Tuesday 16 July 2024

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (5) - Samson, 12 July 2024


Théâtre de l’Archevêché


Images: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2024 © Monika Rittershaus


Samson – Jarrett Ott
Dalila – Jacquelyn Stucker
Timna – Lea Desandre
Achisch – Nahuel Di Pierro
Elon – Laurence Kilsby
Angel – Julie Roset
First Judge, Guest – Antonin Rondepierre
Samson’s mother – Andréa Ferréol
Young Samson – Gabriel Coullaud-Rosseel
Homeless person – Pascal Lifschutz
Dancers – Gal Fefferman, Theo Emil Krausz, Victoria McConnell, Manuel Meza, Rouven Pabst, Francesco Pacelli, Dan Palleg, Marion Plantey, Evie Poaros, Robin Rohrmann, Victor Villarreal, Marko Weigert
Actors – Alexandre Charlet, Arnaud Fiore, Jacky Kumanovic

Director – Claus Guth
Set designs – Étienne Pluss
Costumes – Ursula Kudrna
Lighting and video – Bertrand Couderc
Choreography – Sommer Ulrickson
Sound design – Mathis Nitschke
Editorial associate – Eddy Garaudel
Dramaturgy – Yvonne Gebauer  

Pygmalion
Raphaël Pichon (conductor)




A Rameau premiere? Yes and no. In some ways, what we saw and heard was more extraordinary than that: the resurrection of Rameau’s lost Voltaire opera, Samson of 1733. Envisaged by Voltaire as the work to reform tragédie lyrique, to restore its French classical virtues, it fell prey to censorship on grounds of blasphemy and was never performed. Both music and original libretto were lost, although a revised, almost certainly toned-down version of the latter survives from a collection Voltaire published later in life. Adopting an approach both speculative and scholarly, in the best sense creative, Raphaël Pichon and Claus Guth have reinvented the work, delving deeper into the Book of Judges for context, yet setting the work in a present framed by Samson’s mother (movingly acted, not sung, by Andréa Ferréol, an ambiguous homeless man (Pascal Lifschutz) and other actors and singers (including an enchanting Angel from Julie Roser). Knowing that Rameau reused music from the opera, initial attempts were made to fit Voltaire to numbers from other works. 

For instance, Pichon recounts: ‘you may be familiar with the entrée “Les Incas du Pérou” in Les Indes galantes. It contains a very impressive scene sung by the character of Huascar, who is also a basse-taille, and who also commits suicide – by hurling himself into a volcano. The music in this scene is truly breathtaking, and it gradually became clear to me that it had been used for the final scene of the destruction of the temple in Samson. So for that scene, I began to assemble a first mosaic. And so it went on.’ But it soon proved impossible to match music to the only version of the libretto to survive, so instead they adopted a freer approach, inventing that scenario and, in a way, letting both music and the Bible dictate, or perhaps even become, the drama. ‘And so,’ according to Pichon, ‘began a long and painstaking treasure hunt … and its moments of doubt when we deleted everything and started all over again. First we had to think about the number of acts, the nature of the prologue, the trajectory of a character within an act, and then the sequence of scenes, the structuring of each scene, trying to find the best way to get from one to the next, not to mention the range of tonalities and their sequences…’. Eddy Garaudel as writer and Yvonne Gebauer as dramaturge were deeply involved in the process too. A diary, if such a thing exists, or itself could be ‘reconstructed’ or ‘reimagined’, would doubtless be enlightened. 

Voltaire’s determination to restrict recitative to the minimum makes for a fascinating ‘reform’, now incorporating speech and even sound design, that in some ways looks back to early Venetian opera – Pichon mentions Cavalli, who of course worked in France too – and forward through Gluck almost to wherever one will. It is a one-off, and its creators appear to have been liberated by that prospect. Dance becomes all the more dramatically focused, and if invoking the spirit of Wagner might be misleading, it is perhaps not entirely so. Others will have different standpoints, of course, and in many ways the work came across as a staged oratorio, a French counterpart to Handel’s work of the same name, Rameau, Voltaire, and their modern collaborators perhaps penetrating even deeper. 



There would be much more to be written about the idea and realisation of the enterprise; it would be a fine thing if its creators were to do so, perhaps in tandem with some of the scholars Pichon cites. But what of the dramatic reality, as the sun set on Aix’s ever-magical Théâtre de l’Archevêché? The use of spoken texts from Judges, not quite in lieu of recitative but rather supplementing and framing, offered power and concision: worlds away from what any eighteenth-century (or later) censor would have approved. Étienne Pluss’s set design seemed to mediate between the colours and materials of vernacular architecture and a non-specific Canaan/Israel/Palestine that for obvious reasons presented problems of its own. There are clearly limits to how one might defuse, almost literally, those issues, given the subject matter. I felt uneasy at the literally monochrome portrayal of Philistines in black and Israelites in white, but perhaps black-and-whiteness was the point. In general, a temptation to make political points was, probably wisely, avoided. Samson’s own depiction, aided by sound design that gave voice to his internal agonies, was more a psychological study—and a powerful one at that. 

Jarrett Ott’s work in bringing that study to life was outstanding, as well acted as it was sung, in (to my ears) excellent French too, which far from always goes without saying. The hero’s charisma and physicality – partly, it seemed, compensation for personal and social trauma – shone through, as did Ott’s chemistry with his fellow artists. Timna, a composite of various women with whom Samson was involved prior to Dalila, and then in the second part Dalila herself were brought to life vividly and in perfect style by the nicely complementary Lea Desandre and Jacquelyn Stucker. Nahuel Di Pierro’s dark, malovelent Achisch and the strikingly melliflous tenor of Laurence Kilsby as the ultimately doomed traitor Elon offered equally fine character studies in voice and gesture. Dancers and chorus contributed likewise, as impressive collectively as individually. 




Both inspiring and supporting this was the outstanding work of Pichon and his Pygmalion choir and orchestra. The ensemble’s dark hue, inflected by moments of typically French éclat, underpinned one of the finest period-instrument performances I have heard, far superior to the previous evening’s Gluck. It was unabashedly bigboned, refuting the silly conflation common to many of ‘old’ and ‘small’, relishing rather a confrontation between old and new that played out on stage, in the pit, and in our minds. An unmistakeably Gallic bassoon enabled one, perhaps fancifully, to trace lineage up to Stravinsky’s Rite and indeed beyond, to early recordings of French orchestras, whose particularity has largely been lost in postwar homogenisation of orchestral sound. Pichon’s direction seemed unerringly to alight on the right balance, dynamic contrast, tempo, and more: a fine illustration of how scholarship and musicianship can and should inform one another in the heat of the dramatic moment. Perhaps another time it would have been different; it gave the impression of marrying due preparation with spontaneity on the evening, as did the performances of those on stage. 

And so, when the temple came crashing down in the wounded, tortured Samson’s final act of revenge and personhood, Samson became the lion he once had rent asunder. Voltaire’s determination to avoid the lieto fine, fully supported then and now by Rameau, imparted an ending of veritable and venerable tragedy, Attic and Hebrew. The world stopped, scenically and musically, in a fashion both faithful and unfaithful to Samson and his original creators—and thus, one could fancy, to expectations ancient and modern. This was evidently a labour not only of love but also of conviction for all involved. In that sense and not only that, the figure of Samson and Voltaire’s bold, vanquished plans for operatic reform found themselves embodied in Rameau, Pichon, and Guth’s new Samson.


Saturday 13 July 2024

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (4) - Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride, 11 July 2024


Grand Théâtre de Provence


Images: Monika Rittershaus


Iphigénie – Corinne Winters
Agamemnon – Russell Braun
Clytemnestre – Véronique Gens
Achille – Alasdair Kent
Calchas – Nicolas Cavallier
Diane – Soula Parassidis
Patrocle – Lukáš Zeman
Arcas, Minister, Scythian – Tomasz Kumięga
Oreste – Florian Sempey
Pylade – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Thoas – Alexandre Duhamel
Priestess – Laura Jarrell

Director, set designs – Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes – Elena Zaytseva
Lighting – Gleb Filtschinsky
Dramaturgy – Tatiana Werestchagina   

Le Choeur d’Astrée (chorus director: Richard Wilberforce)
Le Concert d’Astrée
Emmanuelle Haïm (conductor)




 

It is not every day one has opportunity to see Iphigénie en Aulide, let alone in tandem with Iphigénie en Tauride. Even I, fervent Gluckian that I be, had never seen the former staged. This is, of course, just what a major festival should be doing: something that cannot readily be replicated in a house season. Enlisting Dmitri Tcherniakov, one of today’s most sought-after opera directors, underlined the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s intent. It was, by any standards, a memorable occasion, even if Tcherniakov’s production proved a little more straightforward, even conventional – I cannot imagine why some booed the first opera – than one might have hoped for, and the period instruments of Emmanuelle Haïm’s Concert d’Astrée often lacked the dramatic commitment either of the more colourful period ensembles (such as Raphaël Pichon’s Pygmalion the following evening) or of modern orchestras. 




Tcherniakov’s Paris Troyens was a landmark staging, its twin presentation of war and therapeutic aftermath in the two parts of Berlioz’s opera cast a powerful, provocative spell that has yet to recede. Here, in a dramatic œuvre of great importance to Berlioz and Wagner, the uncharitable might say there was a little too much retreading of ground, if in near-reverse, war naturally coming second and announced as such at the close of Iphigénie en Aulide, the curtain starkly announcing ‘GUERRE’. To be fair, though, the Tcherniakov therapeutic turn, which after his fitful Ring seemed to many of us to have run its course, is only hinted at in the group of refugees among whom Iphigénie (en Tauride) stays behind. Trauma itself stands rightly, strongly in the foreground, from the second drama’s announcement of casualties over a generation of war (‘une vingtaine d’années plus tard’, we are informed as we re-enter the theatre after the sole, dinner interval). Oreste’s shellshock is horrifying throughout, rendering his emergent friendship – perhaps in this condition, it can be no more than that – with Pylade a necessary, if highly limited, solace. 



Tcherniakov, as usual, provides his own set design, a building outline that can serve, both intact and not, for a range of dramatic purposes—and to my mind did so very well. (It doubtless depended where one was in the theatre, but I heard complaints contrary to my experience, but undoubtedly genuine, from both visual and acoustic standpoints.) At any rate, the contrast on one level between the two dramas registers strongly, the ambiguities of sacrifice readily apparent at the close of Aulide. Iphigénie has been rescued for now, but at what cost, both personal (marriage) and societal (impending war)? A good few of those who had been initially happy, or at least compliant, to cooperate in her sacrifice must surely wish they had gone through with it. The struggle of Achille and his men to overcome Agamemnon and his path is well handled: one of the most convincing fight scenes I have seen on the operatic stage. Few are the opera productions today, or so it feels, that escape silly dancing, neither related to the music nor intelligent set in (non-musical) counterpoint to it. This, alas, proved no exception, but most of us are wearily accustomed to the practice by now; at least it is at a wedding, which one might say is a natural home to silly dancing. It remains a pity, though, that the expressive, dramatic role played by dance in so much eighteenth-century opera, especially that we may broadly consider to be French, once again goes ignored.   

The question of the deus ex machina, familiar to Wagner, who wrote a revised ending of his own (surprisingly adopted by Riccardo Muti at La Scala), is muddied, but that is probably the point. Having Diane speak through the sacrificed Iphigénie – seen at the beginning, in Agamemnon’s imagination – allows Iphigénie herself, in double, to witness that horror, as well as compound fear instilled amidst the similarly consecrated nuptials concerning Agamenon’s voyage. The scene is recalled at the end of Tauride, a nicely ambiguous close into which we can probably read what we will, though it would be difficult to feel wildly optimistic, given what we have seen. There are times when subverting or, more often, simply disregarding the lieto fine irritates, at best, but this is better thought through and without narrowing insistence. 



Haïm’s direction had its moments. The vigour of the Scythian choruses in particular evoked a properly barbaric, brutally war-torn atmosphere from percussion and the excellent chorus alike. In general, though, even for those who find it easier to take such ‘whiteness’ of strings than I do, the emotional range was limited, belying Gluck’s status as a master musical dramatist. Purely orchestral movements often seemed merely pretty or, worse, fey, rather than acting as bearers and drivers of the drama. Dance music thereby doubly suffered, given Tcherniakov’s parallel lack of interest. Intonation, moreover, was variable, even given regular retuning. The audience, however, greeted Haïm with rapturous applause. 




Corinne Winters’s performance would have greatly impressed, had it only been in one of the operas. Hers was a musicodramatic achievement of high order, no mere ‘feat’. As well acted as it was sung, one could read almost as much into her varied facial expressions as her vocal palette. Here was a survivor in every sense. From a strong cast, Véronique Gens as a glamorous yet intensely human (and humane) Clytemnestre, Alasdair Kent’s Achille, cocky vanity matching yet not exceeding his valour, Florian Sempey’s resolute yet highly traumatised Oreste, and Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s heart-rendingly beautiful performance of Pylade stood out for me. This, though, was an Iphigénie cast in depth; I recall no weak links. Whatever my reservations, its memory will also doubtless endure.


Friday 12 July 2024

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (3) – ‘Songs and Fragments’: Eight Songs for a Mad King and Kafka-Fragmente, 10 July 2024


Théâtre du Jeu de Paume

Man – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Woman – Anna Prohaska
Violinist – Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Director – Barrie Kosky
Design and lighting – Urs Schönebaum  

Ensemble Intercontemporain
Pierre Bleuse (conductor)


Images: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2024 © Monika Rittershaus


Virtuosity of the highest degree, entirely at the service of musical drama, characterised this Aix production under Barrie Kosky’s direction. Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King and György Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente formed a staged double bill, given without a break, at that eighteenth-century jewel among theatres, the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume. The ghost of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire haunted proceedings, audibly in the Davies’s music theatre monodrama, written for the composer’s own, Schoenberg-inspired Fires of London (here, Schoenberg’s ensemble plus percussion), and more scenically in the Kurtág fragments, not of course intended to be staged, but here given an intriguing new slant through the mediation of expressionist cabaret.   

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s assumption of the mad king – referred to in the cast list simply as ‘Un homme’, though it is of course George III – was something never to be forgotten. Quite how much was his, how much was Kosky’s, we shall never know—and why should we particular care? Theatre is collaborative, even in what might seem to be a one-man-show. With a single spotlight, a single unsparing spotlight, this poor (rich) man, clad only in sagging underpants, bared his soul to the birds, the audience, and indeed the musicians of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, incisively conducted by Pierre Bleuse, who in turn offered us their own, related musical tour of whimsy, parody, and brutal violence. From an early promenade, through the haunting of an imaginary yet ever-so-real queen ‘Esther’, via the king’s beloved Handel – with biting irony, ‘Comfort ye…’, to the final, shocking smashing of the violin, this was a psychological study, which in a sense revealed nothing other than itself, and thus in another sense proved all the more revealing. Through the countless ways he marshalled his voice and his entire body, Kränzle touched, amused, and horrified us. It was gripping, concentrated theatre, which one might well have wished to experience again, but knew one could not, even if the attempt had immediately been made. 



Anna Prohaska and Patricia Kopatchinskaja, minus the EIC, were our guides for Kurtág’s extraordinary set of miniatures. The violin provided, as it were the bridge: destroyed and now resurrected as a one-woman orchestra who was also a protagonist—and by her double-companion. Equality here, between two more consummate musicians and communicators seemed, by virtue of staging and performance, the former still astutely straightforward yet minutely observed, to be both immediately, immanently manifest and yet also maintained through ever-shifting dramatic power relationships: one conducting the other, one pulling the other’s strings, one inciting and consoling, and so on. Where Davies’s expressionist nightmare had stunned us into submission, here a different ghost of Pierrot – perhaps surprisingly given the more ‘abstract’ nature of the work – proved more founded in re-gendered harlequin character. We turned inwards, Kurtág’s Webern-like miniatures commanding and receiving absolute concentration, in more than one sense. Prohaska’s spellbinding performance – imagine having to sing that by heart, and engage in minutely planned physical performance too – was impossible to dissociate from Kopatchinskaja’s. The two musicians seemed almost to emerge as two emanations of the same soul. A response to their male counterpart in the first half, or something subtly yet, in that subtlety, defiantly different? Why choose? Again, there was so much one could not possibly have taken in, which cried out for another chance to do so, yet which was tantalisingly lost in the passage of concentrated time. Above all, though, and this may be the ultimate ‘lesson’, we learned a little better to listen to one another.


Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (2) – Pelléas et Mélisande, 9 July 2024


Grand Théâtre de Provence


Images: Festival d'Aix-en-Provence 2024 © Jean-Louis Fernandez
  

Pelléas – Huw Montague Rendall
Mélisande – Chiara Skerath
Golaud – Laurent Naouri
Arkel – Vincent Le Texier
Geneviève – Lucille Richardot
Yniold – Emma Fekete
Doctor, Shepherd – Thomas Dear
Actors – Sarah Northgraves, Kamila Kamińska, Olivia N'Ganga

Chorus of the Lyon Opera (chorus master: Benedict Kearns)
Orchestra of the Lyon Opera
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)
  

Opera, or the Undoing of Women is a celebrated treatment of the genre by the French philosopher Cathérine Clément. Clément’s book has rightly come in for a good deal of criticism, not least since it signally fails to treat opera as a musical genre, looking solely at plots and ignoring the liberation the female voice in particular can embody. I heartily recommend Carolyn Abbate’s review, entitled ‘Opera, or the Envoicing of Women’ (not, as my autocorrection has just insisted, ‘the Invoicing’, though some might nod wearily at that too). That said, no one could seriously deny the treatment of female characters in most repertoire works is to our mind problematical. Katie Mitchell certainly would not; that indeed, is the starting point for her landmark production of Pelléas et Mélisande, first seen here in Aix in 2016, and on which I am now catching up.

What Mitchell does might well, in 2024, seem an obvious and necessary thing to do, yet it is difficult to think of a previous case (just as with, say, Joachim Herz in the Ring or Wieland Wagner in Parsifal).That it seems obvious must in large part to be ascribed to her work and that of other feminist directors. Ultimately, the idea is to present the work from Mélisande’s standpoint, rather than have her – as one might argue the work does – as a blank canvas on which men and, more broadly, patriarchy paint their fantasies. The means of doing so is to present the drama as Mélisande’s dream. An opening dumb show has her, on her wedding day, take a pregnancy test – some people, for reasons unclear, found this amusing – which, one presumes, gives from a concurrent relationship a positive result. Quite a predicament, and thus the dream-drama is set in motion, Pelléas representing the father, Golaud the husband. The castle extends from the bedroom in which the action has begun, and to which it often returns. Sometimes there is one Mélisande; sometimes, seeing herself in the way one sometimes can in dreams, there are two. 



Golaud is a serial abuser; not only does Mélisande sees herself raped, but the girl (in this production) Yniold too. Pelléas is a nervous wreck and mummy’s boy yet retains his allure, ultimately satisfying Mélisande in a way Golaud never could, in highly erotic scenes that ensure one level of musical meaning hits home as rarely before, whilst a charismatic, creepy Arkel ultimately rules the roost. There is even a prize won for non-irritating, non-gratuitous use of mobile telephones, Golaud sending Yniold to Mélisande’s room to report on the lovers and continuing to bark commands via that medium. The castle’s claustrophobia is highly realistic, as is the rest of the drama, but visual Symbolism will live to fight another day and Debussy’s score remains.

Susanna Mälkki and the accomplished Lyon orchestra generally had it unfold at what gives the excellent impression of being its ‘own’ pace, however chimerical that ideal may be in practice. (It takes a good deal of work to sound ‘natural’.) Inspiration from Wagner, Tristan and Parsifal in particular, was strong, dramatically pointed without overwhelming. There was, though, plenty of room for other stars in this musical constellation, French forebears not the least of them. Whether this were conscious or otherwise, letting the score do ‘its’ work, does not really matter. Debussy remained questioning, ambiguous, yet never merely vague; this was drama, not mere ‘atmosphere’, especially in combination with Mitchell’s staging.   

Chiara Skerath rose to Mitchell’s challenges and more, offering a multi-faceted Mélisande as finely sung as it was acted. She and her alter ego were not on stage the whole time, but one could have been forgiven for thinking, still more feeling, that they were. Huw Montague Rendall’s damaged yet alluring Pelléas was, in some ways, the most striking of all, beautifully, elegantly sung, yet with a halting scenic awkwardness that only at the height of passion could be put to one side. Laurent Naouri’s brutal Golaud and Vincent Le Texier subtler, yet in some ways darker still, Arkel, cunningly calculating far ahead of the rest, were similarly memorable in and faithful to their roles. Ironically, even here, one could not but hear Mélisande’s standpoint via their voices. That is not intrinsically a bad thing, of course, since opera performance is an ensemble effort. All involved played their part, not least the stage hands at work revealing and concealing different parts of the world Mélisande’s unconscious had created. We now (usually) have intimacy coordinators, but that development is very recent; here, Ita O’Brien was credited. Given the level of intimacy, her contribution will have been greatly valued by all. 



For what we saw and heard made us think and rethink on the spot. Even seeing the word ‘comédiennes’ in the programme gave pause for thought. In English, we have at last begun to move on from ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ save in historical usage, but that development is also recent and I recall thinking it read oddly on my first encounter; French is meanwhile, given its lack of a neutral gender, beginning to pursue a project of ‘feminisation’, encouraging parity in the use of female forms. Who is ‘further on’? Are there important questions when horrifying abuse rages unacknowledged? Answers may or may not be clear, but Pelléas will never quite be the same again.


Wednesday 10 July 2024

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (1) - Madama Butterfly, 8 July 2024


Théâtre de l’Archeveché

Cio-Cio San – Ermonela Jaho
B.F. Pinkerton – Adam Smith
Suzuki – Mihoko Fujimura
Sharpless – Lionel Lhote
Goro – Carlo Bosi
The Bonze – Inho Jeong
Prince Yamadori – Kristofer Lundin
Kate Pinkerton – Albane Carrère
Imperial Commissioner – Kristján Jóhannnesson

Director – Andrea Breth
Set designs – Raimund Orfeo Voigt
Costumes – Ursula Renzenbrink
Lighting – Alexander Koppelmaan
Dramaturgy – Klaus Bertisch  

Lyon Opera Chorus (chorus master: Benedict Kearns)
Lyon Opera Orchestra
Daniele Rustoni (conductor)


Images: Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2024 © Ruth Walz

Madama Butterfly has become a difficult opera to stage, largely on account of its deeply problematical subject matter, but also its dramatic straightforwardness. Does one just ignore the former insofar as possible, perhaps toning down what might have been acceptable to some a couple of decades ago yet would no longer be considered to be; or does one address some of its issues head on and, at least for some, risk it buckling under the weight of a critical apparatus it will struggle to support onstage? Its orientalism (or worse) will not go away, so one is going to have to take a view whether one likes it or not; likewise the cruelty inextricably linked with the sympathy it voices and evokes. And assuming one is not going to take the line that there is nothing wrong with Pinkerton’s actions or indeed American imperialism, is there really much to interpret, as opposed to draw out? 

Andrea Breth appears to think not—or at least declines to do so. She does not attempt any grand re-evaluation of the opera, but she does heighten its nastiness and, ultimately, the power of its tragedy. Breth does not impose a concept, good, bad, or indifferent, upon the work, but has clearly thought both about its problems and the drama that lies in its detail, and presents them with clarity and integrity. Where the opening scene can often seem a mere prelude, albeit a necessary one, here we are confronted with the horror of what is there from the start: the racism, imperialism, and misogyny of Pinkerton abundantly clear in his dismissive treatment of Suzuki. She barely registers as a human being as he takes off his shoes. Save for her, it is also, prior to Cio-Cio San arrival, an entirely (heterosexual) male environment—and it feels like it. Whatever it is – ‘love’ hardly seems the word – that Pinkerton feels for his bride, its roots are in this context. Suzuki, moreover, knows precisely what is going on and tells us so, long before she says a word; Breth’s direction and Mihoko Fujimura’s acting are as one. 



Moreover, Breth does not attempt to ‘understand’ Japanese culture. In the programme, she freely admits that she does not and cannot, in contrast with Puccini’s then typical yet, for us, deeply problematical acts of appropriation. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, even to talk about this without orientalising, but perception, both its truths and its lies, stands at the heart of a tale concerned with mutual incomprehension as well as deeply stacked scales. Faded designs suggest something retrospective, a refusal to resort to ‘colourful’ caricature, or both; so does lighting that appears more dialectical than crudely binary in its portrayal of lightness and darkness. Masked actors play Butterfly’s family, whilst their voices come from singers, almost unseen, in the dark surrounding the stage. Moreover, the pace of their ‘action’, if one can call that it at all, is quite different from Puccini’s. To our eyes – and ears – they slow it down, but perhaps therein lies some sort of resistance as well as difference. And of course, in most respects, they are right. Breth makes much, though anything but crudely, of Kate Pinkerton’s arrival and act of child-possession, sealing the cruel tragedy, whilst Butterfly’s suicide is horrible, as it must be, though in no sense gratuitously so. Actors and singers, after all, play characters; they do not (straightforwardly) become them, at least from a Brechtian standpoint. Indeed, the relationship between realism and other possibilities might be said to lie at the heart of the production, as perhaps of the work and how we might now approach it. 

Daniele Rustoni’s conducting of a fine cast and Lyon Opera forces combined interestingly with Breth’s staging. I am sure it would be distorting to say that one determined the other, but one certainly had the impression of interplay. Rustoni’s similar attention to detail contributed to, rather than detracting from, a greater sense of the whole. His tempi, especially in the first act, I was less sure about; that act in particular came to seem increasingly drawn out. Yet, considered as a whole, that seemed very much in keeping with the (masked) disinclination to rush, and paid off handsomely in the second and third acts, where ghosts of Tristan und Isolde in particular enlightened and discomfited. The erotics of this performance could be experienced both immediately and at a sophisticated level of mediation, as with its other qualities. 



That certainly included singing. In the beginning, I felt slightly troubled by an apparent lack of dramatic verisimilitude concerning the two central characters, struggling to achieve necessary suspension of belief given a work aesthetic that seems, though perhaps only seems, to insist on realism. There were times, moreover, when the tessitura of Butterfly’s role seemed to strain Ermonela Jaho. As the opera progressed, and as Jaho’s dramatic commitment, bordering on possession, took over, she moved in a special way that heightened a sense of both problems and opportunities in the work ‘itself’, her final scene as true and necessary a climax as one could hope for. Smith’s thankless role was more ‘straightforwardly’ convincing, as doubtless it should be. He did not flinch from having us loathe him, balancing the tricky imperatives of shallowness in character and thoughtfulness of portrayal. Fujimura’s self-revelation was deeply impressive throughout, whilst Lionel Lhote (doubtless with Breth’s help) presented a compassionate, understanding, subtly memorable Sharpless. With smaller roles all well taken, there was a strong sense of unity in greater dramatic service. Almost in spite of itself, yet also on its own account, this Aix production quietly, powerfully rethought and reimagined Puccini’s opera.


Monday 8 July 2024

Munich Opera Festival (2) - Idomeneo, 5 July 2024


Nationaltheater

Images © Wilfried Hösl
  

Idomeneo – Pavol Breslik
Idamante – Emily D’Angelo
Ilia – Olga Kulchynska
Elettra – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Arbace – Jonas Hacker
High Priest of Neptune – Liam Bonthrone
The Voice (Oracle) – Alexander Köpeczi

Antú Romero Nunes (director)
Dustin Klein (choreography)
Phyllida Barlow, Nina Schöttl (set designs)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Rainer Karlitschek (dramaturgy)
Catharina von Bülow (revival director)

Bavarian State Opera Chorus (director: Christoph Heil)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)

Take a stroll around central Munich and you may come upon a plaque on Altenhofstrasse indicating the spot where Mozart lived in the winter of 1780-81 whilst at work on Idomeneo. The opera was written for the Residenztheater, now generally known as the Cuvilliés-Theater, although now we saw it at the Nationaltheater, home since its 1818 opening to most of the Bavarian Court – latterly the State – Opera’s activities. Both theatres were eventually rebuilt after Allied bombing, although Mozart’s apartment building was destroyed for good in 1944.  A different staging of Idomeneo would have been required to go ‘home’, for Antú Romero Nunes’s 2021 production certainly makes use of the larger stage and space, but that did not entirely negate a sense of homecoming, not least given memories of a fine concert encircling and presaging the work at last year’s Munich Opera Festival, in the ‘original’ venue. 

Why inverted commas? Perhaps they represent a fussiness too far, given how much any old building will have been rebuilt over the years, although the old theatre did have to be rebuilt from scratch, finally reopening in 1958, not with Idomeneo but with Le nozze di Figaro. Idomeneo was still then a great rarity and remains, to many of us bafflingly so, less popular than any other of Mozart’s seven ‘mature’, full-scale operas. (Many of us may be inclined to soften the distinction drawn there, but it continues to hold for opera companies and their general public.) Given the total break in its performance history – unlike that of, say, Figaro – we might say that any performance becomes more of a reconstruction too, irrespective of intention. The work is often cut and if, at least in a good performance, one feels the loss, it can also work in truncated form within reason. This version – and I think one can go so far as to use that word – had, however, some highly unusual, even unprecedented textual features, some to my mind more justifiable than others. Old and new, fidelity and reimagination, text and performance, music and drama: these do not necessarily stand opposed, but their relationships have also never been without friction. If part of the interest lies in that friction, difficulties may also lie therein. On this occasion, it would be fair to say that we experienced both. 

Action prior to the overture is now a commonly accepted, albeit perhaps now all too common, theatrical strategy. It is more unusual to open with stage music interpolated from elsewhere, a feature throughout the production. What we saw and heard, though, intrigued, largely due, I think, to Phyllida Barlow’s arresting set designs, verging on an installation in themselves. Here, at the beginning, in a dark and dangerous port, musicians and dancers set the scene in several ways, solo- and ensemble-human fragility contrasting with the elemental sea implied scenically and musically, as the Overture proper came upon us. Quite why Nunes felt the need to project ‘titles’ as it unfolded, I am not sure. I suppose it let people know who the characters were and who was singing their parts, but beyond that it achieved little. In retrospect, the lack of dramatic motivation, in spite of a lot ‘going on’, proved too prophetic. Beyond the striking, meaningful ‘look’ – one could read much into Barlow’s structures, above all the sheer mysteriousness of the realm of the gods – Nunes seemed to have little to say. The performance progressed, but that was about it, save for a strange marriage of interpolations and cuts, recitative predictably suffering most. Of politics there was little sign, but nor did the lack of drama and sense of installation seem to be an overt aesthetic, as in the case of Romeo Castellucci. 


Idomeneo (Pavol Breslik) and Arbace (Jonas Hacker)

Perhaps most indefensible – not the first time it has reared its head in a Mozart opera – was a fortepiano rendition of the D minor Fantasia, KV 397/385g, shorn of its turn to the major mode (by whomever), which provided the opportunity for further ballet music, probably suggestive of the relationship between Idamante and Ilia, though I was not always clear whether dance were intended as pantomime or in the older, ‘Italian’ tradition. ‘Perhaps’, because it was run close by the surprise arrival of the aria, ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te … Non temer, amato bene’, KV 505, for Idamante and, you guessed it, obbligato fortepiano. Emily D’Angelo sang it very well, but neither its tenuous connection with the opera nor dramatic momentum was well served. 

The worst decision, though, was to fade out ‘Torna la pace’, musicians onstage imitating Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. What could the director have been thinking of? And what could any conductor – presumably not Ivor Bolton, who did not conduct the premiere – have been thinking of, permitting such a radical step without any discernible motivation? Pity poor Pavol Breslik as Idomeneo, who then had to set though the concluding ballet music eating a sandwich, as dancers, more furries than Furies, did their thing. Martin Kušej’s 2014 production for Covent Garden, much misunderstood at the time and sadly unrevived, showed quite how this extraordinary music can grip as drama (and despite an indifferent musical performance). This, alas, simply became tedious. 

Bolton’s musical direction did not help in that respect. It certainly had its moments over the evening as a whole, but the problem was that they were mostly moments. It cannot have been helped by the ‘version’ with which he was presumably presented, but a greater sense of dramatic pulse could readily have been achieved, as could more generous vibrato for the strings and less ‘period’ rasping from the brass. Trombones, though, sounded splendidly otherworldly for the Oracle. Occasional discrepancies between stage and pit, especially during choruses, were swiftly and tidily resolved. The array of continuo instruments was odd, as well as choices made as when to use them; however well played, the presence of a theorbo made little sense. A wind machine, though, offered a nod both to older stagecraft and to onstage atmosphere. 

The greatest satisfaction for me was to be had from the singing. For me, a highlight was the beginning of the third act, Olga Kulchynska’s ‘Zeffiretti lusinghieri’ and the quartet the other side of KV 505 vocally breathtaking and dramatically very much on point. The four singers’ coming together could not have spelled  fear and fate more clearly. Breslik’s assumption of the title role was beyond reproach, ringing in musical security yet permitting of doubt and nuance in character. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s Elettra was very good too, though there was a strange moment in her final aria in which she seemed to pause; it was unclear to me whether this were a demand of the production, an interpretative strategy, or something else. Indeed, throughout, her character seemed strangely minimised by the production. Jonas Hacker’s Arbace made the most of both his arias, as did Liam Bonthrone and Alexander Köpeczi in their smaller roles. The chorus likewise made a fine impression, hinting at a greater meaning that seemingly eluded the director.


Saturday 6 July 2024

Munich Opera Festival (1) - Le grand macabre, 4 July 2023


Nationaltheater

Images: © Wilfried Hösl
  

Gepopo, Venus – Sarah Aristidou
Amanda – Seonwoo Lee
Amando – Avery Amereau
Prince Go-Go – John Holiday
Astradamors – Sam Carl
Mescalina – Lindsay Ammann
Piet vom Fass – Benjamin Bruns
Nekrotzar – Michael Nagy
Ruffiack – Andrew Hamilton
Schobiack – Thomas Mole
Schabernack – Nikita Volkov
White Minister – Kevin Conners
Black Minister: Bálint Szabó
Refugees – Isabel Becker, Sabine Heckmann, Saeyong Park, Sang-Eun Shim

Director – Krzysztof Warlikowski
Set designs – Małgorzata Szczęśniak
Lighting – Felice Ross
Video – Kamil Polak
Choreography – Claude Bardouil
Dramaturgy - Christian Longchamp, Olaf Roth

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (director: Christoph Heil)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Kent Nagano (conductor)

The Fourth of July has obvious political meaning in the United States. This year, it also offered the date of the long-awaited British General Election: a curious event, strangely without drama given the near-certainty of its result, in strong contrast to others over the past two decades, yet with deeply ominous hints at what might be come, as well as the occasional moment of hope. Ligeti’s apocalyptic anti-anti-opera Le grand macabre could add a little piquancy to the date, its activity, and its commemoration—and certainly did, in what, perhaps surprisingly, is its Munich premiere production. The end of the world, after all, seems no less nigh than it will have done at the 1978 Stockholm world premiere and, rightly or wrongly, rather more so than at the first performance of Ligeti’s 1996 revision, at the Salzburg Festival in 1997 (from whose post-Chernobyl production, by Peter Sellars, the composer angrily dissociated himself). 



Many now appear to find it dated, at least dramatically. Hand on heart, much of its humour – post-Dadaist if you will, but often plain silly – is not mine, though it arguably comes closer to that strange beast ‘German humour’. I can see how the ‘naughty schoolboy’ shouting of ‘rude’ words, the fart jokes, and so on would irritate, but for me it is probably better to see this as part and parcel of an absurdism that may well be the only way we can face the incomprehensible insanity of an impending nuclear holocaust. Beckett’s – and Kurtág’s – Fin de partie may come closer to our taste, but taste is at best a matter purely for the individual, and Ligeti’s work is rightly admired to the skies by Kurtág, as by many of the rest of us. The Haydnesque riot of musical invention is at least as much the thing, if one cares to listen—and why on earth, or, as at the close, beyond it, would one not? 

Leading the Bayerische Staatsorchester, Kent Nagano offered a worthy conspectus of the array of musical strategies on offer, from the brilliant car-horn reinvention of the opening Toccata to Monteverdi’s Orfeo (surely a nod to Agon there too) to the inevitable – in dramaturgy and musical nature – closing passacaglia. The orchestra was on outstanding form, keenly responding to Nagano’s direction. I did wonder at times whether he might have opened things up a little, both in terms of greater dramatic sweep, but would I then have complained that too little attention was paid to the character of individual, closed forms? And if the silliness was not underlined, surely that is in any case the last thing it needs. Again, this is probably more a matter of taste than of anything else. I found it for the most part engrossing, and a salutary reminder of where the work’s greatest merits lie, as well as the (productive) aesthetic crisis that followed. In more than one way, this is an end-of-the-road work. 


Astradamors (Sam Carl), Mescalina (Lindsay Ammann)

In this sort of work, it is rare for vocal performances to disappoint. You do not really sing (nor, for that matter, play) Ligeti if you are not well equipped to do so, though there are always exceptions. Moreover, the sort of singers who do are unlikely to put ‘star’ behaviour over the needs of the ensemble. The work in any case gives them plenty of character behaviour in which to shine, which pretty much everyone did. Benjamin Bruns’s Piet vom Fass proved an excellent everyman, framing and participating our visit to Breughelland as required; he worked well with Sam Carl’s Astradamors, much in the same vein, albeit properly different too. Michael Nagy’s rich-toned Nekrotzar suggested a very human weakness at the heart of his caprice. Sarah Aristidou’s Venus, perhaps surprisingly, grabbed my attention more than her Gepopo; not that I could put my finger on why, so that was perhaps just me (or the production). John Holiday’s Prince Go-Go and Lindsay Ammann's Mescalina were very well drawn, dramatically and vocally. The soldiers, post-apocalypse, made a fine impression. I even found the copulating duo Amanda (Seonwoo Lee) and Amando (Avery Amereau) relatively non-irritating. 

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production for the most part did its job, but at times seemed a bit ‘phoned in’. One had the impression the singers were providing their own Personenregie, the production simply offering a chance to wander around the large stage. Warlikowski’s ideas were promising enough: refugees watching the events from a bureaucratic reception centre (probably a converted school gymnasium). Computer activity doubtless made decisions that hastened the end, whilst properly banal in immediate nature. Animal masks added an air of mystery later on, though it was somewhat unclear what, beyond the general kink scene, motivated their appearance. One might, I suppose, argue that wider issues were suggested rather than hammered home; that would perhaps, though, be unduly charitable, for what ultimately came across as a half-hearted engagement. 


Piet vom Fass (Benjamin Bruns), Nekrotzar (Michael Nagy)

As now seems to be his wont, Warlikowski showed us some silent film clips (David Wark Griffith’s Intolerance and Abel Gance’s Napoléon). In the case of historical collapse of civilisations, the association was reasonably obvious, even if the reasoning remained a little obscure. Most of us at least think we oppose intolerance; outside France, few of us are fervent Bonapartists either. The contribution made by pictures of Ligeti, both as a child and in more familiar guise, along with quotations such as one outlining his belief that he would grow up to be a prize-winning scientist, was less clear: more suited to the programme book, perhaps, or a pre-performance talk? The music, though, was undoubtedly the thing—and that, perhaps, is not the worst message for an anti-anti-opera.


Thursday 4 July 2024

Tristan und Isolde, Deutsche Oper, 3 July 2024


Tristan – Michael Weinius
King Marke – Günther Groissböck
Isolde – Ricarda Merbeth
Kurwenal – Leonardo Lee
Melot – Jörg Schörner
Brangäne – Irene Roberts
Shepherd – Clemens Bieber
Young Sailor – Kieran Carrel
Steersman – Byung Gil Kim

Director – Graham Vick
Designs – Paul Brown
Lighting – Wolfgang Göbbel  

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (director: Thomas Richter) 
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Juraj Valčuha (conductor)


Images from the 2011 premiere: © Matthias Horn

And so, the Deutsche Oper’s season, in which it has shown all ten of Wagner’s ‘Bayreuth’ works, begins to draw to a close. I have not managed to see them all; by accident rather than design, I have seen the current productions of trhe seven ‘music dramas’, but missed those of The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin (all of which I have a seen before). Of those I saw, all but Philipp Stölzl’s Parsifal were new to me. Stefan Herheim’s Ring I greeted enthusiastically, though not without reservations, in May; the Wieler-Viebrock-Morabito Meistersinger less so, though it had its moments. How would the late Graham Vick’s 2011 Tristan, which somehow I had missed until now, fare? 

Disappointingly, I am afraid. Maybe I was not in the right mood, though it was certainly not only that, but I do not think I have ever felt less engaged, or even interested, in a performance of what should always be a work like no other, on the edge of the possible but also of what one can bear. I doubtless quote this letter from Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck too often, yet however drama-queenish the expression, the principle remains sound, or at least readily comprehensible: ‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance –: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ Once again, sanity regrettably endured.

Let us begin with Vick’s production, at which I feel able only to throw my hands into the hair and say (polite version): goodness knows. One can admire his extraordinary work in Birmingham and indeed some or many of his stagings, without having much idea what is going on here and, more sadly, without being able to care very much. Is it perhaps all a drug-induced dream, Dallas meeting Trainspotting? One of the very few (on its own terms) theatrically convincing moments, presaged by a disturbing appearance (one of many, from a cast of irritating extras) by a shaking, wall-hugging addict, is when Tristan and Isolde inject themselves for what seems, even sounds, to be that elusive perfect hit. Who they are, though, and what they are doing in something that may be a house or may be a funeral parlour (Morold’s funeral, I thought to start with, though the coffin surely remains too long) is anyone’s guess. All manner of strange people come and go. A gang of menacing men in the first act suggests an approach founded, oddly, upon gender, when surely the whole point is the irrelevance of the phenomenal world, but it is soon gone anyway.
 

So too are the woman who walks around naked and, in the second act, outside in the garden (albeit with an indoor fireplace), a male naked gravedigger. Perhaps it is hot out there, and Tristan’s overcoat is a product of his addiction. He and Isolde sit on the sofa for most of it, as if watching the television; they seem to have little interest in each other. A torch-cum-gigantic-peppermill sometimes comes into view above, though it does not seem aligned to the night/day axis. From time to time, a woman in adjoining room does the ironing. The Steersman makes his appearance bursting out of the bathroom in mid-shave. It all ends, banally enough, with Isolde, spying some more people walking around the garden, opening the door to join them. Quite. That the action in this ‘action’ (Handlung) is entirely metaphysical seems to have eluded Vick, as it does many, but this lacks so much as a hint of coherence on its own terms. I think the point, or at least a point, may be that they have grown old in the meantime; with that, at least, one can sympathise. 



The real drama lies in the orchestra, of course, or should. There were passages of relative fluency among the rest from Juraj Valčuha, but that is about the best one can say. More often than not, we had audible gear changes, surprisingly thin strings, odd balances, faulty ensemble, and a deadly tendency throughout each act to slow down. The second act felt interminable, whilst Tristan’s third-act agonies amounted to little more than a lengthy list of non sequiturs. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, normally outstanding in Wagner, sounded as if it had had enough; I cannot blame it. 

Ricarda Merbeth’s Isolde had much to commend it, especially in the first act. She made a great deal of the words, offering a masterclass in scorn, though sustaining a line seemed less of a priority. Hans von Bülow’s claim that this is Wagner’s bel canto opera is as silly as it sounds, but that does not mean there is no melodic interest in the vocal line. Still, she outshone her Tristan, Michael Weinius, who had seemingly endless vocal reserves to call on. Given how shouted and unvariegated they were, it was tempting sometimes to wish that he had not; this was neither bel nor canto, and his acting was at best gestural. Leonardo Lee’s Kurwenal bloomed into what, alongside Günther Groissböck’s beautifully sung, finely detailed Marke, was surely the finest performance of the night. Irene Roberts sang well too, though a little more mezzo-ish depth would not have gone amiss, especially so as to contrast with Isolde. Given what the singers were presented with, though, it would be churlish to complain further. 

Wagner, then, was saved again. Next  stop: Bayreuth, including a new Tristan. Fingers crossed for a little madness.


Thursday 27 June 2024

Don Giovanni, Deutsche Oper, 26 June 2024


Don Giovanni – Andrzej Filończyk
Donna Anna – Flurina Stucki
Don Ottavio – Kieran Carrel
Commendatore – Patrick Guetti
Donna Elvira – Maria Motolygina
Leporello – Joel Allison
Masetto – Artur Garbas
Zerlina – Arianna Manganello
Artist – Ellen Urban

Director – Roland Schwab
Set designs – Piero Vinciguerra
Costumes – Renée Listerdal
Assistant choreographer and revival director – Silke Sense

Movement Choir 
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus director: Thomas Richter)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Daniel Cohen (conductor)


Image: Bettina Stöss (from 2023 revival)

We now find ourselves in the twilight zone in which house and hall seasons are drawing to a close, but festivals have already begun. I shall flit back and forth for the next few weeks, albeit with greater emphasis on the latter, but here returned to the former, to Roland Schwab’s production of Don Giovanni for the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I saw it when it new in 2010 and have deliberately not looked back, though I have a sense that my reaction was somewhat similar: some good ideas, but lacking in coherence. That, at any rate, offers a snapshot of my reaction last night. (I shall look back after posting.) 

The opening impression is of some sort of crime boss in the title role. His tightly drilled (well choreographed, though to what end?) entourage features throughout, though I cannot say I found that added much, especially in the strange (drug-induced?) shaking to which many of them often fall prey. A sense of menace is imparted, though perhaps at the cost not only of distraction from the real action, but also and more seriously underlining a sense that, for the most part, especially earlier on, both production and performances seem a little lost on a stage and in a house of this size. Other goings on, whether the dark-suited mob, or an admittedly arresting carnival of death that accompanies rather than drives the first act’s final scene, have a tendency to come across as being put there to fill the space. The well-worn Dantean ‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate’ is inscribed on a portable door through which the guests arrive (which haphazardly returns briefly, and not when one might expect, in the second act) in a welcome recognition, not the only one, of the work’s religious nature, but ultimately goes for little. 

Throughout, much is done with golf clubs, again I suppose intended to underline the masculinity of one side (and yes, I know women play golf too, though it is not clear the production does). Other business, such as constant wielding of whips and a good deal of other noise-making activities, show a tin ear for the reality that this is an opera, in which not only music but some of Mozart’s very greatest music plays a hallowed role. Clearing up mess, literally with bin bags, seems to be Leporello’s business: fair enough, I suppose. At one point, though, the men are in dustbins, which may sound intriguingly Beckettian, yet ends up being another short phase in a production that never seems to know where it is heading. What Don Giovanni’s score card system denotes, I was never quite sure: is a high score good or bad? I presumed the former, but then his final ‘1’ for the Stone Guest scene would make little sense at all. 

The audience certainly did not help, laughing, chattering, and so on, seemingly in utter disconnection from what was seen, let alone heard. What should have been a truly powerful moment and marked one of Schwab’s most imaginative ideas, Don Giovanni seating his ‘disciples’ for his last supper, the moment frozen in the painterly manner one might expect, for him to break bread, elicited widespread vigorous laughter. The Eucharist and/or dark inversion thereof are now apparently merely amusing. To be fair, I suppose it would explain a good deal, and if that is the reaction an attempt to address the profoundly religious nature of the work elicits, then, God or Nietzsche help us, perhaps it is more understandable why directors generally and, in most cases, disastrously avoid it. 

Why such strange decisions continue to be made concerning the ‘version’ I do not know. It is all very well to blame singers’ desires to give ‘their’ arias, but it is not their decision and they often find themselves oddly deprived too; one cannot imagine them having reached this settlement in any case. However difficult it may be to stand the loss, the Prague version is almost always preferable. If you must, and if you have a performance of such calibre that it and the production can override the problems, the most familiar of the Prague-Vienna conflations, justly maligned, can work. (He said through gritted teeth, thinking what would otherwise always be lost.) ‘Vienna’, insofar as we know what it was, has latterly, unaccountably had a weird renaissance; it is time for that fad to be put to bed. Goodness knows what the reasoning for the combination heard on this occasion was. We heard Mi tradì and Dalla sua pace, though neither Il mio tesoro (odd, given such a fine performance of Don Ottavio’s first aria) nor the Zerlina-Leporello duet. Recitatives were cut and sometimes paused, whilst other things, rarely if ever worth the wait, happened. It made little intrinsic sense, though then given the dramatic looseness of both staging and conducting, it was not particularly a problem either. Ironically, I think production and performance would both have needed to be better or worse for it to matter more. 

For Daniel Cohen’s conducting of a Deutsche Oper orchestra that often sounded out of sorts – what a change from its recent magnificent Wagner and Strauss – seemed oddly to mirror the non-committal confusion of Schwab’s staging. It began poorly, balances in a mercilessly hard-driven, tales-of-rasping-brass Overture so awry that one could barely hear the strings. Not so much the conductor’s fault, though still dispiriting, the duet between Donna Anna and Don Ottavio in the first scene pretty much fell apart. Cohen was excellent here in picking this up and moving things on, and whilst there were quite a few subsequent discrepancies between pit and stage, they would be on a smaller scale. When he and the orchestra really clicked, there was some fine playing. The problem was more that rarely, if ever, in the first act and only sporadically in the second was a fundamental pulse established. At best, we heard a string of disconnected arias, recitative often too ‘edited’ to be of much use, the impression being given of ‘accompanying’ a varied recital rather than musically leading the action. 

Vocally, there was a good deal to admire. The occasional mishap such as that mentioned above, there was nothing truly to disappoint, although the standard of singing was not always so consistent as it might have been. The moment Maria Motolygina stepped on stage as Donna Elvira, performing voltage shot up; hers was an outstanding performance by any standards, boasting cleanness of line, finely modulated tone, and dramatic commitment: one I was delighted to hear. In the title role, Andrzej Filończyk was excellent, growing in stature and defiance, to boast an enthralling performance in his final scene, helped by new-found proximity to the audience but ultimately founded on charisma and artistry. Joel Allison’s livewire Leporello followed eagerly in his footsteps, at least until then. Patrick Guetti’s Commendatore made a strong impression too. Flurina Stucki’s Donna Anna sometimes seemed underpowered, but she recovered and made a good job of her second-act aria. Kieran Carrel’s ‘Dalla sua pace’ was as sweet-toned and mellifluous as one could wish, though I never sensed that he was quite inside the role (a difficult task, admittedly). I am not sure either of these was really her or his role. Likewise in the case of Zerlina and Masetto. Arianna Manganello and Artur Garbas sang well enough, though  might have made more of what they had to do; in that, they were not necessarily helped by the production. 

The worst, I am afraid, came at the end, in the total excision of the final scene. Everything in the work and tonal expectations, specific and general, pull it forward; so too, still more bafflingly, did the production seem to do so. There was, however, nowhere for it to go; it simply stopped and those who, much to my chagrin, were wildly applauding were in a sense right. Yes, Mahler did it; yes, perhaps, given that he was Gustav Mahler, he managed to make it work; no, by any reasonable standards, he was still misguided, partial in his view of the work, surprisingly uncomprehending of its dramaturgy, to have done so. That such an ultra-Romantic route should be taken made no sense whatsoever in context. If the aim were to provoke dissatisfaction, that was certainly achieved; I almost hope it was, since the alternative, sheer cluelessness, is more depressing. Perhaps it was a metaphor, after all, for our age’s strange inability even to attempt to understand this towering opera.