Herheim, Stefan


BohemeGiacomo Puccini - La Bohème

Den Norske Opera, Oslo, 2012 | Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Stefan Herheim, Diego Torre, Vasilij Ladjuk, Marita Sølberg, Jennifer Rowley, Giovanni Battista Parodi, Espen Langvik, Svein Erik Sagbråten, Teodor Benno Vaage | Electric Picture

The first notes you hear in this 2012 Den Norske Opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème are the beeps of a heart monitor on a life support system that Mimi lies attached to in a hospital bed. The beeps take that familiar flatline tone as Mimi breathes her last and doctors rush in to the opening chords of the score proper in a vain attempt to resuscitate her, while Rodolfo looks on aghast, completely lost in his own grief. This evidently isn’t a traditional way to start La Bohème, but it is very much a typical Stefan Herheim touch where the standard linear approach is just not an option. As a director, Herheim is clearly interested in getting into the minds of characters whose actions and motivations we can take for granted from over-familiarity, and La Bohème is a very familiar opera. Not here it isn’t.

Having established that Mimi dies - which, let’s face it, even if you weren’t familiar with the opera, it’s a fate that is signalled clearly enough by Puccini right from the moment she totters and stumbles into Rodolfo’s garret, often with a hefty tubercular cough for good measure - Herheim is more interested in the impact her death has on Rodolfo after the opera ends, considering the times and the troubles they have shared together. Here then, viewed in flashback, La Bohème becomes a study of grief and bereavement that Rodolfo struggles to work through and eventually come to an acceptance of his loss through his poetry and his friends. If anyone can make such an idea work, working within the fabric of Puccini’s scoring without necessarily contradicting sentiments that are implicitly there in the nature of the music itself, it’s Herheim. Whether you think there’s any value in distorting the work to that extent is of course debatable, but there is certainly more intelligence in this thoughtful and considered approach than your average straight production that merely “performs” the work, Herheim taking into account the very real emotions and troubles of characters whose lives are played out in art and poverty. It’s certainly at least a refreshing alternative for anyone who is more than familiar with the long-running Copley and Miller productions of the work at the Royal Opera House and the Coliseum in London.

His grief played out in flashback then, the past and the present coexist simultaneously for Rodolfo, who has no means of pulling them together. The hospital ward seen at the start then opens up to a more traditional view of the past in Rodolfo’s Parisian garret where he and Mimi first met, the cleaner, surgeon and nurse taking up roles as the other characters (introducing Musetta into the process rather earlier too). The sense of perspective however shifts in a subtle way to tinge the meeting with that sense of grief for the inevitability of what has happened/will happen. When Rodolfo poses the question ‘Qui sono?‘ to himself here then - looking thoroughly confused - it takes on an entirely different meaning, one that involves real soul-searching, as well as a certain existential dilemma. Compressing and overlapping time in this way simultaneously concentrates all the joy and happiness of that fleeting moment of beauty, while forcing one to consider how brief and vulnerable are the flames of love on those candles that are so soon to burn out. The same flames of love will burn Rodolfo as well as provide warmth through the winter. Rather than contradict the emotions of a beautiful piece (Act 1 of La Bohème is for me something incredibly powerful), this production genuinely enhances what is already there.

There are lots of touches however that aren’t going to be to everyone’s liking. Already in this First Act, Mimi collapses, her wig is removed to reveal a bald head that bears the signs of chemotherapy (this Mimi is dying from the rather more contemporary killer of cancer rather than the traditional old-fashioned disease of tuberculosis), and she is ushered back into that modern hospital bed that looms at the corner of Rodolfo’s consciousness. The shifting of the off-kilter sets from one ‘reality’ to the next - incredibly well designed to transform so smoothly - have an unsettling effect not only on Rodolfo but on the viewer also, leaving them unsure at times about what exactly is going on, and why the familiar figures in the work don’t behave in character in the way that we expect. Mimi “dies” again at the end of Act II, for example, and her medical chart is added to the Café Momus “bill” that has to be paid at the end. I think the implication is clear enough. Unwilling to “pay the bill” however the near-demented Rodolfo here is so impassioned that you get the impression he believes he could bring her ghost back to life by the end of the opera. Wouldn’t that be something? But no, Herheim stays faithful to the intentions of the work. “Per richiamarla in vita non basta amore” - “Love alone will not suffice to bring her back to life”, he says in Act III. It’s all there in the libretto if you want to look for it.

The absurd modern twists on an otherwise faithful staging can be a little off-putting - or will be simply intolerable to some viewers - but they can also be extremely powerful. If you consider that Puccini’s writing here is extremely manipulative and has a tendency towards heavy pathos, sentimentality and schmaltz, Herheim’s staging forces you to listen to the music in a different context, and the effect is phenomenal. Puccini, like the listener, knows Mimi’s fate from the outset, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. The tragedy isn’t so much that Rodolfo doesn’t know it, or that he is unwilling to face up to her flirtatious and mercenary nature, or even the realisation that she’s seriously ill and going to die, but rather, that he is on some level aware of it, but still loves her despite it all. All those implications are there in Puccini’s score and brought out in the development of the opera if you want to explore them, and Herheim does. Using Rodolfo’s inability to come to terms with his grief as a means of showing his struggle to deal with the inevitability of what must occur not only makes this almost indescribably sad, it’s also an effective way of dealing with some of the problematic issues surrounding Puccini’s generously expressive scoring.

Aside from the technicalities and impressions created by Herheim’s direction and Heike Scheele’s set designs, the performance of the work itself is overall very good. The added dramatic twists moreover rather than getting in the way of the performances only seemed to intensify their impassioned delivery. More so Rodolfo than Mimi, it has to be said, Diego Torre singing the role superbly, with consideration for the different nuances of meaning applied to his character. By focussing the attention on Rodolfo’s state of mind and resigning Mimi to little more than a ghost however, the consequence is that it weakens Marita Sølberg’s contribution to the work, but she sings it well in the context. The subjective view of Rodolfo also has a consequence of reducing the relevance of the other characters to relatively minor roles, but even if it loses some of the contrasting elements of the nature of relationships that is brought out by the Marcello and Musetta pairing (adequately sung by Vasilij Ladjuk and Jennifer Rowley), the tightening of the focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this work either. Svein Erik Sagbråten’s recurring Death-like presence as the landlord Benoît, Parpignol, Alcindoro and a Toll gate keeper could also be seen as bringing more of a consistency to the colourful but marginal episodes of the work.

On Blu-ray, the production looks and sounds as good as you would expect from a recent HD recording. The singing sounds a little echoing in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, but I found that the stereo track sounded much clearer through headphones. The recording and mixing of the orchestra however is gorgeous, with lovely tone and detail in the orchestration. It’s a good account of the work - Eivind Gullberg Jensen directing the opera for the first time - attuned to the performances and only slightly adjusted in one or two places for the tempo and tone to match the production. There are a few very short interviews on the disc (around a minute each) with the director, conductor and cast, done backstage in the intervals presumably during a television broadcast of the live performance. The BD is all-region, with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.

RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels, 2012 | Ádám Fischer, Stefan Herheim, Myrtò Papatanasiu, Pavel Cernoch, Annalena Persson, Renée Morloc, Ekaterina Isachenko, Julian Hubbard, André Grégoire, Marc Coulon | La Monnaie, Internet Steaming, 14 and 16th March 2012

Watching Stefan Herheim’s production of Dvořák’s 1901 opera for La Monnaie/De Munt in Brussels (performed in March 2012 and broadcast via their internet streaming service), I began to think that we are getting to a point now where it would be something of a novelty to see Rusalka done as a straight fairytale. From Martin Kušej’s brilliant envisioning for Munich of the water nymph as an abused young woman held in captivity in an underground basement to the recent debacle of the production for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which placed Rusalka in a brothel, there’s a predictable familiarity now to seeing Rusalka as an abused woman at the hands of men. Stefan Herheim’s production then may seem to adhere to this modern revisionism of the role by casting her as a prostitute, but by altering the perspective of the work to that of the Water Goblin, her “captor”, gives an interesting new view on the central theme of the corruption innocence.

This Rusalka is considerably different in temperament then from how Kušej and Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito view the character, or indeed from a traditional view of the water nymph. Here, on a street corner, on a remarkably lifelike stage set that could be a street corner on any middle or eastern European city (albeit with an English bobby on the beat), the streetwalking Rusalka is all glitter and glamour in the eyes of the old man, Vodník, who wants to possess her and keep her for his own pleasure – a femme fatale who, in the end, will drive him to commit a violent crime of passion. This Rusalka is no innocent – she’s street-smart and wise to the dangers that her lifestyle and clients like the old man represent and she dreams of a better life out of the dark world she lives in, but is she really cut out for the refinement of the world above? It’s this inability to deal with the disappointment that her unrealistic idealisation of what a normal life and love means, certainly as far as men are concerned, that is to be her tragedy here.

Rusalka

There’s quite a leap involved in making Rusalka a prostitute, and characteristically for this director – like his recent Eugene Onegin for De Nederlandse Opera – there’s a great deal of complexity to how the narrative is structured in order to make this idea work and a significant altering of traditional perspective. Perhaps surprisingly however, the director’s approach of actually listening to the music and not just the libretto would seem to justify and bear out his approach here. The musical theme for the Water Goblin is indeed threaded through the work as a leitmotif, and it gives Herheim the justification to consider how women are looked upon and objectified by men from a modern perspective, as well as from the older tradition.

This Rusalka consequently may not be the most flattering or politically correct view of women – witches, prostitutes and nuns feature, many of them with exaggerated female figures in quite obscene body suits, the nuns even taking part in an orgy – and there is a great deal of violence enacted against them in brutal stabbings, but it’s precisely through this kind of altered perspective that the director intends to show an idealisation that the reality doesn’t live up to. It’s fascinating then that Herheim does indeed manage to get to the root of Rusalka’s tragedy through this mirrored perspective – the old man/water goblin present on the stage as a witness almost throughout – as it is by being the object of the desires and ideals of men that Rusalka is prevented (kept silent by a curse) from expressing who she wants to be herself.

Rusalka

You have to work hard however to get to this realisation as there is a bewildering array of imagery on the stage and considerable twists to characterisation that will be difficult to disentangle even for someone very familiar with the work. This includes a wife for the Vodník, who is not in the original libretto, who has a non-singing role, although she is played by the same singer (Annalena Persson) who is the Foreign Princess. While this and some other doubling of roles may initially be confusing, it reflects the director’s view of mirroring reality with the fantasy “fairytale” view of world that is fabricated in the mind of the old man/water goblin. At the very least however, the sheer effort of trying to fit it all together commands attention and forces the audience to reconsider what the work is actually about. Unless you think Rusalka is just a lyric fairytale and is perfectly fine in that form without all the psychological probing.

Also commanding is the spectacle on the stage itself, which really is quite extraordinary. This production (originally staged for the first time in 2008 as a co-production between La Monnaie and Oper Graz) really is quite the most brilliant use of stage-craft I’ve seen in an opera for a long time. Some of it seems abstract and inconsistent with the themes, but you’ll probably find it fits in some kind of weird way, and is certainly never anything less than dazzling and thought-provoking. The street scene, designed by Heike Scheele, is remarkably realistic but, in keeping with the fantasy/reality theme, elements explode out and upward, as if you were looking at a children’s pop-up book – the counter of the corner café extending out into the street, an advertising pillar appearing out of the ground, on which Rusalka is perched as if on a pedestal, with a mermaid tail dipped inside the pillar. If you still can’t make sense of it all – it took me quite a little while to come around to the idea and the concept – the immensely powerful coup de theatre of the conclusion at least should bring the full impact and realisation of the meaning of the work in Herheim’s vision of its present day applicaiton as well as its relevance to Dvořák’s original work.

Rusalka

With performances as good as that of the principals cast here moreover, you’ll happily put up with some shock and befuddlement. As Rusalka and the Prince, Myrtò Papatanasiu and Pavel Cernoch are just magnificent. This Rusalka isn’t the usual wide-eyed innocent, but Papatanasiu nonetheless manages to bring across the vulnerability of her character as well as the inner strength of personality that seeks to express herself within this world dominated by the desires of men. She does that in her acting performance and she does it in her singing, and most impressively. The Prince can also be somewhat of a cipher, so it’s wonderful likewise to see the role sung so well and with some consideration of the duality of his nature. He can’t help himself when it comes to the beautiful vision in white that is Rusalka, or the attraction of the Foreign Prince who appeals to his baser desires. He’s only a man after all. There’s consequently steel in Cernoch’s voice as well as a wonderful lyricism.

Both Papatanasiu and Pavel Cernoch are both powerful enough singers in their own right – Willard White as the Water Goblin isn’t quite up to their level, but he is a strong presence nonetheless – but conductor Ádám Fischer ensures that they are never overpowered by the orchestra. The performance of the orchestra can perhaps feel a little restrained, but not unexpectedly, it seemed to capture the post-Wagnerian Romanticism of the piece well. Admittedly however, while the image quality is superb, the audio track on an internet stream wasn’t clear enough to hear the detail as well as it would sound on a High Definition Blu-ray disc. Superbly directed for the screen, this however is one spectacular production that certainly merits a wider HD release.

The internet stream of Rusalka at La Monnaie is available for viewing only until the 26th April (with French and Dutch subtitles only). The next production to be shown is Oscar Bianchi’s Thanks to my Eyes on 12 April, which will be available for viewing for 21 days.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 2011 | Mariss Jansons, Stefan Herheim, Krassimira Stoyanova, Bo Skovhus, Mikhail Petrenko, Andrej Dunaev, Elena Maximova, Guy de Mey, Roger Smeets, Peter Arink, Richard Prada | Opus Arte

Tchaikovsky’s approach to opera is conventional in some aspects of its Romantic style, but there’s also a distinctive character to his music through its use of folk arrangements that are thoroughly linked to Russian character of those operatic subjects. The operas may seem designed to show off the range of the composer’s abilities, with dancing to mazurkas, polonaises and waltzes, with folk songs and extravagant choral and symphonic interludes, but they are all there just as much to explore fully the broad scope and colour of the Russian character itself. That’s evident as much in The Queen of Spades as in Cherevichki, but perhaps nowhere more effectively than in his most famous opera – and as far as I’m concerned his greatest opera – Eugene Onegin.

What’s most impressive about Eugene Onegin – both from Tchaikovsky’s viewpoint as well as its original author Pushkin’s – is how it manages to compact all those diverse, contradictory, deeply romantic and sometimes self-destructive features of the Russian character into what on the surface seems a simple romantic story of love and rejection. Within this however is the same nature of throwing of one’s self into the hands of fate that gives one of the most suicidal of gambling sports its name – Russian Roulette. It’s there in The Queen of Spades of course, in the belief that one’s life can change on the magical turn of a hand of cards, based on another Pushkin story, and it’s even there in the life of Pushkin himself, who reputedly fought twenty-nine duels and was finally killed in one at the age of 37. It’s there also in Tchaikovsky’s own life, the composer going through a personal crisis at the time of the opera with his homosexuality, yet entering into an ill-advised marriage on the basis that, as he wrote to a friend “No man can escape his destiny”. There are examples of this fatalistic character throughout Russian literature and opera, as in Prokofiev’s The Gambler (adapted from a work by Fyodor Dostoevsky), but it’s richly present throughout Eugene Onegin.

Onegin

It’s there in Act I, in Tatyana, a young girl living on a country estate who is introduced by her neighbour to the handsome figure of Eugene Onegin, when she all but swoons at his presence and immediately pours her heart out to him the same night in a deeply revealing letter where she opens her heart to him. It’s there also Act II, in Onegin’s callous disregard of her sensitivities and his determination to throw himself into life rather than settle down into a marriage that will become stale through habit. It’s there in that typically Russian custom of the duel when Lensky demands satisfaction for behaviour towards the young woman, and finally, and perhaps most powerfully in this work, it’s there in Act III when Onegin reencounters Tatyana and recognises the emptiness that he has pursued all his life and throws himself at her feet only to in turn be cruelly rejected.

It’s a relatively simple storyline, but it’s richly orchestrated by Tchaikovsky to capture all the nuances of the emotional content as well as the deeper cultural drives and impulses that lie beneath them. It’s full of passion and character so it’s surprising then how coldly and calculatingly the opera can often be put across. That will often depend on the interpretation of the conductor and stage director and on how much emphasis to give to Tchaikovsky’s score, but as far as this De Nederlandse production goes, with Mariss Jansons conducting and Stefan Herheim directing, it’s a passionate and expansive account of the opera, though one that many will inevitably feel takes too many liberties with the libretto.

Onegin

As far as the staging goes, the young Norwegian director does place the figures into somewhat irregular configurations. You’ll see that from the outset as Onegin walks onto the stage a scene before he should be formally introduced, looking thoroughly confused and walking moreover into what looks like a hotel lobby, with an elevator and a revolving door, where Tanya and her family are together. Similarly, there are few of the usual separations of characters in scenes that one would be accustomed to. Even when Tanya should be writing her famous love letter to the young man she has just been introduced to, it’s staged here with Onegin actually writing the letter, while her husband, Prince Gremin, lies in bed behind them. This could be thoroughly confusing for anyone who is unfamiliar with the opera, but it will not make a lot of sense to anyone who is familiar with the work and who would be quite happy to see it played out in the traditional linear manner.

The concept applied here, of course (although it might not be that obvious), is that the figures are reflecting back on the events from an older perspective, and the setting picks up on the mirroring of the situations. That’s most evident when Onegin directs his rejection of Tatyana to a silent younger girl in a white dress, while Krassimira Stoyanova, who actually sings the role of Tatyana, wearing a red dress (there may be some colour coding to reflect the differing perspectives) looks on as a spectator on her own past. Whether you consider that this distorts the intentions of Eugene Onegin or whether you feel that it opens it up underlying themes within the work will obviously depend on your taste, but the motivations of the director, inspired or misguided though they may be judged to be, are at least derived from a close attention paid to the work and a genuine attempt to understand it. Eugene Ongein is not a naturalistic work, and this production not only attempts to convey the poetic dream-like quality of the storyline with all its romanticised ideals and passions, but it also attempts to get beneath Tchaikovsky’s own personal relationship with the work and the expression of his own nature in the composition. That seems to me to be a worthwhile endeavour, but whether it’s judged as successful is evidently a matter for the individual listener/viewer.

Onegin

It does however add another level of complication to a work that is already enriched in emotions and in their peculiar Russian expression. In fact its attempt to bring this latter aspect to the fore to increasingly bizarre effect in Act II and Act III might be taking on rather too much and pushing an already quite eccentric production – such as the unusual touches applied to the M. Triquet scene and Onegin’s second at the duel actually being a bottle of wine – a little too far. Act III’s Polonaise attempts to bring in an historical tableau vivant of all walks of Russian life, with a dancing bear, Cosmonauts, Russian gymnasts, Swan Lake dancers, royalty and religious leaders, Red Army troops and sailors, folk dancers, serfs and Prince Gremin heading up a Russian mafia outfit, and if all that sounds like it has nothing to do with Eugene Onegin, you’d be entitled to think so and decide that this is not a production for you, but at the same time it can be seen as historically being a part of everything Russian that is enshrined within the essence of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’s work.

What I think is beyond question however is that Jansons and Herheim bring out the full latent potential of Eugene Onegin here, without restraint, but also without over-emphasis. Regardless of whether the concept makes rational sense or appeals to personal taste, this is a passionate and moving account of the work on a musical and a dramatic level. The singing is also exceptionally good here. You might like a younger person singing Tatyana, but a younger singer couldn’t sing this role half as well. It needs a mature voice, and Krassimira Stoyanova‘s is wonderfully toned, controlled with impeccable technique and emotionally expressive. Bo Skovhus brings a great intensity also to this Onegin who is tortured by his nature of being Russian. He’s not the strongest voice in the role, but he sings it well. Mikhail Petrenko’s Prince Gremin and Andrej Dunaev’s Lensky are also worthy of the production. The very fine team of the Chorus of the De Nederlandse opera provide their usual sterling work.

Blu-ray specifications are all in order. The video quality is good, the picture clear, even though it is often dark on the stage and there are some slight fluctuations in brightness adjustment. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 audio tracks are strong and impressive, with a wonderful tone. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and a 30 minute documentary feature where the director explains – not always convincingly and certainly always clearly to conductor Jansons – his thought-process for the work, with backstage interviews, rehearsals and a look at the costume designs. The booklet contains an essay examining the work and the production and includes a synopsis. The disc is BD50, 16:9, 1080i full HD. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.