Saturday, 20 May 2017

L'incoronazione di Poppea (arr. Elena Kats-Chernin), Komische Oper, 19 May 2017

Komische Oper, Berlin


Images: Iko Freese
Arnalta (Thomas Michael Allen), Amor (Peter Renz)
 

(sung in German, as Die Krönung der Poppea)



Poppea – Alma Sadé
Nerone – Dominic Köninger
Ottavia – Karolina Gumos
Otho – Maria Fiselier
Seneca – Jens Larsen
Arnalta – Thomas Michael Allen
Nurse – Tom Erik Lie
Valletto – Tansel Akzeybek
Druislla – Julia Giebel
Damigella, Fortune – Talya Lieberman
Amor – Peter Renz
Virtue – Katarzyna Włodarczyk
Liberto – Adrian Stooper
 

Barrie Kosky (director)
Felix Seiler (revival director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Katharina Tasch (costumes)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)
Alexander Koppelmann (lighting)


Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Matthew Toogood (conductor) 

The drowning of Seneca (Jens Larsen)

Monteverdi in German, with an orchestra containing saxophones, vibraphone, and castanets, and a continuo group including various electric (and acoustic) guitars and theorbo, directed by Barrie Kosky: definitely not one for Sackbuts R Us and whatever its splinter groups might be calling themselves at the moment. Farewell, then, to those whose smelling salts did the trick a little too well, or who are too busy clutching their pearls to read further. You will, alas, miss the bit when I say that my problem – not to be overstated – with Elena Kats-Chernin’s realisation (or whatever we wish to call it) of L’incoronazione di Poppea was that it did not go further, or perhaps rather that it sometimes went far enough, but not quite in the right (or the better) direction.

Nerone (Domink Köninger) and Poppea (Alma Sadé)
 

This is a revised version, premiered this year, of the version given in 2012 of all three Monteverdi operas (in a single day!), at the beginning of Kosky’s tenure here as Intendant. It seems that there was some dissatisfaction with what came of this part of the trilogy, Kosky, in a typically revealing programme interview, speaking of Poppea having sounded as though it were not quite finished, Orfeo (Orpheus) and Ulisse (Odysseus) having received very much their own soundworlds whereas Poppea had sounded ‘a little pale and vague’. That certainly did not seem to be the case here. There were, though, times – especially earlier on, so maybe it was a case of my ears becoming accustomed – when I felt there was a certain prettifying gilding of the lily, or a ‘busyness’ almost for its own sake, not least with unwanted (to my ears) complication of extra passing notes, suspensions, and so forth: not unlike, perhaps ironically, what one often hears in certain, allegedly ‘period’, interventionist continuo playing. On the whole, though, and despite those passages that sounded somewhat oddly as if they had an air of the Christmas medley to them. There was an especially attractive – and attractively played – oboe obbligato at some point. (I am afraid I cannot remember quite where.) What I missed was the real sense of a truly modernist reinterpretation. Henze’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria remains an exemplar in that respect, to my ears (and to Thomas Allen’s) more redolent of the Mediterranean than any other. This was perhaps more jazzy Respighi – which may or may not be to everyone’s taste, but such will always be the case with recreation of a Monteverdi opera. A great ‘what might have been’ was the Poppea Berio was said to have been at work on when he died; perhaps, however, even that may be better off in the imagination of our minds.

Amor
 

For reference, the orchestral forces were two oboes, two saxophones (alto, and one covering alto, tenor, and baritone), two trumpets (second also on flugelhorn), cimbasso, percussion (vibraphone, maracas, castanets, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum, and ‘others’), nine violas, four cellos, two double bass; the continuo group was made up of two guitars (electric, and acoustic, also playing banjo, mandolin, dobro, 12-string steel guitar, ukulele, jazz guitar, Hawaii guitar, slide guitar), cello, synthesiser, and theorbo). There was much in the way of atmosphere, perhaps more when it came to the continuo instruments (arguably closer to a ‘modern’ interpretation of the Monteverdian ensemble). Conductor Matthew Toogood is credited with the ‘concept and arrangement of continuo parts’ – so presumably part, at least, of the credit for that should go to home. He generally paced the action well, and with variety, although there were a few occasions – usually no more than a bar or two – in which the tension sagged: more, it seemed, a matter of rhythms needing tightening up than anything grievous in the longer term.

 

Kosky speaks of the music’s temperature of a sweltering summer, even when (yes, even in this realisation!) we are down to just a couple of instruments. Katrin Lea Tag’s set designs thus suggests, rather than pedantically represents, a volcanic landscape: ‘hot stone boulders in a dry and desolate expanse’. The characters bring, as it were, the juice, the refreshment, but it is a decidedly acidic variety, just as it should be. One has to take the general Kosky æsthetic, but it seems pretty well suited in any case. Explicit eroticism and the high camp of nurses in drag are, after all, very much part of the work and of seventeenth-century Venetian opera more generally. Raymond Leppard spoke of a certain degeneration at some point later on in the works of Cavalli et al., in which the cross-dressing and so on became ends in themselves. That is certainly not the case here, either in work or production.

Valletto (Tansel Akzeyebek) and Nurse (Tom Erik Lie)
 

And so, we had a Poppea in Alma Sadé who was much more than mere ‘sex kitten’, although there was no doubting the far from overstated eroticism of her performance. She was determined, resourceful, adaptable, and beauty lay as much in her voice as elsewhere. The dangerous Nerone of baritone Dominik Köninger, utterly in thrall to his senses, his seemingly unlimited power, was perhaps more overtly sexual. In the chilling scene just after the interval, in which he and Poppea gouged out the eyes of a sexual plaything, he took the lead, although she did not demur. Much more, however, was suggested, and it was perhaps noteworthy that we never saw either of them naked. Nor did we see Karolina Gumos’s dignified, yet unswervingly cold, Ottavia. Jens Larsen’s Seneca, on the other hand, met his end sad, lonely, denuded in every sense: exposed as a fraud, or at least severely questioned, not only by Nerone, but also by Tansel Akzeybek’s vain, thrusting Valletto. Maria Fiselier’s Otho proved duly sympathetic, utterly lost to his/her passions, although not unambiguous in that respect. Tom Erik Lie and Thomas Michael Allen were properly outrageous, again not unsympathetic, if just as scheming as everyone else, as the pair of old nurses. Peter Renz, uncannily reminiscent of Betty White, strode the stage, effortlessly, starrily – like an evil Fairy Godmother –stirring up mischief, heartache, and death, as Amor.

 

As ever at the Komische Oper, there was an excellent sense of company; all contributed to a drama considerably greater than the sum of its parts. The immediacy of the vernacular German – even to me, an Englishman – in Susanne Felicitas Wolf’s translation for the most part justified itself; I missed Busenello’s Italian far less than I could ever have imagined. It was, moreover, little less than a masterstroke to have Ottavia’s final ‘Addio’ in the original: not just in itself, but since it was followed by the ‘continuo’ echo of three gunshots by the deranged Emperor: Ottavia, Drusilla, and Otho were no more. Quite a musical coup de theatre!

 
Arnalta triumphant

‘One cannot emphasise the incredible radicalism of this opera enough,’ Kosky rightly says. ‘It is,’ he continues, ‘a through and through sarcastic piece about political intrigue and the cold, calculating instrumentalisation of emotions in the intrigues of power. In this piece, there is essentially not a single truly positive figure. All are deeply ensnared by general moral corruption.’ That is perhaps not telling us anything we do not know, but the point is that that is very much what Kosky shows us on stage, at least as clearly as in that admirable summary. That seems to me an ‘authenticity’ worth lauding. And yes, the radicalism remains as incredible as ever, at least as extreme as in the operas of Berg, and yet nearly three centuries earlier. It is not, I hasten to add, that we should be surprised at radicalism from ages other than our own: such is the arrogance and stupidity of those with no sense of history. It is, perhaps, worth noting, though, that it speaks to us as directly as ever – with or without, I think, the accoutrements of ‘historicism’ or ‘modernity’. The glory here remains that of Monteverdi, of Busenello, and of the performers who continue to bring their genius to performative life.


Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Happy 450th anniversary, Claudio Monteverdi!







I have adored, more to the point thirsted for, his music since I first heard it, as an A-level student, the 1610 Vespers one of my set works. (Yes, I have since learned, indeed I learned then, that 'work' was definitely to be placed in inverted commas, especially in this case.) We listened to John Eliot Gardiner from St Mark’s, but I found the performance, indeed the whole approach, rather stiff. I managed to borrow a copy of Gardiner’s earlier recording, and liked that rather more; I still do, unfashionably. However, I still know of no single performance or recording that conveys more than a little of what I imagine of the intimacy, the grandeur, the eroticism, the piety, the richness of verbal and musical meaning: of those and so many other qualities. Perhaps that is as it should be: the ‘work’ is ‘impossible’ to perform in the best sense(s).








Getting to know some other of Monteverdi’s works during those A-level years, I encountered Zefiro torna, which made a lasting impression – although not nearly so much as when I discovered Nadia Boulanger’s legendary recording of this and other madrigals.








Other sacred music seemed almost to cast a magic spell upon me. It remains the sacred œuvre that says most to me before Bach’s – and yet is so utterly different from his in almost every way. Sample, immerse, never ignore.  








I came to the operas later: Poppea, then Ulisse, then Orfeo. I actually knew Alexander Goehr’s Arianna before any of them, being lucky enough to attend a performance in Cambridge. (I even played a tiny, tiny role, or deluded myself that I did, in the performance and, I think, the recording. A friend was working in the studio on the manipulation of the Kathleen Ferrier Lament to be incorporated at the heart of Goehr’s inventive new drama, and I had to listen, as a second pair of ears, for the pitch to be correct.) It was after that that I plucked up the courage to write to him, concerning his father, Walter’s early performances, and he kindly sent me cassettes, including Walter’s Philharmonia Poppea. The knowledge that there was someone else in Cambridge who loved both Monteverdi and Schoenberg emboldened me to listen to more of both and to listen to, indeed to read, more Goehr too.





It is now perhaps those operas, and perhaps above all Ulisse of which I think most often when I think of Monteverdi. Ulisse’s Shakespearean range and depth have rarely, if ever, been surpassed. If they have, then it is surely only by Mozart and Wagner. But I am sure my feelings, my provisional judgements, will change; I hope they will. Monteverdi is, after all, for life, not just for A-level.




Joseph Haydn wishes you a Happy Europe Day




Haydn is the most un-national, the most European, the most cosmopolitan of all composers. Theresa May would have dismissed him as a ‘citizen of nowhere’ and told him to ‘GO HOME’; Amber Rudd would have included him in one of her lists of ‘foreign workers’; the Daily Mail/Neue Stürmer would have screamed at an ‘enemy of the people’. A few bars from any one of his symphonies contain more invention, more wit, more humanity, more joy, more wisdom than May, Rudd, and their vile, racist party could ever imagine, let alone know. We will not ‘get over it’, we will never, ever ‘accept’, let alone 'respect', the result of David Cameron’s infernal referendum. Haydn can be just as defiant, just as truculent, just as triumphantly victorious, as his most celebrated pupil, if perhaps more subtly so. With him on our side, we can win; it is up to us, though, to make that happen. Listen below to Colin Davis, as sorely missed as ever, conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra in his Symphony no.86 and remind yourself what Europe and the world beyond are really about. Happy Europe Day!



Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin, 30 April

Monday, 8 May 2017

Widmanns/Kozhuhkin - Schoenberg, Weber, and Bartók, 5 May 2017


Pierre Boulez Saal

Schoenberg – Fantasie, for violin with piano accompaniment, op.47
Weber – Grand Duo concertant, in E-flat major, op.48
Weber – Piano Sonata no.3 in D minor, op.49
Bartók – Contrasts, Sz.111

Carolin Widmann (violin)
Jörg Widmann (clarinet)
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)



One ends up saying that almost every Schoenberg work is ‘extraordinary’ – or at least I do. Such enthusiasm is perhaps not entirely a bad thing for one at work writing not just one but two books concerning the composer and his music, but it needs to be kept in check, lest one end up sounding a bit too much like a contemporary Radio 3 presenter. Nevertheless, the Fantasie for ‘violin with piano accompaniment’ – Schoenberg actually wrote the violin part in its entirety before the piano part – continues at the very least to surprise, on those few occasions when musicians bother to perform it. For that alone, thanks would be due to Carolin Widmann and Denis Kozhukhin, but these were scrupulous performances indeed, taking on board both Schoenberg’s somewhat strange description and the work’s nature as a fantasia, not least its inspiration in Mozart’s essays in the genre, tonal and formal implications there to be heard without pedantic exaggeration. At first, I wondered whether Kozhukhin was proving a little reticent, but it was who I was in the wrong; his ‘accompanying’ role, neither over- nor understated, brought Schoenberg’s constructivism to the fore, Widmann’s greater fantasy very much the other side to the coin. One heard, moreover, the passing of motifs between instruments, without that suggesting a misleading equivalence: a very difficult balance, or rather ordering, to maintain, especially in music so febrile, so ever-transformative as this. (Whatever I might say about it will over-simplify.) Echoes of the old and their transformation sounded very much at the heart of the music and its progress. So too as an overflowing lyricism such as one often hears in Schoenberg: the problem for many, it seems, is not so much a lack of ‘tunes’ as far too many, a twentieth-century reinstatement of Mozart’s own ‘problem’ (with apologies to an apocryphal Joseph II). The ending surprised as much as ever, whether one ‘knew’ or not.



I try with Weber’s instrumental music; I really do. Alas, odd points of contact notwithstanding, I find it difficult to credit that a piece such as the Grand Duo concertant for clarinet and piano is by the composer of Euryanthe. Yes, it is earlier, yes I know we are fashionably supposed to take an interest in virtuosity for its own sake (or have we now gone beyond that in ‘nineteenth-century studies’?); but really… Carolin Widmann was replaced by her brother, Jörg. There was no doubting his virtuosity, nor indeed that of Kozhukhin. This, however, is a piece in which a very different form of inequality between instruments makes for much less satisfying, much less interesting listening. Ironically, or perhaps not, the occasional sighing phrases in the first movement’s piano part registered far more sympathetically than all the passagework in the world, whichever part it were in. (The piano part often sounds oddly as if it were an orchestral reduction.) There are lovely moments, but nothing more than that, and a degree of note-spinning, above all in the finale, which makes the likes of Hummel sound profound. That the slow movement was a little darker offered some relief.


Weber’s Third Piano Sonata followed the interval, offering Koshukhin, at least in the first and second movements, something more to get his musical teeth into. Allegro feroce is the marking for the first movement, and feroce the first group certainly was, the advent of the second as melting as anyone could hope for. There was perhaps even the odd hint of a soprano aria from one of the operas, with in a general ‘early Romantic’, non-Beethovenian framework. If there is a bit too much ‘more of the same’, Kozhukhin did what he could. He charmed, moreover, in the Andante con moto second movement, even in its more turbulent passages – which is probably as it should be. The range of colours drawn from the instrument in the finale was quite something, even if its musical substance were more dubious. I was soon longing for Beethoven. An oddity I noted only at the end: was the ordering of an op.47, an op.48, and an op.49 a coincidence?




With Bartók’s Contrasts, involving all three musicians, we turned to a masterpiece of the highest order. The first movement’s performance caught to perfection its fantastical gawkiness (perhaps a hint of Schoenberg’s opening piece, perhaps not) and equally its slinky eroticism. Not for nothing was this written for Benny Goodman. Contours were well traced, with equally keen projection of metre. Kozshukhin’s (at times) almost Schubertian way with the piano part of the first movement intrigued; it made me wonder what he might do with the piano concertos. Jörg Widmann’s virtuosity was put to still more startling and certainly much better use. The second movement was very much the heart of the performance, rich clarity offering a truly tripartite partnership. Line was just as clear, as goal-directed, as in Beethoven. The opening to the third movement suggested the Devil himself (or herself, in this case) tuning up, proving contagious both to clarinet and piano in turn. Once again, virtuosity was attuned throughout to properly musical ends, in performances as impressive for their flexibility as for their respect once again for metre. There was longing too, perhaps suggestive of the beginning of American exile for the composer – although is that to sentimentalise? At any rate, this was an awe-inspiring performance, as exciting as it was thoughtful: perhaps the best I have ever heard. A movement from The Soldier’s Tale made for an encore as enjoyable and, again, as exciting as it was apt.




Friday, 5 May 2017

Nicola Sani, Falcone: Il tempo sospeso del volo, Staatsoper Berlin, 4 May 2017


Schillertheater: Werkstatt

(sung in German)
 
Image: © Gianmarco Bresadola



Giovanni Falcone – Andreas Macco
Judge, Chief Witness A.O. – Martin Gerke
Mafia Boss, Politician A.O. – Milcho Borovinov
Innocent Citizen, Great Writer A.O. – Udo Samel
Spectator, Colleague, Friend – Klaus Christian Schreiber
Vocal Quartet – Caroline Seibt, Isabelle Rejall, Friederike Harmsen, Nadia Steinhardt
 

Benjamin Korn (director)
Annika Haller (designs)
Sébastien Alazet (sound)

Georgi Krüger (lighting)
Benjamin Wäntig (dramaturgy)


Members of the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Orchestral Academy of the Staatskapelle Berlin
David Robert Coleman (conductor)

 

A witty follow up to the Falkon of Die Frau ohne Schatten, recently performed in Claus Guth’s staging at the Staatsoper? No, this chamber opera by composer Nicola Santi and librettist Franco Ripa di Meana is very much rooted in ‘real life’, in this case, the story of the Sicilian prosecuting magistrate and judge, Giovanni Falcone, murdered in 1992 by the Mafia; as such, it is anything but a satyr play. In twenty-six scenes ‘and a finale’ (here marked, in Mahlerian fashion, ‘Abschied’, on the screens that showed titles for the offstage vocal quartet, but not for the characters onstage), we travel, at swift, almost ultra-filmic pace, through a hero’s life that is neither hagiographic in the common, if somewhat erring sense, nor ironic alla Strauss. There is a documentary quality to the action; we learn quite a bit, or presume we do, flitting between Palermo and Rome, an aeroplane set emerging out of the wall from time to time in Benjamin Korn’s spare, resourceful staging, those flight scenes more inward, Falcone’s writing in and reading from his diary lightly suggestive of what we might consider a metatheatrical standpoint. The brief intrusion of a television clip from the celebrated Maxi trial both underlines that quality and lightly questions it, the ‘real thing’ being clearly different from staged interpretation and reimagination. Likewise the bizarre, yet memorable, sudden appearance of real disco music – cheesy Italian pop, I cannot say more than that – in a scene in which Falcone, lonely even though in company, dances to the visual accompaniment of flashing lights.
 


That contrasts, of course, with Sani’s score: what seemed to me a skilful, if not, at least on a first hearing, especially individual blend of instrumental ensemble and electronics, performed with great conviction, insofar as I could tell, by players from the Staatskapelle Berlin, its academy, sound engineer Sébastien Alazet, and conductor David Robert Coleman. There are passages in which the music seems to ‘express’ something akin to what we see on stage, motivations behind it, reflections upon it, and so forth, others when greater autonomy is apparent; for the most part, however, it seems very much part and parcel of an approach that might be considered more ‘multimedia’ than traditionally operatic. The characters – of which only Falcone himself really stands out, other performers taking on a number of essentially situational roles – sing, speak, and do something more or less Sprechstimme-like: not all of them, for two (here, Udo Samel and Klaus Christian Schreiber) only spoke, actors seemingly quite at home in a world of musical drama. There is a real sense of company, of collaboration, formed around the excellent Andrea Macco in the title role. But it is perhaps the interventions from the equally excellent female vocal quartet, not entirely distant from the music of Nono (if Intolleranza, perhaps, rather than his later operas), that caught my ear more often in a more strictly vocal-cum-musical sense. Perhaps, though, the contrast, is the point; it certainly helps to make things a little less straightforward than they otherwise might be. I could not help but wonder whether the decision to eliminate female characters entirely from the stage action had been wise, but one should always be wary of criticising someone for not having written an entirely different work.

 

Il tempo sospeso del volo – perhaps a hint of both Nono and Dallapiccola – seems to have been the work’s actual title when premiered. Perhaps the catchier, less abstract Falcone – a touch of the television mini-series? – was held to make more sense for a foreign audience. Whatever the truth to such idle speculation, the work was given in German translation (by Korn, Serena Malcangi, and dramaturge, Benjamin Wäntig), in the small workshop theatre next door to the Staatsoper’s temporary home, the Schillertheater, and seemed to work pretty well in that new form, even if I could not help but wondering how it might have sounded in Italian. If I sound as though I am hesitant on a more critical level, that would be a fair observation. I was pleased to have seen and heard the piece, but was not quite sure what to make of it. That, I think, would require greater acquaintance. There are many worse things, though, one could say about a work of art than that. In any case, not every work is for the ages; that need not mean that it has nothing to say to us at a particular time. The Berlin State Opera’s offerings of new music in this ‘Werkstatt’ theatre are only to be commended, broadening our knowledge of a musico-dramatic scene of which we might otherwise know little or nothing.

 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

WEDO/Barenboim - Mozart, 30 April 2017


Pierre Boulez Saal 

Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543
Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550
Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551, ‘Jupiter’


West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

 

I have heard the future: it is Mozartian and it works; it is, moreover, to be seen and heard here and now, in Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal. Last summer, I enthused about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s three final Mozart symphonies with Daniel Barenboim. I shall not read my review until after having written and posted this; yet, outstanding though those performances were, this was even better, not least thanks to the salle modulable, whose properties come, like Mozart’s music itself, to seem more miraculous with every encounter. As with the Schubert symphonies (Barenboim and the Staaskapelle Berlin) of a week ago, Barenboim turned the orchestra round at the interval, affording us a difference of aural and visual perspective that put me in mind, however fancifully, of Boulez’s own Répons. (Now there is a thought for the hall…) There was, rightly, no scaling back: Barenboim deployed a full(ish) complement of strings (12.10.8.6.4) and the results were almost everything Mozart might have wished for. Listen not to the authenticists: Mozart was perfectly clear that he wanted as large an orchestra, preferably larger than this, as was possible. Whatever they are preaching, it is not ‘authenticity’, certainly not in the large halls of today. To hear an orchestra such as this in a hall of this size, blessed with so warm and clear an acoustic is to get closer than most. Having mentioned the hall, though, very much part of the performance, as Barenboim clearly acknowledged at the close, I shall return it to the background, for the greatest achievement remained, as it always will in performance, that of the musicians.



The E-flat major Symphony received a performance still more ‘Beethovenian’, to use a shorthand concerning whose efficacy I remain unsure, than I can recall previously from Barenboim. I shall try to explain what I mean, and leave it to you whether I should simply have stuck with ‘outstanding’, which it undoubtedly was. The magnificent warmth of the orchestra, echoing Die Zauberflöte more keenly than ever, full of potentiality was undeniable in the introduction to the exposition; so too was Barenboim’s command of line, which continued, indeed intensified, quite unbroken, throughout the movement, throughout the symphony. Furtwängler would surely have nodded approval, although I wonder whether he might have found his anointed successor ever so slightly on the stern side here. (I did not; there is no one ‘right’ way.) Liminal mystery gave way, or rather resulted in, if you will forgive the metaphors, an exposition that itself took on the form of an extended Mannheim rocket, Kant’s ‘starry heavens’ its theatre. If the second subject were more courtly, more demure, it nevertheless arose out of the material, never merely contrasting with it. The concision of the development seemed ever greater on this occasion, the recapitulation reached, almost alla Mendelssohn, at a point of exhaustion, after which invention rose to still greater heights. This was champagne, yes, but with its pinot noir standing out for all to hear – and taste. The second movement emerged as a profoundly dialectical struggle, miraculously reconciled, or so it seemed. Charm and fury, melody and harmony worked their magic. Again, there was gravity, but there was hope, even the Hoffnung of Fidelio. This mattered every bit as much as the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. The Minuet, taken on the cusp of three and one, was fast, perhaps surprisingly so, but it could yield and did, and not only in its Trio. The finale blazed with the integrity of Haydn, of Beethoven, even of Schoenberg, but the blend of its grapes could have been effected by no other musical vintner. This was, I think, the most modernistic Symphony no.39 I have heard, at the very least since Michael Gielen’s wonderful, sadly underrated, recording.



The G minor Symphony opened with the urgency of Furtwängler, if not quite his speed (although not so far off). Drama and line co-existed, or rather thrived upon one another. This time, Barenboim took the exposition repeat: it sounded and was necessary. Likewise the slight yielding for the second subject. That greater breadth – or different breadth, there being, of course, no introduction – in turn necessitated the strangeness of the development, in which contrapuntal clarity proved so crucial. Again, the recapitulation was upon us before we knew it, proving all the more developmental (yes, Beethovenian) in this case. The fall to the tonic minor spoke of unexaggerated tragedy, which yet developed into something all the more tragic. If I say, quoting Mozart in another context, that the slow movement flowed like oil, then that implies no loss to its gravity. It spoke unmistakeably of Bach at times, contrapuntal string variegation telling as much of the 48, so cherished by Mozart, as of the orchestral Bach. Tragedy was again the guiding principle of the Minuet, relieved by its Trio, yet we all knew that it would prove but momentary, such was the strength of line, the pull of tonal gravity. Still more so was that the tendency of the finale, any turn to the major mode all the more agonising for it. This was as grand a tragedy as, and yet, of course, more unalloyed than, Idomeneo, Bach supplanting Gluck.
 

Where Barenboim’s recent Jupiter Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic had proved relatively disappointing, this West-Eastern performance proved the truest of climaxes. The young players sounded so much more immediate, their performance so much fuller of life, that one might, however unwisely, have forsworn Vienna for life, or at least for a month or so. Barenboim imparted pomp and grandeur to the first movement, yes, but also an urgency that seemed to derive from what we had heard before the interval, the concert concerned with a triptych that took form in more than name. Rhetoric was more overt, but that goes with the territory. It made me think how I should love to hear him turn to La clemenza di Tito. Who knows? He conducted his first Gluck opera only last year. Back to Mozart, though: how the richness of the strings resounded, and how the division of violins, right and left, told, ‘echoes’ so much more than that, properly developmental. The bass line growled in the development as if it were Beethoven ‘ripe for the madhouse’, and yet, before one knew it, the music would again be all related sweetness and light. The thrill and satisfaction of the return and close was experienced as if an overture to the rest of the symphony.
 

In the second movement, the passion lying under the veil of muted strings seemed to speak of an aria that, having no words, could be, still more become, so much more than an aria. This had all the depth of Beethoven, but the spirit was entirely Mozart’s own, far closer to his piano concertos than to any symphonic successor. If I say its length was heavenly, I mean just that: not the back-handed compliment sometimes paid to Schubert. The Minuet took us to the Redoutensaal of our dreams, albeit thoroughly grounded in harmony. Its Trio sounded more intense still; this was no moment for relaxation. For the finale, that eighth wonder of the world, needed to fizz and to erupt, and how it did. Brilliant, Don Giovanni-like display, aching, Elvira-like tenderness, emotional representations of so many of Mozart’s characters were united in a symphonic argument that was taut yet far from relentless or unsmiling. Every flourish, every sigh came from and led somewhere, until we reached the coda: a climax to what we heard, no mere ‘tail-piece’ on this occasion. Is this the greatest of all symphonic finales? It certainly has, and in performance had, nothing to fear from comparison with Beethoven. He never exceeded it; how could he? This was not just the music of the future; it was the music of the spheres.


Saturday, 29 April 2017

Gewandhaus/Pinnock - Haydn, The Seasons, 28 April 2017


Grosser Saal, Leipzig Gewandhaus

Christina Landshamer (soprano)
Daniel Behle (tenor)
Michael Nagy (baritone)
Gewandhaus Choir, Dresden Chamber Choir (chorus master: Edwards Caswell)


Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Trevor Pinnock (conductor)

 
A much discussed – and much praised – recent recording of The Seasons has been that from Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli forces. I have not heard it yet, although I wrote the booklet note; a copy is, I believe, awaiting me on a brief return to the United (sic) Kingdom next month. However, I know that it is sung in English, and on the grandest – authentic in the proper sense – scale. Trevor Pinnock’s Leipzig Gewandhaus performance was, naturally, sung in German, and with small forces: strings 10.8.7.4.4, and two small choirs coming together to make one chorus. What may occasionally have been lost in grandeur, though – this was definitely more Marriner than Karajan – offered compensations in terms of intimacy (not, of course, that we should fall for the canard that such need be lacking in larger-scale performances).

 
What perhaps surprised me was that Pinnock’s way with Haydn’s score was often somewhat Romantic (in the more popular sense, rather than necessarily having anything much to do with the nineteenth century). Tempi were rarely rushed, if anything, slightly – occasionally more than slightly – on the slower side, with more than a little lingering in certain cases. For instance, relaxation in the first number, during the orchestral interlude between Lukas’s and Hanne’s words, was greater than I can recall hearing, but convincing, even delightful. Pinnock generally, as, for example, in the following chorus, ‘Komm, holder Lenz!’ shaped the music nicely, without moulding it unduly. Rhythms could be perky, well sprung, when called for too, as in ‘Schon eilet froh der Ackermann’, which also benefited from some ear-catching piccolo playing ( Alexander Koval, a member of the orchestra’s Mendelssohn Orchestra Academy). Indeed, woodwind colour was very much to the fore throughout, solo flautist, Sébastian Jacot and solo oboist, Philippe Tondre time and time again delighting the ear and heightening one’s musical perception. In the Spinning Song, woodwind solos sounded unusually present, as ‘relief’, against the darker, proto-Weberian, even proto–Wagnerian, whirring of the wheel. The pictorial elements were vivid, self-explanatory, so much so that, at times, one almost need not have listened to the words, but not at the expense of line and flow. What a relief, moreover, it was to have intelligent, interesting continuo playing (Michael Schönheit, the Gewandhausorganist, on fortepiano) that was not of the exhibitionistic ‘look at me’ school. (Let us hope that that fad passes soon.)

 
There were a very few occasions when the string tone was a little thinner than might have been ideal; Simon’s aria at the beginning of Summer was one, following a finely veiled (vibrato withdrawn) introduction. More often than not, though, the litheness we heard in the very opening number proved far from antithetical to warmth and cultivation. Perhaps Pinnock’s concentration, or communication thereof, was nodding a little in those early minutes of Summer, for the soloists’ lead-up to Sun’s full majesty was a little sluggish. Thereafter, though, in that Trio and Chorus, majesty and thrills were in full supply. Timpanist Mathias Müller, chose his sticks and general approach carefully: this was anything but a one-size-fits-all approach, as befits so vividly colourful, temporally (and climatically) transforming a score. the distant thunder in Simon’s recitative, ‘O seht! Es steiget in der schwülen Luft’ a case in point. I loved the general uncanniness in that calm before the storm, which then came, if not quite de profundis, then certainly out of the dark. The way, moreover, in which the music picked itself up, as it were, with Lukas’s ‘Die düst’ren Wolken trennen sich’ was spot on: credit both to Daniel Behle, orchestra, and conductor. When tempi were swifter than ‘traditional’, as in the Chorus in Praise of Industry, the result was light of foot rather than uncomfortably driven.

 
Behle’s relatively light tenor did not lack depth or seriousness when called upon. It matched well Christina Landsamer’s soprano, possessed of equal clarity and cleanness of line, although sometimes a little unclear of diction. Both are undoubtedly intelligent, musical artists. Michael Nagy’s baritone was for me the vocal highlight, its richness never an end in itself, but the foundation for a wide variety indeed of tonal variegation. At one extreme would be the splendidly grey monotone (if that should not be a complete contradiction in terms) on ‘steht er, unbewegt, der Stein,’ as befitted the words. His sadness at the beginning of Winter – Pinnock’s very slow tempi offering striking contrast with Lukas’s Aria, ‘Hier steht der Wand’rer nun’ – approached hopelessness yet did not capitulate. Even in that relative pallor of tone, there was beauty: Winter indeed, one might say. Choral singing offered many of the same virtues, clear throughout, weightier at the ‘big’ moments, ably supported by resplendent brass (and the rest of the orchestra, of course). If I had my doubts about Pinnock’s brisk, even martial beginning to the final number, more contrast, it seemed, than climax, the stereophony of Haydn’s eight-part choral writing, a question-and-answer cross between The Magic Flute and Israel in Egypt, banished them as swiftly as it did those winter clouds of old age.



Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Le nozze di Figaro, Staatsoper Berlin, 25 April 2017


Schillertheater

Count Almaviva – Ildebrando d’Arcangelo
Countess Almaviva – Dorothea Röschmann
Susanna – Anna Prohaska
Figaro – Lauri Vasar
Cherubino – Marianne Crebassa
Marcellina – Katharina Kammerloher
Basilio – Florian Hoffmann
Don Curzio – Peter Maus
Bartolo – Otto Katzameier
Antonio – Olaf Bär
Barbarina – Sónia Grané)

Jürgen Flimm (director)
Gudrun Hartmann (assistant director)
Magdalena Gut (set designs)
Ursula Kudrna (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)


Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Frank Flade)
Staatskapelle Berlin (conductor)
Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor)

Countess (Dorothea Röschmann) and Count
(Ildebrando d'Arcangelo)
Images: Hermann und Clärchen Baus


 

Figaro is by far the best work ever devised for the stage; it combines everything that moves the human heart and mind: forlorn hope, pleasantry, satire, profound significance, also much ado about bagatelles and vain amours.’ Thus is Jürgen Flimm quoted – oddly, in English, but not in the German version – on the website of the Berlin State Opera. Leaving aside the silly if pardonably hyperbole – how on earth does one say it is ‘by far’ better than Così fan tutte or Don Giovanni, let alone Hamlet, Tristan, or Agamemnon? – the only printable response I can summon to that would be: ‘you have a funny way of showing it.’ Flimm’s Bayreuth Ring was noteworthy for – well, nothing at all, save for irritating displays of dramatic hyperactivity. His Fidelio for Covent Garden likewise seemed to be about nothing at all: imagine that, for Fidelio, or indeed for the Ring! This, however, is significantly worse. All the ludicrous hyperactivity is there, in order to present a Marriage of Figaro that reduced Mozart and Da Ponte to the level of a silly, vulgar farce: a farce, moreover, that does not work even on its own terms. It used to be the case, not so long ago, that, even if they fell some way short of revelatory, productions of this opera would at least cohere dramatically; now that hope seems at least as forlorn as it would be, perhaps more so than, in a production of Don Giovanni. David McVicar’s Covent Garden ‘prettiness’ looks almost distinguished by comparison; here we languish at the level of Michael Grandage (Glyndebourne) and perhaps even the dread Jean-Louis Martinoty (Vienna).



‘Updating’ is generally an unhelpful time. In many ways, the least interesting thing – although the thing dull people will often become most exercised about – is when and where something is (re-)set. As Schoenberg remarked in a different context: ‘A Chinese poet speaks Chinese, but what is it that he says?’ ‘Updating’ is, perhaps, the mot juste here, however, for as with McVicar, Grandage, and quite a few others, it seems done for the sake of it. The intricacies of Da Ponte’s libretto pose some difficulties for such a change of scenario; yet, by the same token, the droit de seigneur was at best highly exaggerated, at least in theory, for the eighteenth century, even in Andalusia, let alone Beaumarchais’s France. A pre-revolutionary situation elsewhere can work very well, as in Janet Suzman’s Cuban setting for the Royal Academy’s superlative 2015 performances; Martin Lloyd-Evans at the Guildhall (yes, another conservatory, which is where London audiences will find much of their best opera) took more of a risk, which mostly paid off, in looking to the world of modern American politics and its sexual harassment. (I wonder how prescient that would seem now, in the Age of Trump.) Flimm, however, simply moves everything to the 1920s, presenting the characters as holiday-makers (as does Grandage), and then proceeds not to deconstruct the characters and the action, but seriously to misunderstand them and to have them drown in a sludge of silliness.



Pointlessness – can you think of a worse reproach for a staging of Figaro than that? – reigns supreme, and certainly not in a Beckettian way. Even the incessant use of a strip in front of the pit for stage action seems to serve no purpose whatsoever. Mindless seekers after novelty would doubtless praise it as imaginative; perhaps they would also hail breaking the fourth wall as a pioneering development. And yes, we do have that at some points too, not least in some irritating business at the beginning of the third act, when poor Count Almaviva must do both, wandering around behind and in front of the pit, waiting for the continuo player to begin and eventually having to prod him into action. The guffawing was of almost post-interval Glyndebourne proportions. Nowhere indeed is this staging more catastrophically flawed than in its treatment of the Count. I can see that it would be interesting to deconstruct his masculinity. Here, however, he is portrayed – with awe-inspiring professionalism by Ildebrando d’Arcangelo – as a gibbering idiot, who cannot even hold a rifle. He is more a sitcom cross between Frank Spencer of Some Mothers do ’ave ’em and Manuel from Fawlty Towers – would that the dramaturgy had a fraction of that series’ skill and wit – than anything words, music, or just a little thought might suggest. And nothing is done with that bizarre ‘reinterpretation’: the audience simply laughs at him dropping things and injuring himself. He is a coward with trembling hands: yes, we get it. Is that all you have to say about him?
 

In what approaches a parody of reactionaries’ charges against ‘updating’ and ‘modern opera productions’, Barbarina appears all over the place for no apparent reason. In what struck me as a deeply, or shallowly, misogynistic portrayal, she again provokes hysterical mirth from some patrons as she is forced to play the part – presumably because she is not of noble birth – of a ‘common tart’. Quite why Antonio, who also appears far too often, is wearing a black tail coat, when everyone else is in ‘summer wear’ is unclear. Nor is there any evident justification for him and his daughter running around ‘hilariously’ with wheelbarrows full of plants, which they proceed to tip over the stage, whilst the second act proceeds. Having earlier simply walked out of a door and then pushed it across the stage, as opposed to jumping out of a window, Cherubino is nonsensically discovered at the end of that act, ‘bonking’ – as would seem to be the appropriate post-seaside postcard language for the production – yes, you have guessed it, Barbarina, in the wardrobe (whose function is repeatedly confused with a trunk of luggage). The intricate business of the second act is not only coarsened but rendered incoherent, almost to the level of Martinoty in Vienna.



At the end, there is not even a hint of revolution, or revolt, of Figaro as sans-culotte (unless that were, highly obliquely, to be from bizarre penchant for rolling up his trousers throughout the evening, even during his betrothal ceremony). There is no sense that anything has actually taken place. They all just collect their luggage and head home. If that is your idea of this folle journée, then either you or I have completely misunderstood.


Figaro (Lauri Vasar) and Susanna (Anna Prohaska)
 

There seems little point in going on further about what one sees; it is not worth the effort. Matters were not helped by Pablo Heras-Casado’s conducting. It improved as the night went on, yet remained markedly at odds with the rich, noble Klang of the Staatskapelle Berlin, let alone the rich, noble score of Mozart. The Overture was perhaps more harried than I have heard it, and much of the first act suffered from strange, seemingly arbitrary tempo decisions, then pursued quite without flexibility. Too often, the score could not breathe; there was, I suppose, at least a parallel with much of what was, alas, going on onstage.



Redemption came, when permitted, from the cast. I mentioned D’Arcangelo’s professionalism; that goes for them all, without exception. They clearly did what had been asked of them and did it far better than anyone would have any right to expect; moreover, they did it without sacrifice to their vocal and indeed more broadly considered dramatic performances. Insofar as one could dissociate them from the ridiculous stage business – and it is quite a testament to the artistry on show that one generally could – they were, without exception, distinguished indeed. D’Arcangelo’s dark, virile tone told the truth concerning his character. Dorothea Röschmann’s Countess offered Mozart on the very grandest scale, even beyond Jessye Norman. The climax of ‘Dove sono’ was well-nigh Wagnerian, although alas, the audience ruined the end of the aria by applauding for several bars before it had finished. Anna Prohaska’s rich-toned yet quicksilver Susanna, clearly a victim of unwelcome harassment (something very much to think about), did everything one could ask of the character and more. Her Figaro, Lauri Vasar, proved just as adept in this role as he had earlier this month as Amfortas. Both servants’ way with words, music, and dramatic sincerity offered an object lesson. Marianne Crebassa’s Cherubino suffered at least as much as anyone (with the exception of Barbarina, for whose cavatina Sónia Grané showed us, seemingly effortlessly, what it all should have been about) from Flimm’s production, but lacked nothing otherwise. The strange portrayal of Marcellina as glamorous siren – if an attempt to avoid or to address misogyny, it seemed quite unmotivated in practice – did not prevent Katharina Kammerloher from offering much to savour, not least in her fourth act aria (mercifully present). Florian Hoffmann may not have had much to do as Basilio, but subtle pointing of his words nevertheless made an impression. If only they, and the rest of the company, had had something just a little better to work with…


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Schubert, 22 April 2017



Pierre Boulez Saal

Symphony no.1 in D major, D 82
Symphony no.3 in D major, D 200
Symphony no.2 in B-flat major, D 125

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

 

As part of the Pierre Boulez Saal’s focus on the music of Schubert, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin will be performing two cycles of his symphonies. This, with the first three, was the opening concert of the first. It was the first time I had heard an orchestral performance in the hall; I am delighted to report that the acoustic – and indeed the musical – results were just as estimable as they had been with chamber or solo forces. Barenboim used a relatively small orchestra (strings 8.6.4.3.2), whose warm sound veritably filled the hall, without remotely overwhelming it.



The First Symphony is far too little heard in the concert hall. It may not be a ‘masterpiece’, but it is a lovely piece, whatever the occasional stiffness of form. (For any instance of that, there will be several anticipations of the later Schubert.) The Adagio introduction to the first movement offered all the warmth and grandeur of Barenboim’s Mozart (most recently, in my case, his Haffner Symphony). There was much of Haydn, too, in its harmonic mystery, likewise in the joy that ensued in the exposition proper. The second subject smiled, as did I, the grace one heard unmistakeably Schubertian. And what an orchestral sound: deep, rich, yet capable of the greatest, ‘natural’ refinement and transparency. Barenboim treated the onset of the development with great drama, with all the seriousness one would expect from the later symphonies. Alas, there was serious disruption to proceedings from one audience member loudly – and at length – telling another to turn off his tablet. The recapitulation thus proved doubly welcome, its majesty again recalling late Mozart, its second subject as lovely as ever. In the Andante, Mozartian grace, married to a more rural, ‘Austrian’ bucolicism (already just a hint of Bruckner), vied with countervailing darker paths, full, although not too full, of Romantic promise and mystery. A slow tempo, at least by standards fashionable today, permitted some gorgeous, heart-stopping moments fully to register. The Minuet, one-to-a-bar, had one foot in the ballroom, one in the concert hall; it was almost, at times, as if it were an operatic representation of the dance. The trio relaxed and lingered just enough. In the finale, we heard an ideal balance between weight and wit, its harmonic foundations and melodic impishness. Delightful!
 

The Third Symphony might, on paper, have seemed to offer a little too much D major in the first half; not a bit of it, though. The grandeur of its opening chord sounded as if to outdo, or to advance upon, that of its predecessor. Then, of course, the music took quite a different path, more musically luxuriant, perhaps. The first movement proved just as sheerly enjoyable as, say, in Beecham’s celebrated recording, but with more overt harmonic grounding. Barenboim, now conducting from memory, would often simply stand back and let his players play. There was no dragging, quite rightly, in the Allegretto. Its unassuming charm seemed once again to evoked the Austrian countryside, the dancing led by outstanding woodwind soloists. The Minuet – surely a scherzo in all but name – was vigorous yet gracious; again, its lilting trio relaxed to just the right degree, as if paying homage to Mozart. The finale seemed keener to pay homage to Haydn, albeit in a thoroughly Schubertian spirit. It was as witty and as serious as I can recall. As the Leipzig Gewandhaus motto has it, Res severa verum gaudium.
 

For the second half and the Second Symphony, Barenboim turned the orchestra around. Whereas previously, he and the front desks had been closest to me, now they were on the other side, him facing me. It is good to see full use being made of the space of the salle modulable to offer different perspectives, both visual and aural (although such is the acoustic, the aural difference was far less than it would have been in most halls). The opening majesty of the first movement was of a different, swifter order, fully in keeping, so it seemed, with the different quality of the material, both in that movement and in the symphony as a whole. There is arguably a greater formal dynamism here, certainly something of a grander scale; so too did it sound in performance, closer to Beethoven, especially during the development, although still quite distinct. It was an especial joy to be seated so close to the woodwind for the Harmoniemusik. The transparency of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s sound permitted the Andante second movement to unfold with love, testament to the still often underrated virtues of Classical variation form. Darker passages were not undersold; nor were they turned into something they were not. Other variations quite simply charmed the socks off this listener.  The surprises of the Minuet were relished, its trio again the perfect counterweight. The finale, fast in a way that Mozart rarely is but Haydn often is, once again sounded just ‘right’. Its vigour occasionally looked forward to Bruckner, but remained ‘itself’, a true Schubertian delight. I greatly look forward to the next instalment.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Der Ring des Nibelungen, Deutsche Oper, 13-17 April 2017



Images: Bettina Stöß
Deutsche Oper, Berlin



Wotan/The Wanderer – Derek Welton (Rheingold), Iain Paterson (Walküre), Samuel Youn (Siegfried)
Donner – Noel Bouley
Froh – Attilio Glaser
Loge – Burkhard Ulrich
Alberich – Werner Van Mechelen
Mime – Paul Kaufmann (Rheingold), Burkhard Ulrich (Siegfried)
Fasolt, Hagen – Albert Pesendorfer
Fafner – Andrew Harris
Fricka, Second Norn (sung: played on stage by Anna Klöhs), Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) – Daniela Sindram
Freia – Martina Weischenbach
Erda, Grimgerde, First Norn – Ronnita Miller
Woglinde – Meechot Marrero (Rheingold), Martina Welschenbach (Götterdämmerung)
Wellgunde, Rossweiße – Christina Sidak
Floßhilde, Siegrune – Annika Schlicht
Siegmund – Stuart Skelton
Hunding – Tobias Kehrer
Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Brünnhilde – Evelyn Herlitzius (Walküre, Götterdämmerung), Ricarda Merbeth (Siegfried)
Helmwige – Martina Welschenbach
Gerhilde, Third Norn – Seyoung Park
Ortlinde – Sunyoung Seo
Waltraute (Walküre) – Michaela Selinger
Schwetleite – Rebecca Raffell
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Woodbird – Elbenita Kajtazi
Gunther – Seth Carico
Gutrune – Ricarda Merbeth

 
Götz Friedrich (director)
Peter Sykora (designs)
Jasmin Solfaghari (Rhiengold, Siegfried), Gerlinde Pelkowski (Walküre and Götterdämmerung) (revival directors)


Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: Raymond Hughes)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)


 

‘Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ Wagner’s words to Liszt, in a letter of 1853 have often been quoted. Less often quoted, yet equally important for these particular performances are the almost preposterously theatrical words with which he prefaced them. (Nietzsche’s charge that Wagner was above all an actor was not entirely without force, although not necessarily in the way he intended it.) ‘Yes, I should like to perish in Valhalla’s flames!’ Wagner also told his great friend and supporter, perhaps one of the very few who began to understand the scale of his achievement in the Ring. For here, Götz Friedrich’s production, first seen in 1984 and 1985, has reached its own Götterdammerung. One of the many lessons of the Ring is that nothing must be set in stone, or in the runes of Wotan’s spear; everything has its time. It seems to me that the Deutsche Oper has judged this about right, retiring it whilst there is some life in it, and giving it a proud immolation scene of its own, preparing the way for what must be the most eagerly awaited new production since – well, since 1876: that of arguably the greatest opera director at work today, unquestionably the greatest Wagner director, Stefan Herheim. All the Valkyries’ horses and all of Wotan’s host of heroes will not keep me from seeing that, but I am very glad to have had the opportunity to see, for the first and last time, its predecessor (however much what we now see may well differ from what Friedrich himself put on the stage). Many thanks indeed, then, to the Deutsche Oper for the tickets that enabled me to do so.

 

Different members of the audience would have experienced this in many different ways. Some many have been there for the first performances; some may even have been there for each cycle. Wagnerians are, after all, fanatical souls; it is safer to think oneself a Wagnerite. Some even came in coach parties, collected from the door each night. (Imagine that happening in Britain for something that was not a West End musical!) I mention that since many would have built up attachments that I did not have – just as I might for a favourite pianist whom I flattered myself I ‘understood’ and could therefore happily forget a few wrong notes. As stagecraft, what I saw was more mixed than was suggested by much of the reaction around me. It was mixed, though, and had enough going on conceptually and in detail to set me thinking more than in some new productions I have written about.

 



In that respect, for me, Das Rheingold fares best of all. If nothing can approach Patrice Chéreau’s evergreen Bayreuth staging for somehow surviving the ravages of time, this does not do badly at all. The story is told clearly, with a fine balance between ideas and characters. It is always difficult – indeed it should be difficult – to tell what is the work of the original director and what of the revival director, but it seemed to me that Jasmin Solfaghari had inspired her forces with considerable success. Perhaps she was also helped by the conceptual richness of the work, which does, as it were, so much of the work itself. If any one work of Wagner’s is a ‘drama of ideas’, it is surely this. At any rate, Peter Sykora’s fabled time tunnel, here and elsewhere, makes quite the visual – and conceptual – impression.  It was intended by Friedrich to convey something of Gurnemanz’s most celebrated line, ‘Du siehst, mein Sohn, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit’ (You see, my won, here space becomes time), thus reading back that strikingly Schopenhauerian and more generally post-Kantian idea back into the abidingly Hegelian, historical cosmogony of the Ring, or perhaps rather taking its shell and filling it with Hegelian content. Such, at least, is my predictably more Hegelian, historical reading, for a Ring without history is inconceivable to me – and, I should argue, to Wagner, the eager student (however much he might later have played this down) of Hegel’s Philosophy of History.


 

The setting for Nibelheim comes across as surprisingly undated. Its emphasis on the marriage between technology and barbarism marries well-nigh perfectly with Wagner’s own premonitions, or presentiments as he would have called them, of a darker age in German history. Adorno would surely have admired that more, had he been able to overcome his lack of sympathy earlier. Alberich’s appearance behind something akin to a shop window captures the avarice, the pretence, and the capital. His ability to control events is real, though. Mime’s pain is clearly no act, and the first ring transformation in particular is as convincingly handled as I have seen: sometimes lighting, or rather darkening, is all you need. In the second and final scenes, Loge’s availability to all – he is, after all, amongst other things, the incarnation of instrumental reason – is clearer than I can recall elsewhere. Fricka consults him and he proffers advice; he even wanders off with Fafner, following his murder of Fasolt, before returning to the scene of the crime. Valhalla is clearly another place, distinguished from wherever it is the assembled company is, and the rainbow lighting of the tunnel makes a lasting impression. Dr Who, eat your heart out, I thought. In a telling touch, what I have written of as the ‘limping aspirant waltz’ of the entry into Valhalla is splendidly choreographed: two steps forward, one back. Writing of Chéreau’s production, Günter Metken likened the entry of the gods into Valhalla to a tableau vivant of Bruegel’s Parable of the blind. There is something of that spirit here too.


 

One might have thought the ‘purely human’ – to use Wagner’s term – contrast in the world, at least partly, of Die Walküre would have fared better, but here I had the sense – it could only be a sense, given my lack of experience – that there was too much of the singers being left to their own devices, leading to somewhat generalised musico-dramatic performances. Whatever the reasons – and there may have been too little in the way of rehearsal time – strong Personenregie seemed lacking. Nevertheless, there are many points to commend, even if some of the designs here looked (to these perhaps jaded eyes) a little tired. Miniature ruins of old civilisations in the time tunnel are suggestive – rather than prescriptive. The Valkyries, true Hell’s Angels in appearance, intriguingly put up at least a gesture of a fight when Wotan advances, his spear having to command them to desist. Here, though, and in much of the remainder of the cycle, I felt that the lighting was often too dark, or more to the point, dingy. Whilst there is clearly a conceptual case for darkening of the light, one hears it in the music in any case, and more importantly, it often makes it a little too difficult to see what is going on onstage. On the other hand, it certainly made the real fire – praise Loge – at the close stand in great relief, in more than one sense.


 

Siegfried and Götterdämmerung fell somewhere in between, I think. I was rather charmed by the naïveté of the forest designs, and the contrast with the excellent functioning of Mime’s smithy, bellows and all, proved instructive. In Wagner’s dramatization between artist (Siegfried) and craftsman (Mime), there is more to glean than mere opposition, for the work is more complex than even this creator. I have seen far worse dragons too. The revival direction (Solfaghari again) seemed to me to possess a good sense of the epic, which is surely the key to what in many ways remains the most difficult of the Ring dramas to bring off. Many think it does not work, or even speak of the second act as tedious; they either do not understand, or have been let down by poor stagings. If the 2016 revision (essentially directed by Patric Seibert), although certainly not my first experience (how I recanted!) of Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Ring evinced a more extraordinary epic character than any other I have seen, and has probably changed my view of Siegfried forever, then a staging three decades old did not hold up too badly. It can hardly be held responsible for failing to match up to the spectacular set designs of Aleksandar Denić.

 

If Götterdammerung somehow fails to impress, there will have been ‘the wrong sort of catastrophe’, as Network Rail, or whatever it now calls itself, might put it. That was certainly not the case here, although again I felt the Personenregie was sometimes a little lacking. Intelligent singing actors can do a great deal, and did, but in a work such as this, more is ideally required. The settings vary between an intriguing, distorting Gibichung hall, revealed with cunning metaphor to be partly of mirrors, to almost school-play-like bathos in the Rhine at the close (although see the end of this paragraph). The drama survives, though, even if lighting might have helped it further. The time tunnel at the close, which I had expected, whether ‘historically’ or melodramatically, or both, to suffer devastation, pays testament to a cyclical view. And so, yes, the Schopenhauerian view suggested by Gurnemanz’s words prevails, if not entirely, at the close – just as he does, not entirely, at the close of the work. It was only afterwards that I read Friedrich’s words – and I am glad that I left it until then, so that they would not colour my anticipation – ‘When at the ending of Götterdämmerung everything has been burnt and destroyed, when the Rhine in the shape of a gigantic white cloth covers all of it, they [the gods] have gone back to sitting there, as in the beginning, ready to play their parts in the play once again, perhaps ever and again. Are we, while they are doing this, while they continue to do this, are we getting any wiser, any richer? The director leaves the reply to his question to you.’
 



Cast as these performances were over for just five days, there was some degree of sharing out recurring roles. I have no objection to that at all. Theatre is not ‘real life’, and there can be advantage not only to different standpoints at different stages of characters’ development, but to being reminded that this is theatre – especially, I might add, for Wagnerians as opposed to mere Wagnerites. (The problem is that the former are likely to be most resistant to such realisation.) All three Wotans had sterling qualities to their portrayals. Derek Welton’s Rheingold god matched youthfulness to power and strength, his turn to thoughtfulness in the final scene, ably picked up by Iain Paterson’s Walküre successor: very much an heir to the sagas, reminiscent in some respects of a young(er) John Tomlinson. Samuel Youn performed a valuable task in reminding us that there is life in the old god yet, brutality especially evident, but in context, I felt this was a little too much Dutchman, somewhat too less resigned Wanderer. Perhaps, though, I am falling into the Wagnerian trap I mention above.


 

Standing out for me amongst the other gods was Daniela Sindram’s Fricka: almost yet not quite sympathetic, at least in the day-to-day, straightforward sense. Wagner’s Hera should fascinate, yet to some degree repel. His description of her as embodying ‘custom’ was not in any sense intended as a compliment – as the drama makes abundantly clear. Attilio Glaser’s foppish way with Froh trod with ease the difficult line between portrayal of an almost cipher-like character and mere inconsequentiality. Burkhard Ulrich’s subtly calibrated Loge reinforced the production’s understanding of the demi-god as the Ring’s sole intellectual; Ulrich would prove just as impressive in the very different role of Mime (although they are often sung by the same artist), never, as Wagner insisted the singer must not, turning to caricature without falling into the common, understandable trap of making the dwarf unduly sympathetic. (Siegfried does enough of that as it is.) Ronnita Miller’s Erda showed great presence, in stage and vocal terms, although she veered somewhat out of tune for some of her Rheingold stint.

 

Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund was as well sung and humanly portrayed as we have now come to expect. (Why, o why, does Covent Garden continue to ignore him?) The relative weakness, so it seemed, of the Personenregie did little, though, to ignite a real sense of passion between him and Sieglinde. In that role, Eva-Maria Westbroek certainly wowed the audience, which awarded her the greatest cheers of the evening. I, however, found myself less involved. Her portrayal seemed to me at times as generalised as the direction, and I could not help but suspect that the clamour was as much a response to the volume as anything else; it can hardly have been a response to her way with the poem. Tobias Kehrer’s darkly dangerous – yet not simply relying on darkness of voice, as in some ‘great’ portrayals of the past – Hunding made me wish we had more to hear from him. As the Volsung twins’ heir, Stefan Vinke proved tireless (save for one forgivable moment in the final act of Siegfried). He had his moments with tuning, and it cannot be said to have been the most subtle of assumptions – but would a subtle Siegfried be missing the point? – yet he did much more than get through the cruel demands placed upon him by Wagner, much more than I have usually heard.

 

There was quite a contrast between our two Brünnhildes. Evelyn Herlitzius, as is her wont, gave utterly committed performances. One has to take the rough – sometimes, I have to admit, the very rough – with the smooth, but one can forgive almost everything when the commitment is such as here. Her turn as the woman scorned in the second act of Götterdämmerung was noteworthy for something that is all too often missed; that is very much part of her ‘elevation’ to humanity. I should not have minded hearing more of the words, though, especially in the grand denouement. Ricarda Merbeth had far less to do in terms of acting – or singing, for that matter. I suspect she might have been parted by the demands of the Walküre and Götterdammerung incarnation, but there were vocal thrills of a perhaps more conventionally ‘operatic’ kind, not unreasonably, to be had in her duet. Michaela Selinger contributed a moving Waltraute, attentive to the text throughout: the greater part of the trick, if we may call it that, here. The other Valkyries were a characterful bunch, more varied in tone than any ensemble I recall.


 

Werner Van Mechelen’s Alberich shifted, as if with the aid of a vocal Tarnhelm, between appearances – until his final, almost Beckettian appearance in that well-nigh incredible scene with Hagen (of which Boulez, no less, spoke with awe). Albert Pesendorfer showed great versatility in shifting in rather different fashion, from a truly sympathetic Fasolt (contrasting with Andrew Harris darker portrayal of the giant’s gangster turned rentier brother, Fafner) to a subtly manipulative Hagen: again offering far more than ‘mere’ darkness of tone. Seth Carico proved an accomplished Gunther. It is a difficult role, since playing ineffectuality should not become ineffectual in its sense. Carico’s acting skills helped greatly here, his fear palpable, without unduly informing smoothness of vocal line – or indeed enunciation of the text. His Gutrune, Merbeth again, with whom there was suggested an all-too-close relationship (perhaps more mother substitute than anything else), could sometimes be a little blowsy and again ‘operatic’; I am not sure that it was really her role.


 

Last but certainly not least, the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Donald Runnicles did a sterling job. One almost always hears a few too many slips in Götterdämmerung, especially from the brass, and such was the case here, but to dwell on that would be to parody Beckmesser. Throughout, the string tone was dark yet commendably clear, not so transparent as that of some bands, but different orchestras have different characters, and long may that remain the case. No one, however often (s)he might have heard the Ring, could have come away from the performances having failed to learn a good deal from Wagner’s modern Greek Chorus. The actual chorus, a hangover but what a hangover from Wagner’s immersion in grand opéra, showed typical excellence in Götterdämmerung. Runnicles was an excellent guide, first amongst equals: supportive of singers without deferring to them. Structure was admirably clear, even if form lacked the last few inches of dynamism one would hear from, say, Daniel Barenboim. Art is not a competition, though, and if I felt a little shortchanged at the end of the first act of Die Walküre, I also recalled that the Staatsoper’s recent (Guy Cassiers) production made a considerably lesser impression than when I heard Barenboim’s concert performance at the Proms.  There is much to be said for such an unshowy way with Wagner, not least when one compares it with what London audiences have had to endure since the departure of Bernard Haitink. Runnicles’s wisdom was ultimately not so different from Brünnhilde’s. We ‘saw’ and heard ‘the world end’ – in words of hers Wagner never set, but never needed to; the orchestra sometimes says it all.