Thursday, 30 January 2014

Peter Grimes (ENO)

The anniversary circus has moved on, and some might have wondered about ENO's programming when it saved this first revival of David Alden's Peter Grimes until 2014 (perhaps that means there's a load of Strauss waiting in 2015, but I suspect not). But this is a production that needs no special pleading, no lashing to the anniversary bandwagon--no anything, in fact, beyond its own intense focus and conviction. Why, and how, I couldn't help wondering, could a company that can produce an operatic evening of such overwhelming, visceral brilliance as this also have been responsible for such a bloated, painfully untheatrical pre-Christmas turkey as brother Christopher Alden's Die Fledermaus. Such flops are explained away as collateral in the battle for innovation and distinctiveness, but surely opera is not an art-form that can sustain that sort of numbers game.

But that, I suppose, is a question for another day. So back to the matter at hand, a Grimes that momentarily blew any concerns--indeed, any thoughts unrelated to the drama in question--out of one's mind. I'd missed the production's first run, as well as its 2012 Proms transfer, but had been lucky enough to catch Stuart Skelton's Grimes with the LPO in the autumn. There the rare combination of heft and beauty in the voice was what struck me primarily, along with his willingness to allow some necessary ugliness in during moments of unbearable intensity.

On stage, particularly within the cold, primal expanse of emptiness Alden gives him for his 'mad scene' here, the vocal performance is married to an entirely convincing, disturbing and heart-breaking characterization: here's a Grimes with some child-like innocence (although not innocence in the way that the blandly exonerating blurb on ENO's website might try to imply), a touching inability to negotiate village politics, and an unawareness of the need to do so. It was a subtle, intelligent portrayal, as well as being a stonkingly well sung one. (One great triumph of ENO's, incidentally, is the fact that it has made itself such a home-from-home for Skelton, while the Royal Opera seems entirely content to ignore his presence.)

But the whole cast was of a remarkably high quality. In her ENO debut, Elza van den Heever brought a welcome spinto steel to Ellen Orford, her strength and resolve making her final surrender to emotion all the more powerful. Iain Paterson turned in a beautifully subtle performance as Balstrode, smooth-sung, civilised and calmly melancholic. Felicity Palmer brought brilliant incisiveness to the meddling Mrs Sedley and Rebecca de Pont Davies lorded over her scenes as a gloriously strange Auntie (in Brigitte Reiffensthuel's costume, this was Auntie as limping, exaggerated Weimar-era cabaret MC). Rhian Lois and Mary Bevan, as the two Nieces, continued the weird, dream-like theme: matching school girls with matching rag dolls and synchronised choreography. Matthew Best (Swallow), Timothy Robinson (Revd Adams), Leigh Melrose (a spivvy Ned Keene), Michael Colvin (Bob Boles) and Matthew Treviño (impressive, in his ENO debut, as Hobson) constituted the rest of Alden's vivid, disturbing residents of the Borough.

Indeed, although on paper the eccentricities of the production (updated to the time, roughly, of the work's composition) might seem to run counter to the simplicity of the folk portrayed in the opera (and there are a couple of awkward anachronisms), the director manages to introduce enough to give an extra sense of the creepy, hallucinatory bizarre to ramp up the psychological tension, but without ever toppling over into parody. In Paul Steinberg's stark, unconsoling sets, Alden manages to create an overwhelming sense of theatrical intensity, helped by detailed, tight Personenregie and universally excellent acting.

But it would all add up to nothing without the powerful work of the ENO chorus--implacable, threatening and terrifyingly single-minded and purposeful--and the orchestra under Ed Gardner, who, shortly after his replacement was announced, seemed keen to remind us just what we'll be missing. His reading was fiercely controlled but beautifully nuanced, the tension maintained with absolute precision; and the orchestra played out of their skins. This was ENO at its best.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Two Saxon Elektras

This time last week I was arriving in Leipzig, ready for a weekend of Saxon Straussery; or should that be Straussian Saxonary? Either way, it amounted to two performances of Elektra in two days, the first at Oper Leipzig, the second at the magnificent Semperoper in Dresden. My review for the Spectator's here, so I won't go into any more detail in this slightly picture-heavy post, apart from perhaps to continue my nascent paean to the Semperoper itself.

Having heard some concerts there in previous years, as well as Thielemann conducting Lohengrin there last January, I already knew about the fabulous acoustic. (I can't remember off the top of my head all the details of the pre-history of Wagner's Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, but surely the very broad stalls area in Dresden was an influence; and Semper was heavily involved in the abandoned plans for a Wagner theatre in Munich.) But still, to hear the Strauss's score was something special;  today, incidentally, marks exactly 105 years since Elektra was premiered there). And Evelyn Herlitzius's much-touted Elektra lived up to the hype. (Here's a bit of it, in what looks like a somewhat 'unofficial' film).

And here's a taste of the reaction it elicited.

Fewer pictures from Leipzig, I'm afraid. But I did manage to get this snap from its enormous railway station, the world's largest by floor area, Wikipedia kindly informs me.

It was taken, incidentally, the morning after a very nice meal in the same Ecke of Zum [arabischen] Coffe Baum (one of the two oldest coffee houses in Europe--I hope you're keeping up with all these superlatives) that Schumann and his pals used to frequent.

I hope to be back in Leipzig later in the year, where in a genuinely intriguing piece of programming they'll be running their new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten alongside  reruns of last year's Die Feen: two works loosely based on the same Gozzi source which tell us, as I suggested after last year's Chelsea Opera Group performance of the Wagner, a great deal about their respective creators.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Manon (ROH)

I probably shouldn't admit this, given that all-embracing knowledge (or at least a decent pretence of it) might be seen as a prerequisite of any critic's claim to authority, but this was the first time I'd seen Manon in the theatre. Indeed, it was the first time I'd listened to it all the way through; I'd tried to give it a listen on CD a couple of times but had never been been drawn in (I'd picked up the Pappano recording cheap years ago, although have now, at someone's recommendation, ordered the classic EMI Monteux, with De Los Angeles, to supplement it). I think I only ever got as far as Act 4, little realising what lay in store in Act 5. My impression from those abandoned listenings was of a score that was decorous when I wanted it to get down and dirty.

Ermonela Jaho in Manon at the Royal Opera House (photo: Bill Cooper)

The period trappings, rather than showing Massenet's mastery in mixing historical colour with modern, direct emotion (as at least two of the Royal Opera programme's essays so eloquently explained it did) seemed merely to hold up the action--literal and psychological; the big tunes, it felt to me, were wheeled out at strategic intervals--and with no little cynicism--to yank the heartstrings and loosen the tear ducts. I missed the more exquisitely tortured emotion of Werther (Charlotte's 'Va! Laisse couler mes larmes' gets me every time, and I might as well use this as an excuse to post a link).

I also missed the lavishly overheated eroticism of Thaïs, whose heroine makes much more of an art-form of her glorious self-obsession and vanity (I was blown away by the piece in concert in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, when Andrew Davis really found the drama behind the beauty, in a way that Yves Abel's rather limper conducting on Renée Fleming's Decca recording doesn't).

My impression was that Manon was similar to Hérodiade in never quite hitting the spot. Part of the problem might be Manon's place as the quintessential fallen women, whose trajectory from innocence to disgrace now seems all too automatic and paradigmatic, risking becoming more a parable (laced, of course, with some pretty questionable misogyny) than a drama; Verdi's Violetta shows us how much more tragic such a demise can be when its reasons are more clearly delineated, the blame more clearly apportioned.

Manon's position within the complex generic taxonomy of 19th-century opera in France was also a problem for me, and I feel the opéra-comique elements do risk getting in the way, rather than adding important complexity and contrast (or maybe I'm just yet to succumb fully to operatic francophilia). Certinaly Laurent Pelly's stylish production at the Royal Opera didn't really help me in this regard, grasping every available opportunity for comique gestures: synchronised dance moves from the chorus, Des Grieux raising his hands in mock boxing pose when his garrett idyll faced disturbance in Act 2. It all meant that the tragedy had to work harder to assert itself. As did the fact that I never really felt as though the love between Manon and Des Grieux--admittedly fast-tracked unrealistically in Act 1 from first meeting, via declaration, to elopement--really established itself.

Ermonela Jaho and Matthew Polenzani (Photo: Bill Cooper) 
This, in part, must be down to Ermonela Jaho as Manon. The Albanian soprano acts well and looks fantastic, but the voice just never displays the sort of sensual allure that must be essential to establishing the character in everyone's hearts. Her French isn't great, either, notably so in a cast that managed to get a lot of the words across. She managed several affecting moments in isolation (which brought back memories of her shattering, if also rather vocally underpowered, Suor Angelica a couple of years ago), but the cumulative effect wasn't what I think it should have been: Act 5 was undeniably powerful, but seemed to be so in isolation, rather than serving as the culmination of a long evening (with two intervals, the whole thing lasted a hefty 4 hours).
Matthew Polenzani was better up to the challenges of Des Grieux, singing with plenty of style and melting pianissimos; there were times when I longed for a little tighter focus in the sound itself, but this was some classy singing. There was plenty of good singing from the rest of the extended cast, too (William Shimmell, in particular, certainly made the most of old De Brétigny), and the Royal Opera House orchestra played beautifully for Emmanuel Villaume. 

And what about Manon itself? By the end of the evening I could feel my resolve and my perhaps-too-hastily-formed critical view beginning to weaken. The two lovers in the performance (the second in the run) certainly did win me over in the final act, and they're only going to get better as the run progresses. (Aylin Pérez will no doubt bring a different colour to the heroine when she sings takes over for the final two performances.) The work's seductiveness is such, though, that I'm wondering if I should maybe try and catch it again in this run, you know, just to be 100% sure I don't like it. 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Boris Berezovsky (RFH)

This, apparently, was Boris Berezovsky's first London recital in 4 years, and without the backing of a major record label (he now records for the French outfit Mirare, Teldec long having disappeared in the confusing mess that's become of EMI, Warner et al.) the Royal Festival Hall, its balcony closed off, seemed like a slightly optimistic choice of venue. Still, there was an enthusiastic turn-out for an intriguing programme: a selection of Debussy Préludes Book I and Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit; hulking chunks of big Rachmaninov (half a dozen Preludes and the Second Sonata) in the second half.

It was the first time I'd heard Berezovsky in Debussy, and his approach in the Préludes--and two movements from the first series of Images, 'Reflets dans l'eau' and 'Mouvement', announced last minute as substantial amuse-bouches--was certainly impressive. Berezovsky's virtuosity is such that he can achieve a level of nonchalance in this repertoire that few can, with arpeggios flitting almost imperceptibly up and down the keyboard, repeated notes humming rather than throbbing or thumping, everything managed with astonishing, unemphatic clarity. But with the Steinway apparently conditioned to maximise cleanliness of sound, there was also a shortage of colour, and the nonchalance often seemed too much.

The famous 'La Fille aux cheveux de lin' was beautifully turned, but very reluctant to linger; 'Minstrels' was simply too throwaway, I thought. Both 'Le vent dans la plaine', though, and 'Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest' were irresistible for their sheer facility and lightness, characteristics that also made Berezovsky's Gaspard de la nuit (recorded so impressively, and with similar clarity 20 years ago as part of a Ravel recital for Teldec--which also included 'La Valse', hence the clip below) so intoxicating, its famously taxing handfuls of notes managed with such apparent coolness. Granted, as hinted above, Berezovksy's coolness in the French repertoire risks feeling too non-committal at times, but there's a lot to be said for such 'objectivity' in what is, after all, deliberately cool and detached music.

And funnily enough, the first half of this concert proved far more rewarding than the second, largely because of the programming. The originally-advertised Variations on a theme of Chopin were replaced by a selection of the Op. 32 preludes that seemed too unvaried, with only the well-known G-major No. 5 providing respite from the overwrought, insistent climaxing of the others--or at least that was the impression as Berezovsky's playing seemed to become more prone to clattering fortissimos. There wasn't much let up with the Sonata (given in its revised 1931 version), either, despite some beautiful playing in its central Lento. At the end of an increasingly forceful account of the finale, I felt somewhat battered.

It was left to two encores to show what this recital could have been with a little more imaginative programming. 'Autumn Song' from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons was exquisitely hushed and delicate (there's no Berezovsky playing it on youtube, so I've plumped for Lev Oborin below); Liszt's 'Gnomenreigen' Study was no less delicate, sustained with blistering virtuosity at a daringly fast tempo. Needless to say, it brought the house down.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Richard Strauss: 1864 ... 2014

If anything was going to inspire me to revive my blog, then it would be the Strauss anniversary that looms in various ways as 2014 gradually drags itself off the sofa, tries to work off the excess weight of seasonal over-eating and looks bleary eyed at its agenda.

But I'm not sure I'm as excited as I should be. Arguably there was rather too much Britten in 2013, but there's been no arguing about the opportunities the year offered to explore his works beyond the pieces that hold a place in the repertoire anyway. Things were different with Wagner and Verdi. The absence of a Verdi opera at the no-rumty-tums-here-thank-you Proms was regrettable, but Daniel Barenboim's Ring there was probably my highlight of the whole year, and certainly better than the occasionally thought-provoking but overwhelmingly disappointing Frank Castorf Ring at Bayreuth. Elsewhere the programming, in London at least, was of pretty standard-rep fare, with the exception of Les Vêpres siciliennes. And any hopes of last-minute Erlösung from the Royal Opera's Parsifal were ill-founded.

Similarly, the Strauss year--in the opera house at least--seems primarily to involve more performances of the works that are in the repertoire anyway: Elektra has become a sort of staple (and not surprisingly, given the relative glut of fine performers of the title role there currently is), and Die Frau ohne Schatten is apparently the go-to 'special event'. I'm not complaining in either case, and it's especially welcome that Die Frau is returning to London after over a decade--although it does mean I'm facing the tricky task of providing a concise account of its gestation for the Royal Opera House's programme.

There's also the Richard Jones Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier to look forward to (Octavian as a '50s boy scout, perhaps?), and a CBSO concert of the same piece. And the opportunity to see Ariadne auf Naxos in London again is not to be missed; having listened to/watched two dozen recordings of it for an upcoming Gramophone collection, I've fully realised quite what a glorious thing it is.

But what about the rarities? Watching the Deutsche Oper Berlin's production of Die Liebe der Danae on Blu-ray last year made me realise what stunning music that score has in it (especially once past the wordy first act, and the first scene of Act 2, hampered by Herr Professor Hans Gregor's pernickety libretto). Searching around on Youtube, I've discovered that there was a Dutch Radio performance, starring Anne Schwanewilms, in September, which some lovely person has uploaded. It's a shame, though, that in what is possibly my favourite passage (from 38'00) the soprano sounds like she's singing from the cloakroom. I can't seem to embed the clip, but this link will take you there.

The final scene, following a gorgeous Zwischenspiel, is pretty glorious, too. From 31'40 in this clip, which I can embed. Obviously.

Schwanewilms is singing Danae in Frankfurt--alas only in concert--later in the year, with a cast that is also going down the road to perform the piece in Garmisch. But no staging seems to be on the cards in the 2013-14 season. Perhaps 2014-15 will provide...

Those with time to go to Palermo will have a chance this month to see Feuersnot, which is also being performed in Dresden in May, but not in the Semperoper, where it was premiered, which really is a shame. Here's the Love Scene, in its orchestral guise, which it would be great to hear in concert at least.

Dresden's also doing Guntram in concert. There are a few other interesting performances of the rarer works around and about (a new Daphne in Toulouse's intimate Théâtre du Capitole is already in my sights); but for London-based Straussians in search of something a bit unusual, it could be an expensive year. Or maybe the Proms has something special up its sleeve, and let's not forget that Manchester's Strauss's Voice festival kicks off today. I suppose we should be grateful for what we have, though: Strauss would certainly be the first to decry the almost total neglect of his fellow anniversarian, Gluck.