Saturday, 20 December 2014

Elektra, Semperoper Dresden, 15 December 2014

Elektra – Elena Pankratova
Chrysothemis – Manuela Uhl
Klytämnestra – Jane Henschel
Orest – Markus Marquardt
Aegisth – Jürgen Müller
First Maid – Constance Heller
Second Maid – Stephanie Atanasov
Third Maid – Christa Mayer
Fourth Maid – Roxana Incontrera
Fifth Maid – Nadja Mchantaf
Overseer – Sabine Brohm
Young Servant – Simeon Esper
Old Servant – Tilmann Rönnebeck
Orest’s tutor – Matthias Henneberg
Confidante – Andrea Ihle
Trainbearer – Christiane Hossfeld
Barbara Frey (director)
Muriel Gerstner (set designs)
Bettina Walter (costumes)
Gérard Cleven (lighting)
Micaela von Marcard (dramaturgy)
Chorus  of the Saxon State Opera (chorus master: Wolfram Tetzner)
Staatskapelle Dresden
Peter Schneider (conductor)
Almost anything would have been an anti-climax following the Semperoper’s Rosenkavalier the previous day, but, odious comparisons aside, there was still something disappointing to the experience of so routine an Elektra as my final instalment of Strauss Year. Barbara Frey’s production was new earlier this year, but frankly it already looked far more old and tired than Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s staging of the next Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration, which had first been seen in 2000. There really did not seem to be very much to it at all. Few set designs for Elektra have in my experience looked radically different. Here there is less granite, whether literal or figurative, than often, but the action still unfolds in what appears to be a royal palace and household that have seen better days. An inscription referring to royal justice hangs pregnantly, ironically, over proceedings, but alas little of what we see lives up to our anticipations. Perhaps there was simply not enough rehearsal for a repertory performance; there was definitely a sense of the performers being left to fend for themselves. Odd touches, such as child actors appearing on stage during the Recognition Scene, so as to remind us that Elektra and Orest last saw each other when children, really add nothing. One would have to have been taking very little notice at all not to have grasped that dramatic point already.
Lothar Koenigs was apparently ill, and had been replaced by the veteran replacement-conductor, Peter Schneider. Again, there was a strong sense of lack of rehearsal. Schneider’s vague, listless direction of the score suggested a run-through rather than a performance in any emphatic sense. The Staatskapelle Dresden could doubtless not put on a bad performance of Strauss if it tried, but by its standards, it was hardly on form. There was a distinct lack of focus, too much of Pierre Monteux’s ‘indifference of mezzo forte; again, the contrast with the Rosenkavalier was glaring. When the full force of the orchestra seemed finally to be unleashed, at the very close, it seemed too little, too late.
Elena Pankratova was the best reason to have heard this performance. She probably needed more help in terms of stage direction, but her vocal performance was generally strong, speaking of a strong musico-dramatic commitment throughout. This was indeed a musical performance, not a house of horrors exhibition of screaming. Manuela Uhl’s Chrysothemis offered gleaming sound, though her intonation wavered a little too often. Jane Henschel is a fantastic singing-actress, but here she erred too much for me on the side of caricature. Again, perhaps stronger direction, both stage and musical, would surely have helped create something more.  Markus Marquardt proved a sadly wooden Orest, but Jürgen Müller offered an uncommonly well-sung Aegisth. Not a vintage evening, then, not even close; but I should forgive almost anything for that Rosenkavalier.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Der Rosenkavalier, Semperoper Dresden, 14 December 2014


Die Feldmarschallin, Fürstin Werdenberg – Anja Harteros
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Peter Rose
Octavian – Sophie Koch
Herr von Faninal – Adrian Erőd
Sophie – Christiane Karg
Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin – Christiane Kohl
Valzacchi – Thomas Ebenstein
Annina – Christa Mayer
Police Officer – Peter Lobert
The Marschallin’s Major-domo – Simeon Esper
Faninal’s Major-domo – Tom Martinsen
A Notary – Matthias Henneberg
A Landlord – Dan Karlström
A Singer – Yosep Kang
A Milliner – Nadja Mchantaf
A Vendor of Pets – Mert Süngü
Leopold – Dirk Wolter
Lackeys – Ingolf Stollberg, Andreas Keinze, Jun-Seok Bang, Matthias Beutlich
Waiters – Rafael Harnisch, Torsten Schäpan Norbert Klesse, Thomas Müller
Three noble orphans – Jennifer Porto, Emily Dorn, Christel Loetzsch
Lerchenauschen – Alexander Födisch, Michael Wettin, Thomas Müller, Mirko Tuma, Werner Hare, Holger Steinert
Mohammed (‘The little Moor’) – Amala Boashie

Uwe Eric Laufenberg (director)
Christoph Schubiger (set designs)
Jessica Karge (costumes)

Chorus of the Saxon State Opera (chorus master: Wolfram Tetzner)
Members of the Children’s Chorus of the Saxon State Opera
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann (conductor) 

A superlative evening! Above all on the musical side, Christian Thielemann’s conducting having been the initial attraction for me in the first place, but with an intelligent staging too, which quite belied its years. Uwe Eric Laufenberg was announced as director of the new Bayreuth Parsifal after I had arranged to attend this performance, but since I was unfamiliar with his work, this proved a subsequent attraction. What, if anything, this 2000 staging might tell us about a 2015 Parsifal remains to be seen, but, quite in contrast to reports I had heard (‘boring’, ‘conventional’, etc.), this proved, if not the equal of Harry Kupfer’s Salzburg production this summer, then a more than acceptable alternative. When one recalls in horror Munich’s perpetual ‘revival’, if only in name, of an Otto Schenk production long past its sell-by-date, now at long last set to be pensioned off, Laufenberg offers almost the height of radicalism.


The staging of the Prelude seems to me a miscalculation, and an embarrassing one at that. Strauss makes it perfectly clear the sort of thing that is going on. We have little need to see the Marschallin and Octavian gingerly undressing each other (though not very far) and disappearing under the sheets. It certainly is not raunchy; instead, we appear stranded in a no-man’s-land – literally, I suppose – between ‘tastefulness’ and The Benny Hill Show. Things improve thereafter, however. Perhaps the most impressive developmental aspect is the way in which the sense of time, or better of times, creeps upon us, becomes more complicated – just as in the work itself. The Marschallin and Octavian might well be where they ‘should’ be, in Maria Theresa’s Vienna, or rather in Hofmannsthal’s intricate construction thereof, which is not to be confused, nor is it intended to be, with the ‘real thing’, or Ranke’s wie es eigentlich gewesen. As the first act progresses, however, it gradually becomes clearer that we are, or have progressed, some time later than we had suspected. Is it the nineteenth century, the period of those Johann Strauss waltzes Richard sublimated? It seems as though it might be, and then, through costumes and actions, we realise that we are actually a little later. The time of composition? Yes, perhaps. Ah no, in the second act, in Faninal’s strenuously ‘beautiful’, up-to-date palace, we realise that we are probably a little later still. The Marschallin, of course, lives in a more well-worn establishment, with truer, or at least more ancient, pedigree, still living, more or less, though perhaps not entirely, the life she imagines, we imagine, her eighteenth-century self having lived. At least when at home; the third act deepens historical understanding further. Octavian seems to understand his life similarly when with her, but proves more likely, aristocratic pride notwithstanding, to be influenced by his surroundings; after all, he is young and easily swayed.


The latest – that is, for the interwar years – ‘media’ techniques are employed in Faninal’s Faustian bargain: cameramen record the event, but have to be prevented, with limited success, by his Major-domo, the characterful Tom Martinsen. It is not as if the years have actually passed; this is not Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal. However, we appreciate the construction of past and present, so long as we pay attention both to the general and the specifically scenic. Moreover, we are certainly made aware, without having the point unduly hammered home, that the media attention paid to Sophie is very much an aspect of that heterosexual male gaze which excites itself with the cavorting of three women in the first place. That is not, of course, to say that others cannot find much to interest them too in those relationships, but rather to remind ourselves of the ‘norm’ on which both work and production seem predicated. The special prominence granted Mohammed, listed in the programme as ‘der kleine Mohr’ seems odd, though. He is kept as something akin to the Marschallin’s pet, and the racial overtones – especially when all the other children were so clearly of ‘Germanic’ appearance – unsettle without evident reason.


It is an impressive but far from obtrusive frame, then, in which the specific action unfolds. The success of that action is doubtless, especially at this remove from the original production, to be attributed more to the efforts of those on stage than to the production ‘itself’, but the latter does no harm. Anja Harteros proved well-nigh perfect as the Marschallin. Her grace and conviction were married to an alluring tone that yet did not preclude subtle verbal nuance. One believed in her – and felt with her. Sophie Koch’s Octavian is of course a very well-known quantity, but seemed reinvented for the occasion, keenly responsive to others on stage, eminently plausible in his/her various guises. Christiane Karg’s Sophie was a far more interesting character than one generally encounters; normally, my reaction is likely to tend towards irritation at least at her vacuity. Not so in Karg’s case; there was clearly ambition here, on the part of both singer and character. There was also clearly instant attraction – perhaps the production overdoes this? – between her and the rose-bearing count. Adrian Erőd’s Faninal was dry-toned to start with, but gained in vocal lustre thereafter, offering throughout a detailed portrayal, whether musically, verbally, or on stage. Peter Rose’s Ochs was simply wonderful: a buffo portrayal, yes, but a portrayal born of deep musico-dramatic intelligence, evidently gauging and creating the moment as it presented itself. His way with Hofmannsthal’s text lay beyond reproach. His impatience during the resumption of the Italian Singer’s aria offered a masterclass in silent stage presence. No one disappointed and most of the ‘minor’ roles strongly impressed, not least Yosep Kang’s ardent Singer and Thomas Ebenstein and Christa Mayer as the other ‘Italians’, both more obviously characters than caricatures.


Thielemann’s conducting was perhaps the finest I have ever heard in this work; so was the playing of that great Strauss ensemble, the Staatskapelle Dresden. The openings to the first two acts were perhaps surprisingly, though far from inappropriately, vigorous, Octavian’s – and Sophie’s – youthful impetuosity to the fore. But the flexibility with which Thielemann held and developed Strauss’s line was something truly to savour. Likewise the colour, depth, and allure of the orchestra, which Thielemann played with virtuosity and understanding that respected the score and yet beyond it into the truest of performative ‘interpretation’. Caesuras that might on paper sound as if they would disrupt instead increased our anticipation, the longer line somehow maintained. There was doubtless an element of theatricality, even of showmanship, but born of a deep knowledge of ‘what works’; to steal from Strauss’s operatic future, La Roche himself might have approved. Strauss’s materialistic development-cum-rejection of Wagner’s orchestral metaphysics was demonstrated, experienced far better than words could ever hope to do. This was a Greek Chorus that answered, perhaps after Goethe as much as Nietzsche, to no gods above. Our life, as the opera and its performance made clear, was here on earth, in the present – and yet it was also somewhere else and in the past that had made that present, even if that past had never actually been present. Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

From the House of the Dead, Berlin Staatsoper, 13 December 2014

Images: Monika Rittershaus (from the original, 2011 staging)
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Tom Fox
Aljeja – Eric Stoklossa
Luka Kuzmič (or Filka Morozov) – Štefan Margita
Skuratov – Ladislav Elgr
Siškov, Guard – Pavlo Hunka
Prison Governor – Jiří Sulženko
Big Prisoner – Peter Straka
Small Prisoner – Vladimír Chmelo
Elderly Prisoner – Heinz Zednik
Cook, Blacksmith – Maximilian Krummen
Priest – Arttu Kataja
Cekunov – Ján Galla
Drunk Prisoner – Stephen Chambers
Sapkin – Peter Hoare
Kedril – Marian Pavlovič
Don Juan, The Brahmin – Ales Jenis
Young Prisoner – Olivier Dumait
Prostitute – Eva Vogel
Cerevin, Guard – Stephan Rügamer
Patrice Chéreau (director)
Peter McClintock (revival director)
Richard Peduzzi (set designs)
Caroline de Vivaise (costumes)
Bertrand Couderc (lighting, video)
Chorus of the Berlin State Opera (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
Let me find something to complain about. The typing of such a review is a nightmare: all those diacriticals, especially for someone who knows not a word of Czech. That would be it, really. Two of my abiding musical regrets are not having seen the production of Moses und Aron, conducted by Pierre Boulez at my very first Salzburg Festival (I opted for The Marriage of Figaro instead) and not having seen this production of From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého Domu) when it was first staged, again conducted by Boulez. Neither of those omissions can be put right, of course, but at least I have managed to see my first and – again, alas – doubtless last opera production by Patrice Chéreau in the theatre. (That is, unless I somehow manage to travel to New York to see his valedictory offering, Elektra.)
Perhaps the ultimate joy – should that not be an utterly misplaced word with respect to this opera – of this production is to see something that is so well thought out, so well executed, so clearly what it intends to be and what an operatic staging should be, that one experiences almost anew the greatness of genre and work, in themselves and also in performance. Any element of ‘opera house routine’ is banished, likewise any idiotic directorial clichés and incoherences. (The contrast with Christof Loy’s self-regarding assault on Tristan earlier this month could hardly be greater.) Chéreau trusts the work, and it therefore trusts him, permitting re-creative freedom as opposed to mere licence. Realism is both apparent and yet called into question or extended, according to taste. By that, I mean that the prisoners are clearly prisoners, as we should expect to see them; the prison is clearly a prison as we should expect to see it, the behaviour and interaction of the prisoners is so clearly plausible that we might actually be there, and yet there is no delimitation. This could be anywhere, and even the period is unclear – without a hint of post-modernist incongruity. There is plenty of action to watch, more doubtless than one can take in from a single viewing, and yet none of it is gratuitous, none of it distracts. We witness the faithful creation and development of a world we can imagine, rightly or wrongly, as if that matters, Janáček himself creating when sketching and developing his opera from Dostoevsky. Richard Peduzzi’s fine set designs are likewise sufficiently realistic and sufficiently abstract, so much part of the action that one cannot conceive of ‘production’ and ‘designs’ separately. (My mind inevitably went back to the triumph of the Centenary Ring, one of the few DVD opera stagings I am happy to watch again and again.)
The coup de theatre, for Chéreau is nothing if not a man of the theatre, comes at the end of the first act, in which a collapse both physical, intellectual, and metaphysical arises, rubbish falling from above – but is there even an Above in a sense Dostoevsky would have understood? – to create pointless ‘work’ for the prisoners thereafter. Is there a hint that this debris might relate to the learning of books, and to the horror of their destruction in authoritarian societies?  I felt so, but perhaps that was just my own reading; either way, Chéreau’s staging and its exemplary revival under Peter McClintock allow us the openness of our own interpretations, again up to a point and without the reactionary chaos of ‘anything goes’. From the House of the Dead has been criticised as having little in the way of plot, even little in the way of ‘opera’. It is surely the composer’s most radical work – which is saying something. Chéreau’s production enables the musical performance to examine and to project its dramatic dialectic between individual character and collectivity, and to show not only its radicalism but also the deep humanity which ultimately places it decisively in the tradition of his earlier works.
That relationship between individual and choral collective was powerfully, indeed unforgettably, achieved by the artists themselves on stage. It is, more than usual, not only invidious but more or less impossible to single out members of the cast in such a work and performance. However, the men to whom Janáček more or less briefly grants prominence might usefully be mentioned. Tom Fox’s Alexandr Petrovič seemed just as the composer might have thought of him: noble, ‘different’, compassionate.    The role of Aljeja, the young Tatar, was taken by the tenor, Eric Stoklossa, rather than the more usual mezzo. Stoklossa nevertheless conveyed the character’s youth and vulnerability, without a hint of sacrifice to the integrity of musical delivery. The brutality of the third-act monologue and the horror of its outcome were conveyed powerfully, again with just the right balance between the specific and the universal, by Štefan Margita’s Filka and Pavlo Hunka’s Šiškov. Laidslav Elgr’s Skuratov offered a subtle development of character the work’s detractors would have one believe never present, again perfectly in keeping with Chéreau’s overall vision. Ales Jinis made a strong impression indeed as the prisoner taking the roles of Don Juan and the Brahmin in the second-act plays, his charisma hinting at a homoeroticism which may or may not be ‘there’ in work and setting (irrespective of intention?) The presentation of those two plays was exemplary throughout, all concerned pulling off the trick of convincing portrayal of amateur dramatics with knowledge of the darker forces at work. In that sense, the resentful violence of Vladimír Chmelo Small Prisoner and the frail wisdom of Heinz Zednik’s Elderly Prisoner framed the action and its parameters tellingly.

Sir Simon Rattle showed himself at his curtain call deeply appreciative of the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin. Rightly so, for theirs was playing at a level one might have expected them to reserve for Daniel Barenboim. Initially I wondered whether the sound were a little too ‘Romantic’, almost Brahmsian (ironically, given Rattle’s own rather odd way with  Brahms). But I rightly doubted my doubts and was quite won over; for one thing, this ‘old German’ sound is arguably very close to what Janáček himself would have heard and had in mind. One heard Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, even perhaps the Second Viennese School; and yes, one heard Janáček. Rhythms were tight and musically generative, but this was a different, less overtly modernistic composer than one sometimes hears. There is room for several Janáčeks, of course, or rather several manifestations, each shedding light upon the other. Indeed, we may then hear the intimate relationship between ‘late Romanticism’ – itself a deeply problematical concept, which often obscures as much as it enlightens – and ‘modernism’, ‘German’ and ‘Czech’. The final march chilled as it told of a compassion Janáček manages to imply as dialectically responsive to its Fatal inhumanity.

Last but certainly not least, indeed arguably foremost, was the contribution of the chorus. Its delivery of words and music, its portrayal of individual and collective, its situation as background and foreground, its clear commitment to work and performance: all of these and more were exemplary throughout. Janáček’s conception of this strange, visionary work emerged in disconcerting triumph. The ultimate test was passed: however difficult the message, I wanted to see it again immediately.


Monday, 15 December 2014

Turandot, Deutsche Oper, 12 December 2014

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Turandot – Catherine Foster
Altoum – Peter Maus
Calaf – Kamen Chanev
Liù – Heidi Stober
Timur – Simon Lim
Ping – Melih Tepretmez
Pang – Gideon Poppe
Pong – Matthew Newlin
Mandarin – Andrew Harris
Prince of Persia – Aristoteles Chaitidis, Jan Müller
Two Girls – Elbenita Kajtaz, Christina Sidak
Lorenzo Fioroni (director)
Claudia Gotta (revival director)
Paul Zoller (set designs and video)
Katharina Gault (costumes)
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus master: William Spaulding) of the Deutsche Oper
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Ivan Repušič (conductor)

Production shot from first staging:  © Bettina Stöß, 2008 

The Deutsche Oper has a very fine production of Turandot on its hands. Lorenzo Fioroni leaves us in no doubt what a magnificently vile opera it is, homing in quite rightly upon Puccini’s sadism, drawing out its political implications, and playing down, though far from entirely obscuring, the work’s deeply problematical Orientalism, which otherwise has a tendency to impede appreciation of what is still more repellent in the work. Put another way, this staging stands as distant from Zeffirelli and mindless school thereof, that is, from what has given opera in performance so bad a name, as Puccini does from Donizetti and the other drivel that has given Italian opera so bad a name and which, sadly, has in may houses relegated Puccini’s œuvre to the level of at-best-anodyne productions, cynically relied upon to boost the accursed box office.
Fioroni sets the action in a reasonably generic totalitarian state. There is enough of an imaginary ‘China’ hinted at, should that be important, but it is not central to the production. An enfeebled Emperor – or is he? is his present state partly a ruse de guerre? – presides, with the help of Turandot, a deeply sinister junta or Politburo (according to taste), and thuggish security services on the street, who meet out casual, or rather less-than-casual, physical punishment to those who would step out of line. Turandot appears to be calling the shots – almost literally, in some cases; for instance, when, following the solution of the riddles, she hysterically reaches for and uses her gun – but, as in all such cases, the dynamics of power and violence are not entirely straightforward. The crowd seems submissive, largely cowed, relishing yet fearing the brutality, but who knows? Ping, Pang, and Pong are now less an offensive and/or irritating addition, but political opportunists. They, like everyone else, do what they need to survive; they are not inhuman, but necessity and the promise of reward ensure collaboration and perhaps more than that.
Theatre is extremely important here. What we see enacted and re-enacted takes us to the heart of the problem, as indeed it does in Gozzi’s original tale. Ritual is enforced but also permits of certain criticism. Ping, Pong, and Pang, those crucial ministers – more crucial, I think, than I have seen before – employ the costumes and customs of theatre to show the people and us what the rules are and what the outcomes will be. Their tableaux involve impersonation, most notably in the case of a gender-subverting portrayal of Turandot herself, veiled and later preparing for a wedding; they also, inevitably, remind us all of the likely bloody outcome of any challenge to the system. And yet, they shift, chameleon-like, when the new order comes: a new order brutally signalled by the death of the Emperor and, most chillingly of all, Calaf’s stabbing of his father immediately after. Regime change has come upon us – and the courtiers, whatever their sly mocking when unseen, will adapt and most likely prosper.
The most shocking violence, of course, whether in work or production, is that suffered by Liù. Her enslavement, born of both social position and gender, is clear from the outset, when Calaf briefly forces himself upon her, making a great deal more sense of his actions in the third act. It is power in all senses that he wants; a moment of regret is all that is therefore necessary. Yet her figure, hanging in front of the action throughout the rest of the act, reminds us of the cost and the barbarism. ‘Love’, whatever that means, may claim to have won, but we know that it is merely a form of power, or rather that it is perhaps the most deadly form of power at all. (Coincidentally or otherwise, Wagner’s discovery of that truth during the writing of the Ring comes to mind.) The cruelty of the score, of its ritualisation and exploitation, is at one with what we see. For a view of the violence as not only instrumental but concerned with degradation of the body for its own sake chimes very much with Puccini’s fabled sadism. This, then, is a fidelity to the work that draws out what is present in it, a fidelity greater than that which the cheerleaders of a naïve Werktreue seem capable of understanding.
It was a pity, then, that Ivan Repušič’s conducting was not up to the same standard. There was nothing too much to worry about, but this was competent and, sometimes, a little frayed rather than clearly directed. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper played magnificently, though, so the occasional blurring did not detract so very much in practice. Nevertheless, a more incisive, indeed brazenly modernistic touch would have heightened the disturbed and disturbing sensations further. Choral singing lay almost beyond praise. William Spaulding’s training of the Deutsche Oper Chorus is well known, but still deserving of the highest plaudits; so, of course, is the contribution of the choral singers themselves. Keenly directed on stage as they were here, the heft, clarity, and meaning of their musical contribution was very much of a piece with their ambiguous yet threatening dramatic role. This was a mass that more than stirred musically, hinting perhaps at trouble to come for the new regime?
In the title role, Catherine Foster offered a committed dramatic portrayal, sadistic yet clearly hinting at great problems, personal and political, lying behind the sadism. If one could hardly empathise, one could begin to understand – which is just about all one can ask with this repellent character and her actions. Intonation was not always all it might have been, but for the most part there was dramatic compensation. Kamen Chanev’s Calaf was not dramatically subtle; such seems, alas, to be the way with the role. But the production, for which revival director, Claudia Gotta, surely also deserves plaudits, offered depth to what, in purely vocal terms, was an impressive performance. Simon Lim’s Timur was deeply felt, however, attention to words and musical line impressing throughout. Likewise, Heidi Stober’s Liù, which gained in resonance – in more than one sense – as the evening progressed. As the ministerial trio, Melih Tepretmez, Gideon Poppe, and Matthew Newlin all offered cleverly considered performances, alert to the shifting circumstances on stage and responding accordingly. The company and the performance as a whole proved more than the sum of its parts. A DVD release would be invaluable, especially for those misled – often understandably so – by more typical, inert presentations of Puccini.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Tenebrae/ECO/Short - Handel, Messiah, 10 December 2014

Cadogan Hall

Grace Davidson (soprano)
Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano)
David de Winter (tenor)
William Gaunt (bass)
English Chamber Orchestra
Nigel Short (conductor)

Time was, etc., etc. Now we account ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to hear any Handel, even the Messiah, on modern instruments. But of course, things are not quite so simple as that. Not just Baroque, not just Classical, but even Romantic music and beyond have been increasingly surrendered to the strange hybrid of allegedly ‘period style’ – in reality, as Richard Taruskin has long argued, a thoroughly contemporary style – and a mixture of instruments from any combination of periods that appears to suit those performing. One London conductor has, for instance, recently, bizarrely used ‘period’ trumpets alongside modern horns (and strings) in Haydn, in performances whose principal purpose seems to have been to rush through the music as quickly as possible, with occasional distending of tempo apparently just ‘because he can’. The meaningless of post-modernism – and this is where Taruskin’s critique seems to me to have things quite the wrong way around – has been the victor, not modernism.

There was nothing so extreme here, thank goodness. But it was difficult not to suspect that the English Chamber Orchestra’s string playing was somewhat hampered by instructions at odds with their modern instruments. Modern, that is, save for the bizarre appearance of ‘period’ kettledrums, which certainly made an impact but an impact which seemed intended for another performance entirely. It was far from clear, either to me or to the violinist friend who attended with me, that what the violinists were doing with their right hands was compatible with the actions of their left hands. Lower strings seemed better off in that respect. Playing was generally reasonably cultivated, but surely would have been far more so, had the players been encouraged to rejoice in the capabilities of their instruments. It was notable that leader Stephanie Gonley’s violin solo in the penultimate ‘If God be for us’ – not the happiest of choices in the version of the work offered in performance – was far freer in style, greatly to its and our benefit.

Nigel Short’s tempi were sometimes a little on the fast side, but there was nothing unduly objectionable in that respect. For instance, if ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’ was more energetic than we are used to, a convincing enough case was made for the decision. Although a small choir, twenty-strong, Tenebrae was perfectly capable of making a full sound, not least in ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs,’ which emerged furiously, and the (relatively) mighty conclusion to the final chorus. Alas, the ‘Hallelujah!’ was largely disrupted for me by a man a couple of rows behind, who insisted on jangling loose change in his pocket throughout its course, a strange updating of the custom of a segment of the Viennese public to jangle keys in order to disrupt Schoenberg’s concerts. The freshness of the choral voices had been immediately apparent in ‘And the glory of the Lord,’ and continued to give considerable pleasure and enlightenment.

Finest of the vocal soloists was an outstanding Martha McLorinan, described in the programme as an ‘alto’, although she sounded more of a mezzo. It was a pity that she was not given more to sing. She edged closer to Handel’s operas in the B sections of ‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’ and ‘He was despised and rejected,’ although never too much. There was contrast and continuity, then, and Charles Jennens’s text was ably communicated. Alas, the contrast between McLorinan and the strangely pop-like – I said we were in post-modernist territory! – delivery of the soprano, Grace Davidson, was especially glaring during their duet, ‘He shall feed His flock.’ Davidson made little of the words there and elsewhere. Although her light soprano might initially have sounded attractive enough, both it and her performance lacked any greater depth. Her coloratura was correct but strangely robotic. Tenor, David de Winter, opened promisingly. His first accompagnato, ‘Comfort ye, my people’ was splendidly imploring, gaining in strength as it progressed, the following aria nicely variegated. However, despite a gloriously lingering ‘Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,’ the aria, ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron’ proved somewhat strained. There is a good oratorio voice there, though, without doubt. So is there in the case of bass, William Gaunt, whose attention to both words and music impressed throughout; moreover, he was not afraid to employ fuller tone on occasion.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Aimard/LPO/Jurowski - Stravinsky, Birtwistle, and Messiaen, 6 December 2014

Royal Festival Hall
Stravinsky – Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Birtwistle – Responses: Sweet disorder and the carefully careless, for piano and orchestra (UK premiere)
Messiaen – Oiseaux exotiques
Stravinsky – Orpheus
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

The final event of Birtwistle’s eightieth anniversary year, at least for me: the British premiere of his new work for piano and orchestra, Responses, first performed in Munich this October, by its dedicatee, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. To grant the work its full, somewhat cumbersome title, replete with subtitle after a collection of architectural essays by Robert Maxwell, Responses: Sweet disorder and the carefully, careless, is certainly better understood as a work for piano and orchestra rather than a piano concerto as such. The contrast with the (relatively) recent Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is strong in that and many other respects. That said, Birtwistle, in a programme interview with Jonathan Cross, does refer to this work as ‘my new concerto’.
Later in that interview, Birtwistle remarks: ‘When one thinks of a concerto, one usually expects the orchestra to play some of the tune, then the soloist to play some of it. It’s the same material. This is not the case in my work. Rather, it’s a dialogue: the soloist is asking questions.’ Hence Responses, and that is certainly how it sounded, from the opening pulsating E – as Cross notes, that pitch a typical starting-point – onwards. Yes, there is questioning, and yes, this is definitely a piece for piano and orchestra, no ‘mere’ ensemble here (eight double basses, three percussionists, two harps, and so on). Piano chords sound, especially, I suspect, in Aimard’s hands, like ghosts stranded between the nineteenth century and Birtwistle’s own modernism. The orchestra glistens, machine-like: again highly characteristic. There seem to be some intriguing echoes of Messiaen, presumably part of the reason for programming the work with Oiseaux exotiques. And there is dramatic insistence, especially from the brass, sounding against longing, string-based melancholy, in what seemed to me very much post-Minotaur fashion. There is frenzy, with something of the Dionysian to it. (Although I suspect this merely to be coincidence, I was a couple of times, especially with respect to the percussion, put in mind of the Maenads’ Hunt from Henze’s opera, The Bassarids, albeit in a more fractured, more ritualised fashion.) Less a cadenza, more a brief soliloquy, one piano passage brings on a sense of momentary stillness, against which piano and orchestra seem to wish to escape; it is a more arduous task, however, than it initially might seem. The idea, or perhaps better, practice of hocketing is clearly instantiated – and, of course, dramatised. I had a sense of spatial games within the orchestra, without the actual movement of, say, Theseus Game. Gabrieli reimagined for a ‘conventional’ orchestra and soloist? Theseus Game reimagined in a world after The Minotaur and the Violin Concerto? Perhaps. Or maybe it is ‘just’ another exploration of particular material. In truth, of course, there is no need for either/or here. Jurowski and the LPO offered excellent performances, as of course did Aimard; it is always difficult to judge, of course, from a first hearing, but I had the sense that this was how the work ‘should’ sound.
Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques received a mesmerising account, its hieratic opening recalling the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, with which the concert had opened, though the language is unmistakeably Messiaen’s own. The piano is more clearly a concertante instrument here; indeed, much of its role is taken up with cadenzas. Ironically, the dialogue here seemed more overtly, or at least more straightforwardly, responsorial. Orchestral colours sounded as vivid as they could to one who is not a synesthete. The naïve, elemental quality to so much of Messiaen’s music registered just as powerfully as the complexity of his ‘enormous counterpoint of birdsong’. Not least, this was a riotous and ecstatic performance. Aimard played his part – superlatively – from memory.    
On either side came works by Stravinsky. Symphonies of Wind Instruments has long held fascination for Birtwistle – and indeed for many of the rest of us. In Jurowski’s performance, it opened just as it should: angular, spiky, hieratic, aggressive. Echoes of the Rite of Spring were perhaps unusually apparent in the contrasting material. Neo-Classicism seemed to shoot forth, yet also to withdraw; this, one felt, was more than often being read as a ‘transitional’ work. Soldier’s Tale puppetry and Œdipus Rex gravity, life and desiccation: it was in its very particular way, and whatever Adorno may have thought, as dialectical as Beethoven. Moreover, it sounded very much as a curtain-raiser to a drama.
Orpheus brought another different variety of ensemble, this time a smaller, well-nigh ‘Classical’ orchestra. The grave beauty of the opening truly sounded as the scenario has it: ‘Orpheus weeps for Eurydice. He stands motionless…’. Already, there were to be heard in this work (1946-7) intimations of The Rake’s Progress, yet seemingly without its polemical aggression. Orpheus’s violin solo inevitably rekindled memories of The Soldier’s Tale (again) and indeed the Violin Concerto. Rather to my surprise, I also fancied I heard a balletic kinship with Prokofiev. Perhaps it was Jurowski’s ‘Russian’ conducting? I cannot help but feel that some of the later music finds the composer a little on auto-pilot, but maybe it is more a matter of the ultra-neo-Classical æsthetic still presenting problems for me. At any rate, other of Stravinsky’s works from around this period seemed unusually present: the Symphony in Three Movements, Dumbarton Oaks, the Concerto in D. The LPO offered frozen beauty in the final scene, those descending harp scales ritually yet newly combined with lines from horns and trumpet. ‘Orpheus is dead, the song is gone, but the accompaniment goes on.’ That comment from Stravinsky, cited in Anthony Burton’s programme note, was perhaps not without relevance to Birtwistle too.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera, 5 December 2014

Royal Opera House
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
Tristan – Stephen Gould
Melot – Neal Cooper
King Marke – Sir John Tomlinson
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk 
Christof Loy (director)
Julia Burbach (associate director)
Johannes Lieacker (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Images: ROH/Clive Barda

Christof Loy has established rather a nice line in taking on works he admits he dislikes, or worse, and ignoring them whilst claiming to direct them. The ne plus ultra was surely his Salzburg Frau ohne Schatten, in which he set aside Strauss and Hofmannsthal completely in favour of his own banal story in which ‘an emerging young singer, sheltered and pampered by her well-to-do family is asked to take on the role of the Empress for a complete recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten.’ That was more or less it. His Royal Opera Tristan does not go so far as that, though his Lulu came close; nevertheless, his words speak for themselves. Loy, we read in the programme, cannot ‘really equate the couple’s position as outsiders with a Schopenhauerian denial of the world’. Wagner and many others since have managed to do so, but obviously what matters is a director’s inability or unwillingness to understand the work; that, after all, is what he is paid for. ‘Character direction which is rich in detail and specific’ is what interests Loy most as a director, which is why, he says, he had generally steered clear of Wagner, notorious, the reader will doubtless agree, for his inability to characterise. Tristan, however, seemed to Loy, who, it is once again worth reminding ourselves, the most important figure in all of this, something of an exception. It does not seem that he necessarily wished to traduce the work, then, but he has certainly misunderstood it. Of all Wagner’s works, it is perhaps least of all concerned with what he claims to interest him, and most concerned with metaphysics.
So much, then, for the misconception, but how does it play out in practice? Music and the arts in general are, after all, littered with examples of great works founded upon questionable æsthetics. Not too badly, to start with; indeed, I began to think that either my unfavourable memories from 2010 had played tricks upon me or that there had been radical revision. Julia Burbach was listed as an associate director and I think she probably has mitigated a few of Loy’s most irritating excesses; the supremely irrelevant canoodling between Brangäne and Kurwenal, for instance, seems toned down, although it is not, alas, eradicated. A good part of the first act is relatively abstract – pretty much always a good thing in Tristan – or at least may be seen as such with a degree of good will (towards Wagner, if not Loy). Then, when they have a little break, Tristan and Isolde are all over each other. What is the problem with that, one might ask? There seem to be two principal problems. One relates to the specificity of the setting, even if we are not quite sure of what that specificity is. In some building – a palace, perhaps? – awaiting her wedding and thereafter facing the consequences, Isolde manages somehow to escape for long enough to take off her wedding dress and be mauled by Tristan for a while. Still more oddly, she manages to do so for longer still during what may or may not be the wedding reception in the second act. Were there less specificity, this would not matter; playing fast and loose with time and location would not be an issue, and we could accept the overarching mythological claims. Here, however, we are just aware that it is at best rather trivial – Tristan for those who would prefer EastEnders, although a real soap opera viewer would doubtless expect more external action sooner – and often puzzling or downright nonsensical.  
The other brings us to the heart of Loy’s error, or, perhaps better, to the heart of Wagner’s – remember him? – work. Wagner’s action is resolutely metaphysical: not exclusively so, but the physical matters only insofar as it draws us towards, or in Schopenhauer’s terms, represents, the metaphysical drama. Since there are no metaphysics in Loy’s view, all we have is an extremely prolonged soap opera, tinged with the occasional aspiration towards Ibsen. Ironically – unknowingly, I suspect – Loy’s acknowledged inability to deal with Schopenhauerian denial of the world seems to have led Loy him to stage the second act as conventional ‘opera’, rather as Wagner acknowledged he could have written it, set against a backdrop of a brilliant court ball, ‘during which the illicit lovers could lose themselves … where their discovery would generate a suitably scandalous impression and the whole apparatus that goes with that.’  Wagner, of course, rejected that possibility he aired for a second act in which almost nothing but music happens. And even when external action intrudes, Wagner came to regard it as of lesser importance at best. His prose sketch had, for instance, drawn to a close, Götterdämmerung-like, with the words, ‘The bystanders are profoundly moved,’ concluding, ‘Marke blesses them’. However, when, in 1859, he summarised the work’s concerns for Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner went so far as not only to omit the King’s  forgiveness, but also Tristan’s agonies at Kareol; they no longer mattered to him. True action, the Handlung of his own description, now lay in the noumenal world: ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ Such, needless to say, was not what we were permitted to experience here. I should be the last person to claim that, as a general rule, production must exhibit some illusory, disingenuous Werktreue. However, in this particular case, it does seem that a staging of Tristan will not work unless it follows Wagner’s lead. Not for nothing did Nietzsche call it the opus metaphysicum. I know that I was not the only one in the audience looking back fondly to Herbert Wernicke’s comprehending, yet largely uncomprehended, production for this very house.
Wernicke’s production had of course been fortunate indeed to have Bernard Haitink, one of the greatest Wagner conductors of our age, in the pit. Haitink, as we know from his Bruckner and Mahler, is a master of large musical structures, and so he proved here. Antonio Pappano seems to have been thinking in similar terms to Loy, with not dissimilar results. Indeed, the scrappiness of the orchestral playing made it markedly inferior to Pappano’s previous accounts, let alone to Haitink’s. Missed entries, thinness of string tone (had I not seen the section with my own eyes, I should have sworn that it was considerably smaller), wavering intonation: none of those helped. More grievous still, however, was Pappano’s seeming inability to let a musical line, let alone a paragraph or some greater structure, unfold. The seemingly arbitrary nature of his beat was mirrored in the aimless meandering of the score. It seemed for the most part very slow; whether it was by the clock, I am not sure. The lack of direction was the problem, though, especially during the second act, which at times seemed almost to grind to a halt. Pappano gave the impression of following rather than leading the singers; that is not, to put it mildly, a recipe for success in Wagner.
Isolde (Nina Stemme)
Where, however, this Tristan did score over Wernicke and Haitink was with respect to those singers, who, as a cast, are deserving of considerable praise. Nina Stemme offered everything we have come to expect of her as Isolde. With her, words and music formed an indivisible whole; Wagner’s æsthetics emerged triumphant in a variegated reading that yet always belonged to a conception greater than the moment. She even presented us with Nilsson-like angry sarcasm in the first act. Stephen Gould proved a dependable Tristan. Despite a few passages of dubious intonation in the third act, he stayed the course and provided us with as many of the words and notes as it is reasonable to ask. (Haitink was cursed by his Tristans in particular.) Sarah Connolly, at least in the first act, did not offer as rich-toned a Brangäne as I had expected; indeed, Stemme sometimes sounded more the mezzo. Connolly’s reading seemed more focused upon words than line, but without unnecessary disruption of the latter. Iain Paterson offered an intriguingly boisterous, yet at the same time most sensitively sung, Kurwenal. The role seemed to fit him like a glove. Only John Tomlinson’s Marke disappointed. All Wagnerians owe Tomlinson gratitude for his extraordinary years of service, but, undimmed stage presence notwithstanding, the vocal flaws now render such an outing ill-advised. I was most impressed by Neal Cooper’s Melot; before consulting the programme, I had assumed this to be a German tenor. He is, we learn, covering the role of Tristan here and will sing it next year at Longborough. Impressive! Ed Lyon's Sailor was finely sung in very sense. Graham Clark made his typically characterful mark as the Shepherd; as, perhaps more surprisingly, given the brevity of his part, did Jette Parker Young Artist, Yuriy Yurchuk as the Steersman.