Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Pilgrim's Progress at ENO

I don't think anyone can possibly deny that ENO's new The Pilgrim's Progress shows the company doing what it does best: this is a confident production--albeit one with its problems--executed with great verve by a company relishing a challenge. Martyn Brabbins puts forward the best possible case for Vaughan Williams's score, the orchestra plays wonderfully, the all-important chorus is magnificent and an ensemble cast (led by the impressive Roland Wood--his well focused, virile baritone made me idly wonder what he might have made of Donner at the ROH) takes the work's multiple roles well. Yoshi Oïda's production is very well constructed, re-imagining the Pilgrim's progress as leading from his prison cell to execution in the electric chair, the various episodes along the way shown as happening within the same adjustable, rusty set (by Tom Schenk).

Photo: Mike Hoban
But it's difficult not to feel that the production somehow pins the allegory--or the 'Morality', as Vaughan Williams designates it--down, restricting the Pilgrim's Everyman resonance. He becomes an allegorical character made specific, it seems, rather than a specific character made more allegorical. 

But most of the debate looks set to revolve around Vaughan Williams's work itself. The composer admitted, the programme tells us, that the work was 'more ceremony than a drama'; he also admitted it was 'not "dramatic" and did not contain "a love story or any big duets"', but maintained that it was 'first and foremost a stage piece', which should not be 'relegated to the Cathedral'. But while the score contains some great music, the choral writing exultant and the orchestration sometimes brassy and assertive in a manner that can seem both threatening and comforting, the work seems to be preaching to those rather more converted--in all senses--than I feel I am.

And, above all, it's a piece that seems rather too comfortable in its moral position; although it has elements of the archetypal narrative of a journey beset with challenges leading to a goal, that goal seems too easily reached, those challenges--including the Fafner-like Appollyon, realized here with great theatrical panache but somewhat abstractly--too easily brushed aside. There is also something naively simplistic, it seems to me, about the straightforward 'wrongness' about those inhabitants of Vanity Fair, easily brushed aside in a world of black-and-white right and wrong (there's more genuine danger of temptation presented by one of Klingsor's Flower Maidens than all the pantomime-damery we were presented with here, slightly reminiscent, in retrospect, of the flamboyant othering that was necessary to safely neutralize homosexuality before it could be presented to prime-time TV audiences in the 70s and 80s).

Vanity Fair. Photo: Mike Hoban

But what is also missing in most of Vaughan Williams' meditative, consoling score was the darkness, the obscurity, the cluttered agglomeration of emblems that theorists allegory--most famously Walter Benjamin--have seen as essential to the 'mode of the melancholic'. I can imagine there's a whole PhD thesis to be written about how Vaughan Williams's opera fits in with other 20th-century allegories, many of which were inspired exactly by the fragmentation attendant to modernism, the splintering of certainties into myriad uncertainties, the dissolution of grand meaning into multiple significations, which--if you'll excuse me steering the discussion onto an area of greater expertise--Hugo von Hofmannsthal's 'Lord Chandos' once used to be able to tame under the 'simplifying gaze of habit'. In fact, a comparison with Hofmannsthal is maybe not to stretch things too far; his fictional Chandos Letter, dated 1603 but written in 1902, pre-dates, as it were, Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress by over half a century. It certainly seems unlikely that a man so well-read as Hofmannsthal would be unacquainted with Bunyan's foundational work. (Evidence either way will no doubt be available in the volume of the critical edition of HvH's works that provides an annotated catalogue of his personal library).

But Hofmannsthal's own Jedermann, which takes the mediaeval English Everyman as its source which still opens the Salzburg Festival every year, is colourful (some might say ostentatiously Catholic) ceremony and drama--not least, perhaps, since it is staged on the steps of Salzburg Cathedral, as this trailer for the latest production demonstrates. But it has an ebullience to it that I missed in Vaughan Williams's more gentle Everyman work. (I imagine The Pilgrim's Progress, first performed at Covent Garden in 1951, had restorative aims behind it as the pre-WWI Jedermann, quickly pushed into service as centrepiece of the post-war Salzburg Festival). 

Maybe I feel my spiritual home is nearer to Salzburg than it is to Bedford, where Bunyan's Pilgrim ostensibly sets out on his quest, or even London, the Celestial City he finally reaches. But I was also left a little unconvinced by the unusual dramaturgy of Vaughan Williams's work, particularly the second half, where there was a great deal more Pilgrim than Progress, and where the 'comic' interlude with Mr and Mrs By-Ends (despite the best efforts of Timothy Robinson and Ann Murray) provided scant relief. 

It's a fascinating, strangely haunting work, but while it has some right not to be 'relegated to the cathedral'--or, like Jederman, the cathedral steps--it couldn't help make the Coliseum feel a little cathedral-like. And the work's religiosity, presented neither with the intoxicating sensuality of Parsifal nor as an evocative background to a more profane drama as it so often is in Italian opera, made me feel a little queasy. 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

ENO's Julietta

Peter Hoare as Michel in Julietta at the Coliseum
(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
As the reviews came trickling in yesterday of Monday night’s Julietta at ENO, I have to admit to wondering if I had just been in the wrong mood, or just hadn’t got where the greatness of Martinů’s ‘rarely performed masterpiece’ lay. Indeed, was I just being too cynical in detecting a certain irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of such marketing rubric? Isn’t it often the case that many of these ‘masterpieces’ rely on their very status as ‘rarely performed’, giving their champions the convenient riposte: ‘well, you can never really judge it unless you see it in a decent staging’.

Well, Julietta has now definitely received that at ENO, with Richard Jones turning in a typically stylish production—although was I alone in wondering whether, beyond its striking, stretched and manipulated giant accordion, there wasn’t room for more in the way of dreamy imagination? The fine cast did an excellent job, the orchestra, too. And, while I should declare that Monday night was the first time I heard the score, it seemed as though Ed Gardner made a persuasive case for it: its splashes of glittering colour came across well, as did the lyrical outbursts, some of which came close to sweeping me along.

From left to right: Emelie Renard, Clare Presland
 and Samantha Price as the Gentlemen
and Peter Hoare  as Michel (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
But the work, based on a surreal play by Georges Neveux, left me entirely cold. It is neither terribly funny, nor, to our (or my, at least) jaded 21st-century imaginations, terribly interesting. An exploration of a community floating around in a state of collective amnesia has possibilities for highlighting humour or a sort of nightmarish, recurring futility, neither of which were explored. Meanwhile, the work’s leaden pace—lingering on matters with which, by definition, it is difficult for the audience to engage in any meaningful way—made the 50 minutes of Act 2, in particular, seem extremely long.

It measures pretty low on the surrealism scale, in any case, and suffers by not employing the sort of snappy pace—a playful, light engagement with time that deals in seconds rather than minutes—that would seem to be part and parcel of the aesthetic, where one flitting absurdity dissolves into the next before the brain has a chance to pin it down and destroy it with logic. A work that came to mind was Shostakovich’s The Nose—hardly a masterpiece, but a piece whose increasingly ridiculous scenes are rattled through at such a pace that they never overstay their welcome. And, of course, we can only have a fragmentary, patchy idea of the actual romance between Julietta and Michel, a travelling salesman who arrives in the strange amnesiac town with the advantage of a memory—an advantage that he, too, finally loses.   

That’s clearly one of the work’s main points, but whether or not it inspires deep contemplation or an eye-rolling sense of ‘so what?’ seems more down to the individual than is often the case, as reviews ranging from five, through four, to three stars would seem to make clear; from raves to what might best be called non-raves. Martinů’s score, for its part, has some fine moments, and is put together with considerable skill; but it seemed to wheel out influences with too little input from the composer himself, and, for a work first performed in 1938, seemed distinctly behind the curve—a sense only emphasized by the fact that the production was being supported by  ‘ENO’s Contemporary [!] Opera Group’. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for those who haven ’t seen it yet to make up their own minds. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

ENO: The Magic Flute; Opera North: Carousel

First, apologies for a long absence. Here are a few links to my reviews of Proms, which went some way to keeping me busy over the summer (John Eliot Gardiner’s Pélleas here; Handel from the OAE and Concert Spirituel here, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra here, and the Vienna Philharmonic’s two concerts here and here), along with my review of Opera Holland Park’s Falstaff and Onegin, here.

Elena Xanthoudakis (Pamina) and Kathryn  Lewek (Queen of the Night)
in ENO's revival of The Magic Flute (Photo: Alastair Muir)
Meanwhile, in the last week I’ve been returning from Last-Night-of-the-Proms and End-of-the-Golden-Summer euphoria to something approaching normalcy: back to business as usual with ENO’s final (and apparently this time it really is final) revival of Nicholas Hytner’s Magic Flute on Thursday, before catching Opera North’s Carousel at the Barbican Theatre before it spins its not-so-merry way out of London after an extended season. I’ll keep my comments on The Magic Flute to a minimum, since I’m reviewing it for next month’s opera: it’s a solid enough revival, with some outstanding singing (Kathryn Lewek’s Queen of the Night was particularly impressive), but one that didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts on the first night of its 10-performance run—it surely will begin to do so as run progresses.

Inevitably, on the eve of its final weekend after a five-week run, Carousel was going to be a smoother affair; and, of course, Rogers and Hammerstein had a fair bit more practice at weaving together numbers and dialogue, within the bounds of much more clearly defined music-theatre tradition, than Mozart and Schikaneder did. Nevertheless, it was striking how awkward and stilted the delivery of the dialogue in Magic Flute seemed in comparison. And this Carousel is a brilliantly fluent show, smartly directed Jo Davies, ingeniously designed by Anthony Ward and choreographed with humour and imagination by Kay Shephard. The cast—led by Michael Todd Simpson’s hunky, broody Billy, Katherine Manley’s sweetly-sung and even-sweeter-natured Julie, and Sarah Tynan’s bright, zingy Carrie—was uniformly excellent; accents were uniformly convincing, too, in a way they certainly hadn’t been at the Coliseum the previous evening.

Opera North's Carousel (Photo: Alastair Muir)
In his Guardian review, Michael Billington referred to the Carousel’s ‘dodgy brilliance’, and, coming to it totally unprepared, I was struck not only by the quality of the music, but also what can only really be called the show’s philosophical ambition, with its flawed (anti-)hero Billy Bigelow dying and going to the afterlife before being given a chance to see his now-teenage daughter. This confrontation with her, however, highlights the work’s ‘dodgier’ side. He ends up hitting her, but, as she talks it over with her mother Julie, they agree that it’s one of those blows that feels a bit more like a kiss: a good thwack from someone who loves you is really, er, a tender expression of affection. It’s a deeply sinister message, and one that no number of reprises of ‘You’ll never walk alone’ can hope to dignify.

And, with Wednesday’s revelations regarding the betrayal of Hillsborough families, that song brought its independent power and associations with it more strongly than ever. I began to feel—against all my completist instincts and contextualising desires—that maybe it was better employed on Wednesday in front of Liverpool's St. George’s Hall than it was here. 

Nevertheless, this show demonstrated once more what interesting work is being done at Opera North, and Davies is to be commended for presenting Carousel with wharts-and-all candour: there’s enough sweetness in the score already to start sugar-coating its more troubling elements. 

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Buxton Festival: Intermezzo and Double Bill; ROH: Otello

The Crescent in Buxton, currently under restoration
I was at the Buxton Festival at the beginning of the week for a refreshing couple of days away from London. It was my first visit, and I was charmed by the town and greatly enjoyed the two shows I saw (here's my review). Hailing as I do from Bath, I found the parallels between that spa town and Buxton, both of which were favoured first by the Romans and then much later by pleasure-seeking Georgians, striking. And, if the Crescent in Buxton is not quite as  grand as the Bath's more famous Royal Crescent, it is extremely beautiful in its more modest proportions, while, if anything, the rest of the town's 'resort' buildings are better  preserved, and less spoilt by subsequent expansion. Buxton also, of course, boasts the beautiful Frank Matcham Opera House, also modest in scale and--a relief for eyes weary of the Coliseum's brand of music-hall bling--decoration. (Apologies for the rather grey photo: the British summer is no more present in Derbyshire, it seems, than anywhere else)

The Opera House

I was particularly pleased finally to have seen Strauss's Intermezzo (I'd not made it to the Scottish Opera's production last season). I admit to having lazily appropriated some of the standard criticisms of the work, which I allude to in my review, particularly since the piece seems to undercut and tacitly criticize some of the highfalutin' metaphysics of Die Frau ohne Schatten, an opera to which I've devoted rather a lot of time over the years. I do still find something a little uncomfortable about the sheer brazenness of Intermezzo's autobiographical elements, but the work articulates Strauss's no-nonsense, modern attitude towards his life and his profession, and a challenge to our 19th-century attitudes to what a composer should be: to the idea of the super-human creator for whom the challenges of everyday life and relationships are mere trifles when compared with the dictates of the Weltgeist. Intermezzo also, as Tim Ashley notes in his review, has at its centre about as nuanced and human protagonist as exists in opera: Christine represents a wonderfully complex and real character (based, of course, on Strauss's wife), whose spiky, truculent surface is shown to mask a tangled web of insecurities beneath.

I don't know if Intermezzo will ever really make it beyond the periphery of the repertoire, and I fear that its delicately moving conclusion doesn't quite deliver the emotional payload to justify all that fearsomely difficult orchestral writing. But I'll certainly endeavour to see it again whenever I can. In the meantime, as the rain continues to pour outside, I suggest putting the feet up in front of the gently glowing fire of the oft-extracted 'Träumerei am Kamin', from towards the end of Act 1, surely one of Strauss's most eloquent evocations of domestic bliss.

Finally, a quick mention of the Royal Opera's stonking revival of Otello, which opened on Thursday (here's my review). London's waited rather a long time to hear Anja Harteros this season, and, unless my memory's playing tricks, I don't think she'd actually been heard at Covent Garden since her debut as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra four years ago. It was certainly worth the wait, and Aleksandrs Antonenko also delivered the goods as Otello. I'm too young to be obliged to recall Domingo et al. in this production, but on its own terms this leading couple was pretty sensational. Verdi, with Antonio Pappano's help, was also able to remind us, after the flawed, sprawling grandeur of Troyens, of the sort of concise, tautly paced drama that's achievable in an opera house. 

Monday, 9 July 2012

ROH: Les Troyens

I finally caught up with the Royal Opera's Troyens on Thursday. But, from my Zeus-like vantage point in the gods (a few no-shows meant at least that I could promote myself from a bar stool to a grown-up seat), the evening was a disappointment. Many reviews have already described the show and (rightly) praised many of its aspects; but I hope you'll forgive me being rather negative, spending less time going into that sort of detail than explaining my own sense of dissatisfaction.

For me, what we seemed to have was primarily a demonstration of the Royal Opera as a smooth theatrical machine, able to put on a fluid, fluent account of this whopping score without any hitches. The orchestra played all the notes, often, under Antonio Pappano's characteristically keen-eared direction, very beautifully indeed; the fine cast sang all their notes; the horse was big, if not exactly scary (having it nod benignly as it was wheeled on seemed like something of a miscalculation). But while the evening was long, it seemed essentially small-scale. Pappano's conducting, for all its wonderful detail and accuracy rarely communicated much of the score's enormous ambition: there are as many sorrows here, and certainly as much grandeur as in any Wagner score, but the reading only fleetingly cohered into something compelling--maybe my distance from it all played a role. Berlioz's score is no doubt partly to blame, and the composer's jaunty melodic style, in particular, fits uncomfortably with grand-opéra conventions. The singers, Anna Caterina Antonacci's flailing, over-dramatic Cassandre excepted, were solid and efficient (no mean feat in itself, of course) but there were few sparks to risk setting the drama alight.

The main source of disappointment, however, was David McVicar's production. As several reviews have noted, this is solid, reliable McVicar--fluent, professionally done, often visually striking (in Es Devlin's sets, Moritz Junge's costumes and Wolfgang Göbbel's rather clunky lighting). But I had that awful sense of having seen much of it before, apart from the horse, which, made from gnarly battle-field bric-a-brac, could itself have been put together from the detritus of any number of old McVicar productions. Once again the director updated the action to some time around the time of composition (this time the Crimean War); once again we had noisily vocal extras bursting onto the stage to impress on us the fact that this is real drama involving real people; once again there was a fair bit of dancing and prancing, much of it almost comic in its superfluousness. There was a sometimes alarming mixture of the 'realistic' and the abstract, while the pyrotechnics (the horse snorting fire at the close of Act 2, and then, at the close, an enormous figure made from the same material rose up and caught fire) brought Francesca Zambello's Don Giovanni to mind--never a good thing.

One of Western civilization's grandest, most universal narratives became tepid entertainment. The ideas struck me as incidental, culinary and superficial. Like the Trojan Horse itself, this production has a grand, distracting surface, but, unlike it, there's nothing dangerous or challenging hiding inside. Maybe all this feeling comes as a result of over-exposure to McVicar's work, but it also seems to reflect on a certain lack of adventurousness that has characterized the Royal Opera's season. This Troyens needed to be challenging, exciting and thrilling--and one can only imagine what any number of directors might have made of the opportunity afforded McVicar. Instead it felt safe, and Berlioz, of all composers, should never be safe.

Posters outside the opera house, incidentally, still show Jonas Kaufmann, posing in his dinner jacket in a boxing ring, and proudly proclaim that he will be singing in the production. Presumably they've been up there for some time; did it not occur to anyone that they should be taken down?

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Franz Crass, 1928-2012

The death was announced last Saturday of the great German bass Franz Crass. He had been bed-ridden since an accident last year and had been confined to a care home in Hochheim am Main since early last autumn. He had been forced to give up singing in 1981 because of hearing problems, but was a Bayreuth stalwart for many years, having first sung there in 1954 and given a breakthrough performance as the Dutchman in the 1960 season. Here's the monologue, from a 1961 performance, with Sawallisch conducting.

I'd been reacquainted with Crass's singing recently, too, when, in part inspired by the death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, I'd finally bought Karl Böhm's classic Magic Flute. Fischer-Dieskau's Papageno and Fritz Wunderlich's Tamino are joined by some extravagantly-cast singers in secondary roles: having James King and Martti Talvela as the Armed Men is the male-cast equivalent to the Schwarzkopf-Ludwig-Höffgen trio of ladies in Klemperer's EMI set, on which Crass is also the Speaker. But in such exalted company Crass's Sarastro stands out for his nobility, solidity and beautiful smoothness. The rather brilliant Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera puts it in straightforward terms: 'Franz Crass is as good a Sarastro as we have ever had on a complete set.' There's clearly not much more than can be said than that, for Alan Blyth is content to make more or less the same observation in his Opera on Record, writing that 'Franz Crass is arguably the best Sarastro on record: sonorous, easy of delivery, entirely credible'. 

In fact, the more I trawl through a gratifyingly large selection of clips on YouTube, the more it becomes clear that this was an artist who barely put a foot wrong, making a fantastic Commendatore (this clip, was clearly put together by a Ghiaurov fan, though)...

And, of course, a glorious Pogner. 

And, although I a quick bit of googling leaves me unsure whether he sang Sachs on stage, he certainly seems to have had what that role required, too. 

And here is something a bit rarer: Crass singing Verdi:

I've not noticed any obituaries yet in the UK press. I hope he gets at least one or two, because there can be little doubt of his position of one of the greatest basses of the second half of the 20th century. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

ENO: Billy Budd; Royal Opera: La Bohème

Apart from Doctor Dee, Monday evening's Billy Budd was the final new production of what's been, by any criteria, an impressive season for ENO. Apart from anything else, it's seen the newly-honoured Edward Gardner further galvanize the orchestra into a enormously impressive band, consistently delivering high-quality results across a wide repertoire. Few will be surprised that they played out of their collective skins in Britten's unflinchingly powerful score, or that the singing of the chorus pushed the Beaufort scale up to eleven, if you'll excuse the awkward collision of metaphor and allusion.

Kim Begley (above centre, as Vere), with Darren Jeffrey (l) and Jonathan Summers (r) (Photo: Henrietta Butler)
I doubt many were surprised by the generally fine home-grown cast, either, or the fact that, in David Alden's production, we only had hints of a ship. There was much yanking of ropes attached to something undefined off-stage, and, in Paul Steinberg's austere designs, vast panels vaguely suggesting of some sort of oversized vessel; but the crew, dressed in overalls, seemed to be part of some large industrial machine. With officers in leather greatcoats, as well as plenty of guns and truncheons, the atmosphere was one of generalized oppression. For me prisoners of war came to mind, but the references achieved an admirable sense of universality: difficult to pin down, perhaps, but, at the same time, not worryingly specific. It was all impressive in its way, but there seemed to be a discrepancy between some highly-stylized movement (the guards were a case in point, while the dancing accompanying the sea shanty turned more Billy Elliot than Budd) and the naturalism elsewhere, and I couldn't escape the feeling that, having decided to avoid anything so obvious as a recognizable ship, Alden hadn't exactly worked out what he was replacing it with. The juxtaposition achieved between the bowels of whatever we were in and all-in-white Starry Vere's cabin--looking for all the world like a sterilised capsule tucked surreptitiously half way around the Large Hadron Collider--couldn't have been clearer, I suppose, but the whole thing was nevertheless a bit vague.

Matthew Rose as Claggart (photo: Henrietta Butler)
Or at least it definitely would have seemed so, had we not had some impressive, sharply directed central performances. As Vere, Kim Begley had stepped in to replace Toby Spence, and did an excellent job, communicating nobility and anguish and singing with impressive security. The young and young-sounding Spence would have been unusual casting, but would have been interesting against Matthew Rose's unusually youthful Claggart. And, as with so often with the baddies, it was Rose (the recent well-deserved recipient of the Critics Circle Exceptional Young Talent Award) who stole the show. His bass voice is not the gnarly beast often heard in the role, but its cultivated beauty, if anything, made him all the more chilling in the part (as it had in his recent Sparafucile at the Royal Opera), while Adam Silverman's lighting brought a sepulchral evil to his clean-shaven face. His Iago-like credo below decks was chilling in the extreme; the subsequent total subjugation of Nicky Spence's excellent Novice deeply disturbing.

The one main gripe about the casting must involve Benedict Nelson's Budd. There's no doubting he's an outstanding talent, and the voice itself can be very beautiful indeed. But it only seems to be so within limits, with notes at the top, in particular, coming across as noticeably manufactured--especially so in the otherwise excellent scene before his execution. But, more seriously, it's a voice that lacks the volume and bite to carry this show, often getting swallowed up. I wondered, too, if a certain exaggeration in his physical performance was designed to compensate. Otherwise the cast, a compendium of British vocal talent (the ever-green Gwynne Howell still going strong as a touching Dansker at one end of the wide age spectrum), has no weakness. And, while I'm not sure this is quite the knockout show it should be, it's certainly got plenty to make it worth seeing.

Finally, here's a quick word about yesterday evening's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House. I'm writing it up for OPERA so can't give away much about the show itself, which was the first of two to reunite Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu as the ill-fated poet and manually-challenged seamstress. But there was some unexpected drama when, after two attempts, the house curtains remained stubbornly closed. Twice an unsurprisingly sheepish member of the technical team came out to apologise, then after a quarter of an hour, in a master stroke of positive spin, it was announced the curtains would be removed, and we'd witness open scene changes, a treat usually reserved for school children. John Copley's famously lavish and realistic production, we were additionally told, was about the best staging to see being openly changed. Repeated attempts to raise the burgundy-velvet beasts were met with 'ooohs' and 'aaahs', as if Rooney had just narrowly missed a free-kick. 

When finally we got under way (about 30 minutes behind schedule), the largely jolly audience cheered as if he'd finally scored. And, as promised, it was indeed engrossing to see the first scene change in all its glory. The garret was whisked away to reveal Cafe Momus, slightly squished together with all its lavishly-dressed chorus and extras secreted behind, before the whole lot slid silently towards us. After being opened out a bit and given a few extra tweaks, we got going again. (It made me wonder why we don't see more productions with fluid, 'open' scene changes at the Royal Opera--there's not much in theatre that's more seductive). Things seemed relatively back-to-normal after the interval, but no risks were taken: there was a black out at the end, ahead of the curtains being gently closed. At this star-driven show, though, it was nice to be reminded of the immense amount of backstage work involved to bring things together. But, since the performance was given to mark the famous couple's 20 years at the Royal Opera, here's a little bit of them. 

Friday, 15 June 2012

Pires, LSO/Haitink: Purcell, Mozart, Schubert; Purcell, Mozart, Bruckner

There wasn't much to grab the headlines at these two fine London Symphony Orchestra concerts, one on Sunday and one on Thursday, but a lot to remind one of how a solid, conventional programme can still prove a highly rewarding experience. At least it certainly can with a soloist like Maria João Pires and a conductor like Bernard Haitink, in charge of an alert LSO. Each concert started with an arrangement of Purcell. The D-minor Chacony came first, performed with restraint and discipline by a beefy complement of strings; it was Britten's faithful arrangement, I gather, even though the fact was not acknowledged in the running order. Thursday brought Steven Stucky's 1992 take on the famous Funeral Music for Queen Mary, interestingly refashioned for brass and percussion (including piano and harp). It amplified the work into something effective and visceral--the thudding piano-and-timpani pedal point was a stroke of inspiration--but I was less convinced as it veered off into altogether unexpected territory in the central section.

Pires brought irresistible lightness and instinctive, unforced musical imagination to her two Mozart concertos--the D minor K.466 in the first concert, the A major K.488 in the second--with Haitink providing excellent support, and the LSO winds, especially, on wonderful form. There was controlled drama in the D minor work, too, with the diminutive pianist showing that she can pack a punch, particularly in a beautifully gauged account of Beethoven's cadenza (and here, just for fun, is a great clip of her being surprised in a concert, for one reason or another expecting a different concerto and having to pull up K.466 from the memory bank--'sprong zi in paniek op' indeed). 

The Romanze was delicately done, with some floated, long phrases, too. The same virtues distinguished the A major work, where, if anything, Pires's playing was even more delicate. Her understated interpolations in the barer passages of the Adagio were self-effacing almost to the point of inaudibility--those in favour of such additions would have been kept happy; those not wouldn't have had to much difficulty in filtering them out. But was I alone in wishing she'd assert herself a bit more in the presto finale, where much of the filigree in the piano part was lost?

When it comes to large-scale Austro-German symphonies, Haitink is never anything less than a reliable guide. Here he was a great deal more than that. His Schubert Ninth (on Sunday) might have been a bit hard pressed in the opening movement, but the single-mindedness of his approach brought powerful results in the remarkable Andante, and, with the LSO playing with considerable virtuosity, the Scherzo and Finale ticked along in the pleasing way only this music can--all airy inevitability and breeziness. Bruckner's symphonies are the natural heir to Schubert's 'Great' in particular, adding considerable weight to that work's 'heavenly length'. Haitink's Bruckner is justly famous--even if his Concertgebouw Fifth recently at the Barbican apparently bowled some over and left others cold--and this Seventh was a fine piece of work. Beautifully paced, and with a sobriety to contrast with the fire of Daniel Barenboim's recent RFH account, it nevertheless suffered from the Barbican's cramped acoustic, which made this music teeter over in the climaxes from assertive to aggressive (although I'm perhaps being generous to the players here: I notice a colleague shifts some blame on to them in his review). This did Bruckner's music, redolent of Alpine air and the sort of wholesomeness that was not without some more unpleasant ideological resonances in the 20th century, few favours. With the Vienna Phil, in the, ahem, rather less bright acoustic of the Albert Hall, the conductor's Bruckner 9 at the Proms is certainly something to look forward to.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Cape Town Opera: Porgy and Bess

Here's a link to my review of Cape Town Opera's Porgy and Bess, which I caught at the Birmingham Hippodrome on the first leg of a six-week tour. Cardiff will also get to see The Mandela Trilogy, a new trio of work's celebrating the Great Man's life. The company, which was formed just 13 years ago to tie together various threads of existing institutions (the Cape has a long operatic history: Der Freischütz had made it there in 1831, for example, we read in the programme), oozes with talent, and the choral singing--reflecting a strong local tradition--is astonishingly focussed and powerful. And, given the restrictions no doubt imposed by the touring schedule, the staging is eminently decent. As I hint in my review, though, the work itself has its issues: in terms of racial politics, of course, it opens up a can of worms--and this can is shaken about further by this show, which shifts the action to a Soweto township in the 1970s. It's great entertainment, of that there's no doubt, but should it be?

Details of the tour can be found at, and those in London will have a good chance to catch the show during its ten-day sting at the Coliseum

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Deborah Warner's Vienna Traviata

In haste, here's a link to my review of Deborah Warner's new Traviata in Vienna. It's smartly updated, looks great, and with a cast and conductor hovering around and about the 30-year mark, made me feel rather old. As I explain in the review, though, there's a danger in updating a work that -- for better or worse -- is so deeply entrenched in 19th-century values; and I'm not sure Warner really finds a solution to the problems that are thrown up. Here's a little video, anyway, focussing on the production's Alfredo, to give a taster.

It's certainly great to see the Theater an der Wien, so long, like many of London's great theatres, clogged up with entertainments of a less lofty sort, staging a small but eminently interesting opera season, and breathing down the neck of the Staatsoper down the road. Arguably, though, Cats, which ran there for many years, is not a million miles away from the sort of popular entertainment of which Emanuel Schikaneder was such a prolific peddlar -- the theatre's founder is commemorated here on the famous Papagenotor, tucked inconspicuously down a side road.

And here's the lavish interior of the intimate auditorium, which one hardly expects when entering through the modern foyer opposite the Naschmarkt.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Caligula and Madam Butterfly at ENO

I’d been greatly looking forward to seeing Detlev Glanert’s Caligula at ENO. I’d got to know the work a little, along with Rihm’s Jakob Lenz, when writing a feature about both of them, concluding that they were both admirable pieces that made no apologies for their status as opera and suggesting that Caligula might join Lenz as one of only a small number of new operas to cement their position in the repertoire (although, admittedly, Lenz is as old as I am, and has the advantage of requiring ‘only’ chamber forces). In the event, I was left somewhat disappointed by ENO’s performance of the Rihm in the Hampstead Theatre (my review’s here), feeling that Sam Brown’s production didn’t exactly help focus the mind, with its insistence on so much painstaking period realism. 

Peter Coleman Wright as Caligula (c) Johan Persson
Similarly, I didn’t feel at Friday evening's UK premiere of Glanert's work that Caligula was helped a great deal by Benedict Andrews’s production, where the whole action takes place in a sports stadium, with a steeply tiered grandstand (designed by Ralph Myers) rising up from the front of the stage. There’s a tunnel through which the characters enter and exit, while some often come in from the back down the central aisle, too. In his programme note, Andrews argues sensibly for this configuration, and it’s not unknown, of course, for the sports stadium to become a crucible for rather ugly expressions of statehood, quite aside from the more specific historical examples Andrews cites where they have been co-opted by fascist regimes (and, coincidentally, this week’s Panorama deals with the odious political extremism that apparently still blights football in the Euro 2012 host nations, Poland and Ukraine). He also argues convincingly that it chimes with Caligula’s apparent interest in the aesthetic representation of power, the theatricality of the torture and humiliation he inflicts on those around him.

Peter Coleman Wright as Caligula (c) Johann Persson
I couldn’t help wondering, however, whether this staging, with its unflinching emphasis on the horror of Caligula’s reign of terror – sparked off by the death of his sister and lover, Drusilla – missed some of the work’s subtlety. Drusilla was here portrayed, like the Friederike Brion added to Jakob Lenz, by a mute actress; unlike her counterpart in Lenz, though, she (played by Zoe Hunn) wanders about naked and half-dead. The palace of the original setting suggests all sorts of moments of intimate confession, as well as eavesdropping that Andrews’s production struggles to evoke. The bizarre extras dotted about – a pair of prostitutes in gold wigs, people dressed in animal masks, redneck sports fans – seem to underline Caligula’s madness as less driven by logic than Camus’s original play suggests. 

Camus wrote that his play portrayed the real horror of fascism being the result of logic being pursued and pushed to an extreme degree, but the line between calculated, logical horror and straightforward common-or-garden lunacy seems rather too blurred here. Nevertheless, Peter Coleman-Wright is enormously impressive as Caligula himself, providing a performance that is hardly less compelling, dramatically speaking, than Andrew Shore’s as Lenz. I only wished, however, for more vocal authority, for the ability to hold forth and decree with greater force and volume. This is a role which would surely benefit from a bit of suavity, too; as I let my mind wander, I idly speculated as to whether someone like Simon Keenlyside could made available for the revival (if there is one).

The other outstanding performance came from the countertenor Christopher Ainslie as Caligula’s preening, sycophantic and duplicitous slave, Helicon. There was also excellent work from Yvonne Howard as Caligula’s wife, Caesonia, and Carolyn Dobbin as Scipio, both able to enjoy moments of quasi-lyrical respite and intimacy with the emperor, where Glanert’s unflinching scoring melts into something more seductive. As a whole, though, despite some outstanding playing from the ENO orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth, the music came across as less focussed and communicative here than it had struck me when listening to the Oehms Classics set (recorded at the work’s 2006 premiere in Frankfurt) with which I’d go to know it. It’s undeniably fluent, but doesn’t lead one to care a great deal about Caligula himself, which is perhaps surprising, since, as Glanert himself has explained, it can be understood as emanating from him, reflecting his own subjective take on events. If the production had been similarly unflinching in its focus on him, maybe the effect would have been a great deal more powerful.

Photo (c) Clive Barda
It seems a bit of a jump to Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, especially since the opera’s protagonist is denied much influence on her surroundings: Puccini’s very much in control of her destiny and our reaction to it, and the work has often – and often rightly – been criticized as coldly manipulative as a result. And, needless to say, few operatic women are left more undone than ‘povero Butterfly’. When it’s well done, however, there’s only so long that one can keep dousing the emotional fire with such criticisms. 

Such was the case when I finally got around to seeing the late Anthony Minghella’s famous 2005 production for ENO on Saturday (revived here by Sarah Tipple, whose previous credit somewhat incongruously includes the West End’s Dirty Dancing). And I was pleased, too, to catch Oleg Caetani’s sure footed, beautifully gauged account of the score, with the orchestra oozing once again the sort of quality that only a few years ago was pretty rare in the Coliseum. And the production itself is gorgeous, a visual feast that wafts fragrantly from the realistic to the dreamily evocative. I seem to remember the Banraku puppetry used for Butterfly’s son dividing opinion when the production was new, but I found it properly enchanting: the fixed, wide-eyed innocence of this puppet, manoeuvred with brilliant dexterity, seemed more childlike than much of what we see from children on operatic stages.

The cast is a good one, too, and I particularly enjoyed the easy security of Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Pinkerton – subjected to a bit of pantomime-villain booing at the curtain. Mary Plazas turns in a powerful, moving Butterfly, and John Fanning is excellent as a dapper Sharpless. All ENO's revivals are designated 'classic' these days, but this one deserves the epithet. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

WNO Tristan; Volodos at the RFH

Here's a link to my review of Welsh National Opera's largely excellent Tristan revival, which opened on Saturday (and if any, like the commenter on the piece, find it difficult to infer who was conducting, it was Lothar Koenigs). Ann Petersen has recently performed Isolde with Marek Janowski and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the recording of which promises to be something quite special -- particularly since what I've heard of  Janowski's swift Parsifal so far is so promising (the review's forthcoming in OPERA). In the meantime, this little clip of Marietta's Lied gives an idea of how unusually lyrical an Isolde Petersen made.

Coming back to London, I was very much looking forward to Arcadi Volodos's Royal Festival Hall recital this evening. The programme -- Schubert's remarkable D.784 Sonata, Brahms's Op. 117 Intermezzi and Liszt's B-minor Sonata -- was intriguing, if a little diffuse in focus. And I'd been enormously impressed with Volodos's performance of the Liszt in Dresden just over a year ago. However, while the work on that occasion seemed to be driven forward by an inexorable force that seemed to impose on it some irresistible logic, here Volodos seemed interpretatively at sea. 

The technique, unsurprisingly, was dazzling and the apparent ease with which he negotiated the work's technical challenges was often breathtaking. However, such facility seemed to bring with it interpretative issues. I've made a similar point when referring to his Brahms second Piano Concerto earlier in the year, wondering whether or not technical hurdles necessitate certain interpretative choices when effort is required to negotiate them; here, certainly, there was a sense that the facility had left something of a void which Volodos struggled to fill . Bass octaves, therefore, thundered arbitrarily away, passage work was dispatched with special twinkly brilliance in a beguiling pianissimo, voicing was exquisitely measured; but none of it communicated any greater purpose to me. Perhaps most telling was the unnatural and unconvincing rubato that marred the sonata's more improvisatory passages. Dazzling? yes, in its way. Compelling? no. 

The Schubert and Brahms in the first half were more effective, but for all their considerable beauties -- and Volodos can coax sounds out of a Steinway that few can match for sheer melting beauty -- still rather blank interpretatively speaking. And here the programming didn't help, either, for these two works added up to rather a lot of dreamy romanticism, or at least did so in Volodos's interpretations.

Despite some pretty shabby behaviour from the audience -- an alarm going off half way through the Liszt, someone yelling a 'bravo' at the close before Volodos had relaxed and raised his hands from the keyboard -- the pianist provided a generous clutch of encores, finishing with the same strange, wonderful Schubert Minuet D. 600 he'd played after the Brahms concerto. It was preceded by the shameless showiness of his own transcription of Ernesto Lecuona's 'Malegueña', as below.

I remember when Volodos first arrived on the scene with his stunning disc of virtuoso transcriptions -- his version of the Mozart's Rondo 'alla turca' seemed to revive the much-maligned genre. Then, there was a certain doubt as to the depth of his musicianship beneath the spectacular surface. Now, with this recital some 15 years later, that spectacular surface once again obscured what might -- and, I believe, does -- lie below.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Mozart and Bruckner (Royal Festival Hall)

After Beethoven, and Beethoven and Schoenberg, Daniel Barenboim’s latest project at the South Bank Centre features another ‘B’, albeit one whose centrality in the repertory is still not quite secure: Bruckner. In three concerts, he and his Staatskapelle Berlin are presenting his final three symphonies, and in this first one the Seventh was coupled with Mozart’s C-minor piano concerto, No. 24. As a demonstration of the conductor’s inspirational hold on his players, this was an impressive event. As a demonstration of his grasp on the grand paragraphs of the Bruckner, it was often compelling. And, in the drama and thrust brought to the symphony, we were constantly reminded that this orchestra and conductor spend a great deal of their time in the pit of the Staatsoper in Berlin (or rather, during the Staatsoper’s renovation, at the Schilllertheater), and that a great deal of that time is spent performing Wagner.

The overriding sense—in telling contrast to recent performances I’ve witnessed by the Staatskapelle’s higher-profile neighbours, the Berliner Philharmoniker—was of music-making united by an overriding, all-important sense of purpose. Instrumental niceties were subordinate, the occasional minor fluffs entirely immaterial. The result was Bruckner playing that was irresistibly vivid and involving, shorn of unnecessary portentousness and presented with clear, apparently instinctive musical logic. And the sheer luxurious bulkiness of the Staatskapelle’s sound was overwhelming: the strings glossy, the brass forthright and warm, the woodwind characterful.

Barenboim’s tempos were fluid but never sounded rushed, and the work’s climaxes came across as both organic and well-planned. There were some nice details, too, such as the weighting of the bass line as we started the build-up to the Adagio’s final climax, while the finale has rarely made so much sense, with even an exaggerated pause towards its close—in which Barenboim held the audience in the palm of his hand—unable to interrupt its momentum. In short, this was the sort of Bruckner playing one hears too rarely; whether those attending the next two concerts will tire of its broad-brush character, though, and long for more finely etched detail will have to be seen.

The first half’s Mozart was perhaps more problematic, and here, on a purely superficial level, Barenboim’s fingers seemed to take a little time to warm up. Similarly, the interpretation took some time to find its feet, vacillating at first between lightness and an almost Brucknerian intensity in some of the tuttis—that leading into the first-movement cadenza, with the horns blazing out their lines in a long, loud legato seemed to go well beyond the standard Beethovenian label applied to this concerto.

The final two movements, however, were a delight. Barenboim hit upon just the right balance of lyricism and assertiveness in the Allegretto, phrasing exquisitely and managing to mix a sense of chamber-music intimacy with snatches of symphonic intensity. He was helped greatly here and in the finale by his wind players, in particular, who were outstanding in the Harmonie-band moments. The finale managed both playfulness and sometimes overwhelming, unexpected power.

This was Mozart in unashamedly Romantic garb, then, but without any of the staidness of some traditional performances. It could be a bit rough and ready, too, but, with a forceful personality at its heart concerned with communicating the music’s drama, the results were entirely persuasive.

The Bruckner Project continues tonight and Friday. 

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Gergiev and Vengerov

The musical week in London has been rather dominated by the Russians, and my two assignments included a pair of concerts given by Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces at the Barbican (Parsifal and the Verdi Requiem, reviewed here) and Maxim Vengerov's 'official' return to the London concert platform with a Wigmore Hall recital -- reviewed here and well worth trying to catch when it's broadcast on Radio 3 on April 29.

It was great to hear Vengerov again, even if I found some of his playing a bit forced. His freshness -- a result, apparently, of his stepping back from the globe-trotting virtuoso's treadmill to concentrate on conducting and educational work -- stood in contrast to that of Gergiev's singers, in particular. The Russian maestro is renowned for his boundless energy, but one has to question whether he's doing those singers any favours in forcing them to keep up. This week, for example, the same soloists were performing three Parsifals in six days, and apparently they were a great deal fresher in the first in Cardiff than they were, at least, in London -- it'd be interesting to know how they got on in Birmingham last night. 

It was a shame, too, that Viktoria Yastrebova, the soprano soloist in the Requiem seemed so out of sorts. She's been hailed in some quarters (in The Times, for example, following her appearance in a Sadler's Wells Tsar Saltan in 2008) as the new Anna Netrebko -- despite a rather different repertoire, which included a Tosca at La Scala in 2010-11 -- and she certainly, how shall we say it, is camera-friendly. On Wednesday the voice showed some lovely qualities, but she never really let it go in the way it must be able to (one doesn't get far in Tosca holding back like that). 

In the Parsifal cast, I was impressed if not bowled over by Yuri Vorobiov, the bass who made a very respectable job of Gurnemanz but who didn't seem to have the charisma or authority for it quite yet. It's a really lovely voice, though, as this clip of him in Sarastro's aria shows. He's due to be making his ROH debut next season as Colline in La Bohème.

Let's hope he's survived his own personal Gurnemanz-athon intact. 

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Lang Lang's Beethoven No.2

Here, a bit late, is my second review of Lang Lang's Beethoven -- of the third and final concert in his RAH concerto cycle. I've been doing a fair bit more thinking about the way one which can or should aim to address the Lang Lang phenomenon.. And this post is in part reaction to several things: Ivan Hewett's argument on the Telegraph website that censuring showiness amounts to snobbery; the extraordinary amount of invective aimed at him (and, by extension, critics in general) in comments reacting to that; Joseph Streeter's considered comment on my previous blog entry; and my own being taken to task by a musicologically-minded friend on Facebook, who argued, similarly to Hewett, that there are plenty of historical precedents for the very greatest performers playing fast and loose with the musical text--and any idea of the composer's intention. Hewett cites Paganini; my friend cited Beethoven's markings on his copy of the Goldberg Variations, and suggested I'd put forward a criticism--in my last blog entry--rather too invested in the idea that a performer should serve the composer. I'd been careful to avoid expressing this view in my review, however, knowing how it's an attitude long criticized in musicology, where there's an acknowledgement of the impossibility of knowing a composer's 'intentions'.

Any performance, as Richard Taruskin argued long ago, that makes claims towards 'being true to the composer', etc., tends to say more about the performer's idea of the composer than anything else. And I suppose criticism similarly says a fair bit about the critic--although not in the way, I'd say, that some of the more offensive commenters on Hewett's article seem to suggest. Similarly, one might assume that some of the less seasoned (or jaded and grumpy, depending on one's view) concert-goers who react so favourably to Lang Lang are less invested in the idea of the composer and his -- sorry, but when we're talking about these big-C composers it still is 'his' -- authority and intention. This is a refreshing attitude, and it's nice to see it formalized so eloquently in Hewett's piece--and he's very right to suggest that we, as audiences, are usually pretty susceptible to the visual in a performance, and just as likely to praise a performer who seems to be communing with a composer as chastise one who seems not to be.

But there's no doubt a balance to be struck. And it obviously has something to do with the composer being performed. Maybe one might argue that, in a battle of the egos, Beethoven is always going to win out over an upstart performer. But it's also a matter of consistence in interpretation.  I'm happy to watch a pianist wrestle the composer fair-and-square into submission with a single-minded interpretative approach, but Lang Lang's Beethoven playing seems akin to breaking him down with series of playful pokes, elbows and kicks in the chins. As it is, he cobbles together the bits from other interpretations, juggle them about, emphasize them, and present them as he fancies. It doesn't tell us much about Beethoven, but then, on reflection, it doesn't really tell us much about what Lang Lang--deep down--is all about either.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Lang Lang's Beethoven

One of my assignments last week was to cover the second and third concerts of Lang Lang's Beethoven concerto cycle at the Royal Albert Hall. My review of the second is here, and probably communicates a fair amount of frustration with the pianist, who is still bafflingly profligate with his talents. (The third concert was an improvement, and I'll post to the review when it appears). His playing regularly inspires the same refrain from the critical fraternity, it seems, regarding fast fingers steered to wilful extremes by immature musicianship. Then again, there seems little option for those reviewing his performances, if they are marred by the same faults, than to repeat the same criticisms. Some seem to give in and tire of this (and it certainly leaves one's adjective cupboard looking rather bare), but, without wishing to seem pompous, isn't it exactly when one starts to think that one's voice is being heard less and less that one should just start shouting a bit louder?

I notice the responses to Martin Kettle's 1-star review of the first concert show that there's still an alarming number of strange assumptions regarding what motivates critics. Here the commenters wheel out the same, tired view that those critical of popular classical performers are just worried because these performers will lead to the rarified world of classical music becoming polluted with the hoi poloi. 'Some attitudes towards Lang Lang are based more and snobbery and prejudice,' writes one; 'I think if Lang Lang has committed any crime in music,' writes another, 'it has been to enjoy himself far too much amongst people who are -- how shall we say -- a bit "stiff"'. Someone else asks, 'I wonder if the fact that Lang Lang is massively popular has anything to do with their [i.e. those critical of him] judgement. Because it reads a bit like snobbery, to be honest -- the vulgar little showman, who does he think he is?'

It's all a bit baffling and depressing, but hardly surprising. Classical music still has an enormous image problem it seems, which dictates that criticism can so automatically be interpreted as snobbery and prejudice. I suppose a lot of it boils down to everyone's proprietorial attitude towards their own subjective reaction. When that reaction is strongly contradicted, one's pride is hurt. (I touch on this a little in an earlier post about the 'Comment'). But that anyone should assume that the main motivation of a critic is to keep as many people out of their world as possible is deeply saddening. The classical world has, like any other, its share of curmudgeons, but surely, and particularly these days, everyone would want to see every classical concert packed out and attended by as many people as possible. Lang Lang certainly manages this, but too much of his Beethoven playing, in particular, seems to be about him rather than the composer. I just hope that those at the concerto cycle will now also think about going to hear one of the many other great pianists out there -- Mitsuko Uchida is just one, whose recent LSO cycle showed what real pianistic wit and interpretative freedom is all about -- playing Beethoven.

For those unfamiliar with Lang Lang's playing, the following example might serve to demonstrate why one might question his taste as a performer. And I remember his playing of this little Chopin Etude as an encore from the first time I went to see him (an RFH recital, about five years ago). I was expecting great things, and had assumed that some of the stuff I'd read was just curmudgeonly and mean-spirited. After all, much like many of the commenters on the Guardian review, all of these great conductors he'd worked with can't have been wrong...

And here, by way of contrast, a far more, ahem, neutral account...

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Dvořák: Rusalka (Royal Opera House, 27 February 2012)

Camilla Nyland and Alan Held (Photo: ROH/Clive Barda)
Rusalka has finally made it to Covent Garden, but, in Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s wilfully shabby production, it has arrived in inexpressive and unlovely form. The boos and countering cheers that greeted the directorial team at the curtain—even though this was branded a new production, it was first seen in Salzburg in 2008 and was here entrusted to a revival director, Samantha Seymour—suggest that, as with Christof Loy’s Tristan, critical reaction might find itself crudely chracterized as either progressive or conservative (the booing has already been picked up as news in the mainstream press). But, while it’s good to have a bit of Regietheater at Covent Garden, especially after several months of inadequately re-heated revivals, such arguments should not detract from the basic defects and ineptitude of Wieler and Morabito’s production.

(Photo: ROH/Clive Barda)
One main problem is the fact that, in an opera about belonging and sacrifice, they never make clear where Rusalka belongs and what she sacrifices. They transport the action to an Eastern European brothel, but make no attempt to deal with resultant inconsistencies: in early Act 1, Rusalka remains a mermaid, too often left to flop about in drama-workshop style on the floor. Her watery realm and the Vodnik’s lair are hidden down stage beneath a trap door. The Song to the Moon is addressed to a toy cat, who then, as 'Mourek', an actor in cat costume, takes part in Ježibaba’s incantations, tearing Rusalka’s tail off before, with tedious inevitability, climbing on top of her for a bit of comedy humping. There was something undignified, too—especially in an opera that’s all about exploitation made possible by a desire for recognition and love—about forcing three of the Royal Opera’s fine Young Artists (Anna Devin, Madeleine Pierard and Justina Gringyte) to cavort as Wood Nymphs for the whole of Act 3 in their underwear.

The production began to gain some sort of focus in Act 3, however, where Rusalka stabs herself early on, returning to greet the Prince as an ‘undead avanger’ (according to the synopsis). Her final kiss becomes a curt execution, creating a fascinating friction against the final duet and subsequent apotheosis. The Prince (Bryan Hymel) died too far from the trap door and had to help Rusalka dump him in with some fish-like wriggles of his own, meaning that the moment’s power was diluted; but finally, here, we were presented with a reading that ran profitably against the grain of the opera.

Agnes Zwierko (Jezibaba) with 'Mourek'
(Photo: ROH/Clive Barda)
One of the main points of Morabito’s tortuous programme essay traces the historical religious reasons for demonizing traditional spirits and branding them ineligible for Christian redemption, and various related elements—a crucifix, and a priest presiding over Act 2’s party—were dotted about. There was an obsession with stilettos, too—a corollary of an obsession with being able to walk, I suppose—but there were also liberal sprinklings of much else that just seemed wilfully ugly and cryptic. (And there remains something rather uncomfortable about a Swiss-German directorial pair drawing on the short-hand of Eastern-bloc shabbiness.) This reluctance to focus on any key ideas led to a rather tedious evening, in which one struggled to care about Rusalka’s fate; I’m happy to be shocked and challenged—indeed, Rusalka is a deeply disturbing work that demands such treatment—but here I was, for the most part, just bored.

Thankfully, however, the musical values were very high. If the directors discouraged emotional engagement, at least Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making his Covent Garden debut, demanded it with a gloriously colourful and impassioned reading of Dvořák’s wonderful score. Dances were whipped up with bacchanalian delight, climaxes squeezed and caressed, textures finely calibrated; and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House clearly enjoyed playing for him. Apart from Agnes Zwierko’s strident, over-the-top Ježibaba, the excellent international cast lacked among its principals any Slavic singers that might have brought extra character to their roles. Camilla Nyland, a veteran from the production’s original 2008 run in Salzburg, took time to establish herself as Rusalka, with the voice initially lacking creaminess and heft, but she warmed up well as the evening progressed, and acted with impressive commitment to Wieler-Morabito’s vision. Alan Held, also brought over from the Salzburg cast, was a solid but hardly soulful Vodník. Hymal’s Prince was astonishingly secure and smoothly sung, but, perhaps in part due to the production, a touch bland. Petra Lang didn’t exactly make light work of the Foreign Princess, but sang the difficult, brief role with all the security and power one could want. Gyula Orendt and Ilse Eerens made the most of their opportunities as the Gamekeeper and Kitchen Boy, roles rendered redundant here. In all, though, despite the high musical values, this was an disappointing Royal Opera debut for Rusalka.  

Sunday, 19 February 2012

ENO: The Tales of Hoffmann; OAE/Elder: Berlioz

The second performance of ENO’s Tales of Hoffmann on Thursday didn’t contradict much of what I’d read in the reviews after opening night. Richard Jones’s new production—hotfooting it over from Munich where before Christmas it had starred Rolando Villazón and Diana Damrau—is characteristically sharp, witty and, especially in the brilliant Olympia act, saturated with the director’s favourite sort of mid-twentieth-century kitsch.

Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou
I’m not especially well versed in the complicated editorial issues surrounding the work, but agree with what seems to be the general consensus: the material added in to the Kaye-Keck edition is not all top-drawer; and, as Tim Ashley notes, some of the Guiraud additions can be helpful to the overall structure. Either way, it’s a shame, though, that the ENO programme didn’t really address or properly clarify these issues, or even those regarding the broader questions the opera throws up—the mechanization of coloratura and Antonia’s self-undoing through the very act of singing are the sort of thing to get any musicologist’s juices flowing.

Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

But while Hoffmann is a fascinating, flawed work, it’s not one that is necessarily that easy to like. And Jones, for all the smart theatricality of his production, didn’t really do much to make us identify with Hoffmann’s ‘affairs’ as anything more than coolly abstract experiments, with Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta as female archetypes chemically extracted from a whole and put, as it were, on an operatic petri dish. 

That's probably putting it a bit too strongly, but with even the locals at Luther’s pub appearing as part of Hoffmann’s booze-fuelled hallucinations, it was difficult to get really drawn in to the drama. It’s all brilliantly realized, but there’s not much to add warmth to what’s a rather cold evening’s opera.

The cast, however, are outstanding, led by an ardent Barry Banks as Hoffmann. If the voice doesn’t necessarily bloom as one might like, he’s a stylish singer entirely in control of the role. The same can be said for Georgia Jarman and Clive Bayley in their multiple roles. The soprano acts brilliantly as the automaton Olympia, the consumptive Antonia and the high-class hooker Giulietta, and her singing is marvellously accomplished; here’s one of what must be a small number of singers who can be convincing in all these roles (Damrau in Munich, by all accounts, is another). But, if you'll permit me a bit of canary fancying, I don't think even Damrau, who made her name in coloratura roles, can erase memories of Natalie Dessay as Olympia in 2000, before she had vocal problems, and when the voice apparently went onwards and upwards as far as the ear could hear. Here's Damrau in Munich in a clip that gives an idea of how brilliant Jones's direction is in this scene.

Here's Dessay in Vienna in 1996. She only, of course, does the one role; but does (did) anyone do it better?

Bayley’s knack for evil made him perfectly suited to the villains, even if ‘Scintille diamant’ might have been more elegantly phrased. Simon Butteriss was sharp as a tack as the servants and Christine Rice just about perfect as Nicklausse.

Another ‘problem’ work is Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette; at least it is usually seen as such. Part of the reason is the fact that it exists in characteristically Berliozian sui-generis limbo. Cast in seven sort-of movements, it mixes narrative from soloists and chorus with purely instrumental evocations, descriptions, transcriptions (call them what you will) of the key dramatic moments. David Cairns has written a nice little intro to it over on the Guardian, but this wonderful performance at the Royal Festival Hall, with Mark Elder conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (in repertoire that could hardly, however, be more Révolutionnaire et Romantique) did more to refute Tovey’s description of the work as ‘incoherent and unwieldy’ than any of Cairns’s arguments. It certainly made it seem coherent—necessarily so, since the OAE’s admirable idea to hand out free programmes was undone by a shortage of them. It still felt unwieldy, but gloriously so. The orchestra repeat bits of it at one of their Night Shifts this Friday, 24 February, at 9pm at the Camden Roundhouse, and microphones were on hand, presumably for radio broadcast.