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. 

Monday, 13 February 2012

Hough, LPO/Alsop; Volodos, Philharmonia/Sokhiev; Silent Opera: La Bohème

There were another couple of treats for pianophiles last week: two brilliant but very different virtuosos—and I use the term advisedly—giving Festival Hall audiences a decent notes-for-their-buck ratio (And sorry to non-pianophiles [pianophobes?] for not covering the rest of these programmes in any detail). First came Stephen Hough’s bogof Liszt, where the ever-debonair pianist rattled his way through the Hungarian composer’s two concertos, one either side of the interval, as Marin Alsop and the LPO did their best to keep up (they were also very fine in a bookending pair of Czech symphonies—Martinu's Sixth and Dvorak's Eighth—that made this quite a long concert). The contrast between Hough’s nimble-fingered pianism and Arcadi Volodos’s more Herculean brand of piano-playing—in Brahms’ whopping B-flat concerto, with the Philharmonia—the next evening was fascinating.

First, it made me wonder whether our ears can sometimes be led astray by our eyes (the visual, after all, is the realm of the empirical; the aural is far more mysterious, requiring, as some theorists on the subject have argued, a quasi-religious act of dot-joining). Was I right to hear the slender Hough’s sound as less powerful than the bulkier Volodos’s? Did the delicacy of some of Volodos’s playing seem all the more astonishing given that it was produced by hands that look like they could shell a walnut? The answers are probably ‘yes’, followed by ‘maybe a little’. And would, on a slightly different tack, more people have flooded the RFH to hear Hough if he didn't seem so nice and, well, English?  

What Hough’s Liszt most certainly wasn’t, though, was unassuming or polite. Fuelled, apparently, more by Tokay than tea, it was daring, improvisatory and, in each concerto’s frantic run to the finish line, hair-raisingly exciting. There was a hint of the circus, as there had been when Hough played just the E-flat work with the Budapest Festival Orchestra about this time last year, and when I’d done the pianist a disservice by thinking it was the conductor Iván Fischer who’d driven the tempos on so furiously. Here Hough's spiky attack and hair-pin dynamics made the first concerto here sound more modern than ever, most surprisingly so, given the triangle’s less-than-entirely-serious reputation, in the famous Scherzando section where it features so prominently. Here we suddenly noticed the piano’s percussive writing against sparse string textures and delicate wind interjections. But while Hough’s playing in the lighter textures was brilliantly pointed, and his laconic way the more improvisatory stuff hypnotic, I did still have my doubts about the moments of altogether more outrageous rhetoric—the thundering double octaves and the beefy chords—which seemed splashy and hard-edged but underpowered. Maybe it’s something to do with the way his piano’s conditioned, but it’s a lean sound that could often do with a bit more beef.

No such complaints with Volodos’s Brahms, where the Russian’s sound was typically rich but controlled. He’s not quite worked out what he’s doing with all of this concerto, it seems, and the gargantuan first movement, although despatched with the most astonishing accuracy and facility, seemed occasionally over-interpreted. (Do its big chords demand a certain effort that dictates its own interpretative course? I wondered; and is one left scratching one’s head if they don’t pose those difficulties?) Either way, the final three movements were dazzling in their different ways. First, in matters of ‘mere’ technique it is difficult to imagine anyone matching Volodos’s dynamic range or dexterity: the ability to despatch octaves like single notes, for example, made for a final movement of mercurial brilliance (and rarely have those playful runs up the keyboard in thirds sounded so wispy and light), while the colours of the Andante were perfectly controlled. The encore—I admit not knowing what it was, but have been put out of my ignorant misery by the ever well-informed Classical Source’s review of the concert: Schubert's remarkable C# minor minuet D. 600—was entrancing, with Volodos controlling right-hand voices against a perfectly gauged pizzicato-like bass. The Philharmonia accompanied with some beautiful playing under Tugan Sokhiev, but occasionally risked coming unstuck. They were at their very best, though, in a coruscating account of Shostakovich's Symphony No.8, which stretches that form as Brahms stretched that of the concerto, but to very different, harrowing ends. 

Finally, a quick mention for Silent Opera, a brilliant new initiative whose La Bohème I caught at the Vault Festival at the Old Vic Tunnels. I’m writing it up in opera, but suffice to say here that it might be one way of fulfilling the requirement for cheap, accessible opera in an inclusive environment, where the relaxed atmosphere (and attendant drink-swigging and chatting) in no way impedes one’s enjoyment. It works, if you’re wondering, in a way that builds on the idea of 'silent' disco: each member of the audience has wireless headphones and the live singing is mixed directly onto a pre-recorded orchestral soundtrack, meaning that the singers (and audience) can move around a multi-room space like the Tunnels and keep up with the aural action. There are still a few performances left (follow the link above for details) and it is really worth trying to catch. There are plans later in the year for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Keep an ear out and book early; Silent Opera might become very popular. 

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Der Rosenkavalier at ENO; Philharmonia/Masur; BBC SO Jakobín

Amanda Roocroft as the Marschallin (c) Clive Barda
Towards the close of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character watches two actors rehearsing the end of his play, which in turn stages the happy ending that the film has failed to provide. ‘You know how you’re always trying to get things to turn out perfect in art’, he says, turning to the camera, ‘because it’s real difficult in life?' ENO’s revival of Der Rosenkavalier made me think of this clip (against which, incidentally and not inappropriately, we begin to hear Diane Keaton’s Annie start singing ‘Seems like old times…’), because rarely have I felt more aware of the different levels in Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s work: between broad comedy and deeply-felt tragedy on the one hand, and between exquisitely-crafted artifice and exquisitely-observed reality on the other.

The Marschallin’s awareness of the passage of time and the realization that, to borrow another phrase from Annie Hall, she and Octavian might soon have a dead shark on their hands, came across in Amanda Roocroft’s moving portrayal as all too realistic--the slight vulnerability of her voice above the stave and its weakness in the mid-to-low range only added to this impression. The heady love-at-first-sight of the Presentation of the Rose seemed all the more idealized in comparison. Hofmannsthal's brilliantly clever in underlining that artificiality, too, in having the Silver Rose laced with 'Persian rose-oil'. For Adorno this was evidence of 'Spontaneity produced by technique, [which] is the Straussian magic formula'. But here, in David McVicar's economical but cleverly detailed and observed production, such 'spontaneity produced by technique' put the more 'real' story of the Marschallin into relief. This was achieved nowhere better than in the final scene: the Trio was elucidated by little gestures and looks that made clear that the awkwardness of the moment cannot be expected to dissolve as Strauss's dominant 7th slips us gently into D-flat major; the subsequent cutesy duet, then, became an attempt exactly to get right in art what we'd just seen go so wrong in life.

Sarah Connolly as Octavian (c) Clive Barda
Alongside Roocroft's Marschallin, Sarah Connolly's Octavian was extremely good. Not only does the voice have all the glinting splendour of the blingy armour of the character's Act-2 entrance, but Connolly has mastered teenage ardour and stroppiness--not to mention the gangly walk of a lanky 17-year-old. Sophie Bevan's Sophie was outstanding, too: charming and disarming, and wonderfully secure in the vocal stratosphere. The rest of the cast, including a typically persuasive Faninal from Andrew Shore, put on a brilliant ENO team effort.

The distance that opened up between the comic elements of the opera--embodied by John Tomlinson's bawdy, boisterous and roughly-sung Baron Ochs--and the rest was perhaps less welcome. There's no doubting Tomlinson's charisma on the stage, or the clarity with which he can get a text across, but parts of this role are simply beyond him in vocal terms, and I felt myself wince in anticipation of every high note. This lack of vocal finesse, allied to the fact that Alfred Kalisch's workmanlike translation necessarily robbed Ochs of his verbal acuity, made for a distinctly unaristocratic portrayal. Surely, I thought, Ochs should be the incarnation of the same mixture of sophistication and lasciviousness that defines the Act-2 waltzes. 

Tomlinson and Connolly in Act 3 (c) Clive Barda
McVicar's one-set-fits-all production also came a bit unstuck at the start of Act 3, where we really missed having a properly booby-trapped Beis'l for Ochs's undoing. (There's also some rather tiresome stuff with the upgraded Leopold, particularly his learing attempts at getting involved in the Act-3 seduction). 

I'd not enjoyed Edward Gardner's conducting when the production was new--he drove the score hard and the orchestra played with little warmth. Here, however, he balanced sugar and thrust perfectly, and the ENO players demonstrated real command of the score. In fact, I'd not enjoyed much of the production as a whole when it was new (Connolly's Octavian excepted); but here it all clicked, and clicked brilliantly and powerfully. It's been getting universally great reviews--and deservedly so. Get a ticket if you can.

Many of the key moments in Der Rosenkavalier involve the stopping of time. The Marschallin, she tells us in her monologue, attempts literally to do so by stopping the clocks in her palace; Strauss seems to do so with the musical freeze-frames of the opera's great set pieces--the Presentation of the Rose and the Trio. Bruckner, particularly in his later symphonies, might not stop time but he certainly reconfigures it, stretching forms in a way that requires a special sort of interpretative skill. Kurt Masur, now in his mid-80s and looking very frail indeed, has been conducting these symphonies for god know's how long, and he brought all that experience to bear in the Seventh Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday. There was nothing showy here, nor anything terribly revelatory, but rather an honest, expertly-paced account of this great work (although I'm still not sure about the finale). Similarly, Arabella Steinbacher's beautifully played account of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in the first half provided simple, straightforward pleasure. That's not to damn it with faint praise, however; impeccably musical and with every phrase sweetly sung, this was the sort of civilised, unshowy playing that often brings out the best in this composer. (And it's an approach that works pretty well in the slow movement from Beethoven's Violin Concerto, too, as below--none of her Mendelssohn seems to have made it on to YouTube).

Finally, there was a brilliantly enjoyable performance of Dvořák's Jakobín at the Barbican last night, courtesy of Jiří Bělohlávek, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and a lovely Czech cast. The piece is jam-packed with some glorious music, even if it is fatally compromised by a dithery libretto that can't work out where to focus its attention. I was there for OPERA, so can't write too much here, but it's certainly well worth catching when broadcast on Radio 3 this coming Thursday at 2pm.