Cher Public

All is forgiven

Why do we go to the opera? Because the world needs a reminder of the power of forgiveness, particularly in these dark and gloomy times! 

My interest was piqued when I heard William Christie and Robert Carsen collaborated to present a new edition of The Beggar’s Opera featuring his period-instrument band, Les Art Florissants and starring mostly West End singers. This production was premiered at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris last April, and had been (and continues) traveling around Europe till next February. (I heard it at Le Grand Théâtre de Genève on October 6.)

Carsen and Ian Burton wrote new texts for the performance. Musically, William Christie cut some 12 out of the 69 songs, and rearranged the order of many of the numbers to fit Carsen and Burton’s ideas. The new version, set in in contemporary London, was full with references like Brexit and selfies. As far as I know, this was also the first production of The Beggar’s Opera with a period-instrument band.

I feel that the updating helped to prove that the 300-year old piece was still as relevant as ever. After all, The Beggar’s Opera was also in its core a deep commentary on politics, poverty and social injustice; important lessons now more than ever.

Despite cutting the Beggar’s narrator, Carsen was determined to keep the poverty theme particularly intact. The set was a wall of cardboard boxes, and even before the opera begun, a homeless man was visibly laying on the stage begging. That wall of cardboard boxes cleverly transformed into various stage props throughout the show.

Unfortunately, The Beggar’s Opera also features ingrained misogyny as part of the story, most probably a reflection of times it was written, and I felt that Carsen didn’t really address that issue. If anything, he actually made it worse by making pretty much every woman in the show a whore. Also, the scene where Macheath was confronted by four pregnant women, but somehow he could easily get away from them all, felt a bit too on the nose.

I was very impressed with how committed Christie with this project. In ponytail and hip-hop clothes, he (and his excellent band of players) looked more like street performers than the esteemed Baroque masters. It was quite a nice surprise to see him that way.

The pièce de résistance of the afternoon actually came way early, when Christie and his players quickly unwrapped cardboard boxes to retrieve the (super-expensive) period instruments and began the Overture. Throughout the show, they didn’t just provide the excellent accompaniment for the singers, they also provide any sound effects needed, even acted as supernumeraries!

Carsen staged this more as a musical than an actual opera, and in an interview, he even mentioned that “When we started to work on it, Bill and I had the same feeling, that we should cast this as it was first written, with actors who were singers, rather than opera singers. They’re having a lot of fun with it, and they have the energy to put across the angry and slightly tough message that is in the show.”

Macheath’s gang were full of acrobatic dancers, for example, had the tendency to break into hip-hop moves as part of the awesome Rebecca Howell’s choreography. To see all those in an opera house, with a period-instrument orchestra, could get jarring, for me at the beginning, at least. But the audience loved them all!

As I mentioned earlier, the singers were mostly from the West End, and they were uniformly excellent. I guess because of their backgrounds, it seemed to me that they worked much closely as an ensemble, even down to the bows at the end, than a group of opera singers.

Of particular interest were Kate Batter and Olivia Brereton’s takes as Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockitt. They were both cloyingly sweet and unbearably obnoxious as Macheath’s lovers. I loved Robert Burt’s portrayal as Mr. Peachum; perfect balance between gentlemanly and sleazy. Lyndsey Gardiner’s dominatrix Jenny Diver was dangerously seductive and flirty.

I wasn’t too sold on Benjamin Purkiss’ rock-and-roll Macheath; his character was an asshole through and through, with not much redeeming value. To me, Macheath needed to be at least charming (how else would you explain all the pregnant women?) However, he was sufficiently devastated during the prison scene with the song “Tyburn Tree” (set to “Greensleeves”), you could almost feel like he would repent.

Unfortunately, he didn’t. Instead we got a deus ex machina: a pardon by the Queen, minus the original’s ironic commentary that this “happy” ending was tacked on merely to satisfy audience expectations.

In the end, I was glad to see this performance, as Christie and Carsen collaborations have always borne amazing fruit. This production will travel to Pisa, Athens, and various opera houses in France (including Versailles) the next few months. If you like a zany, irreverent production of this “anti-opera”, you could do worse than catching this production some time in the future. Just beware that a LOT of expletives are used in this show!

“Titus, who passionately loved Berenice and who was widely thought to have promised to marry her, sent her from Rome, in spite of himself and in spite of herself, in the early days of his empire.” thus spoke Suetonius, as translated by Jean Racine in the preface of his 1670 play, Bérénice.

Michael Jarrell has adapted Racine’s five-act tragedy into a compact and intense tug of war between love and duty. The same topic, albeit with very different ending, was also explored in another contemporary opera that was premiered just last year, the amazing George Benjamin opera Lessons in Love and Violence.

In this opera, Jarrell’s populated Bérénice’s world with much mystery, struggle, desperation and ultimately, determination.  Of particular interest was the following quote from Jarrell’s recent interview describing his thought process of adapting Racine’s play.

My relationship with the character of Berenice greatly evolved in the course of the writing process. At the beginning, I was touched by her purity. Then, the more I worked, the more I experienced a sort of disgust for her. I found her manipulative. … she understands that Titus really loves her, that he’s abandoning her not because he doesn’t love her anymore or out of a desire for power but because their love affair can never have a happy ending. At this moment, I think she changes her tone and it is thus that the tragedy culminates, with this impossible equation: she loves someone that she cannot have. In fine, it is Titus who touches me the most, although at the beginning I didn’t like him.

The music (heard October 7) powerfully represented that view of Jarrell. Bérénice started the opera with dignity and purity, and throughout the opera she progressively turned manic and agitated; while on the hand, Titus followed completely opposite trajectory.

In choosing to shorten the piece to merely an intermissionless 90 minutes, Jarrell essentially compressed these arcs into almost claustrophobic levels, resulting in what I perceived as a lack of motivation. Why did Titus choose the crown? Did he actually love her? Was he aware of Antiochus’ love for Bérénice?

Because of the source material for the libretto, this opera also turned our very wordy; everything was rattled off in long sequences of phrases. The result was that the music could get tedious at times, and there were times where my mind started to wander and I lost the continuity of the opera.

The handsome production by Claus Guth also mirrored Jarrell’s point of view. The stage was sparse yet elegant. He essentially divided the whole stage into three separate worlds; Bérénice on the left, Titus on the right, and (what I originally thought as Antiochus’ room but later it worked more as) the “collision” room in the center, where Bérénice and Titus (and Antiochus) pulled towards, and eventually, departed.

It was a symbolic rather than literal depiction of the characters, revealing nothing to the audience about who these characters were and why we should care about them.

Antiochus’ role was particularly puzzling to me; more so in the staging than in the music. Was he an active player in the love triangle, or merely just a messenger for Titus? I couldn’t really tell from the show whether his love for Bérénice was real or whether Titus considered him as his rival. Furthermore, he even betrayed his own supposedly cool demeanor by slamming himself violently to the wall towards the end!

Vocally the performance benefitted greatly from the magnetic turns by the two leads. Fresh from creating the role of Isabel in the aforementioned Lessons in Love and ViolenceBarbara Hannigan further cemented her status as the queen of contemporary opera with this title role. In the interview above, Jarrell added

I composed the role of Berenice with Barbara Hannigan in mind, having seen her in Written on Skin and in Pelleas et Melisande. When Berenice makes her entrance, she is quite calm, stoical. She thinks all will go according to her wishes. When she discovers that it is far from the case, the music becomes rather acrobatic and virtuoso. At the end, calm is restored, as if everything had turned to dust and ashes.

The role really exploited Hannigan’s strengths in so many ways. First and foremost, her clear soprano, almost sounded percussive at times, made it perfect candidate for contemporary operas, and in this case, it blended nicely with the large orchestra that Jarrell employed. She also possesses exceptional clarity on executing coloratura passages and extreme leaps. A great actress, she never shies away from the physicality demanded.

She met more than her match in Bo Skovhus as Titus; specifically chosen by Jarrell for the role as well. Another champion of contemporary operas, he offered an hypnotically raw, animalistic take, so much so that a lot of times I felt like I was watching A Streetcar Named Desire. His costuming enhanced that quality further.

But he was not all brawn. He tender moments of ethereal beauty as well.  His Titus was obviously troubled, torn between the two outcomes that would change the course of his destiny. In that sense, I surely wish his role as Roman emperor was indicated somehow, even if just by royal clothing or a crown. It wasn’t enough, for me at least, to have him being told about the Senate while he looked like he just got back from the gym!

I was a bit disappointed when I heard Florian Boesch, an intense performer that I love, canceled singing Antiochus about a month prior, and after seeing this, I wish he would have stayed on. Ivan Ludlow sang well enough, but he struggled to make impact with his acting against Hannigan and Skovhus. I guess this was another reason for my puzzlement about Antiochus’ role in this opera.

The other three supporting roles were handled well by Alastair Miles, Julien Behr and Rina Schenfeld, as confidantes (or assistants?) to Titus, Antiochus and Bérénice respectively, though they had little to sing.

I was glad I got to see this opera, and I wish I had opportunity to see it again to get full grasp of the texts for those moments where my mind shut off. The star qualities of Hannigan and Skovhus were undeniable, and they really lifted this piece into the stratosphere!

Why do we go to the opera? Some people go for hearty laugh, others for escape from the real world and for a good cry. However, most people are looking to be transformed, and that’s what you’ll get from any performances of Jenufa, especially one that was as good as the Dutch National Opera’s on October 8.

I should start my review with the bad news first. This opera, with its choruses of soldiers and village girls, seems realistically rooted in a specific time and place. I was disappointed that Katie Mitchell, fresh from directing Lessons in Love and Violence so successfully just four months prior, set the first act in a big city office space in modern times.  Jenufa was just one a number of clerks. This workplace was realized in great detail, including even a toilet that Jenufa used in one scene!

From there, things didn’t add up as Grandmother Buryjovka, Kostelnicka, Laca and Steva wander around that office (Was it a family-owned business?) and it was made more jarring when the chorus of soldiers came in (What office would allow such ruckus?) Alarmingly, both Laca and Steva tried to force Jenufa to have sex with them separately, yes, in that office.

However, things got better for Act 2 and particularly Act 3, because they differed much less from the original intention of the opera. The whole Act 2 was set in a huge trailer, with Jenufa’s bedroom on the lower level. There was something quite “Americana” in this staging, I couldn’t help thinking that Mitchell could easily reuse this set for Susannah!

I personally loved the set and direction for Act 3, set in a conventional living room, which I thought told the story efficiently. Yet I remained baffled why Mitchell chose to begin the opera in an office.

The performance was a marvelous achievement for everyone involved musically. Conductor Tomás Netopil, himself a native Czech, led the Netherland Philharmonic Orchestra in a reading that was loud, swift and clear. Although personally I’m not convinced of the notion that “only fellow countrymen can conductor a composer’s operas,” Janácek’s operas need a conductor that is sensitive to his “speech tunes” style (tunes derived from rhythm and inflections of speech), and so a Czech conductor usually is an asset.

I liked that Netopil kept the evening moving, and refused the tendency to turn this opera into wallowing melodrama. He did, however, threaten to drown the singers at climaxes, but they mostly rose to the occasion and refused to let that happen.

What a wonderful cast that the Dutch National Opera gathered for this run! The singers, a mixture of role debuts and veteran roles, excelled any expectations that I had. The DNO website called Annette Dasch’s role debut as title role “fulfilling a long-held dream of ours at DNO”, big words for a debut! She was truly mesmerizing as Jenufa, stoic yet maintained naive innocence throughout, particularly for the Act 3 where her devastation was almost too hard to watch.

Mitchell made her Jenufa pragmatic and strong-willed, more so than any other Jenufas I have seen in the past. Vocally, Dasch sounded lyrical and secure, and her voice showed versatility in blending well with her costars. The duet with Laca at the end was so ethereal and moving, making me rather embarrassingly cry buckets in the opera house!

But the night truly belonged to Evelyn Herlitzius as Kostelnicka, another role debut. To be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with her voice; but on this night, her steely soprano really soared. Her interpretation of the role was particularly interesting to me; at first she put on a cold, almost detached front, but as the opera progress we learnt that it was just a cover, shielding the love she had for Jenufa.

To complete the picture, veteran Hanna Schwarz, who had sung the stepmother role in many great opera houses in Europe, essayed Grandmother Starenka. Here too, she portrayed a different version of the grandmother; she was elegant, work(wo)manlike, far cry from the usual lovey-dovey type. In fact, looking back I noticed that Mitchell defined all three central women as strong and independent.

The DNO website for Jenufa  surprisingly only promoted the three women, almost forgetting that they had awesome cast in the men, particularly that of Laca. Pavel Cernoch, apparently the leading Czech tenor nowadays, was indeed spectacular. I always think Laca is a tough role to crack; he has to be an asshole for Act 1 (leading to that tragic slashing), yet he has to turn lovable for the remainder of the opera.

And Cernoch did just that, a brat in the first act, then turned heroic for Act 2 and 3. His voice sounded full and rounded, and as I mentioned before, the duet at the end was pure magical. On the other hand, Norman Reinhardt made a brash and cocky Steva, with almost no redeeming value.

The rest of the cast performed superbly. A night like this makes the stress and hassle of traveling more than worth it.

Photos: Patrick Berger (Beggar’s Opera); Monika Rittershaus (Bérénice);