Sunday, 26 September 2010

Tristan und Isolde, Philharmonia/Salonen, RFH

This multi-media production of Tristan und Isolde, the Tristan Project is a collaboration between conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Peter Sellars and the video artist Bill Viola. The video below gives you an idea of what it's about; part of the senior admin team kept a diary while it was on tour in mainland Europe which was published in The Guardian last week.

It's a strong evening, an all-immersing experience. In addition to a large screen above the orchestra onto which video pertaining to the action is projected, the entire hall was used with the singers appearing in aisles and boxes. The arrival in Cornwall at the end of act one had the chorus appearing in the balcony with the brass fanfare coming from the very back of the hall, as if the audience were being smothered in a great big (and very loud!) Cornish-cable-knit-jumper manhug. It was very involving and only heightened the impact of the stormy, narcotic Acts that followed.

Viola's tantric-slow video montage has a number of oddities which can jar - there's a certain amount of ritual à la Jodorowsky here. However, at crucial moments there are some wonderful images which do resonate with the story and its music. Principally perhaps is the echt-Viola image of lovers falling through water.

This picture corresponds to the most important single dramatic event of the opera, when the lovers have drunk the love-death potion. Like a number of images - or, I should say, sequences of images - it reminds me of similar sequences in other film. In this case, I can't shake the impertinent thought of Ewan McGregor's junkie searching for lost drugs in a Glaswegian toilet in Trainspotting:

Of course, this seems absurd but for two things. First Danny Boyle uses this comic surrealism in order to try and illustrate the edge-of-madness desperation that comes with drug dependency and the oblivion that its users are after (including one that suggests death itself). Secondly Bill Viola himself is working not to illustrate the action but to catalyse the expericence of it:
I knew from the start that I did not want the images to illustrate or represent the story directly. Instead I wanted to create an image world that existed in parallel to the action on the stage...
(from the programme notes)

The images of transformation or purging take in fire as well as water. Tristan's response to the extinguished beacon in act 2 is to march towards us heedless of a pyre in front of him. This is like the closing sequence of the Daft Punk-sponsored feature Electroma, in which the protagonist, bereft of his companion and denied wider social assimilation strides on defiantly in self-immolation:

In the love duet the video shows lovers casting themselves into the sea in a further attempt at oblivion. The closing scene of Jonathan Glazer's modern romantic mystery Birth comes to mind, in which a love-dazed Nicole Kidman searches for oblivion in the univiting waters off the American East Coast:

(incidentally, it's worth noting that the film has a memorable central sequence in which Kidman's character sits in a theatre listening to another piece by Wagner, the prelude to Act 1 of Die Walküre.)

Viola's particular stamp is really to do with the opulent time-frame in which he posits his ideas, rather than the images themselves. The breadth of this video work is what is so consonant with Wagner's opera. I felt the performance and the installation mutually benefitted one another.

Not that any performance of Tristan und Isolde at this level really needs embellishment. As the lovers, Violetta Urmana and Gary Lehmann are well matched but, crucially, also on the same page dramatically. They are enitrely convincing as the supernaturally enamoured couple. Brangäne and Kurwenal are taken by Scandinavian singers, Anne-Sofie von Otter and Jukka Rasilainen, both in highly polished performances. Of this second tier of casting though one watches slack-jawed at the artistry of our own Matthew Best. A cavernous, infinitely sagacious sound actually made something stirring from the Act 2 peroration of King Mark, which I often find ponderous.

Above all I really enjoyed the work of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen. There's an urgency to get stuck into the detail of the music. Though the story arcs are vast and the (realist) action often static, musical argument and beauty is compressed into each phrase. The Philharmonia's touch is forensic but caressing, never clinical.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Makropulos Case, ENO

I don't think it works and yet, I find myself deeply stirred. It's a bit like knowing you're walking up to the edge of one of those Escher staircases that don't make sense but stepping onto it anyway to find that it does. English National Opera's Makropulous Case revival seems occasionally either baffling or perverse but as it's never short of conviction - or, this time around, some pretty impressive singing - it somehow finds its mark.

Alden has a number of ideas but the principal one seems to be of text. The men populating the stage often step out of character to write on a blackboard - a historic timeline, a formula, the name 'Μακροπουλος'. Indeed at such moments the men often become ciphers, moving through the space with anonymity, as in Magritte

or, as it struck me, like hieroglyphs. This act of record and the intermittent transformation of characters to tableau (which, as hieroglyph, might be regarded as text) ties in with the profligate documents which, tumbling from the ceiling during the overture are never fully ordered and removed.

Elina Makropulos has initiated this paper trail not only by writing (and forging) documents but by her sexual acts, leaving a trail of lovers and children, or 'bastards', her words in Norman Tucker's translation. Witness of this wake is ever present. In the same way that the men fighting over the estate in Kolenatý's office will step out of character to represent something else so the waiting public at Makropulos' stage door might also be the ghosts of her past encounters. I liked the fluency with which Alden moves between the two, encouraging the audience to see these people from Makropulos' perspective; it's a chill view when a figure is easily interchangeable between person and mere trope.

Of course, this puts a lot of pressure on the role of Makropulos herself who can never become two dimensional, fixed in space and time. In purely charatcerisation terms Amanda Roocroft is all over this idea. She's far less reserved than, say, Anja Silja for Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Glyndebourne production but her impertinence and disdain serve Alden well. Additionally Roocroft is clearly singing very well, back to her formidable best after a previously equivocal Ellen Orford in this house.

The men are strong, with Andrew Shore and Ashley Holland completely solid. Notable though is Peter Hoare's Albert Gregor. Albert's a classic Janacek tenor role, unforgiving, without even the consolation of heroism to go with the helden-Fach that it often requires. Hoare manages a beauty in the sound that I wasn't expecting (although I've heard it before), which has the curious side-effect of making me wish he didn't have to undertake the same functional role as others in the cast.

Indeed the music - glorious music - is kept simmering but never boils under Richard Armstrong. This is another reason I found the whole thing puzzling. There are small balancing issues in the Coliseum which I suspect, given the extreme and tourettish nature of Janacek's music, are virtually impossible to resolve. However Alden's production does meet the erratic nature of the score as the action often has very sudden movements. Occasionally these were either not perfectly dovetailed or a certain caginess in the music meant that they were left exposed.

This is a nit-picking observation though, especially as I found myself hearing some wonderful things for the first time, perhaps as a result. The pianissimo secco percussion and harmonic strings to accompanying Makropulos dismissing the appeal of sexual intercourse is utterly chilling (there was laughter from the core of ENO's audience at the line - this is fair but there's more to be had from this opera).

Indeed this is a very adult opera, prepared to incorporate the sexual impulse into its very fabric but at the same time give the characters great lyrical scope to argue against it. An evening to reflect on and maybe encounter more than once.

Niobe, Regina di Tebe, ROH

The Royal Opera have done well with this production of an obscure, 3½-hour long opera by Agostino Steffani (1654–1728). There must be quite a temptation to throw everything at it, investing in the ongoing vogue for adding dancers, or dazzling with costume, set design or direction to distract from that dreaded da capo (or aria-as-original-cast-mollifying-folly).

At least that was my worry before I saw this production. Its obscurity is no indication of its worth - no charge of 'justly neglected' here. It's inventive, with both unusual instrumentation and trying all sorts of barmy things with the conventional orchestra. Conventional recapitulations in the arias seem to be discreet or to be written out. My da capo fears never ripened - the music seemed to develop rather than repeat itself.

In this the score is helped by a super staging. Lukas Hemleb does employ moments of opulence, often as wonderful coups (invariably involving large balls, that's all I'm saying). Yet he's clearly aware that the story, and the music that tells it, have their own weight so we get an unfussy space in which to hear it. The cast are similarly costumed in striking but not over-detailed designs, a mentality also applied to props and lighting. Economy is the highly effective watchword of this production.

Economy, expedience but not 'budget'. There's no paucity of imagination. Hemleb uses the auditorium space around the pit for surprise entries and has a particularly simple-but-cunning use for a modest dancing troupe as an underhand plot makes its demonic passage through the story. This got many a laugh - but like a lot of the humour that Hemleb sets free from the work it's a joke shared with the audience, never cheap irony at the work's expense.

The singing is good. Véronique Gens has a gilded way of understating her singing which makes a great dramatic impact - I really felt the hubris of her character and position. Opposite her is the remarkable sound of Polish countertenor-soprano Jacek Laszczkowski as king Anfione. Early concerns that this was a some miscast hooty falsettist evaporate during a handful of central arias in which a strong command of line and beautifully worked super-high tessitura make for special moments. The undulating aria he sings in the aptly named Palace Of Harmony is particularly fine.

There are two more (perhaps) conventional falsettists in the cast. Tim Mead's consistent, present Clearte is also nicely worked on stage, agitated but not over-sympathetic. In this production, I was afraid that Iestyn Davies' Creonte was destined to be an amusing cameo. He certainly came close to scene stealing his way through his parodic entrances through the first half of the opera but then takes his opportunities in the increasingly serious second to sing with supple coloratura and a silken top. Alastair Miles and Delphine Galou proved luxurious casting for the manipulative functionaries the former gamely wearing a London Marathon novelty outfit as the demonic Poliferno.

The Tiberno-Manto-Tiresia trio (of Lothar Ordinus, Amanda Forsythe and Bruno Taddia) occupy an odd position in the opera, a foil for the supernatural events in which they are caught up. This along with Nerea's affected limp, an anomaly in being superfluously invented for a later aria, and the modernist forecurtain with TEBE cut into it were my only reservations. Thomas Henglebrock and the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble are indefatigable.