Showing posts with label Stefan Herheim. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stefan Herheim. Show all posts

Monday, July 09, 2018

Problems with Pélléas

It's always interesting to read bad reviews, even if one cringes while so doing. But those that have attended the new Pélléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne have come with such a dose of vinegar that it makes one super-curious to see whether they're justified, and it's always hard to believe that they could be.

Oh dear.

Das Wunder der Heliane meets the ghost of Pélléas?
Photo: Glyndebourne Productions Ltd, by Richard Hubert Smith

Perhaps Stefan Herheim's concept would play better in central Europe or Scandinavia, where productions are often more heavily dramaturged [yes, I know, no such word] than is usually the case here, and where audiences have arguably grown to expect controversy on stage plus abstruse references laid on with the trowel. And perhaps the setting of Glyndebourne's Organ Room - recreated with useful additions such as concertina-folding organ pipes and sliding walls - would have played better if habitual Glyndebourne patrons had not seen umpteen other productions of other operas also set within Glyndebourne itself, to the point that this jumps aboard the most massive of local clichés.

It is nevertheless a valid starting point: the action takes place in a grand, dark, oppressive old house/castle and, as my companion for the evening remarked, how many of us have not wandered through such a place and wondered what secrets it is hiding in its past? (Or is Herheim trying to tell us something about the age-old secrets of Glyndebourne? I sincerely hope not.) Perhaps part of the idea is about the Christies staging dramatics in their organ room. But what is inexcusable is to have Debussy's final bars obscured by audience laughter as actors clad as present-day Glyndebourne punters wander onto the stage, looking around. No. Just no.

Everyone seems to be blinding each other. Yes, the text makes ample reference to blindness, but nothing in this text is literal: must it be spelled out to that degree? If there is a benefit to the storytelling, it's eluded me thus far. And Golaud, Pélléas and Yniold all frantically mime painting on empty easels. Yes, Debussy was a contemporary of the great Impressionist painters, but that doesn't make this appropriate, insightful or comprehensible, even if perhaps excusable.

What's with the Christ-like figure that appears in the middle of the organ, just as Arkel tells Mélisande she must issue in a new era...with a sheep draped over its shoulders? Sacramental imagery, says a Twitter contact. Yes, we get that (and Herheim changes Yniold's shepherd into a priest), even if we don't necessarily get its point - but the bottom line is that it looks completely ridiculous and everyone laughed, and you don't want that to happen in the middle of Pélléas.

Or maybe you do...and that would be worse, because it means you are not taking the work on its own terms or presenting your audience with something conceived in its true spirit, in which case why should we go? Moreover, having Golaud rape his own son/daughter Yniold is a major misjudgment in a scene that is upsetting enough as Debussy and Maeterlinck created it - and leaves Pélléas novices seriously confused ("But why does he do that?" "Well, actually, he doesn't...").

Nevertheless, there's a sprinkling of wonderful ideas too. Mélisande is portrayed (by the excellent Christina Gansch) as a complete pre-Raphaelite beauty, overwhelming in her seductive presence, and she seems to have healing powers; also, she recoils when Golaud faces her with his sword presented as a cross. There's always a mystery about her; no reason she shouldn't be at least partly supernatural. Golaud (a tour de force from Christopher Purves) is a violent psychopath, as destroyed by his own malady as any Otello. Pelléas is under-characterised, though mostly well sung by John Chest. The division of body and soul for Mélisande at the start of the final scene works nicely, as does having the ghost of Pélléas lurking around, waiting for her to join him – though I'm not sure why he has to run her through with a sword when she's about to snuff it in any case. Some of these images come over more as Das Wunder der Heliane than Pélléas, and I can't really think of two more different operas.

As you'll have gathered, a lot of visual ideas are crammed in here, layer upon layer upon layer. Yet Debussy's music is so subtle, so delicate, so hinted-at, that it's completely overpowered by the on-stage shenanigans. By the end one feels exhausted by all the "WTF now?" moments, and might be longing for the privilege of hearing a concert performance instead – preferably with Robin Ticciati conducting it every bit as beautifully, intelligently and ineffably as he does here.

In the past few years Ticciati has had to take some time off for a back operation, which has somewhat disrupted his tenure as Glyndebourne's music director. But in that time, he has been reinventing his whole approach to conducting (as he told me in an interview last year) - and now the results are becoming more and more interesting. Something in him has deepened and darkened and opened out. I'm getting the impression that we may have here a very significant musician indeed, someone who has further to go interpretatively than some of the supposedly glitzier, more superficially exciting podium presences. I hope I'm still around to see where he is in 25 years' time.

Nina Stemme as Kundry, with ex-equine friend
Photo: Ruth Walz

Concert performances, meanwhile, have a lot going for them. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening holed up with the webcast of Parsifal from the Bavarian State Opera, this being the first summer in a number of years that I'm not going physically to Munich. (Hallelujah, medals and science prizes galore, please, to whoever created the technology that makes webcasts possible and quality sound available on the computer.) What a musical treat: Kirill Petrenko on fire with spiritual joy in the pit, the orchestra playing the living daylights out of the piece, Nina Stemme the most astounding Kundry - and Kundry the most astounding Nina Stemme - that I've yet had the joy of hearing, Christian Gerhaher a dream of an Amfortas, Rene Pape channelling Gurnemanz in person, and Jonas Kaufmann tracing Parsifal's growth and strength incrementally, with That Voice. The production, by Pierre Audi, is strong, straightforward and clear, never confused or confusing. The Grail is meat in act I and music itself at the end of act 3: we are saved by art alone. Bravi. But the visual art is by the great Georg Baselitz and though many images are effective, at other times one just has to look the other way. A concert performance would solve that in one fell swoop. This probably sounds uncharacteristically philistine, so blame the heat if you like.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Sizzling Vespers at ROH


A last-minute invitation to the Royal Opera House's Great Big Verdi Bicentenary Production yesterday was more than welcome. Yet it conspired with blocked local train lines and slow rush-hour tubes to ensure that I arrived a hair's breadth before curtain up for an opera I didn't know, without having had time to read the story.

What a marvellous way to listen. You wouldn't look up the plot before attending a film, would you? If someone gave you a programme containing a synopsis, indeed, you might be cross. You'd call it a 'spoiler'. OK, some operas are so convoluted that we might need a little help. After our 20th Marriage of Figaro, we might have unravelled the plot enough to have some idea of what's going on. But in the era of surtitles, and of certain directors who actually know how to tell a good story when they get the chance, do we still need advance briefing? The only giveaway, in this state of blissful ignorance at a grand-scale, nearly-four-hour romantic roller-roaster, was knowing that the finish time would be 9.50pm. If hero and heroine start singing happy wedding songs at 9.20pm, you can bet your bottom dollar it's all going to go horribly wrong.

Robert McKee, Hollywood screenwriting story guru par excellence, might be impressed with certain part of this plot. Who could imagine a greater conflict for our young hero, Henri? He is a rebel; he discovers his father is the local dictator; and he has to choose between his newly discovered instinctive feel for his dad, aka Guy de Montfort, and the rebel duchess whom he loves, Helene. Montfort wants to kill Helene, having already killed her brother, but after Henri cracks and obediently calls him "mon pere", he changes his mind and insists that she and Henri marry. Yet the leader of the rebels, Procida - vengeful after the psychologically muddled Henri has betrayed him - declares that their wedding bells will be the signal to unleash a massacre. All of this takes place against background conflict of occupation, wanton cruelty and simmering revolt.

Stefan Herheim's production contains a few absolute masterstrokes. In the prologue, a ballet class is in progress. Soldiers burst in, taunt the girls, abduct them. Montfort chooses one and commits violent rape. The act is witnessed by the ballet master, powerless to help his dancer. He is Procida and becomes the rebel leader after years in exile - and you know exactly where he found his motivation. The rape victim demonstrates to her attacker what is about to happen: evoked in ballet, we see the pregnancy, the baby, the mother and child. The little boy will become Henri. Ballet is a vital part of the storytelling throughout, representing Henri's mother and her appalling history as a vital presence while the action progresses. The details are superb: for instance it's clear that the ballet girls in the crowd recognise, love and respect Procida for his original incarnation in their own world. And we see, on Procida's return to his studio, exactly how the rape of his dancer has become equated in his mind with the rape of his country.

The designs by Philipp Fürhofer are big, bold, convincing. Michael Volle as Montfort virtually stole the show; Bryan Hymel - the current high-register, French-conversant tenor du jour - was often beautiful in tone, but a little underpowered and, as actor, slightly wooden within a drama where so much was detailed and realistic. Lianna Haroutounian (replacing Marina "Popsy" Poplavskaya), matched him well; again, a voice that is basically gorgeous and has much character and distinction, yet perhaps not quite large enough in such a vast-scale opera. Erwin Schrott as Procida seethed, fumed and loomed - though personally I wouldn't have chosen to bring him on in a dress at that particular moment in the last act (and another touch that proved uncomfortable was Helene's cradling - and others' footballing - of her brother's severed head). Throughout, Pappano's conducting existed in technicolour, full of razor-blade edginess and Mediterranean warmth.

As for Verdi in French - it sounds even weirder, if that's possible, than Verdi in English. But it is authentic, so... what was needed was better diction from most of the cast other than Hymel. And despite all the ballet - no actual ballet. There's around half an hour of designated ballet music in this opera and there was to have been a major collaboration on this between Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet. But thanks to some operatic goings-on behind the scenes some months ago, the whole thing went ballet-up. It's fine dramatically as it is, of course - probably better - but still a pity to lose that.

There are reasons, one suspects, why the opera is not presented more often: it is vintage Verdi in many ways, but the music is more generic and less distinguished than such works as Otello, Rigoletto or Falstaff, while tenors who can pull off the role of Henri are few and far between. Hymel is a godsend, in that respect. This production, despite a few inevitable flaws, seems set to become a classic that will be remembered for many years to come.





Friday, June 07, 2013

Royal Ballet is OUT of Les vepres sicilienne at the ROH

Big news from Covent Garden for last thing on a Friday afternoon. Here's the press statement. Suffice it to say that for the theatre's own glorious ballet company, and its school, and the Royal Danish Ballet too, to be out, wholesale, replaced by "freelance dancers", in which had been much vaunted as a flapship production for next season and the climax of the Verdi bicentenary is - well, rather operatic. Ooof.


7 JUNE 2013
PRESS STATEMENT

CHOREOGRAPHER CHANGE FOR LES VÊPRES SICILIENNES
17, 21, 24, 29 October, 1, 4, 7, 11 November 2013


“We regret that it has been necessary to rethink the inclusion of the Four Seasons ballet, in its entirety, from Act III of The Royal Opera’s new production of Les Vêpres siciliennes which opens in October. As a result of artistically differing approaches to the project between Johan Kobborg and director Stefan Herheim, Johan Kobborg and The Royal Ballet will no longer be working on this production.”

“There will still be a strong element of dance in the production, however no longer featuring Artists from The Royal Ballet, The Royal Danish Ballet and students from The Royal Ballet School.”

“We are delighted that choreographer Andre de Jong, who has previously worked with director Stefan Herheim on his production of Eugene Onegin in Amsterdam, is now the choreographer, working with freelance dancers.”

Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet and Kasper Holten, Director of Opera