Monday, 29 July 2013

Prom 20: Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Götterdämmerung, 28 July 2013

Royal Albert Hall

Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Gunther – Gerd Grochowski
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Hagen – Mikhail Petrenko
Gutrune, Third Norn – Anna Samuil
Waltraute, Second Norn – Waltraud Meier
First Norn – Margarita Nekrasova
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaja
Flosshilde – Anna Lapovskaja

Justin Way (director)
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Staatskapelle Berlin                 
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Images: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
By the end of the first act, I was convinced that, barring a catastrophe of, well, Götterdämmerung-like proportions, this would now turn out to be the greatest Ring since Bernard Haitink’s 1998 Royal Opera performances– also semi-staged, also at the Royal Albert Hall. And so it came to pass. Not only did we continue to hear superlative conducting from Daniel Barenboim and equally superlative playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin. (To guard my back, unlike Siegfried, I shall mention in passing very occasional signs of tiredness towards the end, if only so as not to have to return to such Beckmesserish thoughts.) We also at last heard a Siegfried and Brünnhilde worthy of the roles. Götterdämmerung, by virtue of its placing as the third ‘day’ of the Ring, should always be a special occasion, though sadly that is anything but a foregone conclusion; this performance, however went beyond ‘special’, to ‘great’.

The weight of history was apparent in those portentous opening chords to the Norns’ Scene, but so was sonorous magic. Wagner’s goal-orientation is not Beethoven’s, though it is not diametrically opposed either; Barenboim’s guiding of this crucial scene opened up possibilities rather than closing them, whilst at the same time ensuring that the drama’s tragic import won out. The bassoon line following the Second Norn’s ‘...woran spannst du das Seil?’ sounded as if it were itself the guiding thread of the Norns’ rope of Fate. More often than one might expect, conductors misjudge Wagner’s climaxes; often, indeed, they try to introduce irrelevant climaxes of their own. There was no such danger here, the outbreak of Dawn judged to perfection, the Staatskapelle Berlin in truly glorious sound, followed by a scene with an ebb and flow – Wagner’s melos – in which words and music truly melded together to form a musico-dramatic whole. And the tenderness of the strings, for instance when Brünnhilde here embraced Siegfried, far surpassed anything the BBC SO had been able to conjure up the previous evening, for Tristan. The final climax to the scene sounded as fully achieved as if Furtwängler himself had been at the podium; not that we should forget here the extraordinary contributions of Andreas Schager as Siegfried and Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, on whom more below. As ever, Barenboim proved worthy of Wagner’s ‘most subtle art’ of transition, that wonderful Dawn followed by a masterly Rhine Journey, placed aptly midway between Beethovenian playfulness and Mahlerian contrapuntal involvement. (Special mention here should be afforded to the glockenspiel, veritable icing on the orchestral cake.) Once we reached the Rhineland proper, moving towards the Hall of the Gibichungs, we were afforded a veritable pageant, noteworthy not just in itself, but, in its ‘secondary’ diatonicism (to borrow from Carl Dahlhaus on Die Meistersinger, the mediated diatonic harmony being predicated upon the chromaticism it both negated and incorporated) already conveying the mediated unease of ‘civilisation’. Beneath the surface lay not only the nixies of the Rhine, but more worryingly, the snares of Hagen’s plotting. The aural stench of decay – how truly, truthfully ugly some of Götterdämmerung’s music is! – led us to the Hall itself. There was already something of the unhealthy air of Venice, of the Palazzo Vendramin.

And so to the first act proper. The sturdiness Barenboim imparted to Gunther’s rhythms – Lohengrin, as it were, aufgehoben – immediately made clear the hopelessness of that character’s plight. (If only Gerd Grochowski had managed a little better the difficult balancing act of a strong portrayal of a weak character, but anyway...) Throughout the act, orchestral exultancy would bid Siegfried to new deeds, all the more movingly for our knowledge of Hagen’s snares, his Watch again sick with chromatic decay, whilst the transition to Brünnhilde’s rock drew us into a more intimate, tragically fragile world. The phantasmagoria with which Brünnhilde’s anger was transformed into evening twilight again had to be heard to be believed, likewise the cruellest of interruptions – more so even the coitus interruptus of Tristan’s second act – upon Siegfried’s appearance (as Gunther). The violence of rape horrified, as it must, at the close.

How one relished the richness of the bass line – reinforced by those eight double basses – at the opening of the second act! The architecture of every act was perfectly in place: long familiarity, for conductor and orchestra alike, clearly pays off; the vengeance trio proved no mere set piece, but a true culmination. But moments told equally truthfully, whether the trombone interjections of ‘Hagen’ as Brünnhilde screamed of her deceit. Then the new sound-world of the third act came as a breath of fresh air, though just as soon as one had thought that, necessary doubts set in. The orchestra sounded languorous, almost Debussyan; one often hears Liszt here, in this first scene, but Barenboim’s balances imparted intriguing and apposite presentiments not so much of Pelléas as of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and even the Images. Integration was, as ever key, the Funeral March all the more impressive for acting as interlude rather than interposed set piece. Barenboim’s greatness in Beethoven now fully informs his Wagner, and did so until the closing bar, bathed in the after-glow of orchestral flames that might well have burned us. And yet, at the end there was a message of equivocal hope. Barenboim has no fear of comparisons with anyone, not even Haitink (from whom, in any case, we are extremely unlikely to hear another Ring).


From Siegfried’s very first line, we heard what had been missing earlier on. Lance Ryan had proved serviceable in the previous instalment, yet Andreas Schager proved preferable in every respect. The beauty of his voice alone here showed what earlier had been lacking, let alone the dramatic commitment he would show when acting his third-act narration or, indeed, stiffly as ‘Gunther’ with the Tarnhelm. It was clear even in the Prologue that this was a fully mature Siegfried, a man, no longer a boy, despite his fatal flaws; Schager’s interaction with the orchestra as part of a musico-dramatic whole that extended far beyond any single contributor was not the least of his virtues. Drinking the potion brought a touching hymn to lost innocence, soon enough followed by an eroticism entirely lacking in many portrayals (let alone Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan, the night before). There was, moreover, real anger to his contesting Brünnhilde’s claims in the second act, betokening a psychological understanding rarely present in this role. One might have taken dictation, of words and music, from either him or Stemme, for pretty much the whole of the performance. Anyone who did not respond both to the irrepressible vitality of this Siegfried’s swagger with the Rhinemaidens and to the detailed, loving narrative of his deeds recalled would be satisfied with no one, not even Lauritz Melchior. This might actually have been the first time I was moved as I should have been by the moment when he recalls Brünnhilde: a true monument to a truer love than I have heard.

Stemme’s Prologue ‘O heilige Götter!’ was a paean to a glorious age, an age which yet had passed; the realm of the gods was not belittled, but there was no doubt that the future held something different. The dramatic urgency she imparted to the Waltraute scene was every bit the equal of Waltraud Meier’s. ‘Denn selig aus ihm leuchtet mir Siegfrieds Liebe!’ revelled in tragic irony: Stemme sang in the present but the orchestra – and we – knew that she sang of the past, the ecstasy of her love notwithstanding. Her fear before Siegfried (as Gunther) was palpable, yet without loss to the commanding nature of her performance. And her Immolation Scene, delivered from the organ, somehow bringing together the strongest virtues of Flagstad’s womanhood and Nilsson’s authority, should become the stuff of legend. Meier’s turning to her sister as the latter asked ‘Weisst du, wie das wird?’ was a dramatic moment worth all (or most of) the stagings in the world. How she later made the words come alive as she told, for instance, of Wotan taming Loge! Though Meier’s Waltraute may be dangerously close to definitive, that is no excuse for overlooking the excellence of her contribution, here with a true sense of epic narrative in telling her tale of Wotan’s depression. Increasing desperation urged on the orchestra, as it in turn urged her on. Her departure had one think of Cassandra herself.

Mikhail Petrenko’s protean Hagen is now a known quantity. Sometimes, from force of habit perhaps more than from dramatic necessity, one finds oneself expecting a darker voice, but Petrenko’s vision is in many ways more dangerous than the traditional Ridderbusch-like performance. Rather than pitch-black ‘mere’ evil,  we hear someone devilishly intelligent, and troublingly alluring. Not that Petrenko’s voice is without heft, but, for instance, his ‘Heil! Siegfried, teurer Held!’ as the hero brought his boat ashore was curdled with a menace that went beyond brute force. (After all, it is through cunning that he will slay Siegfried, not though overpowering him.) ‘Dir ha ich guten Rat,’ seemed almost throwaway: ‘I gave you good advice,’ but the words were made to tell, to inform us that such advice to Siegfried was anything but ‘good’, however that might be understood. Aggression and restlessness suggested a power-lust that might have been enhanced by substances the modern would tends to deem illicit. This Hagen was one dealer no one would wish to encounter upon a dark night.

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich once again showed a fine way with words. His injunction to Hagen, ‘Hasse die Frohen!’ seethed with Nietzschean ressentiment, whilst the ghostliness of the regfrain, ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn,’ chilled as it should.  Our trio of Rhinemaidens if anything surpassed its excellence in Das Rheingold.  Anna Samuil, alas, proved somewhat on the shrill side as the Third Norn and blowsy as Gutrune, her vibrato, especially during the first act, uncomfortably unsteady. She was more honeytrap than dupe, and less interesting for it. There was, though, real vocal presence to be heard from Margarita Nekrasova’s First Norn. The Royal Opera Chorus excelled, its weight as impressive as its clarity.

All were rightly commended by Barenboim in a few closing words. Charming as ever, he praised the audience for its silence as well as for its most fulsome applause, and forewent to mention the selfish **** (fill in as appropriate) who had interrupted Hagen’s opening advice to Gunther with a mobile telephone call. There were many stars to this Ring, but once again, this proved above all others the achievement of Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, no secret to those of us enamoured with the German capital, but now firmly ensconced in Londoners’ hearts too. Wolf-Dieter Batzdorf took a well-deserved bow, retiring as concert-master – surely only Barenboim could get away with an implicit Führer gag here, explaining that Germans do not favour the English term, ‘leader’ – but applause resounded for the whole of Wagner’s Attic chorus. And, one hopes, for Wagner himself, a fitting tribute, which is really saying something, to the composer’s bicentenary. Now, please, someone, a CD release...!


Sunday, 28 July 2013

Prom 19: BBC SO/Bychkov - Tristan und Isolde, 27 July 2013

Royal Albert Hall

Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
Isolde – Violeta Urmana
King Marke – Kwangchul Youn
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
Brangäne – Mihoko Fujimura
Melot – David Wilson-Johnson
Steersman – Edward Price
Young Sailor/Shepherd – Andrew Staples

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

For those whose Wagnerian thirst had not yet been quenched by three parts of the Ring, the Proms now offered Tristan und Isolde. Semyon Bychkov, whom I heard conduct the work in Paris in 2008, once again proved a sure guiding presence, though perhaps without the final ounce or two of delirium that is required to elevate the work to the deserved status of Nietzsche’s opus metaphysicum. The opening Prelude underlined the crucial importance of the bass line, even in – arguably particularly in – this work, straining as it does at the bounds of tonality, without ever quite transgressing them. As Theodor Adorno wrote, in his Versuch über Wagner, ‘‘It is with good reason that the bars in the Tristan score following the words “der furchtbare Trank” stand upon the threshold of new music, in whose first canonical work, Schoenberg’s F-sharp minor Quartet, the words appear: “Take love from me, grant me your happiness!”’ I never felt that quite so much was at stake, but this remained a distinguished reading in a more conventionally dramatic sense. Part of that, perhaps, was to be attributed to the orchestra. Whilst on fine form, the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not, with the best will in the world, be said to have conjured up the tonal, metaphysical depth of Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin, especially when it came to the all-important string section.

That said, Bychkov worked wonders at times. The orchestral swaying at the beginning of the first time managed to convey just the right mixture of physical and metaphysical turbulence. Sinuous woodwind as Isolde told of her ‘art’ looked forward to the Flowermaidens. The orchestra as a whole, even if it sometimes lacked true depth, still assumed its role as Greek Chorus, or, in Wagner’s later terms, representation of the Will. As Isolde instructed Kurwenal to have Tristan come to her, there was a true sense of tragic inevitability both from orchestra and singer. Bychkov, here and elsewhere, understood and communicated both musical structure and its interaction with the external ‘drama’. (In this of all Wagner’s works, the drama lies more in the orchestra than anywhere else; indeed, more than once, I found myself thinking how much I should love to hear him conduct Schoenberg’s avowedly post­­-Tristan symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande. The stillness of Hell, as much as Nietzsche’s ‘voluptuousness’, truly registered as Isolde drank the potion; moreover, the shimmering sound Bychkov drew from the BBC SO violins had them play to a level I have rarely heard – certainly not under their recently-departed absentee conductor.

The Prelude to Act II was unusually fleet, but not harried: probably wise given that one was not dealing with the traditional ‘dark’ German sound of an orchestra such as Barenboim’s Staatskapelle. Offstage brass, conducted by Andrew Griffiths, were excellent. Again, the BBC SO often surpassed itself, its scream at the opening of the second scene – responding to Isolde’s ‘Tristan – Geliebter!’ – offering a somewhat embarrassing contrast with the puny sounds heard from Tristan himself. Woodwind again excelled, at times, for instance after Isolde’s ‘O eitler Tagesknecht!’, evoking Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal. As Tristan – just about – harangued the spite and envy of day, we heard an apt orchestral sardonicism, mid-way between Loge and Schoenberg. (I thought in particular of the First Chamber Symphony.) And the deadly slowing of the heartbeat – Karajan truly worried about this Act II music, fearing it might literally take the lives of conductors – was well conveyed. I liked the idea – and practice – of having the Shepherd’s English horn solo piped from above, as if from the ramparts. The spotlighting of the (very good) soloist put me in mind of Stockhausen’s later practice of blurring the boundaries between instruments and ‘characters’. If the level of orchestral playing was not so impressive during much of the third act, most obviously earlier on, that may have been part of a doomed attempt to enable Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan to be heard. There was, though, also a problem with balance at times, the brass tending to overpower in a way never heard in Barenboim’s Ring performances. Dramatic urgency was regained, however, after Tristan’s death.

Violeta Urmana opened in somewhat shrill fashion, her words often indistinct. She improved quickly, though, and as early as the second scene, was both more sensitive in terms of tonal variegation and far more comprehensible. There were times, especially during the first act – for instance, on the ‘preis’ of ‘mit ihr gab er es pries!’ – when her climaxes were a little too conventionally operatic, but hers remained a committed performance. She had no difficulty in riding the orchestral wave in her transfiguration: impressive, if not necessarily moving. Mihoko Fujimura excelled as Brangäne; indeed, it seems to be more her role than Kundry.  There was true musical satisfaction to be gained from the ‘rightness’ of her phrasing, as well as dramatic truth from the honesty of her character portrayal. Her second-act Watch was radiant, euphonious, somehow sounding as if from a greater distance than the RAH organ, as if carried to us by an opportune, clement breeze. Andrew Staples put in excellent performances as both the Shepherd and the Young Sailor. The latter role, sung from above, was very nicely shaded, and with diction of an excellence that put many other cast members to shame. As Shepherd, his voice was audibly, somewhat awkwardly, more virile than that of the lamentable Tristan.

Robert Dean Smith was, alas, a grave disappointment as Tristan. From his ‘Fragt die Sitte!’ to Isolde, matter of fact in the wrong way, there was little dramatic involvement to be gleaned. He often sounded more like Isolde’s grandfather, about to expire, even in the first act, than her lover.  The orchestra, as guided by Bychkov, often  compensated for him, but it should not have had to do so.. When Tristan sang that he and Isolde were ‘ungetrennt’ (undivided), the division was all too glaringly apparent. It was not just that he lacked charisma and volume, though he certainly did, but that his performance throughout seemed entirely unaware of the deadly eroticism in which it should have been soaked; he often sounded more like an attempt, a couple of sizes too small, at Beckmesser, than Tristan. Boaz Daniel proved an ardent Kurwenal, his ‘Heil Tristan!’ a proper reminder of a doomed attempt to return to the chivalric mores of Lohengrin, of the day. David Wilson-Johnson’s Melot was unpleasantly blustering, the only other real disappointment in the cast. Kwangchul Youn gave an excellent performance too. I have often found him a little dull in the past, but here his tenderness and passion showed King Marke to be a true human being, not a mere saint. Had I been Isolde, I should certainly have stuck with him on this occasion.

The combined male forces of the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra made for a goodlier crew than I can recall, a veritable male voice choir. There was no compromise between heft and diction; the former quality had the excellent consequence of already emphasising the threatening nature of the external, phenomenal world of the day. If not necessarily a Tristan for the ages, then, there remained much to admire.


Prom 18: Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Siegfried, 26 July 2013

Royal Albert Hall

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Wanderer – Terje Stensvold
Mime – Peter Bronder
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Woodbird – Rinnat Moriah
Erda – Anna Larsson

Justin Way (director)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The brightest star in this performance proved once again to be the Staatskapelle Berlin, under Daniel Barenboim’s guidance. It is to be hoped that those Londoners who do not travel much – though it remains unclear to me why they could not listen to the odd recording or broadcast – will finally be disabused by this Proms Ring of the strange claim that the sub-standard Wagner they have all too often been served up over the past decade represents anything but a pale shadow of the ‘real thing’. That is crucial not from the standpoint of drawing up some variety of ghastly league table, but because Wagner deserves so much better, as, barring a few noisy miscreants, do audiences. A friend remarked acutely earlier in the week that so much of the chatter concerning last year’s Covent Garden Ring concerned the work as some sort of ‘ultimate challenge’ and congratulated the forces for having (just about) withstood that challenge. Art is not, however, a school sports day; to come anywhere near realising Wagner’s potential requires musicians who understand his (admittedly strenuous) demands, who are as comprehending of his world-view and its implications, historical and contemporary, as possible, and who are expert at communicating his message at as many of its multiple levels as they can. ‘Muddling through’ – or, to put it another way, a self-congratulatory celebration of English amateurism – should never be an option.

Barenboim once again had the measure of the score, his understanding of which has deepened considerably over the years, from the outset. The Prelude to Act I opened very slowly, but its hallmark was flexibility, not least when a mini-Furtwänglerian accelerando led us, as the most natural development in the world, into Wagner’s menacing treatment of the no-longer-dormant Nibelung motif. Lesser conductors would simply present one thing after another, perhaps with the odd ‘shock’ effect imposed upon the meaningless progression; Wagner’s drama needs to be simultaneously communicated and reinforced through a tightly woven web of motivic interconnection. As Carl Dahlhaus put it, ‘the decline in importance of the symphony as a genre represented the obverse of an inexorable expansion of the symphonic style in other genres.’ It is inconceivable that a great Wagnerian would not also be a great Beethovenian.

The dark orchestral phantasmagoria, inevitably bringing to mind Adorno’s Versuch über Wagner, conjured up by Barenboim and his orchestra as Mime initially struggled to forge the sword told of dark forces, dramatic and musical, at work; one was drawn into the drama in the very best way, by the score ‘itself’. And yet, there was plenty of life: Siegfried’s music quite rightly evoked the world of a Beethoven scherzo, transformed into musico-dramatic material. Barenboim showed that lightness does not preclude depth; indeed, it often relies upon it. And depth one certainly heard from the Staatskapelle’s strings, heart-rendingly when Siegfried casually knocked the food Mime had prepared out of his hands; we empathised with Mime and his misery through Wagner’s extraordinarily sympathetic portrayal. Likewise, in the third scene, Barenboim – and Wagner, of course – conjured up the sheer horror of Mime’s predicament just as truthfully as the other, unconscious, heroic side of the coin. Competition between soundworlds, distinct and yet dialectically related, was very much the stuff of this first act. The dark Staatskapelle brass, never brash in the way sections from Anglophone orchestras might often be, told during the Mime-Wanderer scene of the darkness still cast by Alberich’s Nibelheim curse – even when the Wanderer was ostensibly talking of himself. Schwarz- and Licht-Alberich continued their dialectical dance of death (even though we never discover quite what becomes of the former).  

Act II opened in similarly magisterial fashion. Marking by kettledrums of that crucial tritone – the giants’ motif darkened, perverted, from its initially diatonic form – was effected to musico-dramatic perfection; that interval, that sound would hang over the act for at least as long as it took Siegfried to slay Fafner. A febrile undergrowth, scenic and harmonic, would soon find itself conjured up – that phantasmagorical phrase again – by composer, conductor, and orchestra together. The orchestra, moreover, gained a real spring to its step during those extraordinary exchanges between Mime and Siegfried, when the former, despite all his efforts, betrays his true intentions, Wagner’s sardonicism conveyed with the darkest of comedy. And that Feuerbachian moment of hope – love, revolution, love in revolution might yet emerge the victor – at the end of the act was captured to perfection, only to be contrasted, at the beginning of Act III, by a very different variety of dramatic urgency, the Wanderer’s dismissal of Erda (and thus of Fate itself) upon us.

Barenboim’s deceleration as Erda rose from the depths told of far more than mere handling of the score; this was an attempt to hold back history itself – likewise at the end of his confrontation with Siegfried in the following scene. The Wanderer’s urgency with Erda, rhythms buoyant and generative, would emerge victorious, but at what cost, and for how long? Questions rather than answers were proffered. His silence following ‘Weisst du, was Wotan will?’ was made to tell in a fashion not entirely unlike a silence in Bruckner, and yet, with its very particular musico-dramatic import, quite unlike it. By contrast, the transformation to the final scene was perhaps the most ecstatic I have heard, the orchestra revelling in Wagner’s wizardry, Barenboim ensuring that such revelry retained dramatic motivation. There were moments when one heard, for instance, the fresh air of Johannistag – ‘Ach! Wie schön!’ as Siegfried loosened Brünnhilde’s helmet – or delectable violin femininity, as Siegfried lifted the breastplate. But they never stood out, self-regarding, for their own sake; the drama was the thing.

Peter Bronder’s Mime was excellent. He wheedled without falling into caricature, projected a strong command of his line throughout, and even proved a dab hand pretty with his (small) hammer. There was real anger, moreover, as well as self-pity, when he dubbed Siegfried ‘dankbares, arges Kind!’ Lance Ryan is not possessed of a beautiful voice, but he showed the necessary tirelessness not simply to ‘get through’ the role, but also to shape its progress. If vocal lines were often less than mellifluous, one could hear pretty much every word. He had a nice – or rather nasty – line in cruelty of delivery, for instance when telling of how he longed to seize Mime’s neck, though there were undoubtedly occasions when he erred on the side of crudity, not least during the forging of Notung, and  clowning around over the horn was probably overdone. Johannes Martin Kränzle once again contributed an attentive reading of Alberich’s part, words, music, stage manner welded into something considerably more than the sum of its parts. Eric Halfvarson’s Fafner (from the organ) was properly evocative of the rentier as dragon: what he lay on, he owned. One even felt a degree of sympathy at the moment of death. Terje Stensvold’s Wanderer was not as large of life as some, but his solemnity told its own tale; this was, after all, a Wotan two generations on from Das Rheingold, scarred by events, working his way towards renunciation of the Schopenhauerisn Will. Whether that were actually how Stensvold thought of it or no, one could certainly understand his portrayal that way. His Norwegian way with Wagner’s words harked back to the the old sagas: perhaps not ideal in abstract pronunciation terms, but again opening up other associations for those willing to listen. As in Berlin, Rinnat Moriah proved a bright-toned Woodbird, perfectly contrasted with the deep contralto of Anna Larsson’s wonderful Erda, her tiredness and fading powers conveyed musically rather than by default. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde gave an excellent impression of awakening, and handled very well this difficult transition from Valkyrie to woman. She more than whetted the appetite for what is now to come.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Prom 15: Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Die Walküre, 23 July 2013

Royal Albert Hall

Siegmund – Simon O’Neill
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Eric Halfvarson
Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Gerhilde – Sonja Mühleck
Ortlinde – Carola Höhn
Waltraute – Ivonne Fuchs
Schwertleite – Anaïk Morel
Helmwige – Susan Foster
Siegrune – Leann Sandel-Pantaleo
Grimgerde – Anna Lapkovskaja
Rossweisse – Simone Schröder

Justin Way (director)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Images: Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The superstitious would have us believe that it is better not to build up expectations, lest they be confounded. Perhaps that makes sense in some endeavours, but in a performance of the Ring, the experience is cumulative. True, one might be disappointed after an excellent Rheingold; however, in this case, it offered the perfect preparation for an excellent first ‘day’ proper. As in Berlin, an often ‘objectivist’ Rheingold was followed by a warmly Romantic Walküre, the dramatic contrast between godly prehistory and the realm of Wagner’s ‘purely human’ palpable from the outset. If anything, Barenboim’s Wagnerian mastery – and that is certainly not too strong a term – was more impregnable than in 2011. He was doubtless assisted by a kinder acoustic – how often does anyone say that of this venue – in the Royal Albert Hall than in the Schiller Theater, where he had also elected to have the pit semi-covered. Here, however, the Staatskapelle Berlin was rightly enthroned as the brightest star in the evening’s constellation, the benefits of a semi-staged performance once again manifest. In both cases, the only serious ‘competition’ – a horrible concept, but let that pass for the moment – from my experience had been provided by Bernard Haitink with Royal Opera forces, again at the Royal Albert Hall. Barenboim and Haitink are certainly the only conductors I have heard, at least in the flesh, to have shaped the architecture of the second act satisfactorily. Once again, it is clear that Barenboim has learned his Furtwänglerian lessons, without in any sense slavishly following that greatest of all Wagner conductors.

The Act I Prelude set the tone in more than one sense for what was to follow, Wagner’s music audibly founded upon the bass line, very much as Furtwängler would have understood it to be; moreover, it was music, not some mere storm ‘effect’, very much as Furtwängler – and Beethoven – would have understood. Almost infinitely variegated in terms of dynamic contrast, it subsided to the tenderest of ppp, again setting out Barenboim’s stall for a performance that would prove little short of all-encompassing. Soon a classically dark ‘old German’ string sound – think of Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic prior to Karajan’s internationalising tendencies – would take centre stage, both in sectional and solo (that cello) offerings. When Sieglinde brought her guest the drinking horn, the cello proved, may Wagner forgive me, as eloquent as in any Brahms chamber work. The cellos’ recitative at the end of the scene, as Sieglinde invites Siegmund to stay at the house where Unheil lives, audibly echoed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, straining in Wagner’s Opera and Drama terms, for the Word, and in Walküre terms, for the words to express already-burgeoning love. That takes both an orchestra and conductor steeped in central musical (that is, German) Kultur; would that either of our London houses could offer that at the moment. Similarly, the presentiment of Tristan (Act II) afforded from the strings as Wotan, in his farewell to Brünnhilde, told of the ‘üppigen Rausch’ (voluptuous intoxication) she had imbibed from love’s cup spoke of equally subtle contributions from composer, conductor, and players alike. Just as Wagner’s immersion in his harmonic world permitted him to steal from the future, so did Barenboim’s and the orchestra’s parallel immersion permit us to note that detail.


This great orchestra is far more than its string section, of course. Every section, indeed very instrument, shone – as would be acknowledged by Barenboim at the end, with the number of individual bows he allowed his musicians. Woodwind malevolence resounded to perfection, as if Tristan’s potion were being brewed before our ears, as Hunding noted the same ‘glissende Wurm’ in the siblings’ eyes. How the horns terrified, as demented – Wagner’s own direction – as Sieglinde herself during her second act hallucinations; the ancient Wild Hunt itself seemed to have dawned. The brass would soon, of course, turn gravely beautiful, their part in the Annunciation of Death evocation of the most venerable of funeral equale. Moreover, the brass-led awakenings in the first act’s final scene, as if building upon new sunlit dawns from Lohengrin, were never crude in the way one must often fear from English orchestras; they were powerful, but never brash.

Such was the case even when Barenboim whipped up the fiercest agitation, for example when Sieglinde, ‘beside herself’, named her brother Siegmund. The ongoing accelerando during her rapture once again had one thinking of Furtwängler, so dramatically right and perfectly achieved was Barenboim’s accomplishment. In a very different mood, the darkness of the curse that resounded following Fricka’s departure in the following act was all the more troubling given its grounding in both timbre and harmony. Only a conductor who knows the score inside out, and knows where musically it has come from and in what direction it is tending will accomplish that. Wagner famously described the art of transition as his subtlest art, and so once again it proved here, as that between Act II Scenes 2 and 3 took us, line unbroken, from the slough of despond to the danger and exhilaration of our love-communist outcasts. The command of architecture in this act to which I previously referred was perhaps the greatest of Barenboim’s many achievements.  Moreover, the sweetness of the Magic Fire Music allowed a final, properly phantasmagorical coming together of the orchestra as a whole: not rushed, as so often it is, but with an attentiveness on Barenboim’s part that revealed quite how disturbing this anything-but-innocent putting Brünnhilde to sleep truly is.

The only real fly in the ointment was Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund. Tireless and hard-working though the assumption may be, there is nothing in the way of tonal beauty, and the German continues to sound ‘learned’ rather than ‘lived’. Heroism is not evoked by simple loudness, let alone by shouting, as often endured. Even at his less abrasive, O’Neill sounded more like an ageing alderman than an alluring outlaw; one could not help but think that nine out of ten Sieglindes would have elected to stay with Hunding. The contrast at the beginning of the first act’s final scene between O’Neill’s voice and the ravishing beauty of solo horn and cello was especially painful. Likewise his ‘Wälsungen-Blut,’ the final word of the first act. Anja Kampe, from her first entry, offered a merciful contrast, in terms of vocal quality, imparting of meaning to the words, and general lack of crudity. She offered sexual and musical urgency in the moonlight, whereas O’Neill offered the charisma of a middle manager. The soft pregnancy of tone and expression when she told of what she had heard as a child had me keenly aware of my own heartbeat; in tandem with Barenboim, this Sieglinde, despite an occasionally unruly top register, offered societal rupture and sensual rapture. There were times when Halfvarson’s balance as Hunding tipped too far from the musical to the verbal, at least for my Wagnerian appreciation. (The director Keith Warner, however, has recently been contesting such claims, arguing that ‘acting’, considered broadly, should always come first.) By the same token, however, a beautifully dark, Martti Talvela-like voice was lavished on words such as ‘Die so leidig Loos dir beschied nicht liebte die Norn.’ Given the tonal quality of what we had just heard from Siegmund, it was indeed difficult not to agree that the Norn had felt little love for him. Occasionally, a little more balance to Halfvarson’s voice would have been welcome, but there were certainly pitch-black compensations to be had.


Nina Stemme offered a Brünnhilde keen in every sense, from her opening ‘Hojotoho’ onwards, never failing in tone, even if she forgot a few words in Act III. (In a display of equal acuity and generosity, Terfel acted as her prompter and normal service was resumed.) Her voice has no weaker register, or at least it did not on this occasion, thereby allowing equal expressiveness throughout. Stemme’s apparent tirelessness bodes well for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Ekaterina Gubanova once again proved an excellent Fricka. ‘So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern...’ was delivered with rare fury; this was a woman scorned, no ice-maiden. Likewise her ‘verlacht’, as in ‘derided’ of men, offered true bitterness, as the gods’ Feuerbach-inspired dethronement gathered pace. Moreover, the Valkyries were an excellent bunch. They and their conductor ensured that their ‘Ride’ was an infinitely more musical experience than one generally suffers; again, I had to think back to Haitink to recall something comparable. Even the laughter was musically delivered. Susan Foster’s Helmwige ‘Hojotoho!’ truly made me sit up and listen, but there were no weak links here.

Bryn Terfel’s Wotan had me initially fear the worst, his opening contributions somewhat coarse – and subsequent passages were not all entirely innocent of that charge. However, his musico-dramatic identification with the role won me over to acknowledge what may well be the finest performance I have heard from him. Singing ‘Nimm den Eid!’ as Fricka had her say, the ‘Eid’ (oath) that he offered was arguably over-emphasised, though opinions will differ. Other details, however, were spot on, for instance his despairingly whispered – following Wagner’s directions – ‘Als junger Liebe Lust mir verblich’ to Brünnhilde, aided by the most sepulchral of brass. Likewise in that same monologue, the shading, visibly guided by Barenboim, on the word ‘Rhein,’ when he told of his failure to return the ring to its source: the word offered both a sign of a better world than that which now prevailed, and the hopelessness of ever (re-)turning to it. ‘Das Ende – das Ende!’ presented first vehement anger, then ghostly despair, shadowed by the unerring orchestra. I have rarely been impressed by Terfel’s Wagner but this highly distinguished performance was worth the price of admission alone.  The desolation felt at the end of the second act was a tribute to him almost as much as to Barenboim, though of course it was the orchestra that sent the final shivers of terror down the spine.

The audience still provides too many unwelcome interventions of its own. There was far too much coughing, especially during the third act and, most unforgivably, the Annunciation of Death. And, intentional or otherwise, the opening of a fizzy drink – no one, repeat no one, should be eating or drinking during the performance in any case – was an unnecessary illustration of Siegmund sipping from his draught. Such, however, is part of the price we pay to hear the Ring at the Proms; no one in his right mind would think the bargain unholy and Wotan-like.


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Prom 14: Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Das Rheingold, 22 July 2013

Royal Albert Hall

Wotan – Iain Paterson
Loge – Stephan Rügamer
Donner – Jan Buchwald
Froh – Marius Vlad
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Freia – Anna Samuil
Erda – Anna Larsson
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Mime – Peter Bronder
Fasolt – Stephen Milling
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaja
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Justin Way (director)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

For me, this is almost to have come full circle – though as anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with the Ring will tell you, the so-called ‘cycle’ does not end where it began, its world having been changed forever. Though I saw Richard Jones’s Royal Opera  Götterdämmerung at the old house, the only performance I saw before its closure, my first full Ring was at the Royal Albert Hall, with Royal Opera forces under Bernard Haitink. Travelling down from Cambridge each day, this sometime impoverished student standing up in the Gallery still considers it, from the relative comfort of the RAH Stalls, a formative musical experience of his life. It has certainly never been better conducted in his experience, nor better sung; and, given the vagaries of stagings, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the reactionary position that ‘a concert performance would be preferable’. Of course it is not; but the semi-staged solution adopted at the Albert Hall both then and now does afford us the great luxury of being able to concentrate entirely upon the score (words included).  Justin Way’s direction was keen, but was limited, so far as one could tell, to placing of the singers and presumably at least some advice concerning their stage interaction. If one has any sense, one takes what one can from different performances and productions, ever aware that no one performance will ‘have it all’. What I can say, however, is that there was, with the possible exception of the production, not a single element of this Proms Rheingold that was not preferable to Antonio Pappano’s at-best-amateurish attempts at Covent Garden to act as Haitink’s successor.

There was actually one other aspect of the Proms experience that lessened appreciation: a heavy-breather seated behind me. Not once, despite the hardest of stares, did he relent. It might sound trivial, but, in a drama that requires of its audience total concentration, it is possible to ignore. How I wish there were some Stasi-style opportunity to report such selfish behaviour and have the miscreant banished for future performances. Moreover, the entry of audience members during the descent to Nibelheim should never have  been permitted; I assumed at first that a highly conspicuous woman with shopping bag across the hall, seemingly heading for the stage, denoted a racy realisation of Mime. Such afforded amusement; others breaking the spell did not. Moreover, a telephone’s invasion of Nibelheim took the idea of Alberich’s technological breakthroughs far too literally.

Logistical matters detracted, but the drama remained the thing. Whereas, across town, Pappano has never proved able to maintain a Wagnerian line, Daniel Barenboim did so almost effortlessly. From the opening E-flat to the gods’ entrance into Valhalla, the drama unfolded as if heard in a single breath. If that sounds like the Fernhören of Barenboim’s idol, Furtwängler, then inspiration doubtless derives from that source, but the differences are at least as noteworthy. As I noted with respect to Barenboim’s Rheingold with similar forces in Berlin, there is perhaps a surprising degree of ‘objectivity’ that seems, given the evidence of two separate performances, to have become part and parcel of his conception. (On the evidence of Berlin, it is a feature only of Rheingold, but we shall see – or rather, hear.) It is a perfectly justifiable response to the frigid ‘pre-historical’ world of Wagner’s Vorabend, and has something in common with the readings of Karajan and Boulez. Some, at least, of the music one hears rather as if there were an aural counterpart to the  veil that would, according to Wagner’s directions, conceal Valhalla until the end. (In Berlin, Barenboim actually adopted the Bayreuth practice of covering the pit.) There were, moreover, even within a highly flexible reading as a whole, certain passages that intriguingly hinted towards the Neue Sachlichkeit of a composer such as Hindemith; Schoenberg, another Barenboim speciality, can doubtless wait until following evenings. Barenboim’s reading, in keeping with the relatively ‘objective’ approach, was often on the swift side, yet anything but superficial; there was, though, no tendency to linger, just for the sake of it, Wagner’s  textural variegation offering its own opportunities for æsthetic absorption. The conductor showed beyond doubt – not that there should ever have been any grounds for such naïve either/or oppositions – that a fully satisfying musical reading was perfectly consonant with, indeed dependent upon, dramatic communication of Wagner’s poem: to take but one instance, Barenboim almost punched the air on the ‘wiss’ Fasolt’s ‘Du Weiser, wiss’ es von ihm’, incitement to an accent that was musico-dramatic in the fullest sense of the term.

None of that, of course, could be accomplished without the burnished Staatskapelle Berlin. If this Proms Ring were to have but one lasting accomplishment, to have made London audiences once again aware of how Wagner might sound with the combination of a great orchestra and conductor would be achievement enough. The Prelude received a realisation – insofar as I could disregard the sub-Alberich breathing from behind – as close to perfect as anyone might reasonably hope for: neither Barenboim nor his orchestra offered ‘interventionism’, yet Wagner’s evolving vision of what his contemporary Marx termed ‘spontaneous generation’ told its own story, even when shorn of scenic realisation. As Wagner’s Dresden comrade-in-arms, Bakunin put it in his earlier essay, God and the State,  we hear ‘the gradual development of the material world … a wholly natural movement from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher,’ not ‘the vile matter of the idealists … incapable of producing anything,’ but ‘matter … spontaneously and eternally mobile, active, productive.’ The words might almost have been intended as a programme note – though they come a little more than a decade before Wagner’s composition.

The orchestral contribution was, a very occasional obscured entry notwithstanding, truly excellent: not in a quasi-narcissistic fashion, such as one heard sometimes with the Berlin Philharmonic’s Ring under Simon Rattle, but as a proper instantiation of Wagner’s Opera and Drama ‘Greek chorus’. A splendidly sepulchral Wagner tuba offered the deftest – a word one does not always necessarily associate with the instrument – upon Woglinde’s broaching the apparently absurd idea of renouncing love for gold.  And how the brass and timpani let rip when permitted to do so – for instance, upon the arrival of Fasolt and Fafner: larger than life in more than one sense. The transformation between the first scenes, in which the ring motif is dialectically transformed into that denoting Valhalla, owed a great deal to the timbral sophistication of middle-range instruments such as that baleful English horn, violas, and of course the increasingly tender horn.  Likewise the wind ageing of the gods upon Freia’s departure was second to none I have ever heard, effected with painful, cruel beauty, a telling comment upon Wagner’s Feuerbachian unmasking of delusions to immortality. (They looked increasingly frozen of aspect too, for which the director deserves credit.) It was a pity, then, that the anvils were so underwhelming: almost a case of spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. No matter: the horn-playing as Mime told us of old Nibelheim was so exquisitely, musically phrased that ‘wonnig Geschmeid’, nielichen Niblungentand’ came to life before our ears.

Barenboim’s cast was more than equal to the task , as distinguished a complement to the orchestra as anyone might reasonably hope for. The Rhinemaidens were near-idea in blend, as fine a trio as I can recall having heard, Anna Lapkovskaja’s Flosshilde perhaps especially radiant. Their final lament was as beautifully, heart-rendingly piercing as I can recall. Iain Paterson made a distinguished debut as Wotan, perhaps less authoritative than many, but the god of Das Rheingold is a less weighty figure than he will become. Attention to the text was exemplary throughout. Ekaterina Gubanova once again shone as Wotan’s consort. The portrayal of Fricka’s tenderness, an intimate portrait of a wronged, anxious wife, blossomed into splendidly divine self-assurance where necessary, but this was so much more than a mere harridan. When she approached Wotan following Erda’s intervention, Gubanova showed just how expertly she could spin out a line, not for its own sake but for dramatic effect, Barenboim her encouraging and trusting partner. Stephan Rügamer’s Loge was a vivid assumption, sardonic yet not caricatured, indeed at times beautifully sung.  The moment of shock upon Loge’s ‘Durch Raub!’ registered without being milked, testament to the artistry of both Rügamer and Barenboim. It verged upon a mini-caesura, at the very least a telling piece of punctuation, punctuation that nevertheless made sense in terms of the greater whole. (Alberich’s ‘Knecht’, as in his Act IV ‘als des Ringes Knecht’ curse, offered a telling parallel – and development, followed by the vilest orchestral fury, properly chilling.)

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Alberich was lighter than one generally hears, but he made a virtue of that, drawing our attention to the intricacies of Wagner’s poem. This Alberich could shade into Sprechgesang, for instance on the ‘Lust’ of ‘doch listig erzwäng’ ich mir Lust?’ The alienating darkness had chilling dramatic effect, so long as it were not over-employed, which it was not. Especially notable was the colouring of every word in his Nibelheim threats to his band of wage-slaves – ‘Zögert ihr noch? Zaudert wohl gar?’ Every word told, yet without disruption to phrasing. Barenboim’s pointing of rhythms as Alberich poured out sarcastic scorn upon Loge – ‘Der Listigste dünkt sich Loge; andre denkt er immer sich dumm...’ – offered an excellent example of the indissoluble union of singer and conductor, words and music; this was music drama at its finest. Peter Bronder’s Mime offered a fine evocation of proto-Nietzschean ressentiment, his pitiful anger formed by his lowly position within the world – Wotan’s, be it noted, as well as Alberich’s.  Eric Halfvarson and Stephen Milling made much of their roles as giants. Milling’s Fasolt was, quite rightly, more mellifluous, more sympathetic. Fafner’s insulting ‘Geck’ towards his lovelorn brother, the word veritably spat out, said it all. Nor of course, however predictable the assessment may be, should one forget Anna Larsson’s well-nigh definitive Erda, Mahler’s Urlicht palpably on the aural horizon. Everything, then, augurs well for Die Walküre this evening – not least the mendacious orchestral blaze for the gods’ closing Totentanz. A storm awaits.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Capriccio, Royal Opera, 19 July 2013

Royal Opera House

(concert performance)

Countess Madeleine – Renée Fleming
Olivier – Christian Gerhaher
Flamand – Andrew Staples
La Roche – Peter Rose
The Count – Bo Skhovus
Clairon – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Major-Domo – John Cunningham
Italian Singer – Mary Plazas
Italian Singer – Barry Banks
Servants – Pablo Bemsch, Michel de Souza, David Butt Philip, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Riches, Simon Gfeller, Jeremy Budd, Charbel Mattar
Monsieur Taupe – Graham Clark

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)

‘Wort oder Ton?’ may be the Countess’s question, but it is far from the only question asked in, let alone by, Capriccio. La Roche, for instance, introduces the rival element of the stage – and seems, by the force of his panegyric alone, to have won everyone over. (Not, of course that that brief meeting of minds and souls whole; once discussion of the opera begins, æsthetic and personal bickering resume.) The question of staging inevitably came to mind, here, of course, given the curious decision to present Capriccio in concert. Even if, as rumour has it, the decision to perform Strauss’s last opera was made late in the day, as a consequence of Renée Fleming having elected not after all to take on the role of Ariadne, it is difficult to understand why, instead of a desultory couple of concert performances, a production from elsewhere might not have been brought in. The Cologne Opera’s excellent, provocative staging, seen first at the Edinburgh Festival, would have been one candidate; so, by all accounts, would be Robert Carsen’s Paris production. (That is to leave aside the question, worthy of Capriccio itself, of why a singer wields such power at all. Gérard Mortier in Paris had the healthier attitude that if ‘stars’ were willing to perform in and to throw themselves wholeheartedly into interesting repertoire and stagings, all the better; if not, a house could and should manage perfectly well without them.)

Anyway, we had what we had – and I missed a full staging far less than I should ever have expected. Part of that was a matter of a generally strong musical performance, Ton winning out perhaps, but it seemed also to be a credit to the acting skills of the singers, who edged the performance towards, if not the semi-staged, at least the semi-acted. Though most did not follow Fleming’s lead – she has recently sung her role on stage – in dispensing with their scores, there was genuine interaction between them and more than a little moving around the stage in front of the orchestra. Presumably those credited with ‘stage management’ – Sarah Waling and Fran Beaumont – had some part in this far from negligible achievement too. Moreover, Fleming’s Vivienne Westwood gown, granted a lengthy description in the ‘production credits’, might as well have been intended for a staged performance.  

Fleming’s performance was more mixed than her fans would doubtless admit, or perhaps even notice. There was a good degree of vocal strain, especially at the top, accompanied at times by a scooping that should have no place in Strauss. It would be vain, moreover to claim that there were not too many times when one could not discern the words. That said, it seemed that there was an attempt to compensate for (relative) vocal deficiencies by paying greater attention to the words than one might have expected; there were indeed occasions when diction was excellent. She clearly felt the agonistic tensions embodied in the role, and expressed them on stage to generally good effect in a convincingly ‘acted’ performance. There were flaws in her final soliloquy, but it moved – just as the Mondscheinmusik did despite an unfortunate slip by the first horn.

It will come as no surprise that Christian Gerhaher excelled as Olivier. Both he and Andrew Staples offered winning, ardent assumptions of their roles as suitors for the affections of the Countess – and of opera itself. Gerhaher’s way with words, and the alchemy he affects in their marriage with music, remains an object lesson . His cleanness of tone was matched – no mean feat – by that of Staples, a more than credible rival. Peter Rose offered a properly larger than life La Roche, though vocally, especially during his paean to the theatre, it could become a little threadbare. Bo Skovhus may no longer lay claim to the vocal refulgence of his youth; he can still hold a stage, though, even in a concert performance, and offered a reading of the Count’s role that was both intelligent and dramatically compelling. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, whom I have had a few occasions to praise in performances outside this country, made a splendid Covent Garden debut as Clairon, rich of tone and both alluring and lively of presence. Graham Clark offered a splendid cameo as Monsieur Taupe, rendering the prompter’s late arrival genuinely touching. There was, moreover, strong singing, both in solo and in ensemble, from the band of servants, many of them Jette Parke Young Artists. John Cunningham’s Major-Domo faltered somewhat, but he had a good line in the brief declamatory. The audience clearly fell for Mary Plazas and Barry Banks as the Italian Singers, though I was not entirely convinced that some of those cheering understood that they were acknowledging Strauss in parodic mode.

Sir Andrew Davis led an estimable performance from the orchestra, the occasional fluff notwithstanding. There were moments of stiffness, not least in the Prelude; transitions were not always as fluid as they might have been. Davis, however, marshalled his forces well, and pointed up the myriad of references to other music, whether direct quotation or something more allusive. For all the perfectly poised nature of the ‘discussion’, we always know that Strauss (and thus music) will win out, as he did here. The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast: inevitable cavils notwithstanding, it remains highly recommended.

Unanswered Questions: Strauss's Capriccio

(original published as a programme essay for Royal Opera concert performances of Capriccio in July 2013)

San Francisco Opera production of Capriccio:
Simon Keenlyside (Flamand), Kiri Te Kanawa (Countess)


As the Capriccio Prelude opens, we enter musically and historically into a mordent-ornamented and mordantly ironic conversation. It is both playful and played at higher stakes than Strauss might previously have imagined; it seems to be a conversation that has been in progress for some time prior to our eavesdropping. What might we have heard, had we tuned in earlier? We both want and do not want to know, like the Countess Madeleine herself with her impossible choice between words and music; and the impossible choices Strauss, and we, must face.

Capriccio’s opening string sextet – the conceit being that it is itself a new work by Flamand – had already been performed before the opera’s 1942 premiere. The sextet’s first performance was given at the villa of Baldur von Schirach, the Vienna Gauleiter who helped Strauss to secure his Belvedere home and who concluded an agreement that would have had Strauss play a role in furthering Viennese musical life in return for protection for his Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice, and his grandsons. (They would not have to wear the Star of David in public and would enjoy the privilege of an ‘Aryan’ education.) Schirach had acted as patron to the 1941 Mozart Week of the German Reich, held in Vienna, during which Goebbels had given a speech at the State Opera, declaring that Mozart’s ‘music rings out every evening over homeland and front. It is part of what our soldiers are defending against the wild assault of Eastern barbarism.’ Schirach was one of the two defendants who spoke against Hitler at Nuremberg (the other being Albert Speer), and he would serve twenty years in Spandau Prison; he was released in 1966.

Baldur von Schirach
In negotiating with Schirach, Strauss was at one level simply – or not so simply – acting as he had long done with other patrons, royal, noble, political, or otherwise. Ariadne auf Naxos had shown that, though the patron called the tune, the artist might still retain integrity. Whether that were the case in such a radically different situation from that of Ariadne is another matter; now the musical arch-manipulator – Strauss always knows how to elicit the right response, even, perhaps especially, when one knows that one is being used  – was himself  manipulated.

What should we make of an opera conceived and first performed in such circumstances? It is hardly a work of overt protest, though how could it be? In its ‘aristocratic’ refinement, both verbally and musically, it stands at one level about as distant from the catastrophe enveloping Europe in the 1930s and ’40s as one could imagine. Yet when one considers it more deeply, all sorts of difficulties (intentional or otherwise) emerge, indeed defiantly present themselves. This might seem facile, but the very setting in France has resonances. Moreover, to have the Countess comparing the musical merits of Rameau vis-à-vis Couperin at this time in Nazi Germany is perhaps more telling than one might think. Brahms might have edited Couperin, but one will struggle to find his name or his music in Third Reich performances and musicology. Even leaving aside matters of nationality, such composers were not part of the musical mainstream; indeed, many composers would not necessarily have been well acquainted with their music. Strauss certainly was, and showed through his composition that he was: sometimes through direct quotation – for instance the ‘Air italien’ from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, when the composer is mentioned – and at other times through allusion. There seems, then, to be an assertion of humanist, perhaps aristocratic, values, lightly done, as needs must, yet which connects well with Strauss’s increasing re-immersion in the work of Goethe, with Metamorphosen as its ultimate fruit.

The apparently apolitical becomes highly political, whatever the straightforward ‘intention’. Arguably true, yet the Rococo – neo-Rococo? – setting cannot help but seem like a refuge, a retreat. We have, perhaps, returned to the Rosenkavalier problem, albeit intensified, for retreating from harmonic experiment after Elektra is one thing, withdrawing from a world of war and genocide quite another. Even in eighteenth-century terms, the aristocratic salon with exquisite manners and rarefied æsthetic debate contrasts sharply with what we know was to come after 1789. The alleged ‘truth’ of revolutionary art, exemplified by the studio of Jacques-Louis David, let alone the Paris of the sans-culottes, seems distant indeed. Yet we can hardly avoid considering it. Perhaps surprisingly, this is just the sort of setting favoured by Nazi cultural policy. Goebbels wanted Unterhaltung (entertainment), not Wagnerian challenge. Capriccio is certainly not unusual in offering an eighteenth-century setting. What is more unusual, though not unique, is the combination of that setting with such reflection, explicit and implicit, upon the nature of art and its relationship with its historical context. Masks and games both gratify and haunt: Straussian detachment and irony works its wonders through posing of questions without evident response (at least from the composer). In context, this was a reinstatement of the artistic criticism that so troubled Goebbels, who had requested that journals simply report upon the content of a piece rather than attempting assessment of its aesthetic quality.

Clemens Krauss, a skilled careerist, conducted the 1942 Munich premiere (with his wife Viorica Ursuleac singing the role of the Countess, by persuading Goebbels, with whom Strauss had once again fallen out of favour, to assume its patronage as part of a Strauss festival mounted in the honoured Hauptstadt der Bewegung. (The ‘Capital of the Movement’: Munich was always more palatable, more ‘home’, to the Nazis than ‘red Berlin’.) The director Rudolf Hartmann was present at the premiere, and recalled it thus (arguably with a dose of sugary romanticism that tells its own story):

Who among the younger generation can really imagine a great city like Munich in total darkness, or theatre-goers picking their way through the blacked-out street with the aid of small torches giving off a dim blue light through a narrow slit? All this for the experience of the Capriccio première. They risked being caught in a heavy air raid, yet their yearning to hear Strauss’s music, their desire to be part of a festive occasion and to experience a world of beauty beyond the dangers of war led them to overcome all these material problems... Afterwards it was difficult to relinquish the liberating and uniting atmosphere created by the artistic quality of the new work. But outside the blackened city waited, and one’s way homewards was fraught with potential danger.

Strauss’s æstheticism almost seemed confirmed in such an experience. What might once have seemed anti-political now offered an alternative or complementary community to that of the ‘real’ world.

Aerial bombing would very soon incinerate the Munich Nationaltheater. Wartime performances would nevertheless be heard subsequently in Darmstadt, in Dresden (whose destruction lay close) and, almost inevitably given Schirach’s patronage and predilections, in Vienna. Since so much of the drama concerns itself with artistic patronage, we almost seem invited by the material, even despite the composer, to consider the patronage of Schirach and Goebbels. How do we read in context a work in which it is the patroness, the Countess, who insofar as anyone can, resolves or, perhaps better, suspends dramatic conflicts?

Munich, May 1945
La Roche, moreover, takes an affectionate cue from the Jewish impresario Max Reinhardt, an old and valued collaborator of Strauss from the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, even before even their part in the foundation of the Salzburg Festival. In that context, it becomes crucially important, even a case of dissent, that La Roche/Reinhardt, riled by the impudence of callow poet and composer, has his say, above all in his dignified panegyric to the theatre. His monologue is boastful. Yet what La Roche says of himself – ‘Without my kind, where would the theatre be? – applies to art more generally. Art chips away at the political present’s would-be totalitarianism. What might, in Ariadne – dedicated to Reinhardt, its first director – have concerned itself more exclusively with the business of putting together and putting on an opera, takes on a different light in different times.


There may also be an echo of Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina, itself a defence of aristocratic culture, albeit during World War I rather than World War II, the first performance taking place in Munich in 1917. In a stroke of irony (perhaps someone should write an opera about this!) Pfitzner would be interned opposite Strauss’s Garmisch villa in 1945.  A presentiment closer to home might be the attack in Strauss’s 1901 second opera, Feuersnot by Kunrad upon the Wagnerphilister of Munich. If only, then, Strauss had not joined the party he had once excoriated by signing, alongside Pfitzner, Hans Knappertsbusch, and several others, the 1933 protest by the ‘Richard Wagner City Munich’ against ‘Mr Thomas Mann’, the ‘national restoration of Germany … [having] taken on definite form’. There was nothing necessarily ‘National Socialist’ about the protest; indeed, it had more in common with a far more conservative form of nationalism. Its defensive, philistine attitude towards Mann’s brilliant, provocative portrayal of Wagner as a ‘cultural Bolshevist’, and its acknowledgement of Hitler’s movement as national saviour nevertheless did none of the signatories any credit.

The outside world will not cease intruding. Schirach was not the most favoured of the Nazi establishment by this time, his criticism of conditions attending deportation of the Jews having annoyed the high command. Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler would in turn find occasion, even at this point when they might have had more pressing concerns, to visit petty humiliations upon Strauss, ensuring that he receive no public honour. Strauss’s conduct was not that of a moral beacon; still less so was Schirach’s. Yet that does not equate them with Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler. Strauss’s accommodationism, ‘real’ yet not without limits, was owed partly to his need to safeguard his grandsons, Richard and Christian, and somehow it all sounds very much more ‘real’ when one names them. Wort oder Ton – ‘words or music?’ – is far from the only question Capriccio asks us.