Reß, Ulrich


GodunovModest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2013 | Kent Nagano, Calixto Bieito, Alexander Tsymbaluk, Yulia Sokolik, Eri Nakamura, Heike Grötzinger, Gerhard Siegel, Markus Eiche, Anatoli Kotscherga, Sergey Skorokhodov, Vladimir Matorin, Ulrich Reß, Okka von der Damerau, Kevin Conners, Goran Jurić, Dean Power, Tareq Nazmi, Christian Rieger | ARTE Internet Streaming, March 2013

A modern updating of a historical subject is always going to be controversial, particularly when it’s a production by Calixto Bieito. In the case of a work like Boris Godunov however, you have to ask whether the purpose of Mussorgsky’s opera is to provide a character portrait of a 16th century ruler of Russia or whether the opera is more concerned with more universal questions on the nature of power, leadership and the cost that has to be paid for it. Even performed in a traditional historical context it would be hard not to feel the full force of those themes expressed in Mussorgsky’s magnificent score, so what advantage would there be in attempting to make a parallel between the past and the present? Surprisingly, the purpose of Bieito’s production would seem to be not to use Boris Godunov to make a comment about the present day as much as use familiar images to help us better relate to the past.

One of the qualities of art, and particularly opera in this context, is that it can indeed illuminate and provide new living insight on a figure who existed nearly 500 years ago by simply looking at human nature itself today, since that hasn’t changed greatly in all that time. Placing Boris Godunov in a historical context however can place a distance between the subject and a modern audience - although, as I said, Mussorgsky’s music makes it fully relatable - but a modern setting can make those situation more real and immediate without betraying the essential sentiments and the spirit of the work. Calixto Bieito’s staging has a considerable part to play in the success of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s new production, but it must operate in accordance with the music, and Kent Nagano’s musical direction ensures that this is a thoughtful and powerful account of a great work.

The actions and the will of the people play just as important a part in history as its more famous leaders and Mussorgsky’s gives them equal voice in Boris Godunov. Calixto Bieito finds a modern-day equivalent of the voice of the people and their relationship with their leaders here in what looks to be an anti-globalisation protest at a G8 summit, or perhaps even an anti-austerity protest. The people, herded in by police in riot-gear, are looking for someone to lead them out of crisis. They don’t carry icons of the saints here, but instead wave placards in the air showing images of Sarkozy, Putin, Cameron, Holland and other world leaders. Only one lone protester - a punk in a Sex Pistols T-shirt advocating anarchy - rejects all of them and is beaten to the ground by the police. Is this a fair representation of the intent of the opening scene of Boris Godunov? It certainly captures the nature of the situation without tying it directly and imperfectly to any specific modern political context. It also sets the tone well for the underlying violence that isn’t always entirely explicit in the work, but which is undoubtedly an important part of the power dynamic.

There are inevitably a few curious touches that Bieito adds to highlight this characteristic, but all of them feel entirely appropriate to the work. Boris Godunov tries to be a good ruler to the people, but he feels the pressure of responsibility, hears the murmurings of discontent and fears the uprising of a new Pretender. His conscience - like anyone who has to dirty their hands to get into a position of power and influence - isn’t entirely clear either, and he has the blood of the young Tsar on his hands, tormenting him in nightmares. Bieito’s version, again highlighting the power and responsibility of the common people in their choice or acceptance of leaders, shows them exercising that power by putting weapons (guns) into their hands, making this bloody period of history even more realistically violent. The Pretender too executes Boris’ children at the end of the opera, which fits in with the theme of the cycles of history and violence and gives it greater force.

All of this must be borne out in the music of course, and the Bayerische Staatsoper production in Munich took an equally interesting approach to the complicated history of the work and its various revisions. This was a stripped back production that used Mussorgsky’s 1869 original version as its basis, but further removed any other diversions - the Fountain scene and the Polonaise (basically the whole of Act III) - that weren’t directly related to expression of the work’s fundamental themes. This enabled the entire opera to be performed as a single two-and-a-quarter hour performance without any breaks. There were considerable benefits to be gained from this approach. On the one hand, we had all the force of Mussorgsky’s scoring with its conversational language rhythms and unique expression, but with a greater fluidity that brought unity to each of the separate scenes. With Kent Nagano conducting with complete sensitivity for those rhythms, we didn’t lose any of the beauty of the orchestration that is found in Rimsky-Korsakov’s revisions either. As a result, the work maintained its epic immensity, force and beauty.

So too does the singing here, particularly Alexander Tsymbaluk as Boris and Anatoli Kotscherga as Pimen. Both evidently are vital roles that carry the action and the spiritual elements of the work, and much of that is brought out through the grave, deep tone of the singing itself. Not only were the casting and performances superb in this respect for those roles, but the same consideration was given to all the casting elsewhere. There was scarcely a weak element anywhere here, all of the cast and chorus coming together - alongside a considered production and musical performance - to give full force to this remarkable work. The set designs also played an important part in keeping up this momentum, fluidly moving from one scene to the next, providing a meaningful dark and minimal setting that served the situations without being over-literal or too incongruously modern either.

This performance of Boris Godunov was broadcast on ARTE Live Web and is currently still available for viewing via internet streaming. Depending on whether you use the .fr or .de sites, subtitles are either in French or German. The Bayerische Staatsoper will broadcast another live performance of this production via their own Live Streaming service during their summer Opera Festival season on the 26th July. The next live streaming event from Munich is Verdi’s Macbeth on 11th May, directed by Martin Kušej and conducted by Massimo Zanetti.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Pietari Inkinen, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Heike Grötzinger, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, Alisa Kolosova, Elena Zilio, Simon Keenlyside, Pavol Breslik, Ain Anger, Ulrich Reß | Live Internet Streaming, 25 March 2012

The manner in which elements of Eugene Onegin relate closely to the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s own life have often been remarked upon, and it undoubtedly contributes to the deep emotional and romantic sweep of the opera, so it’s surprising that – to my knowledge at least – the unspoken subtext within the work hasn’t really been brought out explicitly before in any modern production.

That subtext is, of course, related to Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality. At the same time that the composer was writing Eugene Onegin, he had himself started a correspondence with the patron of many of his works, Nadezhda von Meck, an intimate relationship that held a certain awkwardness since the two of them were reluctant to meet each other in person. In May 1877, Tchaikovsky also received a love letter from a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova. Believing that destiny was in some way playing a hand, and that marriage would help him deny his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky ill-advisedly married Milyukova in July 1877, and immediately regretted the decision. The marriage was a complete failure and led to a mental breakdown and attempted suicide on the part of the composer.

In the opera that Tchaikovsky was writing at the same time, Eugene Onegin, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Onegin famously receives a gushing letter from a devoted admirer, Tatyana, a young, bookish, innocent, romantic girl living on a country estate who immediately falls in love with the handsome visitor introduced by their neighbour Lensky. Cruelly rejecting her declaration of love, Onegin claims that he’s not cut out for marriage, cannot bear the idea of being tied down when he is young and when there are so many other options to explore, certain that any marriage between them would inevitably become dull and routine.

Onegin

There would have undoubtedly been some identification on the part of Tchaikovsky with this situation, which certainly at least contributes to the lush romanticism of the score, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that Onegin may well have similarly rejected the young girl because he is gay and that, at the end when he comes to regret his callous dismissal of Tatyana after a life of empty and purposeless abandon, it’s possible to see something of the composer’s own dilemma, hoping unrealistically and impossibly for the security of a marriage relationship that would be more acceptable to society.

Actually, having made the parallel and having watched the Bavarian State Opera’s attempt to put something similar across on the stage, I can see why there’s a reluctance to characterise Eugene Onegin as a gay man. It takes some nerve to update a classic work in this way, altering the sexual orientation of the main character in one of the most romantic works ever written, no matter how closely it mirrors the actual real-life circumstances of the composer. As a subtext, it’s certainly something interesting to keep in mind, but it’s a bit more difficult to make it work convincingly on the stage. Accordingly, there’s a sense that while the director might like to make more of the idea, there’s undoubtedly a need to tread carefully with the material at the same time. So in some respects, while there is a feeling that there is some holding back from taking these ideas too far, even what there is here in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production is more than controversial enough.

Rather delightfully, the production is set in the 1970s, a period that is by no means arbitrary, coinciding with the age of growing sexual expression and liberty where coming out was more acceptable in a way that Tchaikovsky – or indeed Onegin – could never have done in their day. I’m not sure that this would have been the case in Russia in the seventies, but (quite the opposite of the recent De Nederlandse production by Stefan Herheim) there’s nothing here in this production that is culturally specific to Russia. So while the first act is by no means anything like the Larina country estate, it at least looks like a fairly well-off family anywhere in Europe during the seventies. I say delightful, and that’s because it’s a loving recreation of the decade in terms of design and colour, with vinyl chairs, bell bottom trousers, coloured leather armchairs and moon landings on the TV, the stage animated by disco lights and dancing queens.

Onegin

It’s the idea of dancing queens however that is the most controversial aspect of Warlikowski’s production, which features Full Monty routines and shirtless males in cowboy hats and some even in bikinis, shuffling around through the famous Polonaise of the opera. I say shuffling, because it’s very tame stuff indeed, lacking the nerve and the verve to really make the production challenging, even if it is still more than enough to make traditional opera-goers very uncomfortable indeed. I don’t know what the Munich audience made of this or of Onegin’s kiss with his “close friend” Lensky, but I thought it was delicately handled within the context – the spat between the two men a rejection of Onegin’s advances, leading Lensky to throw down the challenge of a duel to defend his honour and reputation before a watching public.

If it wasn’t much to look at, and at times rather more static and all-purpose than one would like, the stage design suited the context setting well, looking most of the time like a 70s’ discotheque, but capable of being transformed reasonably effectively into a family living room or Tanya’s bedroom, allowing the first two acts to flow together without an interval. The duel between Onegin and Lensky takes place over a bed, which was something of a daring touch, but one that worked surprisingly well, principally due to the fine performances – in terms of both singing and acting – of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik. Keenlyside in particular carried the weight of Onegin’s inner struggle without appearing arrogant, adding to the tragedy of the outcome and his final breakdown. Ekaterina Scherbachenko perhaps didn’t carry the vocal strength or force of some of the best recent more mature Tatyanas (Renée Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova), but she expressed the youthful innocence, confusion and mortification of her character much more convincingly, singing well and without mannerisms.

The idea of approaching Eugene Onegin from a gay perspective is a challenging one, as is setting it in the 1970s, and there were accordingly some inconsistencies in taking this approach and a static quality at times to the stage direction. The strength of the singing and dramatic performances however – notably from Keenlyside and Tatyana – and a good account of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful, heart-breaking score by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Pietari Inkinen, combined to brilliantly bring out the real strength of the work as well as the underlying subtext that undoubtedly contributes to its power and tragedy.

RusalkaAntonín Dvořák - Rusalka

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich 2010 | Tomáš Hanus, Martin Kušej, Kristine Opolais, Klaus Florian Vogt, Nadia Krasteva, Günther Grossböck, Janina Baechle, Ulrich Reß | Unitel Classica/C-Major

From the man who envisaged the Flying Dutchman as an asylum seeker in a 2010 production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Hollander for the Nederlandse Opera, cutting-edge opera director Martin Kušej reworks Dvořák’s dark fairy-tale Rusalka into a case of child abuse, where an innocent wood nymph and her sisters are victims of a Josef Fritzl-like Water Goblin. Evidently then, this production for the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in 2010 is not one for the traditionalists. For anyone a bit more open minded to the greater potential of opera, this is an incredibly imaginative interpretation that gets right to the dark heart of the opera, and it’s sung magnificently by all the principal performers.

In the context in which it is presented, lines like “I’d like to leave her to escape from the depths/I want to become a human being/And live in the golden sunshine” take on an entirely new meaning when they are uttered by a young woman being held captive with her sisters in the basement and routinely abused by their father. Cut off from the outside world, it’s not surprising that they see their world differently, considering themselves wood nymphs and their father as a Water Goblin as a way to evade the reality of their situation. Could any sense of what these poor creatures endure be any more powerfully achieved than by such a production, where this abusive captor descends from the upper-level of the set down into the dark, dank cellar, where a group of young girls wait fearfully for his arrival, and have to deal with him forcing himself upon them?

Escaping from this dungeon, and faced with the reality of life outside the abusive circle that is the only kind of relationship she has even known, Rusalka is evidently profoundly traumatised and damaged by the experience, her “womanhood defiled”, and she remains mute and unable to communicate or function as any other human being. It destroys any chance of sustaining a normal relationship, and destroys her chance at happiness with the Prince who has discovered her in the woods. “I am cursed by you”, she accuses her abuser, and the words, the tone and the true depths of what this means takes on an incredibly sinister and infinitely more tragic edge when it is applied to real-life in this way and taken out of the realm of mere fairy-tale.

Rusalka

Is this a distortion of the original intentions of the opera, or does it get to the heart of what is already suggested in the fairy-tale story (and we all know the dark origins of such tales), and to the heart of what is there in the often sinister tone of Dvořák’s score itself? Even where there is a playful tone in the music and singing, this can also be played upon – and has been used often in opera in this way – for the additional emphasis that can be achieved when contrasting what is played and sung with what is actually shown. In most cases however, there is no need for such excuses, and it’s uncanny just how often the actual libretto and the music score chime in perfect accord with Kušej’s brilliant and powerful interpretation.

This radical staging allows for some incredibly powerful moments and shocking imagery. The scene where Rusalka totters like Bambi on her human legs, looking with wide-eyed innocence down the barrel of the Prince’s shotgun is absolutely breathtaking, Rusalka’s background of abuse only emphasising the distinction between their roles as hunter and prey, and the problems that this is going to create in any kind of relationship between them. This is echoed in another nightmare scene (really, this is not a production for lovers of Bambi) where bloody, skinned deer are ripped open and their entrails devoured by brides in wedding gowns.

It’s hard to argue that such interpretations have no place in opera when the power of the piece speaks for itself, when it shows an audience something of the world we live in today, tackling in a genuinely artistic and insightful way a subject that we would find hard to relate to or even come close to comprehending. One could question why not create a new opera to deal with such subjects rather than use Rusalka, but it’s hard to dispute that this production doesn’t give as much to Rusalka as it takes from it, using the power and an edge that is already there in the music, but taking it to a new level.

A lot of credit for this has to go to also to Tomáš Hanus, the Bayerische orchestra and the performers who all work together to help bring this off. Kristine Opolais, who has recently made a major impact in Covent Garden in a new production of Madama Butterfly, not only has the voice to carry this, but she has excellent acting ability also in a highly challenging role, and it makes all the difference here. Klaus Florian Vogt’s lyrical tenor should already be well-enough known and he not unexpectedly demonstrates a fine sensitivity as the Prince here, but the darker tones of Nadia Krasteva as the foreign princess and Günther Groissböck as the Water Goblin also make a lasting and unforgettable impression. This quality of interpretation ensures total fidelity to the intent of the opera as it was originally written.

There’s little to fault either with the presentation on Blu-ray. The image is clear and sharp with no significant issues, though some minor flutter can be detected in one scene. Audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1.  The surround track is listed on the cover as DTS HD-MA 5.0, but this is incorrect, and there is definitely activity on the LFE channel (which isn’t even usually the case on most 5.1 mixes). The BD comes with a fine half-hour featurette on the production, featuring interviews with all the main contributors.