A very dark Hänsel und Gretel @ Music Conservatory of Antwerp

12985603_1260084287354726_1351612629243840063_nThe music Conservatory Antwerp presented a reworked version of Hänsel und Gretel by Humperdinck. The opera lasted exactly 1 1/2 hours and was arranged for 12 instruments (violin, viola, celle, soprano and alto sax, harp, piano and percussion). The director was Stany Crets, a Flemish actor, director and writer, who sees the fairy tale as a nightmare/psychological horror story. The plot is set in skid row: pallets, oil barrels, a few mattresses on the floor and tires represent the impoverished district. Hänsel has some sort of physical challenge and is wheeled around in a wheelchair by Gretel, dirty from working hard. Hänsel and Gretel are children of marginalized people. The mother drinks, and maltreats them before she sends them into the wood. Her suicide attempted with a gun shot in her mouth to escape the misery of life is interrupted by the arrival of the father. The father’s arrival with his uplifting optimism is pure sarcasm in a world without hope, where drug addiction and booze dominate life. The drunk, violent father stumbles and falls, sniffs cocaine, knocks his wife about and rapes her. Act two sees the children in the woods and one can hear screams of tortured and abused children. The Dew Fairy and the Sleep Fairy’s only task is to lure the children to the witch’s house by drugging them with pills and syringes. There is no witch but rather a sadistic couple which share the witch’s dialogue. Being in Belgium one thinks immediately of Marc Doutroux and Michelle Martin, the couple who sexually abused and tortured 6 children in the 90s. And in fact the scenes of sex and violence follow one another with Hänsel and Gretel tied to a “bed”, violently hit and sexually abused (even with a broomstick). When the children finally kill their tormentors, the meeting with the parents does not give the sense of relief that it gives in the traditional story. Relief that is partially lifted only when the children throw their parents into the fire, with which the story ends. The interpretation in a dark key was interesting but the director chooses they easy way out by continually shocking with physical and sexual violence. This becomes monotonous and boring as it is the single only idea the whole story is based on.

12998473_1260084277354727_8197667351791838855_nMusically the evening was more interesting. The arranged orchestra was adequate although the saxophone (or the arrangement) sometimes gave it a kurt Weill-sound. But the voices were well accompanied. Some of the voices were a bit coarse, with many harsh edges, especially in the top notes and when the acting required a more “realistic” feel. But some of them are very promising. Personally I loved Lisa Newill-Smith as Gretel (who had also an good German pronunciation) and enjoyed the “female witch” Lisa Willems. All in all an interesting evening. I hope the conservatory will repeat this experience, although I would much prefer an original orchestration and an easier opera that wouldn’t strain the voices too much.

IMG_5272[1]Regie-Stany Crets, Conductors-Mart Aus en Jaume-Blai Santonja Espinos (Act 1 and 2), Stijn Paredis (Act 3), Instrumentation-Jasper Charlet, Ewa Demianiuk, Vigdis Elst, Eduardo Bemelmans, Bianca Bongers, Liesbeth Decrock, Fábio Tiago Carneiro Videira, Tom Collier, Bram Rooses, Scenografie-Hugo Moens, Kostuums-Cleo Foole en Cisse Royens, studenten Kostuumontwerp van de Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Hänsel-Laure-Catherine Beyers, Gretel-Lisa Newill-Smith, Vater-Lars Corijn, Mutter-Astrid Joos, Knusperhexen-Lisa Willems, Mathis van Cleynenbreugel, Sandmännchen-Sara-Anne Rousseau, Taumännchen-Isabelle Storms, Viool-David Bester, Altviool-Pablo Corcoles Ramos, Veerle-Demey, Cello-Beatriz Laborda Gonzalez, Saxofoon-Eduardo Bemelmans, Dries Meerts, Harp-Marjolein Vernimmen, Piano-Polina Bogdanova, Robert Van Heek, Percussie-Sander Van der Kloot, Benjamin Verstraete, Maarten Warson (performance of 21/04/16)

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La Juive @ the Opera of Flanders

IMG_2105[1]The Opera van Vlaanderen staged La Juive by Fromental Haléy. This grand opera follows the fortune of other grand opera such as Guillaume Tell and Les Huguenots. One enters with mixed feeling into the opera house seeing heavily armed police at the entrance doors. In 1830 Europe other countries were equally careful, albeit for different reasons, such as Italy, where staging a cardinal was unthinkable. It is therefore surprising, how easy it was, at the first staging of the opera (and how marginally the local press touched the socio-political topic in a Paris, which went through all the horrors of religious wars and suppression), how easy it was, I was saying, to stage not only a whole council, but a plot which involves conflicting religions (present day problems then and now), horrible death sentences, and religious intolerance (from both sides).

At the first staging of the opera 23 February 1835 the setting was so magnificent, so spectacular, so outstanding that one could barely hear the music. Berlioz was present during that performance and wrote in his distinctive irony: “Malgré les efforts qu’on a faits pour empêcher d’entendre la partition, malgré le cliquetis de de toutes ces armures, ce piétinement de chevaux, ce tumulte populaire, ces volées de chloches et de canons, ces danses, ces tables chargés, ces fontaines de vin, malgré tout ce fracas anti-musical de l’Academie Royal de Musique, on a pu saisir quelques-une des inspirations du compositeur”, which, roughly translated reads as: “Despite the efforts that were made to prevent hearing the score , despite the rattling of armours, the trampling of horses, the crowd’s tumult, the sound of bells and cannons , the dances , the loaded tables, the fountains of wine , despite all anti-musical racket of the Royal Academy of Music , one could grasp just a few of the composer’s inspirations.”

IMG_2108[1]We certainly didn’t have this problem with the staging of the Opera van Vlaanderen. The scene is almost empty with just a few stairs in the first act, a table in the second act (to celebrate Jewish Passover) and a bed in the third. The choreography of the singers is conventionally silly: for eg while the chorus sings from the stalls at the end of act 1, the soloists just “act desperately” on a totally empty stage. Eudoxie is a hyperactive, alcoholic woman whom (in her first entry when she visits Eleazar to buy the “joyau magnifique”) we see waiving a bottle of champagne in one hand and a gun in the other. In the anathema of act three, cardinal Brogni tears the bed apart and throws the pillows to the Christians around them…. At the anathema!… A Cardinal!!… Throwing pillows!!!… One feels almost like praising the idea of the coloured hands: Christians have blue hands, Jews have yellow hands, sometimes they hide their hands in the pockets in order to hide their faith and the symbol is used throughout the opera, also in prison when Eudoxie comes to beg for Leopold’s life. Eudoxie and Rachel wash the colour off their hands and sing the stretta with “clean” hands to show that finally love and friendship are more important regardless which god you pray to. Not too bad as symbol, maybe a bit infantile, but bon…I’ve seen worse.  But then the director messes up everything by making the two women whirl in circles, laughing like girls and roll on the stage like on a blooming meadow. While Leopold is being sentenced to death!… Circling like girls!!… Laughing!!! But these are just examples of an overall very disappointing and superficial interpretation. One word on the lights: it’s hard to enjoy the evening if one is constantly forced to move from the plot of the opera to the real world. Since the action often moves to the stalls, these were regularly lit with bright light. How disillusioning is it to see people pulling down their skirts suddenly realizing they are observed, to see people yawning, leaning into bored positions. Then again on stage at the end of act 4 some of the main singers were so badly lit, one could hardly see who was singing. And then some of the light just went off similarly when pushing a light switch at home.

IMG_2112[1]Musically things went better. Roberto Saccà is a credible Eleazar, still able to move with his interpretation and he manages the range with ease and interprets the declamation passages well. Jean-Pierre Furlan had a less appealing timbre and a slightly stretched high voice but his interpretation was very moving.

Asmik Grigorian as Rachel has a lovely voice especially in the middle register. Sometimes her top notes sound stretched also, especially in the finale of act one and the musically marvelous duet with Léopold in Act II. Overall the singing was convincing in a murderous role which was created by nobody less than Cornélie Falcon (the first Valentine in Les Huguenots, just to name one). Gal James’ had a more cautious approach which made her low notes less vibrant and rich, but both rendered a touching Rachel.

I was personally put off by Nicole Chevalier’s Eudoxie due to the hyperactivity of the acting but she sang indeed very well with good top notes, agile passages and a rich middle register. As did Elena Gorchunova, with a more balanced interpretation. The big problem in this production was the Léopold part. While Randal Bills’ Leopold sounded muffled, Robert McPherson ‘s voice was unbearably throaty. Both of them are cast in Rossini ‘s Armida next season which, allow me, is inconceavable. Dmitry Ulyanov’s Brogni reached all the extremely low notes although his interpretation lacked in showing the ambivalent nature of the cardinal (which might be attributable to the director also), Toby Girling was an acceptable Ruggiero. The chorus sang the very impervious score extremely well.Tomas Netopil directed with much verve and motivation this far too rarely performed music. Verve which which was less obvious with Yannis Pouspourikas

Conductor-Tomas, Netopil (2/5), Yannis Pouspourikas (21/4, 2/5), Direction-Peter Konwitschny, setting-Johannes Leiacker, costumes-Johannes Leiacker, lights-Manfred Voss, Dramaturgy-Bettina Bartz, Luc Joosten, Rachel-Asmik Grigorian (21/4, 2/5) Gal James (6/5), Le Juif Éléazar-Roberto Saccà (21/4, 2/5) Jean-Pierre Furlan (6/5)Le Cardinal de Brogni-Dmitry Ulyanov, Léopold-Randall Bills (21/4, 2/5) Robert McPherson (6/5), La Princesse Eudoxie-Nicole Chevalier (21/4, 2/5) Elena Gurshova (6/5), Ruggiero-Toby Girling, Majordome-Thierry Vallier