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.


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.