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.