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2012: The Good. The Bad. The Stupid.

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 4, 2013 at 8:58 am

2012 was meant to be about getting to Leipzig to hear the GewandhausOrchester and Riccardo Chailly. And about trying to listen to more new music, at least one new piece every fortnight.

Sadly, I can’t say that I achieved either.

But it has been a good year in terms of music in my life, a good year for the ‘bad’ music in my life and let’s face it, the classical music world wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the occasional ‘stupid’ things as well.

But starting with the good. And in most cases the excellent.

Renée Fleming tops the list not only for the performances that I attended but for the CDs that have given me not only hours of pleasure but lifted my spirits on many an occasion.

Her disc of Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleaux is one that I appreciate more each and every time I listen to it. There is a depth and integrity to the performances that is perfectly matched by the more burnished – almost golden – tone of her voice. Of the recital, it is Messaien’s Prière Exaucée that I return to most often.

In terms of live performances, Ms Fleming has delivered three of my most memorable concerts of the year. In February she made her debut as Ariadne/Prima Donna at Baden-Baden, in an intelligent and beautifully nuanced production by Philippe Arlaud. She is today’s Strauss interpreter par excellence, and her Ariadne – warm, dignified and soulful – was truly remarkable. And she was supported by an incredibly strong cast, from The Composer of Sophie Koch and Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta to a particularly strong performance by Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus.

Similarly, her Arabella in Paris in June. While Philippe Jordan was not the most sympathetic conductor, and the set felt somewhat lost on the stage itself, Ms Fleming and Michael Volle in the lead roles were superb.

But most memorably and most recently was Ms Fleming’s performance at the Barbican. In a carefully constructed recital, she took the audience on the most magnificent journey through the closing years of the Habsburg empire to the dawn of fascism. From Mahler to Schoenberg, Ms Fleming once again demonstrated her musical and vocal prowess. And when, in her encores she glitched, she did so with great humour. As I said at the time I hope that in 2013 she will make a recording of this recital. It can only be brilliant.

Staying with Vienna, Robert Carsen’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Wien Staatsoper in March was a homage to the city itself. Compared to the two previous productions I had seen – in Copenhagen and Edinburgh – this was by far the more successful in interpreting the at times dense symbolism of the story. And Carsen was aided and abetted by an incredible cast, led by Adrienne Pieczonka and Evelyn Herlitzius as the Empress and Dyer’s Wife respectively and Robert Dean Smith as the Emperor. And in the pit, Franz Welster Möst drew superlative playing from the orchestra. It’s a shame that this production hasn’t been captured on DVD.

Soprano Sandrine Piau literally wowed the audience of Wigmore Hall with her Mozart recital in October. Combining Mozart’s arrangements of Handel arias with some of his own arias drawn from his youth Ms Piau, ably supported by the Orchestra of Classical Opera conducted by Ian Page gave a performance that was nothing short of brilliant. But to the delight of everyone who attended she saved the best til her final encore – an absolutely heart-rending performance of Verso gia l’alma col sangue from Handel’s Aci. Galatea e Polifemo. Brava.

And finally hats off to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for being – in short – the most cheerful, energetic and enthusiastic performers of 2012. Not only is their music making of the highest standard but they continue to raise the bar when it comes to reaching new audiences and the inventiveness of their programming. Their Nightshift series is brilliant and their most recent event, celebrating the music of Handel with brilliantly amusing anecdotes by John Butt demonstrates that they know how to make classical music seem alive and relevant to the audience. And their first two concerts in the series Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers with superlative performances by Anna Catarina Antonacci and Sarah Connolly bode well for the remaining concerts in 2013. Definitely performances to book if you haven’t done so already.

Other memorable performances were Janowski’s Tannhauser for Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram slightly pipping Nina Stemme’s Elizabeth and a live stream of the final installment of Kriegenberg’s Ring in Munich.

Sadly 2012 wasn’t without its turkeys. Top of the list was ENO’s misjudged choice of director for their new production of Julius Caesar. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s vision was nothing short of facile and shameful as it completely undermined the strong performances overall of the cast. In a similar vein, Nigel Lowery’s production of Il Trionfo di Clelia wasn’t only let down by the pretension and ridiculousness of his ideas but by the ragged, almost poorly rehearsed playing of the City of London Sinfonia.

Sadly Opera North also didn’t quite hit the mark this year. Disappointing productions of Norma and Giulio Cesare – bar a strong performance by Sarah Tynan – were followed by a particularly poor Die Walküre. As well as being poorly cast, Richard Farnes never seemed to grasp the music’s sweep. I am hoping that they recover their mojo for Siegfried.

Robert LePage’s Ring Cycle finally ended with a fatally flawed Götterdämmerung. Not only was the production – symbolized forever by it’s Buckeroo Grane – poorly conceived together with the rest of the cycle, but a hostile reaction from the public and the critics led to both the director and Peter Gelb going on a poorly thought through offensive. LePage’s interview in the New York Times was nothing less than insulting, and Gelb’s attempt at censorship similarly ill-fated. Lepage’s reference to “the Machine” as a ‘poisoned gift’ in Wagner’s Dream, a documentary about the entire production and well worth watching, seems particularly apt.

Staying with bad ideas, the BBC’s Maestro At The Opera proved just how insulting the BBC thinks its audience is. This tick-box-arts-programming featuring a series of has-beens and nobodies not only insulted the intelligence of the wider audience but also ensured that the tired old myths and misconceptions about opera on the whole have been perpetuated. Let’s hope that Lord Hall of Birkenhead sorts it all out.

And John Berry continued his attempts to be hip with his introduction of a “no dress code” dress code at ENO. Stupid man.

But to end on a positive note, this year has seen some fantastic CDs issued. Top of the list and forgive my bias that “all-things-by-Joyce-DiDondato-are-fantastic” is her latest CD, Drama Queens. Not only is each and every track a marvel of musicianship and passion but her concert tour has been a storming success. Personally I cannot wait for her to perform in London this February. Valer Barna-Sabadus rose above the poorly named title of his CD to produce one of the best recital discs of 2012. Not many artists could pull of an entire CD of Hasse’s music, but Barna-Sabadus not only does so with verve but with a series of masterful performances. As I said at the time, Cadrà fra poco in cenere is simply beautiful. Two other discs that remain almost on constant repeat are Iestyn Davies’ Arias for Guadagni accompanied by the excellent ensemble Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen and Anne Schwanewilms’ disc of Strauss’ Vier Letzte Lieder.

And for 2013? Well I have already mentioned Ms DiDonato’s forthcoming concert but there are other things to look forward to and to book. The OAE’s Queens, Heroines & Ladykillers series continues and in this year of Wagner a full Ring cycle is a must. But if not the Met, then perhaps Munich or even Palermo?

And while I have failed to get a ticket to Die Frau ohne Schatten with Anne Schwanewilms in Amsterdam, I have my eyes firmly fixed on a new production of FroSch at the Met this Autumn. And of course I hope to return to Vienna for either Die Walküre or Tristan und Isolde.

And in terms of forthcoming CDs who cannot be excited – or at least intrigued – by Gergiev’s forthcoming Die Walküre, a reissue of Anneliese Rothenberger singing the Vier Letzte Lieder and another instalment of of Janowski’s WagnerZyklus?

So it only leaves me to thank you all for continuing to visit my blog. I know that not all of you agree with my write-ups and I am always honoured when you leave a comment – good or bad they make me think and on occasion change my mind.

So while it’s adieu to an eventful and enjoyable 2012, in terms of 2013 I say “bring it”.

More Circus Clown Than Ring Master – An Open Letter To Robert LePage

In Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on April 23, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Dear Mr LePage

I start off with a series of confessions.

First, I have not seen your interpretation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in its entirety. Not yet. But I have seen Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. The first on Opening Night in New York as well as the second performance in that run, and Götterdämmerung courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera’s excellent HD Live Season.

Second. I am a Wagner fan. Perhaps a ‘purist’ but not a ‘cranky’ operagoer. But a great admirer of Wagner and of opera as a whole in it entire dramatic sweep.

Third. I have seen a few complete Ring cycles live, most recently in San Francisco and more than a few on DVD including Kasper Holten’s Ring from Copenhagen and Chereau’s thought-provoking interpretation. And I have seen individual performances from the cycle in both the United States and Europe including the Schenk production in New York.

Therefore I read your interview in The New York Times with interest and increasing anger.

Of course any production will have its detractors. Its naysayers. The people who simple refuse to ‘get with the project’. But I find your position, well, faintly ridiculous and offensive. And I don’t only mean your criticism of the ‘purists’ and ‘cranks’ many of whom, I might incidentally add, funded your project through the benefices of their sponsorship and support.

And of course I stand corrected if somewhere along the line The New York Times has in some way misquoted you. It happens.

But your argument, in fact your rearguard defence given in the Met’s ‘unadorned office’, simply does not quite gel. Not for me.

On reading, and re-reading the article in question, I was struck by your claim that after focusing on each opera individually, you can now more easily ‘envision’ the quartet.

I have worked in the industry and seen some of the best producers and directors at their ‘business’. I have looked on as they have struggled to bring together sometimes disparate ideas together into one coherent narrative – and not always with total success. So I have to ask, did you not step back at any time and see Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung as a whole – ‘a package’ (Really? A package) – at any moment from after you put the phone down on Peter Gelb and said, “I’ll do it”?

Even on the most basic of production issues did you not check and redress in rehearsal (and I seem to remember that you were given a great deal of rehearsal time) that the projections could be seen on the singers’ bodies?

And most vitally has it really taken countless individual performances before you would concede and take action on the “groaning and grinding” of “that monster”? It’s almost arrogant to reach a solution that involves only moving them in the “less quiet moments in the score”. Thank goodness – I can almost hear you say – for Wagner’s ‘loud bits’.

And as for the direction of the singers, this is something that the majority of critics, bloggers and people who attended commented on. Direction. What direction? From before the very first Ring cycle was performed at Bayreuth, Wagner was very clear on the relationship of his music to the staging. And of the required acting ability of his singers. I am glad that Siegmund and Sieglinde are going to spend more of their time toward the front of the stage. My recollection was that they are already spending quite a lot of time at the front of the stage. It’s just that they aren’t being directed in what to do when they are there.

“People are protective”. Yes they are. But shame on you. Even amid all the stories swirling around about having to strengthen the stage and ongoing technical troubles there wasn’t a person in the auditorium on any given night – or in a cinema somewhere in the world – who didn’t give the production – and you – the benefit of the doubt.

And ‘false’ debate? If you are going to construct a 45-ton set of planks then expect debate. Welcome discussion. And listen. I don’t deny that giant transforming sets have been used elsewhere. But I can’t think of one before this that consumed everything before it – singers, orchestra, dramaturgy, narrative and originality.

I would argue that everyone who sits in the opera is there for the music. Focused on it. Music first. Production second. A good production enhances an opera. A fantastic production can result in greater and deeper understanding and insight. Opera is a combination of various elements including the music and the production. Funfairs and circuses provide spectacle, often using multi-ton machines that do creak and moan but for the very reason that it doesn’t matter if they do so. It doesn’t detract from the pipe-organ music of the ride.

But not at the opera. The audience can and does deal with, and accustom themselves to appropriate scene-changing noise. But your “monster” made that impossible.

As to your point that The Ring is ‘always dipped in these layers and layers of social-political stances’. It’s right and proper that directors should reinterpret Wagner and often they will look to their own society as well as the past to do so.

For them it magnifies the ideas of the Ring. It personalises it. But you didn’t magnify the ideas of The Ring. You smothered them. There was no personality or character in your bland interpretation. And by the way opera singers don’t only use their eyes to magnify the emotions they are experiencing. Ask them and you’ll find out it’s much more complicated than that.

And so to the ‘purists’ and the ‘cranky’ operagoers. I have never heard anyone I know – and I count myself sometimes as a cranky purist – say “We don’t want those people because they don’t know what opera is”.

The majority of those who go to the opera – however often – are well aware of the difficulties and dangers this art form is facing. Falling sponsorship, tighter budgets and the need to attract new and younger audiences.

Yes some people do sit there with scores. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way. But the majority of us sit back, listen and watch.

How absurd. How patronising. How insulting of the audience that you purport to entertain to dismiss them with a childish facial expression. Again. Shame on you.

Your Ring Cycle promised hope that it might meet some of these challenges head on and pose some questions. Sadly your patronising attitude just confirms one thing to me.

It was a vanity project. Yours. And Peter Gelb’s.

But well done. You did go back to the 19th century. You have created a modern take on a last-century folly.

Flawed in High Definition

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Wagner on February 14, 2012 at 8:30 am

Götterdämmerung, The Metropolitan Opera (11 February 2012)

Three Norns – Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Brunnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
Hagen – Hans Peter König
Gunther – Ian Paterson
Gutrune – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Alberich – Eric Owens
Woglinde – Erin Morley;
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford

Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Conductor – Fabio Luisi
Director – Robert LePage
Set Designer – Carl Fillion
Lighting Designer – Etienne Boucher
Costumer Designer – Francois St-Aubin
Video Image Artists – Lionel Arnoud

Having seen the Met’s production of Die Walküre live I decided, due to time restraints, to experience the final instalment of Robert LePage’s production through the medium of cinema. Live HD transmissions are proving a bit of a success for the Met and I was intrigued to see how opera would translate to the big screen.

Personally I don’t think anything beats a live performance but clearly watching a live broadcast has its advantages similar to those when watching opera on DVD – you have the best seat in the house and, if the director is worth his salt, the advantage of not missing a single moment of the unfolding drama.

LePage’s production remains dominated by his mechanical set and in his introduction before the curtain went up Peter Gelb, in a well-prepped speech clearly written by his PR team tried to convince that LePage’s production was a combination of Old World and New and was, in fact, something that Wagner would have approved. I have no doubt that Wagner – with his obsession with modern technology – would have been intrigued by LePage’s intention but, with his equal if not overriding passion with both the importance of singing and acting, perhaps he too would have been left more than a little nonplussed.

As I said when I wrote about Die Walküre, the entire production is subsumed by the mechanical set, overshadowed by its hundreds of tonnes of steel, which don’t so much dominate the entire proceeding as suffocate them. Reviews of Götterdämmerung maintained that LePage had finessed his manipulation of the planks and that they had taken a less obtrusive role compared to in the first three operas. To be honest – and perhaps this was because of watching the production in a cinema with its close-ups – I didn’t feel that at all. The set was almost like an extra character that for the most part simply distracted especially as the singers continued – for the most part – to interact with it gingerly. I still remember Deborah Voigt’s fall on her first stage entrance on the first night of Die Walküre but all hats off to the Rhinemaidens who made it all look so effortless although it took me a while before I could relax as they slid down the stage and not think they were going to hit their heads.

Lionel Arnoud’s projections, a critical element to keep LePage’s production alive and bind the narrative, were an odd mix of hallucinogenic wallpapers and non-descript animated scenes that wouldn’t have looked out of place on my laptop. However they didn’t distract too much and there were some nice touches – the ravens in the final act for example.

Singing above all of this was a pretty strong cast. Jay Hunter Morris – as was repeatedly made clear a late stand-in for Gary Lehman – was an impressive Siegfried. It’s difficult to know because I was in a cinema whether or not the sound was ‘assisted’ in the sense that carefully placed microphones are going to ensure the right balance between singer and orchestra, but he clearly had the heft for the cinema-attending audience. He managed to pace himself and there were only occasional signs of strain in his Third Act scene. But while his voice was equally clear and resonant and there were times when I did wish there was a little more colour and inflection in his vocal line. At times his delivery seemed to verge on the bland but I hope that as he develops this role that will change.

Deborah Voigt’s Brunnhilde – one of the most anticipated and analysed debuts in this role for a while I would imagine – had clearly developed in the role since Die Walküre. Interestingly when interviewed during the interval by Patricia Racette she discussed how Götterdämmerung was her preferred opera in the trio in which Brunnhilde appears as Siegfried lies uncomfortably high for her voice. I have to admit that she did give a compelling performance in Götterdämmerung and clearly she – I don’t think I can credit LePage with this considering the lacklustre direction and ‘stand-and-deliver’ style of Die Walküre – had thought deeply about the role and has always been, in my opinion, an intelligent and thoughtful singer-actress. The trouble with HD however is that it does zoom in which isn’t a luxury that is afforded you in the opera house even with the best theatre glasses. For me this meant that every nuance was exaggerated which at times was distracting. I still believe that Brunnhilde is not a role that sits easily within Voigt’s voice and while there didn’t seem to be the level of strain that she suffered in Die Walküre there were still moments when he voice took on a slightly metallic, single dimensional role. However overall this was a strong performance and it would be interesting to see how Voigt handles a complete cycle.

The surprise of the evening for me was the Gutrune of Wendy Bryn Harmer. More normally a cipher or a casting afterthought, Bryn Harmer has a rich vibrant soprano and made the character incredibly human, married with excellent technique. In her interval interview she professed an ambition to sing Sieglinde which would be something to hear. Iain Paterson as her brother was similarly well cast, delivering a believably flawed character and strong singing.

Similarly Hans Peter König and Eric Owens as Hagen and Alberich respectively were impressive. König exuded a calculated malevolence coupled with an intelligent musical performance. The ‘duet’ between father and son – Owens being equally vocally strong and a thoughtful actor – was one of the highlights of the evening even if the direction was slightly awry.

The Norns and the Rhinemaidens – were also impressive. The ensemble singing was closely knit without weak link in the casting. I have to profess to a small chuckle as the Norns rose, Jedi-like, from under the stage. Complete with their hooded gowns they would not have looked out of place in George Lucas’ Star Wars. But they gave a very credible performance and sang beautifully. Similarly, the three Rhinemaidens managed the perfect balance of flirtatiousness and what I always think is gentle malevolence and again, the ensemble singing was superb.

However the highlight of the evening was Waltraud Meier as Waltraute. She brought an intelligence and humanity to the role that made that single scene the most mesmerising of the whole performance in a way I have not seen in Götterdämmerung before. Ms Meier is of course a seasoned performer and an expert interpreter of some of Wagner’s greatest female roles – her Ortrud in Munich and her Isolde in Paris are particularly memorable – and her performance as Waltraute, bringing out the ‘humantiy’ of the role and demonstrating through her entire performance how far the Gods had fallen was truly remarkable. For a moment it lifted the entire opera.

Fabio Luisi has stepped in at the Met after Levine cancelled due to ongoing health problems. I couldn’t quite put my finger on his conducting style in the first act but I am indebted to fellow blogger @The Wagnerian for hitting the nail on the head – “late Verdi without la passione”. Precisely. I missed Levine’s drive and bite.

Overall however LePage’s interpretation of Götterdämmerung was as flawed for me as was his Die Walküre. The staging itself continued to dominate and while in the latter there as some method to his mechanical obsession in Götterdämmerung, where LePage had either run out of creative steam with his own creation or was trying – a little to late – to compensate the end result was even less compelling. In truth – as was the case with Keith Warner’s production at Covent Garden – perhaps seeing LePage’s Ring in its entirety once the novelty has faded, might enable me to see beyond ‘the machine’. But for now the staging remained too obtrusive and the directing of the characters seemed more secondary if not – thank goodness – the afterthought that it seemed in Die Walküre.

And seeing Götterdämmerung as a live HD transmission had both advantages and disadvantages. Clearly the quality of the broadcast and the sound is impressive but you do miss the atmosphere and excitement of being in the audience. Also if the director is worth his salt you do not miss a moment of the action. But what you do not see the entirety of the staging for, of course, the director only lets you see what he wants you to see. In this case, LePage wanted to make sure, it seemed, that the staging itself got ‘star billing’.

Additionally the intense focus on the singers as individuals detracts from the overall sense of an ensemble. No matter how fast the camera is, it cannot compensate for the speed in which – sitting in the theatre itself – the viewer can absorb an entire scene and the characters motivations in a nanosecond.

However I have to admit that I have been nibbled by the HD bug and will return again for Dessay in the Met production of La Traviata in April. But for now, LePage and his Ring remain less human and more machine.

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