Van Mechelen, Werner


StradellaCésar Franck - Stradella

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège 2012 | Paolo Arrivabeni, Jaco Van Dormael, Marc Laho, Isabelle Kabatu, Werner van Mechelen, Philippe Rouillon, Xavier Rouillon, Giovanni Iovino, Patrick Mignon, Roger Joakim | ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming

The choice of opera for the Opéra Royal de Wallonie’s 2012-13 season at the restored Théâtre Royal in Liège was an unusual one. Stradella is an unfinished work by César Franck - better known for his symphonic writing and pieces for the piano and organ - written in 1842 when the composer was just 15 years old and only rediscovered in 1984. There may not be too many classic Belgian opera composers to choose from, much less one who was actually born in Liège, but in the event, the production team and the completion of the orchestration by composer Luc Van Hove filled out the sweep of Franck’s lush Romanticism to make something more of this otherwise relatively slight work in its first ever staging. Directed by filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael (Toto le Héro), with some strong singing performances, it was moreover an appropriately near all-Belgian opening production and as such a memorable way to mark the occasion.

The plot of Stradella is relatively simple and unburdened with anything like psychological motivation or even depth of character. The Duke of Pesaro has ordered his lieutenant Spadoni to abduct the beautiful maiden Leonor in the middle of the Carnival in Venice. Having locked her away in his mansion, the Duke tries to win her love by employing the famous singer Stradella to woo her, unaware that Stradella and Leonor are actually an item. As well as being one mighty coincidence, one would think the Duke might have taken some time to investigate Leonor’s love-life, but as I say, such details seem to be of little concern to the young Franck, who instead focuses his attention on exploring the romantic tragedy aspects that this situation gives rise to. Franck’s symphonic scoring is certainly influenced by Wagner to some extent, but the composer clearly favours the more melodic approach of Gounod - Faust sounding like an influence in the ‘À demain‘ duet between Stradella and Leonor early in the first act before the abduction - and it bears a close relation with the composer’s near-contemporary Massenet in this regard.

With an abundance of water on the stage that on occasion tended to get in the way of the performance, the production certainly favoured spectacle over musical or dramatic integrity. It was dramatically justified to some extent by the opera’s Venetian Carnival setting of the opera, but the fact that just about everyone was kitted out in wetsuits or wearing Macs and carrying umbrellas should tell you that there was rather a lot more water than was strictly necessary both on the stage itself - the singers wading waist deep in it for most of the performance - but also in the English summer amount of rain (yeah, that much!) falling from the skies for long sections of the performance. Vincent Lemaire’s sets looked spectacular however, creating a fabulous atmosphere, but it was also more than a little noisy - particularly in one or two scenes from the First Act when Leonor is abducted by the Duke’s men from a canal in the middle of a thunderous downpour. It did however, particularly in the brilliantly staged finale with a floating fish, come over as something of an impressive technical achievement.

The deluge of water (45,000 litres apparently) and the design of the sets however had something of an absorbing effect or dampening of the sound (in more ways than one!) that didn’t really show off the acoustics of the theatre or allow the musical qualities of the work to carry, and it certainly did no favours to the singers who had to remain semi-submerged in it for the entire length of the work. Soprano Isabelle Kabatu had the necessary range and depth for the role of Leonor, but struggled nonetheless on one or two occasions to rise above the stage noise and the orchestration. There were so such problems for the Belgian lyric tenor Marc Laho however, who let none of the bizarre stage directions get in the way of a well-delivered performance, his singing clear and resonant with lovely tone, expression and diction. Bass-baritone Werner van Mechelen was a worthy counterpart to Laho’s Stradella as the Duke’s lieutenant Spadoni, but other than wearing a surreal floating cape borne aloft by black balloons Philippe Rouillon didn’t really make a strong enough impression as the Duc de Pesaro.

Under the musical direction of Paolo Arrivabeni and artistic direction of Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, this was overall an impressive gathering of Belgian opera talent for an interesting and eye-catching opener to the 2012-13 season at the Théâtre Royal in Liège following their ambitious run at the temporary Palais Royal venue last year. Franck’s recently rediscovered early opera doesn’t prove to be a major work by any means, but it’s a lovely little piece nonetheless and a fascinating addition to the French-Belgian repertoire.

Recorded on the 25 and 27th of September 2012, Stradella was viewed via an internet streaming broadcast on the ARTE website, where it can still be viewed - in French language, with no subtitles - up until October 2013.

MacabreGyörgy Ligeti - Le Grand Macabre

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2011 | Michael Boder, Àlex Ollé, Valentina Carrasco, Werner van Mechelen, Chris Merritt, Frode Olsen, Ning Liang, Barbara Hannigan, Brian Asawa, Inès Moraleda, Ana Puche, Francisco Vas, Simon Butteriss | Arthaus Musik

Although it may be one of the most popular works of contemporary opera, you aren’t going to see too many productions of György Ligeti’s only opera, Le Grand Macabre due to its demanding nature and its limited appeal to a rather specialised opera audience. So when the Liceu in Barcelona (with La Monnaie in Brussels and the ENO in London) decide to put on a rare production of the work and go as far as to make a world premiere video recording of it, you can be thankful that the challenge of finding an appropriate look for the all-important visual representation of this work has been given to La Fura dels Baus, the experimental Catalan production team perhaps most in tune with such an unusual work and capable of relating to its status as an “anti-anti-opera”, which is not quite the same thing, as you might imagine, as just an opera.

Le Grand Macabre most certainly isn’t “just” an opera, but it is one that fully exploits the full range of dramatic, musical and singing opportunities for expression that the medium is capable of. Often dissonant and cacophonic, it’s not however unmusical and indeed is made up of quite expressive musical passages and “quotations” that draw from a wide range of classical influences that demand a certain musical virtuosity, creating a complex soundscape of musical language and sonic textures. The singing in particular is extremely demanding, full of flourishes and vocal gymnastics in near-impossible tessitura. The difference between Le Grand Macabre and this kind of musical expression in other Ligeti compositions lies however in the visual and dramatic nature of opera, which is equally if not even more important for this particular work, and in that respect this extraordinary production, spectacularly imagined and directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus with Valentina Carrasco, enables the viewer to experience the work in its fullest expression.

Based on the play ‘La balade du Grand Macabre‘ by Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, quite what the opera is an expression of however can be rather difficult to determine from the playful wordplay, gross vulgarity and nonsense dialogue that makes up most of its libretto. Like the musical accompaniment however, the tone of the words and the highly expressive delivery of them all serve to add to the sonic picture of its depiction of the imaginary Breughelland, with all the grotesque characterisation and the end-of-times connotations for our own reality that the name suggests. In the midst of all the absurd, lascivious, perverse and violent activity of the characters on the stage however, the main narrative thread is clear enough when Nekrotzar, the Grand Macabre, arrives in Breughelland and announces to Piet the Pot that the end of the world is nigh. The moral, when this prediction is proved to be false, is made clear at the end and delivered in traditional operatic fashion - face fear and it will pass, enjoy life without worrying about death or putting your faith in those who would claim to know better acting as guides and leaders.

All men on earth must perish” - even Piet the Pot knows that, “…but no-one knows the hour“, Nekrotzar, tells him. Àlex Ollé appropriately seems to choose to set the production of the Liceu’s Le Grand Macabre indeed during the few seconds preceding the imminent death of an overweight woman - seen in a short video introduction - who has enjoyed the excesses of a Big Mac-abre junk-food feast and is lunging for that last pizza slice when she suffers a heart attack. A huge model of this woman in her death throes dominates the stage, her face contorted in agony, those final moments and the excess that has clearly been part of her life, drawn out and encapsulated within the surreal and nightmarish situation depicted by Ligeti through the operatic medium. The huge splayed naked body revolves 360-degrees between the four scenes of the two acts and is clambered over and dissected in a disturbing fashion, with a wiggling tongue, detachable nipples and other moveable parts and orifices that the characters delve into and appear from. Costumes too are cleverly designed to suggest body parts, organs and musculature. Technically, with the impressive use of projections, it’s a theatrical tour-de-force by La Fura dels Baus, but more than just spectacle, it’s a brilliant interpretation that adds further levels of resonance and involvement to a work already quite rich in symbolism and suggestion.

I don’t think this work could be performed in any other way than with complete abandonment of any sense of propriety or dignity - and perhaps even comprehension - but it does demand extraordinary discipline on the part of the singers and commitment to the unusual methods of expression that Ligeti resorts to. The English diction isn’t always perfect here with some of the Spanish members of the cast, but it’s hardly the most important consideration. That’s not a problem for Barbara Hannigan, but her challenges lie elsewhere in the vocal exertions that are demanded from her in the roles of Venus and Gepopo, the Chief of Secret Police. She not only handles these with astonishing facility, but also with verve and character, as difficult as the roles must be to play. Similar commitment and flights up and down the vocal range are called for from Chris Merritt as Piet the Pot and Frode Olsen as the Astronomer Astradamors, but really, there isn’t anyone in this cast who doesn’t impress on a number of levels in how they rise to the challenges presented by this work.

Le Grand Macabre is still a rather demanding work that can be loud, vulgar and disorienting in its absurdity and nonsense, not seeming to have anything particularly enlightening to reveal for all the effort that is required to view and listen to it, but this is all undoubtedly an essential part of what the work is about. As an anti-anti-opera, it does seem to work both within the framework and as a reaction to the original anti-opera inclinations of Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, exploring similar field of the baseness of human impulses that can be found in Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny (also impressively produced by La Fura dels Baus recently at the Liceu and also available on DVD and BD), not in any elevated or theatrical manner, but in a way that revels in and supports the basic (or base) intents that lie at its heart. This production and its performance at the Liceu in Barcelona can hardly be faulted for the imaginativeness of its vision, the boldness of its interpretation and the technical brilliance of its presentation.

Undoubtedly a production that it would be better to experience live in the opera house, Le Grand Macabre nonetheless comes across very well on the small screen. It’s very well filmed to focus on the details of the performance, while keeping you in mind of the larger picture that, in any case, would be hard to ignore. The quality of the High Definition Blu-ray transfer is excellent, the 2-hour work fitting comfortably onto a single-layer BD25 disc, the image quality near-flawless, handling the darkness of the stage lighting well. The audio tracks are a vital aspect of the whole experience and they come across well in both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mixes. The BD also includes a good in-depth conference-style Making Of feature that has all the key players in the stage production discussing the development of the ideas, influences and technical considerations behind the concept, and an interview with Michael Boder on the musical side of things. The BD is all-region, full-HD, with subtitles in Italian, German, French, Spanish, Korean and Catalan.

QuichotteJules Massenet - Don Quichotte

La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels 2010 | Marc Minkowski, Laurent Pelly, Silvia Tro Santafé, José van Dam, Werner Van Mechelen, Julie Mossay, Camille Merckx, Vincent Delhoume, Gijs Van der Linden, Bernard Villier | Naive

With piles of papers and documents piled up on the stage, Laurent Pelly’s production design for this 2010 performance of Massenet’s Don Quichotte at La Monnaie-De Munt in Brussels looks like something from an art installation, but it serves the opera well and in the process provides a suitable platform for José van Dam’s final bow from the opera stage. Taking a dream-like overview of the subject, Act I shows what looks like a the Don’s drawing room, where the aging knight is resting sitting in an armchair, a man past his prime, dreaming of better times, of his love for the beautiful Dulcinea that once inspired him to write verses of praise in her name - all of which are piled up in a small mountain below her balcony - and the idealism that drove him to what he believes to be chivalrous and intrepid acts of valour.

The dream world of the knight’s idealism in the subsequent four acts is similarly filled with sierras and landscapes made of hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper, reflecting the recreation of Don Quichotte’s exploits on paper and the lack of substantiality that these dreams are based on, the valiant knight forgetting that he is now just a foolish old man whose youth has faded. After a 50 year career, José van Dam’s voice may also lost some of its youthful vigour and strength, but the passion and sincerity is still there, and in that respect it’s a perfect fit for the role of Don Quixote that makes his performance of the role all the more poignant.

I’ve never really been able to find a distinctive stamp to Massenet’s varied opera styles, finding little that has made an impression beyond his most famous creations of Werther, Manon and Thaïs, but I’m always interested to find what can be brought out of the other works, particularly when they are fully staged. Don Quichotte seems like a rather slight work in this respect, but the composer nonetheless seems to find the right tone throughout for this ‘comédie-héroique en cinq actes’. A five-act opera, it is however surprisingly sprightly, each of the short brief scenes - the entire work coming in at under two hours - finding the right balance of adventure and nobility, foolishness and dignity, with little Spanish-inflected arrangements but also a certain French character. I don’t know if it gets to the essence of Cervantes (Massenet worked on a French adaptation “Le Chevalier de la Longue Figure” by Jacques Le Lorrain), but it seems to strike the right tone throughout that fits the character of the work.

Laurent Pelly’s production likewise seems an exceptionally good fit. The astonishing set designed by Barbara de Limburg is mostly static, but there are subtle changes over the course of the opera that reflect the deterioration of Don Quichotte’s mind, and a few neat touches - the battle with the windmills is well achieved - that bring the work to life at the right moments. The casting is also perfectly appropriate for this modest little work that is nonetheless not short on charm or beauty. Van Dam is Don Quixote incarnate, carrying himself as the “errant knight who rights wrongs” with exactly the right kind of proud nobility amid the confusion of old-age. He might not hold the low notes with the same rock-solid sureness, but it’s a lovely and thoughtful performance, sung very well indeed. Silvia Tro Santafé is a lovely Dulcinea, with a light, rich, sparkling tone to her French, even if the vibrato applied makes her at times sound like an old-time French cabaret singer, evoking Edith Piaf in places. Werner van Mechelen provides solid support as Sancho. Combined they form the kind of strong varied and sensitive trio of principals that the work needs, but the quartet roles and the chorus are also wonderful here.

Released on DVD only, the presentation of the performance is fine, if the image quality and sharpness is not quite as impressive as it might have been in HD. The audio likewise is disappointingly lower-spec, Dolby Digital 2.0 only, but the sound is clear and the tone is warm. The orchestration, conducted beautifully by Marc Minkowski, sounds wonderful, and the singing is mostly strong and clear in the mix. There are a few slight dips in the sound, usually only audible around the audience applause, but occasionally on the stage also, as if the microphones levels are being adjusted, but it’s a relative minor issue. The DVD includes an excellent hour-long feature that goes behind the scenes on the production in some detail.