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.