Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Sonostream

I am going to take the opportunity to review both operas currently available on a service called Sonostream.  The first opera I watched (about a month ago) was the Theater-an-der-Wien's outstanding production of Der Fliegende Hollander.  Tonight I watched the Glyndebourne production of the Handel Oratorio "Saul."  I'll start with the latter.  Here is the link for Sonostream - note that there is a small cost to be able to watch their operas.  Also there are no titles.

     Handel didn't invent the oratorio, but adapted it to suit his purposes.  It was a clever way to circumvent the law against operatic performances in Lent.  This is no opera - he could say - there are no sets or costumes or make-up plus the stories are all from the Bible.  Handel composed a number of these.  Curiously enough his most famous oratorio is the one which does not fit the pattern.  "The Messiah" really has no plot.  But the rest of them do: "Israel in Egypt," "Judas Maccabeus," "Samson," and "Saul" all have plots and characters.  In essence they are operas.  The one element which sets the oratorios apart from the operas of Handel is the use of the chorus.  The oratorios of Handel contain glorious choruses.  I believe it was this basic operatic feel which inspired the director and the Glyndebourne festival to mount this oratorio as a fully staged opera.  And this production has it all: beautiful costumes, elaborate make-up, sets, props, staging, a glorious and well-staged chorus, excellent dancers and a brilliant cast and orchestra.  Musically this production is superb.  Christopher Purve takes the title role and gives an incredibly physical performance of the King who sinks slowly into madness.  Vocally he was strong, though he had some trouble with the runs, but his presence on stage and his acting were outstanding.  Paul Appleby was a wonderful Jonathan, Lucy Crowe was glorious as Saul's daughter Merab and Sophie Bevan was equally glorious as the other daughter Michel.  For me it was countertenor Iestyn Davies who stole the show with his beautiful clear voice and his impeccable sense of style and musicality.  His aria near the end of act 1 was perhaps the highlight of the performance for me.  It doesn't hurt that it is one of Handel's most beautiful arias. Benjamin Hulett did a nice job, though I was never sure exactly who he was supposed to be, and vocally and musically John Graham-Hall was excellent as the Witch of Endor.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was brilliant and conductor Ivor Bolton did a fine job.
     The production itself is hard to describe.  Director Barrie Kosky was obviously attempting to present an interpretive representation of Saul's decline and destruction.  But for me it was too much. Certainly it was colorful and at times really interesting.  But I found act 2 in particular difficult to sit through.  Nothing really made sense to me - what was with the candles? And who exactly was Benjamin Hulett supposed to be playing?  He was a cross between Rigoletto and the Stage Manager from "Our Town."  I really don't mind Regie productions, but I get bothered when things just don't make any sense.  And for me at least most of act 2 made little sense.  Why was everyone in their underwear in act 2 for example?  And the scene with the Witch of Endor - which is musically one of Handel's greatest achievements - was almost impossible to watch.  It was offensive and gross - which I think is what the director was going for.  The choice of using a tenor for that role I found perplexing, though I thought having Saul sing Samuel's part was really insightful and clever.  THe bottom line is that I did not like the production as a whole, though some of it worked, not all of it did in my view.  But musically this was a terrific performance.
     I word about the score.  Of all of the oratorios I think Handel's score and orchestration is really interesting in this work.  We have bells, harp and an extended organ solo (almost a concerto).  And the staging of the organ concerto was great.  I really enjoyed watching him play even if it was a little dizzying.  And the use of the bassoons in the Endor scene is really fun.  Too bad it was hard to listen to because of what was going on on stage.

On to Flying Dutchman:
"Der Fliegende Holländer" from the Theater an der Wien watched on Sonostream - BTW this is not free there was a small minimal cost to watch - 4.99 Euros - well worth the cost.
     This is perhaps one of the most interesting productions of Flying Dutchman I have ever seen. It is a Regie production, but I think it is one of the best of that genre. This was an immensely creative, powerful and provocative production. First of all, they used the very original version of the opera from 1841, and this version actually predates the opera's Dresden premiere for which Wagner made some changes. Although I have seen this opera on multiple occasions I do not know the score well enough to have recognized any major musical changes - except for the very last scene - the excellent double chorus of sailors seemed a little more extended - which is a nice way of saying it seemed to go on and on (this is the section before the Ghost sailors join in). The other major changes were in character names - instead of Daland and Erik we now have Donald and Georg and the setting is now in Scotland and not in Norway. Other than that I didn't feel that there was anything that was substantially changed.
     The performance itself was a musical feast and a triumph. The entire cast was terrific as was both the chorus and orchestra. For me the major stand-out was Bernard Richter as Georg (Erik). Now that is something, when the Erik is so good that you find yourself wishing he actually had more to sing! But he was absolutely tremendous. What a gorgeous, full voice. He almost sounded lyric to my ears, but he had the power that he needed. I was blown away (an apt metaphor for this opera I think) by this tenor! This is not to say there was anything wrong with anyone else - everyone else was top notch even down to the Steuermann and Mary. The magnificent bass Samuel Yuon sang the Dutchman with power and authority, though he wasn't overly sympathetic, which I think was intentional, he was harsh and damaged, on the edge of being violent. Ingela Brimberg was no wilting flower as Senta - gone from this production is the almost pathelogical savior complex that seems to go with this character. She was easily the best Senta I have ever experienced both vocally and acting. Lars Woldt was a fine Donald (Daland).
     Now the production - where do I start? First, the set is unbelieveable, it is perhaps one of the most complex sets I have ever experienced. I can't even begin to describe it. So - SPOILER ALERT - I can't talk about this without giving away the really creative ending at least a little. So stop reading if you want to be surprised. At the beginning there is a dancer - a Satan/Ghost character of sorts - other dancers join him and one writes the word "Erlösung" on the set - Redemption which is a key theme in this opera. The Dutchman is desperately seeking redemption. But in this production Senta is also seeking redemption and she is not going to find it in the closed, stifling and claustrophobic world of Georg (Erik) or in her father's greed. This production is then a journey for both of them towards redemption - self-actualization perhaps. I have always hated the ending of this opera. Wagner's ending has always really bugged me - Senta throwing herself into the sea and all. Not in this production - both of them find redemption and in the end we discover that there is a new word written on the set - "Erwartung" - Expectation. It is simply brilliant. Yes, this is a Regie production, but it is one of the best Regie productions I have ever seen and this director's interpretation provides (at least for me) some redemption of what I think is a rather weak and tiresome plot. Did I get it all - not on your life. There was a lot in this production and I probably missed a fair amount of it. I would probably need to watch it multiple times - which I actually might. This is an outstanding production.
     Finally, I had little hang ups with the stream itself (with both operas) - was that them or my rural internet? Probably the latter - I don't quite understand how I can watch like the Berlin Phil and YouTube and never ever have a streaming problem but then the Vienna Staatsoper and Sonostream hang up a lot - especially the Staatsoper. Anyway, it was worth putting up with because of the brilliance of the production.  (By the way - there are no titles).


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