Saturday, 16 July 2016

Esfahani - Bull, Kalabis, D’Anglebert, Borup-Jǿrgensen, Saariaho, Kidane, and Scarlatti, 19 July 2016

Wigmore Hall

John Bull – Chromatic Pavan and Galliard, ‘Queen Elizabeth’s’
Viktor Kalabis – Aquarelles, op.53
Bull – Fantasia XII
Jean Henry d’Anglebert – Pièces de clavecin: selection
Axel Borup-Jǿrgensen – Tarocco, op.124
Saariaho – Jardin Secret II, for harpsichord and tape
Daniel Kidane – Six Etudes (new version)
Scarlatti – Sonatas: in F major, Kk518; in G major, Kk259; in G major, Kk260; in A major and E major (Barcelona MS 1964 nos 34 and 31); in D minor, Kk516; in D minor, Kk517

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord).

One would be hard put to find a more varied programme from any instrumentalist today, or indeed in the past. It was indicative of Mahan Esfahani’s typically venturing spirit – and achievement – that this harpsichord recital, sadly my final visit to the Wigmore Hall of the 2015-16 season, was listed under both its Early Music and Baroque Series and its Contemporary Music Series. I think we can forgive him for the lack of Chopin and Liszt. Instead, we heard intriguing juxtapositions, the intent not, insofar as I could tell, didactic, but willing or, perhaps better, permitting the listener to make what connections and contrasts he or she would. Where unapologetically modernist artists such as Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Maurizio Pollini would more often than not present us with a guiding, almost Schoenbergian Idea behind a programme, Esfahani’s approach might be considered more post-modern, which is not in any sense to imply unconsidered, far from it.

What a joy it was to start with John Bull, whose waywardness clearly attracts Esfahani. The Chromatic Pavan and Galliard seemed almost to look forward to Purcell, albeit with a knack for surprising one that made me think not so much of English contemporaries or successors, but of Gesualdo. (Would that we had more keyboard music from him!) There was great flexibility to the performance, but flexibility with reason that always announced itself. Both dances seemed to gather up complexity as they developed – in a fashion that, doubtless fancifully, put me in mind of Schoenberg and his school. Viktor Kalabis’s Aquarelles, which I had also heard Esfahani play at a Milton Court recital a little more than a year ago, opened with an intriguing hint of Poulenc (the Concert champêtre), but developed – that word again – in a very different way. There was perhaps more than a hint of Shostakovich to the second, marked ‘Andante’; what struck me, though, more than any mere correspondence, was the sense conveyed of what lay between and beneath the notes. There was an intimacy in the spareness of halting progress. The third and final piece proved kaleidoscopic and adamant in its rhythm, in turns and also together. Bull’s Fantasia XII emerged from it as if a cousin, which then proceeded upon its own, highly virtuosic, wonderfully realised way.

Five pieces from Jean Henry d’Anglebert’s 1689 collection followed: a ‘Prélude’, an ‘Air d’Apollon du Triomphe de l’Amour,’ an ‘Air ancient: Ou estes vous allé,’ ‘Les Songes agréables d’Atys’, and the ‘Passacaille d’Armide’. The opening Prélude was gravely rhetorical, or should that be rhetorically grave? And yet, it sounded full of light and shade. The airs were sung gracefully, kinship and differentiation both perceptible. The Lully ‘Passacaille’ was imbued with proper grandeur and impetus, which yet proved capable of more tender yielding.

The first half closed with two pieces of what we might consider to be Scandinavian modernism. First was Axel Borup-Jǿrgensen’s Tarocco. Its twists, turns, and above all, guiding thread were communicated with a winning sense of adventure. Logic and fantasy were revealed not so much as in competition but as two sides of the same musical coin. Kaaija Saariaho’s Jardin Secret II I found harder to get on with, but the fault may well have been mine. It opened in almost concertante fashion, but the relationship between harpsichord and tape seemed to be in a state of constant, or at least continuing, flux. Some of the rather strange electronic noises – the work was written using IRCAM technology – puzzled me in themselves, but that was perhaps the point. I was delighted, in any case, to have the opportunity to hear such music – music, I must admit, I had not even known existed, and which the ‘Early Music’ crowd would not touch with an authenticke bargepole.

A new version of Daniel Kidane’s Six Etudes, an earlier version given in that 2015 recital, opened the second half. Before looking at the programme, I was struck by the varying transformative techniques running throughout these six beautifully crafted miniatures. I was then delighted – and relieved – to see the composer’s own reference to an ‘inbuilt transformative aspect [which] also adds a playful nature to the pieces’. That was certainly how it sounded here, particular ‘problems’ set up – as is traditional with a ‘study’ – and explored within certain restrictive parameters. Cellular is probably not quite the right word – I have had no opportunity to read the score – but I am not sure that it was entirely the wrong word either. And yes, it was great fun to welcome back the hotel reception bell, wryly described by Kidane as ‘an external pitch’, in the sixth piece.

Finally, we heard several sonatas by Scarlatti. That in F major, Kk518, offered characteristic insistence but also variety of figuration, clearly, meaningfully brought out in performance. The turn to the tonic minor was splendidly, even heartrendingly, inward in quality. G major (Kk 259 and 260) proved warmer and, in the first sonata, perhaps gentler, also, I think, more exploratory. The second of those two sonatas offered relatively extrovert contrast, surprising both harmonically and melodically; Esfahani proved an expert judge, moreover, of its rhetoric. The two sonatas from a Barcelona manuscript, discovered by Barry Ife, may well have been receiving their modern premieres. They sounded very much as a pair here, their different key signatures notwithstanding: contrast and kinship, as in earlier works in the recital, were both apparent and to be questioned. There were, even by Scarlatti’s standards, some striking disjunctures to be relished in the E major sonata. The D major Sonata, Kk516, seemed at times to evoke the world of John Bull in its manner, at least before highly contrasting material took it along a quite different path. It struck a note of melancholic relief, Esfahani, having heard some of its material performed by Spanish folk musicians, taking it at a significantly slower tempo than marked. Keyboard fireworks returned in the closing D minor work, Kk517. And then, it was time for another, charming surprise: a Richard Rodney Bennett encore, Little Elegy.


First Night of the Proms: Gabetta/BBC SO/Oramo - Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and Prokofiev, 15 July 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85
Prokofiev – Cantata: Alexander Nevsky, op.78

Sol Gabetta (cello)
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
BBC National Chorus of Wales (chorus master: Adrian Partington)
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Adrian Partington)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that. Music, especially avowedly political music, has associations, though, and what many, but not all, English and French listeners might understand as solidarity following the previous night’s carnage in Nice, might sound rather different to a listener from, say, the Maghreb. Nationalism is, after all, a big part of the problem – as London has rediscovered with a vengeance over the past few weeks. The issue of ‘national anthems’ is fraught too; ours, in the (Dis)United Kingdom is about as divisive as it could be, eliding membership of a nation with monarchism and thus necessarily defining republicanism as a foe within. French revolutionaries, insisting on national sovereignty, offered a not entirely dissimilar binary opposition: that, ultimately, led to the execution of Louis XVI, who, having a veto, could not be part of the nation, which, in a time of emergency, led to one particular conclusion. It also led to – well, we know the rest. Returning to the Royal – yes, Royal – Albert Hall, applause at the end heightened the oddness. If the opening number were a sign of respect, however problematical – and that is how I took it, standing like everyone else – then why would one applaud? Might an aestheticised version of the anthem, for instance that of Berlioz, not have been another option? I felt conflicted, then, but I seem to have been in a minority; many were clearly inspired by the hope and solidarity they felt had been afforded.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet sounded, in this context, especially dark in its fatal opening bars. The introduction took its time, pace gathering with a proper harmonic foundation; Sakari Oramo is far too musical a conductor to whip up artificial ‘excitement’. The Allegro sounded turbulent indeed, counterpoint nicely Berliozian (should that not be too much of a paradox). The BBC Symphony Orchestra played the ‘Love’ theme gorgeously, without a hint of vulgarity. On more than one occasion, the harp stole our hearts, although so, to be fair, did the BBC woodwind. Tension between programme and material was productively explored, so to enthral and indeed to move all the more. There could certainly be no doubting the strength of the partnership between the BBC SO and Oramo.

Sol Gabetta joined them next for the Elgar Cello Concerto, with equally fine results. In the first movement, the Moderato material proved very much the child of the preceding Adagio, transition emotionally as well as technically seamless, whilst remaining a transition nonetheless. Much the same might be said of the transition between first and second groups; although the mood lifted in some respects, it remained dependent (secondary, one might say) upon what had come before. It was not all doom and gloom, by any means; Elgar’s Mendelssohnian inheritance came sparklingly to life at times. Underlying sadness, however, remained inescapable. The background of German, even leipzigerisch, Romanticism was also present in the scherzo; it sometimes came into the foreground too, albeit without banishing unease entirely. Elgar’s modernity, even modernism, was as unquestionable as its roots. (Applause and bronchial outpourings were most unwelcome at the movement’s close.) There was nothing morose about the Adagio, although it certainly sounded deeply felt. It was, rather, passionately songful, with wonderfully hushed tones too to relish, both from Gabetta and the orchestra. Dialogue and incitement were the generative order of the day in the final movement. Light and shade were expertly judged, likewise harmonic motion. Kinship with Elgar’s symphonies was clear, although, by the same token, this was decidedly later music too, almost an English cousin to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ultimate weight was placed on the finale, and rightly so. Gabetta returned to the stage, following justly warm applause, to perform Pēteris Vasks’s Dolicissimo, her solo vocal as well as instrumental; this was an auspicious Proms debut indeed.

The second half was given over to Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky Cantata, based on the composer’s score for Eisenstein’s film of that name. Its nationalism can hardly fail to make one uneasy too; Stalin is quoted in the Proms programme as having declared to the director, ‘Sergey Mikhailovich, you’re a good Bolshevik after all!’ Not that Stalinism by this stage had so very much to do with Bolshevism, but anyway… Prokofiev, awkwardly for many of us who admire him, often, although not always, seemed to flourish in such circumstances. Those who would have us believe that art is somehow removed from politics could not be more wrong; more to the point, their protestations could not be more pernicious. However much one might want to wish away awkward questions, such as over the Marseillaise, one cannot – and should not.

The opening orchestral number, ‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke’, was cold yet colourful, just as it should be. The ‘Song of Alexander Nevsky’ revealed choral forces (both the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales) both weighty and clear. Prokofiev’s homophonic writing helps in the latter respect, of course, but only helps. The ‘patriotism’ and militarism of the words – ‘Ah, how we fought, how we hacked them down!’, ‘Those who invade Russia will meet death,’ etc. – is all the more perturbing when performed with such musical conviction as here. An impeccably post-Mussorgskian orchestral opening announced ‘The Crusaders in Pskov’, the dissonances of course quite Prokofiev’s own, harking back to The Fiery Angel and forward to Romeo and Juliet. Even here, in ‘socialist realist’ land, there is some of the bite of the more youthful composer’s acerbity – and so there was in performance. Echoes of Boris Godunov sounded all the more strongly as the number progressed. One could hear what must have attracted Claudio Abbado to this music.

The following chorus, ‘Arise, Russian People’, provided a not un-Mussorgskian contrast. Motor rhythms in particular rendered the composer’s identity unmistakeagble. Glockenspiel and xylophone offered the most enjoyable of rejoicing later on. ‘The Battle on the Ice’ is the longest number in the cantata; here it proved very much the musical and emotional heart too. Its introduction was not only atmospheric, but atmospheric in a filmic way. Oramo brought out the glassy violas at dawn to strike a proper chill. Still more chilling was the barbarism of war proper, those motor rhythms and grinding dissonances once again proving the engine of progress; the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony hovered not so far in the musical future, whilst Mussorgsky’s shadow was, once again, rarely far from the aural stage. Eisenstein came to the eyes of our imagination. Olga Borodina walked onto the stage for ‘The Field of the Dead’, seemingly as an angel of death. And yet she sounded, in her ineffably Russian fashion, a note of consolation as well as one of tragedy. This contralto-like rendition held the hall spellbound. The final chorus, ‘Alexander’s Entry into Pskov’, struck a more difficult note. Now is not the time, to put it mildly, for patriotic rejoicing in London, and disconcerting it sounded, even when of a ‘foreign’ variety. It was magnificently done, though, chorus, orchestra, and conductor alike clearly relishing their musical task. Perhaps they had succeeded in putting the words to one side.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Piemontesi - Mozart, 13 July 2016

Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.1 in C major, KV 279/189d
Piano Sonata no.2 in F major, KV 280/189e
Piano Sonata no.3 in B-flat major, KV 281/189f
Fantasia in C minor, KV 475
Piano Sonata no.14 in C minor, KV 457

Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

The Wigmore Hall’s Mozart Odyssey continued with four piano sonatas and a fantasia from Francesco Piemontesi. Piemontesi is a thoughtful artist; even when his way would not be mine, there can be no doubting the integrity of his performance. And so it proved here; although I had my doubts concerning aspects of the earlier sonatas, especially his insistence, at times, on playing them in a fashion more ‘Baroque’ than ‘Classical’ – umbrella stylistic terms that throw up more questions than they answer – Piemontesi offered his own performative justifications.

The first sonata, in C major, KV 279/189d, opened with an Allegro that was taken very fast indeed. I was intrigued and, to begin with, not a little perplexed by the way Piemontesi had right-hand arpeggios sound more like ornaments than fully-fledged elements of the melodic line; I had never thought of them like that, but on reflection, could imagine why someone might. He used very little pedal indeed, in a light, almost Glenn Gould-like performance (albeit with more affection than Gould was ever able to summon up for Mozart), this movement in particular often sounding Scarlatti-like. Its development section, however, proved instructive in the pianist’s highlighting, without exaggeration, how the material differed from (i.e., developed) what we had heard before. The Andante was, again, taken pretty fast. Nevertheless, it flowed rather than being rushed. I should not have minded a little more indulgence, especially when it came to quasi-vocal melodic leaps, but the legato was to die for, likewise some wondrous, hushed moments. If the lack of sentimentality in the finale was, in itself, again admirable, I sometimes longed for a more conventionally pianistic treatment, especially in the first group, the second yielding somewhat more, as did the development section.

The F major Sonata, next in Köchel’s catalogue, whichever version, immediately sounded, to my ears, better reconciled to the instrument. Perhaps that is partly the work itself, although other pianists (Barenboim, Uchida, et al.) might beg to differ. The first movement was not without its ‘Baroque’ or ‘pre-Classical’ elements – another can of worms from which I shall in cowardly fashion shy away – but why should there not be? Terraced dynamics, for instance, certainly have their place here. I admired Piemontesi’s refusal to tone down his fortes; if one has a modern piano, one should use it. The ravishing second-movement siciliano was given its full due, rhythmically, harmonically, offering the greatest pathos, sharply characterised. It was ‘vocal’ yes, sometimes in a well-nigh Gluckian way, but ultimately, incontestably instrumental. Piemontesi’s ear for the longer line proved impeccable too, without that in any sense shortchanging rhetorical gestures. Like the finale of its predecessor, the third movement proved Haydnesque, Piemontesi especially alert to its motivic dynamism.

There was, again, a sharp opposition between first and second subjects in the first movement of the B-flat major sonata. Was it too sharp? Perhaps. However, a stern development section, and a splendidly integrative recapitulation conveyed retrospective justification. The slow movement flowed, though not so quickly as that in the first sonata. It was poised, quite without a sense of being hurried, or harried; it subtly yielded too. Piemontesi’s navigation of competing tendencies in the finale dazzled; this was as convincing a feat of integration as I have heard in this music.

First edition of the C minor Fantasia (Artaria), closing bars

In the second half, we heard the great C minor Sonata, preceded, as it often is, by the Fantasia, here without a break – and indeed, without the final bars of the Fantasia (rather a good way of doing it, if one must). Piemontesi’s long-term harmonic ear (Furtwängler’s Fernhören) really came into its own here, the possibilities of the opening phrases almost audible at the outset. His legato touch, anything but unvariegated, helped with that too, of course. There was no doubting that this was music of quite another order when it came to emotional and intellectual weight. Mozart’s tour of the tonal horizons truly enthralled – and it all sounded, as great Mozart playing does, so easy! The first movement of the Sonata following on as it did registered as some kind of release in context, although the chiaroscuro afforded by the E-flat major of the second subject asserted different tonal priorities. Wisely, Piemontesi took the first but not the second repeat, the turn to the tonic minor in the recapitulation properly heartbreaking. And so, the music subsided. (Applause suggested some thought that the end of the Fantasia!) The slow movement, one of Mozart’s very greatest, emerged both as great instrumental scena and as something that could only ever have been conceived for, let alone realised by, the piano. Again, line and integration were beyond reproach; above all, they were felt as utterly necessary. The richness of Mozart’s harmonies suggested the C minor Piano Concerto, even Don Giovanni, whilst the turn to A-flat major inevitably brought to mind – as it always does to me under the fingers – the slow movement of Beethoven’s op.13. That section proved, quite properly, both contrast and intensification. The finale sounded, without melodrama, a note of unrelenting tragedy; even in the major mode, intensity of performance and awareness of context did their tragic work. Mozart’s music sounded, as it should, both close to and distinct from Beethoven.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Fischer/Levit - Beethoven, 6 July 2016

Wigmore Hall

Violin Sonata no.9 in A major, op.47, ‘Kreutzer’
Violin Sonata no.10 in G major, op.96

Julia Fischer (violin)
Igor Levit (piano)

How I wish I had been able to attend the earlier two concerts in this series of three, in which Julia Fischer and Igor Levit performed all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas – or rather, sonatas for piano and violin, as any self-respecting pianist will tell you. On the basis of this, the final concert, it would have been a series to remember. Hänsel and Gretel at the Royal College of Music – it was so good, I saw it twice – intervened however, and without the mediæval saint’s gift of bilocation, I had to make, as a less than sainted sometime Prime Minister once put it, ‘tough choices’.

First, then, was the Kreutzer Sonata. Beethoven famously described it in his sketchbook as having been ‘written in a very concertante style, almost like that of a concerto’. To which instrument, though, was he referring? Perhaps to both? He was not, of course, but that is how, in a very positive sense, it sometimes sounded here, without losing anything of its virtues as chamber music. Fischer’s violin playing married to near-perfection bracing physicality – she is one of those players from whom one really can feel the bow touch, and rather more than merely touch, the strings – with an irreproachable intellectual grasp and communication of the music. Not that there was any showmanship to her playing, but this was a performance – which crucially, and which so many Beethoven performances fail to do – communicated, indeed had us experience the formal dynamism of the work. So too did Igor Levit, surely one of the finest pianists of our age even at this stage in his career. (I do not, I hasten to add, make such claims lightly.)  Moreover, the balance between horizontal and vertical concerns, more, although far from exclusively, a matter for the pianist, never failed to satisfy, indeed, in true Beethovenian fashion, to bludgeon, if with charm as well as violence, itself into the consciousness. The first movement introduction was as full of expectancy as any to a symphony by Haydn or Beethoven, the Presto proper emerging from it in the way that, since Beethoven and Romanticism, we have felt compelled to call ‘organic’. There was fury, yes, but never was the music harried. Far too many players – often, still more, conductors – seem to equate ‘excitement’ with playing in as fast and unyielding manner as possible; Fischer and Levit showed far greater maturity, in every sense. Beethoven perhaps made even more of a revolutionary impact upon variation forms than upon sonata forms. (Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but consideration of the Diabelli Variations suggest that it might not be.) And yet, in the slow movement, we heard, if nothing so banal as mere relaxation, then the sublimity of music that happily, even gratefully, acknowledges its Classical predecessors as much as, perhaps more than, the Romantic future. There was urgency, not in the sense of playing everything, or indeed anything too fast, but founded upon the harmony: Levit’s commanding caress of the bass line has sometimes to be heard to be believed. But Fischer too understood how much the ever-changing relationship between violin and piano contributes to harmonic motion. Melody and its variation should not be, were never, forgotten, but they were inconceivable without harmony – which is just as it should be. The finale grabbed one by the scruff of the neck, and again made one listen; every note could be heard, without that tending to the slightest of pedantry. Rather, it made one marvel anew at Beethoven’s inspiration.

The performance of the G major Sonata, op.96, was every bit as fine. It is a remarkable work, perhaps still more remarkable, although far less popular, than the Kreutzer. I think of it as inhabiting a similar world to the Eighth Symphony, another work unable to escape, quite unjustly, the shadow of its predecessor. (Beethoven is said to have accounted for that by the Eighth being ‘so much better’ than the Seventh.) One must certainly listen intently and without prejudice, willing to hear what Beethoven writes rather than what one thinks he might have written. Fischer’s opening trill was not only a thing of beauty in itself; it was, even before we heard the rest, clearly a harbinger. Not only did the first group emerge from it, one had a sense, in performance, that everything else did too. Levit’s voicing of chords was quite magical; I had a sense that, as Donald Tovey once wrote of Liszt, it would have been impossible for him not to make a beautiful sound at the piano. So often a progression, a phrase, would seem to look to the starry skies of the Fourth and Piano Concertos. And again, one heard, experienced, as well as simply knowing intellectually, the fundamental (as it were) role of harmony. Levit can make quite a noise with the piano: there is certainly no authenticism here, from either pianist or his Steinway Model D. But, as with Fischer, it is never for show. The slow movement and scherzo both assumed their own character, motivic working properly generative, and complemented, challenged each other as that truly extraordinary transition – as concise and as imbued with meaning as anything in Webern – demands. One might say much the same about the relationship between the scherzo itself and its trio, the magic of the former’s turn to the major relished without exaggeration. What I said about variation form in the Kreutzer surely applies still more so to the finale here. That was certainly what I felt after listening to this performance. Fischer and Levit proved expert guides to the intertwined paths of melody and harmony, not just within variations, but still more so between them, so that unity was as unquestionable as it would have been in a sonata form movement. Interruptions during the final variation – above all, the fugal writing, which reminded one of Levit’s prowess in Bach – pointed towards what we generally consider ‘late’ Beethoven, but the character of movement and sonata as a whole sounded entirely its own, inseparable from performance.


Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Hänsel und Gretel, Royal College of Music, 4 and 5 July 2016

Hänsel (Kamilla Dunstan), Peter (Timothy Connor), Gertrud (Elspeth Marrow), Gretel (Gemma Lois Summerfield)
Images: Chris Christodoulou
Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Peter – Timothy Connor/Nicholas Morton
Gertrud – Elspeth Marrow/Amy Lyddon
Hänsel – Kamilla Dunstan/Katie Coventry
Gretel – Gemma Lois Summerfield/Sofia Larsson
Witch – Richard Pinkstone/Joel Williams
Sandman – Maria Stasiak
Dew Fairy – Louise Fuller

Liam Steel (director)
Myriddin Wannel (designs)
Andy Purves (lighting)

Chorus of Echoes, Angels, and Gingerbread Children
Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

Gertrud (Elspeth Marrow) and
Peter (Timothy Connor)

At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, albeit with less varied tunes, I shall say again that much of the best opera in London is to be found at our conservatoires. Moreover, they seem to get better and better. I am not sure why, but it had been a little while since I had gone to a Royal College of Music production; this made me realise just what I had been missing. Indeed, I think it was probably not only the best production I had seen there, but perhaps, all things considered – and there are always many things to consider when it comes to opera! – the best production of Hänsel und Gretel I had seen anywhere.


Liam Steel’s staging is the one I and many others have been waiting for, light-years away from the evasive, glossy, yet reassuringly völkisch  - reassuring to the völkisch, that is – School of Cameron Mackintosh production Adrian Noble recently inflicted upon the Vienna State Opera. I can hear a self-styled operatic ‘conservative’ seething already: ‘Oh for goodness sake. Leave it alone; it’s just a fairy tale.’ Indeed, the bizarre Bernd Weikl has recently called for criminal prosecutions (!) of directors whose work he does not like, has done just that, pointing to the New York Met (yes, you read that correctly) as a model of sensible staging and funding. Just a fairy tale? Fairy tales, as we all, save for a bewildering number of opera directors and managers, know, are full of all manner of violence. So, of course, are adult constructions of something called ‘childhood’. Children do not think about ‘childhood’, claim to wish to ‘protect’ it, whilst at every twist and turn undermining it; children, simply, or rather not so simply, live their lives under the increasingly oppressive shadow of this construction. They – and we – learn a great deal from ‘fairy tales’. We certainly do on this occasion, in which abuse takes centre stage. That abuse is not so much the abuse of childhood’s construction, although we are likely also to be led to reflect upon that, as that violence against children which, more often than not, takes place within the ‘home’, within the hallowed sanctuary-cum-torture-chamber of the family.

Gretel (Gemma Lois Summerfield)

I nearly added ‘bourgeois’ to ‘family’, then decided against it, since one of the many disturbing aspects of Steel’s production is the poverty – very much part of the ‘fairy tale’ and of the ‘original’ artwork from Engelbert Humperdinck and his sister, Adelheid Wette – in which the family lives. We begin with a cartoon, a projection of what two children, plonked in front of the television whilst their parents are out (perhaps working), are watching: David Ochs’s Who’s Hungry? Ending with the old test card – now that is something to divide us according to age – we can then focus properly, in every sense, upon the revealed stage. When we first properly see Peter and Gertrud, they are dirt – literally, so – poor, their unwashed, unkempt existence mirrored in, intensified by the miserable kitchen in which they play. Myriddin Wannell’s designs, here and elsewhere, are as crucial to the development of the Konzept as Steel’s detailed, yet never too-detailed Personenregie. The awkwardness of the children’s dancing is as important, in its way, as the stunted dance of Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s shattering staging (ironically, recently taken to the Met). They are certainly damaged, then, by the abject poverty that reduces them to the all-too-convenient category of what many, too many, in this country would dismiss as ‘chavs’, and, as soon becomes clear, by something else, as yet intangible. And yet, at the same time, they are not quite broken; they can play, even if, especially in Hänsel’s case, it takes a bit of sisterly encouragement for him to break his inhibitions. (And what, we might well ask, lies behind or beneath those inhibitions? It seems a little more than mere insistence that he is a boy, not a girl, although that is clearly the starting point, in work and production.)

Peter (Nicholas Morton)
The milk having been spilt, the children expelled, we witness a tattooed, swaggering, Peter’s return to Gertrud, her hairstyle (‘Croydon’, is I believe, the snobbish description), condition (heavily pregnant, ‘once again’, one assumes, de haut en bas), and clothes almost the very image of what our construction of a ‘neglectful parent’ would be. Theirs is an evidently sexual relationship. (Freud would, of course, tell us of the anxiety resultant from children imagining their parents having sex, and the consequences of such anxiety.) Indeed, Peter cannot keep his hands off Gertrud; and once she realises he has, literally, brought home the bacon, and much else, she is duly, seemingly genuinely, appreciative. It is Peter, though, who asks about the children and who worries when he hears from Gertrud where they have gone. At the time, we think – or at least I thought – that that is just a matter of being interrupted in the act, and, once she has attended to her cane (which we may or may not notice at the time), her handbag and its contents, she happily accompanies her husband to look for the children.


Sandman (Maria Stasiak)
Lest that all sound too un-Grimm-like (but what do the ‘protectors’ of the Brothers actually know of their collections?), the woods are wonderfully so. Are they in some sense a projection, a fantasy? Perhaps. Certainly some of the darkness appears to have resulted from the cartoon projections. (The second act is introduced by Jan Švankmajer’s Jabberwocky, the third by Katy Towell’s Never Wake Up; their relevance will be clear from the titles alone, but their portrayals of childhood within a general framework entertainment, not least portrayals of dolls and their dismemberment, tell us more still.) That this is a nightmare is clear, certain objects, not least the stove, the fridge, and the kitchen door, remaining constant, or near-constant, throughout all three acts. That is not, of course, to say that the nightmare is not also ‘reality’. Gnarled trees, made up sometimes, or so it seems, of strange woodland figures, enhance the sense not only of danger but of necessary enchantment (whether good, evil, or something else). The Sandman’s emergence fascinates: is he ‘just’ a vagrant with carrier bags or something more primæval, as his pleasing, traditional countenance and, indeed, Andy Purves’s lighting might suggest? We are not sure, and indeed our dreams and nightmares play a role in our interpretation.

Hansel (Katie Coventry), Peter (Nicholas Morton), Gertrud (Amy Lyddon), and Gretel (Sofia Larsson)

The Evening Prayer underlines how close, through necessity, Hänsel and Gretel have become: now he does not mock her prayer, as he had at the beginning of the first act; they protect each other. And the Dream Pantomime is, quite simply heartbreaking. Here, we see the ‘perfect’ family, the ‘perfect’ Christmas they – we – desperately want. Not only are the children the objects of that unconditional parental love society has children, rightly or wrongly, believe is the norm; not only do they receive gifts which are worth more, emotionally as much as financially, than they have likely ever received in their lives; not only are their parents bedecked in good, respectable middle-class clothes (slightly different, according to which cast) which they could never afford and would most likely shun even if they could; not only is a veritable feast of food and wine prepared; there is hope, and there is fulfilment of that hope. It is, in short, Christmas – or rather, our construction of ‘Christmas’, which necessarily involves, co-opts, arguably abuses children. The appearance of the Dew Fairy, at the beginning of the next act, offers deconstructive humour; where that ideal might have granted us forlorn hope, here we have someone much the worse for wear, spilling her wine from the bottle – not so much the morning after the night before as her revels not yet having ended.
Witch (Joel Williams) and Hänsel (Katie Coventry)

An abiding childhood fear at my school, and I am sure not just at my school, was of the loner who would attract one back to his – it always seemed to be ‘his’ – car with a bag of sweets. We heard about that all the time, although no one ever seemed to have heard of it actually happening. The Witch attracts the children then, with conventional methods – just as (s)he always has. We see the gingerbread house as we should. And we see a ‘respectable’ if somewhat grotesque old lady (en travestie), her house boasting comfortable furnishings as well as edible treats, and, crucially, photographic portraits of young children, just as we would when they were reported missing – and indeed, just as we have at the beginning of the show. The children are wary, perhaps warier than usual in productions of this work; do they know something already, perhaps have some experience of what might happen? At any rate, the conservative’s ‘harmless’ fairy tale progresses as it should, the Witch capturing Hänsel in her cage, force-feeding him like a dog, ready for his baking, until the children turn the tables. There is a break in which we are blinded – well, not quite, but we certainly cannot see what happens behind. A few words of dialogue – the first act also began with some – lead us into the children’s tentative healing of the rescued other children. There is joy, but there is clearly also trauma; how could there not be? And when, full of the (apparently, at least) purest joy, their father finally discovers them, ‘true’ familial love seems to be the order of the day. Given the horrors of what have happened, this reunion is rendered all the more moving – perhaps more so on the first evening than the second, which seemed a little less dark (although that might have been more a matter of my own mood, or that of a section of the audience, which seemed determined, bizarrely, to laugh a little too often on the second evening).

Witch (Richard Pinkstone)

And yet… Steel has a chilling twist to the tale. Gretel scowls at the children; they look at her, terrified. There is no heartfelt reunion, indeed no physical contact, there. The inebriated, genuinely beloved Peter, oblivious to all but the general rejoicing, fails to notice as she collects her (the Witch’s) wig and stick. There may be no use crying over spilt milk; how, however, could the children – and we – fail to do so in this case? And ‘case’ perhaps should have more than one meaning, for who is the narrator, reliable or unreliable, here? What actually was or is the ‘abuse’? Is it ‘real’ or the fantasy of Hänsel and Gretel, as a result of neglect and ill-temper on their mother’s part? When Gertrud collects the stick, is there just a chance she might actually be the long-suffering mother (perhaps another of our longstanding constructions: the ‘wicked stepmother’) having yet again to clean up the mess? But surely that fear on the children’s faces was all-too-real, was it not? Difficult questions indeed.

Dew Fairy (Louise Fuller)
None of that would have amounted to anything very much without such excellent performances. So enthused was I by the first performance I attended that I arranged to return the following evening to hear the second cast. Our Hänsels and Gretels were not dissimilar. Both Kamilla Dunstan and Katie Coventry were excellent at portraying their character’s boyishness, without loss to genuinely lovely mezzo-soprano tone quality. (It goes with the mezzo territory, I suppose.) As Gretel, Gemma Lois Summerfield and Sofia Larsson both proved warmly sympathetic, both in vocal and stage terms. Elspeth Marrow and Amy Lyddon both carried off the difficult task of portraying, indeed exploring a more complex Gertrud than we genuinely encounter. Not only did they disturb, though; they both sang beautifully. (I am once again proud to say how lovely it is to encounter former Royal Holloway students, in this case Marrow and Coventry, making their way in musical careers.) There was greater contrast between the two Peters. Timothy Connor was fuller of swagger, disarmingly sexy; Gertrud’s mother would doubtless have thought him a bad lot, yet been charmed in person. Nicholas Morton offered a sadder, more forlorn figure, not least in vocal tone, very much emerging from the German Romantic past. Both worked splendidly; indeed, they complemented each other strikingly, offering different perspectives, even within the same production. Our two witches, Richard Pinkstone and Joel Williams, both trod with great skill the fine line between comedy and tragedy, with stagecraft second to none, stagecraft that yet did not eclipse their estimable vocal attributes. Maria Stasiak and Louise Fuller offered lovely singing and plenty of stage presence as the Sandman and Dew Fairy respectively. The RCM Chorus of Echoes and the younger Angels and Gingerbread Children rounded off a thoroughly excellent cast; their contribution may be mentioned last here, but it should certainly not be considered as least.


Gretel (Sofia Larsson) and
Hänsel (Katie Coventry)
Michael Rosewell’s conducting and the playing of the RCM Opera Orchestra were similarly first-class. It might seem absurd to compare them to Thielemann at the Vienna State Opera last November, in the Noble production I mentioned above, and I do not really intend to do so, but hand on heart, I can say that they would have nothing to fear from such a comparison. The theatre is smaller, of course, but what we heard was plenty to fill the RCM’s Britten Theatre, and not just to fill it, to sound as gloriously Romantic, and if anything, more variegated, both in terms of texture and articulation, than that Viennese performance. A relatively small string section ( certainly did not sound small – perhaps occasionally on the thin side on the second night, but only occasionally (and that may have been more a matter of sitting in a different part of the theatre). There were some truly ravishing solos to be enjoyed. The wind sounded vernal, autumnal, and all manner of seasonal shades in between. Rosewell’s handling of Humperdinck’s post-Wagnerian melos was impeccable, indeed often enthralling. Transitions were handled without the slightest hint of awkwardness. Humperdinck’s Wagnerisms and, I think, his anticipations of Strauss (Rosenkavalier, for instance, in both the second and third acts) too shone through in all their irresistible loveliness. Not for nothing did Strauss conduct the premiere. Equally apparent and immediate, however, was the dramatic menace necessary to convey the story and its undertones, often founded in a secure yet wandering bass line; this was no tale of opposition between pit and stage. All concerned had, quite clearly, learned from the collaboration – and, I suspect, enjoyed it very much too. I certainly did, and, as you will have gathered, it really had me think too. These, then, were performances for which I should gladly have travelled some way to see and to hear. Outstanding!



Monday, 4 July 2016

Siegfried, Opera North, 1 July 2016

Alberich (Jo Pohlheim)
Images: Clive Barda

Royal Festival Hall

Siegfried – Lars Cleveman
Mime – Richard Roberts
The Wanderer – Béla Perencz
Alberich – Jo Pohlheim
Fafner – Mats Almgren
Erda – Ceri Williams
Brünnhilde – Kelly Cae Hogan
The Woodbird – Jeni Bern

Peter Mumford (concert staging, design concept, lighting, projection)
Joe Austin (associate director)

Orchestra of Opera North
Richard Farnes (conductor)

Woodbird (Jeni Bern)

This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel. Perhaps I shall find out some day how it all turned out. Very well, I should expect, at least performatively. For, if I did not find that this Siegfried quite attained the heights of the Walküre two nights previously, Opera North’s remained an achievement that put a good number of larger companies to shame.

Siegfried (Lars Cleveman)

It helped, of course (to put it mildly!) to have Richard Farnes continue his excellent work, not in the pit, but at the podium. As with the Walküre, I found some of the first act a little on the subdued side, the music only really igniting during the final scene, and only truly blazing with the extraordinary Second Act Prelude, in which the Orchestra of Opera North once again showed that it had nothing to fear from the most exalted of comparisons. Perhaps that is Farnes’s way, wanting to leave something in reserve. However, in this particular drama, especially when seen and heard without a full staging, something more immediately arresting would not have been a bad thing.  I also felt that the intensity of the third act might have been more consistently maintained. It was certainly not a case of failing to understand, or indeed to communicate, its contours. However, between the Prelude to the Third Act – the Prelude to the Ring’s very peripeteia – and a shiver-inducing final duet, there was, at least for my taste, perhaps a little too much placidity. That said, Farnes’s conducting and the orchestral playing will, I am sure, long be spoken of warmly, both in London and in the earlier venues of the Opera North tour.

Wanderer (Béla Perencz) and Alberich

Béla Perencz’s Wanderer sounded suitably resigned, without that implying any lack of attention to the particularities of words and music. If I have heard more imposing portrayals, there was a humanity here that most would have warmed to – and I did. Jo Pohlheim’s Alberich was a definite strength of the Rheingold three nights earlier, and so again it was here. Less pitch-black than some, this was a dwarf who very much retained character of his own. So too did Richard Roberts’s Mime, especially noteworthy for fine acting within the constraints (or should that be liberation?) of a ‘concert staging’. Mats Almgren proved a properly stentorian Fafner. Lars Cleveman offered laudable staying power in the title role, at least until the earlier stages of the final scene. (It is quite understandable that he should have been tiring then!) However, his voice was decidedly less than ingratiating; such, alas, is the way with almost all Siegfrieds. It was nevertheless a committed performance, and that is worth a good deal. Ceri Williams’s Erda was again somewhat insecure. However, the other two ‘female’ roles were superbly taken, Jeni Bern a veritable breath of fresh air as a lively Woodbird, and Kelly Cae Hogan fully living up to the promise of her Walküre Brünnhilde in a blazing performance at the close. Again, if only I knew how it all turned out…

Mime (Richard Roberts)

If only the nuances of verbal meaning had not too often been ironed out in translation. (Sometimes, it was spot on; at other times, overly generalised. Surely Wagner’s poems deserve near-literal translation in such circumstances, for this was not a singing translation. Fafner’s Proudhonian ‘Ich lieg’ und besitz’ loses far too much, indeed almost everything, as ‘What’s mine is mine’. Possession, one might say, is if not nine tenths, then at least half, of the rentier meaning. But such niggles, and ongoing concern-cum-irritation over increasingly screensaverish projections, remained just that, niggles, in the face of Opera North’s magnificent achievement. More Wagner soon, please!


Stephen McNeff, Banished, Trinity Laban, 30 June 2016

Blackheath Halls

Sarah – Rebekah Smith
Pitty – Lucy Bray
Winnie – Kate Huntley
Nance – Susanna Buckle
Charlotte – Rebecca Leggett
Madge – Emily Gray
Captain – Laurence Panter
Surgeon – Caspar Lloyd James
Sarge – Tom McKenna
Tommy – Lars Fischer

Elaine Kidd (director)
Louise Whitemore (designs)
Ben Ormerod (lighting)

Vocal Ensemble
Orchestra of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
Jessica Cottis (conductor)

Images: Lidia Crisafulli
Much of the best opera in London takes place at our conservatoires. Their end-of-term shows often put starrier venues to shame, whether in ‘standard’ or more unusual repertoire. Trinity Laban has here, quite rightly, offered students the opportunity to participate in an entirely new work. I was unable to attend the world premiere, but instead went to the second night, and found committed, convincing performances from all concerned – just as I always do.

Stephen McNeff’s Banished, an adaptation of Steve Gooch’s play, Female Transport, to a libretto by Olivia Fuchs, tells the story of women who, in the words of Trinity Laban’s Linda Hirst, ‘are all individuals with strong and earthy characters,’ during their transportation to Australia. ‘They live on the ship (together with the four men: Captain, Sarge, Surgeon and Tommy) for months, through the ups and downs of the sea. They don’t all die as in other operas for women, and they retain a basic sexuality and a sharp sense of humour.’ If some of those claims are somewhat exaggerated, the opportunity, in McNeff’s own words, to take part in an opera with ‘challenging roles available for young women (indeed for all young women)’ is a real one and heartily to be commended. It is certainly not the case that the male characters get a raw deal, but the story is ultimately that of the women we encounter, and rightly so.

The opera does its job, even if, especially without surtitles, it is not always possible to hear the vocal lines – and thus properly to disentangle the stories. Perhaps there are too many stories being told, but if so, that is a fault on the right side, and the variety of experience is clearly part of the point. What I missed in the work itself was a sense of distancing or of questioning; dramaturgically, it comes across as not so very different from a telescoped version of a somewhat old-fashioned television series, or a musical. But perhaps that is my problem. On the other hand, some of the characters are strongly drawn – certainly not something to be taken for granted. The romantic relationship between the ship’s newest recruit, Tommy, and Sarah is plausible in its development, without overshadowing the other stories, and without sentimentalising. Tensions between crew and captives, and within those groups, are skilfully explored. McNeff’s score offers a good sense of atmosphere, with stronger and weaker allusions to the period of transportation, whilst remaining itself. The organisation into fifteen short scenes works well, and different scenes often tend towards display of their own musical characters. Crucially, for a project such as this, vocal parts are both singable and challenging.

It is the performances, splendidly directed by Elaine Kidd (costumes, make-up, and lighting deserve particular mention here) and conducted by Jessica Cottis, which deserve our loudest cheer. Whether amongst the ‘soloists’ or the twelve-strong additional female vocal ensemble, there was nothing to which anyone might reasonably object, and much to praise. (I was delighted to see a couple of my former students from Royal Holloway, Charlotte Levesley and Charlotte Osborn, in the ensemble, and sad to have missed out on another, Hilary Cronin, who was to sing the role of Nance in a later performance. Performances that particularly struck me came from Rebekah Smith and Lars Fischer (as the aforementioned pair), Rebecca Leggett, and Lucy Bray, but there were no weak links, and a fine sense of company amongst all. Similarly, the orchestra seemed to me on excellent form, rhythmically alert, with a fine sense not only of balance but forward propulsion imparted by Cottis.


Saturday, 2 July 2016

Book Review: Bernd Weikl, Swastikas on Stage

Bernd Weikl, Swastikas on Stage: Trends in the Productions of Richard Wagner’s Operas in German Theaters Today, tr. Susan Salms-Moss (Berlin: Pro-Business, 2015). 221 pp. €15.00. ISBN: 978-3-86460-305-1.

A scene from Burkhard C. Kosminski’s Düsseldorf production of Tannhäuser. Photo: Hans Jörg Michel/ Deutsche Oper am Rhein

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has recently made cultural as well as political headlines in Germany. In late 2015, it obtained a preliminary injunction against Berlin’s Schaubühne using images of its members in Falk Richter’s FEAR. The party’s 2016 manifesto for Saxony-Anhalt, where it came second in regional elections, spoke of obliging museums, theatres and orchestras to offer a ‘positive’ view of their ‘homeland’. Cultural organisations should not only stage more classical German drama but do so in productions that ‘inspire identification with our country’.[1] Cheered on by Facebook’s ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ (AMOP) page, which chillingly declares that it is not a forum for discussion but for mobilisation and conceals its mysterious administrators under the cloak of anonymity, this Kulturkampf receives implicit support in this equally chilling book by Bernd Weikl. Weikl certainly seeks no anonymity. Whether his politics in more general terms resemble those of AfD and AMOP, I have no idea; I have no reason to think so. However, his wish to prohibit Wagner stagings that do not conform to his conception of their ‘pure form’ (a slightly odd, yet not entirely unreasonable, translation of his original, ‘bloße Form’), urging criminal action against those engaging in presumably ‘impure’ productions, marks a sad coda indeed to a highly distinguished musical career.[2] For alas, if one of Weikl’s most celebrated Wagner roles were as Hans Sachs in Wolfgang Wagner’s almost incredibly banal Bayreuth Meistersinger, he seems to have taken Wolfgang the director as his model, rather than Wolfgang the daring recruiter of external directors from Patrice Chéreau to Stefan Herheim.

Weikl’s book is presented – not uninterestingly, yet with hopeless lopsidedness – as a trial of the facts. First, we have the evidence against Wagner, largely drawn from a few journalists, few of them truly informed on the range and depth of scholarship on Wagner and anti-Semitism. Weikl’s uncorroborated claim is that the German productions of which he disapproves are a response to and endorsement of claims of anti-Semitism in Wagner’s work. ‘Objectively speaking’, he writes, ‘opera directors have been trying for years to effect a necessary performance ban for Richard Wagner’s antisemitic music dramas, for their directorial concepts and sets repeatedly point out the composer’s hatred of the Jews and his link to the extermination mania of the Third Reich.’ Such, apparently was the ‘objective’ intention of David Alden’s Munich Tannhäuser and Wolfgang Mehring’s Nuremberg Meistersinger (pp. 82–3). Weikl gathers all such stagings – essentially, anything more probing than his beloved Otto Schenk – under the unhelpful umbrella-name of Regietheater, to which Anglo-Saxon theatres are apparently immune. The reasoning for such lies in a quick reference to the German Sonderweg, without naming it (p. 93) as such, and an approving reference to the USA, praised for ‘private donors who enable productions at the Metropolitan Opera that do not insert political scandals in Hänsel und Gretel, and thus remain true to the works themselves’ (p. 97). Ah, the works ‘themselves’. A whole generation or two of musicological, literary, other questioning goes unmentioned, unconsidered; we return to the comfortable realm of Werktreue, without so much as a mention of its ideological provenance, assumptions and consequences. No matter: Weikl-Spengler knows that our hallowed concept, allegedly ‘the recreation of a work that exists and is cohesive, and thus has already been created’ (p. 79), has been jettisoned during a period of ‘definite decadence in German theaters, […] already visible in the practice of the arts during the decline of the Roman Empire’ (p. 80).

Susanne Kopp-Sievers, of Saxony-Anhalt’s Museumsverband, responded to the AfD manifesto in no uncertain terms; theirs was anti-pluralistic, frankly Nazi rhetoric. As Kopp-Seivers asked, echoing, consciously or otherwise, one Richard Wagner: ‘Aber was ist deutsch?’ Various participants at the conference at which she spoke interpreted the manifesto in terms of a wholesale rightist assault on the German cultural sector and public subsidy.[3] Like its UKIP counterpart, the populist AfD seems not to prize consistency; whereas other regional branches wish to eliminate public funding altogether, the Saxon-Anhalt manifesto spoke of increasing cultural subsidy, albeit only to approved, ‘positive’ causes. Goebbels, as we do not read in Weikl’s book, wanted entertainment, Unterhaltung, rather than Wagnerian challenge. (Parsifal, we may recall, was not performed at Bayreuth during the Second World War.) He likewise wanted newspaper arts criticism to be factual, not critical; discussion or even contemplation of ideas was not desirable. Indeed, he wanted, onstage and off, precisely what is longed for by many 21st-century ‘conservatives’, aghast at our own Cultural Bolshevism.

Weikl has, credit where credit is due, put his money where his mouth is. As he outlines in Part V, he has taken ‘real legal steps against those responsible for the especially onerous production of Tannhäuser in Düsseldorf’ (p. 99). He reproduces documentation, with reference to the German criminal code, which he sent to the public prosecutor in his ‘case’ that ‘on May 4 2013, the accused persons, [Christoph] Meyer as General Director’ of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein and Burkhard C. ‘Kosminski as Stage Director, working together in conscious and wilful collusion, produced Richard Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser, in which various serious offences were committed concurrently through its performance’ (p. 100). A correspondence with the poor public prosecutor ensues. ‘Unfortunately, these efforts’, writes Weikl, non-ironic lovechild to Stalin and Mary Whitehouse, ‘did not have any positive results. Similar steps by the wider public would, of course, be more than welcome’ (p. 99).

In this particular case, even Against Modern Opera Productions seems only to have wanted the production discontinued, which, after a carefully orchestrated campaign of online bullying, it was. Nevertheless, resort to legal methods, civil and criminal, is persistently urged on its page too. Weikl and AMOP share the trait of not even having seen a production, yet considering it entartet on the basis of a few pictures of the designs and manufactured outrage from a noisy section of the (alleged) first-night audience. Covent Garden-goers may recall recent stagings of Rusalka and Guillaume Tell. But this is, of course, a more serious matter. Because of Auschwitz, ‘the state educational mandate must be adhered to and freedom of expression and freedom of the press must have certain limitations’ (p. 11). Limitations, it seems, that go so far as to prohibit performances of Tannhäuser one has not seen, but which someone with whom one has made an online connection did not like. Some might think we already stand not so very far from burning – and certainly not in the modern sense – DVDs on the Bebelplatz/Opernplatz. Or, as Goebbels, in his 1933 Feuerrede, one of his earliest acts as Propaganda Minister, put it: 'German students: we have directed our actions against the un-German spirit; consign everything un-German to the fire. Against class struggle and materialism, for Volksgemeinschaft and idealistic living, I consign to the fire the writings of Karl Marx and Kautsky. Against decadence and moral decay […] I consign to the fire writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Glaeser, and Erich Kästner.'

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden, on the western corner of that square, reopened in 1955 with a performance of Die Meistersinger (as it had indeed also reopened in 1942, under Furtwängler). A fabled Scots fundamentalist response to Our Lord having changed water into wine at Cana is: ‘Aye, but he shouldn’a hae.’ Our celebrated Sachs seems to think, by contrast, that the East Berlin house should have skipped straight to his final peroration, shorn entirely of context and somehow thus registering as an act of anti-Nazism. Perhaps he should read Richard J. Evans’s tale of the David Irving trial and consider the dangers of not doing one’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung properly.[4] Doubtless Weikl sincerely believes the following, whatever it may mean, or may have meant prior to translation: ‘Cultural edification, including a differentiation of their [the audience’s] emotions, would be the basis for an altruistic image of humanity, and thus best suited as a contraceptive against new “beginnings”’ (p. 87). It seems, in context, to mean that ‘edification’ via ultra-reactionary, Met-like stagings, enabling ultra-reactionary (or worse) audiences to feel better about themselves are more likely to prevent a return of Nazism than ‘seeing swastikas and the gassing of Jews on the stage, which will more likely insult and anger them’ (p. 86). Perhaps, though, people need to be insulted and angered; perhaps it is one of the tasks of art to do so; and perhaps the censorship Weikl demands is more prophylactic than ‘contraceptive’. Following a lengthy, almost unreadably tedious series of allegedly satirical concepts for contemporary productions, we come to Weikl’s second, laudable ambition: performance of Wagner’s dramas in the State of Israel. Alas, the idea that we proceed to that via fulfilment of his principal, prohibitive ambition straightforwardly beggars belief.

Clichés concerning how much has been written on Wagner may or may not be true; one can safely say, however, that no composer has had such a high quantity of arrant nonsense – and sometimes worse than mere nonsense – published concerning him. Weikl is not one in any sense to stand in the way of tradition. I was no fan of Katharina Wagner’s Meistersinger when I saw it at Bayreuth. While finding many of the underlying ideas interesting, their execution on stage seemed to me so inept as to undo any good that might have been done – save, perhaps for the old, arguably still-necessary, chestnut of épater les bourgeois. At least Katharina, though, in succeeding her father’s – and Weikl’s – production, acknowledged onstage that Wagner had been and could be again what Thomas Mann ironically yet truthfully called a Kulturbolshewist; in that, her staging offered hope for Wagner and for Bayreuth. The man who once sang Sachs in houses across the world, telling us that the art of old German masters would flourish, no matter what the political situation, now places himself firmly in the activistic camp of Mann’s Munich assailants.[5] Or, as they now style themselves online, ‘Gegen Regietheater in der Oper’.[6]

(This review was first published in The Wagner Journal, 10/2 (2016), 78-82. Please click here for subscription details.)

[1]     ‘“Die Stimme der Bürger!” – unser Programm! Wahlprogramm zur Landtagswahl am 13. März 2016. “Wir für unsere Heimat”’. Manifesto of the Alternativ für Deutschland, Saxony-Anhalt , accessed 30 Mar. 2016, 20.
[2]     I have not had opportunity to consult the German original (Bernd Weikl, Warum Richard Wagner in Deutschland verboten muss (Leipzig, 2014)), but Barbara Eichner, who has, tells me that ‘bloße Form’ is used for the equivalent phrase to the English blurb explanation, while the more troubling ‘rein’ [pure] is used frequently throughout the book.
[3]     Christoph Richter, ‘Der Traum von der deutschen Leitkultur‘, Deutschlandfunk, 12 Mar. 2016, <>, accessed 30 Mar. 2016.
[4]     Richard J. Evans, Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History, and the David Irving Trial (London, 2002).
[5]     Thomas Mann, ‘Sufferings and Greatness of Richard Wagner’, in Essays of Three Decades, tr. Helen Lowe-Porter (New York, 1947), pp. 307–52. Mann’s celebrated address was delivered at the University of Munich on 10 February 1933, and was followed by the ‘Protest’ in the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten of 16/17 April, subsequent to the ‘national restoration of Germany [… having] taken on definite form’. It is reprinted and translated in Sven Friedrich, ‘Ambivalenz der Leidenschaft – Thomas Mann und Richard Wagner. Zum 125. Geburtstag Thomas Manns’, in Programmhefte der Bayreuther Festspiele (Bayreuth, 2000), pp. 142, 150.
[6]     That is the German-language version of AMOP, where the still harder-core material, semi-free from prying Anglophone eyes, appears. What seems to be a slight misquotation from Marcel Prawy, in which the Kiss me, Kate enthusiast and sometime Viennese dramaturge likens Regietheater to AIDS – ‘Das Regietheater ist für die Oper das, was Aids für den menschlichen Körper ist’ – has been posted approvingly on more than one occasion (e.g., 13 July 2015, , accessed 23 Mar. 2016). Protests met with all manner of abuse, homophobic, misogynistic, racial and more, often from members with a curious pattern of coincidentally having ‘liked’ Pegida pages.