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Alfredo Casella - La Donna Serpente 

Teatro Regio di Torino, 2016

Gianandrea Noseda, Arturo Cirillo, Pietro Pretti, Carmela Remigio, Erika Grimaldi, Francesca Sassu, Anna Maria Chiuri, Francesco Marsiglia, Marco Filippo Romano, Roberto de Candia, Fabrizio Paesano, Sebastian Catana

Naxos - Blu-ray

Opera was striving to find a new voice and direction in the first half of the twentieth century. The shadow of the titans of Verdi and Wagner still loomed large and the continuation of their legacy had descended - arguably - into the decadence of verismo and post-Romanticism. Exceptions that tried to steer a new course found little foothold, although some would later exert greater influence on the development of new music. Some, like Busoni and Stravinsky, looked backward with an almost reformist agenda to take opera back to its roots, looking to Monteverdi and Mozart, and that is also the direction taken by another composer from this period who has been largely been forgotten; Alfredo Casella.

Forgotten at least as far as the opera world is concerned, Casella composing only one opera, La Donna Serpente ('The Snake Woman') in 1932. Casella didn't have any great love for the opera form, but his only opera certainly makes the most of the musical richness that comes with lyric drama and does extend his musical voice. And it's not just musically that La Donna Serpente looks back on the classic form, but it also returns to classical texts of myths and legends, like Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1927). In this case La Donna Serpente is derived from a work by Carlo Gozzi, who would also be the inspiration around this period for Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges (1921) and Puccini's Turandot (unfinished in 1924).



Operating under different circumstances, there's little that is obviously allegorical or deep about the fairy-tale story of La Donna Serpente. Miranda, the daughter of Demogorgòn, the King of the Fairies, wants to marry a mortal, Altidòr, the King of Téflis. Her father isn't pleased and puts a condition on her wishes. She must keep her identity secret for nine years and one day. After that time, Altidòr's love will be tested through great trials and if he curses her for what befalls him, Miranda will be turned into a snake, doomed to slither on the earth for 200 years.

Much like Busoni, who also worked on a Gozzi legend with his own version of Turandot using Mozart-like spoken dialogue, Casella looks back at the classical form as a model while striving to find new ways of expressing and extending it beyond its traditional form with newer elements and experimentation. The fairy tale story of La Donna Serpente might not have any great truths to reveal, but it provides Casella with a whole range of colours to work with. That's something that the Teatro Regio di Torino pick up on in their presentation of the work, the production bursting with magical storybook fairy-tale colour.


Casella might only have composed one opera, and it might not have made any great waves, disappearing after its first performances in 1932 and rarely revived after that, but the composer certainly used the medium to its fullest expression, including instrumental passages, sinfonias, overtures for each acts, perhaps overextending what is a simple enough story. But whether it's the humour of its commedia dell'arte inspired characters, the militaristic marches of the rather bellicose land of Téflis, whether it's exploring the tragedies and limits of human suffering or the magical release from our troubles, La Donna Serpente is rich and varied in expression.

If the fairy-tale subject is far from verismo, Casella's treatment reaches the same heights of darkness and light its dynamic range. The instrumental passages and overtures contain some lovely music (which is used very well to develop themes in the story in the Turin production through the use of dance and movement) and Act I and Act II have their moments, but Act III is the highlight of the work, from the lament of Miranda transformed into the snake woman right through to the triumphant storybook ending. It's perhaps no lost masterpiece, but Casella's La Donna Serpente adds another piece to the puzzle of opera in the first half of the 20th century that is now ripe for rediscovery.

The Turin production certainly makes the most of it under the musical direction of Gianandrea Noseda and some fine singing performances. You can't fault how Carmela Remigio meets the challenges of the role of Miranda, and Pietro Pretti gives a strident dramatic Altidòr, but all the cast are good, even if the characterisation is rather one-dimensional. Above all, Arturo Cirillo's production presents the work exceptionally well. There's not much in the ways of sets or effects, but the combination of brilliant costumes and deeply saturated colours and lighting make it every bit as colourful a spectacle as you would expect. Good use is also made of dancers to bring additional colour and movement that fully exploits the opportunities that the work offers.


In High Definition that blaze of saturated colour comes across spectacularly on the Naxos BD50 Blu-ray disc. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 soundtracks provide two different options for listening to the work. There are no extras on the disc, but the booklet contains an essay by Ivan Moody that gives a good account of Casella and his approach to his only opera and gives an outline synopsis. There is also a full tracklisting in the booklet, which is very useful. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Teatro Regio di Torino, Naxos Direct
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Samuel Barber - Vanessa

Glyndebourne, 2018

Jakub Hrůša, Keith Warner, Emma Bell, Virginie Verrez, Edgaras Montvidas, Rosalind Plowright, Donnie Ray Albert, William Thomas, Romanas Kudriašovas

Opus Arte - Blu-ray


I guess there are two ways of looking at Samuel Barber's Vanessa. On the one hand it's a rather reactionary, stuffy, old-fashioned romantic melodrama, that even in 1958 when it was composed was a backward look at a bygone age, a refusal to accept that music, drama and opera had moved on in a different direction. The other way to look at it is, well, that it's still all those things, but just to accept the work for what it is, an alternative approach that still embraces the traditional form, and respect it for the quality of its composition.

On a second viewing of this production however, I find myself similarly split on the quality and content of the work itself. On the one hand, a second closer listening does demonstrate that the work is not just a lush easy-listening composition in the style of a bygone age, but there are elements of dissonance within it hinting at darker elements that are not make explicit on the surface of the drama. The drama however doesn't stand up to close scrutiny on a second viewing and the observations it makes on love are really little more than banalities.

At its heart, that opera centres on a simple plot where Vanessa is expecting the return of Anatol, a former lover she has not seen in 20 years. It's not Anatol who turns up at their north country mansion however, but his son also called Anatol. Initially shocked, Vanessa however falls for the memory of her Anatol, not realising that the younger Anatol has already had an affair with Vanessa's niece Erika. Erika however has conflicted feelings for Anatol and doubts his love, but when she discovers she is pregnant by Anatol and that he and Vanessa are now engaged to be married, it causes a crisis and an attempted suicide.


What becomes clear is that if there is anything to be made of the suggestion of sinister undercurrents that Samuel Barber brings to Gian Carlo Menotti's libretto, it's all brought out by Keith Warner in his reworking of the drama and his impressive visual interpretation of things that are scarcely hinted at, never mind not explicitly brought out in the drama. Dressing it up as a Hitchcockian mystery really lends the work a lot more interest and intrigue than Vanessa seems to merit.

What prevents Hitchcock's films from appearing old-fashioned is the attention paid to the darker aspects of human nature. Barber and Menotti's characters have none of that depth, there's no insights other than those related to love, jealousy and unspoken, repressed passions. Warner seeks to use those vacancies of true personality and behaviour to hint at deeper mysteries and secrets. He wholly invents a mysterious and possibly taboo origin for Erika, he suggests another forbidden interracial romance affair in the past between the Old Baroness and the doctor as a young servant that is also regarded as taboo in the social order.



As much as Warner's production and reworking of the material works in favour of making Vanessa a little more interesting as a drama, from another point of view the period setting also works against it. The sheer elegance of the costume design, the period detail and the impressive technical approach are impressive, Warner using mirrors and projections to add layers, suggest hidden secrets, show reflections of the past and glimpses of forbidden passions behind the scenes. At the same time however, the period setting also serves to make it all feel horribly mannered and old-fashioned.

There's a scene early in the opera where Erika reads a passage from a romantic novel with little in the way of feeling. Vanessa snatches it and shows her how someone who has known love would express it. Barber appears to do the same with Menotti's libretto, ramping up the melodrama but never finding any true human feeling behind it. It appears that Keith Warner does much the same in this production for Glyndebourne, and makes the best possible case for what they believe is a neglected work. There is much to admire in the opera, but a second visit only reveals that it's all so much smoke and mirrors, and there's not really much depth to Vanessa at all.

The cast and the creative team would beg to differ and their belief in the work is evident not just from the performances and the high production values of this Glyndebourne 2018 recording, but they all make a strong case for it in the interviews included on the Blu-ray release. The opera also looks and sounds great in the High Definition presentation, with stereo and surround mixes that bring out that greater detail in Jakub Hrůša's conducting of Barber's score.

Links: Glyndebourne
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Conor Mitchell - The Belfast Ensemble Bash

The House of Usher
The C*** of Queen Catherine
Lunaria
Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance


The Belfast Ensemble, 2019

Conor Mitchell, Tom Brady, Alison Harding, Darren Franklin, Matthew Cavan, Gavin Peden, Rebecca Murphy, Marcella Walsh, Ciara Mackey, Tony Flynn, Abigail McGibbon, Marie Jones

The Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 28th June 2019, 30th June 2019


Founded in 2016 by Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell, it's difficult to categorise exactly what it is that the Belfast Ensemble do. Music-theatre is the catch-all term that can include everything from opera, operetta, musicals and spoken drama with musical accompaniment, but even that is too restrictive for what Mitchell and The Belfast Ensemble do, as the balance of music and singing to theatrical drama can vary considerably from piece to piece. What remains a more consistent philosophy is that whether it's a new piece or a gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance, the works are performed in a popular medium with an eye on current affairs, keeping the music relevant as a response to the world we live in. And, just as importantly, it's a response from a Belfast perspective. This isn't a company that sits and works in isolation writing little pieces of abstract experimentation but wants to be in the middle of things and finding popular means to connect music to developments outside.

As a birthday celebration and in preparation for a visit to London, bringing some of their works to the Southbank Centre as part of the PRSF New Music Biennial, The Belfast Ensemble put on a weekend Triple Bill Bash! at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, performing two of their extended music theatre pieces - The C*** of Queen Catherine and The House of Usher - along with a new piece Lunaria, to give a collective overview of what they are about and give some clues as to possible future directions, rounding it off with a gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance, partly to keep the audience on their toes guessing, partly to consider a post-Brexit UK as a pirate nation (maybe, maybe not), but mainly to touch base with popular music and its primary purpose to entertain.



Adapted from the famous Edgar Allan Poe story, (with some debt to the equally famous Roger Corman movie) The House of Usher is primarily a study in the nature of fear and madness. That would seem a natural response to the world today, and even if it doesn't make any explicit reference to the fall of the Stormont Executive in Northern Ireland that was happening at the time work was written, it's easy enough to draw parallels should you wish to do so. Or again, maybe not. What is so great about the narration and performance however is that it leaves the work open to whatever is going on that is currently generating fear or concern.

The fear that afflicts Roderick and his sister Madeline comes from within, from a family curse, from an insular existence with no outside perspective, a solipsistic obsession, paranoia and fear of the world outside. There's also a terror of being locked up within oneself, buried in those obsessions, not understanding the world, unsure of one's own reactions, fearing them to being abnormal or judged abnormal.

The primary purpose of the Belfast Ensemble's theatrical approach of The House of Usher is to present the heightened tension of that fear-inducing obsessive insularity as effectively as possible, and the company use more than just traditional musical and theatre techniques, involving movement, rhythm, projections, and movie clips that bring in not only clips from the 1960 Corman film, but footage of 9/11. As an exercise in what can be done with theatre it's effective, but it's more than that. It might only use a voice-over narration and no singing, but it is operatic in terms of its musical dimension and incorporation of multidisciplinary elements, similar to what Philip Glass or Michael Nyman do in this genre - the propulsive downward spiral rhythms of Mitchell's score doing much to establish that connection - with a more experimental element that you can find in Michel Van de Aa or in Donnacha Dennehy's work with Enda Walsh and the Dublin based Crash Ensemble.



The C*** of Queen Catherine tries out a different balance of its theatrical and music elements and, as far as I'm concerned, it isn't quite as successful. It's largely an actor's monologue with occasional musical accompaniment from a string quintet. The circumstances of the Spanish Queen's marriage to Henry VIII is related by Catherine of Aragon in an archaic poetic style, aligns to a vague commentary on current affairs in Northern Ireland in relation to the impact of Brexit on NI, “what happens when Europe divides in two, Tudor-style” according to the company, but clearly there are no such overt references and no allegorical element is alluded to in the production design .

Despite a great performance from Abigail McGibbon delivering a difficult 50 minute monologue, the piece is however far too long to sustain interest or connect to the elusive, fragmentary imagery of the words. Mitchell's score again evokes mood and drama well, and the theatrical elements provide another dimension to the work through projections and sound and lighting effects, but the piece is not successful in getting across much.

A new short piece, Lunaria consolidates the approach of the Ensemble, concentrating it really with an approach and delivery that thoroughly matches the subject. Brexit is again to the forefront. It's like it is trying to compress all the madness of the last couple of years down into 15 minutes with rapid fire soundbites. Three actors read overlapping headlines and extracts from speeches with video projections looping clips of the main protagonists (Boris Johnston, Arlene Foster, Theresa May) and victims like Lyra McKee that have dominated the headlines and concerns in Northern Ireland in recent times over Brexit and the backstop. Mitchell's music is again propulsive, urgent and rhythmic, based on repetition and escalation towards madness.

Lunaria concentrates the climate of fear of The House of Usher and its directness has the necessary impact and context that the Catherine of Aragon piece fails to achieve. In terms of presentation, the improvised set-up in the Lyric Theatre's studio, the musicians arranged in a circle around the three performers/newsreaders on tables with video clips projected behind certainly got the full impact of the work across, but you could imagine that the finished theatrical presentation will be further developed and no doubt only enhance the impact of the piece.



The weekend performances of The Belfast Ensemble Bash! Triple Bill were followed by a one-off gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance. Mitchell's justification for doing a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta - not that any is needed - is that he sees it as a good way of touching base again with the roots of popular music theatre. Well that's one reason, another is that he confesses that this was the first music theatre he performed in, but Mitchell also raises an interesting point in the introduction that a survey identified that most people's first experience of live music is in the theatre. And that's true for me too, the first musical performance I saw live was a school production of Man of La Mancha, and it did indeed made a singular unforgettable impression.

Whatever intentions and justifications you want to give - and you'd really be stretching it to impose any contemporary current affairs reading - The Pirates of Penzance was about really was just an excuse for the musicians and performers to enjoy themselves and let the audience enjoy it as well. On that level it certainly succeeded. It wasn't the slickest of Gilbert and Sullivan performances, half the cast were actors singing and half were singers acting, but that's a fair medium and characteristic of The Belfast Ensemble approach to mixing and matching. Of the singing performers Rebecca Murphy's Mabel was superb, but all the female roles were impressive. Actor/singer Matthew Cavan tried to bring a little bit of Captain Jack Sparrow-like fun to the rather slim comedy, but his natural flamboyance was limited by the standing and reading nature of the gala performance. Another notable bit of casting was celebrated Belfast playwright Marie Jones (Stones in their Pockets) taking to the stage herself as Chief of Police.



Musically the expanded Ensemble were delightful, the catchy melodies infectious, the performance sounding fresh and invigorated perfectly suited to the Lyric stage, Conor Mitchell conducting with verve and energy. It's easy to be sniffy about operetta and music theatre (particularly in this opera blog when it starts to become the staple of the local opera company, NI Opera), but being able to experiment, test the limits and extend what is considered to be lyric or dramatic theatre is right there in the ethos of the Belfast Ensemble, showing the range of possibilities open to a musical ensemble who refuse to be pigeon-holed into one category. And it's not just about being able to switch from avant-garde to Gilbert and Sullivan on the same bill, but the enthusiasm, musicianship and production values that they apply to them equally.

What the Belfast Ensemble are doing is great and very worthwhile and not just from a purely creative or music experimentation viewpoint. There's great potential in the music-theatre medium they have chosen to work within that is under-represented not just in Belfast, but anywhere in Europe. The choice of subjects that are responsive to the changing Northern Ireland situation within Europe and the wider world however is another important part of the Ensemble's ethos that ensures that that the works presented should always be it fresh, relevant, progressive and popular, not insular academic works for a small audience. With a huge talent base of artists and creatives in Northern Ireland, there is also plenty of capacity for further growth, expansion and collaboration. Exciting times indeed.



Links: The Belfast Ensemble
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Scottish Opera, 2019

Tobias Ringborg, Thomas Allen, Peter Gijsbertsen, James Cleverton, Julia Sitkovetsky, Gemma Summerfield, James Creswell, Adrian Thompson, Jeni Bern, Bethan Langford, Sioned Gwen Davies, Sofia Troncoso

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 27th June 2019


There are many reasons why The Magic Flute is considered to be a marvel of opera and any one of them is a good enough reasons why you should never pass up an opportunity to see it. There are many ways of looking at the work, it's capable of being presented in any number of ways, and there's always the potential to reveal many fresh perspectives. You could say the same about any mature Mozart opera of course but Die Zauberflöte has such a variety of tones and challenges that ensure that when you get it right it's dazzling. The Scottish Opera production is definitely that.

It's even worth going to see the same production that you might have already seen before, because what makes the Scottish Opera Magic Flute special is how it takes advantage of all those many facets of Mozart's genius that go into this work, but above all it makes you smile. This same production was last presented in Belfast seven years ago and my recollection was that it was a memorable production for its visual look and presentation more than any radical insights or interpretation is forgotten, but I had forgotten just how entertaining it is and really just how brilliantly it captures and transports Mozart's genius across the centuries.



Sir Thomas Allen's steampunk setting didn't seem so important this time. It doesn't really invite any consideration or reveal any great insights into the work. If you want you can see it as a bold alternate-world look at what the future could potentially be/have been, of the necessity to be prepared to face change in the world. The armoured men scene and final trials bring you back to those themes, Mozart's belief in the betterment of humanity through change, enduring the challenges and hardships that come with it but with trust, faith, love, steadfastness and truth they will be equipped to endure what lies ahead in the future. So it's in there in the production and it's certainly welcome to have something to think about amidst all the ritual Masonic nonsense of the second half, but it's by no means the central point of this production.

The setting suggests something else that is important to help humanity get through the challenges of what lies ahead, and that's music. The fairground attraction aspect of the Scottish Opera production does bring the work back to its popular Singspiel music hall roots, and to the ideal of music as entertainment. It's called The Magic Flute and music does charm the savage beasts in the work. Between them Mozart and theatrical entrepreneur Emmanuel Schikaneder know exactly what makes people tick and know what they want, and they give it to them in this work. And Thomas Allen's Scottish Opera production brings that out superbly.



But there's much more to Die Zauberflöte than that; there are a whole variety of musical tones to the work, from ceremonial to playful, from joyous to the depths of despair. Conductor Tobias Ringborg and the cast ensure that all these moods are catered for here. Julia Sitkovetsky's Queen of the Night was superb, bring all the vocal fireworks, Gemma Summerfield stood out as a much stronger Pamina than we usually find in this opera (as sign of the times maybe), her 'Ach, ich fühl's' impressive, measuring the highs and lows of her character's experience. It's not so much the clichéd roller-coaster as much as a demonstration of the range and ability of Mozart and his capacity to express, understand the whole range of human experiences and qualities, conflicts and doubts.

While all the various aspects of the work are well catered for, it's humour that takes precedence. In comparison to the 2012 production, where Nicky Spence brought a more down-to-earth quality and knowing humour to the proceedings, Peter Gijsbertsen is a rather more traditional earnest straightman Tamino to Papageno and James Cleverton took full advantage of this. If Scottish Opera's Die Zauberflöte almost becomes the Papageno show however, it's not without justification, as Papageno is the one figure who brings out that essential spirit and recognition that all of us, any one of us can be better.


Papageno is the ordinary person amidst all these grand figures; he's not so brave, not so perfect and he can speak without thinking and make mistakes. He literally speaks directly to the audience, and - in dual role as Master of Ceremonies - he even tips a nod and a wink to the audience that reminds us that we don't need to take it all too seriously. Maybe with companionship, food, wine and maybe even a metaphorical drug of choice now and again we have all the nourishment one needs to enjoy the magic of life. And the magic of music too, which of course is present and an essential part of Papageno's world.

There aren't many operas that can carry that kind of message of universal importance in such an entertaining form that brought the house of the Grand Opera House in Belfast to it's feet. Personally, I had a grin plastered on my face all the way through. This was a very welcome return of the Scottish Opera's 2012 production of The Magic Flute, and I'd definitely go and see it again in another seven years time. Heck, I'd happily go and see it again tomorrow.

Links: Scottish Opera
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Don Giovanni

L'Opéra National de Paris, 2019

Philippe Jordan, Ivo Van Hove, Étienne Dupuis, Ain Anger, Jacquelyn Wagner, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Nicole Car, Philippe Sly, Mikhail Timoshenko, Elsa Dreisig

Paris Cinema Live - 21 June 2019
 

It's not as if Mozart's operas works aren't already clearly progressive works, in their musical qualities as well as in their expression of the injustices and inequalities within society, and as such they always seem to be capable of revealing other aspects and changing facets that reflect the times we are living in. The 'droit de seigneur' of Le Nozze di Figaro can certainly be applied to contemporary situations, showing that Mozart was already there with #MeToo long before its time and there's also something about Don Giovanni that takes in all the complexities of male and female relationships on a deeper and more universal level.

If we can recognise what is universal and true in Mozart's Don Giovanni, it doesn't need a director like Ivo van Hove to bring it out or add anything new to it. Not that you have to, since attempting to fit those works to contemporary morals and attitudes can still be problematic. Sometimes the best thing you can do is let a work speak for itself and the sign of a good director is knowing when to step back and where to intervene and what to highlight to bring to the attention of the audience. Van Hove's setting of his Paris Opera production consequently aims for the universal, blending modern and period characteristics, but feels almost respectful of Mozart in terms of the plotting, not daring to mess with it too much.


Of course in Don Giovanni, certain choices have to be made by any director that have considerable influence on the tone of the work. One of the first choices any director has to make is whether Don Giovanni is a seducer and a lover of women or an aggressor and an abuser. Even within that you have to determine whether he is a victim of his own desires, incapable of being anything but his nature (and whether the women who are drawn to him are not more than creatures of nature too) and thus deserving of some sympathy.

Some productions in the past have suggested that Donna Anna was leading him on, that the killing of the Commendatore is just an accident or self-defence, that his only real crime is arrogance in believing that he is above the laws of nature, that he is in control of them, that there is no harm or consequence to his behaviours, that he is exempt (whether through nobility, vanity or just arrogant superiority) from paying any price for his actions. While it's valid to explore the many possibilities that this fascinating character and the other fascinating characters play in the opera (and they all have an important part to play), there's no real doubt about how Mozart saw Don Giovanni. It's in the original title; a dissolute punished.

Ivo van Hove clearly wants to stick with that line of thinking, and I'm minded to consider the previous Paris Opera production directed by the filmmaker Michael Haneke in relation to this, Haneke making the original title explicit, taking a political spin on the work and making the punishment very much a case of earthly justice of the people deposing a cruel, thoughtless and arrogant leader. Van Hove's choices are less imposing on the work and not so politically minded, but his outlook on it means that the production unquestionably has a darker colour that doesn't permit the usual comic interplay with Leporello. Van Hove's contribution, if it adds up to anything, is in holding to this consistent tone, in getting the performers all working together to bring that character to the fore and making it feel as deep and real and meaningful as Mozart scores it.

What is also noticeable about this production - although really you should already be aware of this - is that the women in Don Giovanni are amazing. Mozart's enlightened thinking was genuinely far ahead of his time. Without having to expressly evoke any contemporary application, it's evident enough to anyone currently witnessing the rise of the #MeToo movement that these are women in Don Giovanni who are here prepared to stand up against their aggressor, not let society say that they are complicit, nor let it make them doubt their own nature. The may have been naive perhaps in their expectations of someone like Don Giovanni, but nothing more than that, and he has gravely abused their nature, their trust and their person.



That comes out well, and it's a director's job to ensure that that it does, so whether you recognise Ivo Van Hove's hand in this (as with his theatrical work his directing of actors is a lot more subtle than his bold and experimental scenic touches suggest), his choices and directions unquestionably strike an accurate and consistent tone. And it's not just in the casting and performance of Don Giovanni, although Étienne Dupuis is outstanding as a serious, calculating and manipulative noble here, his singing and performance striking a superb balance between charming and utterly deadly, but how the other characters respond to him is vitally important.

I've pondered before when considering Le Nozze di Figaro how important the secondary roles are in Mozart's operas, and concluding that if you give due attention to the casting and character of all the roles, there are greater dividends to be found. There's no such thing as a secondary or minor role in Mozart's operas - in the Da Ponte trilogy of works at least - and that the operas achieve their true greatness when all of them are given serious consideration. I don't think Don Giovanni can be anything but great, but when you give those superbly detailed characters (in terms of personality, as well as in the incredible pieces of music that Mozart writes for them), the true genius of the complexity of people's behaviour and their relationships is apparent.

In that respect, this is a great Don Giovanni. Director intervention might appear minimal, but the coaching of the performers to find the real people within those roles, to bring out what Mozart and Da Ponte put there is evident here. Of course, it's consideration of the fate of the women that is just as important, if not more important than Don Giovanni (although Don Giovanni and Leporello must also be taken seriously in how they display another side of human nature), and when you do that, not only do you get heartfelt, fiery performances from Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna and Nicole Car as Donna Elvira, but you get the whole richness of women's sentiments and personality when you take that attention down to Elsa Dreisig's sincere Zerlina. Superb singing from Philippe Sly as Leporello, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Ain Anger as the Commendatore, and Mikhail Timoshenko as Masetto kept a strong consistent tone across all the relationships in the production of this work.


How much the production design contributed to the overall impact of the work is difficult to determine, but it clearly worked well. The whole opera takes place here outside Don Giovanni's imposing grey castle with little of the usual film references that you associate with an Ivo Van Hove production and instead more of an Escher quality, or Duke Bluebeard's Castle in the sense of the maze like entrapment of the castle's staircases, alleys and doorways. Modern suits are mixed with medieval attitudes. It's uniformly grey, but there are flashes of colour there when the director wants to draw attention to aspects of the drama and the music.

There is little also of the director's customary use of projections, Van Hove keeping those tricks in the bag until later for maximum impact. The use and wielding of guns give an extra edge of danger, of threatening masculinity and abuse of power. The effects are saved for the finale, as you might expect in the descent to hell scene. What you might not expect is the superb handling of the necessary final sextet, often cut in darker interpretations of the opera. Here it is necessary to give a sense that this dark masculine world can be healed and it's women, Mozart's women - the clue already revealed in the seemingly throwaway scene between Zerlina and Masetto - who are the healing force in the opera. I expected something a little more radical from this director doing Don Giovanni, but no it didn't need it. Van Hove sees what is important in the opera, in Mozart's outlook, and he nails it.

L'Opera de Paris, Culturebox
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Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Brussels, 2019)

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels 2019

Alain Altinoglu, Ralf Pleger, Alexander Polzin, Bryan Register, Franz-Josef Selig, Ann Petersen, Andrew Foster-Williams, Nora Gubisch, Wiard Witholt, Ed Lyon

La Monnaie Streaming - May 2019


Say what you like about La Monnaie's strict policy on bold and sometimes bizarre modern productions, but they always look fantastic. And with Alain Altinoglu currently chief musical director, they sound fantastic too. That's good news for something like Tristan und Isolde, a work that operates on an abstract plane that inspires leaps of creativity without the necessity to adhere to any kind of real world naturalism. It certainly makes a leap in this production directed by film director Ralf Pleger with set designs by artist Alexander Polzin, who rise to the challenge that few other works can aspire to with a production that really does look and sound fantastic.

The exploration of the deep mysteries of love, death and human spirituality almost calls out for an art installation presentation and lately opera houses have been turning more and more to creators in the plastic arts (and even architects in some cases) to lend their hand to representations of the human and philosophical content of Wagner operas. Tristan und Isolde has seen interpretations from Bill Viola in Paris and Anish Kapoor at the ENO in London, and there's no doubt that a work that is one of the greatest achievements of the performing arts benefits from the imagination, creativity of this kind of cross-fertilisation with other art disciplines.


There's evidently no sign of anything like a ship then in Act I of La Monnaie's Tristan und Isolde. It least follows a similar abstract approach to Pierre Audi's 2016 production of the opera at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, with a cool green/blue colour scheme, the figures dressed in white ceremonial robes, the sky here decorated with huge icy stalactites that descend down to the stage between the figures and glow. There are a few other abstract props - Isolde appearing on the stage wearing a broken kite-like frame, but it's relatively simple in his adherence to mood, drawing the focus very firmly and effectively onto Isolde's icy fury at her captivity.

Ann Petersen carries the full drama of conflicted anger and mounting madness in that respect, the notion of death already present and associated with love in her recounting of Tristan's murder of her fiancé Morold and his supplanting himself fatally in that disturbed impressionable psyche at being held hostage in marriage to Marke. There's no need for love potions in this production to bring about the magical event of Tristan and Isolde's love, it's something that comes from within, implacably, following no logic or reason but a deep internal yearning and reaction to complex psychological disturbances, and it's enough that the music and singing carry the full weight of its conviction.

Act II is even more impressive in how it captures the complexity of those feelings that Tristan and Isolde feel for each other within a huge Alexander Polzin plaster sculpture that is surprisingly adaptable to the ebb and flow of moods and mounting desire. The sculpture takes the form of a thick mass of twisted truncated tree branches erupting out of the earth, with naked figures of dancers entwined within it. With shifts of light and use of shadows it conforms to the changing moods, primarily lust that ripples across the branches as the naked bodies weave and slide through it. Seen like this, you can't imagine Act II being done in any other way that expresses the sensations, emotions and spiritual content so perfectly.


Again, the apparent simplicity of the Act III backdrop reveals complex patterns of darkness, light and casting of shadows; black holes one minute, shafts of light the next or the suggestion of stars. The use of colour blending with the light offers infinite gradations of expression that aren't so much representational of Wagner's score as offering another dimension to its moods and sentiments. And yes, it is as abstract as that sounds, evoking a hallucinatory 'trip' according to director Ralf Pleger, where love is the drug, but should we not be looking for deeper commentary or interpretation in Tristan und Isolde?

Some directors like Dmitri Tcherniakov at Berlin in 2018 might be more interested in the dramaturgical and psychological than the spiritual and the ineffable, but that's not the case with Pleger and Polzin's vision of the work. The La Monnaie production is as enigmatic and open to personal interpretation as the work itself, operating on a level of pure sensation, caught up in the rapture of the world's greatest lovers; a love that is impossible to grasp without it completely overshadowing life, stretching beyond the boundaries of being, becoming an all-consuming self-contradictory destructive/transcendental force.


The musical and singing performances are supremely up to the greatness of the work and the stage production that has been developed for it. Ann Petersen perfectly meets the requirements of mood and character; urgent, anxious and soaringly rapturous, both human and aspiring to supra-human. Bryan Register is an impressive Tristan, unfaltering, likewise finding a perfect equilibrium between control and abandonment to the discovery of such depth of feeling and the transformative nature of that force. There are flawless performances too from Franz-Josef Selig's Marke, Andrew Foster-Williams's Kuwenal and Nora Gubisch's Brangäne.

Alain Altinoglu's conducting of the La Monnaie is also deeply impressive. I really don't think I've heard the work performed with such sensitivity and attention to detail of pace and mood, never letting the romantic surges overwhelm, but showing how they arise out of the internal and external drama, carrying the singers and the audience along, reminding you what a work of supreme beauty and genius Tristan und Isolde is. This is a spectacle and a performance befitting of one of the greatest artistic creations in any medium. Simply stunning.

Links: La Monnaie - MM Channel
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Saverio Mercadante - Didone Abbandonata

Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, 2018

Alessandro De Marchi, Jürgen Flimm, Viktorija Miškūnaitė, Katrin Wundsam, Emilie Renard, Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, Diego Godoy, Pietro Di Bianco

Naxos - Blu-ray


The idea of a 19th century composer working with a very old text by Pietro Metastasio, set by many baroque composers is an intriguing one. Verdi was keen put some distance between the indulgences of a bel canto era which was still indebted to its 18th century past, beyond even Rossini, the most progressive composer of that era. Somewhere in there however, largely overlooked and unjustly neglected, is Saverio Mercadante, and yet it is in Mercadante, and particularly in a work like Didone Abbandonata, that you can definitely see the building of the bridge that Verdi was later able to cross to take Italian opera forward.

That connection might be more evident in a later work like Il Bravo, seen recently at Wexford Festival Opera (one of the few champions of Mercadante in the opera world), but Didone Abbandonata from 1823 opens up a whole new way of viewing Mercadante's place in Italian opera. Taken up by the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music, with a care towards historically-informed period instruments and performance - which means tuning down from the 20th century standard - this production aims to give the work an authenticity of sound that has done much in the past to present Handel and other baroque works in a new light.


So to return to that initial thought - how would early 19th century opera working with a Metastasio libretto sound? Well in fairness it sounds a lot like Donizetti; constrained to a certain extent by a structure dictated by Metastasio's libretto towards a standard cavatina, aria and recitative arrangement. Mercadante never lets that get in the way of creativity however, the libretto reworked by Andrea Leone Tottola, finding lovely settings for cavatinas, duets, trios and choruses that place his own stamp on the work. That character is more evident here since the period instruments unquestionably give much more prominence and space for the voice to be more expressive.

In Didone Abbandonata, the focus in the cavatinas and duets is on expression rather than ornamentation and there's rather unusually only one brief aria in the whole first half of the opera and it's Araspe, a secondary character, who sings it. In Act II likewise the few brief arias are little more than minor adornments. It's perhaps a bit much however to expect Mercadante to provide a profound examination of human feelings and situations when tied to 18th century operatic mannerisms, improbable twists and lack of naturalism in situations, but Mercadante dispenses with the longeurs of the da capo and drives everything towards showpiece rondos and the finales at the end of each of the two acts.




Fundamentally, Didone Abbandonata relies - as it did with Purcell in Dido and Aeneas, and as it would also with Berlioz in Les Troyens à Carthage - on the human tragedy of a woman's deep love, hopes and fidelity all dashed by a lover's desertion. It's not so much that Dido feels betrayed by Aeneas choosing the duty of over love - she's not the first woman and won't be the last one in opera to suffer that fate - as much as it does touch on a deeper psychological experience (one that Dmitri Tcherniakov alluded to a little heavy-handedly in his recent Paris production of Berlioz's Les Troyens) where human sentiments are crushed by a rush towards fate, the will of the gods or whatever you want to call the hand of history.

Mercadante does his bit to create that essential tragedy, but there remains the challenge of finding a suitable stage representation that suits the subject and the musical treatment. Director Jürgen Flimm attempts a kind of half-way house between early 18th century in the military costumes and modern in some of the props - a cement mixer, a fridge, guns, bullet-proof vests - on a rotating stage with a concrete bunker at one corner. There's little that points to the ancient legend, Aeneas even appearing to be preparing for his departure in a canoe with some travelling cases, but yet there is a classical feel to the situation, not striving for naturalism or realism as much as attuning the drama to the varied tones of the work that Mercadante applies.

Some of this is consequently of doubtful character - Flimm for example has Iarbas carry out his sacking of Carthage like he's playing a jazz-hands music-hall song and dance routine - but yet, the desired impact is very definitely achieved. Iarbas - very well sung by Carlo Vincenzo Allemano, even if the dancing around leaves him a little breathless - does have a greater role to play in this version of Virgil's Aeneid. Flimm's depiction of the wholesale slaughter enacted by Iarbas rampaging through the smoking ruins of Carthage at the conclusion and even involved in the death of Dido, does capture a sense of the complete loss and devastation of the Queen of Carthage's world, abandoned not just by Aeneas, but by everyone. There's nothing left but death.



Whether Mercadante's music has the necessary strength to carry that alone it's hard to say, but Alessandro De Marchi's conducting of the Academia Montis Regalis is authoritative and attuned to the situations and overall pace and rhythm. His interview in the enclosed booklet is highly informative on how a complete edition of the score was assembled and how the authentic early 19th century sound contributes to the character of the work. The singing is also impressive throughout, with a superb performance in particular from mezzo-soprano Katrin Wundsam in the trouser role of Aeneas, demonstrating impeccable control over the complete range with dramatic swoops from high to low. Her Act II rondò is just stunning.

Recorded live at the Innsbruck Festival of Early Music in 2018, Didone Abbandonata comes across well on the Naxos BD50 Blu-ray disc. The HD image is initially quite dark with high contrast due to the lighting, but the clarity is more evident in Act II. The DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 soundtracks provide two very different listening experiences. The surround giving more space to the instruments, the stereo giving much more presence to the singing. There are no extras on the disc, but good contextual information and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The BD is all-region compatible and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.

Links: Innsbruck Festival of Early Music
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Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Das Wunder der Heliane

Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2018

Marc Albrecht, Christof Loy, Brian Jagde, Sara Jakubiak, Josef Wagner, Okka von der Damerau, Derek Wetton, Burkhard Ulrich

Naxos - Blu-ray


Like many other German and Austrian works that were categorised as 'degenerate' Entartete music by the Nazis in the 1930s, Korngold's early operas seem as a consequence to have been consigned largely to obscurity. That undoubtedly seems unfair, as the banning of such works had little to do with any kind of musical discrimination or value judgement and everything to do with whether a composer was of Jewish origin or had Jewish family connections. The neglect and loss of such works and any legacy they might have had could perhaps also have as much to do with them being out of touch with changing musical tastes and the reality of people's lives on the ground.

The near-eradication of such works from music history may not be so much to do with the labelling of such music as degenerate as much as the operas and their themes being rather too 'decadent' in subject matter at a particular juncture in history when the world was about to plunge once again into war. Korngold's operas would certainly fit into the category of the decadent fantasies that seemed to flourish around this period. With fairy-tale worlds peopled by ambiguous figures and wrapped in lush chromatic orchestration, Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker and Erich Wolfgang Korngold relished delving freely into a dark core of madness and forbidden lusts that had been unleashed post-war in the new century.


If they don't reveal any great psychological insights, works like Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Gezeichneten and of course Korngold's Die tote Stadt are nonetheless fascinating and exquisitely beautiful works that are very much the product of their (short-lived) time. So too it transpires is Das Wunder der Heliane (Heliane's Miracle), another Korngold masterpiece that has been largely neglected or deemed irrelevant to the development and progress of 20th century opera. Composed in 1927 with a trial at its centre, there's a sense even that Das Wunder der Heliane challenges itself in response to such conflicts, if only within the world of opera. Are you willing, it seems to ask, to sacrifice the beauty of Romance for a harsh, unyielding, joyless life without magic and love in it?

That seems to be the choice open to the Stranger, imprisoned for bringing a message of joy and light to a land where love and laughter are forbidden. The King, a stern and embittered figure who has never even known the love of the Queen, visits him in his cell to tell him that he will stand trial and face execution for his frivolity. The Queen, Heliane however proves to be more yielding to the Stranger's outlook, offering him her hair, her feet, her mouth and then her nakedness, but not her body. The King, going back to plead with the man to show him how to win the love of the Queen, is outraged when he discovers her naked with the Stranger.

That's the first highly charged Act of Das Wunder der Heliane, the subsequent two Acts setting these forces against one another, leading to the death of the Stranger in Act II and his 'resurrection' at the miraculous intervention of Heliane, whose goodness and purity allows them to consummate their love in death in the finale of Act III. There doesn't appear to be much Wagner or Schopenhauer influenced philosophical underpinning to this pseudo-mystical Liebestod, just throwing out the idea of beauty, purity, love and light as the true enduring force in the world, even stronger than death.


If there's any way of making a credible case for this idea, it's in how Korngold smothers any philosophical shortcomings with persuasive swathes of strings, harps, 'seraphic voices' and all manner of celestial instrumentation. Who could resist or deny that there is indeed something miraculous and otherworldly in the music at least? If anyone can convince you of the argument of Das Wunder der Heliane, it's Korngold's orchestration at his most extravagant. It's rather like Strauss in this register - full-on, rich and complex, underscoring high emotion with soaring crescendos.

Like Strauss it also places exceptional demands on the singers, who not only have to be capable of the stamina to handle its technical complexities, keeping up with the continuous augmentation of musical emotions, but also rising above it and making it feel like it comes heroically from the heart. I haven't come across American tenor Brian Jagde before, but he is supremely capable of of bringing all that to the role of the Stranger in thrall to love and beauty. The rush of 'pure' lusts inspire him to soar to incredible heights in his Act I scene with Sara Jakubiak's Heliane that culminates in her revealing herself fully to him. The singing with the orchestration and the charge of the chaste eroticism reaches everything that Korngold could wish to achieve in a scene like this.

Christof Loy's direction doesn't try to compete with the charge that is already there, but his directions certainly help bring it about. It's almost impossible to sustain that kind of sustained charge and tie it into further miraculous associations between love and death (although Tristan und Isolde - clearly the major influence on this work - of course proves otherwise), so Loy aims for a more sober set design, setting the drama in a court room inspired by Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, with dark classical wooden panelled walls and no unnecessary adornment or effects. As is often the case with Loy he seems to give a problematic work the best possible presentation that highlights its strengths and mitigates against any weaknesses, and he does it with some style too.



Korngold's score also demands a certain flair and Marc Albrecht is an experienced conductor in this field. To judge purely on impact, the whole character of Korngold is there, distinct from Wagner, Strauss or Schreker, using unconventional instruments in an idiosyncratic way to achieve a similar effect. The demands are not just on the principals then but the whole cast and there are consequently impressive performances also from Josef Wagner as the distraught and furious King, Okka von der Damerau as the king's Messenger, Burkhard Ulrich as the Blind Judge and Derek Wetton suitably otherworldly as the Gatekeeper. This is a hugely impressive and revelatory production in every respect of a neglected Korngold rarity.

Recorded live at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in 2018, Das Wunder der Heliane is given a superb presentation on Blu-ray disc by Naxos. The HD image is good, but evidently the real benefit of the format is in how it gets across the power, complexity and detail of Korngold's majestic score in the high resolution DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 soundtracks. The spread of the surround track evidently gives a more immersive experience, while the 2.0 track is more direct and powerful, particularly on headphones. Korngold specialist Brendan G. Carroll provides an introductory essay in the booklet, and also some items from his own archive on the disc, including an 8-minute recording from 1928 of the Act III Zwischenspiel and a picture gallery of rare photographs, posters and images. The BD is all-region compatible, and there are subtitles in German, English, French, Japanese and Korean.
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Italo Montemezzi - L'incantesimoLatvian National Opera, 2019

Jānis Liepins, Aik Karapetian, Vladislav Sulimsky, Dana Bramane, Irakli Kakhidze, Romāns Polisadovs, Rihards Millers

ARTE Concert


L'incantesimo (The Enchantment) by Italo Montemezzi is a bit of a rarity for an Italian composer who is now only really known - if known at all - for his opera L'amore dei tre re. Completed in 1943, after the composer fled Mussolini's Italy for America, the short one-act opera has been revived in Riga by the Latvian National Opera and proves to be a good accompaniment for the verismo themes of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci.

As an early twentieth century composer, Montemezzi might be associated with verismo but as the title suggests, L'incantesimo's medieval fairy-tale setting is about as far as you can get on the opposing side of verismo. Musically, Montemezzi is clearly influenced by Wagner and there might be some similarities with the symbolism in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, but there is a verismo character to the music, coloured by the fantastical lush orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov's legends.


As a shorter work, the approach to music and myth in L'incantesimo is closer to Strauss's Daphne or Rachmaninoff's Aleko, another short work that pairs very well with Pagliacci, if a company is adventurous enough. Not that L'incantesimo is much less hot-bloodedly romantic than Cavalleria Rusticana, but the magical fantasy setting perhaps allows a little more leeway for soaring verismo sentiments, rivalry and spilling of blood.

The blood spilled in L'incantesimo however is that of a deer, but not just any ordinary deer. Folco, a medieval lord, has been disturbed by a strange vision while hunting in the woods on a snowy winter evening. He tells his wife Griselda how while chasing down a wolf, a white hind appeared and, as he struck the deer with his knife, it looked up at him with Griselda's suffering eyes.



Frightened and a little shocked, Folco summons his friend Rinaldo asking him to bring a fortune-teller to interpret the vision for him. Rinaldo, a man who once loved and is still in love with Griselda, brings the necromancer Salomone, who tells Folco that the deer tells the true nature of his love for Griselda, that he is only moved by pity for her and in love with death. Folco goes back to try to save his 'deer', but finds that his love has died, leaving Rinaldo the opportunity to again express his feelings for Griselda.

L'incantesimo is an intense little work with not a great deal of dramatic action. Everything is described and enacted with great emotional feeling in the singing, particularly the romantic tenor role of Rinaldo, who essentially is the one who casts the spell here in his expression of his love for Griselda. The lyricism carries its own drama, and with a good tenor - Irakli Kakhidze here singing it wonderfully - it can become a vivid charged piece, soaring up there as much as any verismo work.



Under the direction of Aik Karapetian, the Latvian National Opera's production gives this rarity the full works, the set having a dark fantasy feel, the romantic surges that Jānis Liepins gets the orchestra behind visualised in a huge and slightly sinister moon that hangs over Folco's grand castle under gently falling snow. With its long lines of through composition it certainly emphasises similarities the work might have with Pelléas et Mélisande. There's much to admire also in the dramatic writing for the voice and the singing performances in Riga.

Links: Latvian National Opera, ARTE Concert
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Die Zauberflöte

Irish National Opera, 2019

Peter Whelan, Caroline Staunton, Anna Devin, Nick Pritchard, Gavan Ring, Kim Sheenan, Lukas Jakobski, Rachel Croash, Sarah Richmond, Raphaela Mangan, Andrew Gavin, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Padraic Rowan, Nicholas O'Neill, Seán Hughes, Oran Murphy, Fearghal Curtis, Robert McAllister, Matthew Mannion, Peter O' Reilly

National Opera House, Wexford - 17th May 2019
 

You're taking a big risk if you attempt to remove the magic fairy-tale elements from The Magic Flute and downplay its Masonic underpinnings, but then Irish National Opera have been bold in their interpretation of other popular works this season (Aida, Madama Butterfly), often with impressive results. I'm not sure that their Die Zauberflöte works entirely without all the usual crowd-pleasing set pieces, and I'm not sure you can set out to make the opera work with any basis in the real world, but on the whole it's a worthwhile effort, certainly from the standpoint of the musical and singing performances.

It's certainly worth giving it a go though since, as director Caroline Staunton observes in her programme notes, Mozart's work is almost miraculous in how its compositional ideas and execution far surpasses its origins as "a dramaturgically chaotic narrative intended for a bawdy beer-hall in late 18th century Vienna". The Magic Flute has a lot more to offer than just a romp through its comedy routines and an often pompous approach to its ceremonial elements.



Inevitably, trying to tie that "dramaturgically chaotic narrative" into something real-world, meaningful and coherent is problematic, but even if it doesn't always hold together in the case of INO production, it does throw up a few good ideas and insights. Bringing an Irish element into the work in a late 19th century context means that Caroline Staunton (who has worked with Dmitri Tcherniakov and Claus Guth at the Berlin State Opera) can replace some of the fairy-tale elements with Irish folklore, but it's not simply a matter of introducing another type of fantasy, and is a little more ambitious than that.

The division is not so much the traditional one of obscurantism versus enlightenment, as much as the ordinary Irish people in opposition to the colonisation of their land by English landlords. In that context, the Queen of the Night can certainly be very much seen in terms of a banshee, her Three Ladies spreading tales of her power and danger. What is obvious to the viewer however is that these are not mythological creatures, but common people in disguise, forging stories and legend to strike fear into ordinary labourers like Papageno as to what will happen to them should they step out of line.

But it's not just to control the likes of Papageno, or indeed create a fantasy in order to get Tamino to serve their purposes. It's also to create a force of resistance against Sarastro, who likewise is not entirely what he seems to be, and certainly not the great font of wisdom that he pretends. Surrounding himself with followers and books, setting up a system that works for his own purposes, in reality all he is doing is imposing another form of outside order on the people of the land, his abduction of Pamina akin to the seizing of their inheritance.



So where do Tamino and Pamina fit into this arrangement? Well, Sarastro sees the trials as a way of conditioning both Tamino and Pamina to his way of thinking. His desire for their marriage is a way of imposing a patriarchal authority through a formal arrangement, through marriage, the wife respecting and honouring the man's position at the head of it. Pamina, in this production, isn't having any of that.

If you're used to seeing the Magic Flute in its traditional way of playing out, this revision obviously confuses how you might think you ought to feel about the work. Mozart and Schikaneder's late 18th century viewpoint was of its time and perhaps some of its views and attitudes can feel a little dated today. Perhaps Die Zauberflöte isn't meant to be taken that seriously and trying to impose a modern-day perspective on it risks distorting the true meaning of the work, but there is indeed a message of enlightenment in the work and it deserves to be given serious attention.

Rather than distort the work's thoughts on enlightened thinking overcoming myths and superstition, on male and female finding accommodation and acceptance of the roles each has to play, it's worth taking a more critical look at the values as they have been perpetuated down through the years. If this was true of the late 18th century, or the late 19th century in this production, we ought to be much further down the path to peace, love and enlightenment than we are as a society, and it's worth considering why we haven't progressed much further to achieve that balance that Mozart clearly believed in and wanted to see established.


What makes such an idea work in the INO production, despite the contradictions that it might sometimes run into, is the central performances and again the perspective on that is not the traditional one. Tamino and Pamina can appear to be rather bland figures in other productions, lacking the colour and wonder of Königin der Nacht and Sarastro (and indeed even Papageno and Papagena), but not here. It's Tamino and Pamina who have the strength to call the shots, to change direction, to find a path that doesn't peddle myths. They are rightly the true heart of the work in this production.

And if that works it's on account of two terrific performances in the Wexford opening night of this production from Nick Pritchard and Anna Devin as Tamino and Pamina. Lyrical and authoritative, they breathe personality into these characters, showing them as they ought to truly be; beacons for a new way, rejecting the ways of the past, steadfast in love above everything else. No guru, no method, no teacher, as another famous Irishman once put it, which fits with the Irish theme of the production and the references that Staunton draws with J.M. Synge and Brian Friel.

So what traditional delights do we miss by going down this route? Well, there's no giant serpent at the start, there are no birds caught by Papageno, Königin's entrance is underwhelming, there's no aged-crone version of Papagena. That means that we miss out on a lot of the glamour and comedy which is unfortunate, but how much does that really add to the work anyway? We lose the Queen of the Night's aura of mystery and majesty, we lose Sarastro's grave presence and the solemnity of the rituals of initiation, but again, it removes distraction and obscurity and allows for a more useful and meaningful employment of Mozart's music and ideas.



What we aren't short of is an impressive set design that matches the tone of the music to a more down-to-earth depiction of beauty and wisdom. There's also a warm and rich account of the marvellous score by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under Peter Whelan, and it's there more than anywhere that the brilliance and wonder of The Magic Flute really comes alive. We also have a great cast of singers - INO always impressive in their casting choices - with Gavan Ring particularly good as Papageno and Kim Sheehan impressing with her "Der Hölle Rache" as Königin der Nacht. Sung and spoken in German, with an ambitious twist to reinterpret the meaning of the work, you really can't ask for much better treatment and respect for Mozart and a great opera like this.



Links: Irish National Opera

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