Thursday, 15 March 2018

Jake Arditti/Arditti Quartet - Sciarrino, Hurel, and Andre, 12 March 2018

Wigmore Hall

Salvatore Sciarrino: Sei quartetti brevi (1967-92)
Philippe Hurel: Entre les lignes (2017, UK premiere)
Mark Andre: iv 13 (Twelve miniatures) (2014-17, UK premiere)
Sciarrino: Cosa resta (2016, UK premiere)

Jake Arditti (countertenor)
Irvine Arditti Ashot Sarkissian (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)


First, some early music – certainly by the Arditti Quartet’s standards: Sciarrino’s Sei quartetti brevi, the first of which was written in 1967, dedicated to Franco Evengelisti, added to with five further pieces in 1991 and 1992. Perhaps such a conception inevitably brings to mind Webern, at least for those of us with a centre of gravity in still earlier music, but it was only really in the second piece (that which was written first, in 1967) that he came strongly to mind in musical terms, at least in performances such as these, typically free of nostalgia. That intimate post-Webern riot – if you cannot imagine such a thing, just listen – was preceded by an opening movement of bowed whispers, transforming over its course, febrile yet always with a sense of a ground from which to take flight, into a language, perhaps even a world, of its own. A focused yet variegated – dialectics aplenty here! – third movement, suggestive at times almost of electronic sounds had in that respect much in common with the fifth piece, its short-wave radio intimations charmingly reminiscent of Stockhausen, even if only coincidentally. The ghostly swarming between of the fourth piece in between seemed in retrospect, again if only coincidentally, to prepare the way for a final movement in which I sensed something sung, somehow ‘behind’ the harmonics, and yet which was imaginatively recreated by them. Perhaps we had reached the air of ‘another other planet’.

At the close of the recital, we turned or returned to some early music refracted – or so, on occasion, it seemed, the air of the Italian Renaissance both palpable and yet not. In Sciarrino’s Cosa resta, Jake Arditti’s countertenor, finely balanced between the unearthly and the earthly, led us through the inventory of Andrea di Sarto, as accounted for after his widow’s death in 1570: first straightforwardly so, reminding me – doubtless only because I had just heard it from English Touring Opera – a little of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, then more playfully, mysteriously, broken and prolonged, as if cleansed and invigorated by the air of the post-war avant garde. Recitative, almost, followed by arioso, almost, eventually blooming into something quite different: there was a true impression of back and forth, not only between eras but within the text, verbal and musical. Instruments would sigh, imitating and developing ideas from the voice, from the words. At other times, especially towards the close, something intriguingly mechanistic emerged; perhaps significantly, that came perhaps as resistance to something more ‘sung’, less ‘spoken’. Performances from all concerned, not least Jake Arditti, were as engaging as the work itself. I look forward to hearing the items for soprano and mixed octet that surround this piece to form Sciarrino’s Immagina il deserto. There was certainly much scope for imagination, of the desert and beyond, here.

In between, we heard works by Philippe Hurel and Mark Andre. Hurel’s Entre les lignes, like the first Sciarriano and the Andre, a UK premiere, was forestalled for a minute or so by an electronic contribution from an unwitting audience member. No harm was done and a little amusement afforded when Irvine Arditti asked: ‘Is that a Sciarrino telephone? If so, I want one.’ Contrast with the Sei quartetti brevi proved considerable, not least in terms of initial volume and directness of attack, which would surely have more than drowned out any audience contribution. The other thing that immediately struck me was that Hurel seemed to be working very much more within the generally accepted tradition of string quartet playing: the sound, if not the language, of Schoenberg and Bartók, for instance. (I was then gratified later to see his words quoted in the programme: ‘I made no attempt to explore string techniques; those I have used belong to the familiar vocabulary.’) Had I not known better, I might have believed the intensity of polyphony arose from more than four instruments. The relationship between harmony and counterpoint again seemed to spring from tradition, without being reduced to it. And yet, ultimately, the programming also spoke of possible connections to, or at least similarities with, the preceding Sciarrino work. Dialectical contrast between often clearly demarcated sections, and in internal, cumulative narrative played against one another. A highly dramatic work and performance seemed to grow out of the physical and intellectual nature and potentialities of the instruments.

Andre’s ‘iv 13 (Twelve miniatures)’ belongs to a ‘long series of solo instrumental and chamber pieces, iv,’ on which the composer has been working since 2007. These pieces were composed between 2014 and 2017, and given their first performance by the Arditti Quartet last year. The soundworld, at least at times, seemed to me closer to Sciarrino than to Hurel. Sometimes towards, if not quite at, the edge of audibility, they seemed occasionally to hint (not necessarily a case of influence) at Nono too, perhaps also, as Paul Griffiths suggested in his note, at Lachenmann. Extended techniques were certainly the order of the day here: bowing on wooden dampers, retuning and ‘mistunings’ (Griffiths), col legno playing, and so forth conspiring to create, in the composer’s words, ‘a music of disappearance’. Its ‘presented compositional spaces breathe, disappear, and leave behind shadows, traces, which is how this intimate piece works musically and eschatologically.’ Whispered confidences certainly spoke of a kinship, if only in this particular programming context, with Sei quartetti brevi. It seemed both to bring various tendencies in the programme together and yet also to question them – just as one might have expected from the ever-excellent Arditti Quartet.  

Sunday, 11 March 2018

From the House of the Dead, Royal Opera, 10 March 2018

Royal Opera House

Luka Kuzmič – Štefan Margita
Nikita, Big Prisoner – Nicky Spence
Čekunov, Small Prisoner, Cook – Grant Doyle
Prison Governor – Alexander Vassiliev
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Willard White
Guard – Andrew O’Connor
Antonič (Elderly Prisoner) – Graham Clark
Skuratov – Ladislav Elgr
Aljeja – Pascal Charbonneau
Šiškov (Pope) – Johan Reuter
Drunk Prisoner – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Šapkin – Peter Hoare
Prisoner (Don Juan, Brahmin) – Aleš Jenis
Prisoner (Kedrill) – John Graham-Hall
Young Prisoner – Florian Hoffmann
Prostitute – Allison Cook
Voice – Konu Kim
Čerevin – Alexander Kravets

Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Małgorzata Sczczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Denis Guéguin (video)
Claude Bardouil (movement)
Christian Longchamp (dramaturgy)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)


Astonishingly, this new production of From the House of the Dead is not only the Royal Opera’s first, but also Krzysztof Warlikowski’s house debut. Better late than never, I suppose, and past omissions are hardly the fault of the current regime. Another important first is presented in a first full outing for this critical edition of the work, including Janáček’s proper libretto, including dialect, Russian, and even, apparently, a little Ukrainian, as part of his own translation from Dostoyevsky. Such things matter, of course, although how many of us in a (presumably) largely Anglophone audience can, hand on heart, claim to notice them all? Some will, and I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Geoffrey Chew, who certainly will do, for having alerted me in the first place to the use of the new edition.

Ultimately, though, opera lives in performance. The conductor, Mark Wigglesworth observes in a programme note, there is ‘a curious tension in today’s operatic culture between the musical priority of the performers, which typically tries to be one of complete fidelity to the composer’s instructions, and a dramatic expectation that pieces are simply springboards for a director’s limitless imagination.’ Such a tension may prove productive, as here, yet it also requires deconstruction of its own, as indeed Wigglesworth proceeds to acknowledge. It is often in those cracks that one perceives chinks of light, or to quote Janáček himself, ‘the spark of God … “A mother gave birth even to him!”,’ perhaps ultimately thus even of redemption. In this outstanding performance and production, one of the finest things I have seen at Covent Garden for a while, the interaction between freedom and determinism, such as one might readily associate more with, say, Schoenberg, in Moses und Aron, comes to influence and be influenced by work, dramatic ‘content’, performance, and the oracular mystery of ‘opera’ that arises from the dialectical relationship between them.

It has been worth the wait for Warlikowski. Patrice Chéreau, in his justly lauded production, originally conducted by Pierre Boulez, but which I saw in Berlin under Simon Rattle, presented the work relatively straightforwardly, perhaps even in the very best sense ‘traditionally’. Warlikowski, however, offers a post-Foucauldian queering of the work, engaging in more explicitly conceptual fashion with power, ‘justice’, and ‘punishment’ in an age of activist and intellectual intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, has always insisted that intersectionality was fundamentally concerned with power rather than mere identity; the line is not always absolute, of course, and identity will often prove a response to power relations, but we do well to remember that, especially when ‘centrist dad’ types – who, predictably seem to have hated the staging – as much as unrepentant reactionaries will rail against ‘identity politics’ and indeed against the very idea of intersectionality as well as the word. ‘Citizens of nowhere’, one might say, against ‘very fine people’; or is that our white privilege attempting to trump, as it were, deeper, more serious, still more violent problems and battles within society with our own? It is not either-or; that is part of the point, or should be. The coercive apparatus that sets us against one another, within and without formal incarceration returns us to Foucault, whom we see on film at the beginning, not only to have his ideas confirmed, but also to challenge them. As with Janáček and Dostoyevsky, we need them and yet have also moved on. In the agony of that alienation lies our drama too.

And so, alongside Foucault, we also see - and perhaps more to the point, watch - actors and singers – what, if anything is the difference? – at sport and not. Prisoners are no more the same than non-prisoners. Are we merely looking, or are we engaging in surveillance? At least indirectly we all are, and if our gaze is directed to the stage, we also know, even if we deny, that we are watching each other too. Anyone driven to distraction by the call ‘see it, say it, sorted’ on railway carriages over the past few months, will know how little it might take to have been incited by the ‘duty’ to bring to ‘justice’ so as to be facing such ‘justice’ itself, which as Foucault pointed out, was and always had been spectacularly unsuccessful in its alleged project of ‘rehabilitation’. In the contemporary American prison in which the action unfolds, the intense physicality and to us, most likely a largely white, bourgeois audience, the ‘danger’ of such, especially when as here non-white and/or non-binary faces crop up,  replicate or, perhaps better, recreate hierarchies outside of the system.

That places the arrival of Gorjančikov in an interesting light. To a certain extent he is ‘one of us’. We can probably imagine ourselves more as political prisoners than as some of the ‘others’, more as items on, say, Amber Rudd’s lists of foreigners than as murderers or drug dealers. We are offered a way in, but also a way to differentiate ourselves, as we do both inside and outside, to reaffirm our respectability, perhaps even to sympathise with or at least to acknowledge as ‘necessary’ the brutality we see on show from the prison officers – and hear in the chains of Janáček’s score. Are we ultimately ‘do-gooders’, or just armchair reformers, if indeed we care at all? Might we even extend that critique to the performance and to the work itself and to that redemptive claim, the ‘spark of God’, in which we so desperately wish to believe?

Other hierarchies recreate themselves, although not necessarily identically. In a world of often (although let us not assume too much a priori) toxic masculinity – Šiškov, after all, killed his wife, upon realising that she still loved Filka/Luka – where is the space for women? Their near-absence on stage is one of the many things that makes this work so singular in Janáček’s œuvre; the harshness of the score is not only a harshness of the tundra. Here Warlikowski doubles down, doubtless controversially, not only allotting the trouser role of Aljeja to a tenor, but revealing, or rather concealing, the Prostitute – still sung by a Woman – as a drag queen, heightening elements of the ‘show’ which, after all, lie at the heart of the play within a play here. Such, after all, may be one of the ways of dealing with prison life. Or is it, instead, a reassertion of male privilege, a banishment of women? It does not take long before our thoughts touch upon the repression of trans women, men too, not least again on account of their absence too. Is this all intentional? I have no idea, although I suspect that some at least of it is. The production, however, offers the space for such reflection; indeed, I should argue that it demands it.

All that would be diminished, or unachievable, were it not for a fine, committed ensemble cast – there is no room, thank God, for ‘stars’ here – working with so impressive a chorus, orchestra, and conductor. I find it difficult to believe that the opera has ever been better conducted than by Wigglesworth, who inspired the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House to the very top of its form. The sound world was just right, less golden, more steely than the Staatskapelle Berlin under Rattle. Yet it seemed to grow out of an emphasis upon specifics, upon details, upon those gnawing rhythmic and melodic cells. This was not an abstract ‘approach’ foisted upon the work, quite the contrary. Certainly one heard, or fancied one heard, the intimacy of connection between language(s) and music. That held even when the language we heard was not at its sharpest (not necessarily, I think, a matter of nationality). I am really not in any position to comment further and shall leave that to Czech speakers; I think, unsurprisingly, that I detected some variation, but would always have had to resort to the titles in any case. The richness of what even post-humanists tend to fall back on calling ‘humanity’ is on show here, yet so is its commonality, not least in resistance to oppression. Singling out particular artists seems more than usually beside the point, but Štefan Margita, Nicky Spence, Ladislav Elgr, Pascal Charbonneau, and delightfully, Graham Clark all made very strong impressions, as did Allison Cook as the Prostitute.

Here, though, more than ever, one remembered, saw and heard dramatised that oft-cited section of a 1927 report from the Czech newspaper, Lidové noviny. Dostoevsky’s novel had appealed to Janáček, and so it does to us, because ‘“in each of these criminals there is a spark of God”. The new opera has no main hero. Thus its novelty lies in its collectivism.’ Is that not a collectivism we need as much as ever, perhaps still more so?

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Dialogues des Carmélites, Guildhall, 5 March 2018

Silk Street Theatre

Chevalier de la Force, First Commissary – Eduard Mas Bacardit
Marquis de la Force – Jake Muffett
Blanche de la Force – Lucy Anderson
Thierry, Second Commissary, M. Javelinot, Gaoler – Bertie Watson
Prioress, Mother Jeanne – Georgia Mae Bishop
Sister Constance – Claire Lees
Mother Marie – Emily Kyte
Second Prioress – Michelle Alexander
Carmelites – Eva Gheorghiu, Myramae Meneses, Victoria Li, Alice Girle, Siân Dicker, Ana Marafona, Isabelle Peters, Catherine White, Meriel Cunningham, Natalie Davies, Anne Reilly
Sister Mathilde – Lucy McAuley
Chaplain – Daniel Mullaney

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director)
takis (designs)
Robbie Butler (lighting)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)

The Guildhall’s termly opera offerings have long tended to be more adventurous than those of the Royal Academy or Royal College when it comes to repertoire. In June, we shall have the mouthwatering prospect of a double-bill of Hindemith’s last opera, The Long Christmas Dinner, and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement. Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is probably as mainstream as I have heard here, with the exception of a fine Marriage of Figaro in 2013. I am not sure that the performance I heard marked the school’s greatest achievement, but there was nevertheless much to admire – and yes, the final scene did what it must when the nuns came before the guillotine, bringing tears to my eyes and a sense of redemption through grace.

The first act in particular seemed somewhat unsettled, the gentle – often deceptively so – flow of Poulenc’s orchestral writing often seeming to elude conductor Dominic Wheeler, and the cast seeming to have been encouraged to perform in a fashion more suited to Italian verismo. French opera more often than not presents a difficulty: not just in the language but in the style too. Perhaps the brashness of the orchestral sound and some decidedly odd balances were as much a matter of the difficult Silk Street acoustic as of anything else. Stravinsky came to mind, quite rightly, but it did not always seem quite the right Stravinsky, and he certainly would have required greater precision too. Fortunately, matters improved considerably in the second and still more the third acts: much better than the other way around! And it was good to have opportunity to see and to hear the opera in its proper three acts, rather than, as often the case, having a break part way through the second.

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production worked well enough, although the balance or perhaps even opposition between naturalism and something more minimalistic, even symbolic, sometimes seemed arbitrary rather than productive. I have nothing against the opera being set when it ‘should’ be, but the danger then can be that it then comes to seem to be ‘about’ the French Revolution, which it really is not. There were some beautiful costumes from takis to look at. More to the point, his relatively sparse set designs achieved a good deal by suggestion – as well as possessing an aesthetic appeal of their own. A Carmelite convent is surely not in any case intended to be lavish. The true theme of the opera, Divine Grace, shone through just enough, if perhaps less consistently than it might have done.

The young cast had much to recommend it. Perhaps rather oddly, given their distinctly lesser roles, the men foten stood out as much as the women, Daniel Mullaney’s Chaplain and Eduard Mas Bacardi’s Chevalier and First Commissary both offering finely sung, dramatically considered performances. Perhaps the starring role on this occasion was that of Emily Kyte’s Mother Marie. We were reminded more than once, as much through acting as through vocal means, that not only does the opera has its roots in her telling of the story, but of her especially problematical role in the narrative. Lucy Anderson’s Blanche proved a little vocally wayward to start with, but once settled, proved well able to engage our sympathies. A nicely contrasted, yet strangely complementary, pair of prioresses, Old and New, came our way from Georgia Mae Bishop and Michelle Alexander. Choral scenes were well directed, scenically and musically, offering the necessary sense of a threatening and, yes, revolutionary backdrop.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Il tabarro, Gianni Schicchi, and Le nozze di Figaro, English Touring Opera, 2 and 3 March 2018

Hackney Empire Theatre

Stuart Haycock, Don Curzio; Devon Harrison, Antonio; Ross Ramgobin, Figaro; Dawid Kimberg, Count
Image: Jane Hobson

Michele – Craig Smith

Giorgetta – Sarah-Jane Lewis
Luigi – Charne Rochford
Talpa – Timothy Dawkins
Tinca – Andrew Glover
Frugola – Clarissa Meek
Young lovers – Galina Averina, Luciano Botelho
Stevedores – Luciano Botelho, Ed Ballard, Ian Beadle, Maciek O’Shea, Jamie Rock, Bradley Travis
Song Vendor, Stevedore – Dominic Walsh
Gianni Schicchi – Andrew Slater
Lauretta – Galina Averina
Zita – Clarissa Meek
Rinuccio – Luciano Botelho
Gherardo – Andrew Glover
Nella – Joanna Skillett
Betto – Bradley Travis
Simone – Timothy Dawkins
Marco – EdBallard
La Ciesca – Emma Watkinson
Maestro Spinelloccio – Maciek O’Shea
Ser Amantio – Dominic Walsh
Witnesses – Ian Beadle, Jamie Rock
Countess Almaviva – Nadine Benjamin
Count Almaviva – Dawid Kimberg
Figaro – Ross Ramgobin
Susanna – Rachel Redmond
Cherubino – Katherine Aitken
Marcellina – Gaynor Keeble
Bartolo – Omar Ebrahim
Don Basilio – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Don Curzio – Stuart Haycock
Antonio – Devon Harrison
Barbarina – Abigail Kelly
James Conway, Blanche McIntyre, Liam Steel (directors)
Neil Irish (designs)
Rory Beaton, Guy Hoare (lighting)
Rosie Purdie, Rory Fazan (assistant directors)

Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Michael Rosewell and Christopher Stark (conductors)
It is always a joy, or at least has always been to date, to return both to English Touring Opera and to the Hackney Empire. Hellish weather, or rather travel, conditions made the business of returning somewhat less of a joy on this occasion, as did my no longer living in the East End. Once there, however, I was treated once again to two delightful evenings, more than recompense for the travails of the first night in particular.

Sarah-Jane Lewis, Giorgetta; Charne Rochford, Luigi
Image: Richard Hubert Smith

Two of Puccini’s Trittico were on offer first. Doubtless some would have been moaning about the loss of Suor Angelica, but then, some will moan about anything: let them. The performance of Il tabarro confirmed my sense that this is one of Puccini’s finest achievements: a perfect tragedy in miniature, penetrating far deeper than many realise. The realism of James Conway’s production struck just the right – or at least a right – aesthetic for the work. We need not set it on the Moon just for the sake of doing so. Hints of an external, Zola-like world are there, but the emphasis lies upon character and action, quite rightly so. And there is no character more important, of course, than the Seine: somehow both the colours of score, orchestral performance, and stage alike seemed specifically to speak of that river, not just a generic one. (Or perhaps it was that anywhere, let alone Paris, would have seemed better than London in one of its collective fits of transport hysteria.)
At any rate, Michael Rosewell’s direction of the excellent orchestra – a little short on strings, perhaps, by the standards of a ‘large’ house, yet hardly the worse for it – proved uncommonly attentive to the barcarolle that is there even when it is not, to the Seine, not unlike the castle in Bartók’s Bluebeard, as the most important character of all. All the while, its flow formed and bound the horizons, the possibilities, the ambitions of those we saw on stage, leaving us with the inevitable conclusion that their lives were always fated to be lived and to end in misery. Not that the lighter moments went unnoticed: who can fail to smile at the quotation from La bohème? In any case, darkness without even the possibility of light will often struggle to be darkness at all. Charne Rochford and Sarah-Jane Lewis made for an ardent pair of lovers, hopeful and thus all the more hopeless. Craig Smith sealed their fate with due sadism. A fine ‘supporting’ cast greatly enhanced the chiaroscuro, even as the dramatic scales were ever more tilted towards the ‘scuro’.
Image: Richard Hubert Smith

Rosewell and the orchestra seemed equally at home in the scherzo that is Gianni Schicchi. How often does one hear, say, Stravinsky there, thus marvelling at Puccini’s receptivity to the art of his younger colleagues, only to wonder whether one has it the wrong way around? The sharpness of Liam Steel’s staging, holding in equipoise, like the opera itself, the style and fashions of the early twentieth century and the age-old traditions of the commedia dell’arte. ‘Period’ (to Puccini) clothes with clown faces that were both of the time and of another seemed to me an excellent prism through which to conduct, in more than one sense, the drama. No, the ‘joke’ itself is not nearly so hilarious as some seem to think, but who cares? It is the beginning, not the endpoint, of Puccini’s play, as the cast seemed very well to understand. Andrew Slater’s comic timing in the title role did not preclude a sense of something deeper, yet not too deep, beneath the glittering surface. Galina Averina proved quite a discovery as Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta, she and Luciano Botelho finely matched as a fresh-toned pair of lovers. Again, there was not, as the cliché has it, a weak link in the cast. And more, perhaps than in any performance I have previously seen, Steel, his assistant director, Rosie Purdie, and the cast as a whole showed an affectionate awareness of just what, and what is not, placed in inverted commas here. Thank goodness ‘O mio babbino caro’ fell into the former category: a fleeting moment the more touching for its unquestionable irony. Puccini is so much better than ‘great’ opera houses will generally allow…
So too, of course, is Mozart, infinitely so: doomed always to fail in performance, since he demands perfection. If conducting Puccini is a difficult task, its true difficulty only revealed on those few occasions when the music has properly taken flight, then conducting Mozart verges upon the impossible. More depressingly still, the fashion now has become for composers to inflict themselves upon the score, to insert sub-Harnoncourt roadbumps like moles upon the Mona Lisa, and to receive admiring plaudits for the ‘revelations’ such idiocies have afforded to a cast of audience fashion victims. (René who? It is apparently now all about the preposterous Teodor Currentzis.) On the morning of the Puccini performance, I had led an undergraduate class on The Magic Flute, and had found it especially moving to welcome back Sir Colin Davis on DVD to lead the excerpts we watched and to which we listened. It was thus an especial joy, not only to take some of my students to so estimable a Figaro, but to hear it conducted with a warmth and, yes, a wisdom of which Sir Colin himself would surely have approved. Not once did Christopher Stark draw attention to himself; he let the music, however apparently, speak and breathe for itself. The orchestra, again, on excellent form, seemed to love playing for him – just as it should have done. Tempi were broadly ‘traditional’, yet never staid; there were one or two surprises, never unreasonably so, always justifiable within the greater framework of work and performance. Cuts in this work are always regrettable; here we must sacrifice the choruses too. We survived though, as did Mozart. Such losses are a price eminently worth paying for a production that will tour parts of this country far less fortunate, musically or otherwise, than our capital city, snowridden or not.
Nadine Benjamin, Countess
Image: Jane Hobson

One might object that Blanche McIntyre’s production is a little on the basic side, but again, one needs to remember that ETO plays to considerably smaller theatres than this. After an initial flourish to the metatheatrical – singers dressing on stage during the Overture – the story is told faithfully, lovingly, and without undue fuss. There is much to be said for that, from time to time. (Not that I should ever want to be without, say, Claus Guth.) Again, the emphasis falls upon the characters and indeed upon the performances – which brings me perhaps to ETO’s signal achievement here. A sparkling cast, with, I think, a majority of non-white faces offered a standing rebuke to the casting practices of pretty much every house in the world, large or small. There were no ‘allowances’ to be made; indeed, it is surely past time to realise that allowances are being made every day to those in a position of privilege. The diversity of the cast certainly did not go unnoticed amongst my students, for which many thanks indeed!
I have enjoyed watching Ross Ramgobin’s artistic development for a few years now. He shone at the Royal Academy, and here he shone for ETO as Figaro, in a performance imbued both with good humour and with something deeper, more complicated. His Susanna, Rachel Redmond did likewise, in as graceful and as intelligent an assumption of the role as anyone could have asked for. Nadine Benjamin’s Countess went deeper, of course, as her character must; one truly felt her pain, her dashed hopes, but also the ambivalent joys inscribed upon the other side of the Mozartian coin. McIntyre seemed oddly concerned to present the Count as a stock character, very much in the line of the eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte. I could not really understand why, in what was otherwise a non-interventionist staging. Dawid Kimberg’s performance sometimes seemed a little blunted by that relative neutering, but there was nevertheless much to admire in it. And Katherine Aitken’s Cherubino proved unambiguously a joy, a joy to be experienced in all its youthful, lusting fullness. Once again, there was a true sense of company, not just to the performances narrowly considered, but to the valiant, in many cases life-changing enterprise that is English Touring Opera. If ever a company deserved our support, it is this.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, English National Opera, 1 March 2018


ENO A Midsummer Night's Dream Trinity Boys Choir (c) Robert Workman

Puck – Miltos Yerolemou
Oberon – Christopher Ainslie
Tytania – Soraya Mafi
Hermia – Clare Presland
Lysander – David Webb
Demetrius – Matthew Durkan
Helena – Eleanor Dennis
Quince – Graeme Danby
Bottom – Joshua Bloom
Starveling – Simon Butteriss
Snout – Timothy Robinson
Flute – Robert Murray
Snug – Jonathan Lemalu
Theseus – Andri Björn Róbertsson
Hippolyta – Emma Carrington
Cobweb – Aman de Silva
Peaseblossom – Lucas Rebato
Mustardseed – Caspar Burman
Moth – Dionysium Sevastakis

Robert Carsen (director, lighting)
Emmanuelle Bastet (associate director)
Michael Levine (designs)
Peter van Praet (lighting)
Matthew Bourne, Daisy May Kemp (choreography)

Trinity Boys’ Choir (choirmaster: David Swinson)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Alexander Soddy (conductor)

ENO A Midsummer Night's Dream Soraya Mafi Trinity Boys Choir Joshua Bloom 3 (c) Robert Workman


Twenty-two years is a ripe old age for an opera production nowadays. Production styles date quickly; were the idiotic description ‘timeless’ not already shop-soiled before it tripped off the tongue, it soon would be in this world. More fundamentally, production concerns will quickly transform too. Such is the nature of our ever-changing world and thus of the theatre which, in varying degrees of the oblique, holds up a mirror to it. Robert Carsen’s 1995 ENO production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream looks fresher than I should ever have imagined. Visits to houses from France to China notwithstanding, it might have been new at the Coliseum this March. I wonder, never having seen it before, how much has been revised and restored. Much, I suspect: that, surely, is the business of keeping a production, of necessity far from ‘timeless’, in the repertory. And there is certainly a case, without that descending into mere conservatism, for ENO to ‘curate’ its repertory of productions a little more carefully than has sometimes been the case in the recent past.


A giant bed delimits much of the action’s limits. Such an image can hardly fail to suggest something sexual, although, by the same token, it would be disingenuous to claim too much that is overt, or even covert, in that respect. There is a sense of childlike, or at least childish (not the same, as Britten of all composers would surely have known) play to the proceedings too: such, after all, is how children, at least in their (alleged) innocence, will speak of a bed. Beyond that, the Coliseum space is used inventively, occasionally spilling out beyond the stage, yet never merely for the sake of it, and never to the extent of the wearily predictable. Lighting (Carsen himself and Peter van Praet) is sensitive, revealingly suggestive of different worlds, different times; likewise Michael Levine’s designs. There is an almost ravishing beauty to the proceedings of this Athenian forest, from which it would take a sterner soul than mine entirely to recoil.


I certainly saw no reason to do so, and found the first two acts fairly sped by. As for the third, perhaps the problem is mine. There are people who complain about alleged longueurs in Elektra (!) and Der Rosenkavalier, their complete absence (to me) notwithstanding, who find the play within a play riveting, even hilarious. I am afraid I find it all too straightforwardly a ‘tedious play’. Oh well: it does none of us any harm to try to understand what others see and hear in something – and, if we cannot do so, simply put up with it for a while. In any case, Alexander Soddy led a knowing, sensitive, often truly magical account of the score throughout. Its allusions to other scores, other composers were clear enough without underlining. What seems to me ultimately far more interesting in Britten – and that is doubtless as much a matter of my own preoccupations as anything else – is the way he constructs his music. That generative, impulse was equally to the fore here. Indeed, although I am far from a paid-up admirer of this opera, I found myself, until the third act at least, fascinated at the interplay between local colour and atmosphere, broadly construed, on the one hand, and that rather sinister build-up of mechanistic forces on the other. None of that, of course, could have been achieved without the excellent understanding of the ENO Orchestra.

ENO A Midsummer Night's Dream Andri Björn Róbertsson Emma Carrington Matthew Durkan Eleanor Dennis David Webb Clare Presland (c) Robert Workman

The cast proved excellent too, with no weak links: a testimony to fine casting as well as to fine performance. The quartet of lovers – Clare Presland, David Webb, Matthew Durkan, and Eleanor Dennis – was handsome in every sense, as vocally refined as impressive of stage manner. One really felt – which is surely part of the point – that one would have been happy with any conceivable outcome to the madness of the forest, and would not necessarily have minded being included oneself. Christopher Ainslie and Soraya Mafi made for an equally finely sung, nicely contrasted king and queen of the fairies, attended to by a properly rascally Puck (Miltos Yerolemou) and outstanding Trinity Boys’ Choir. The rustics and temporal monarchs all had much to offer too. Were I to name them here, I should simply be repeating the cast list above. This was the sort of company performance for which ENO used to be renowned; I hope that it will now continue to be so.


ENO A Midsummer Night's Dream Christopher Ainslie
Miltos Yerolemou 3 (c) Robert Workman

And yet, and yet… you may have felt a ‘but’ coming. If so, your instincts did not err. For Carsen’s production has returned at the expense of Christopher Alden’s brilliant 2011 staging, quite the best I have seen. It did what those of us less suffocated by the post-Britten English musical establishment, more open – like the young Britten, aspirant pupil of Berg – to artistic developments beyond these grey shores, would have thought obvious, yet seemingly no one had dared previously attempt. The sexual darkness not only of Britten’s past and present, but also of this work, was tackled head on, in a boys’ school setting that left one in no doubt there could be no happy endings here. By contrast, chez Carsen – and however unfair the retrospective comparison – everything is a little too well-ordered in its fantasy, a little too blithe in its heteronormativity, a little too distant from shadows of power and the abuses that accompany it.


There is no reason in principle, of course, why there should not be room for both approaches, and indeed for many more. Whether, however, we should be papering over awkward cracks specifically now, in the age of #metoo, the Jimmys Savile and Levine, et al. is another question. I never cease to be amazed quite how lightly Britten gets off in this respect, but that doubtless tells its own story or stories. Not that I am suggesting we need necessarily always sit in judgement: a large part, after all, of the role of drama is to explore, to tease out. A dramatic work is neither a court case nor a treatise. There is, though, surely far more to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its ideological framework than is acknowledged here. I hope the decision not to revive Alden was not taken because ‘traditionalists’ and those in positions of power – often one and the same – were ‘offended’, or running scared. Perhaps, then, next time, might we return to Alden, or see something with insights altogether new?


Saturday, 3 March 2018

Doric Quartet - Haydn, 28 February 2018

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet in G major, op.64 no.4
String Quartet in D major, op.64 no.5, ‘Lark’
String Quartet in E-flat major, op.64 no.6

Alex Redington, Jonathan Stone (violins)
Hélène Clément (viola)
John Myerscough (cello)

I found this a perplexing yet fascinating concert: not the programme, straightforwardly the last three of Haydn’s twelve so-called ‘Tost’ quartets, but the performances. They brought home to me some of the differences between mere taste and judgement. There was much that I – and the friend who accompanied me still more – may not have liked about what was heard here, and that inevitably forms part of our judgement. It clearly should not form more than part of it, though, or criticism truly would be nothing more than consumerism, well or ill ‘informed’. For, by the same token, if often I found the general tone and playing style of the Doric Quartet here strangely inward yet tense, to an extreme that seemed distinctly odd for Haydn, I could not say that it was wrong, nor that many of the players’ other choices did not have justification of their own. I was compelled by these performances to listen, and indeed often to wonder anew at Haydn’s fabled inventiveness, even if many other performances have spoken more touchingly, more personally, even more enjoyably, to me.

There was nothing objectionable, or even unusual, to the playing I heard at the opening of the G major Quartet, op.64 no.4: stylish, cultivated, and clearly considered. The general tone may have been somewhat ‘period’, but it proved varied and never dogmatic. When vibrato was entirely withdrawn, it was for a discernible reason. There was, moreover, a strong sense of formal dynamism to the first movement as a whole. Those of Haydn’s figures with a resemblance to Mozart intrigued all the more on account of the decidedly non-Mozartian use to which they were put. There was a degree of relaxation to be heard in the minuet, still more so, indeed markedly so, in its trio. Again, nothing was taken for granted. Likewise in the Adagio, an austere yet serene song of considerable cumulative power, albeit worlds away from the Amadeus Quartet or the sound I hear in my head. It was worlds away too, I think, from, say, the Quatuor Mosaïques; this had a tension and relative astringency very much of its own. I did wonder, though, whether the players here and, still more so in the finale, might have played out a little more at times. The latter movement’s more extrovert moments told, but neither so clearly nor so joyfully as they might.

The ‘Lark’ Quartet, op.65 no.5, followed. I had heard this recently indeed, also at the Wigmore Hall, from the Jerusalem Quartet. That performance had certainly been more to my taste, and also, I think, more musically revealing (perhaps partly on account of taste). This performance, though, again had me listen and think. The first movement began in playful yet febrile fashion, once more deeply considered, and in many ways so it continued, even when less tonally ingratiating. The development section showed us how many ways there are to develop – well, a few of them anyway – even within a single, concise span such as this. And the return was experienced, by me at least, very much as a return. I have heard the music sound closer to Beethoven, not without benefit, but it need not always do so. The slow movement sounded a note of kinship to that in the preceding quartet, yet sang its own song, no one else’s. There was a splendid sense of involvement to the minuet, in particular to its marriage between harmony and counterpoint. However, sometimes the music seemed in danger of losing its pulse, its impetus. Whilst I can understand the temptation to play around, to linger, I am not sure that it ultimately worked to Haydn’s advantage. The finale was, again, curiously restrained, indeed still more so.

That I was taken by surprise by Haydn’s tonal plan in the first movement of the E-flat major Quartet, op.64 no.6, can only be a good thing. Again, I was made to listen, in a performance that perhaps laid greater emphasis upon counterpoint than harmony – but that is never the easiest of balances to ensure. The passion of the central episode to the slow movement was most welcome, indeed riveting. Its surrounding material was certainly contrasted, but was it perhaps a little too cool? Were the contrasts of the trios in the following movement again overdone? Perhaps. Again, much is surely a matter of taste. I certainly liked the boisterous quality to the minuet, though. The finale scampered along nicely, although there were times when I wished it might have been taken off the leash. Such, though, clearly was not the æsthetic of this particular performance, from which I learned much.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Kavakos/LSO/Harding - Grime, Prokofiev, and Strauss, 18 February 2018

Barbican Hall

Grime: Virga
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Strauss: Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

A wonderful concert. Without being didactic – nothing wrong with that, far from it – in its programming, it permitted connections to be made, if one would, whilst concentrating on performing and interpretative excellence. If I have heard better live performances of either Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto or Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, then I must have forgotten them. That seems unlikely.

First, in a programme that more or less corresponded to the traditional, yet now quite rare, overture-concerto-symphony format – it was actually never quite so ‘traditional’ as some like to claim – came Helen Grime’s Virga. Commissioned by the LSO for its UBS Sound Adventures Scheme and first performed more than ten years ago in 2007, Virga takes its name, to quote John Fallas’s excellent programme note, from ‘precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates before reaching the ground’. I do not know whether you will believe me – I hope so, dear reader – but I thought of raindrops whilst hearing the piece (for the first time), prior to reading the note immediately afterwards. Indeed, I thought, almost saw, droplets falling or travelling not so much in both as in many directions. Immediately, that is, after an opening éclat which must surely have offered particular appeal to one of the piece’s early advocates: no less than Pierre Boulez. The precision both of work and performance under Daniel Harding would surely have appealed to him too; it sounded not un-Gallic, and indeed not without a little Russianness either. (I do not think it was just the coming of Prokofiev that had me think that.) However, there was something intriguingly Germanic, a little Germanic out-of-water perhaps, to an almost Romantic cello melody, still more so its violin (Mahlerian?) successor, heard without accompaniment. Messianesque tuned percussion incited a Boulezian sense of controlled delirium – or, perhaps, rather the sense that such a state might be around the corner. I mention other composers not because I found the music in any sense derivative, quite the contrary. But just to place it, as I indeed placed it for myself, when hearing it for the first time. Harding and the LSO shaped it beautifully, but this was music, ‘poetic’ in a far from un-Romantic sense, which permitted of such shaping. I very much look forward to hearing it again – and indeed to the LSO’s new commission from the composer, to be heard later this year, conducted by Simon Rattle.

The opening solo of the Prokofiev concerto is surprisingly difficult to bring off. It needs to be direct yet inviting, anything but fussy and yet – a frustratingly vague term, I know –  ‘expressive’. Those things it certainly was in Leonidas Kavakos’s performance; it sounded the easiest thing in the world, as deceptive and yet as necessary an impression as if the melody were Mozart’s. Somehow, without my always being quite sure how, the orchestra and conductor seemed always to complement Kavakos’s playing, as that did theirs. This was clearly a meeting of minds and, I think, of souls too. There was an unusual sense of the ‘Allegro’ as well as of the more common ‘moderato’ of the first movement’s tempo marking, greatly to its benefit. It was flexible, yet directed: flexibly directed, one might say. There was darkness too, without exaggeration: a world of fairy-tales, perhaps, yet we know how deep such tales delve into our psyches, individual and collective. Dead-centred, whether in a single line or double-stopping, Kavakos’s tone was surely a joy in itself, yet there was no ‘in itself’ to it. His counterpoint blended perfectly with that of the orchestra’s soloists, every one of them first-rate.

Egyptian cotton, rather than silk, was my first thought concerning the soundworld of the slow movement, often sentimentalised, yet not here. The pulsating ‘accompaniment’ did all that could be asked of it and more; so did the hemiolas it helped create. Kavakos’s vibrato, the length of his bowing, his fingering, all were perfectly chosen and varied; and yet again, it sounded so easy. (It most certainly is not!) I think I even preferred this to Heifetz. Music and performance alike proved soulful, communicative, yet never narcissistic. Form, once again, was vividly, even magically communicated by all. The finale, taken attacca, offered just the right degree of contrast: very much the next and final chapter. It had – something about which I have been thinking quite a bit recently – very much the character and dynamism of a finale. That might sound a truism, but I do not think it is; it certainly did not seem so in a performance of such distinction. And yet, it was very much the particularity of this finale, castanets and all. The side-slipping ‘simplicity’ of the third movement from the Sonata for Two Violins, op.56, collegially given with LSO leader, Roman Simovic, made for the perfect encore.

Richard Strauss’s music and indeed his æsthetic seem to me all the more necessary by the day. His defence, a musical defence, of art and of music in particular are just what a world, descending further daily into abject barbarism, needs. And of course Strauss knew very much about that – not just after 1933, but over the four-year period of writing this symphony, 1911-15. The darkness, here visual as well as aural, in which the symphony’s ‘Nacht’ opens is, or should be something very special: materialist, yes, and with a Nietzschean spirituality born out of anti-Christian materialism. So it was here. Harding’s way with the opening material intrigued me greatly: more flowing than one often hears, Wagnerian with its unendliche Melodie. I liked it very much. What grew out of it was elemental, magnificent, yet never pompous. It breathed the air of Strauss as much as of Garmisch; it spoke not only of ‘Nature’ in the way that some think it does, pictorially. Nor was the music unduly shoehorned into conceptions, often irrelevant, of what a symphony ‘should’ be. It made its own way, more a symphonic poem, perhaps, certainly sui generis: all the better for it. Paths opened up – and closed – before one’s ears; this was a musical ascent, not just a musical recreation of an ascent.

If I say that I found the performance captivated me still more than one from Bernard Haitink with this same orchestra several years ago, that should give an indication of quite how highly I esteemed it. The LSO certainly sounded warmer, or at least the Barbican acoustic did, and I do not think it was just that. For ‘symphonic’ need not, should not, imply a lack of attention to colour, of which there was as much to appreciate here as in the pieces by Grime and Prokofiev. Fragments from Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier – not literally from those works, but ‘as if’… - dissolved before our aural imagination, just as they had in Verga. Indeed, that coupling came to seem all the more inspired in retrospect. Then Die Frau ohne Schatten came into earshot, above all progressions that might well have come from there – even if, again, they did not. To put it another way, this was not just Strauss’s Alpine Symphony; it was most definitely Strauss.

Olivier Stankeiewicz’s oboe solo, exquisitely moving, made me long to hear him in Strauss’s concerto for that instrument. Indeed, at times, the composer’s ‘Indian summer’ did not sound so distant. At other times, though, quite rightly, it seemed a world away; there was a battle to be fought right here, right now. These are very particular Straussian phantasmagoria here; so they sounded, relished yet thoroughly integrated by Harding and his players. In the Epilogue – Karajan used to say that he conducted the work only for this – everything mattered. Above all, Strauss mattered – more than ever. The lamps were going out all over Europe, across the world. I think we all knew or at least felt what Sir Edward Grey (may have) said next. And yet, there was hope of a sort. For this work offers the best of tests. You cannot really believe in Strauss if you do not believe in it. (You cannot even really have listened to it, I should argue.) If you do not believe in Strauss, can you really believe in music? At any rate, if you do not believe in music, especially now, may God help you.