The end of all human dignity

Thomas Adès’ latest opera, The Exterminating Angel, is probably his most ambitious and best to date.  It received its US premiere at the Met in 2017 and was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series, subsequently being released on DVD and Blu-ray.  It’s based on the surrealist 1962 Buñuel film.  It’s a very strange plot.  A group of more or less upper class guests attend a dinner after an opera performance.  All the servants except the butler have (inexplicably) left the house.  The guests seem unable to leave the room they are in nor can anyone from outside enter it.  This goes on for days(??) during which the guests accuse each other of various perversions including incest and paedophilia and turn violent while still expressing delicate aristocratic sensibilities like an inability to stir one’s coffee with a teaspoon.  There’s a suicide pact, a bear and several sheep involved before the “spell” to escape the room is discovered.  What happens afterwards is unclear.  (The opera omits the closing scenes of the film).  It’s very weird and quite unsettling; Huis Clos meets Lord of the Flies?

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Grim, dark Hoffmann

One of the interesting things about Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann is that there is no definitive edition so creative teams have a lot of flexibility in how they cut and combine material.  Director Tobias Kratzer and conductor Carlo Rizzi created a really interesting take for their production at Dutch National Opera in 2018.  It’s a very modern, very dark interpretation that while it keeps Offenbach’s music (though not interpolations like Scintille diamante) and the words are all from (some version of) the libretto the storyline varies a lot from what we are used to while keeping intact the central psychological fact that Hoffmann is incapable of relating to real women.

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The Romans, being wanton, worship chastity

Continuing my struggle with Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia I got hold of the Blu-ray recording of Fiona Shaw’s 2015 Glyndebourne production.  I’m beginning, I think, to see my way to understanding the problems inherent in the libretto and some of the strategies that can be used to overcome them.  The more minor problem is Junius and the odd scene early in Act 2 where he seems to be inciting the Romans to revolt while acting as a general in Tarquinius’ army while, also, apparently, been in some sense complicit in the rape.  So we have a two faced power hungry schemer who is oblivious to the consequences of his mischief making; whether rape or rabble rousing (a sort of Roman Boris Johnson).  Most productions ignore this aspect of things and probably rightly.

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Elegant and Powerful Ulisse

Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria hasn’t proved as popular as his other late work L’incoronazione di Poppea but, given as compelling a performance as it got at the Teatro Real, it’s a bit hard to see why that is.  On this 2007 recording we have an elegant and interesting production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, an excellent cast headed by Kobie van Rensburg and Christine Rice and the incomparable William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants.  It’s a compelling package.

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The gods look down and laugh

Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2008 and got a DVD and Blu-ray release on Opus Arte not long after. It’s the sort of work I’m susceptible to. It’s a truly integrated music drama based on a classical, indeed universal, theme carried off without any kowtowing to current ideas of trendiness. I’ve watched it a few times now and like most modern works of substance it reveals more with a bit of time and effort.

Librettist David Harsent’s take on the Minotaur myth is not at odds with versions many people will be familiar with (though whether in this day and age I’m not at all sure it’s safe to assume, as Harsent does, that “people are going in with a basic knowledge of the story”) but it does add some interesting ideas. His Minotaur, Asterios in this story, is articulate as a human only in his dreams and his dying moments. At these times he sings in English. As the awake monster in the Labyrinth he is restricted to inarticulate grunts. Also original is Harsent’s take on the relationship between Theseus and Ariadne. He sees this as a thoroughly corrupt relationship based on mutual need but riddles with disgust rather than love and so looking forward to the abandonment on Naxos. It works rather well. With those concepts in place we get a pretty straightforward account of the standard myth with some thoroughly brutal scenes of Asterios killing (and in one case raping) the Innocents in the Labyrinth to the blood curdling encouragement of a masked chorus of spectators. Another non-canonical addition at this point is the introduction of the truly horrific Keres who appear to feast on the bodies and the souls of the victims. It all leads up naturally to the death of Asterios at the hands of Theseus.

Birtwistle’s score is dense, multilayered and uncompromising. It’s clearly Birtwistle and makes no concessions to the current trend to try and make opera sound like a Broadway show. It’s not an easy listen but it repays a bit of effort and contains many interesting and deft ideas. For example Ariadne is paired throughout with the alto saxophone. Sometimes it takes up her singing line and carries it forward, sometimes it doubles her line and so on but nowhere does the saxophone interact with any other character. There’s a similar relationship between Theseus and the more conventional woodwind elements of the orchestra.

The design and direction; Alison Chitty and Stephen Langridge respectively, are very well integrated and are brilliantly supported by the lighting design of Paul Pyant. The result is some quite striking stage imagery that supports the changing moods of the piece really well. They also give us the mask that Asterios wears. It’s a framework affair so depending on the lighting Asterios can be fully beast or his human face under the mask can be made more present. It’s subtle and effective.

The performances are pretty much flawless. John Tomlinson, as Asterios, excels in a piece created for him. Christine Rice as Ariadne manages some really difficult music and a really long sing (she’s on stage nearly all the time) equally well. Johan Reuter (Theseus) has slightly off English intonation but sings powerfully and acts well. There are some excellent performances in the minor roles. For my money the best of these is the First Innocent of Rebecca Bottone who manages to look incredibly fragile but totally convincing during what is perhaps the most visceral scene of all where she is raped and killed by Asterios. There are very good cameos too from Amanda Echalaz as Ker and Philip Langridge as Hiereus. Antonio Pappano conducts and gets the necessary out of both orchestra and chorus.

The video direction is very good indeed. It appears to be a joint effort by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. The balance of setting shots and close ups is judicious and the close ups aren’t too close. They eschew silly camera angles. The picture on Blu-ray is 16:9 1080i and very good indeed. Sound is DTS 5.0 HD Master Audio and presents a vivid sound picture with good depth and breadth (PCM stereo also available). There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The documentation includes a useful essay on the music and the disk has a 32 minute “Making of” documentary that is more informative than most of its kind.

All in all, this is a very impressive work, beautifully realised on stage and well presented on disk.

For the record the Opus Arte trailer and the whole piece are available on YouTube but the AV quality is appalling.

Terry Gilliam’s The Damnation of Faust

Last Friday the BBC broadcast the English National Opera production of Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust directed by former Python Terry Gilliam. This was filmed back in May at the Coliseum and got positive to glowing reviews for its visual inventiveness. So how well did it come over as a TV broadcast?

The bottom line is “probably less well than in the theatre”. Gilliam’s approach to staging this almost unstageable “opera” is to treat us to a visual romp through German history from the late 19th century through WW1 to Auschwitz and in between we get lots of Nazis and Jews. There is heavy use of projection, film and special effects and one imagines it must have been incredibly spectacular in the theatre. Unfortunately much of this is lost in the filming for TV. There are certainly some arresting moments but not enough to keep one locked into the action and the director’s vision. And, once when starts to ‘lose the plot’ the more inconsistent and incongruous much of it seems. It doesn’t help that there are long passages where the orchestra is playing and action is going on on stage and it all feels a bit more like a movie soundtrack than an opera. Also, of course it being the ENO, it’s in English. The broadcast subtitled the chorus but not the soloists which was a bit odd and certainly made things harder to follow. The biggest dramatic problem I had was with the treatment of Marguerite. She’s Jewish but seems to have a serious “Aryan wannabee” complex. There’s a bizarre scene where she comes home, lights a menorah, puts on a blonde, pigtailed wig and swoons over a giant poster of a ideally beautiful Hitler Youth on the wall of the building opposite. She then takes Faust, who looks more like George Bernard Shaw on an off day, as her lover, apparently as some sort of substitute. Marguerite is then carted off to Auschwitz and death but there’s no sin here. She’s killed because she’s Jewish along with hordes of others. So there is nothing to redeem which makes the final scene really weird. Marguerite ascends to (Christian) heaven to words that are overtly Christian sung by a chorus of gassed Jewish corpses. So spectacular but a bit incoherent and on TV the incoherence tends to overwhelm the spectacular. I really would pay to see this in the theatre though.

Pretty good performances on the whole. Peter Hoare is Faust and he is convincing though somewhat overchallenged by some of his higher passages. Christopher Purves is near perfect as Mephistopheles (though surely the Prince of Darkness would not be caught wearing a clip-on tie!). He’s sardonic, funny and vocally and dramatically assured. Christine Rice is vocally excellent and does her best with the odd Marguerite she has to project. I wish Edward Gardner in the pit had managed a bit more drama in the orchestral passages. With Nazis on stage executing Communists, smashing Jewish shops and staging the odd Nuremberg rally it was far too easy to forget there was any music going on.

Here’s Marguerite with her pigtails and menorah

And, to emphasise the subtlety of it all, here’s Faust crucified on a swastika with Adolph going nuts in the background.