Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is a strange and compelling piece. Dramatically it is very “slow burn” with a narrative arc that builds over almost two hours to a final scene of searing intensity. Without that final scene the piece would have no reason but it justifies all and only one “fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” could possibly leave the theatre unmoved. It’s not just moving, done well it’s emotionally devastating. And that’s the state I left the Four Seasons Centre in last night after a near perfect performance of Robert Carsen’s extraordinary production.
Wagner’s Tannhäuser is the earliest of the canonical works. In some ways it’s very Wagnerian. It has screwed up theology with a heavy dose of misogyny and some recognisably Wagnerian music. On the other hand it is structured more like a French grand opera and some of the music definitely has more than a hint of Meyerbeer to it.The basic plot is that of the hero seduced into sin by the pagan love goddess Venus and then redeemed by the love (and death) of the chaste virgin Elisabeth.
Robert Carsen’s production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann does a very decent job of presenting this rather muddled and overly long piece. He sets it in and around a production of Don Giovanni in which Hoffmann’s current infatuation, Stella, is singing Donna Anna. There are several quite clever DG references scattered around. By and large it works and is one of the better “theatre in theatre” treatments that I’ve seen.
So I thought the obvious antidote to Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmélites would be the recording of Ollie Knussen’s Where The Wild Things Are and Higglety, Pigglety, Pop that was sitting in my ‘to watch’ pile. It’s a 1985 Glyndebourne recording and the Associate Director is one Robert Carsen, assisting Frank Corsaro. So it goes. Actually it was rather fun, if a bit irritating in the way that children’s literature written for kids with ADD seems to be. The music is terrific and not at all dumbed down. The sets and designs, as well as the libretto, are by Maurice Sendak himself and there’s some pretty neat lighting by Robert Bryan. The Wild Things are really cool and almost make up for the fact that Max (played here by Karen Beardsley) is an appalling little s$%t who needs a good kick in the backside. HHP is a bit more restrained and simultaneously manages to be less fun but also less annoying. It has a rather splendid lion and Cynthia Buchan does rather well as, to the best of my knowledge, the only Sealyham terrier in opera. Knussen conducts the London Sinfonietta and they sound really good. Continue reading
I was somewhat underwhelmed by my first encounter with Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Watching this recording of a 2004 La Scala production by Robert Carsen really opened my eyes. It’s the conducting that makes it I think, Riccardo Muti seems to find much more in the score than Jan Latham-Koenig. There are passages of great meditative beauty interspersed with quite shocking violence, all within an essentially tonal framework. It’s very striking. He’s helped by the sound on the DVD which is exceptionally vivid and three dimensional, even using the LPCM stereo option, though the Dolby 5.1 track is even better.
Robert Carsen’s 2004 production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival was apparently enormously controversial at the time. In many ways that says more about the iconic status of the piece in Salzburg tradition than about Carsen’s production. There are a few controversial elements. He has updated the period to 1914 and the third act is set in a brothel with a fair amount of nudity. Beyond that, the production is pretty faithful to the libretto and has, I think characteristic Carsen touches like long lines of tables and chairs and a certain geometric elegance. He seems to be using the sides of the stage to comment on the action which tends to be fixed centre stage. I say seems because the video direction (by Brian Large) is utterly perverse and makes it extraordinarily difficult to see what Carsen is doing, let alone decode it. We see the whole stage, maybe, for three seconds in the whole piece. Otherwise 99% of what we get is either close up and even closer up or apparently shot from the restricted view seats high up and close to the side of the stage. The other 1% is just plain nuts and includes a section of the Sophie/Octavian duet in Act 2 where, on stage, Octavian is maybe twenty feet to Sophie’s right but on camera he’s standing right up close on her left hand side. I could go on but I won’t. Suffice it to say the video direction comes close to wrecking an otherwise excellent DVD.
There are an awful lot of opera DVDs about. It sometimes seems like there’s a new Tosca or Traviata out every week, often for no apparent reason. It’s perhaps surprising then that some works don’t make it to DVD. One particularly egregious case would seem to be John Adams’ Nixon in China. It’s a good piece and has had plenty of productions both in North America and elsewhere. A couple of years ago I saw it twice in 24 hours; on a Friday evening at COC followed by the HD broadcast from the Met the following afternoon and I’ve been listening to an audio recording of the COC version on my walk to and from work. But there’s no DVD! I guess that the Met probably planned to release the HD recording but James Maddalena, the Nixon in the recording, was so obviously ill I was actually surprised that he continued after the interval and I guess that scuppered that. Continue reading
Until very recently one of the few good restaurant options within easy walking distance of the COC offices and the Kitten Kondo (since only a couple of hundred metres separate them) was a pretty decent locavore resto called Veritas. I’ve seen COC General director Alexander Neef in there more than once. Alas Veritas is no more. It has been replaced by what looks to be a hideously trendy and overpriced bar called the Pacific Junction Hotel. What’s a bit disturbing though is that this doubles the number of eateries in the ‘hood with Stiegl on tap (the other being the rather good, but also overly trendy , breakfast/brunch spot Le Petit Dejeuner. Stiegl is, par excellence, the beer of Regie. If beer features in a production by a controversial European director one can pretty much guarantee it will be Stiegl. Is this an omen? The 2012/13 COC season has Atom Egoyan, Peter Sellars, Robert Carsen and the Alden brothers directing 6 of 7 productions (surely enough to induce apoplexy in the National Post‘s Kaptainis). Are the hop leaves predicting a further shift away from the Lotfi Mansouri aesthetic? With this much Stiegl around can Herheim or Bieito be far behind?
One of the early Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts was a 2007 showing of Robert Carsen’s 1997 production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Renée Fleming. It was subsequently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Decca and remains one of the most successful disk releases spawned by the broadcasts.
The approach is minimalist. The enormous Met stage is blocked off by blank walls to form a gigantic open cube within which Carsen deploys a few bits and pieces of props. It’s the antithesis of the Schenk/Zeffirelli “stuff” aesthetic. Lighting (Jean Kalman) is used to create quite dramatic shifts of setting and mood. The opera opens on a stage blank but for a table and a lot of leaves (which in true Carsen style later get swept up by the chorus(1)). Later the passage of a night in Tatiana’s bedroom is suggested by changing lighting and a rustic ballroom is suggested by two rows of mismatched chairs, in contrast to the later “big city” ballroom where the chairs are opulent and all match. The space created by this minimalist approach exposes the characters and allows us to focus on their relationships and emotions. It’s very effective. Continue reading
I don’t think I’ve ever been to an opera with higher expectations than last night. The show was a piece I love; Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. My favourite director, Robert Carsen, was directing. The cast; Susan Graham (Iphigénie), Russell Braun (Oreste), Joseph Kaiser (Pylade), Mark Doss (Thoas) with solid young singers in the minor roles, was as starry as I have seen at the Four Seasons Centre. How could it live up to my expectations? All I can say is that it did.
The stage design for Carsen’s production is about as minimalist as it gets. The raked stage is enclosed by three plain grey walls in the form of a regular trapezoid. Occasionally a rectangular slab (altar) appears centre stage. The chorus chalk the words AGAMEMNON, IPHIGENIE, KLYTEMNESTRE on the walls and later Iphigénie erases them. The rest is done with lighting (Peter van Praet). Even the lighting plot is spare. The palette is predominantly blue-grey with orange/red appearing to symbolise the Furies and the violence of the history of the house of Atreus. Only at the very end does the gloom and claustrophobia lift. Within the gloom though van Praet creates ominous giant shadows of the characters which enormously enhance key scenes.
To play out the drama in this gloomy space Carsen uses dancers and places the chorus in the orchestra pit. Occasionally this leads to minor balance issues between the soloists and chorus but it is a small price to pay for the action on stage. In one particularly effective scene, the Furies carry Oreste and force him to walk sideways across the text of KLYTEMNESTRE. In another they turn into writhing serpents who back Oreste into a corner. In the final scene the “dea ex machina” element is handled about as well as I have ever seen it done. Diana (Lauren Segal) sings, unlit, from what sounded like Ring 4 stage left. The characters on stage are frozen. She resolves the drama and the stage walls rise about six feet to flood the stage with very white light. Unfussy and effective. All in all one feels that Gluck’s ideal of a “beautiful simplicity” is achieved. The one place where the minimalism is a bit of an issue is that all the characters pretty much look the same to the point where it isn’t always obvious who is singing. A good pair of opera glasses, a decent seat and knowing what the main singers look like helps here. I think the approach works in part because the drama moves ahead at a breathless pace. Wagner would need about fifteen hours to get through a story that Gluck manages in less than two hours.
Musically the evening was about as good as it gets. Pablo Heras-Casado pushed things along at a pretty fair pace but didn’t lose the drama. He was helped by some gorgeous woodwinds. The soloists were all quite excellent. Susan Graham owns this part, her rather bright mezzo suits the role and she sounded utterly in command. Joseph Kaiser and Russell Braun worked really well together in a reading that wasn’t as obviously homoerotic as some I’ve seen. Kaiser has a lovely Mozartian tenor and Braun has power and beauty of tone to spare. Mark Doss was appropriately violent as Thoas and I’d really like to see what he could do with something more lyrical. The minor roles were all more than adequately covered by local singers who will be familiar to anyone who frequents the Four Seasons Centre.
So, my unrealistic expectations were met and I thoroughly enjoyed one of the best evenings I’ve spent in an opera house. I’m late to the party though. If you want to catch this show Susuan Graham is singing just one more time on October 12th and there is a final performance with Katherine Whyte in the title role on October 15th.