Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bregenz Festival 2011: Lucky Miss Fortune

Miss Fortune/Achterbahn, Bregenz Festspielhaus July 24 2011

Judith Weir and Paul Daniel

Chen Shi-Zheng ..... director
Paul Daniel ..... conductor

Tina ..... Emma Bell
Fate ..... Andrew Watts
Hassan ..... Noah Stewart
Donna ..... Anne-Marie Owens
Simon ..... Jacques Imbrailo
 Lord Fortune ..... Alan Ewing
  Lady Fortune ..... Kathryn Harries

Prague Philharmonic Chorus 
Wiener Symphoniker

Of several recent events that I was able to see, I'd like to start with a blog entry about a new opera, a world premiere. I believe any plausible projection to what opera as an art form might be in the future could not be taken seriously without truly new operatic creations. They breath life and art to opera, especially when the  artistic managers of big opera houses keep reviving the ancient/stale productions, such as was recently the case with much discussed production of the Rosenkavalier in Munich that I will come back to in one of my next blog entries.

After a very-very positive experience I've had in Bregenz last year (that I blogged about here and here), I decided to make a trip to Lake Constance again and see Miss Fortune (a.k.a. Achterbahn), a newly commissioned opera by the Bregenz Festival and the Royal Opera House in London (where the same show will be premiered in March 2012.) Miss Fortune is composed by a reknowned British composer Judith Weir.

Before discussing Miss Fortune, I should add several lines about this year's atmosphere in Bregenz. Like in Munich, late July in Bregenz was excessively cold. If it wasn't Sunday (when all the shops are closed) I would have definitely bought myself a ski-jacket. It sounds like a travesty to know that at the same time the folks in the US struggled to survive a violent heat-wave.
Bad weather spoils the festive atmosphere and fun around the Festival house in Bregenz, although some brave people still resist and sip their drinks outside.

The Festival House is attached to the structure that hosts the Opera on the Lake, the spectacular productions for which the Bregenz Festival is known worldwide.

This year, in fact, they presented a new production on the Lake too: it is Andrea Chénier directed by Keith Warner, on the stage designed by David Fielding inspired by the work of a revolutionary painter Jacques-Louis David (and his paining The Death of Marat). The installation is obviously huge, very impressive and it is not surprising to see so many curious tourists coming to see Opera on the Lake in Bregenz, and many of them coming to see the sets during the day too.

I already mentioned my admiration for David Pountney who not only is a very good opera director, but is phenomenally running this Festival since many years. While Opera on the Lake is a spectacular show that attracts many people (many discover opera that way), David and his team present every year at the Festival Theater something special for aficionados too: a new production of an opera that is not or very rarely seen in the standard repertoire. This is precisely a role that an artistically ambitious and successful Festival should have. Operatic world should be grateful to Pountney for Krol Roger, The Passenger, La chute de la maison Usher, Karl V...
In Bregenz they organize a whole series of concerts dedicated to the same composer whose opera is staged at the Festival House. Since the number of rarely staged operas that could be a good Festival material is getting smaller (with an exception of Penderecki's Devils of Loudun!) they decided to commission new operas for the next several years, the first being Miss Fortune (or Achterbahn) by Judith Weir.

Judith must be thrilled to see her work celebrated everywhere in the town: concerts, Liederabend's, her older opera [Blond Eckbert] staged at the city theater, her new opera opulently produced at the Festival House and performed in front of the full house; and a poster of her decorating a lateral wall of the building.

I was not familiar with the work of Judith Weir and I obviously cannot say much after only one listening of  Miss Fortune, but for what it's worth I liked very much her music. Contrary to what we could recently hear in Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage --and his strange desire to awkwardly bridge a gap between the pop-music and contemporary opera-- Judith Weir is in research of new rhythmic forms that reflect a state of mind, an emotional state close to the men/women of our time. She is not trying to be too original with sounds, but rather seeks touching by making rich structures less atonal than what you usually get in contemporary opera but often surprising in terms of timings. What I particularly liked is that the musical choices are strongly related to the mood in each of the seven scenes of the opera. The libretto is actually very good but unfortunately quite badly described in the program. Since you certainly do not know anything about this opera, here is a synopsis (verbatim from the program - sic!)*

Scene 1: Tina checks her horoscope; her parents Lord and Lady Fortune host a fabulous party, during which, their vast wealth suddenly vanishes in a financial catastrophe. Tina declares she will find an honest job in the real world. Fate hovers in the background.
Scene 2: Tina finds herself in a sinister street and makes for a brightly-lit building.
Scene 3: The building is a garment sweatshop. The tired workers offer Tina a job sweeping the floor, which she accepts, believing it will be her entrée to the fashion trade. The workers finish their shift, leaving Tina to guard the premises. A mysterious gang of intruders enters and the workshop is destroyed. Alarmed and helpless, Tina escapes.
Scene 4: On waste ground, Hassan tends his kebab van and sings a poetic Aubade. Tina rushes in distressed; Hassan calms her and they watch the dawn together. Tina is briefly left in charge of the van which starts to shake as a gang of attackers break it to bits; Tina rushes away to escape the violence. Fate's voice is heard again.
Scene 5: Donna, in her laundry, ponders on the mysteries of the universe. Hassan bursts in distraught; meanwhile the sweatshop women leave town after the meltdown of their workplace. Tina appears, stunned and lost. Donna offers her laundry work which Tina sadly accepts. Fate sarcastically urges her on. Simon, a wealthy costumer, calls to collect  his shirts. Tina turns pale, and tells Donna about her troubles. Donna suspects involvement of Fate. She tells Tina to confront him, near a wasteland at the edge of town. Tina makes her way there.
Scene 6: At the deserted location, mystical words emerge from the ruins. Tina calls out to Fate; he replies. They reach an uneasy truce,
Scene 7: Several months later. Hassan begs in the street outside the laundry. Tina does all the work. Donna relaxes. News comes of a huge unclaimed lottery win in the next town. Fate arrives, incognito, as a costumer in the laundry. He gives Donna a paper strip full of strange numbers which she cannot match to any item in her shop and casts it aside.

A positive atmosphere arises. Simon enters to compliment Donna on her fabulous laundering. A ray of light strikes Tina and Simon is overcome with adoration. He recognises Hassan from his youth, and presses money on him.

The elegant women from Lady Fortune's party arrive depressed at the collapse of their own fortunes. The male party guests, also desperate, hope to find the missing ticket for the unclaimed lottery win. Lord and Lady Fortune return, ragged and unkempt, from a frightening foreign exile.
Tina emerges from the laundry with the paper strip left by Fate. All the numbers on it match the lottery win 0 except the final number, which is one digit out. Tina, moved by everyone's despair, calls on Fate to re-run the last few seconds, and for a moment the action moves backwards. Suddenly her ticket is found to be an exact match to the lottery win after all. She throws it to the crowd and leaves with Simon for her unknown future; whilst everyone else parties blissfully.

From the above you get an idea of what this opera is about, but if it was better written you would have understood three important elements that are so much in synch with our time:
(1) there is no moralizing cliché about money as of a source of [un]happiness,
(2) you are neither victim nor master of your fate --> corolary: you are both victim and master of your fate,
(3) some people learn from their experiences, some never do.

As for the stage director Chen Shi-Zheng, it is difficult to say much. On one hand I have a feeling he was chosen to attract the Chinese public to the world of contemporary operas. On the other hand, he is a movie producer and theater director and his experience shows -- this show flows very well. The staging is narrative but non-trivial, which is a choice to salute for the opera that is totally new for all of us. For the goodness of the stage action also responsible was Tom Pye whose sets are very well designed (the opening scene is maybe the most impressive, with Tina sitting on a large piece of something looking like a very large piece of broken glass -- in a improbable position from which one cannot predict if she would fall forward, backward, or sideways -- to highlight the role of fate from the beginning of the show), and to Scott Zielinski's lights.

In this opera Fate is impersonated. Throughout the show it [Fate] is always present in the background and only occasionally interacts with Tina: at first Fate uses its crew of break-dancers and acrobats to destroy the world around Tina and kill her hope of a better future, and later Fate meets Tina. The show is very dynamical, with images replacing one another and with actors very well guided. The extras and chorus did a very good job.  Paul Daniel, who I like very much, conducts brilliantly Fabio Luisi's orchestra that was responsive to all the subtleties of music by Judith Weir that Daniel wanted them to emphasize. There was never a moment in which the orchestra was too loud or sounded like a pile of tones -- which is regularly a worry in the contemporary opera performances.

This was the first time I could listen to Jacques Imbrailo in a live performance, and although his role in this opera is not very long, it contains a few lyric moments when he could show off his vocal qualities. To me his performance was the most impressive, together with Emma Bell who must have enjoyed singing this role that sits perfectly well with the middle range of her voice. Andrew Watts gave a strong performance as Fate.

Pountney managed to build a great reputation in Bregenz and people trust his choices and follow him. The [relatively large] auditorium of the Bregenzer Festspielhaus was packed with people. As usual David comes before the show to salute the audience and to welcome everyone and wish them to enjoy the show. It will be interesting to see how the London crowd will respond to this opera, that I believe is orders of magnitude better from Anna Nicole -- especially musically.

Production photos

And my cc pics:
Inside the auditorium

Chorus from Prague

Fate's Gang of Breakdancers

Anne-Marie Owens, Andrew Watts, Emma Bell, Jacques Imbrailo, Kathryn Harries, Alan Ewing

Paul Daniel

Judith Weir

The only pic that I managed to include also Noah Stewart (left)

* I even suspect Miss Fortune is a misspelled form of Misfortune --title of the Italian folktale that served as a basis for this libretto, Sfortuna-- and then later promoted to a wordplay.  Lucky Miss Fortune is then my (lame?) attempt to play along ;)

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