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.