Friday, 28 October 2016

Alcina, Royal Academy Opera, 26 October 2016

Hackney Round Chapel

Images: Robert Workman

Alcina – Meinir Wyn Roberts
Bradamante – Hanna Poulsom
Melisso – Richard Walshe
Morgana – Lorena Paz Nieto
Oronte – William Blake
Ruggiero – Emma Stannard

Olivia Fuchs (director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

Chorus (chorus master: Ben Glassberg)
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Iain Ledingham (conductor)

I can say without any hesitation, still less exaggeration, that this is the best staging and performance of a Handel opera I have seen. Olivia Fuchs’s production takes us to AMNESIA, an S&M club with mind-altering substances – and activities – ready to hand, to foot, and indeed to any other part of the body so inclined or so compelled. Indeed, I do not think I have ever seen quite so much onstage crotch-grabbing, whether auto-erotically, or with partners. The sorcery of Alcina’s enchanted island lends itself readily to such a relocation. In the twinkling of an eye, or the snorting of a line, the transformation of pleasure-seeking fashion-victims into drugged captives perhaps speaks more clearly to us than would a spell that turned heroes into beasts, rocks, trees, or streams. (We still have the libretto, in any case.) I said ‘more clearly’, but perhaps I should have said more deeply, for the underlying evil of the one, especially when assisted by the instruments of sexual domination, is more apparent than it might be in a merely ‘picturesque’ version. Yannis Favoris’s stunning designs and Jake Wiltshire’s lighting – the headrush moment of transformation a memorable flash of inspiration – prove especially provocative, given the location: Hackney’s Round Chapel. It cannot have been quite what nonconformist founding fathers had in mind for their place of worship (at least not openly). All is true to the adventurous spirit of the Baroque, never ground down in futile attempts to recreate its alleged letter.


Not that the Konzept becomes too over-bearing; the human relationships, such as they are, become more prominent as the opera progresses. If anything, that is the problem for me: not with the production, but with the opera itself, or rather with my old bugbear of Handelian opera seria. There is some of Handel’s very finest music here, but the requirements of the genre, even when so much of the music is first rate, do tend to tedium, and militate against my ever especially caring about any of the characters. It is certainly not that opera seria must be like that, nor is it that Handel must be like that; in the latter case, one has only to turn to his great oratorios. Perhaps the opera might have been more generously – or ungenerously, according to one’s standpoint – cut. The role of Oberto, created for the boy treble, William Savage, was eliminated completely, but during the second and third acts, the succession of recitative and aria becomes a little wearisome. (Here, the opera was given with a single interval.) How welcome a trio was when it finally came. However, in a production designed as a showcase for splendidly talented young singers, one can understand why not, looking kindly upon the work’s undeniable longueurs.
Morgana (Lorna Paz Nieto)

Singers are, of course, often especially drawn to Handel; one can readily understand why. Clean lines, a consummate professional’s understanding of the voice and of vocal types, ample opportunities for display, with sometimes hair-raising coloratura: those qualities and more were all on offer from an exceptional cast. Ebb and flow between the characters, dramatic as well as musical, was well conveyed, Lorena Paz Nieto’s Morgana quite rightly shone most brightly in the first act, seductive in her cruelty. Emma Stannard and Hanna Poulsom traced the transformations of Ruggiero and Bradamante with considerable emotional depth. William Blake’s Oronte likewise very much came into his own as his character did too; he makes a highly credible doorman too. Richard Walshe made the most of his role as the tutor, Melisso; his bass as sharply focused as it was dark of tone. If, earlier on, Meinir Wyn Roberts’s intonation was not quite what one might ideally have hoped for in the title role, that should not be exaggerated; her performance grew in stature as the evening progressed, both emotionally and technically. There was, moreover, something of a Sutherland-like edge to her tone, which certainly helped mark out the role and its performance history. Members of the chorus, whether individually or corporately, impressed greatly throughout.

Alcina (Meinir Wyn Roberts)

The orchestra, too, was on excellent form, certainly the finest I have heard in a Handel opera staging. Warm, stylish, never precious, it was conducted with deep understanding, lightly worn, of Handel’s protean demands by Iain Ledingham. Tempi were varied, without exception well chosen, and with a fine appreciation of how individual numbers might contribute to a greater whole. The contribution of the solo cellist to his obbligato aria was simply outstanding; I could have listened to him all night. A rollicking pair of horns truly invigorated proceedings, very much as recorders would soothe them. Three cheers, then, once again to a Royal Academy Opera performance of the highest order.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Les Pêcheurs de perles, English National Opera, 19 October 2016


Zurga – Jacques Imbrailo
Nadir – Robert McPherson
Leïla – Claudia Boyle
Nourabad – James Creswell

Penny Woolcock (director)
Dick Bird (set designs)
Kevin Pollard (costumes)
Jen Schriever, Ian Jackson-French (lighting)
Andrew Dawson (movement)
59 Productions (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Roland Boër (conductor)

Images: Robbie Jack

Devotees of The Pearl Fishers: perhaps you should avert your eyes now. If it is a work you love and/or admire, nothing I might say about it will convince you otherwise, quite the contrary. Nor do I harbour any wish to do so. However, coming to it for the first time, I can only say that it must rank amongst the worst few non-Verdi, non-Donizetti operas I have seen from the benighted ‘repertoire’. That is not a comment on the production, dire though it may be; it is not a comment on the mixed bag of musical performances. The work ‘itself’, though, is something whose alleged attractions I cannot begin to discern.


Carmen it is not; even the blandest of bland Micaëla’s music seems red in tooth and claw compared to anything heard here. Indeed, the best music, such as it was, seemed to lie in the couple of minutes or so of very straightforward orchestral introduction, its slight promise ever remaining unfulfilled. And the story, such as it is? If we are to have Orientalism, might it not at least be a little more interesting than this? Perhaps bored members of a nineteenth-century Parisian audience might have found it mildly, although only mildly, ‘escapist’. To us, it is at best akin to what I imagine a Mills and Boon plot summary to be, albeit without the sex. There is no character development; there are barely any characters. If the relationship between Zurga, the village headman and Nadir, the pearl fisher, might be drawn out to include something homoerotic – it is surely impossible to take seriously the claim that either has any real interest in Leïla, our cipher ‘Priestess of Brahma’ – then that did not happen here.

Nadir (Robert McPherson) and Zurga (Jacques Imbrailo)

For Penny Woolcock’s production, ‘Made for the Met’ written all over it, is almost as bad as the opera itself. Its disingenuous nod to ‘relevance’, pretending somehow to be ‘about’ poverty, even natural disaster, whilst treating the ‘picturesque’ lives of others – Others – in touristic fashion to match any nineteenth-century colonist is unsatisfactory at best. Writing words such as this in a programme note confers in itself meaning and coherence neither upon the note nor upon the production allegedly related to it:
Despite its genesis, the preoccupations of The Pearl Fishers are fiercely contemporary. Climate change and rising sea levels have made ten million people homeless in the Bangladesh Delta alone and they survive on a wing and a prayer. After all, the sea rises higher, we still fall in love with people we’re not supposed to fall in love with, and irrational behaviour is not the exclusive province of others.
Do not worry, ‘colourful’ people: we are irrational too, and we feel your pain! Lengthy scene changes with ill-thought-through, cartoon-like ‘special effects’ do not help. It all looks ‘lovely’, though, especially to a middle-class white audience, amused by colourful make up and costumes, and a few children running around for no obvious reason. It might almost be Deborah Warner’s notorious Messiah ‘on location’. All-out ‘escapist’ fantasy might have been a better bet, or engagement with real colonialism and its aftermath: perhaps even some real attempt at interaction between the two. Naturalism with the figleaf of a socially concerned programme note is not just embarrassing; it is tediously embarrassing.

The ENO Orchestra and Chorus were, as usual, on good, often very good, form. Would that they had had more interesting material with which to work, the choruses in English sounding redolent of minor nineteenth-century anthem-land. Roland Böer’s conducting was somewhat stiff at times, but he seemed to know his way around a work hardly worth getting to know one’s way around. People rave about ‘the duet’; I found it excessively long and inconsequential, not helped by the fact that a considerably superior performance – as throughout – was to be heard from Jacques Imbrailo’s Zurga vis-à-vis Robert McPherson’s strained Nadir. (The character’s name is unsuited neither to the opera as a whole, nor to some of the tuning we endured.) Claudia Boyle handled Leïla’s coloratura well; however, her tone was often pinched earlier on. James Creswell sang well enough as the High Priest, Nourabad. Unsurprisingly, though, I have heard more involving performances from him. Perhaps a great performance and production might have lifted the opera; probably not. In any case, that did not in happen here.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Philharmonia/Pons - Schubert and Mahler, 16 October 2016

Royal Festival Hall

Schubert – Symphony no.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’, D 759
MahlerDas Lied von der Erde

Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Dean Smith (tenor)
Philharmonic Orchestra
Josep Pons (conductor)

First Christoph von Dohnányi had to withdraw, then, at the last minute, Matthias Goerne. Schubert and Mahler remained, though, alongside the Philharmonia Orchestra and Robert Dean Smith. They were joined by Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Josep Pons, in a decent enough concert, which neither truly disappointed, nor truly inspired, although I must admit that I felt more moved at the end of Das Lied von der Erde than I had done during its performance: testament, no doubt, to the enduring greatness of the work itself.

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony probably received the better of the two performances. The first movement’s opening was dark – how could it not be? – although I have certainly heard darker, not least from Bernard Haitink, in an identical programme with the LSO a few years ago. The Philharmonia’s playing was cultivated throughout, a keen sense on offer of the players listening to each other as chamber musicians. Pons proved somewhat rhetorical at times, arguably a little too much, but not unduly disruptively. I was struck once again by the harmonic daring and sheer darkness of the developmental night of the soul: there were no extraneous histrionics applied to the music, simply a sense of a great Romantic speaking truth about out human condition. A shadow, then, was cast over a nevertheless variegated recapitulation, the coda proving both dignified and defiant. The second movement flowed well, although its pulse was perhaps a little too close to that of its predecessor. Mood was contrasted enough nevertheless, if somewhat bright for my taste at times. Darker passages received their due, though, and there was a concluding sense of contentment in culmination.  

Das Lied von der Erde took a while, arguably a movement, to settle down. The opening was brusque, even brash. Woodwind shrillness made its point, but Pons drove too hard all in all. One can hardly fail to feel sympathy for the poor tenor in this work, but Dean Smith’s unpleasantness of tone sounded distinctly superannuated. He almost always managed to make himself heard, though. ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ was more sympathetically conducted, flowing in a way one might trace back to Schubert. There was strength beneath the surface too. Wyn-Rogers proved dignified and sincere: the Mahlerian heart was certainly weary, but humanity nevertheless survived. The third movement proved nicely rhythmical, with necessary flexibility. Dean Smith had the notes, but his expressionless delivery did little for me. ‘Von der Schönheit’ had a welcome sense of symphonic ‘following on’. Occasional lapses in orchestral ensemble surprised, although they were nothing too grievous. Both orchestra and voice imparted a sense of the pictorial, courting comparison with Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, without any danger of veering into contradiction between ‘drama’ and ‘music’. Dean Smith’s charmless, colourless singing overshadowed some at least of the considerable orchestral detail to be heard in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’. His vibrato was on the wide side, even for me. Pons conducted it briskly, but not without feeling: probably the best course of action in the circumstances.

Mahler marks the opening to ‘Der Abschied’ schwer, heavy; and that was just how it sounded. Mezzo, flute arabesques, and cello pedal soon combined to underline the music’s – our – desolation. If Wyn Rogers’s intonation were not always perfect, musical and poetic sense was always conveyed: a far more important a thing. Schoenberg seemed already to be with us in some of the orchestral textures – which he is, to all intents and purposes. Pons was sometimes a little deliberate, underlining figures that might have flowed, even flown, more freely, but I should not exaggerate. A cold wind indeed blew at times, chilling me to the bone, but there was consolation, if far from unalloyed, to be had through the bitterness, the sardonicism, the ghostly, echt-Mahlerian marionettes. If the orchestral interlude, if one can call it that, sounded a little thin of tone to begin with, it grew in symphonic stature, reminding us that this is not ‘just’ a song-cycle. The ‘liebe Erde’ was, ultimately, what we heard and felt; it was that Earth that won through.

Why o why, though, the instant applause? Are these people not only hard of hearing, but hard of humanity?


Sunday, 16 October 2016

Debargue/LPO/Jurowski - Haydn, Mozart, and Mahler, 12 October 2016

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Overture: Lo speziale
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor, KV 491
Mahler – Symphony no.4 in G major

Lucas Debargue (piano)
Sofia Fomina (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

It might sound odd to say that the Haydn overture was the biggest draw in the programme for me, but it probably was; it was certainly for me the most successful performance. Vivid, detailed, transparent: if only the performance had not been conducted so metronomically by Vladimir Jurowski. Still, there remained a fine sense of the piece, its character, its process. I do not know why Jurowski decided with a confused sense of theatre to move out of the way and have the excellent flute soloist lead the central section from the front, but it benefited from being less hard-driven. The joy of the briefest of reprises was well conveyed.


Lucas Debargue joined the orchestra for Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto. Alas, the best of this performance was to be heard in the orchestra, rather than the keyboard, the LPO’s long experience in Mozart proving telling, and the many virtues of the Haydn performance equally apparent here. Jurowski’s formalism was less overt and in some respects helped to clarify. Debargue’s performance, however, seemed more a performance observed, even imitated, rather than lived. Bar lines were all too audible, although there was some nice shading within, at least in the first movement. The problem, of course, was that Mozart’s writing here is anything but regular; the music often veered dangerously close to sounding like Clementi. In the development, the soloist seemed to be trying too hard to be ‘soulful’. As for the cadenza, I have no idea whose it was, but its strange attempt to marry generic ‘Baroque’ figuration with a few sentimental sub-nineteenth-century harmonies is not something I wish to hear repeated, especially at such length.


The slow movement’s opening phrase displayed the indifference of mezzo forte, almost as if the pianist were intent on showing that a modern piano should not be used here. Ornamentation sounded as if it had been imported from a very moderate idea of jazz. The tempo was spot on, though, and the LPO woodwind sounded truly enchanting. A highly sectional approach to the movement as a whole was replicated in the finale, Jurowski’s regimentation more troubling here, although the orchestra itself sounded splendid. We had another bizarre cadenza, confused of tonal direction, and very much of the ‘bad nineteenth century’.


‘Bizarre’ was one of the words that came to mind concerning Jurowski’s laboured approach to the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which chugged along joylessly, rather like a bad parody of a third-rate contemporary of Mozart – or an inept performance of Stravinsky. Again, it should be stressed that the playing of the LPO was first-rate; the fault lay with the conductor. Whether metronomic, again, or with strangely mechanical accelerandi, Jurowski seemed unable to let the music speak. At times, it dragged unbearably; then it would be pulled around, for no apparent reason. I began to fear that the movement would never end, not something I have ever felt before. The gentle grotesquerie of the second movement fared better, rhythms tight, but that tightness coming from within. There was still a good deal of that arbitrary stopping and starting, but less. I loved the alienated excellence of the LPO woodwind timbre; if only it had been put to better use.


There was some splendidly dark playing from the lower strings at the opening of the slow movement; the sweetness of the violins added to an intriguing sense of Brahms. It was somewhat stiffly conducted, but at least structure was generally clear, and there was a sense of Mahler’s debt here to Beethoven. Some very strange orchestral balances later on proved disconcerting, as did some distracting noises from both within and without the hall. The finale again benefited from fine orchestral playing; again, Jurowski’s conducting was mixed in quality, that mix essentially a combination of earlier tendencies. Sofia Fomina’s bright, often dramatic soprano did not always have the greatest diction, but she was better than many here. Jurowski, however, seemed determined to whip up orchestral brashness just for the sake of it, or in order to magnify a contrast upon its subsidence. Disappointing.


Thursday, 13 October 2016

Igor Levit - Beethoven, 9 October 2016

Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.24 in F-sharp major, op.78
Piano Sonata no.4 in E-flat major, op.7
Piano Sonata no.9 in E major, op.14 no.1
Piano Sonata no.10 in G major, op.14 no.2
Piano Sonata no.26 in E-flat major, op.81a

The second instalment in Igor Levit’s Beethoven series at the Wigmore Hall proved a worthy successor indeed, each of these five sonatas genuinely illuminated. A true Adagio opening to the F-sharp major Sonata proved prophetic for the rest of the first movement in its tonal – in more than one sense – warmth. That unerring sense of line on which I had previously remarked was equally present here, the spaces between notes just as much part of their phrases as the notes themselves. This is a difficult work; or at least it is as soon as one begins to listen to it. Its difficulty is, however, a gracious difficulty, and so it sounded in performance. Echoes, even at this stage, of Haydn, but also intimations of Schumann were to be heard; there was no doubting, however, Beethoven’s endless searching for himself, for invention and reinvention. Such was also true of the second movement, although its character was, of course, quite different. Who else could make such a scampering Bagatelle-on-steroids the only possible response? That needs to be accomplished in performance too; it requires harmonic understanding as well as virtuosity. Both were present and correct here, the modernity, perhaps even modernism, of the latter hinting even at Liszt and Prokofiev.

After so enigmatic a work, the directness of the opening to the Op.7 Sonata proved a splendid response. Metre is of such importance here, and so it was in Levit’s account, but as much for what it enables harmonically and melodically as simply in itself. The passing of a melodic line between hands was an object lesson in how it ‘should be done’. Moreover, one really heard and felt how simple figures and devices are transmuted into something special indeed. The slow movement is perhaps a difficult jigsaw puzzle to solve, not least since it must not sound like a jigsaw puzzle at all. A sense of the whole is crucial, likewise a sense of affinity to the great symphonic slow movements Beethoven was yet to write, and indeed to operatic arioso. A sure structural and dramatic hand is needed to evoke all that and more; that we certainly had here, in a performance both outward and inward. The grace of the Minuet did not mask, but rather released, Beethovenian depth. Never overstating the menace of the Trio ensured that its almost Schubertian passion emerged all the more powerfully. Neo-Classical, post-Mozartian, call what you will the loveliness of the rondo theme: that quality was immanent, yet the reading remained entirely devoid of sentimentality; this was, quite rightly, anything but easy listening. The ferocity of much of the movement came as quite a surprise and cast quite a shadow; it had me rethink many of my preconceptions.

The second half opened with the two op.14 Sonatas, of which the first, in E major, opened with clarity, elegance, and just the right note of Beethovenian gruffness. I loved the sense of drum rolls in the bass, and indeed of quartet textures – not for nothing did Beethoven choose this sonata to arrange – elsewhere. All three movements were ultimately guided by harmonic rhythm, but that did not mean there was no time to enjoy the moment, the voicing of the minor-key second movement an especial joy. A regularity I might a priori have thought restricting proved just the thing to have the surprises of the finale’s twists and turns enthral as they should.   

The first movement of the G major companion sonata was taken swiftly, yet never sounded hard-driven; there was, again, plenty of space for necessary reflection. Drive came in and through the drama, which was as sharply characterised and focused as in any performance I can recall. Levit played the second movement straight: very wise. (I recall with horror a performance I gave as a student in which I pulled it around without mercy – or understanding.) Beethoven was taken at his word, with exquisite, yet never self-regarding, touch. The finale was taken very fast; it is, after all, marked Allegro assai. So ‘right’ did that sound, that it was impossible to imagine it convincing any other way. Again, metre and rhythm sounded as enablers, even creators, of melody and harmony. When one gave the matter the briefest of consideration, though, one realised that it might well have been the other way around.

The opening of Les Adieux signalled a different, more emotionally complex world, Levit’s nobility of utterance foreshadowing the late sonatas. Another layer of complexity was added, almost ironically, and certainly dialectically, in the relative straightforwardness of the exposition. That is, until one really listened, and appreciated that it was anything but. Counterpoint was wondrously clear, and above all harmonically meaningful: Bach lived a second, third life. The second movement seemed to breathe an almost Wagnerian air. That was subject to change, to transformation, but the sense of something akin to orchestral utterance was strong, even remarkable. Freedom in fantasy was necessarily born of a security of tonal plan, out of which the finale burst in all its richness, variety, and profound humanity, almost as if the life-force itself. Such is Beethoven, the letter and the spirit as one. Yet it takes a great performance, which this certainly was, to have one truly appreciate that. Such a performance will also question itself at the same time as it speaks with confidence; needless to say, Levit accomplished that too. Onwards and upwards.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

London International Piano Festival - Brendel/Várjon - Liszt, 7 October 2016

Hall One, Kings Place

Piano Sonata in B minor, S 178

Alfred Brendel (speaker)
Dénes Várjon (piano)


No composer is more deserving of opening a piano festival than Liszt. The modern piano recital is his invention – and what any of us would have given to have heard him just once! Modern piano technique is his too, or at least its foundations are. And yet, as Alfred Brendel rightly pointed out in his opening lecture, jealousy has long prevented Liszt as composer from having anything like his due. That he was misunderstood, misrepresented, all the rest, we all know; what continues to shock is quite persistent the nonsense spoken about him has proved. Brendel gave a reasonable introduction to some of the issues, although sadly, his lecture rarely rose above a somewhat laboured version of a ‘Sunday colour supplement’ approach. Even ‘analysis’ was little more than basic description, however lovely it was to hear the sound Brendel’s Central European voice. Had he been edited, he would have had time to say much more. As it was, we were tantalised by occasional examples played on the piano, which suggested that he could still have made a decent enough attempt at the B minor Sonata.

It was a pity, I think, that we had not had a conversation between Brendel and Dénes Varjón before the latter came to the stage to perform the Sonata, since their conceptions of the work seemed to be very different indeed. Varjón presented a more rhapsodic view of the work, whereas Brendel spoke in terms that almost suggested formalism. I am sure it was not that Varjón was unaware of the work’s structure, but it was certainly not brought to the fore, which made for a somewhat odd disjuncture. Leaving Brendel on one side, though, did the performance convince?

In part, but only in part, would be my answer. The Introduction was promising, Liszt’s motifs full of expectation: there was a true sense, I felt, of the fragmentary, but a fragmentary that necessitated, even predicted fulfilment. Whether it were the bright acoustic or Varjón’s touch – I think it was a bit of both – I did not care for the harshness in the treble as the exposition proper announced itself. The second group fared better, with deeper tone, even a degree of charm. Something more Mephistophelian – especially when it came to that nagging figure – would not have gone amiss later on, though. Moreover, passagework tended to sacrifice effect to clarity, rather like those performances of Strauss tone poems in which one hears a little too much of the individual notes, but not the wash of sound. On the other hand, Varjón’s handling of fioritura (written in, of course!) was often impressive. The ‘slow movement’ showed that clarity need not be achieved at the expense of soul, quite the contrary; for me, it was the strongest part of the performance. Much of what followed proved curiously anonymous, although the notes were almost always present and correct. Until, that is the coda, which granted retrospectively a perhaps surprisingly strong impression of cyclical form.

Following the performance, Brendel was to return, in conversation with Alan Rusbridger. I was unable to stay, so cannot report back on that. However, here, for anyone who might be interested, are some thoughts of mine on Liszt as a composer of keyboard music (the Sonata included), from a lecture in Bergen op Zoom.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Tosca, English National Opera, 3 October 2016

(sung in English)

Tosca (Keri Alkema), Spoletta (Scott Davies), and Scarpia (Craig Colclough)
Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Floria Tosca – Keri Alkerna
Mario Cavaradossi – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Baron Scarpia – Craig Colclough
Cesare Angelotti – Andri Björn Róbertsson
Sacristan – Adrian Powter
Spoletta – Scott Davies
Sciarrone – Graeme Danby
Gaoler – Robert Winslade Anderson
Shepherd Boy – Alessandro MacKinnon

Catherine Malfitano (director)
Donna Stirrup (revival director)
Frank Peter Schlössman (set designs)
Gideon Davey (costumes)
David Martin Jacques, Kevin Sleep (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Oleg Caetani (conductor)


Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them. Catherine Malfitano’s production once had a somewhat literalistic yet straightforward integrity to it; now it seems simply to flounder. When I saw it previously, in 2011, the Personenregie at least proved generally accomplished; here it veers (too little rehearsal time for a revival, perhaps?) between the non-existent and the all-too-local am-dram. The lack of any discernible concept thus matters far more than previously it did. We simply have sets and costumes and wandering around. Quite why the Sacristan looks as though he comes from Shoreditch-cum-Kandahar I have no idea. Nor do I understand the weirdly inter-galactic backdrop for the third act. The rest – well, the rest is unobjectionable, yet nothing more.

Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and Tosca

The ENO Orchestra, as usual, was on excellent form. Oleg Caetani summoned up some luscious sounds, especially in the third act, although I found the first act a little jocular in tone. There was, in general, a reasonable sense of line, although Caetani fell some way short of the more distinguished ‘symphonic’ realisations. (No, it is not really quite the right word, but we all know what it means in this context.) Greater variegation would also have been welcome; I never felt Caetani was engaging with anything other than the score’s (impressive) surface. Choral singing was also of a high standard; let us never forget the sterling work the chorus undertakes day in, day out.

It was not, however, a vintage night for solo singing. Keri Alkerna offered an alert performance in the title role, but it rarely caught fire until the second act, and only intermittently then. Gwyn Hughes Jones clearly has quite a following at the Coliseum. Although he certainly has vocal heft, I was unable to discern much beyond that in his Cavaradossi: his singing was generalised – far too often a problem in this role, I have found – and his acting at best rudimentary. Craig Colclough’s underpowered Scarpia came across in strangely camp fashion, at least on those occasions when his voice rose above the orchestra and/or chorus. I am all for revisionist readings, but pantomime villain faces are not a satisfactory substitute for true malevolence. The smaller roles, however, tended to impress, Andri Björn Róbertsson’s Angelotti, Scott Davies's Spoletta, and young Alessandro MacKinnon’s Shepherd Boy were all especially well presented.

There was nothing bad here, then, but nor was there much over which to rejoice. Next time, might we have something that engages with the dramatic possibilities of the work, rather than pandering to the reactionary ‘taste’ of an imaginary ‘general’ audience? The Arts Council has behaved disgracefully towards ENO, but timidity never helped anyone, and it certainly does not help Puccini.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Komsi/Calder Quartet - Eötvös and Debussy, 1 October 2016

Wigmore Hall

Eötvös – Korrespondenz (String Quartet no.1)
Debussy – String Quartet in G minor, op.10
Eötvös – The Sirens Circle (world premiere)

Piia Komsi (soprano)
Benjamin Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook (violins)
Jonathan Moerschel (viola)
Eric Byers (cello)


The world premiere of Peter Eötvös’s The Sirens Cycle was preceded by the composer’s first string quartet, Korrespondenz (1992) and Debussy’s early-ish work, from almost a century earlier (1893). The fascinating dramatic concept of Eötvös’s work lies in the correspondence of Mozart with his father, Leopold, from Wolfgang’s time in Paris: it is, the composer writes, ‘a mini opera for string quartet’. Does the concept offer more than it delivers? Perhaps. Once beyond the first of three short movements – scenes, perhaps? – I did not pay much attention to the ‘programme’, nor really to the viola as son and the cello as father, the two violins watching over ‘as two protective spirits or observers’. But is that not what we generally, rightly or wrongly, say makes for good programme music? At any rate, the characterisation, whether tied to that initial conception or no, endured as the instruments’ lines progressed. The excellent Calder Quartet offered confident performances, ‘language’ of whichever nature internalised – and then externalised. If they were gestural performances, they remained musico-gestural. And if the musical language spoke of the Expressionist past at times, there was also something of Stockhausen and Ligeti, at least to these ears.


Debussy’s Quartet benefited from a warm, Romantic, yet far from un-Gallic opening. The nature of the string sound, and its possibilities, became increasingly variegated as the first movement progressed. Hearing it after Korrespondenz, certain figures emerged as having something in common. There was also a continuing sense of drama to be heard, to be felt, arguably more so, or rather more conventionally so, than in Pelléas et Mélisande, the opera shortly to come. Climaxes were very well shaped indeed. Characterful playing, with a fine sense of rhythm, marked the scherzo, although certainly not to the detriment of other parameters. Indeed, dynamic gradations proved splendidly expressive of the movement’s contours, both directly and indirectly. The opening of the slow movement seemed to speak of a ‘vieille France’ not entirely different from that of the Schola Cantorum, but the response, sweetly yet far from sentimentally post-Romantic, brought Pelléas to mind. Those tendencies and others intertwined productively, until the finale emerged, at least initially, as perhaps the most modern, even modernist, of the movements. Bartók occasionally came within aural view. At other times, the work’s cyclical nature reasserted itself with a glance to the recent past, but never as ‘mere’ return.


The Sirens Cycle was co-commissioned by the Zurich Tonhalle Society, the Frankfurt Alte Oper, Madrid’s Centro Nacional de Difusion Musical, IRCAM, the Paris ProQuartet-Centre européen de musique de chambere, the Südwestrundfunk, and the Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann: just the sort of thing, then, to gladden the hearts of our blessed government. To quote the composer, it is again ‘the outcome of an operatic idea, that of putting forward a solo soprano accompanied by a string quartet as if by a choir’. His starting point was Kafka’s Das Schweigen der Siren. ‘This subject so engaged me that I drew in also, and thematically connected to the Kafka, siren motifs from Homer and Joyce.’ Here, I felt the ambition more fully, consistently realised than in Korrespondenz.


I could not help but feel the shadow, far from exhausted yet, of Pierrot lunaire, not oppressively so, but perhaps more as a guardian angel. Some of the characteristics, comparisons, I observed in Korrespondenz, announced themselves in the first part, that drawn from Joyce, but in the context of an extraordinary coloratura performance from Piia Komsi, and, of course, of Joyce’s words, they did not detain me. The string-only opening to the third short movement (in this first part), ‘O Rose!’, sounded almost as if a response to Debussy, although, of course, Simon Dedalus – and, it seems, Eötvös too – brought us also, or instead, the light opera of Balfe (The Rose of Castille) and Flotow (Martha). Then, ‘O Rose!’: for me, a brush with Mahler’s ‘Röslein’, although what followed, turned out differently indeed. Words, their resonances, the new use to which they may be put: such, after all are part of the business of Ulysses. The éclat of ‘Snack la cloche!’ and the downward vocal glissando on ‘Jingle bloo’ spoke of a different, yet connected, and yes, sirenic world. ‘Liszt’s rhapsodies’ in no.6 briefly, tantalisingly, evoked all manner of personal correspondences, without ever standing out unduly. Komsi’s ecstasy in the final of these seven movements, upon ‘Pray for him!’ offered a truly operatic climax.


With Homer, of course, the language switched to Greek. Retuning too, was necessary, for an interlude in which the first violin, now briefly the vocalist, is ‘accompanied’ by music on three instruments, but six staves (so, at any rate, I learned, from Paul Griffiths’s programme note). Double-stopped trills led us to Homer himself, to soprano recitative (with chimes). Scherzo-like writing – something almost neo-Schoenbergian, which I could not quite put my finger on – gave way to a more overtly sirenic close. The string opening to the final, Kafka part, sounded as if a fusion of quartet and operatic interlude. Kafka’s absence of sirenic song made its point just as powerfully as had its presence. Eötvös shaped a highly convincing musico-dramatic trajectory here, even upon a first hearing. The instrumental close spoke, at least to me, of a post-Romantic melancholy which yet again brought Schoenberg to mind: in this case, with quasi-concertante writing for the first violin, superbly realised by Benjamin Jacobson, the Phantasy for violin and piano, op.47.

Don Giovanni, English National Opera, 30 September 2016

Leporello (Clive Bayley) and Don Giovanni (Christopher Purves)
Images: (c) Robert Workman

(sung in English)
Don Giovanni – Christopher Purves
Commendatore – James Creswell
Donna Anna – Caitlin Lynch
Don Ottavio – Allan Clayton
Donna Elvira – Christine Rice
Leporello – Clive Bayley
Masetto – Nicholas Crawley
Zerlina – Mary Bevan

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor).
Richard Jones (director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)
A perfect staging of Don Giovanni is too much to hope for, especially when the ‘traditional’ conflation of Prague and Vienna versions is employed. Perfection is reserved for Mozart, of course, although Da Ponte does not do badly at all here. But the opera in any case does not have the absolute dramatic perfection of the other two Mozart Da Ponte operas; its greatness, like that of Wagner’s operas, lies partly in the impossibility of the challenge it sets. Even Don Giovanni himself, after all, fails to live up to the expectations voiced in the Catalogue Aria; or at least he usually does.

Don Ottavio (Allan Clayton) and Donna Elvira (Christine Rice)

That said, so many stagings fail so dismally, that it is a great pleasure to welcome one that (mostly) convinces as a piece of intelligent theatre, if one that might well have been seen twenty years or so ago. Like most productions – not, I hasten to add, the still eminently watchable Salzburg Herbert Graf production, for Furtwängler – it fails to reckon with the work’s religion and theology. Sin goes unconsidered. Nevertheless, Richard Jones shows a commendable willingness to consider many of the ideas and (potential) problems, and to weld them into a far from inconsiderable narrative – and challenge, both to us and to the work (‘itself’ and reception). What Jones’s staging and the designs of Paul Steinberg and Nicky Gillibrand lack in apocalyptic grandeur and high stakes, they gain in connection to the tawdry here and now (or perhaps ‘here and then’: we are a few decades in the past). If Giovanni cannot be an aspirant Faust – the nineteenth-century and indeed Straussian hero – perhaps he can be, if not quite Everyman, then a familiar manipulator and exploiter. The visual æsthetic is familiar House of Jones, although less clichéd than some of its wares, but the Personenregie is tight.

I worried to begin with about the lack of specificity, even coherence. During the Overture, a series of women – and one Leporello look-alike, or at least dress-alike – pass by, cannot refuse the seedy veteran (a nice touch!) seducer, and gain their ten seconds of fame with him behind a hotel/brothel door. For the first scene, a sado-masochistic (lightly so: this is certainly not Calixto Bieito, or, less successfully, for the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Roland Schwab) scene announces itself, the Commendatore a hypocrite, Donna Anna, playing on ETA Hoffmann’s ghost, opening up her own deceptive narrative; how much she is deceiving herself, her father, Don Giovanni, her fiancé, us, is unclear, and productively so. So far, so good, but is it not a bit odd for so much of the rest of the action to take place in the same setting? It seems too specific, too limiting, or, on the other hand, not nearly liminal enough. (The brilliant Munich staging by Stephan Kimmig, perhaps the best I have seen, certainly the equal of Bieito, is the place to go for the latter.) Such a concern, however, was largely banished by the strength of character and narrative drive drawn out – an old-fashioned virtue this, and as necessary a virtue as ever – by Jones.   

Donna Anna (Caitlin Lynch), Commendatore (James Creswell), Don Ottavio (Allan Clayton)

What saves – and I suppose that is, irredeemably, as it were, a theological concept – the production from mere modern-ish conventionality, is the long game that Jones plays, revealing his hand only at the end of the Stone Guest scene, and only granting us full understanding in the final, endlessly alienating scene itself. (If you do not want to know his surprise, please look away now, and move on to the next paragraph.) Eschewing atheistic heroism of the old school, and avoiding Hell, or perhaps perpetuating it – insert Sartre quotation here, if so inclined – the old rake, at the last, accepts his servant’s offer to take his place with the Commendatore. That has been cunningly prepared by what at first seems an irrelevant Jones cliché: Leporello’s creepy, verging-upon-yet-not-quite-attaining-outlandish orange wig. The aforementioned Leporello look/dress-alike, part of the chorus, as the work progresses, helps keep it in mind, or at least in visual memory. In lieu of a change of clothes in the second act – yes, we lose the distinction of social order here, which is something, but not necessarily everything – a change of wig does the trick. And it will again, and again. Not only does Giovanni, his grim work far from done, take Leporello’s place in the final sextet, he picks out the Leporello-alike from the chorus as his new servant, and the events witnessed in the Overture start up once again.

Donna Anna and Don Giovanni

Musically, we were on strong ground. Mark Wigglesworth, following an Overture that came a little too close to Rossini – however fast, or not, Mozart should never sound inflexible – offered a reading which, whilst rarely close to the Romantic grandeur of Furtwängler or Barenboim, impressed on its lighter terms. Tempi were varied, and that is the important thing, and there was always life to be heard, to be felt, in the music. The playing of the ENO Orchestra – and the singing of the cruelly victimised Chorus – was always excellent. If there were more light than shade, the scales were not tipped unduly, and the production offered a goodly amount of the latter. Wigglesworth, who really should be reinstated as Music Director yesterday, paced the work with a mastery born not only of lengthy acquaintance, but of intimate understanding. Kate Golla’s harpsichord continuo – no modish, and historically ‘incorrect’, fortepiano here – proved just as alert to the needs of the drama and, more generally, of the words (even when less than happily and/or accurately translated).
Christopher Purves’s assumption of the title role was, crucially, very much in line with what seemed to be Jones’s view of work and character alike. He had seen it all, and would see it all again. Initially, he might seem like an ordinary bloke, but when it mattered, not least in the serenading of ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra’, he was transformed – and transformed the situation. There were a few passages when Purves sounded a little tired, but even those could, with a little good will, be readily assimilated into the concept. Clive Bayley’s Leporello was, likewise, quite different from what has become the norm, but was equally convincing on its own terms. Allan Clayton offered an object lesson in the art of the lyric tenor, his Don Ottavio blessed with as honeyed a tone as one could wish for. Caitlin Lynch’s Donna Anna was more variable, not always on top of her coloratura, and less than convincing dramatically. Christine Rice’s Donna Elvira, on the other hand, proved brilliantly unstable – in a dramatic rather than a vocal sense. The production seemed curiously uninterested in Mary Bevan’s Zerlina, but there was some fine singing to be heard, in tandem with Nicholas Crawley’s truly excellent, darkly attractive Masetto, so much more than a stock buffo character. James Creswell’s still darker Commendatore was as finely sung as we have come to expect from this artist.

Masetto (Nicholas Crawley) and Zerlina (Mary Bevan)

I only have one real complaint. As with the Royal Opera’s recent new Così fan tutte, the greatest impediment to a successful evening proved to be bad behaviour from a selfish section of the audience. Where do these people come from, laughing hysterically at someone walking onstage, applauding all over the place, chattering, consulting their telephones throughout? (They seemed to find the use of a telephone onstage too hilarious for words: a double whammy, I suppose, which needless to say necessitated use of their own.) I am not sure that a single number went uninterrupted, in one way or another, by the man seated next to me, who remained quite impervious to even the hardest of stares. Such disrespect shown to the performers, to the rest of the audience, to the work itself, is unforgivable. A performance of Don Giovanni is a privilege for all concerned; one is, or should be, a participant, not a sociopathic ‘customer’. Nevertheless, the evening for the most part rose above such distractions: no mean achievement at all.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

R.I.P. Sir Neville Marriner, 1924-2016

Although I knew his work from countless recordings, I only heard Neville Marriner conduct once, in a concert held at the Royal Festival Hall more than two years ago, to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. In Mozart and Elgar, with his beloved Academy of St Martin in the Fields, time had not stood still, but rather had brought great joy and wisdom. I was also delighted to write the English-language programme note for a concert he conducted as recently as the end of August, this year, at the Salzburg Festival. His abiding civilisation, thoughtfulness, musicality, and sheer good character, always lightly worn, unmistakeable to those with ears to hear, will remain with us longer still.