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, 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


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, 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.


Saturday, 15 April 2017

Ten Years of Blogging!

I have realised, just in time - briefly reverting to London time, since it is past midnight in Berlin - that it is ten years ago to the day that I began to write this blog. It began, also in Berlin, with the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, conducted by Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim. Boulezian continues, of course, to bear the former’s name, and my most recent review is of a concert conducted by the latter; both artists remain éminence grises, and I suspect they always will. I had no idea what I was doing when I started; indeed, I did not even know what a blog was. Perhaps I still do not; that would actually be rather a lovely thought. But thank you for reading, even those of you who do not like what I have had to say. This insane enterprise really would be nothing without you - which is another way of shifting the blame...

Happy Easter!

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Berlin Festtage (5) - Lupu/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Brahms, Schoenberg, and Beethoven, 12 April 2017


Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op.56a
Schoenberg: Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73

Radu Lupu (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Brahms and Schoenberg always complement each other well; they certainly did so here, Daniel Barenboim and his Staatskapelle Berlin past masters in the music of both composers. Barenboim seemed to choose just the ‘right’ tempo – not to say that there are not others – for the Theme in Brahms’s Haydn Variations, and indeed for each of the variations that followed, the work very much conceived of and communicated as a whole. Pauses (or not) between movements were very much part of the overall conception in a deeply considered reading that lacked nothing in (apparent) spontaneity. Lightness of touch and depth were revealed as two sides of the same coin, with wonderfully ‘true’ – never more so than in the opening statement of the Theme – Harmoniemusik. Moreover, the string tone we heard in the first variation and beyond simply, or not so simply, sounded just right for Brahms, its darkness undeniable yet never overshadowing. Classicism and modernism, Gemütlichkeit and violence: all manner of dialectics were in play, just as they would be in Schoenberg, albeit with at least a greater pretence at reconciliation. The pathos of the minor mode seemed to look back to Mozart’s Pamina, whilst swifter, more impetuous (yet still controlled) movements, pulsating with life, however mediated, evoked Mendelssohn, Elgar, even, in the eight variation, will-o’-the-wisp Webern. The nobility of the cumulative sweep found true fulfilment in the closing passacaglia. Its victory was not easily won, yet it was undeniable. Magnificent, then, and deeply moving – and yes, the triangle made me smile.

Barenboim also conducted Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces without a score (as he would, unsurprisingly, the Beethoven concerto in the second half). The first movement opened in medias res, Brahms’s developing variation further developed, as it were, albeit with an almost Straussian transformative technique also in play (or so it sounded). What writing this is, and what playing this was from, a huge orchestra! It thrilled, seemingly concentrating the action from an entire operatic scene into its brief duration. The second piece brought seemingly necessary contrast: not exactly relaxation, but a change of pace, at least until its own developing variation gathered its own pace. Schoenberg’s sonorities, whether soloistic or, more often, in combination, beguiled as if they were Mozart’s; moreover, they continued, more than a century on, to surprise. A Mahlerian sense of purpose in performance, married to Brahmsian involvement – in more than one sense – brought a mesmerising experience indeed. The Klangfarbenemelodie of the third movement had one realise quite how far we had come from Brahms, not least in the opening wind chords, which one could hardly fail to compare and contrast with the opening of the Haydn Variations. The occasional slightly awkward ‘join’ is almost inevitable; others were, it seemed, effected by sorcery. Tendencies from earlier movements united and reacted in the fourth and fifth. Violence and its aftershock were very much the order of the day in the close of the former, whilst languor and urgency somehow seemed to coexist with, even incited, each other in the latter. Here there is a phantasmagoria at least as impressive as anything in Strauss, but with a thoroughly Brahmsian grounding. Draining yet exhilarating. Judging by his personal applause for the orchestra, Barenboim was rightly appreciative of his players’ work.

Radu Lupu joined the orchestra for Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. This was not an easy ride, but even when it edged towards – and arguably, on one occasion in the finale, beyond – catastrophe, Beethovenian spirit was ever-present. Beethoven, after all, should never be easy. Lupu’s opening flourish sounded almost extemporised: not arbitrary, but free. Its little smudges did not matter, at least not to me. And what touch! What orchestral weight and clarity, moreover, Barenboim marrying once again tendencies with roots in Klemperer (with whom he recorded this work) and Furtwängler, now so internalised that they seem entirely his own. For he and Lupu undoubtedly understood that the work’s foundation, almost by definition, lies in its harmony. There was something almost Cortot-like, errors and all, in Lupu’s playing: magic in the right hand, of course, but it was the left hand that perhaps intrigued more, the very locus of Beethoven’s struggles. Neither Lupu nor Barenboim was afraid of rhetoric; if you are, this is certainly not your piece. Such rhetoric, however, grew out of the music rather than being imposed upon it.

A bardic quality to Lupu’s declamation – Wagner would surely have approved – was also apparent in the slow movement: a reverie more directed, and yet seemingly also more spontaneous, than its counterpart in the previous night’s Violin Concerto with Anne-Sophie Mutter. Lupu touched and charmed, seemingly creating the music before our ears; the Staatskapelle Berlin offered a solemn, dignified ‘backdrop’ that nevertheless wanted nothing in life. The beauty of the transition to the finale might almost have been effected by Liszt himself, the sense of release somehow postponed until the coming of the orchestral tutti, liminality extended. Here one had to overlook a good deal technically, and I can understand why some might not have been able to do so – not that there seemed to be any such reaction in the audience – but even in catastrophe, there was the truest of authenticity. Moreover, whatever shortcomings there may have been in the despatch of the piano part, the electricity of the orchestral performance – how, for instance, motivic development worked itself through the different string registers – was, even by these players’ standards, quite something indeed.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Berlin Festtage (4) – Mutter/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Takemitsu, Beethoven, Debussy, and Berg, 11 April 2017


Takemitsu: Nostalghia: In Memory of Andrei Tarkovsky, for violin and string orchestra
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, op,61
Debussy: La Mer
Berg: Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6

Anne Sophie-Mutter (violin)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

A concert very much of two halves, but which half would be which? Sad to say, it was the longer ‘half’, with Anne-Sophie Mutter, which proved frustrating (although not, it would seem, to an often poorly behaved audience: telephones, quadrophonic coughing, chattering, dropping things, etc., etc.) As it was, a truly outstanding performance of La Mer – was it perhaps the best I have heard? – and an excellent account of Berg’s Op.6 Pieces had me wishing that perhaps the Beethoven Violin Concerto had been omitted from a strangely programmed concert.

Takemitsu’s Nostalghia opened the concert, and fared considerably better than the Beethoven. The composer’s move ever closer towards (more or less) conventional tonality was to be heard here, yet not entirely unalloyed: post-Messiaen the harmonies might have been, but there were hints of Berg too. Moreover, Mutter’s playing, consciously or otherwise, seemed designed to pick up the intervallic aspects of Takemitsu’s construction, even constructivism, and their implications. The contrast between her tone – for once, ‘glamorous’ does seem the mot juste – and that of the small band of orchestral strings was telling rather than distracting. She and Daniel Barenboim shaped the work’s contours well; attention to detail was equally impressive. The ‘tender and elegiac mood’ of which Takemitsu spoke was evoked, but not at the expense of a ‘merely’ atmospheric account, no more welcome here than in Debussy.

That distinction of string tone was also present in the Beethoven Concerto, but it began to take on the characteristic of mannerism, especially when Mutter’s playing with intonation – I say ‘playing with’, since it seemed deliberate – began to grate. Perhaps more disturbing were her sometimes extreme rubato and tempo variation. Barenboim is renowned as a master in post-Furtwänglerian Beethoven, which we might have had chance to hear in another performance; here, too much sounded like a bad parody of Mengelberg. The first movement in particular was listless, at times seeming interminable, even when the tempo was far from ‘objectively’ slow. The magnificence of the moment of orchestral return showed us what we were missing. Interestingly, somewhat perplexingly, Mutter’s account of the cadenza (Kreisler’s, I think) was far stronger in direction, and indeed in expressive range too. Applause at the close of the movement was as unwelcome as it was predictable, although it was probably preferable to another extended bout of bronchial display. The slow movement was better: broad, with undeniable intimacy for much of its course. Characterful solo voices from the Staatskapelle Berlin – the bassoon in particular caught my ear – were a delight. A reverie, with sterner moments, then, whose spell was broken by a vigorous, even dashing account of the finale. If only the first movement had borrowed a little of that vigour! Now the orchestra really played out and Barenboim seemed far more in control.

Once past the bizarrely bronchial sunrise, impressively handled so far as one could tell, Barenboim’s La Mer achieved perhaps the most truly symphonic stature I have heard. It is certainly not the only way to perform this work, but it was mightly impressive. The great sweep of the first movement, and indeed beyond, was enhanced by equally fine attention to detail. The climax rightly grew out of and yet also transformed what had gone before. There was no lingering, rendering its impact all the greater. ‘Jeux de vagues’ emerged as a glittering orchestral scherzo, with all the dynamism of (if a different dynamism from) a scherzo by Mahler or Brahms. Cellos drove, or so it seemed, the harmony as well as the rhythm. The ‘Dialague du vent et de la mer’ opened as ominously as any symphonic finale (that to Berg’s Pieces included, if we may include them). Its dark malevolence looked back to Parsifal but forward too. During the course of a struggle that was avowedly musical rather than pictorial, quintessentially Debussyan magic and mystery sounded reborn.

Sonic mystery of a different kind enabled the very components of Western music to emerge in the opening of Berg’s ‘Präludium’: an exaggeration, perhaps, but there was a real sense, even, in theological terms, a real presence, of the instantiation of harmony, melody, rhythm in that creation. (I often think of this opening as a counterpart to Haydn’s ‘Representation of Chaos’. Here it stood, or so it seemed, midway between Haydn and Varèse.) The strangeness of this music remained undimmed; it was no orchestral showpiece that we heard. ‘Reigen’ danced as it must, but it was the evolution of that dance and its subsequent development that registered especially strongly. Fragments of old Vienna were remembered, misremembered, invented; they filed past us in a ballroom that disintegrated before our ears. Line here proved as crucial as in La Mer, or indeed as in Barenboim’s Wagner. A similar thing might be said of the ‘Marsch’, save for its necessary dissimilarity and contrast. The insanity and downright barbarism of the huge orchestra and its music was celebrated, then distilled and dissolved, reinstating the unspoken presence of Mahler, even prior to the hammer blows. Berg claimed that Mahler’s modernity over Wagner was in part a matter of saying, with Nietzsche, yes rather than no. Here, Berg seemed to say yes, no, maybe, all manner of things. If there was not quite the clarity that Pierre Boulez, with no sacrifice to its emotional range, used to bring to performances of this music, Barenboim and his orchestra offered interesting new perspectives of their own. This is music we hear far too infrequently; there really is no excuse.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Berlin Festtage (3) - Die Frau ohne Schatten, Staatsoper Berlin, 9 April 2017

Dyer's Wife (Iréne Theorin), Empress (Camilla Nylund), Barak (Wolfgang Koch)
Images: Hans Jörg Michel

Schiller Theater

Emperor – Burkhard Fritz
Empress – Camilla Nylund
Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Spirit-Messenger – Roman Trekel
Barak – Wolfgang Koch
Dyer’s Wife – Iréne Theorin
Apparition of Youth – Jun-Sang Han
Voice of the Falcon – Narine YeghiyanVoice from Above – Jane Henschel
Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Evelin Novak
Voice from Above – Anja Schlosser
The One-Eyed – Alfredo Daza
The One-Armed – Grigory Shkarupa
The Hunchback – Karl-Michael Ebner
Servants, Children’s Voices – Sónia Grané, Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka
Children’s Voices – Anna Charim, Verena Allertz, Konstanze Löwe
Voices of Nightwatchmen – David Oštrek, Gyula Orendt, Dominc Barberi

Claus Guth (director)
Julia Burbach (assistant director)
Christian Schmidt (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Andi A. Müller (video)
Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)

Children’s Chorus (chorus master; Vinzenz Weissenburger)
Staatsopern Chor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

Empress and Nurse (Michaela Schuster)

Claus Guth’s staging of Die Frau ohne Schatten, already seen in Milan and in London, now reaches Berlin, the Staatsoper the third of its co-producing partners. Here, I think, its psychoanalytical and, more broadly, dramatic focus is sharper, doubtless the consequence of certain reworking in the light of experience, whether by Guth or his assistants. Narrative clarity is anything but reductionist or lacking in conceptual framework, yet the danger of obscuring Hofmannsthal’s tendency towards the obscure is avoided throughout. We open with a sanatorium dumb show, a woman receiving treatment. In her dreaming, she becomes – or perhaps always has been: it does not really matter – the Empress. Dreaming is not, it should be added, a banal matter of waking up and discovering ‘it was all a dream’, almost as a way of rounding off something that could not otherwise have been rounded off; that was rather the impression gained, at least by me, in London. Here, with some sharpening up of the medical apparatus – a little more presence, perhaps, earlier in the third act would not go amiss – it comes across far more clearly as a mode of treatment. What our heroine – hysterical in more than one way, or perhaps not – undergoes is perhaps what she needs; at any rate, it is what she gets.

Emperor (Burkhard Fritz)

Navigation of the boundaries between reality and dream, accepting that sometimes they will remain unclear and that that is no bad thing, gains dynamic impetus through its interaction with Hofmannsthal’s idea of transformation; Ariadne auf Naxos seems to beckon, or perhaps it already has beckoned. The mythological world it continues to receive a relatively full due, echoes, however strained of The Magic Flute, heard (more to the point, seen), without overwhelming. Schmidt’s designs and Olaf Winter’s lighting come into their own here, although I could do without the strangely banal video explication. The shadows cast across the stage say far more than a projection of a pregnant stomach being rubbed. What last time I called ‘the sheer weirdness but also menacing sense of judgement emanating from a courtroom of strange creatures’, close to the end, seems perhaps more menacing in its imagined flights of fantasy than ever. Dreams and their interpretation remain indivisible. ‘Treatment’ is, moreover, not without its perils. Coming hard on the heels of the Freudian themes in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Parsifal, the staging offers much to ponder.


Zubin Mehta’s conducting of the score was less probing. He knew ‘how it went’, although perhaps lingered a little too much at times when the singers – and the drama – might have preferred otherwise. Compared, however, with Semyon Bychkov’s truly outstanding account at Covent Garden, as fine as anything I know on record, let alone have known in the theatre, Mehta’s reading sounded generalised. Where Strauss’s score offers a myriad of opportunities for harmonic and, still more, colouristic fragmentation and reunion, ever transforming before our ears, this was often a little dogged and, if not monochrome, less kaleidoscopic and, more generally, multivalent, than one might have hoped for. The Staatkapelle Berlin nevertheless sounded excellent, solos well taken without exception, although there were times when I wished Mehta might have allowed it more of its head – and sheer heft. I could not help but recall Daniele Gatti’s shattering 2010 Elektra in Salzburg, as well as Bychkov’s FroSch, and finding something missing.

The Nurse

The cast, though, was first-rate, just as had been the case in London. I am not sure I have heard Burkhard Fritz on better form. The physical demands of the Emperor’s part are fearsome, cruel even by Strauss’s usual tenor standards. One can readily forgive a single wayward passage for the otherwise splendid performance heard here. Camilla Nylund’s Empress could hardly have been bettered. As well acted as it was well sung, as variegated in colour and dynamic contrast as it was clean of line, this was above all a performance that had one sympathise, believe in the ‘case’ before us. I likewise do not think I have heard a better Barak than that of Wolfgang Koch. His way with words and music certainly had me sympathise with the character like never before. The dyer’s predicament was ‘real’, not merely symbolic or dreamed. Iréne Theorin’s imperious yet also deeply felt Dyer’s Wife impressed similarly, its vocal roots in the figure of Isolde but also, one felt, once we knew she had not made the diabolical agreement, in the humanity of Mozart. If Roman Trekel’s Spirit-Messenger were somewhat dry of tone, the instrument of his message, Michaela Schuster, fully lived up to the high expectations elicited by her London performance, its ambiguous malevolence heightened by the Freudian setting. With choruses, adult and children’s alike, on splendid form too, blocked as well as they sang, there was much to celebrate here indeed – even if we cannot include that disturbing pro-natalism from which we shall never quite be able to rescue the work.