by Andrea Breth for La Monnaie in Brussels certainly makes its point directly and in no uncertain terms right from the outset. Prostitution is a nasty business. Courtesans, like Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, may once have had a glamorous allure, but the reality was and is quite different. The ultimate fate of any woman in those circumstances as the years and the lifestyle takes its toll, as they struggle to maintain appearances and simply survive, dependent upon the goodwill of others, is not a pretty one. Giuseppe Verdi acknowledged this as far as censorship allowed in La Traviata - and even then it would not allow the work to be depicted as Verdi wanted as a contemporary drama - showing a ‘fallen woman’ unable to find love and happiness. Director Andrea Breth goes much further.

Violetta’s origins are shown right from the outset of the La Monnaie production during the Overture, the young woman being brought in from some East European country via a human trafficking operation and sold off to a prostitution ring. The opening party scene of the work then retains the forced glamour depicted by Verdi’s setting of the scene, while at the same time showing that the underlying reality is not so pleasant. Semi-naked women pose glamorously from display windows behind a party that seems to be taking place in a high-class brothel, one that does a line in S&M, of which Violetta appears to be the Madame. Amid the drunken revelry, one of the guests, wearing a plaster cast, his trousers half on and half around his ankles, vomits over one of the semi-conscious female guests. At the end of the evening as Violetta ponders the shy advances of a new young admirer Alfredo (’Ah! Fors’è lui…‘), one straggling reveller, in a state where she is unable to find her stockings and shoes, snorts some cocaine in the background.

That’s not a typical way to depict Act I of La Traviata, but the brilliance of this production - a controversial one certainly that has stirred up a great deal of debate and which eventually forced La Monnaie to issue a statement with backing from other artists on the freedom of artistic expression - is that it remains musically and thematically faithful to the strengths of Verdi’s writing and the subject, making it contemporary and realistic in a way that the composer himself was prevented from doing by the censor. It’s not out to shock through a controversial treatment as much as to shock the audience into understanding and relating to the reality that Verdi was trying to get across. It’s a measure of the success of the treatment that this version of La Traviata - a work that unfortunately has all too often become a glamorous star turn for a big-name diva - is one of the most powerful of recent years, revitalised and sparkling, modern and relevant. It’s what La Traviata is all about.

The modern revisionist elements and the controversial sexual content of the production elsewhere similarly manage to strike a near-perfect balance between modern relevance and fidelity to the original intentions of the work. Scene 2 of Act I does little more than show an Alfredo so transported with love that he paints some graffiti love messages on a residence that currently has the workmen in. It’s the depiction of the revelry however in the pivotal Act II confrontation that is the most troubling part of the work - and it should indeed be a troubling scene. Keeping to the theme of the unpleasant reality of prostitution and the exploitation of women, Breth uses strong imagery and behaviour that is reminiscent of Pasolini’s film ‘Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom‘. (No, that’s not chocolate that one of the older guests is smearing over a young under-aged schoolgirl’s face). As a very difficult, near-unwatchable work about the dehumanisation and commoditisation of the human body, the corruption of wealth and power (money speaking just as much in Verdi’s day as in the present), Salò is a relevant work to reference. It isn’t taken to quite the same lengths in La Traviata here, but there’s enough to make a point in the strongest way possible, and enough evidently, to cause quite a stir in the world of opera.

As troubling as all this is intended to be, the ultimate degradation of Violetta and women in her position should be just as forceful in the final Act, as Breth’s vision proves to be quite as perceptive and capable of conveying the full intent and force of the underlying meaning with all the necessary impact. Violetta’s maidservant Annina is forced to pay the doctor through services provided on her knees, out on streets in a dark alley where her mistress is dying, wrapped up in plastic sheeting, as a heroin user shoots up further down from her. It’s as powerful an expression as you can imagine of the abject misery that is more than likely to be the fate of any aging prostitute who is seriously ill and has bills to pay. It may not be the romantic death of a tragic heroine through consumption in the bedroom of an elegant Parisian mansion that is more commonly shown in productions of this opera, but this version gets more directly to the heart of what Verdi was writing about and it is actually relatively mild to the harsh daily reality of the violence, abuse and exploitation that takes place on the streets in real life.

While the dramatic and thematic concept has been carefully thought through and put across with fidelity and a sense of purpose, that’s only half the battle with putting on La Traviata. The singing and performance of the work itself needs to be just as considerate of the work, and fortunately the casting and the conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra by Ádám Fischer were perfectly in accord with the staging. Early on, I liked how rhythm and tempo employed during Violetta’s ‘Sempre libera‘ matched Violetta’s tentative exhilaration at the discovery of love, tempered at the same time by the first signs of her illness. The judgement of each of the subsequent scenes however is just as sensitive and precise to the characterisation and the content, while also finding a way to make those diverse scenes and emotions flow naturally one after another. A most impressive account.

The singing is more of a mixed bag, but by and large it worked hand-in-hand with the drama. I always find it difficult to adjust to a new singer in one of the most famous roles in opera, but if Simona Šaturová didn’t have the force or technique of some of the more notable sopranos who have sung the role, she nonetheless made a deep impression and gained greater credibility and strength as the work progressed. All the roles were well-cast from the point of view of age and looks - that doesn’t often happen - and if Sébastien Guèze wasn’t the strongest singer who has ever sung the role, he reflected Alfredo’s youth and inexperience well, and with some degree of distinction and personality. Scott Hendricks wouldn’t be my ideal Giorgio Germont, but he also fits in well with the production. He can be a bit wayward and over-enthusiastic, but here he was relatively restrained, if still a little mannered and imprecise. In his ‘pura siccome un angelo‘, there’s a neat twist where the father uses its seductive appeal as a come-on to Violetta - another instance of the abuse of power - and Hendrix makes it work. It’s just one example of how the relationships have been thought through here - the father/son relationship between Hendrix and Guèze also works well - creating a convincing and realistic dynamic, showing a fine and considered understanding of the characters and the situations they find themselves in.

There’s a reason why La Traviata is the most performed opera in the world. Verdi’s magnificent writing is of course the primary reason.  The composer’s later works are more sophisticated with greater dramatic expression and through-composition, but La Traviata is unmatched for the brilliance of melody and situational invention that brings its drama to life. But it’s also notable for the universality of the uncompromising sentiments the work and the music expresses on human relationships, on love, betrayal and mortality that still have the ability to reach us and touch us through their relevance. La Traviata was designed to show off Verdi’s brilliance as a composer - and it does - but it was also intended to create a scandal in its frank depiction of the attitudes of a corrupt and hypocritical society towards “fallen women” who strayed outside the boundaries of what was deemed respectable. This scandalous production at La Monnaie is a thrilling reminder of just how vital a work La Traviata remains.

The live broadcast of the 15th December performance of La Traviata is still available for free viewing on the ARTE Live Web site, without subtitles. La Monnaie’s recording of the production, taken from performances of 15th and 18th December, is also available for free viewing from their own website, with French and Dutch subtitles only.

PuritaniVincenzo Bellini - I Puritani

De Nederlandse Opera 2009 | Mariola Cantarero, John Osborn, Scott Hendrix, Riccardo Zanellato, Fredrika Brillembourg, Daniel Borowski, Gregorio Gonzalez | Opus Arte

Although it’s set during a period of considerable interest in English history - the Interregnum that takes in the conflict between the Cromwell’s Roundheads and Royalists loyal to the Charles I and the Stuarts - the libretto for Bellini’s I Puritani makes little use of the historical circumstances but rather, not surprisingly for an Italian bel canto opera, merely uses it as a backdrop for a story of romantic intrigue. If the libretto follows a well-worn generic line in this respect, I Puritani - Bellini’s last work before his early death - is however rather more interesting musically, having more in common with Verdi than Rossini or Donizetti and showing the composer at his most imaginative and inspired. Despite the weaknesses in the libretto, the opera is not just a situation for a series of arias and cabalettas, but shows rather greater musical attention paid to the characterisation and situation, and it’s particularly notable for its strong chorus work.

It’s fortunate then that there is great emphasis and attention paid to this musical aspect in the De Nederlandse production from 2009, but effort is made in other areas of the production in an attempt to make the work a little stronger and more coherent that it might otherwise be. There’s not a great deal one can do with the limitations of the plot, which amounts to little more than a historical romance, and a not very imaginative one at that. The central conflict at the heart of the work is less that of civil war opposition of ideologies, religion or allegiance to the crown as much as a romantic tussle for the hand of Elvira, the daughter of a prominent puritan clergyman. Her father has bowed to her own wishes to marry her beloved Arturo (Arthur Talbot), despite having promised her to Riccardo (Richard Forth).

Just before they are about to be married however, Arturo - who has royalist sympathies - takes advantage of an opportunity to rescue a prisoner about to be executed when he recognises her to be the queen, Enrichetta (Henrietta). Riccardo lets them escape, happy to see his rival disappear and be labelled a traitor, but Elvira is more devastated by what she sees as a betrayal, since Arturo has absconded with a prisoner who uses her own wedding veil as a disguise to help her escape. In the great operatic tradition, she of course goes mad, and her delusion persists when Arturo returns and tries to explain his actions and reaffirm his love for her, causing her to be responsible for his death.

The historical setting heightening the notions of romantic betrayal to the level of melodrama, replete with obligatory mad scene for the leading diva, I Puritani would seem to designed to fit the standard bel canto template, but Bellini’s score is far more varied and darker in tone than is customary, and the vocal writing isn’t there merely to show off the range of the soprano. Even so, it’s still a difficult opera to make work dramatically, and it does have singing challenges of its own. The apparent weaknesses and insubstantiality of the plot are however given something of a boost here by conductor Guiliano Carella returning to the original Paris score of 1835 and reinstating a number of scenes - some of them quite significant - that fill out the detail in the characterisation, and demonstrate the qualities of Bellini’s writing even further. Assisted by a very strong visual concept of the set designs by Es Devlin and by the stage direction of Francisco Negrin, the De Nederlandse production would be in contention for one of the best productions of this work but for the singing, which is good in most parts, but far from the standard needed to really lift this work to the level that is aspired to here.

Visually, the production design strikes an excellent balance between period (or theatrical period) in the costumes and a more modern conceptual approach to the stage design. Made up of rows of sheets that in Act I create ramparts for the soldiers in one scene before rolling smoothly into another where they show a committee of puritans in rows, there’s a wonderful sense of fluidity and continuity created that establishes the somewhat confusing political context and the drama in the most effective and eye-catching manner possible. Act II and III by contrast are relatively static, but again find strong visual ways to represent both the court that pronounces Arturo’s fate and reflect the horror that has afflicted Elvira’s mind. Conceptually, emphasis is also given to words, the steel sheets marked by bullet-holes and rivets that actually form a Braille background (the words of the Bible, I believe, in Dutch), with projections of words of passion and madness from the libretto projected in the latter scenes.

Despite efforts to make this a dramatically strong presentation, the singing isn’t quite as consistent. Mariola Cantarero is a little high and light for the dramatic range required for Elvira and consequently doesn’t always make the mark. She’s at her best in Act II, in her scenes of mad delusion, delivering a lovely ‘O rendetemi la speme‘, but her acting is limited elsewhere, and her high notes tend towards a screech. John Osborn is a terrific lyrical tenor who I like a lot, and he is excellent here throughout as Arturo, but he seems to me to find the role dramatically limiting and doesn’t really succeed in bringing the character to life. There’s a little more to get your teeth into in the role of Riccardo, but Scott Hendrix has a tendency to chew the scenery, and considering it’s made of steel here, that’s quite a mouthful. He gives it everything of course and sings the role well, but there’s more aggression here than art. The other roles are similarly variable never quite entirely holding it together either dramatically or vocally, although Fredrika Brillembourg is the best here as Enrichetta.

If the main roles don’t stand out as they might, the support they are given by the Chorus of the De Nederlandse Opera is superb, as is the work of the Amsterdam orchestra, who deliver an impassioned performance that is attuned to the dramatic content, directed from the pit by Guiliano Carella who clearly has a lot of love for the work and very specific ideas about how it should be presented. That passion comes through in the extra features on the Blu-ray disc, which look at the rehearsals and consider the variations of the Paris version of I Puritani in interesting detail. The quality of the recording is also of a very high standard, with a clear image and strong, detailed High-Definition audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. The BD is all-region, BD50 dual layer, 1080i full HD, with subtitles in English, French, German and Dutch. The booklet contains an essay on the work and a full synopsis.

TrovatoreGiuseppe Verdi - Il Trovatore

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Marc Minkowski, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Scott Hendricks, Misha Didyk, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Marina Poplavskaya, Giovanni Furlanetto | La Monnaie Internet Streaming - 15 June 2012

There’s a case to be made for putting a little distance between the drama and the telling of it in Verdi’s potboiler, Il Trovatore. The plot is a difficult one to carry-off convincingly - a gypsy curse, a witch burned at the stake, a child kidnapped in revenge and thrown into the burning embers by the daughter of the gypsy, the whole affair creating hidden secrets and unrevealed identities. As it happens, all of these melodramatic events are kept at a certain distance already, the dark history related at the start of the opera by the Captain of the Guard at the start of Act I, and with a different spin put on it by the gypsy Azucena in Act II. Storytelling is moreover part and parcel of the whole work, Leonora relating her encounter and love for a handsome dark stranger, the opera itself getting its title from a troubadour, a wandering lyrical storyteller.

It’s undoubtedly with this in mind that Dmitri Tcherniakov stages Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore at La Monnaie in Brussels with the framing device of it being related, relived and re-enacted at some date in the future by the main protagonists. Considering the bloody fates of many of those characters, it is however a bit of a stretch to imagine them meeting up some years later on the instigation of Azucena. Like some Agatha Christie mystery where the main suspects have been assembled, the five main characters in Verdi’s drama turn up in the silent prologue - Leonora in a dark wig and wearing sunglasses, Manrico in a snakeskin jacket - greet each other after years of separation or warily edge around each other as Azucena locks the door to the room, keeping them captive there to work through the events that have occurred in order to “shed light on the tragic past that has united their destinies”.

In this way the director also removes many of the old traditional stage conventions and tired mannerisms that have become associated with this old standard, which itself has become a story that is just related, its heavy delivery and declamation detaching the work any sense of real meaning that might once have lain behind it (although one doubts that there are any serious intentions behind this Verdi opera). In Tcherniakov’s production this is no 15th century Spain in the Aragon region, there are no Biscay mountains here, no convent or nuns and there’s no traditional Anvil Chorus. The chorus is there, but they remain off-stage at all times, the work - one of Verdi’s most bombastic - reduced in the process to a chamber piece. Most significantly, the cast are thus reduced entirely down to five people, Inez and Ruiz among those roles which are not actually suppressed but sung through the doubling up of roles in the small cast - an idea that fits in fine with the role-playing concept. The whole opera is there, it’s just reduced to taking place within the confines of a single room.

If the intention is to similarly downplay the singing, then that’s achieved with the performances here, although some might think that the singing lacks the necessary dynamic, power and expansiveness. It’s an interesting cast then, but not one that particularly impresses. Scott Hendricks comes across the best here as the Conte di Luna, letting himself go with the flow of the concept, although he does also have perhaps the most expressive role in the opera. Misha Didyk is not my kind of Verdi singer, although with his choked back anguished delivery lacking any variety in vocal expression and showing no real acting ability, I’m not fond of his style of singing in Russian opera either. Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo is a smaller-scale Azucena than is usually required, but she suits the tone here, as does Marina Poplavskaya as Leonora. Her technique isn’t always the smoothest when making the transition to the higher notes, but she has exactly that kind of expressive voice that is needed to bring depth to characterisation. She looks a little uncomfortable here however, a little restricted perhaps by the concept, and was surprisingly absent from the curtain call (”unwell” according to conductor Marc Minkowski when he took to the stage). Giovanni Furlanetto sang well as Ferrando (and Ruiz).

Overall however, Tcherniakov’s direction felt a bit weak, cutting away much of the baggage of the work certainly, but also restricting the drama with a concept that didn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. One might be happy to make some allowances in credibility to see something fresh and new brought out that would shed new light on Il Trovatore, but other than one or two scenes - the closing bloodbath ending certainly registered the requisite shocks - this was rarely achieved in dramatic terms. Musically however, Marc Minkowski’s conducting of the La Monnaie orchestra - his first time conducting Verdi - was much more interesting, his treatment suiting Tcherniakov’s idea of a chamber production, while at the same time indeed finding the strengths in Verdi’s score and successfully getting its underlying power across without unnecessary overemphasis. Otherwise the overall impression was that there was quite a bit of heat generated here, but not enough fire.

ChenierUmberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2011 | Ulf Schirmer, Keith Warner, David Fielding, Héctor Sandoval, Norma Fantini, Scott Hendricks, Tania Kross, Rosalind Plowright | Unitel Classica – C-Major

If you want to convey a sense of the outrageous decadence of pre-Revolutionary France and blithe ignorance of the rich with regards to the reality of conditions for the poor in a production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, you would be hard pressed to match the extravagance of the one staged on the lake at Bregenz in 2011, where a huge head and upper torso of Marat, based on Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting ‘The Death of Marat’, seems to rise out of the water with Lake Constance as his bathtub. The open-air lake stage at the Bregenz is traditionally an opportunity for spectacles to rival the Arena di Verona, but that doesn’t mean that it comes at the cost of attention to detail in the direction of the opera itself or towards the quality of the singing, and that’s certainly the case with this production.

It’s vital of course to set the tone right from the outset, since Act I of Andrea Chénier sets the scene for everything that is to follow since. Dressed in colourful, gaudy costumes and balancing enormous wigs on their heads, it’s here that the guests of a soirée at the Château de Coigny are to have their cozy little gathering interrupted and their privileged position challenged by the first stirrings of revolution. Attending the event is the humanitarian and poet André Chénier, who is goaded by Madeleine de Coigny into reciting a verse as a party piece. The beauty of Chénier’s words shames Madeleine and the company, showing them up as being detached from reality and sincere feelings. But there is worse to come when their dancing is rudely interrupted by the butler Gérard who turns up with a bunch of beggars and speaks up for the suffering and mistreatment his family and fellow servants have suffered at the hands of the noble hosts and their kind. All these ominous signs of discontent confirm the Abbé’s warnings and his admonitions that all is not well at the Royal Court.

Chenier

Act II takes place four years later in the aftermath of the revolution, and the opera develops – inevitably – into a romantic situation between Chénier and a contrite Madeleine de Coigny who comes to him looking for help. In a situation that Puccini would mirror to some extent later in Tosca – the similarities not surprising since Luigi Illica wrote the libretto for both – their happiness is threatened not only by an inescapable involvement in the politics of the revolution (Chénier disillusioned by the Reign of Terror is being urged to flee Paris), but also by Gérard, who is now one of the main figures of the Revolution and in love with Madeleine himself. Romance is to the fore in Andrea Chénier, but it’s aligned very closely with the history, politics and sensibilities of the period. Even Gérard has come to doubt the cause, or at least the methods used by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and questions whether there can be redemption in love or in giving oneself over to sensuality, again not so different from the dilemma faced by Scarpia and the choice he has to make between God and Tosca. The situation, taken similarly to arrest and execution, is however scarcely any less dramatic here in Andrea Chénier.

Despite the opportunities to rather over-play the drama, Keith Warner’s production is relatively restrained and in keeping with the content. It is grand spectacle certainly, but the designs are well used for the purpose of keeping the drama moving. Not only is the extraordinary set by David Fielding decorated with several platforms so that action can play out simultaneously on different stages, but there are several other hidden recesses that open up on occasion to disgorge additional horrors as the Reign of Terror takes hold over the course of the opera. Performers even have to travel by rowing boat from the main stage to another floating platform that represents the St Lazare prison. There are a few stunts where extras and doubles plunge into the lake itself, but it doesn’t feel excessive in the context. Additional Interludes – the end of Act I for example showing the popular uprising set to a screeching electric guitar playing the Marseillaise – may however be taking things a little too far.

Chenier

In this context, climbing staircases from one level to the next, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the performers in the main roles might have been chosen for their level of fitness and for having a head for heights (both of which are undoubtedly necessary here), but they are also fine singers. Mexican tenor Héctor Sandoval is in the classic romantic tenor mould as Chénier, and he is well matched with Norma Fantini’s Madeleine. Baritone Scott Hendricks however almost steals the show as a spirited Gérard. None of them seem at all disconcerted or the least put-out by the tricky manoueuvring and stage placements that are required. Radio mics are inevitable on a set like this and are not so discreet, but while it’s not ideal the sound recording is good and well mixed for both the singing and the orchestra on the Blu-ray disc, which also boasts a fine High Definition image. There are no extra features on the disc other than trailers for other releases, but the enclosed booklet has a synopsis and a brief interview with Keith Warner on the production.