Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Still catching up - Bavarian State Opera "South Pole" and Opera Platform's "Manon Lescaut"

South Pole – Bavarian State Opera – Miroslav Snrka and Tom Holloway
What a curious subject for an opera, but what a terrific opera it is! Running at around two hours this performance was spell-binding!  chronicling the race to the South Pole by two teams: a British team lead by Robert Falcon Scott and a Norwegian team lead by Roald Amundson.  Ultimately Amundson arrived at the Pole first and Scott and his team died on his return trip. This is a matter of the historical record.  The opera captures the competition by placing the two teams opposite each other on the either side of the stage.  The cast is led by Thomas Hampson (Amundson) and Rolando Villazón (Scott).  They were both excellent, they both gave incredible performances both vocally and in their characterizations. Their supporting casts were also excellent. Amundson in particular seemed to have to deal with a fair amount of conflict and insubordination, this was captured and performed very well by the supporting cast.  On the other side, the death of the British team was heart-wrenching as they died one by one.  Rounding out the cast were Tara Erraught and Mojca Eerdman as the wives of Scott and Amundson.  These were fantasy conversations but did break up the intense winter trek and I felt was very effective.  The music is by Miroslav Snrka and the Bavarian State Opera website describes his compositional process some and it is pretty fascinating.  I have to say I did not pick up most of what is described, nevertheless I felt that the score was terrific.  Very powerful and moving. Finally the orchestra was terrific and hats off to the Berlin Philharmonic’s new conductor in waiting: Kirill Petrenko!

Sunday at the Opera – Latvian National Opera – Manon Lescaut – Opera Platform
Manon Lescaut is, in my view, a troubled opera.  The music is gorgeous and this is the primary reason it is performed I think, but the plot is troubled.  For example, there is a major cut in the action between the first two acts.  In the book there is a lot that happens between the meeting of Manon and Des Grieux in Amiens and when they find each other again after their torrid affair, his kidnapping by his father, his starting his work as a seminary student and so on.  The original story really is filled with narrative between Puccini’s acts 1 and 2 and even Massenet’s version includes much of what is cut – enough at least to make the narrative make sense. But not in Puccini! The two lovers run off, Geronte is mad but is assured by Lescaut that his sister will soon tire of the poor student.  Then the curtain goes up on act 2 and Manon is ensconced with Geronte.
I suppose it was this major break in the plot that led the director of this Latvian National Opera production to make Des Grieux in a priest in act 1.  It is the only reason I can think of because this device worked so incredibly poorly that it was the only rational explanation for such a completely illogical twist.  So, now in this production act 1 (still in Amiens) is a wedding.  Edmondo is the groom, and the bride is a super. The assembly is the wedding reception. The entire opera begins with Father Des Grieux blessing the couple in his role as the priest.  Everyone is a wedding guest. Of course this makes no sense.  No one seems to like Geronte so why would he have been invited in the first place and besides he seems to have a thing for the bride too.  One very interesting aspect of it all is that the bride is played as deaf and she communicates with everyone using sign language.  It is she who overhears Geronte’s plans to abduct Manon and then with sign language she tells Edmondo who then spills the beans to Des Grieux.  But wait.  Des Grieux is a priest.  He is supposed to be celibate.  All the banter about finding a girlfriend and finding love is wholly and completely inappropriate and out of place.  Even his behavior at this party is completely out of line for a priest – and this is now moved into the 20th century BTW.  Manon is some kind of friend of the bride.  Which again is a disconnect as Manon is supposed to be around 16 and the bride here was about 10 years older.  In short, the entire first act made no sense to me.
The rest of the opera also made no sense.  There was no boat in act 3 and I really have no idea where they were in act 4.  Act 2 is set in Geronte’s palace, but so many of the usual elements were missing that it just all didn’t make any sense at all.  I felt that on the whole the production is really, really poor.  I have no problem with updating and even reimagined Regie productions.  But there has to be some kind of inner logic.  It can’t be so far removed that the libretto and the stage action are completely at cross purposes.  This might need to happen occasionally but the best Regietheater productions are the ones where it is kept to a minimum and even completely reimagined the libretto and staging fit together, to some degree.  This was decidedly not the case with this production.
It is too bad that the production is so troubled as Asmik Grigorian again is magnificent.  She is fully engaged and invested in the production and in her role, and she signs like an angel.  I find her completely captivating and she is probably the reason I stayed with this performance until the end.  Her last act aria was gorgeous, despite the weirdness of the staging.  I liked the tenor Sergei Poliakov, and he was an effective actor.  Baritone Janis Apeinis was terrific as Lescaut but the Geronte was not up to the level of the rest of the cast and was quite a disappointment.

But Asmik again stole the show.  Her performances of Violetta and Tatiana, also on Opera Platform, are her best work.  For all of her vocal glory, the production is not worth watching.  Check her out in Onegin, and I hope we see her in the USA soon.

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