Saturday, 26 November 2011

Strauss from Diener, Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia

It's a little while since I've been so enthralled and moved in one concert as I was at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday. The appeal of the programme had been difficult to resist, with three of Richard Strauss's best-known and best-loved works (Don Juan, The Four Last Songs and Till Eulenspiegel) in one programme. The Mozart symphony we got at the beginning of the second half, the 'Little' G-minor K.183, had seemed a strange choice on paper, particularly in a programme of such un-Mozartian Strauss. And so it proved in practice; efficiently performed, and with no lack of charm in parts, it seemed condemned to remain a little palate-cleanser.

Tim Ashley's review of the concert also picked up on this, and he is right, too, to have found the opening Don Juan touch underwhelming; you really have to hit the ground running with this piece, with every piston and gear of the orchestral machine fully greased up. The Songs and Till were much better. In fact, that's an understatement. I was left a great deal more moved and affected by Melanie Diener's singing than I'd expected. Diener's not a singer I've heard live many times, and my last encounter with her in recordings was in a Fidelio from Zurich on DVD, where she -- like most before her -- was taxed as Leonore. The sound was always gleaming and noble, but intonation could be unreliable. There were a couple of problems with intonation on this occasion, too, hints of which can be heard on this account of 'September' (excuse the naff accompanying picture) with the Tonhalle Zurich and David Zinman, part of their excellent complete-ish set of the orchestral works (a great complement to that other Straussian bargain, Kempe's 9-cd Dresden set on EMI).

But I was unprepared for the wonderful, understated artistry -- a hopelessly airy-fairy term, I know, but the only one that will do --  Diener brought to Thursday's performance. The texts came across with easy clarity, as did the almost unbearable sense of resignation, melancholy, autumnal wisdom (you can take your pick of adjectives from the Lexicon of Lateness) that pervades these great songs. I must have fifteen or so recordings on disc, many of which have greater purely sensual appeal, but it was lovely to be reminded of the emotional force these pieces can have live. It'll be interesting to hear if Renee Fleming, for all the creamy beauty of her voice, will be as moving as Diener when she brings the songs to the RFH later in December -- unfortunately I can't go, but I will be intrigued to hear reports. Nor, can I imagine, will that concert's conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, find the same marvellous balance between sensuality, clarity and momentum Dohnanyi found on Thursday. (Anyone familiar with Fleming's recording with Eschenbach will know that forward momentum was pretty low down the list of priorities on that occasion, as it is in this live 'Im Abendrot' from the Proms).

Finally a few words about this concert's scintillating performance of Till Eulenspiegel -- a work written by Strauss, it's always worth remembering, some 55 years before the Four Last Songs. I'd much admired Dohnanyi's live account of the work with the Philharmonia on Signum (coupled with Ein Heldenleben), and in this riotously enjoyable account everything seemed right. It's easy enough, I'd imagine, to get a quality orchestra to give their all in Strauss's brilliant surface details, but to have it all hold together so naturally as a structure (musicologists have long tussled with Strauss's  formal description of the work as 'in Rondeauform') was a measure of Dohnanyi's skill. Great stuff.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Opera North's Ruddigore at the Barbican

Photo: Robert Workman

Opera North’s Ruddigore had received glowing reviews when it was unveiled in Leeds early last year, and I was very pleased to be asked along to the Barbican to see it. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, though. And I should admit I’m no paid-up G & S fan, even though I did a brief stint in King’s College London’s esteemed G & S society (Gilbert was an alumnus of King's; Mike Leigh popped by, apparently, to see our Pirates as part of his research for Topsy Turvy). 

I’ve seen Jonathan Miller’s classic ENO Mikado a couple of times: once nearly fifteen years ago, with a sense of untrammelled glee; a second time, four or five years ago, with a slight sense of weariness. This is all very well, I can remember thinking, but I was constantly reminded of other operas and wished I was hearing them instead. I can also remember finding something a little dispiriting about what I felt to be the whole 75%-capacity-ness of the idiom, that we apparently hear a composer happily coasting and singers and players never being unduly taxed by demands made upon them. And if The Apprentice has taught us anything, it’s that nothing less than 110% is sufficient these days.  

Such a feeling, of course, comes in part out of inappropriately gauging Gilbert & Sullivan against the various criteria -- inherited from the nineteenth century -- traditionally used to judge artistic achievement. A composers’s importance relied on his or her ability to keep up with the avant-garde; a work's on whether or not it had much to do with whatever the Weltgeist was dictating. Gilbert & Sullivan are so gloriously unconcerned with these sorts of things, though, that it’s impossible not to like them. That these two Victorian gentlemen could produce Ruddigore in 1887, five years after Wagner gave the world Parsifal, provokes a special sort of admiration. (It’s probably best not to extrapolate here into the sort of national stereotyping, though, that takes special pride in the very moderateness of G & S compared to Wagnerian extremes.) 

We should also, naturally, bear in mind that, as with virtually any collaboration, the end work hides all sorts of behind-the-scenes struggles (David Russell Hulme outlined these in a programme essay). Ruddigore still has certain number of seams showing, but, as Hulme and Gary Yershon (in his note) explain, the piece was actually trying to reconcile several different aims, while its preposterous plot featuring curses, ancestral halls coming to life and a Mad Lady accompanied by Lucia-like flute was parodying above all the hoary melodramas beloved of the British stage at the time. (There’s a bit of an introduction to the piece in Opera North’s trailer, below).

Maybe this little pre-amble is designed to assuage the slight sense of guilt I feel for having enjoyed this show, sharply and cleverly directed by Jo Davies, so much. I think it’s probably too late for the sort of conversion Michael Simkins described in an amusing programme note (‘Sometime in 1973 … an incident occurred that changed my life forever. Overnight my well-ordered life spiralled out of control as I found myself in the thrall of forces beyond my ability to resist. I’d fallen for the Savoy Operas’), but I realise once and for all that there’s a very special sort of pleasure to seeing these works done well. And here it was unequivocally done well, with Davies striking the perfect balance between knowingness and affection that seems so essential for making these pieces work. We’re never allowed to take anything too seriously, but nor is there ever any sense of condescending to the piece’s period quaintness. Quaint it might be, but a lot of it still comes across as brilliantly sharp. 

None of it would have worked without the whole show being so snappily executed. The Opera North Orchestra did have moments of unsteadiness, and the Barbican Theatre’s acoustic gave them nowhere to hide in the overture, in particular; but generally ensemble was tight, the footwork was snappy and the movement around the stage choreographed with the sort of precision that can’t help but raise a smile. The cast all sang, acted and danced their way through the evening with aplomb. The men, I felt, were particularly good: Grant Doyle was a charming Robin Oakapple, Hal Cazalet was full of boundless energy as his half-brother Richard Dauntless and Steven Page outstanding as Sir Roderic Murgatroyd. 

Monday, 21 November 2011

Castor and Pollux at ENO

Photo © Alastair Muir

I caught up with ENO’s new staging of Rameau’s Castor and Pollux on Saturday night, and should admit to being pleasantly surprised. The show hadn’t elicited much enthusiasm from the critical fraternity; or, rather, the opera itself and Barrie Kosky’s staging hadn’t. And the latter, in particular, was very concept-heavy without really succeeding in communicating what the concept might have been.

I’d had a chuckle at Boulezian’s description of the parts of the show ‘resembl[ing] a class for mature potty training’, but had forgotten that the production had also come with a warning of scenes of a sexual nature. There was the genital groping of Laura Tatulescu’s Phébé at the end of the first half, then, followed by full-frontal nudity in the second half, which arrived to predictably flaccid, yawn-inducing effect. (It was good to see those exposing themselves getting their own curtain call, though.  It reminded me of the naked extra in Romeo Castellucci’s La Monnaie Parsifal earlier in the year, who, having laid back, legs-akimbo, for a quarter of an hour in Act 2 exposing her vulva to the audience (and to a poor  Hartmut Haenchen trying to keep a firm hand on Wagner’s Bühnenweihfestspiel), was granted her own sheepishly-taken curtain call.)

This nudity seemed to fit in, I suppose, with production’s obsession with the portrayal of regressive behaviour – into the animalistic and infantile. But it all got a bit wearing, and, as many others have pointed out, rarely did much to clarify the opera’s rather perfunctory action. Nor was it ever clear what Kosky was hoping to demonstrate by all the running about he forces his cast to do, apart from the minor engineering triumph involved in keeping certain parts of one leading lady’s anatomy within her skimpy dress.

Photo © Alastair Muir
I did rather like the imagery of Castor lying on a mound of soil after his death, though, which allowed for some movingly earthy mourning from Sophie Bevan’s Télaïre. (Most of the business with the soil in the second half, however, was rather far to the left of the stage and can’t have been visible to a big chunk of the audience; I couldn’t see it from my seat just left to the stalls’ left-hand aisle). 

There was a touch of magic in the star dust used to show Castor and Pollux once they’d been turned into their constellations. There must be a proper word for this process, à la apotheosis, but a quick Google has proved fruitless; it’s one bursting with opportunities for lavish directorial sleight of hand, though, that few seem willing to explore. (David Alden’s Royal Opera La Calisto chickened out a bit, too, if I remember rightly).  

As a show, it all skipped by enjoyably, not least due to the endlessly fluid and elegant musical direction from Christian Curnyn. Granted, the score doesn’t necessarily hang together much from number to number, but it has an airy grace all its own. There was some outstanding singing, too, particularly from Allan Clayton in the stratospheric tessitura of Castor’s writing.

Most of the negative comments to be found in the reviews were well-founded and reasonable, but I was very pleased to enjoy the show more than perhaps I’d expected. And it was good to see that ENO had managed to get so many bums on seats, even if the ticket collection queue was so long as to delay the start. All in all, this Castor struck me as a most worthwhile addition to what’s been a great ENO season so far; and it certainly awakened a desire to see more Rameau on the British stage. I won’t hold my breath, though. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Stephen Hough plays Grieg & Liszt Concertos (CD Review)

Stephen Hough (piano); Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton (Hyperion CDA67824: 69 minutes)

One of Hyperion’s longest running projects is its Romantic Piano Concertos series. But it presents this repertoire in recordings that make a habit of stripping away what one might view as the excessive, overblown—indeed, what some might term ‘Romantic’—habits that can attach themselves to such works. The prolific Stephen Hough does this better than most, and although this disc is released independently of the Piano Concertos series, it features Hough, enthusiastically aided and abetted by Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic, in a fresh, spruced-up account of the ever-ubiquitous Grieg concerto, coupled—unusually but effectively—with Liszt’s two concertos. The playing from both soloist and orchestra is detailed and considered, and one constantly has the feeling that Hough and Litton have gone back to first principles, that each marking in the score has been discussed and applied, dynamics carefully noted and tempo directions graded.

This is apparent right from the start of the first work on the disc, Liszt’s E-flat concerto, where the piano's lower octaves are tightly clipped. As the performance progresses, there are new little surprises: emphases here and further clipped phrases there. Each time we slip into a mood of reverie, Hough’s delicate, languid touch is exquisite, while he brings impeccable clarity to the more virtuosic writing and an appealing perkiness to the lighter passages. Nothing in the accompaniments is perfunctory. The same goes for the A-major work, where one also notices particularly fine solo work from the Bergen players.

Yet, for all the immense skill and taste on show, I couldn't help wishing for a bit more sense of danger. The first concerto’s scherzando writing should give a sense of dancing atop a powder keg, while the stormy interjections to the Quasi adagio should sound less comfortable. I also missed the sense of drama Hough achieved in the furious dash to the finish when he performed the work with Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Festival Hall earlier in the year. Similarly, the big b-flat minor passage in the second concerto seemed a touch polite, while Hough’s furious final glissando in the final Allegro animato sounds a bit incongruous in the context.

I suppose similar observations apply to the Grieg. Here we have another outstanding traversal of the score: intelligent, beautifully played, expertly gauged and controlled. Once again there’s outstanding solo work from the Bergen orchestra: both bassoon and horn are exquisite in their turns at accompanying the piano in the first movement’s second subject; the flute sings out the finale’s lyrical tune beautifully (even if the breaths break up the slurs as marked in my score). Hough’s playing is a model of crystalline virtuosity, spiced up with the occasional unexpected kick or shift in tempo (often, in fact, a reflection of one of Grieg’s markings). I did wish, however, for a bit more sense of abandon in the first-movement cadenza, or the occasional  sacrifice of voicing for a more visceral sense of excitement. The decision to cut the speed and belabour the piano’s oom-pahs when the finale’s first idea returns, meanwhile, produced a jarring effect and made me question anew whether or not that movement’s basic tempo wasn't a notch too slow.

A lot of this is just quibbling, though, and for more grandly rhetorical pianism, or for more homogenised tempos, there’s no shortage of other recordings. It says a great deal for this disc that its intelligent, musical approach to these works distinguishes it in an overcrowded field. These are interesting, refreshing accounts of familiar pieces that are well worth hearing.

[Available from Amazon or direct from Hyperion]

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin

English National Opera, 12 November 2011

There were so many good things about ENO's new Onegin that I was sorry to leave the Coliseum last night feeling a little underwhelmed. Deborah Warner's production, which will make its way to the New York Met in 2013, is a handsome thing. Tom Pye's sets are lavish, often look ravishing in Jean Kalman's lighting and have an expansive, wide-screen grandeur to them. That last quality finds an equivalent in the pit where Edward Gardner coaxes some gloriously full and lyrical playing from the ENO orchestra, whose big sound filled out the orchestral climaxes wonderfully -- there was an especially fine moment as music and staging came together for a sun-rise at the end of the letter scene. For the cast, ENO have assembled some very fine voices too. But what, then, was missing? Put simply, it was any sense of identification with Tatyana and Onegin.

Part of the problem seemed to be with Pye's sets. Act 1 took place in a large barn, reproduced on stage with an exaggerated photographic realism, that seemed only to make sense for the first scene: were we supposed to believe Tatyana slept there as well? (Amanda Echalaz is shown in the barn above right.) Once we'd left the barn behind, the later sets were accommodated between mirrored side-walls and floor, and, from the Larina's house for the ball, became less straightforwardly photographic. Acts 2 and 3 therefore had something to link them -- quite effectively, as it happens -- that made the barn seem all the more unrelated.

But the sets' grandeur rather precluded the sort of intimacy the opera demands. Nor had Warner managed to work out how to negotiate the big spaces it provided; the profusion of extras we got certainly didn't provide the solution. There was too much unmotivated coming and going, I felt, and too many exchanges took place with characters at some distance from each other. There were also an awful lot of grand gestures -- falling down, flinging oneself to the floor and suddenly forgetting how to sit on a chair -- to demonstrate the kind of emotions that, it seems to me, are better portrayed by subtler means. Perhaps, though, these were a last resort for Warner to try to persuade us to believe in a central relationship that was fatally short on chemistry. For, while Audun Iversen's Onegin (above right with Toby Spence's Lensky) didn't really do much wrong, nor did he show the sort of charisma that the whole drama depends on. It is telling that he seemed better suited to the sober arguments for rejecting Tatyana in Act 1 than the reverse emotions in Act 3, despite the powerful vocalism. Similarly, there's not a great deal to fault with Amanda Echalaz's powerful singing of Tatyana's music, but nor is there much sense of genuine emotional turmoil, of the subtle interplay of feelings.

Neither was helped, I suppose, by the fact that, by contrast, Toby Spence (pictured, left, during his aria) was brilliant at making the most of Lensky's more overtly heart-on-sleeve passions, all but bringing the whole focus of the drama onto the tragedy of his death. Spence was outstanding, singing with sensitivity and sincerity and capturing the 'disposition ardent and rather quaint, an ever-enthusiastic manner of speech' of Pushkin's own description (extracts of Roger Clark's new translation were featured in the programme).

Claudia Huckle made a strong impression as Olga, Tatyana's uncomplicated sister ('always unassuming, always submissive, always as cheerful as the morning, etc.'). There was good strength in depth in the cast, too, with Brindley Sherratt popping by as a sonorous, touching Gremin and Adrian Thompson clearly having fun as M. Triquet (his French ditty, a challenge to the ENO all-English policy, was thankfully still sung in French, but with French surtitles). Diana Montague and Catherine Wyn-Rogers were Madame Larina and Filippyevna respectively.

I left reflecting on why Tatyana and, above all, Onegin are among the most difficult operatic roles to get right on stage -- it's difficult to portray melancholy and world-weariness without losing the audience's sympathy. I hope, though, that Echalaz and Iversen will relax as the run progresses and let their own dramatic instincts replace the bolted-on gestures we got last night. If they do, this could become a powerful, impressive show.

[All photos (c) Neil Libbert for ENO]

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Pacino, Salomé and Wilde

I’ve just caught up with a little programme broadcast earlier this week on BBC Radio 4. It had been trailed as featuring Al Pacino talking about his passion for Oscar Wilde and, in particular, Salomé, which has been given the same sort of treatment as Richard III got in Pacino’s 1996 documentary Looking for Richard. It sounded intriguing, and it was. And it discussed the result of Pacino's fascination: Wilde Salomé, which was unveiled at this year's Venice Film Festival, where Pacino was awarded the less-than-snappily-titled Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award. The film's official website is here.

The Wilde/Pacino link might initially be unexpected. Both men have popular images that seem incompatible: Pacino is the high-octane Hollywood star; Wilde the father of many a decorous bon mot (in the trailer for the film, below, we see Pacino come across a blue plaque that describes Wilde as ‘wit and dramatist’ -- the 'wit' epithet is usually, I suspect, calculated to defuse the work of the 'dramatist').

Watching the trailer and listening to the BBC programme (which is linked to and summarised here), Pacino seems brilliantly, almost maniacally, engaged with his subject. The portentousness that creeps into some of his readings can be forgiven: it clearly comes out of honest and passionate conviction. And it’s difficult, on a more basic level, to resist the gravelly music of Pacino’s own voice. The programme makes much of the fact that Salomé – originally written in French, of course – is still very rarely performed. One of the experts claims it’s performed more often in Russia than The Importance of Being Earnest is performed ‘here’ (it’s unclear if ‘here’ is England, the UK, or the British Isles, of if the distinction’s important). There are the inevitable readings of the work as mirroring aspects of Wilde’s life – Wilde as Herod, Lord Alfred Douglas (Wilde’s young lover ‘Bosie’) as Salome – and the interesting observation that it is only ever performed in English in Bosie’s translation, which, if I remember rightly, Wilde was far from impressed with. The extracts we hear from the peformances of the play filmed for the documentary, mainly from Jessica Chastain's Salomé, sound extraordinary: deliberately weighted and pointedly reined-in in terms of emotion, with additional unexpected colour from the unapologetically unmodulated American accents. 

I suppose I'm duty-bound to observe, however, given my own personal biases, that it's strange there’s no mention (in the trailer or BBC programme, at least) of Richard Strauss’s wildly popular opera, which set a trimmed version of the play’s German translation. For it seems perfectly possible, in the UK at least, that just as many people have heard Wilde’s play in German, amplified by Strauss’s glitteringly insidious score, as have seen it either in Bosie’s translation or the original French. It’s fascinating to hear these snippets of Wilde’s play spoken rather than sung, though, removed from the Dionysian excesses of Strauss’s music (a few bars of Salome’s final scene adorn the top of this blog – one of the ‘fatal conclusions’ Strauss saw as coming at the end of his two ‘scherzos’, Salome and its successor, Elektra). But while a standard criticism of the opera is that Wilde’s detail and delicacy was bulldozed by Strauss’s 100-piece orchestra, one might also suggest that much of it’s lost when the play is translated out of French.

Anyway, here’s an excuse to post a crazed Maria Ewing in Strauss’s final scene.

And, while we're at it, here's Alla Nazamova’s extraordinary version of the Dance of the Seven Veils from a 1923 silent film version.

Criticism under fire: the comment's challenge to authority

Here's a brief position paper I gave at a conference at Oxford Brookes earlier in the Autumn, which I thought might be worth sharing. The conference, called 'Beyond the Press Cuttings: New Approaches to Reception in Opera Studies', was organised by the OBERTO research unit at Brookes (OBERTO's website is here; the conference's here) and asked some interesting questions about what operatic reception studies was these days and whether, in a more holistic musicological world, there was indeed any need to separate it from the rest of the discipline. My paper was part of a round-table session entitled 'The Audience as Critic' and the discussion covered the role of the critic in the Internet age. My paper raises some preliminary thoughts about this in relation to some ideas from Audience Studies. (Helen Freshwater's little book, Theatre and Audience, provided some extremely useful background in this regard). 

The aim in my ten minutes is to offer some thoughts on a particular example of the ‘Audience as Critic’, or, perhaps more specifically, of the ‘Audience as Critic, and Critic of the Critic’. This is the comment section that now routinely accompanies any review – or indeed most news stories and comment pieces – published on a newspaper’s website: a fascinating virtual front-line set up between the traditionally unimpeachable arbiter of taste – the critic – and the traditionally passive reader, whose dissent was once restricted to irate interval banter and impotent disgusted-from-Tunbridge-Wells missives. It represents a strange clash between old-world critical hierarchies, formerly preserved in the fixed permanence of the printed word, and the Internet age’s dream of open communication leading to a self-righting critical consensus (explored rather brilliantly in Adam Curtis’s recent three-part BBC documentary: All watched over by Machines of Loving Grace).
And it’s possible to detect a certain utopian ideal behind the comment itself, reflected in the Guardian newspaper’s motto for its own deliberately comment-inciting blogs page: ‘Comment is free’. But that motto quotes only the first half of a statement, made in 1921, by former Guardian editor, CP Scott. ‘Comment is free’ is emblazoned pride of place on the Guardian’s main blog page, while a photograph of Scott appears on the left, and next to it, in significantly smaller font, the second part of his sentence: ‘but facts are sacred’. There’s a finger-wagging implication here, it seems to me, that this idle chit-chat from the hoi poloi is all very well; but let’s leave the facts to the big boys – and I doubt the reassuringly bearded Scott, in 1921, would have been above gendering ‘comment’ and ‘fact’ in that sort of way, either.
Anyway, let’s agree for one moment that opera criticism might represent a small proportion of fact mixed with a great deal of subjective judgement; but the question remains as to whether or not ‘comment’ can feasibly and usefully be incorporated into reception history – as informal audience jottings in the margins of the ‘Press Cuttings’ we’re looking to go beyond in this conference. I suspect the answer will have to be yes – ish – within reason, and taking into account the usual questions regarding authority and reliability that any responsible historian has to ask of a source. I suspect, too, that this and similar questions will be raised by my colleagues, and get covered by our subsequent discussion. So I’m going to continue by mapping Scott’s implicit value judgment onto discourses on the audience and the role of the critic, with the hope that we might be able to provide some useful context by uncovering some of the ingrained attitudes to the audience that still dominate.
The authority of the critic has traditionally resided in his (and it still is, in the majority of cases, his) being supported by the machinery of the press. But there is also a certain left-wing discourse that, as far as I read it, characterises the critic’s role as that of a corrective. When one takes into account views of the audience such as Brecht’s idea of it as an unthinking mass too easily co-opted into whatever cause a play or opera might be espousing, the critic has a moral obligation to be antagonistic. The critic is a fire fighter, pouring water on flames fanned – if you’ll excuse the pun – by an audience’s unchecked enthusiasm. One might say that the small-c critic writing in a newspaper is expected still to carry the sense of responsibility of the big-c Critic, whose job it is to unveil and unpick ideologies. It’s a lot to ask of a couple of hundred words produced to a tight deadline. Nevertheless, left-leaning theatre scholars tend to shudder at the idea of the passive audience, whilst simultaneously perpetuating the idea that the audience sitting in silence is inherently passive, or, for example, that the act of applause, as Baz Kershaw has suggested, breaks us down in readiness for hegemonic submission (to borrow Freshwater's neat paraphrase). It’s an attitude that has been traced back as far as Plato – who sought to banish theatre from his Republic. And, as often, Wagner provides another  pertinent historical example. We think of Nietzsche’s characterisation of him as an old magician to be resisted and, of course, see the effect of his all-encompassing Music Dramas lazily blended with that of the Gesamtkunstwerk that was the Nazi propaganda machine. Musicology itself, too, long preached resistance to the physical pleasures of the performance, encouraging cerebral engagement with the score instead. Indeed, the language applied to great performances carries dangerous-sounding traces of submission: one is swept away or bowled over by convincing or persuasive performances.
But musicology now has embraced all these effects, as well as the especially irrational side of opera fandom. Theatre historian Neil Blackadder has promoted an idea of audience protest as creative rather than antipathetic, noting that ‘by describing virtually any protest in a theatre auditorium as a riot, theatre historians depict spectators’ oppositional practices as primarily disorderly’ – that is, easily dismissed as unthinking and ignorant. And Jacques Rancière has argued against the assumption that the audience is an uncritical, unthinking mob. In his The Emancipated Spectator he writes: ‘in a theatre, in front of a performance, just as in a museum, school or street, there are only ever individuals plotting their own paths in the forest of things, acts and signs that confront or surround them’. Being a spectator, he states later, is ‘not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation’. And opera is, arguably, more bound to maintain this normal situation than any other form of theatre, given its delicate balance between elements, demanding both ‘spectating’ spectators and a closely ‘auditing’ audience.
Nevertheless, attempts to shake up this status quo, such as those pub-based performances by the widely publicised Opera Up Close, are also rooted in hoary assumptions regarding the passive audience, as well as ideas regarding elitism, as the company’s combative founder-director Adam Spreadbury-Maher makes clear in an interview from a year ago: ‘Opera has died and we need to perform CPR on it; there is a massive everyman audience out there and we have got to take it to them’. He goes on to describe a ‘traditional’ opera performance: ‘At worst, it can be almost like going to a wedding, with everyone sitting still. It is a charade. Audiences need a kick in the guts, or at least a thump on the heart. Otherwise they should just stay at home and listen to a CD’. This article was published in the Guardian, and its online version, appropriately enough, quickly encouraged a far-from-passive audience to give him a kick in the guts back. And comments on reviews similarly give the lie, of course, to assumptions regarding the passive audience.
But let me return, after my slightly theoretical diversion, to the 'value' (for want of a better word) of these comments, which are to be archived by the International Internet Preservation Consortium, beyond their being simply evidence of a certain level of audience engagement. Reception history has always relied on being able to gauge authority and reliability, and it is sometimes difficult to assign such characteristics to some comments: many take the form of a rant, clearly fuelled by a resentment towards a critic, or are obviously ill-informed. Others, apparently ignoring the fact that few critics would claim to be expressing anything but a subjective judgment, make their own claim to objective truth – ‘Critic A clearly wasn’t at the same performance that I was’, one might read, ‘because I found it x, y, and z’. However, is it possible, I wonder, to suggest, cynically perhaps, that it is opera’s indelible taint of elitism that inspires us to even consider admitting this sort of evidence into musicological court – that the erosion of critical hierarchies seemingly brought about by the comment is an illusion created by a desire to assuage guilt regarding the fact that only the wealthy can afford a ticket in the stalls at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne? Are we even right to assume that professional critics – their numbers and word counts slashed to a minimum over the part decade – will even have a value to future historiography when we have aural and visual records of most productions?

It's very difficult to know. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Pierre-Laurent Aimard: The Liszt Project I

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 8 November 2011

Of the many anniversary events designed to bolster Liszt’s credentials as a ‘serious’ composer, Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s two-part Liszt Project at the Queen Elizabeth Hall looks set to be one of the most interesting and persuasive, on the evidence of the first concert last night, in any case. Aimard has assembled two typically varied and interesting programmes that, in less PR-savvy times, might have been called something like ‘Liszt and his Followers’.

Last night’s programme mixed two pieces from the Italian Année de pèlerinage – the rarely heard ‘Aux cypress de la Villa d’Este: Thrénodie’ alongside the more ubiquitous ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’ – with the First Légende and ‘Vallée d’Obermann’. Interspersed between these was Bartók’s ‘Nénie’ (fourth and most undirgelike of his Opus 9 Dirges), Marco Stroppa’s Miniature estrose – Tangata manu, Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and Messiaen’s ‘Le Traquet stapazin’ (from Catalogue d’oiseux).

It’s a programme that requires quite a box of tricks from the pianist, not to mention stamina. Aimard upped the stakes yet further by performing it all without an interval, and, having politely forbidden applause until the end, with hardly a break between each work. The fact it was being broadcast live on Radio Three (listen again here) only added to the sense of high-wire danger, although it’s interesting to ponder whether or not Liszt, as inventor of the piano recital, would have approved of the format. It certainly inspired (and demanded) greater concentration from the listener as Aimard, playing from the score, took us on his carefully planned journey.

On a superficial level, the pianist conquered one technical hurdle after the other with astonishing skill: the blistering demands of Stroppa’s imaginative writing were well met, Messiaen’s colours were finely calibrated across the range and the Ravel glistened and twinkled with brilliance. The Liszt works themselves were performed with no less fluid virtuosity, and his influence as master of colour and texture was clear to hear, even if the programme did rather highlight the piano’s inability to distinguish between pictorial representation of water and evocation of birdsong. But perhaps that was part of the aim: to blur the boundaries between music’s long-held and long-debated double ability to picture and reflect; between a desire to respond to nature and a desire to 'record' it.

Yet, while this contextualisation of the Liszt helped emphasise the astonishing way in which he broadened the piano’s coloristic palette, it was Aimard’s ability to present the composer’s notes with such integrity and economy that served him best. St. Francis’s birds have tweeted more beguilingly, I’m sure, and some droplets from the Villa d’Este's fountain seemed a little heavy, but the musical logic was never in doubt. Best of all, perhaps, was ‘Vallée d’Obermann’, weighted here towards its remarkable introduction – an introspective adventure in colour and harmony. (Although did a memory lapse mean we got more of it than we were supposed to? I wasn't sure; and I didn't care). The central storm was reined in and unleashed only at key moments, while Aimard’s technique allowed for the final peroration to stay firmly within the bounds of good taste and musical logic: vast chords were finely gauged where others bash; double octaves were fluid where elsehwhere they are snatched and percussive. It was so impressive a display that I wondered, with a certain guilt, what Aimard would bring to a flashy operatic paraphrase or, at least, the Mephisto Waltz.

That would be fascinating to hear, but such repertoire doesn’t seem to feature among Aimard’s Liszt at the moment; and his second concert on 7 December includes the B-minor Sonata and other late works coupled with Berg and Scriabin—there, harmony, it seems, will take over from the coloristic focus of this concert. All in all, though, Aimard’s Project looks set to count as one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking additions to Liszt’s anniversary. And it's all captured on a two-CD set from DG, too.