Teatro Real de Madrid


Perfect AmericanPhilip Glass - The Perfect American

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013 | Dennis Russell Davies, Phelim McDermott, Christopher Purves, David Pittsinger, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret, Rosie Lomas, Zachary James, John Easterlin, Juan Noval-Moro, Beatriz de Gálvez, Noelia Buñuel | Medici.tv / ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming, 5th February 2013

It’s not too hard to see the point being made about in Philip Glass’s new opera based on the last days of Walt Disney. The irony is hammered home repeatedly and with no great subtlety in either the libretto or the musical arrangements. His animation and the safe family-friendly ideals they espouse may be revered by generations of children and their parents, but those values are derived from a rather more flawed human individual. An old-fashioned, smalltown country-boy with Republican ideals, intolerant of progress and union activity, Walt Disney is depicted in The Perfect American as a megalomaniac who not only took the credit for the hard work and talent of others, but he treated them appallingly as well. So he wasn’t a nice guy. Why make an opera about him? Well, if Walt Disney and his works are held up as being the epitome of “The Perfect American”, even ironically, then there might be some merit in exploring prevailing bigoted attitudes and intolerance. If that’s its purpose however, the opera singularly fails to make its case.

Whether Walt Disney should be accorded the stature of being the subject for opera isn’t so much in question then as much as whether a study of the animation giant as the “Perfect American” really has as much to say about the society we live in today as the subjects of previous Glass biographical works - Einstein (Einstein on the Beach), Gandhi (Satyagraha) or the great reforming Egyptian pharaoh (Akhnaten). Whatever you think of Walt Disney or his children’s animation films, he’s not exactly the first person who comes to mind when you look around for a representative icon of American values. Yes, the Disney animation studio was certainly one of the earliest and biggest exports of American family values, the empire of the Mouse and the Duck expanding to conquer and achieve universal recognisability in even the most remote corners of the world. As for whether the personal attitudes of Disney persist and hold influence, there’s a case could certainly be made for that, but not laid specifically at the door of Walt Disney the man.

The idea that he may have been as important as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford may form a part of Walt Disney’s self-delusion, but there is no reason given why the audience should believe it or even any suggestion that anyone takes the comparison seriously. This is a fault that lies throughout the whole premise of the opera. Based on a novel by Peter Stephen Jungk, a fictionalised account of Walt Disney that recounts the last few months of his life, The Perfect American seems to be attempting to suggest that the flaws and delusions of one man have some kind of wider implication, but in reality it just presents the twisted views of one small-minded individual that seem to have no place or purpose on the operatic stage. The same could perhaps be said about Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, but the tragic story of the rise and demise of Anna Nicole Smith could arguably be said to reflect the pitfalls in following the American Dream with a broader historical scope (Marilyn Monroe) and more cutting social observation, at least on the compromised position of women within that Dream.

Like Anna Nicole, The Perfect American similarly relies heavily on a depiction of the corrupting influence of smalltown America. But whereas Anna Nicole Smith saw it as a “shithole” that she had to escape from, Walt Disney - in the kind of obvious expositional language that is prevalent throughout Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto (”Everything that I’ve become has its roots in Marceline“), looks back fondly on his origins, seeing in his hometown all the good old-fashioned American values that he holds dear. Just to emphasise his position as a reactionary and an unpleasant man, his relationship with Wilhelm Dantine - an animator on ‘The Sleeping Beauty‘ - and their fall-out over union activities is the linking element between the three acts, but Dantine is still devastated when Walt dies. The libretto’s idea of any other kind of character development is limited to snappy mottos (”Never say die!“), common clichés (Mickey Mouse being “more famous than Santa” and “more recognisable that Jesus“) and banal observations (”That’s what he does, spares everyone the worst“) that don’t so much highlight the nature of Disney as illustrate the lack of imagination of the libretto and the treatment.

Even those areas where the work tries a less literal approach, the implications are no less obvious and at the same time no more revealing of the man other than the scale of his self-delusion. He expresses his desire to a nurse at the hospital to be cryogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future, and hubristically compares his cartoons to Greek gods, believing that his work and his beliefs in good conservative American values will “live forever”. A little more colour is added when Walt is contrasted with Andy Warhol, who was born in the same year, or in a sequence where Walt has a conversation with a robot Abraham Lincoln, but even there, it seems like just thrown in as an opportunity to allow Disney to express some pretty distasteful views on the abolition of slavery leading to the degradation of traditional American values.

The latter sequences allow director Phelim Mc Dermott and designer Dan Potra a bit more freedom to experiment with the staging, but to be honest, it’s impressive throughout. It’s not on the same scale of brilliance of McDermott and his Improbable Ensemble’s work for Glass’s sublime Satyagraha a few years ago, but that narrative-free work called out for a strong collaborative theatrical expression. Here however, they still manage nonetheless to find an imaginative way to work with the rather more banal reality of The Perfect American, keeping it visually engaging and thematically relevant through projected animation sequences and supernumeraries playing the larger-than-life rabbits of Disney’s mind, avoiding any Mom and Apple-Pie clichés or overly literal depictions of small-town Americana.

The performances of the cast at the Madrid world premiere run in the Teatro Real (viewed via Internet streaming) were also exceptionally good. Christopher Purves was an outstanding Walt Disney, but all the cast managed to inject some personality into their characters and even some sense of melody into their singing. As scored by Glass however, there wasn’t much of that in the lifeless orchestration of bland repetition that lacked and real dynamic or variety in tempo and seemed to have no sense of a distinct dramatic character or expression for the work. It’s a long way from Glass at his most original and operatic best in Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten, but Glass has shown himself in more recent times to still be creatively inspired when the subject (Kepler) or the source (Kafka, Cocteau) are worthy. Walt Disney and The Perfect American doesn’t seem to fire the composer’s imagination this time, and it seems hardly likely to excite audiences when it comes to the English National Opera this summer.

The Perfect American is available to view via internet streaming - with some region restrictions in the UK - on Medici.tv and on ARTE Live Web.

MahagonnyKurt Weill - Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny

Teatro Real Madrid, 2010 | Pablo Heras Casado, Alex Ollé, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Jane Henschel, Donald Kaasch, Willard White, Measha Brueggergosman, Michael König, John Easterlin, Otto Katzameier, Steven Humes | Bel Air Media

When it was originally composed in 1930, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht intended Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) to be as much a satire of opera and a reaction to the state of the Weimar Republic. Now, when taken alongside such like-minded work contemporary works by Hindemith and Berg, it just sounds like great opera – but it still functions as a scathing satire on all the subjects it deals with, particularly the nature of capitalism, on which it still has very relevant points to make.

You can call it music theatre if you like, but Weill’s score for Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is considerably more sophisticated than that, working in a variety of styles to create a deliberate alienating effect, drawing on specific references, creating dissonance and unsettling arrangements, using unexpected plot points to keep the listener engaged and keep them from complacently and unquestioningly accepting operatic conventions. It does all that and it has great tunes as well, the most notable of which, Alabama Song, sung by down-and-out prostitute Jenny Smith (”Oh, show me the way to the next Whisky Bar“), is almost like the flip-side of the Libiamo sung in celebration at the party of La Traviata’s courtesan, Violetta Valéry.

If you need any convincing that Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny can aspire to great opera however, this 2010 production at the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by La Fura dels Baus might be just the ticket. I’m not the biggest fan of La Fura – I’ve seen several of their productions fall well short of the mark – but when they get it right and are working with the right kind of material, they can succeed in a spectacular fashion. Their unconventional approach to opera staging, which could even be considered anti-theatre, certainly has a Brechtian influence, so it’s no surprise to find that that the Catalan group are absolutely perfect for this particular work.

Mahagonny

Directed by Alex Ollé and Carlus Padrissa, there are no projections this time – other than the titles of each of the sections (in Spanish here, not translated on the screen) – no elaborate designs, no wire acrobatics or off-the-wall concepts. Everything is tailored directly towards the expression of the ideas in the work, finding the most imaginative and impactful way of putting it across, without relying on stagy conventions. The decision then to have the the trio of Widow Begbick, Fatty and Trinity Moses arrive as if dumped from a refuge collection and set about founding the City of Mahagonny on the edge of a rubbish dump is perfect for the nature of their intentions to make as much money as cheaply as possible by appealing to the lowest nature of their visitors, offering them booze, girls and boxing.

It’s important to get the basic concept in place, but the directors find the right tone for each scene, with many wonderful little touches – from Jimmy’s imagined return sea journey to Alaska with the raised legs of the hookers forming the waves, to his trial taking place in a circus ring – all of which give an additional satirical edge that not works along with the material, showing an understanding of its nature, its playfulness and its bitterness, without feeling the need to over-emphasise or add on any additional commentary. The opera is satirical of all these subjects – from the expectations of the individual to the concept of justice – all within the umbrella of the capitalist system, and it doesn’t need any specific or easy-target anti-American agenda attached for the concept to stand on its own and be applied by the listener to their own experience of the system.

Mahagonny

I’m not sure why it was chosen to use the US revision of the original opera, singing it in English and changing Jimmy Mahoney to Jimmy MacIntyre, particularly as there are a few native German speakers in the cast here and others, like Henschel, have a strong footing in German opera. If it’s another attempt at alienation effect to keep the audience guessing, then it works here. Most importantly however, the casting and singing is superb. Jane Henschel is superbly capable in the whole range from singspiel-like dialogue to more conventional opera singing, as well as being a fine actress in the role of Widow Begbick. Jenny Smith is an important piece of casting, and Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman makes an incredible impression, oozing sensuality and absolutely electric in her scenes with Michael König’s fine Jimmy MacIntyre. The balance right across the board in the other roles seems perfect, consistently hitting the right note, as do the Chorus of the Teatro Real, who give their all in the scantiest of costumes and in the most… well… indelicate situations. One can’t fault the commitment either of the Madrid orchestra under Pablo Heras Casado.

I don’t know if it’s to do with the encoding, but Bel Air releases often look a little juddery in motion on both my Blu-ray set-ups (most evident here when the Spanish captions move across the screen), and can lack definition in the darker scenes. I haven’t heard anyone else mention any issues with previous releases, so perhaps it’s specific to one’s set-up. Generally however, the image is fine, and even if movements aren’t smooth, I didn’t find it too distracting. The audio tracks, in LPCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, are both fine, but there’s not much to choose between them. I found the PCM worked better using headphones to keep the sound focussed, and it’s very impressive this way. There are no extra features on the disc, and only a synopsis in the booklet.

JenufaLeoš Janáček - Jenůfa

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2009 | Ivor Bolton, Stéphane Braunschweig, Amanda Roocroft, Miroslav Dvorský, Nikolai Schukoff, Deborah Polaski, Mette Ejsing, Marta Ubieta, Károly Szemerédy, Miguel Sola, Marta Mathéu, María José Suárez | Opus Arte

One of the composer’s earliest works, from 1904, Janáček’s Jenůfa is a wonderful piece of work with a melodramatic but gritty story that has its roots in realism and traditional popular folklore, and it has music to match with a lush sweep of Wagnerian Romanticism, the punch of Slavic dance arrangements and a modern Strauss-like sensibility that ties the nature of the characters and their actions to identifiable but complex modern musical and speech tone patterns developed by Janácek. Unfortunately, this particular performance, recorded at the Teatro Real de Madrid in 2009, is for the most part not the most impressive means of experiencing one of the greatest operas of the early twentieth century.

It’s difficult from this production to grasp any sense of time, location or community sensibility that is so important in identifying the nature of Jenůfa’s dilemma. Jenůfa is in love with Števa and engaged to be married to him, despite his half-brother Laca being more devoted to the young woman, and perhaps a better match. When her stepmother Kostelnička publically delays the marriage until Števa gets his act together, she is unaware that Jenůfa is pregnant. The secret birth of a baby outside wedlock makes the marriage to Števa and the fate of Jenůfa more complicated to arrange, as does the scar on the young woman’s face accidentally left there by the jealous Laca, and despair over the turn of events drives Kostelnička to take matters into her own hands.

Although it does seem to improve considerably by the time we reach the powerful and climactic third act, the whole sense of fluidity and rhythm of the work and the all-important speech tones seem to be lost in the uneven tempo of Ivor Bolton’s conducting. It seems to limp from one scene to the next somewhat disjointedly, and it’s not until quite late in the performance that the conductor manages to bring the precision and dramatic tone required out of the orchestra. The staging by Stéphane Braunschweig is also inadequate and it’s not so much that the set is minimalist – each scene consisting of bare walls and one significant object in a spotlight to indicate location – as that there is little here to support mood or the dramatic action. Up until the final act, it’s a fairly anonymous staging, dark, with stark lighting on the characters, that doesn’t have the requisite impact and fails to draw the viewer into what is very much a story related to the community, as well as an interior journey.

The singing is good in all the principal roles, if not outstanding. There’s nothing here, for example, to create the kind of impression or investment in the roles that Elisabeth Söderström and Eva Randová achieve in their incredibly passionate and chilling renditions of Jenůfa and Kostelnička for the classic Charles Mackerras recording of this opera (although it is perhaps unfair to expect any live performance to match this). Amanda Roocroft however is a fine Jenůfa and Deborah Polaski an excellent Kostelnička, both of them growing into the roles (or perhaps it just took me a while to acclimatise to them), gathering intensity as the opera reaches the third act. Nikolai Schukoff and Miroslav Dvorský as rival half-brothers Števa and Laca, also give fine performances. None of them however are helped by the inadequacy of the staging or by the mediocre playing of the orchestra.

Something close to the real impact of the work is achieved by the time we get to the remarkably beautiful and poignant duet at the conclusion of the opera, but otherwise, this production succeeds only as far as making Jenůfa sound like an ordinary opera, when it’s really a work that has so much more to offer and deserves a lot better than this in terms of staging and performance. It’s not helped at all by the inadequate video transfer on the Blu-ray. The extremely dark stage (as is often the case in Teatro Real productions in my experience) scarcely looks better than standard-definition, with little detail and a highly contrasted image that exhibits lighting fluctuation and exposure variations. The image is somewhat juddery, and this isn’t helped by jerky camera work. The disc contains only a Cast and Synopsis, but there is a more detailed examination of how the music works alongside the drama in the accompanying booklet.

MascheraGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2008 | Jesús López Cobos, Mario Martone, Marcelo Álvarez, Violeta Urmana, Marco Vratogna, Elena Zaremba, Allessandra Marianelli | Opus Arte

I’m always surprised that the likes of Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), Stiffelio, Oberto and some other early to mid-period Verdi operas, are not better known and more frequently performed. They certainly have the right balance and full complement of revolutionary plots, illicit liaisons, dire threats of revenge (what’s a Verdi opera without an exclamation of “Vendetta!” somewhere in it?), rousing choruses and good old-fashioned belt-em-out crowd-pleasing melodies and arias. What they lack in sophistication – certainly when compared to later Verdi – they make up for in the pure thrills, sensation and entertainment that are the principal reasons why Verdi’s most famous operas (La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto) remain popular favourites.

Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Melodrama in 3 Acts”) has all the above criteria in spades. It’s far from sophisticated, it has a revolutionary plot combined with an illicit romantic love and doomed relationships and it has some terrific singing roles for the performers to show their range. It’s the kind of storyline that is laughably ridiculous and wouldn’t work convincingly anywhere outside of an opera stage. But it is an opera, and if it works there (although not everyone will think it does) it’s because Verdi’s propulsive score carries you through the weaknesses with such memorable tunes that you are swept along (humming to yourself) rather than trying to assess the credibility of the drama.

Perhaps surprisingly, the plot is at least loosely based on the real-life assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, the libretto written by Antonio Somma, based on a work by Eugène Scribe. Un Ballo in Maschera was indeed originally composed as Gustavo III, but the opera was banned by the authorities while it was in rehearsals in Naples in 1858 after the attempted assasination of Napoleon III , as the opera contained a conspiracy plot.  The opera was reworked for Rome with the setting changed to America where Riccardo, the Earl of Warwick, is the English governor of Boston, Massachusetts. His rule is not universally accepted and there is consequently plots brewing for deaths that have occurred under his governance, but Riccardo refuses to let such rumours restrict his movements or his social gatherings. When papers are delivered to him to have a fortune-teller Ulrica banished from the state, Riccardo, out of curiosity, dons a disguise and takes his guests to see her. She also foresees death for Riccardo, and at the hands of a close friend.

You don’t need to be a fortune-teller however, just a familiarity with Verdi operas, to guess that his death will come to pass at the hands of his secretary and best friend Renato, since Riccardo has been seeing Renato’s wife, Amelia in secret. That familiarity with opera conventions will also serve you well as far as swallowing other expositional elements of the plot and the dialogue. “Heavens, my husband!”, exclaims Amelia, when the two secret lovers are in danger of being discovered, and when Renato does start plotting with the conspirators to carry out the deed (“Vendetta!”) at the convenient occasion of a masked ball, the skulk around whispering a secret password so that they can recognise one another. The secret password? “Death!”, of course.

Un Ballo in Maschera is consequently not the kind of opera for modern updating or interpretation, it’s firmly tied into the opera tradition of the period, and accordingly, this production from the Teatro Real in Madrid is a very conservative affair, a period production with stand-and-deliver performances in the Grand Opera tradition. It’s hard to put any real dramatic feeling behind this kind of a plot, what it really needs is a strong bravura performance to carry it through, and that’s what you get with Marcelo Álvarez as Riccardo. There’s no real acting ability here, Álvarez conveying everything by striking standard opera poses with his arms, but the Madrid audience just laps it up. The other singers similarly fit into this old-fashioned style, delivering a by-the-book production that alone would be good enough, but it helps when the performances are committed and that’s certainly the case here.

This 2008 production at the Teatro Real looks rather dark, which leads to strong contrasts in the Blu-ray HD presentation, but the image is sharp and deeply saturated. The audio tracks – LPCM Stereo and HD Master Audio 5.1 – are both superb in their clarity and dynamic range. Other than a Synopsis and Cast, there are no extra features on the BD.

KabanovaLeos Janáček - Katia Kabanova

Teatro Real de Madrid, December 2008 | Jiri Belohlavek, Robert Carsen, Karita Mattila, Oleq Bryjak, Miroslav Dvorsky, Dalia Schaechter, Guy De Mey, Gordon Gietz, Natascha Petrinsky, Marco Moncloa, Itxaro Mentxaka, María José Suárez | FRA Productions

I liked Robert Carsen’s stage design for the NY Met production of Eugene Onegin where he employed a large three-sided “light-box” with minimal props, but made use of the lighting and autumnal colours to perfectly complement the tone of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic and emotionally turbulent opera. Carsen’s Brechtian design for Katia Kabanova at Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2008 is similarly austere and emotionally resonant, and again it seems to me to be perfectly complementary for an opera whose storyline has the potential to be melodramatic, yet is served so much better if it is coolly and delicately underplayed.

The emotion is downplayed in this production on almost every front of the theatrical presentation to better let the music and the singing speak for itself. The staging is restricted to boarding that is rearranged by what seems like water-nymphs or drowned lost souls, and rests on a couple of inches of water. The intention is to evoke the presence of the Volga, where the drama takes place in the little town of Kalinov, and emphasise the importance of the location and the significance that water plays throughout. If the concept is a little over-pronounced, it nonetheless proves highly effective, creating a calming impression, occasionally showing ripples and casting reflections on the mirrored background. With the use of lighting - impeccably lit and coloured - it establishes a perfect location that connects with the emotional resonance of the drama, without being too heavy-handed or obvious in the symbolism. It just feels absolutely right and it looks marvellous.

The reason why it feels perfect, is that it supports the important elements of the performance without imposing a false presence that could either overstate or take away from the intent of Janáček’s score - wonderfully played by the Teatro Real Orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek - or indeed from the fine performances and singing. Katya is a complex character who undergoes some quite brutal treatment and yet remains despite of it all in thrall to her interior life, and it’s all too easy to highlight the grimness of the external drama at the expense of the beauty of the person inside. The only other staging I’ve seen of the opera placed emphasis - quite effectively, as it happens - on a recreation of a grim East European tenement block - but the concept here seems much more imaginative and in tune with the tone of the music. The contrast in Katya’s personality can also lead to over-emphasis bordering on madness, but Karita Mattila finds a perfect balance here in her acting performance and in her singing, exuberant in the right places, despairing in others, but reserved and internalised where necessary at the key moments.

Everything is pretty much as it should be in terms of the technical specifications of the FRA Blu-ray disc. A 1080i encode, presented in 16:9 widescreen, the image looks slightly soft, perhaps on account of the low lighting, but it fully captures the tones of the subdued but limpid lighting. The soundtrack comes with the standard PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes, both of which perform well. The surround mix disperses the orchestration effectively, but on an empty stage the singing can seem a little echoing at times. It’s never less than powerful however. Really, High Definition and opera is a match made in heaven and this disc shows why. The Blu-ray includes a 24-minute interview with Robert Carsen and Jiri Belohlavek. In the spirit of the production, the booklet includes a detailed synopsis that doubles as a fine interpretative essay on the opera.