White, Willard


BabylonJörg Widmann - Babylon

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Kent Nagano, Carlus Padrissa, La Fura dels Baus, Claron McFadden, Anna Prohaska, Jussi Myllys, Willard White, Gabriele Schnaut, Kai Wessel, August Zirner | Internet Streaming

The first opera for the new 2012/13 season of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich was something of a bold statement of intent. A new modern opera receiving its world premiere, Babylon is an almost three-hour long epic with lavish production values that seem to fly in the face of European austerity measures and defy restraints on budgets in the arts. With a libretto written moreover by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and music composed by Jörg Widmann, the 39 year old student of Hans Werner Henze, it seemed something of an omen that Henze should die mere hours before the opening performance, leaving the way for his protégé to make a mark on modern opera with an important new work. There was consequently a weight of expectation surrounding the opening of Babylon, and with a visually astonishing production from Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus that was perfectly in accord with the colourful nature of the work, the opera certainly made an impression, even if its impact was inevitably somewhat reduced for those watching it (and experiencing technical difficulties) with its Live Internet Streaming broadcast on the 3rd November.

Babylon relates back to Biblical times and ancient Mesopotamian mythology, to human sacrifice practiced by the Babylonians and the repudiation of it by the Jews, to the destruction of the walls of Jericho and the founding of urban civilisation. Central to the work then, with its invocations of the mystical number seven, is the formation of order out of chaos, an order associated with numerology that is reflected in the establishment of the seven days of the week. It’s a love story that is both the cause of the chaos that ensues as well as what brings about redemption and order. Widmann’s opera opens then with a prologue showing a scene of apocalyptic devastation, a scorpion man walking through the ruins, before the Soul arrives to open up the first of the opera’s seven scenes, mourning the loss of Tammu, a Jewish exile living in Babylon who has fallen in love with Inanna, a Babylonian priestess in the Temple of Free Love.

The visions of chaos and destruction continue unabated as Tammu lies with Inanna, and is awoken through love and some herbal induced visions - the seven planets and even the Euphrates itself bearing testimony - to the truth that their world is founded on chaos that the Gods have unleashed upon the universe. (Mozart and Schikaneder’s The Magic Flute is obviously drawn from the same sources - Tamino and Pamina recognisably relating to Tammu and Inanna). It’s this chaos that the Babylonians hold at bay through human sacrifice, a “truth” that is hidden by Ezekiel in his teachings of the Jewish law and the stories of Noah and the flood. When Tammu is chosen as the next human sacrifice however and is executed by the High Priest following the New Year celebrations, Inanna joins with the Soul in her lament for his loss. Inanna pleads with Death to allow her to journey to the Underworld to bring Tammu back.

Undoubtedly the most striking thing about Babylon is the direction of this vast undertaking by Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus, with its spectacular production designs by Roland Olbeter. Every element of the ambitious libretto, with all its mystical symbolism, dreams, visions and mythology, is presented in visual terms that aren’t merely literal, but connect on an intimate level with the music and the concepts wrapped up within it. In its seven scenes (with a prologue and an epilogue) a Tower of Babel is erected and destroyed, the seven planets appear during Tammu’s visions, the River Euphrates is personified as well as represented by a stream of words and letters that flood and overflow, seven phalluses and vulvas appear with seven apes during the New Year celebrations, flaming curtains give way to sudden downpours during the sacrifice of Tammu, and Innana wades through a seething mass of (projected) bodies, discarding seven garments (a dance of the seven veils), as she journeys into the Underworld. The stage is never static, there’s an incredible amount going on, with extraordinary detail in background projections, processions, with supernumeraries in all manner of costumes and guises.

Babylon is therefore, opera in its purest sense. The music and singing alone don’t stand up on their own, the spectacle alone isn’t enough, but the work needs each of the elements of the libretto, the music, the performance and the theatrical presentation to work together and in accord to put across everything that is ambitiously covered in the work. Widmann perhaps takes on too much across its great expanse of scenes and musical styles - cutting suddenly between twelve-tone dodecaphony, jazz, cabaret and Romanticism - to the extent that it can feel episodic and difficult to take in as an integral and consistent work. Babylon however has a solid foundation in its subject, in Kent Nagano’s marshalling and conducting of the orchestra of the Bayerische Staatsoper, in Padrissa’s impressive command of the visual elements, and in Anna Prohaska’s extraordinary performance as Innana that goes beyond singing. Babylon is opera in the purest sense also in that it undoubtedly needs to be experienced in a live theatrical context in order for its full power to be conveyed. On a small screen, viewed via internet streaming, the rich scope, scale and ambition of the work were nonetheless clearly evident.

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.

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.