Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Castorf's Centenary Ring at Bayreuth

[plus Neuenfels's Lohengrin and Gloger's Holländer -- from OPERA, October 2013, pp. 1298-1302]

For months, Frank Castorf had given only brief indications of what was to lie behind his concept for the bicentenary Ring for Bayreuth: it was to deal with oil and globalization. As far back as February 2012, the Intendant of Berlin’s Volksbühne referred in an interview in Die Welt to Russia and America as antipodes in his version of the story, with Germany sitting somewhere in the middle. He spoke also of a desire—quickly and predictably vetoed by Kirill Petrenko, the conductor of the cycle—to make changes to the score and the libretto. Castorf had turned down previous invitations to direct opera exactly because of this inflexibility, so the Ring seems a particularly perverse choice for him, presenting as it does a complex, tightly-woven, self-reflexive and -referential web of music and drama. 

Unable to make changes to the text, then, the director opted largely to ignore it, with Wagner’s work apparently becoming a trifling obstacle to the telling of his own story (seen at the final cycle, on August 22, 23, 25 and 27 at the Festspielhaus). Castorf’s own professed aim to produce theatre that is not easily reducible into anything so literal-minded as a coherent narrative added another layer of confusion. And matters can’t have been helped by what seems to have been a chaotic rehearsal process: apparently only nine days could be spent rehearsing Das Rheingold, but vast swathes of Die Walküre, in particular, gave the impression of being even more fatally under-prepared. 

In a programme essay, Castorf argued that the fragmented nature of the rehearsal process, with acts and scenes addressed more according to practical necessity than artistic choice, became part and parcel of the production’s aesthetic. The use of video (by Andreas Deinert and Jens Crull)—projecting a mixture of live action and other filmed material onto whatever surfaces presented themselves—apparently underlined this by emphasizing the way that TV encourages us to hop from the key moments of one large-scale drama to those of another at the touch of a button. 

However, I can’t have been alone in suspecting that such theoretical justification was hastily mobilized after the event to try and dignify poor stagecraft and largely absent Personenregie—after all, the distinction between deliberate fragmentariness and straightforward ineptitude is largely a chronological one. Castorf’s sensible central idea of oil as modern-day gold, meanwhile, came and went, offering the director little inspiration after having apparently dictated the bizarre and, one assumes, deliberately perverse choices of location and time for each instalment. The Tarantino-esque Rheingold was set in the Golden Motel, above a petrol station on Route 66 some time in the late 20th century, the prelude accompanying the Rhinemaidens lazily taking their knickers off a washing line as Alberich sat back on a sun lounger; Die Walküre was set on a primitive oil well in remote Baku, Azerbaijan in the early 20th century—a caged bird looked on as Act 1 unfolded, and a derrick was uncovered to nod perfunctorily through some of Wotan’s farewell. The last two instalments returned to the later 20th century: Siegfried’s action was split between a socialist Mount Rushmore (a slightly Verdi-like Marx, alongside Lenin, Stalin and Mao) and Berlin’s Alexanderplatz; Götterdämmerung’s switched between sordid backstreet Berlin and Wall Street, where a meticulously recreated facade of the New York Stock Exchange was unveiled shortly before the final scene—take that, capitalism! That it was doused in petrol but left unlit, I couldn’t help cynically assuming, was a touch of ambiguity dictated more by depleted budget and deficient theatrical imagination than anything else.

Castorf’s ill-focused polemicizing, when superimposed upon Wagner’s own infinitely more sophisticated and eloquent critique of capitalism, created a sense of tautology that effectively neutralized the whole thing. The literalness of Aleksandar Denić’s hugely complex and detailed revolving sets fitted uncomfortably with the slippery imprecision of the oily concept. In a production saturated with far too many fleeting, unrelated and undeveloped ideas to catalogue, the occasional detail in Wagner’s staging that Castorf did doggedly follow—counting out Freia’s weight in gold, an anachronistic Notung—stuck out awkwardly. The ugliness of it all, banishing beauty and all but the basest humanity, meant we also lost the powerful critique of the dehumanizing power of industry. 

But Castorf’s greatest error was to portray all the characters of the tetralogy so vaguely and unsympathetically. Few of them seemed aware of—or indeed the least bit interested in—the story unravelling around them. Wotan, Loge and Alberich reclined lazily on deckchairs during the final scene of Rheingold, for example, and during Wotan’s great monologue in Die Walküre Brünnhilde was more interested in rearranging furniture than in anything her father had to say. The almost constant use of film served as a further distraction at this point and throughout. The projections of live close-ups, filmed by a mixture of hidden and deliberately visible cameramen, represented a promising innovation, carried out with impressive organization. But additional footage—hints of oily orgasm accompanying Sieglinde and Siegmund’s duet, for example, a Gollum-like figure pawing a blood-caked blonde during the Act 3 duet of Siegfried, or Hagen wandering through a forest during the Funeral March—added further counterpoint to already baffling stage action. The result was frustrating, unrewarding sensory overload. 

Unsurprisingly, Wagner’s music came out of it badly, left to stand alone, referring only to itself, occasionally coinciding with a striking image to give it momentary emotional weight in the manner of high-class film music. That Petrenko’s conducting seemed to hit its stride during Siegfried might have been due to the fact that the whole of that opera’s first act was free of projections, with only an uncredited actor, who featured prominently in all but the second instalment, distracting from a relatively conventional double act between Lance Ryan’s rather inelegant but admirably reliable Siegfried and Burkhard Ulrich’s vivid, lanky Mime. Here, suddenly, the orchestral sound seemed sharper and better focused, while the details of Petrenko’s reading registered more clearly—particular care was taken with voicing of wind chords towards the lower instruments, and there was telling subtlety and economy elsewhere. Throughout Götterdämmerung the orchestra’s contribution gained further in quality, with Petrenko managing to communicate the growing sense of inevitable tragedy, in spite of Castorf’s production. 

In the circumstances, the cast had managed extremely well in Rheingold. The action was constantly extended beyond those engaged actively in the drama at any point, with the projections showing Fasolt and Fafner (the eloquent, suited Günther Groissböck and the appropriately implacable Sorin Coliban, in singlet and dungarees) rough-housing the gas station attendant before their arrival upstairs, for example. The minor gods appeared in a variety of suits (Adriana Braga Peretzki was the costume designer), Norbert Ernst’s slightly underwhelming Loge in red, nervously flicking a lighter on and off, joining the solidly-sung Donner and Froh of Oleksandr Pushniak and Lothar Odinius. Claudia Mahnke (Fricka) and Elisabet Strid (Freia) seemed only one part of this oversexed, gangland Wotan’s harem, joined at the close by the Ur-tart that was Nadine Weissmann’s richly expressive Erda (she returned for a sordid, if amusingly-staged, encounter with the Wanderer in Siegfried). 

As Wotan, Wolfgang Koch was impressive. His smooth bass-baritone benefited from the kind Bayreuth acoustic but occasionally left one longing for more edge and heft. Koch is a fine actor but he was wasted in a production that robbed the god of his complexity, never clearly defining who he was or what motivated him (Castorf managed to render the Ring itself, let alone what it represents, largely irrelevant, and never clearly outlined the gold-oil parallel). The same went for Martin Winkler’s Alberich, whose incisive singing and vivid acting needed more by way of directorial foundation. Even Anja Kampe’s wonderfully free-voiced and impassioned Sieglinde seemed hampered, while Johan Botha’s solid but inexpressive Siegmund was unable to do much during their duet when slumped, in what seemed like a rare instruction from Castorf, on the ground between a couple of hay bales. 

Mirella Hagen was joined by Julia Rutigliano and Okka von der Dammerau to make up the Rhinemaidens, and her Forest Bird—in magnificent winged showgirl costume—was accurate but a touch brittle and soubrettish; and it was typical of the production that Siegfried ran off with her (having saved her from the jaws of a passing crocodile) at the end of the opera, only to reappear happily shacked up with Brünnhilde, in Mime’s trailer, at the start of Götterdämmerung.

Attila Jun’s bass seemed surprisingly soft-grained for Hagen, but it had the necessary darkness. The singer’s German could be indistinct, but he was an impressive presence, and portrayed the thuggish backstreet gangster fearsomely. Mahnke returned as an eloquent Waltraute, and did what she could to move us and Brünnhilde with her account of a Wotan we’d never really cared about. 

Allison Oakes’s Gutrune—a beehived ’60s housewife who is given a Messerschmitt threewheeler for her wedding—and Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester, as Gunther, made solid contributions, as did Franz-Josef Selig as Hunding. Oakes, Dara Hobbs, Mahnke, Weissmann, Christiane Kohl, Rutigliano, Geneviève King and Alexandra Petersamer were the Valkyries, Von der Dammerau, Mahnke and Kohl the Norns. 

Ryan gamely did what he was told—including much clambering around Marx & Co.— but was burdened with an unengaging, unlikeable characterization of Siegfried. Catherine Foster perhaps came off even worse: her Brünnhilde was very much left to her own dramatic devices. And her entrance at the start of the Immolation Scene, at the top of a staircase encased by walls, can have been visible only to half the audience (the sets were generally very high and wide, and Castorf explored their extremes with little regard for sightlines). Vocally, the British soprano occasionally sounded polite and underpowered, and the voice sometimes veered slightly off pitch and became occluded when she did sing full out, but this was an admirably secure performance, sung with rare musicality. 

Ultimately Castorf has produced a Ring that is too incoherent and inconsistent to be truly transgressive or challenging. Worse, for vast swathes, it was simply uninvolving and, frankly, boring. Castorf apparently subscribes to the old cliché that opera audiences are hopelessly reactionary—and those at Bayreuth especially so—and might have interpreted the boos at the end of the first cycle as evidence of having successfully épaté the stuffy bourgeoisie. Some of the booing might indeed have come from conservative elements, but much of it must surely have been because this production was half-baked, marred by incompetence and ill-thought-through. Let’s hope that at least the Wagner sisters can appreciate the difference. 

Certainly the two other productions I was able to catch this year seemed like masterpieces of stagecraft and conviction by comparison—Hans Neuenfels’s notorious but brilliant Lohengrin, I think, largely because that’s what it is (August 26). Jan Philipp Gloger’s Der fliegende Holländer (August 24) was less than enthusiastically received when unveiled last year, but even this, quite likely tightened up in the interim, seemed refreshingly inventive and stylish in the context. At least it did once the dark opening scene had given way to the garish playfulness that came with the arrival of the Steersman (a beautifully lyrical and sweet-voiced Benjamin Bruns) and his perky, perma-tanned air-steward crew, and Mary (the excellent Christa Mayer) and her no less perky factory workers. Samuel Youn remains slightly overparted in the title role (and hampered, dramatically, by a wheelie suitcase throughout), Franz-Josef Selig was a robust Daland and Tomislav Mužek a beautifully mellifluous Erik. The main change came in the form of Ricarda Merbeth’s gloriously secure and focused Senta. Christian Thielemann brought out the best in the orchestra, securing playing of striking power and flexibility. 

The one change from last year’s cast in Lohengrin came with the return of Petra Lang as a brilliantly unhinged Ortrud, the only singer across all the performances I attended to offer truly rafter-rattling vocal power. Klaus Florian Vogt’s ethereal Lohengrin and Annette Dasch’s extraordinarily well-acted Elsa were joined by Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Thomas J. Mayer, both somewhat light-voiced, as Heinrich and Telramund, the latter risking being upstaged by Youn’s supremely confident Herald. There were signs of tiredness from the orchestra in the prelude, but otherwise they played beautifully for Andris Nelsons, and the choral passages were a highlight, as they had been in Holländer. Neuenfels’s production, meanwhile, gave a masterclass in how a director can force a radical reinterpretation of a work without negating it—largely as a result of simply listening to the music. Castorf might have learnt a thing or two.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Opera Holland Park: I gioielli della madonna

[From OPERA, September 2013, pp. 1199-1200]

I gioielli della Madonna
Opera Holland Park, July 25
This production of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s hoary, whorey 1911 smash-hit—a work that in many ways represents the apogee of verismo excess—brought Opera Holland Park’s 2013 season back to repertoire that the company has traditionally found rewarding. Certainly, the company pulled out all the stops in staging the piece, fielding an enormous chorus, a beefed-up City of London Sinfonia and child extras from W11 Opera, as well as three principals more than up to the considerable challenges of their roles. 

The overall effect was irresistible, capturing wonderfully, in particular, the visceral noisiness of the crowd scenes, where Wolf-Ferrari brings Naples and its great variety of backstreet human fauna (somewhat laconically, the score lists ‘People, Vendors, Camorrists, Typical Neapolitan Characters, etc., etc.’) to life with imagination and oodles of theatrical chutzpah. The first act must represent one of the most thrilling and sustained Dionysian frenzies in all opera, while the whole thing is a great, chaotic hotchpotch of the composer’s own innovations and influences: a Wagnerian swoon or a Debussian shimmer here, irresistible Pagliacci-like street music there, a dancer in the gang-leader Rafaele’s den who gyrates like Carmen and Salome in one. 

But Wolf-Ferrari has the skill to keep it all together, and his score has enough melodic writing to inspire sympathy, despite the fact that the characters are a pretty unappealing bunch: the weedy Gennaro, in love with his good-for-nothing (apart from the obvious) foster sister Maliella, who in turn has fallen for the gangster Rafaele. In the best verismo tradition, its plot, supposedly based on real-life events, is devoid of anything edifying or redemptive; it also implies a powerful, even daring critique of religion, when Gennaro imagines a sign of forgiveness from the same statue of the Madonna he’s stolen the jewels from. 

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production updated the action from the time of composition to the 1950s, with Rafaele’s scooter the most noticeable gain. But nothing was lost with the shift, either, and Jamie Vartan’s set—bits and bobs of dirty, graffiti-covered wall and metal cage, assorted crates of oranges—was effective in evoking the sultry, languid underworld, ready, like an urban Vesuvius, to erupt at any moment. The big chorus was directed with considerable skill, with the action effectively switching between realistic hustle and bustle and more stylized tableaux. 

As Maliella, Natalya Romaniw was terrific, bringing a bright, big soprano and generous phrasing to the part and acting the wild-eyed femme fatale convincingly and instinctively. There was not a great deal of subtlety to Olafur Sigurdarson’s Rafaele—I’m not sure the character provides much scope for nuance—but he provided all the strutting machismo one could want, and sang tirelessly. Joel Montero was admirably reliable, too, and brought plenty of heart to Gennaro. Perhaps his slightly fuzzy tenor was not ideally piercing and focused for the role, but he rose to its challenges impressively. Diana Montague was touching as the helpless mother, Carmela, and Luis Gomes stood out in Tontonno’s elegant song in Act 1. The handful of additional small roles were well taken, too.

Peter Robinson did an impressive job keeping all the score’s diverse elements under control, while unleashing wild frenzy as and when it was required; a few rough edges seemed only to add to the effect. All in all, a hugely enjoyable show.

BBC Proms: Der Ring der Nibelungen; Tristan und Isolde

(From OPERA, September 2013, pp. 1196-1199]

Der Ring des Nibelungen and Tristan und Isolde
Staatskapelle Berlin at the BBC Proms, July 22, 23, 26 and 28; BBC Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms, July 27

This Proms performance of the Ring left me grasping for superlatives, but also
grappling with several questions about how to describe what I, sitting among a rapt, packed Royal Albert Hall audience, had experienced. It’s difficult not to be drawn into the sort of critical clichés rooted in 19th-century ideas of patriarchy and cultural superiority that, extrapolated ad absurdum, arguably fuelled the ideology that left Wagner’s reputation so indelibly tarnished: to speak of a Great Conductor’s mastery of a score, for example, or to admire the incomparable Austro-German culture that could spawn and—through public subsidy of the arts as necessity rather than luxury—maintain an orchestra like the Staatskapelle Berlin, for which the Ring is a repertory staple. Certainly, the programming of not a single Verdi opera against seven by Wagner seems to have left little doubt regarding which side of the Alps the Proms management’s allegiance lies, even if this Ring did in part back up Roger Wright’s reasoning for the bias: that it’s easier these days to cast Wagner than Verdi. 

Paradoxically, however, Daniel Barenboim’s conducting, with the delicate, transparent playing of his orchestra enabling an approach of apparently endless fluidity and flexibility, produced a genuinely revelatory performance that seemed to allow the monumental drama to shed all the subsequent historical associations that still form a staple of the more populist discourse on the composer and his work. But even with the semi-est of semi-stagings—props had to be conjured in the imagination, and the director Justin Way wisely restricted himself to encouraging straightforward, instinctual interaction between the characters and making sensible decisions regarding exits and entrances—we also seemed to have a performance that was more powerfully dramatic and thought-provoking than half a dozen stagings. Preconceptions of how the elements of the Gesamtkunstwerk are kept in equilibrium were left shattered: do music and words alone, unencumbered by a production, create the most satisfying dramatic experience after all?  

That there was no sense of anything missing here was in large part due to a very fine cast, but it was also down to the extraordinarily broad expressive palette Barenboim had at his disposal, which early on in Das Rheingold ran the gamut from the tenderest lingering evocation of human love to the brutal, savage horror of its antithesis—no need to amplify this with images of industrialization. And throughout, Barenboim explored these extremes: Sennu Laine’s exquisite cello solos in Walküre Act 1 were impossibly hushed, and the violins accompanied Siegfried’s ascent to the Walkürenfels with awed quiet; storms—literal and metaphorical—materialized with truly elemental power. 

The interpretation teemed with detail, but never as a result of fussy micromanagement; with the orchestra able to follow Barenboim’s every command, there was thrilling spontaneity and a bracing sense of interpretative freedom, but never at the expense of the longer paragraphs. The Magic Fire music breathed delicately, the Forest Murmurs were seductive whisperings, Brünnhilde’s awakening in Siegfried was viscerally ecstatic. Götterdämmerung’s final act, meanwhile, was simply overwhelming, the long silence Barenboim maintained at the close unlikely to be forgotten by anyone who was there.

Nina Stemme’s imperiously sung and beautifully, movingly human Brünnhilde headed the cast, growing in stature from a slightly restrained performance in Walküre through to something truly great in the final two instalments. She acted with economy and nobility, and rode magnificently over the orchestra, particularly in an all-conquering Immolation Scene, sung from in front of the organ at the back of the stage. Andreas Schager’s sensational Götterdämmerung Siegfried, sung with both power and vocal allure, matched her in a way that Lance Ryan’s young Siegfried, light and slightly grating of tone, didn’t quite manage to, despite his impressive staying power and dramatic persuasiveness. 

Iain Paterson was an appealing, smoothly sung Rheingold Wotan, and Bryn Terfel was somewhat rougher in Die Walküre, but grippingly dramatic and authoritative; Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer struck an effective balance somewhere between the two. Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund remains too tight-voiced to be ideal, and couldn’t match Anja Kampe’s gloriously unfettered Sieglinde. Johannes Martin Kränzle was a brilliantly vivid Alberich; Peter Bronder’s Mime was every bit as good, and benefited from a brighter, edgier voice. Eric Halfvarson slightly overdid the scowling and snarling as Hunding, but his big, dark bass was welcome both here and as Fafner. By contrast, Mikhail Petrenko’s light-voiced Hagen was disappointing, as was the shrill Anna Samuil as Freia and Gutrune; Gerd Grochowski did what he could with Gunther. Anna Larsson was magnificent as Erda, and Ekaterina Gubanova made an imperious Fricka; Waltraud Meier gave a predictably fine cameo as Waltraute in Götterdämmerung

In Rheingold, Stephan Rügamer had been an unusually grainy-voiced Loge, but was dramatically effective in his irascibility. Jan Buchwald’s high-lying but penetrating baritone made a strong impression as Donner; Marius Vlad and Stephen Milling made solid contributions, respectively, as a bright-voiced Froh and an unusually sensitive Fasolt. Singing from the back of the choir, Rinnat Moriah’s Woodbird sounded glorious in Siegfried. There were mellifluous Rhinemaidens (Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya and Anna Lapkovskaja) and lusty Valkyries (Sonja Mühleck, Carola Höhn, Ivonne Fuchs, Anaïk Morel, Susan Foster, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo, Lapkovskaja and Simone Schröder); Margarita Nekrasova joined Meier and Samuil to complete the Norns. The Royal Opera Chorus made a sterling contribution in the tetralogy’s final instalment.

There were a couple of mishaps in Die Walküre, and some moments—in the stifling heat of the Albert Hall for Rheingold, and as we approached the End in Götterdämmerung—when one could detect small signs of very understandable fatigue in the orchestra. But let’s hope none of these—not to mention Wotan-like contractual difficulties—preclude the possibility of the cycle being released on CD. Astonishingly, it was the first time Barenboim had conducted Wagner in this country, and there was a sense that the bar for performances of the composer’s works here had been raised. With the Proms seeming to feature more and more opera, too, I couldn’t help wondering whether this visit from the Berlin Staatskapelle might be followed by operatic visits from other orchestras that London usually hears only in symphonic repertoire—maybe Thielemann’s Staatskapelle Dresden or the Vienna Philharmonic, both natural choices for next year’s Strauss anniversary. 

One of those bands might have relished the challenge of performing Tristan und Isolde between the final two instalments of the Barenboim Ring more than one imagines the BBC Symphony Orchestra did. In theory, the programming was justifiable in terms of the rough chronology of Wagner’s works, but in reality it seemed a loopy idea—and why not throw in a Meistersinger, too, since that was also written in the caesura between Acts 2 and 3 of Siegfried

Nevertheless, Semyon Bychkov conducted a spacious, always interesting account of the work, and the BBCSO played out of their skins. Violeta Urmana brought imperious command to Isolde, and Robert Dean Smith, taking over after Peter Seiffert pulled out, was a reliable Tristan. Neither, however, displayed much emotional range, reflecting little of the extremes that the piece is all about; despite the fact that it was semi-staged much as the Ring had been (Daniel Dooner was credited as ‘production adviser’), there was no similar sense of drama. Mihoko Fujimura was slightly out of sorts as Brangaene, the voice short on focus. Boaz Daniel’s Kurwenal was well sung but seemed unwilling to plumb the depths in the way that Kwangchul Youn’s moving King Marke did. Andrew Staples was a sweet-voiced Sailor and Shepherd, David Wilson-Johnson an emphatic Melot, and there was stirring work from the men of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus. The performance ultimately highlighted the difference between an opera-house orchestra and a symphony orchestra, however, with the voices often drowned out and Bychkov casting too many encouraging looks in the direction of the brass.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Rita in the pub, Grimes on the Beach, Death in Venice, Don Carlo in Toulouse, Strauss in Chelsea

A lot to cover in this post, which I'm afraid will veer very much towards the musing/rambling end of the spectrum rather than constituting anything terribly useful. They're all things that have got me reflecting on commemoration and the importance of place, something which I will be exploring in what I hope will be greater depth (rather than lengthier superficialness) at a conference, 'Staging Operatic Anniversaries', at Oxford Brookes in September.

The most headline-grabbing of these commemorative exercises has been this week's Grimes on the Beach in Aldeburgh, of which you can read my review here. And I'm not going to add much here, since otherwise I'll have nothing to say in the longer review that will be appearing in the next Opera. Here, though, is a little picture I took, to add the far more impressive official ones.

I certainly felt, having been there, that I'd experienced something pretty special, not least because of its unrepeatability. And I'd be surprised if that other headline-grabbing, on-location anniversary event, Das Rheingold on the Rhine, will come anywhere close--in fact, that performance, which seems to take the whole thing to absurd lengths, doesn't seem to have grabbed that many headlines at all.

The next evening's Britten, Death in Venice at the Coliseum, was warmer, temperature-wise, even if I find the piece itself rather cold, despite the sunbaked haziness (in the best, visual sense) of Deborah Warner's production. It's hard to imagine a better case being made for the work, with ENO living up to its reputation for staging Britten with a great cast and the orchestra, under Edward Gardner, once again sounding like a real virtuoso ensemble.

Things were a lot cosier last week, too, in Covent Garden's Sun Tavern, where Pop-Up Opera performed an unusual double bill of Donizetti's Rita and Pergolesi's La serva padrona (I saw it last Thursday, but it's heading off on an extensive tour in London and many places besides, info here). Rita's theme of domestic violence has suddenly become all-too-relevant, mid Nigella-gate, the opera's 'comedic' treatment of it now also seeming even more unforgivably glib--those were very different times, I suppose, and this is a work that, despite some characteristically entertaining and fizzy music, is sort of akin to those fine paintings of fox-hunting and pipe-smoking on the Antiques Roadshow: a hard sell whatever their artistic qualities. The double bill is doubly unusual, though, in having the works performed together: not exactly 'gleichzeitig' in the manner of Ariadne auf Naxos, but with their scenes interleaved to provide a soap opera-like switching between the two plots. It works extremely well, and is (too?) highly entertaining. It's got me wondering, too, if a similar device could be applied to anything else: directors, like most recently Stephen Barlow at Opera Holland Park, are always linking Cav and Pag, so maybe someone should go the whole hog and do them gleichzeitig...

Now a bit more death. I was in Toulouse yesterday for a rather brilliant Don Carlo--I'd been lured over by the prospect of Christian Gerhaher as Posa and Christine Goerke, ahead of her Royal Opera Elektra this Autumn, as Eboli, and she, in particular was fantastic. (I'm not giving too much away, since I'm reviewing it for Opera.) With a bit of time to kill earlier in the day I found myself at the city's amazing Cemitière de Montaudran, a vast, elaborate and slightly run-down hymn in marble and stone to the power of, and need for, commemoration, memorialization and, to use that wonderful sort-of-word, marmorealization.

It was a shame the weather was, for that half hour at least, bright and blue-skied rather than grey and gloomy, but I was struck--and not a little disturbed--by how many of these (below) there were, looking suspiciously like filing cabinets: death, it seems, will forever be tied up with bureaucracy. 

Anyway, it all very much got me in the mood for Verdi's great brooding masterpiece, shot through as it is with all-is-vanity gloom and religiosity. 

And appropriately enough, given my theme, despite using the 4-act Italian score, the performance (conducted by the much-underrated and much-overused-in-much-less-rewarding-repertoire Maurizio Benini) included the scene from the 5-act French score, after Posa's death, in which Phillip sings a line that was reused in the Lacrimosa in the Requiem. 

Finally, I'll be off to a rather happier commemoration tomorrow, to hear the combined choirs of King's College London and Gonville and Caius, Cambridge give a performance of Strauss's hugely difficult, extraordinarily luxurious and beautiful Deutsche Motette, scored for 16 parts and 8 soloists, exactly a century after its completion (the premiere was six months later, in Berlin on 2 December 1913). It's at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, as part of a mixed programme that includes some other interesting German repertoire--looks like tickets are available here

If their recording is anything to go by (I've been lucky enough to get a sneak preview), it should be quite something. Here, in the meantime, is a snippet of the Latvian Radio Choir having a crack... 

Friday, 17 May 2013

ENO: Wozzeck

I'm terribly behind, so only just getting a chance now to gather some thoughts about ENO's terrific new Wozzeck, which I saw at the second performance on Monday. It occurs to me that this production, along with the very encouraging announcement for its 2013-14 season, has done a great deal to drag me out of a slight depression regarding the company. Talk of its perilous financial situation was by no means stilled by Sunken Garden--I'd gone with a sense of hope, and an assumption that some of the more entertaining of the damning reviews were exaggerating for journalistic effect. I don't feel they were, and I was a little perplexed by attempts in some quarters to portray this as proof that professional critics (supposedly representatives of 'the establishment', even though the critics I know are definitely no such thing) are unable to recognise revolutionary, ground-breaking brilliance when they see it. (There's a tendency, sometimes, to call upon the bizarre logic that because critics in the past have dismissed any number of Great Works by Great Composers, the dismissal of certain works by critics of the present can serve as evidence those works' unrecognised greatness).

Anyway, ENO's new season is introduced in this all-singing, all-dancing video, for those who haven't seen it yet:

It's an exciting line-up, but the same old concerns remain regarding the size of the Coliseum and the sell-ability of some of the runs. Having Martin Crimp provide something rather more than a translation for Katie Mitchell's new Cosi is interesting, but I also still can't help wondering whether or not a slight relaxation of the English-only policy will help the company. Singing some of the bigger blockbusters in the original language would open up the casting options, meaning that ENO could maintain a reputation not only for theatrical adventurousness, but also for adventurous casting--snapping up some really exciting singers from all over the world years before they'd ever make it to Covent Garden. Straw polls among friends--and I'm talking mainly non-operatic friends--reveal that few are particularly excited by the prospect, on paper at least, of Verdi or Puccini in English. And another thing: doesn't ENO's weighting towards new productions serve as a tacit admission that many of its productions are not as revivable (for which one might unkindly read 'good') as they should be?

But, as I suggested, Carrie Cracknell's Wozzeck made all my armchair opera reforms (is there an operatic equivalent to Fifa Manager? Maybe there should be...) seem a bit silly--and made John Berry's strategy seem not silly in the least. Here, with Cracknell, was a director new to opera bringing some wonderful theatrical touches, finding power in the characters and telling contemporary resonances in Berg's brutal, brilliant masterpiece. Some things were lost--the inevitable collateral damage in any updating--and the sense nature that's so central to German Romanticism, even Buechner's grim brand of it, fell by the wayside when the drama was transplanted to a modern-day military barracks.

But, in return, the work provided a powerful commentary on the psychological damage wrought by war today. The portrayal of everything as quite so drug-fuelled and irredeemably grotty was a bit of poetic licence, no doubt, but an effective one that took us beyond realism into something a whole lot more nightmarish. Tom Scutt's set ingeniously contained all the necessary spaces, and the use of children (at one point chillingly playing inhabitants of the bar drinking themselves into numbness) was particularly powerful. Richard Stokes, meanwhile, provided a very effective translation--one that successfully retained much of the power and punch of the original.

The cast was excellent, all managing the extra level of intensity that this setting, awash as it was with drugs, required. Leigh Melrose's Wozzeck was vivid and pent-up, and sung with reserves of power that anyone who heard his Escamillo in the Autumn might have found surprising. Sara Jukubiak was a fearless, powerful Marie, Tom Randle all twitching, jittery violence as a topless and tattooed Captain. Bryan Register was a convincingly barbaric thug of a Drum Major, and James Morris was an authoritative Doctor (I'd not looked at great detail at the cast beforehand, so hadn't expected to hear this great Wagnerian in this context). Edward Gardner achieved really outstanding results from the orchestra, and captured all the brutality and beauty of this great score. A very good night at the Coliseum.

There are three performances left, by the way... book here 

Monday, 13 May 2013

Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music: Beznosiuk et al; Imaginarium Ensemble; Andreas Staier; EUBO

It was a Baroque weekend for me, an official assignment reviewing two Lufthansa Festival concerts on Saturday inspiring me to go to a further two concerts yesterday. My review of Saturday's pair is here, in which I inevitably was unable to deal with all the interesting questions thrown up by Enrico Onofri's interpretation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, in particular.

He's been doing the rounds in interviews, explaining his 'vocal' approach to violin playing. (I'd not read any of these before the concert, but some of his effects brought to mind a TV appearance by Nigel Kennedy, in which he delivered some of the football scores on the violin--a quick YouTube search has proved fruitless, but it must be on there, like everything else that ever existed.) I couldn't help wondering whether or not the roughness and rusticity brought to the playing--more details than I was able to cover in a brief review--constituted an attempt to take this music out of the aristocratic court and back to the land it seeks to capture, to stop those rural folk it portrays just being part of the landscape, to recapture that folk's musical essence and experience of nature. (If that was the case, it's a project that has special pertinence for music that so often is wheeled out in popular culture as a neat shorthand for wealth and prestige, accompanying many a swanky cinematic garden party and cocktail reception).

The performances, as I wrote, had a real energy, but didn't really seem to me to represent a significant advance, interpretatively, on the brilliant 1994 account by Il giardino armonico, on which Onofri plays with the sort of imperious technical command that seemed missing on Saturday. Or was that lack of technical polish itself part of the interpretative approach?

It was glancing through the programme for the rest of the festival on Saturday that I noticed the line-up for Sunday's two concerts: Andreas Staier at St Peter's Eaton Square, in a programme celebrating (if that's the right word) melancholy; and the European Union Baroque Orchestra in 'Open-air Handel'.

Melencolia I, by Albrecht Dürer
Staier's programme consisted of works by Johan Jacob Froberger, Louis Couperin, Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Jean Henry D'Anglebert and Georg Muffat, the Froberger suite beginning with his 'Plainte faite a Londres pour passer la Melancholie', which gave the programme its title. Staier followed it with a wonderful little talk about melancholy itself, the Baroque mood par excellence, which, he noted, was routinely linked with counterpoint, the flowing of water and a general awareness of the transience of things. The harpsichord itself, he added, was an inherently melancholy beast, its notes condemned to expire more quickly than those of other instruments. The music that followed demonstrated all these points, not least in two remarkable and highly virtuosic Passacaglias by Fischer and Muffat. Staier played everything with impeccable control and authority.

Melancholy was largely kept at bay in the European Union Baroque Orchestra's excellent evening concert. I've had a soft spot for this band every since hearing them late in 2011, and the superlatives I reached for in my review then tended to apply here, too. And I agree with the orchestra's biography that its unusually 'ephemeral existence makes its concerts special': it disbands and reforms with new selection of young, ridiculously talented personnel every year. It's performance at this May festival, though, forced it to break its usual June-to-December life cycle, meaning that this concert was the last appearance of its class of 2012.  

They were joined on this occasion by the marvellous Swedish soprano Maria Keohane, who brought a big, beautiful voice and generous, playful stage personality to Ero e Leandro (a 1707 cantata), Silete venti (a motet, written 'before that early 1830s'), and 'Cor di padre e cor d'amante' from Tamerlano. The orchestra, under what was clearly inspirational leadership from Lars Ulrik Mortensen, matched her beautifully, interacting and responding acutely. The little duets she formed with the orchestra's leader, Huw Daniel, were a particular joy, not least in the encore, the final number from Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno

Daniel was brilliant, too, in the b-flat Sonata a 3, HWV288, and the whole lot of the strings were brilliant in the F-major Concerto grosso op.6 (the two oboes and bassoon were, alas, left out in this strings-only score). Apparently Jose Manuel Barroso described the EUBO as 'a perfect symbol of the power of integration, a subtle and potent instrument of harmonisation between people and nations'--maybe that's going too far, or maybe they're not spending enough time curing the melancholia of Europe's (ahem) great leaders. 

They're a really wonderful band, though, and I'm very pleased to see they're going to be playing regularly at St John's Smith Square as Associate Artist there. Until then, here they are--with Mortensen again, and Daniel as concert master--in a bit o' Bach.

Monday, 29 April 2013

LSO/Gardiner (Barbican); LPO/Jurowski (RFH)

Both of these concerts featured works from the same concentrated chronological span: John Eliot Gardiner celebrated his 70th birthday at the Barbican  on Thursday conducting Stravinsky's Apollo (1928, rev 1947) and Oedipus Rex (1927); on Saturday Vladimir Jurowski presented an even more taxing programme with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall, consisting of Webern's Variations Op. 30 (1940), Berg's Lulu Suite (1934), Bartok's Music for String Percussion and Celesta (1936) and Martinu's Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani (1939). (Please excuse me, incidentally, for the lack of accents: I haven't worked out how to do these without the size, font or background colour of my text getting messed up--which is what happens when I cut and paste from anything.)

Between them they presented a fascinating prospectus of what sort of music was being produced within a space of less than 15 years, and while the LPO's concert was part of the Southbank Centre's year-long Rest is Noise festival, the LSO's concert could just as easily have been part of it too. Both concerts had the sort of conviction and quality that makes one despair that such marketing behemoths are necessary, and, although my attendance at the Southbank's festival has been unforgivably sporadic thus far--to say the least--I couldn't help thinking that this LPO concert must have been one of the best in the series. First, the programme contained three truly great works, plus one--the Martinu--that seemed to show that composer at his best. Second, Jurowski gave a brief but passionate and persuasive talk. He said the programme was among the most challenging for him to perform, introduced the four works and offered advice, in particular, on how the uninitiated should listen to the Webern: along the lines of don't try and analyse, just listen.

Jurowski's conducting seemed to do the analysis for us, and the piece came across with impressive clarity and precision, with the LPO's players on outstanding form for their Principal Conductor (a more nuanced comparative view, from Boulezian, can be read here). The Lulu-Suite was outstanding, too, the orchestral playing rich and febrile, the contributions from the brilliant Barbara Hannigan--who recent sang the whole of Berg's opera in Brussels--lyrically free and exciting and extreme. Her  wandering on to the platform in stilettos, silk dress and coat, languidly killing time before taking her position by the podium, was a nicely effective touch. Jurowski had announced a change in the order in the programme, so that the Bartok now preceded the Martinu, suggesting that despite the former's masterpiece status, the latter should still be able to hold its own. Some who left after the first clearly didn't share his view, but the Czech composer's work was performed with terrific commitment and elan by the LPO strings, joined by the excellent pianist Catherine Edwards. There was impressive corporate virtuosity in the Bartok, too, in a performance that buzzed with energy and drive.

The controlled, coolly elegant writing of Stravinsky's Apollo(n Musagète) had shown the LSO strings on no less virtuosic form a couple of days earlier, with the just-turned-70 Gardiner showing a decent amount of balletic flair on the podium himself. It's a lovely piece, and was played with a great deal of charm and flexibility. It was blown out of the water by the performance of Oedipus Rex, though, in a cleverly sort-of-staged performance which had the Monteverdi Choir's men in face paint and the excellent soloists--Jennifer Johnston (Jocasta), Stuart Skelton (Oedipus), Gidon Saks (Creon)--also strikingly made-up, popping up in spotlights stage right or centre. Fanny Ardant was as classy as one would expect as the narrator, and Alexander Ashworth and David Shipley stepped forward from the chorus to make highly impressive contributions as as the Messanger and Tiresias--with singers such as these in its ranks, it is no wonder that Gardiner's choir made such an impact. In fact, the whole thing was fiercely exciting and involving, and rarely have I thought the Barbican's bright acoustic was more suitable, emphasizing each sharp edge (one's tempted to to reach for the sculptural, granitic metaphors) of Stravinsky's score. There wasn't much room for subtleties, but that was fine by me. (It was broadcast on Radio 3, incidentally, and there's a couple more days to listen to it here

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Hough, BBCSO/Davis (Barbican); LSO/Farnes (Barbican)

These two Barbican concerts--one two days before the death was announced of Sir Colin Davis on Sunday, one two days afterwards--both had links with the conductor, the LSO's concert performance of The Turn of the Screw yesterday most obviously. It was to have been conducted by Davis, and the programme, poignantly, still talked optimistically of how he 'had been much looking forward to returning to the podium for these concerts, but unfortunately he suffered a setback recently and has had to delay his return'. Details were listed for concerts well into 2014, including  those he was to conduct: performances of The Creation in January; a programme of Panufnik and Dvorak in February. The last of these emphasized the fact that Davis, as Kathryn McDowell noted in a brief,  heartfelt speech on the Barbican stage, was constantly questing, learning new repertoire. If his repertoire at the Royal Opera has featured almost nothing by Mozart for the past 15 years (Haensel und Gretel in 2008 the only exception), that in the concert hall has been a lot more adventurous.

The programme for Friday evening's concert by the BBCSO--the orchestra of which he was chief conductor from 1967 until his appointment at Covent Garden in 1970--featured the music of a composer Davis championed passionately, Michael Tippett. And it was from Davis, the programme note told us, that the composer had borrowed a phrase to describe his own Fourth Symphony: as a 'birth to death' piece (a phrase Davis had used to describe Sibelius's Seventh Symphony). Tippett's fourth, incidentally, was composed for Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Georg Solti, who Davis succeeded at Covent Garden and whose scheduled Proms performance of the Verdi Requiem in 1997 was taken over by Davis when the older conductor died suddenly. (The performance was already due to be dedicated, at Solti's suggestion, to Princess Diana, then Solti himself died a matter of days later).

Anyway, enough with musical join-the-dots. On Friday, another Davis and another Sir--Andrew, this time--showed quite what a powerful, concentrated and fiercely committed composition the Tippett is: sometimes disturbing (not least in its featuring amplified breathing, here performed live), occasionally consoling, always burning with conviction. Jonathan Lloyd's Old Racket, here being given its world premiere at the start of the concert, was not really comparable (nor, I'm sure, would Lloyd want it to be). Written for strings (plus a string quartet, tuned a semi-tone sharp), it often seemed to toy playfully with the pastoral English string-orchestra idiom, undercutting lush textures with disorientating slides in and out 'of tune', exploring evocative ostinato figures and jarring tonal effects. I couldn't quite make up my mind on first hearing, but would like to hear it again--as well as its companion piece, New Balls (geddit?). We were on safer tonal ground with Brahms's First Piano Concerto, which followed, but there was nothing safe about the playing of Stephen Hough. As I've noted before, this pianist, the producer of many fine, library-recommendation recordings, is a different animal live. And his playing here was excitingly daring, most of all in a finale launched at breakneck speed. Davis and the orchestra backed him to the hilt in a performance that swept me along, but which had few of the refinements that had so distinguished the Vienna Philharmonic's account of the Second Concerto with Bronfman earlier in the week.

There was no shortage of refinement in yesterday evening's Turn of the Screw, though, the reduced LSO forces showing quite what a high-quality orchestra this is. Richard Farnes, too rare a visitor to London for those who don't get the chance to travel up to Opera North much, conducted with brilliant precision and dramatic pacing, and it was a real pleasure to hear (and see) Britten's ingenious scoring so clearly. With a fine cast of Andrew Kennedy (Prologue, Peter Quint), Sally Matthews (Governess), Michael Clayton-Jolly (Miles), Lucy Hall (Flora), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Mrs Grose) and Katherine Broderick (Miss Jessel), this performance, the first of two this week, will form the basis for what is likely to be a competitive CD set when it appears on the LSO Live label. And, in the resolutely unatmospheric Barbican Hall, it did a pretty good job of creating just the right creepy, chilling atmosphere.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Vienna Philharmonic/Tilson Thomas (RFH)

This, I'm slightly ashamed to say, was the first concert I'd attended in the Southbank Centre's The Rest is Noise festival. I'm not sure it was the best one to start on, with the Vienna Philharmonic presenting on Tuesday a programme consisting largely of Brahms, while the main festival juggernaut has made its way well into the 20th century (the next batch of concerts appears under the rubric 'Art of Fear' and covers 1930-50). I suppose it's not the only time the great Austrian orchestra, which is more controversial than ever after the opening up of its Nazi-era records, has lagged a little behind.

The other name on the programme was Schoenberg, and the ostensible aim was to highlight 'Brahms the progressive', to borrow the title of Schoenberg's famous essay. 'Pure' Brahms, in the form of the second Piano Concerto, was bookended by Schoenberg influenced by Brahms (the 1943 Theme and Variations Op.43b, which Michael Tilson Thomas explained, in a brief intro, took Brahms's Haydn Variations as a model), and Brahms arranged by Schoenberg--the younger composer's orchestration of the G-minor Piano Quartet. 

It was an interesting programme, that's for sure, and one that helped to highlight the slippery nature of musical modernity. (It was a shame, though, that in a frankly embarrassing bit of blurb the Southbank Centre's Artistic Director, Judy Kelly, demonstrated that she has little or no understanding of such subtleties. One terrible sentence pays lip service to the orchestra's sexual politics in a dangling clause before implying, with a hopeless vagueness, that modernity is not only amorphous but also somehow inherently egalitarian:  'Late in admitting women to its ranks, it's fascinating to see the orchestra turn its attention to the modern world and the modern repertoire'. Such stuff really runs the risk of undermining the whole festival's intent, not to mention the Southbank's reputation as a flagship cultural institution).  

Schoenberg's Theme and Variations--Tilson Thomas told the uninitiated to expect a mixture between Schubert and Weill--though tautly composed and entirely devoid of unnecessary ornament or rhetoric, represents the composer in quasi-melodic mood. (The work was composed in California in 1943, initially for wind band, and then orchestrated for performance by the Boston Symphony). Here it was played with clean precision.

The concerto followed in a performance that did little to persuade one of the work's questionable modernist credentials. It's not long since I last heard Yefim Bronfman (a pianist who surely deserved a better adjective from Kelly than 'talented' in her blurb) in the work, with the Berlin Phil and Rattle at the 2012 Proms, but here his occasionally straight-laced playing found a far more interesting complement in the gorgeously characterized playing of the Vienna orchestra. The tuning in the winds, as it had been accompanying Murray Perahia at the Proms, was occasionally a little 'distinctive', but every solo was beautifully shaped, while the outstanding Tamás Varga provided a wonderfully lyrical cello solo in the Andante. Bronfman played the long game, an initially matter-of-fact approach increasingly melting into aching lyricism (again, in the Andante) and light-footed virtuosity (in the Allegretto grazioso finale).

Neither here nor in the arrangement of the quartet after the interval did Tilson Thomas really convey much by way of interpretative approach. Apparently happy enough to allow his players' musicianship free rein in the concerto and encourage lucid textures, he similarly seemed to pursue the middle ground after the interval. There, however, the orchestra--amplified to its full complement, including 16 first fiddles, not to mention a possibly unprecedented 8 women--didn't quite seem on his side. Their commitment seemed wavering, the necessary lightness in the Intermezzo proved elusive (its final bars, in particular, were a bit of a hash), and the wind tuning, again in the Intermezzo in particular, was now seriously suspect (had Schoenberg, I wondered on occasion, added some extra dissonant touches that I'd not remembered?). The martial episodes in the Andante con moto lacked bite and momentum; the opening Allegro never quite caught fire.

And what of the arrangement itself, made in 1937 and premiered by Klemperer and the LA Philharmonic? I seem to remember quite a few dismissive comments of it when Parvo Järvi brought it to the Proms in 2007, but I've always had a soft spot for it, having actually got to know Brahms's work in this guise first, as it was coupled with Simon Rattle's Bournemouth recording of Mahler's 10th (bought with the proceeds of an afternoon's lawn-mowing, I seem to remember).

At this performance Schoenberg's orchestration seemed more indulgent than I remember it (despite the problems, the playing, particularly of the horns and the soaring strings, was gloriously luxurious). And the orchestra pulled out all the stops in the alla Zingarese finale, where Schoenberg also starts piling on the un-Brahmsian touches: a xylophone, virtuosic trombone writing, intricate divisi strings. Suddenly this emphasizes less Brahms the progressive than Brahms the Dionysian. It's an effect that's already latent, of course, in the original quartet.

That effect is greatly amplified in the orchestral guise, though, the thumping syncopations, biting accents and rollocking oom-pahs suddenly becoming, it seems to me, a great deal more threatening--a vast orchestral machine suddenly possessed. And this orchestra played it with lascivious relish.

(Here's Järvi and his orchestra at the Proms, incidentally--I'm unable to embed the video)

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Francesca da Rimini (Met Live in HD); Die Feen (COG)

It was an interesting weekend, defined for me--operatically, at least--by two neglected works. First was Saturday evening's Francesca da Rimini, live, in all its HD glory, from the Met. And Piero Faggioni's unashamedly lavish production--necessitating three long-ish intervals breaking up and elongating an opera that fits easily onto two CDs--certainly deserves its close-ups: the detailing is incredible, the evident effort that went into the production of every studded doublet and wispily embroidered frock very impressive. It made me suspect, not for the first time, that it's no bad thing that the big opera houses keep a few of such extravagant productions in their repertoire as reminders of a once-dominant aesthetic; once they all go, there's no way, in the present artistic and financial climate, that a house would be able to justify, artistically or financially, replacing them with anything so straightforwardly pictorial or unapologetically lavish.

Anyway, I was impressed by Riccardo Zandonai's score, which was first heard in Turin in 1914 (and heard at Covent Garden the same year), before going on the standard couple-of-decade global trip route towards obscurity. It's gorgeously overwrought and tortuous, as if the composer left meaty chunks of Strauss, Debussy, Puccini and generous sprinklings of all the other standard early-20th-century influences out to fester in the Italian heat. Having a libretto by the 'colourful' Gabriele D'Annunzio adds to its sweet-and-sour pungency (it reminded me to get hold of the interesting-looking new biography by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the review of which on the Guardian elicited one sole pithy comment: 'what a remarkably vile human being'), while the work has a similar, remarkable sense inescapable fate hanging over it as does Tristan (referenced, of course, in D'Annunzio's eclectic libretto) but without the slightest glimmer of any transfiguration--and, obviously, virtually everything else that makes Wagner's score what it is. With lateness now dignified as an aesthetic of considered ascetism, too, to refer to such a work as 'late Romantic' seems very strange; I'm not sure what would serve as an alternative, though.

Anyway, here's a bit of the love duet from when Faggioni's production was new, with the somewhat starrier pairing of Renata Scotto (Francesca) and Placido Domingo (Paolo) than was assembled this time round, committed and highly admirable though Eva-Maria Westbroek and Marcello Giordano were.

Mark Delavan, clad in some impressively heavy-duty leather, was fabulously vivid as Francesca's husband, the bellicose Giovanni, and Robert Brubaker a viciously nasty Malatestino dall'Occhio--you know, the one with(out) the eye. And both were wonderfully chummy and engaging in their interval chats, a great feature of these broadcasts but one that seems to fundamentally undercut their apparent desire for cinematic immersion.

Finally, a quick mention of the Chelsea Opera Group's performance of the 20-year-old Wagner's Die Feen. The official Bayreuth line dictates that these early works be dismissed as negligible, of mere academic interest; but, despite some technical ropiness, Dominic Wheeler and his forces gave a pretty good idea of what a lively, inventive piece this is. It's probably wildly optimistic to imagine its return to the repertory--it makes some pretty exacting demands on a large cast, which were dealt with bravely on this occasion--but there's some delightful music in it. I was unprepared for quite how many portents of things to come there were, too, and, if you'll excuse a slight detour into Strauss-Hofmannsthalia, it was fascinating to see how the early Wagner dealt with what would later be one of many sources for that 'late Romantic' work par excellence, Die Frau ohne Schatten. Peter Branscombe cited Die Feen itself as a source for Frau, but it seems unlikely, even though Strauss was himself heavily involved in the posthumous premiere of Wagner's work, that Hofmannsthal wasn't just going straight to Gozzi's La donna serpente.

In any case, the 20-year-old Wagner's ending is fascinating in the way that it sees Ada and Arindal united as fairies, whereas Frau is all about becoming human; and the related Rusalka-Undine stories founder on the irreconcilability of these worlds. The performance was cut a bit, and we missed out on a buffo duet between Gernot and Drolla, a fact that slightly over-emphasized how Wagner, as he did with Heine for Die fliegende Hollaender, missed the humour that was central to the Gozzi source. Here it is, though, with a young Cheryl Studer and Jan-Hendrik Rootering.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Elitism in Opera

The idea of opera as elitist is never going to go away, I fear, and nor, I suppose, should it. It sets up camp regularly in comments sections beneath reviews, is a standard observation of anyone charting the cultural landscape, and seems to hover behind every press release or PR campaign to do with this extravagant art-form--ENO's much maligned 'undress for the opera' perhaps being a low-point for a company whose PR this season has had a few, and it was hardly a coincidence that it was yoked to its poor Don Giovanni. 

I have no intention to dive headlong into the debate here: it's too often fruitless, with those, basically, who love opera locking horns with those who, basically, don't. And it's also a debate shot through with highly problematic language, with the word 'elite' slipping treacherously in meaning between 'unashamedly excellent', 'prohibitively expensive' and 'only for the social elite'. Opera is often compared with sport--particularly by those trying to defend the price of the former, arguing that it is really no worse value than the latter--and it is remarkable how the word 'elite' can exist in a state of grace when it comes to sport, while it is weighed down with all manner of self-flagellating guilt and shame when applied to opera or classical music (witness the phenomenon of technical proficiency in music being seen, somehow, as morally suspect--much better a performance by a plucky amateur).

This, of course, is in part down to the historical position of opera and ballet as entertainment funded by wealthy courts, as a brief article by Sarah Crompton, who chairs a debate this Monday at the Royal Opera House, notes. I won't be there, alas, since I've got a ticket to Written on Skin, but will be interested to hear if anything new comes out of it (and to see if the stream will be available after the event, too). The timing seems propitious, given a certain amount of not unrelated activity in the blogosphere, reacting, for example, to the BBC's two recent programmes to deal with C20th music: here are interesting pieces from Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Gavin Plumley and Gavin Dixon, which have in turn inspired some fascinating comments. It coincides, too, with Nicholas Hyntner's stinging critique of the BBC's arts coverage. 

One of the UK's main faces of operatic accessibility is Kasper Holten, who provides a typically passionate introduction to the debate below, albeit one that only really sticks to the line, 'Opera isn't elitist because, well, it's really good'. This seems largely to equate 'elitist' and 'off-puttingly different'--perhaps the first thing to do on Monday will be to define what exactly is meant by 'elitist', whether we're talking intellectually, socially or financially... 

I'm inclined to prefer the argument put forward by Marek Weiss of Opera Bałtycka in Gdańsk, which I came across this morning when researching something else. What he says--from around 9'16; what comes before is specific to the company's premiere of Elżbieta Sikora’s Madame Curie a couple of years ago--is laced with a healthy dose of cultural pessimism (particularly from around 11'10). I don't know if this is shared by Holten, but it seems such thoughts are taboo when it comes to the debate in this country--which surely doesn't help anyone. 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Alice Sara Ott: Schumann, Schubert, Mussorgsky (RFH)

It’s taken me a little while to catch up with Alice Sara Ott, who burst onto the London scene, as the publicity material for this latest London appearance reminded us, as a concerto replacement for Lang Lang at a 2010 Barbican concert. On record, she announced herself as a bone fide virtuoso with Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes on DG, with whom she has an exclusive contract. Here’s a snippet of her in ‘Chasse neige’.

This concert was linked to her latest CD, Pictures, and shared the two main works with that disc, recorded in St Petersburg. Schubert’s Sonata D.850 took up the bulk of the first half, Mussorgsky’s marvellous Pictures at an Exhibition the second. Schumann’s funny little Allegro in B minor, op. 8 served as a brief introduction—something of a contrast to Yulianna Avdeeva’s recital last week, with the composer’s first sonata having the second half to itself.

Ott’s approach was different, too, for this slightly non-committal work, which uneasily mixes snatches of the earnest, grand rhetoric of the sonata with the more flippant fluidity of contemporary virtuosic styles—the programme note mentioned Hummel, and there are shades of the Schumann’s own early Abegg variations, too. Ott rattled through it with requisite brilliance, but seemed more relaxed when she sat down for the Schubert, played with astonishing lightness of touch and musical fluency.

But for all the pianistic skill, there was not much of Ott’s own personality on show. Admittedly, the notey-ness (if that’s a permissible musical equivalent to wordiness) of the first movement doesn’t allow much space for personality to come through without distortions, while the Con moto second movement—very much one of Schubert’s late-Beethoven moments—responds well to a more ‘neutral’ approach. Ott gave the Scherzo a glorious lilt, and the finale a wonderful playful lightness. It was a valid, successful interpretative approach, but I couldn’t help wondering how different the piece would have sounded in Avdeeva’s hands. (Here's Ott's account of the piece, in its entirety, from Verbier.)

Ott seemed a different pianist, however, after the interval, in a blistering account of the Pictures. There was barnstorming virtuosity here, but also a wonderful ear for the details and atmosphere of Mussorgsky’s score—in which every vignette carries with it such rich additional cultural meaning that the whole work serves as a perfect riposte to anyone dismissive of ‘merely’ descriptive music. Ott seemed alive to all these layers, treating the work as so much more than the virtuoso showpiece that, say, Ravel’s orchestration reduces it too (Here are the 'Unhatched Chicks', replete with pop-video-style, rubber-duck-based visuals). 

All the weirdness, the jagged eccentricity and the brilliance was impressively communicated, with Ott exploring every extreme of the RFH Steinway's sonic range: the depths of the catacombs, the brilliance of the Ballet, the wonkiness of ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle', the massive sonic bulk of the final ‘Great Gate at Kiev’. The fifth Liszt Paganini Etude provided virtuosity of a more impish kind in a delightful encore.