Saturday, 19 July 2014

Munich Opera Festival (1): Le nozze di Figaro, Bavarian State Opera, 17 July 2014


Nationaltheater, Munich

Count Almaviva – Gerald Finley
The Countess – Véronique Gens
Cherubino – Kate Lindsey
Figaro – Erwin Schrott
Susanna – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Bartolo – Umberto Chiummo
Marcellina – Heike Grötzinger
Basilio – Ulrich Reß
Don Curzio – Kevin Conners
Antonio – Peter Lobert
Barbarina – Elsa Benoit
Two Girls – Josephine Renelt, Rachael Wilson

Dieter Dorn (director)
Jürgen Rose (designs)
Max Keller (lighting)
Hans-Joachim Rückhäberle (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Stellario Fagone)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Dan Ettinger (conductor)
 
 
Image: Wilfried Hösl
 

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal. Gerald Finley offered a handsomely-sung, dramatically alert portrayal of the Count, beautifully complemented by Véronique Gens, whose apparent indisposition was only occasionally evident. Erwin Schrott’s Figaro suffered from surprising occlusion of tone during the first act, but thereafter was very much on form, Schrott’s theatricality and musicality working very much in tandem. His Susanna, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was perky and vivacious in both respects too. Kate Lindsey had a slightly uneasy start as Cherubino, but more than made up for it with a perfectly-sung ‘Voi che sapete’. One could believe in her/him throughout too, not least when she adopted the guise of awkward cross-dressing. Amongst the rest of the cast, Ulrich Reß’s Basilio stood out, although he alas – following directorial orders? – adopted the current tendency towards caricature in the role, if less so than sometimes one endures. Elsa Benoit’s Barbarina showed great promise, indeed great achievement; I suspect that we shall soon be hearing more from her.
 

If only the cast had been better supported, let alone led, by Dan Ettinger. The orchestra sounded as though it would have been happier playing without a conductor; indeed, though sometimes a little on the heavy side, the orchestral playing as such was distinguished throughout. Alas, Ettinger seemed never able to settle on the ‘right’ tempo: not that there is only one, but at the time, it should feel as though that were the case. After an Overture and good part of the first act that were driven as if they were Rossini, with little or no space to breathe, other numbers relaxed too much and felt unduly drawn out. Worse still were the occasions when tempi changed arbitrarily – this was no Furtwängler! – during a number, ‘Dove sono’ an especially unfortunate example, Gens seemingly very much at odds, and rightly so, with the conductor. It was far from the only occasion upon which coordination between stage and pit went quite awry. My habitual lament at the loss of Marcellina’s and Basilio’s fourth-act arias was exchanged for relative relief: a sad state of affairs.
 

Dieter Dorn’s production is an odd affair, of which I struggled to make much sense. I had the impression – which may of course be wide of the mark – that we saw a director of a fundamentally conservative disposition who nevertheless felt obliged to try something ‘new’, resulting in a compromise that lacked coherence. I assume that the contrast between period costume and scenic abstraction was deliberate, perhaps attempting to make some point about stylisation, about contemporary reception of an over-familiar eighteenth-century work, etc., but am not entirely sure quite what that point was. The fourth act’s ‘business’ with white sheets in place of ‘proper’ scenery has unfortunate echoes of a school play, or perhaps better, a school ‘movement’ session. The cast seemed to flounder on stage, and I could not really blame them. There was an equally unfortunate, if typical, tendency, if less extreme than can sometimes be the case, to confuse this most sophisticated of comedies with mere farce. (Does not Mozart’s score tell us everything we need to know in that respect – and indeed in every other?) For the most part, the cast rose above such limitations, but limitations they certainly were.




Esfahani - Couperin, J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, G.A. Benda, Takemitsu, 15 July 2014


 
Wigmore Hall

Couperin – Quatrième livre de pièces de clavecin: 26th ordre
Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I: Preludes and Fugues in D minor, BWV 851; C-sharp minor, BWV 849; B major, BWV 868
Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910
C.P.E. Bach – Sonata in B-flat major, Wq. 48 no.2
Georg Anton Benda – Sonata no.4 in F major
Takemitsu – Rain Dreaming
C.P.E. Bach – Sonata in F-sharp minor, Wq. 52 no.4

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
 

This was a splendid recital, my only (minor) reservations reserved for a couple of the pieces, certainly not for Mahan Esfahani’s performances of them. No such reservations were felt, naturally, for a first half of works by Couperin, J.S. and C.P.E. Bach. The 26th ordre from Couperin’s Fourth Book was no warm-up, Esfahani showing himself immediately at ease, with a lilting rubato that emerged from within the music – and, to a certain extent, the instrument too – rather than being applied to it. This first piece, ‘La Convalescente’, and the subsequent movements were all well characterised, without the slightest danger of falling into the all-too-precious caricatures which bedevil so much present-day Baroque performance. The expressivity of spread chords was a case in point; so was the sense of dramatic, even declamatory, unfolding, reminding us that we were not necessarily worlds away from the Classical drama of Corneille and Racine. The Gavotte and ‘La Sophie’ were guided by a propulsive, yet never restrictive, sense of rhythm; whatever the tempo, there was space to breath. ‘L’Epineuse’ seemed to afford a glimpse of the vocal Couperin, perhaps even of what an opera from his pen might have been, not that that precluded harmonic, developmental ‘involvement’ which was very much of the keyboard world. The final piece, ‘La Pantomime’, benefited from a harmonic grounding that took one back to a time when musicians just happened to be harpsichordists, rather than having invented an aggressive, ‘Early Music’, alleged revanchism; more than once, I thought of George Malcolm.
 

Three Preludes and Fugues from Book One of the 48 followed. The D minor Prelude was very much a ‘prelude’ to what was to come, a fugue that danced without didacticism. A deeper, darker hue characterised the C-sharp minor Prelude, though it was yet recognisably of the same ilk. The stile antico opening to its fugue looked bark to a golden age of polyphony, not in a dreary quasi-archaeological sense, but as sustenance and, crucially, as inspiration. It was expressive and developmental, in keeping with, but not restricted by, the ‘Baroque’ period to which Bach stands in a far more complicated relationship than many care to realise. This was the Bach who inspired Mozart. A bright contrast of tonality and general mood came with the B major Prelude and Fugue, played with good humour, even a sense of fun. The F-sharp minor Toccata was rightly more exuberant, less innig, drawing upon earlier keyboard masters and their sense of Affekt and rhetoric. In a flexible account, the proximity to Bach’s early organ works was announced, the whole unfolding with great dramatic flair.
 

C.P.E. Bach offered a very different voice, already hinting at some of the keyboard music of Haydn and even Mozart, though the rhetoric is undeniably personal. In the B-flat Sonata, composer and performer offered a kaleidoscope of expression utterly distinct from Haydn’s thematic single-mindedness. Registration was perhaps especially telling during the slow movement, in which we heard an almost operatic dialogue at times. The finale was refreshingly bright and high-spirited. We returned to Emanuel Bach at the end. The opening flourish of the F-sharp minor Sonata was extrovert yet controlled: very German! Wrenching of mood was almost violent; ‘strangeness’ was neither smoothed out nor unduly exaggerated. The slow movement exhibited great metrical freedom, following an almost stream-of-consciousness approach: as, after all, does the score. Twists and turns, both melodic and harmonic, were savoured. The finale offered a nice contrast, emerging almost as an extended fantasia: part-way on the road to Mozart? Its conclusion came properly as a surprise.
 

Between the two C.P.E. Bach sonatas came a sonata by Georg Anton Benda and Takemitsu’s Rain Dreaming. I am not sure that I can quite share Esfahani’s enthusiasm for Benda, at least on the basis of this piece, but there could be little doubt that he proved an able advocate. Benda offered a more overtly ‘Classical’ voice, though not without audible connection to the world of Emanuel Bach. The first movement of the sonata benefited from an excellent performative balance between stateliness and exuberance, but I missed a real sense of development. Perhaps, as Esfahani suggested in his note, that is an æsthetic choice on the composer’s part; perhaps, but is it a good choice? The slow movement was, however, nicely contrasted, and more consistent as a compositional whole, whilst the finale’s byways charmed rather than perplexed.
 

As in the case of other works I have heard by Takemitsu, I was not entirely convinced of the substance of Rain Dreaming. Nevertheless, in this context, and whilst it may be a stretch to call the piece toccata-like, or imbued with a Neue Empfindsamkeit, there did seem to be a post-C.P.E. Bach or even post-Benda quality to the writing: testimony to canny programming. It was attractive enough as contrast, if hardly Ligeti, let alone Bach. Messiaenesque figuration was for me the most intriguing feature. A first encore of the Rameau Gavotte which Klemperer orchestrated whetted the appetite for Esfahani’s forthcoming release later this year of the composer’s complete keyboard works.

 
 

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera, 13 July 2014


Royal Opera House

Music Master – Sir Thomas Allen
Major-Domo - Christoph Guest
Lackey – Jihoon Kim
Officer – David Butt Philip
Composer – Ruxandra Donose
Tenor, Bacchus – Roberto Saccà
Wig-Maker – Ashley Riches
Zerbinetta – Jane Archibald
Prima Donna, Ariadne – Karita Mattila
Dancing Master – Ed Lyon
Naiad – Sofia Fomina
Dryad – Karen Cargill
Echo – Kiandra Howarth
Harlequin – Markus Werba
Truffaldino – Jeremy White
Scaramuccio – Wynne Evans
Brighella – Paul Schweinester

Christof Loy (director)
Herbert Murauer (designs)
Jennifer Lipton (lighting)
Beate Vollack (choreography)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)
 

I hope I shall be forgiven for keeping this relatively brief. Having been distinctly under the weather this week, I have fallen a little behind, and in any case have written about Christof Loy’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos before. This time, hearteningly, I recaptured some of my earlier enthusiasm, having found the staging looking somewhat tired last time around. Perhaps it was a matter of the revival direction, or perhaps it was a matter of sitting closer to the stage (the back of the Stalls Circle, the restricted view seemingly not much of an issue). At any rate, the virtues that I had originally hymned – a very real sense of the audience and the audience member being told that this was a tale told about them, a nice balance between the present and a re-imagined and then re-imagined again eighteenth century – were married to a well-acted company performance.
 

For the most part the singing was very good too. Thomas Allen’s Music Master continues to inspire; this time, he found a fine foil in Ed Lyon’s Dancing Master, his German as impressive as the French of the repertory in which I have previously tended to hear him. Both can act too – and did. Ruxandra Donose’s Composer was beautifully sung – and a character in whom one could truly believe, whom one could take to one’s heart. I am not sure that I have heard so distinguished a trio of Naiad, Dryad, and Echo, as Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill, and Kiandra Howarth, whether corporately or individually. Markus Werba offered a predictably excellent Harlequin, well supported by the rest of his troupe. Jane Archibald reached for the heights and attained them with her lovely Zerbinetta: an object-lesson in the role. Disappointments? Roberto Saccà’s dry-toned Bacchus, fare more so than I had heard in Salzburg in 2012. And, I am afraid that, try as I might, I could not find Karita Mattila ‘right’ for the role of Ariadne. She is a wonderfully engaging artist, and there was much to enjoy, but I missed the floating of line that seems essential to the part, likewise the neo-Mozartian grace. Others have clearly felt differently, and I have tried not to be hidebound by recollections of great historic assumptions; ultimately, however, and with considerable regret, I thought Mattila miscast.
 

The other disappointment, perhaps more predictably, was Antonio Pappano’s conducting. Quite why he insists on inflicting himself upon a German repertoire for which he clearly has little sensitivity, let alone understanding, remains a mystery. Granted, this was not nearly so bad as his Wagner, and there was considerable life to the Prologue. However, the Opera soon became listless, with little sense of harmonic or indeed any other direction. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played very well, but how one longed for the wisdom, refinement, wit, and humanity the late Colin Davis brought to this work in this production.

 

Saturday, 12 July 2014

La bohème, Royal Opera, 9 July 2014


Royal Opera House

Marcello – Markus Werba
Rodolfo – Charles Castronovo
Colline – Jongmin Park
Schaunard – Daniel Grice
Benoît – Jeremy White
Mimì – Ermonela Jaho
Parpignol – Luke Price
Musetta – Simona Mihai
Alcindoro – Donald Maxwell
Customs Officer – Christopher Lackner
Sergeant – Bryan Secombe

John Copley (director)
Julia Trevelyan Oman (designs)
John Charlton (lighting)

Extra Chorus
Members of Tiffin Children’s Chorus
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Cornelius Meister (conductor)


Perhaps I have made life too difficult for myself; it would not necessarily be the first time. At any rate, since the last time I saw John Copley’s production of La bohème – it had actually been my first, something that certainly was not the case for much of the Royal Opera House’s audience – I have seen on DVD Stefan Herheim’s brilliant staging of the work for the Norwegian National Opera. A typically musical production which transforms one’s understanding of the work, or at least of the possibilities it offers, resolutely avoiding the slightest hint of sentimentality and instead tackling head on difficult realities of life, death, and memory, Herheim’s Bohème is perhaps bound to have many others suffer by comparison. That is not, of course, to say that every production should be like it, or indeed that any production should attempt to imitate it, but that it marks a turning-point in the reception of La bohème, and that as venerable a staging as this, even when revived in lively fashion by the original director, is perhaps more likely than before to have one feel that something is missing. Or at least that it is going to require especially outstanding performances to make it live as once it might have done.
 

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House offered a predictable trump card, rarely if ever putting a foot – or bow – wrong, playing Puccini’s score with an assuredness that never toppled over into over-familiarity. Cornelius Meister’s conducting of the orchestra receives more of a mixed report. In its favour, there was a great deal of care taken to characterise individual scenes, moods, even lines. This was certainly not a routine reading. However, a longer line often proved elusive, partly because it was not clear how individual sections fitted together. Contrast is good but still more important is underlying unity. An opening scene took almost anti-Romantic jauntiness to excess, whilst declarations of affection – or their approach – often became a spur to indulgence.  Perhaps Meister’s is a conception that will tighten as the run proceeds; there was an undoubted intelligence to be heard. A few shaky moments of ensemble aside, he seemed eminently capable of drawing from the orchestra and his cast what he wanted.


Ermonela Jaho’s Mimì was beautifully, often passionately sung, drawing upon a splendid array of vocal colours, generally – if perhaps not always – with a dramatic point in mind. Alas, her acting abilities lagged behind; there was far too much of the stock gesture, which might have worked better in certain other Puccini operas, but which seemed both over the top and non-specific in this would-be Bohemian milieu. Bar an uncertain top – at one point in the first act, quite alarmingly so – Charles Castronovo showed himself to be an adept Puccini singer and actor. When I have heard him in Mozart, I have thought his style perilously close to Puccini; here, he seemed very much at home. Markus Werba offered a typically intelligent reading of Marcello, attentive to the words in a way that not all of his colleagues were. Simona Mihai’s Musetta was somewhat generalised in scope, not assisted by Copley’s insistence upon comedy in the second act. Jongmin Park’s deep bass Colline was beautifully sung, though it sounded at times a little close to the world of Boris Godunov. Luke Price’s Parpignol struggled a little too much in vocal terms. However, the choral singing was excellent.

 
Back, then, to staging, in conclusion. Copley’s production, perhaps above all Julia Trevelyan Oman evocative period designs, has done sterling service. However, I could not help but wonder whether the endless ‘activity’, especially during the second act, spoke a little too much of trying to breathe new life into something that has already had a very good innings. It has endured and delighted far longer than any production could possibly expect to do so. But now, as the Royal Opera has apparently realised, its era is drawing to a close. It will be back next year, but then, at last, there will be a new staging. What a pity, though, that, if only for a season in between, we could not have had Herheim’s probing, transformative drama brought to London. Maybe a thought for ENO…?

 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Aleko (concert performance), Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman, 7 July 2014


 
St John’s Smith Square

Aleko – James Platt
Zemfira – Sara-Lian Owen
Young Gypsy – Luperci de Souza
Old Gypsy – Arshak Kuzikyan
Old Gypsy Woman – Nelli Orlova

Chorus (chorus master: William Cole)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)
 

Aleko, the libretto by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, after Pushkin, was assigned in 1892 to three members of Anton Arensky’s composition class at the Moscow Conservatoire. Rachmaninov’s setting, made at the tender age of nineteen, was the only one to be published (though not in full score until 1953) or performed, winning the young composer the ultimate prize of a gold medal. In truth, it needs all the dramatic help it can get, more a reflection upon the libretto, which amounts to little more than a succession of numbers rather than a real dramatic development, than upon the score itself. Nevertheless, even a concert performance is of interest. One hears the influences, as one always does in immature works. Tchaikovsky looms largest; he was so impressed that he suggested Aleko form a double bill with his own Iolanta. The choral writing echoes Eugene Onegin; the orchestral writing often echoes the symphonic as well as operatic Tchaikovsky. There are hints of the Mighty Handful too, certainly of the Liszt of the symphonic poems, and perhaps also of Wagner.
 

If there is little that suggests Rachmaninov’s mature voice, the writing is remarkably assured, and so it sounded in this generally excellent performance from the Melos Sinfonia and its artistic director, Oliver Zeffman. If there were a few rougher moments, the string sheen and the sheer power of the orchestra as a whole, brass and all, proved mightily impressive, with a splendid sense of idiom. Zeffman guided the score’s progress wisely: flexible, without a hint of stiffness. The chorus, trained by William Cole, sang very well too, as did most of the soloists. If James Platt as Aleko and Sara-Lian Owen as Zemfira took a little time properly to settle, it was only a little time. Their diction, dramatic commitment, and musical line were excellent, Owen had one believe more in the gypsy girl who transfers her affections – shades of Carmen, though it was Pushkin’s narrative poem that would have influenced Merimée – more than one might have thought possible, in a performance which increasingly yearned for the stage. Arshak Kuzikyan revealed a passionate, dark-hued bass voice as the Old Gypsy, his lines shaped intelligently throughout: his was a compelling performance indeed, having one wish that there was more to hear from him. Nelli Orlova’s brief appearance as the Old Gypsy Woman had one wish for more too. Only Luperci de Souza’s performance as the Young Gypsy for whom Zemfira falls fell flat, audibly strained, at times seriously struggling. Perhaps it was just an off-night; everyone has them.
 

At any rate, this marked a wonderful opportunity to hear a fascinating early work. The Melos Sinfonia will next be heard in September at the Grimeborn Opera Festival and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, in a coupling of Walton’s Façade and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, whose Russian premiere they well give in St Petersburg in November.
 


 

Monday, 7 July 2014

Demidenko - Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Medtner, 5 July 2014


Wigmore Hall

Chopin – Waltz in A-flat major, op.42; Mazurka in G-sharp minor, op.33 no.1; Waltz in A-flat major, op.34 n.1; Mazurka in D-flat major, op.30 no.3; Waltz in E-flat major, p.18 no.1; Mazurka in E-flat minor, op.6 no.4; Waltz in A-flat major, p.64 no.3; Mazurka in A minor, op.17 no.4; Waltz in C-sharp minor, op.64 no.2; Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op.30 no.4; Waltz in D-flat major, op.64 no.1; Mazurka in A minor, op.67 no.4; Waltz in A minor, op.34 no.2; Mazurka in A minor, op.posth.; Waltz in E minor, op.posth.
Rachmaninov – Variations on a Theme of Corelli, p.42
Medtner – Tema con variazoni, op.55; Dithyramb in E-flat major, op.10 no.2

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)
 

This was a puzzling recital, or rather its first half – actually rather more than a half – was. It sounded very much as though Nikolai Demidenko had done something unusual with the regulation of his Fazioli piano (an instrument for which I have never shared the enthusiasm expressed by some, but that is another matter). Tone often sounded oddly dampened, albeit with clarity. Whether that were actually the case, I cannot say for sure, but I cannot otherwise account for what I heard. And ‘why?’ remains another question again: a quasi-‘period’ approach, perhaps?
 

At any rate, the sequence of Chopin waltzes and mazurkas which made up the first ‘half’ generally had a good deal of sense to it in terms of tonal progression. This was rarely performance of a grand, public nature. Indeed, at times I wondered whether it had too much of salon charm, or at least not enough beneath the surface, especially in the case of the waltzes, though it might reasonably be objected that they do have quite a bit of the salon about them. The first A-flat major Waltz, op.42, opened the programme with insouciant facility and a seemingly effortless, ‘natural’ rubato. The G-sharp minor Mazurka, op.33 no.1, which followed, very slowly, offered contrast in its far greater metrical freedom, akin to a prose poem. And such tended to be the pattern of the waltz-mazurka progression, far from unreasonably. Light brilliance was certainly the hallmark of op.64 no.1, the so-called ‘Minute’ Waltz and the E-flat major Waltz, op.18 no.1. However, the C-sharp minor Waltz, op.64 no.2, suffered a surprising number of slips and hesitations.
 

The D-flat major Mazurka, op.30 no.3 was more forthright than many; it was certainly not a case of one-size-fits-all, at least within the generally muted approach. It managed, moreover, to retain its mystery. Its E-flat minor cousin, op.6 no.4, emerged splendidly persistent over its short time-frame, seeming almost to presage Bartók’s music. One of my favourite Mazurkas, op.17 no.4 in A minor smiled through its sadness; tears were conveyed both above and through its ambiguous harmonies. The C-sharp minor Mazurka, op.30 no.4, is on a grander scale than many, and sounded as such, Demidenko offering a rare instance of a more ‘public’ face. I found the ending to op.67 no.4 in A minor, too abrupt, but its sadness had earlier shone through, likewise the visionary, almost Lisztian quality it seemed to share with the following waltz in the same key. The final Mazurka to be heard, again in A minor, a posthumous work, registered both sameness of tonality and difference in the nature of its dance, even at the sublimated level Chopin’s inspiration had reached.
 

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli may well be his finest work for solo piano. Demidenko offered a committed performance, perhaps slightly detached, but not excessively so, and one which benefited from a fuller, richer piano sound. (Alas, not having been present in the hall during the interval, I cannot report whether anything had been done to the instrument.) Even from the theme to the first and second variations, there was a rightful sense of growing ‘involvement’. There was no doubt that this was characteristic Rachmaninov – indeed, the third variation frankly looked back to some of the Preludes – but there was also a hint of Neue Sachlichkeit. Echoes of Mendelssohn were to be heard in the ‘Allegro scherzando’, whilst neo-Lisztian vigour, perhaps also echoes of Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, were to be heard in the eighteenth variation,. Dissolving chromaticism characterised its successor, a proper sense of final flowering, of opening out marking the coda to the twentieth and final variation.
 

It was fascinating to hear Rachmaninov’s variations followed by a set by Medtner, his op.55 Tema con variazoni. Demidenko’s performance was perhaps the highlight of the recital, revealing a strong musical mind beyond or rather behind what might superficially seem to be yet another piece of too-late-Romanticism. Structure and character worked together rather than standing awkwardly side by side, or even opposed. The E-flat major Dithyramb, op.10 no.2, sounded somewhat splashy by comparison. Demidenko certainly lavished full ‘Romantic’ piano tone and colour upon a piece which, in this context, assumed something of the character of an encore. It was interesting to hear it, but I should not rush to do so again.
 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

On booing, in the wake of the Royal Opera's Maria Stuarda


I can claim neither a stake nor a particular interest in the Royal Opera’s new staging of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda; I cannot stand Donizetti’s music, still less what seem to me his feeble attempts at musical drama. Nevertheless, the production and, more precisely, some reactions to it, seem to have caused a bit of a stir. It is far from the first time that a first night audience’s experience has been ruined by the booing of a vocal minority. Rusalka, which received a production that was hardly ‘difficult’, yet which nevertheless asked that an audience bother to think, to participate, was treated similarly a little while ago at the same venue; so, more recently, was Calixto Bieito’s excellent production of Fidelio for ENO. There are many other examples.  Nevertheless, such behaviour and discussion of such behaviour have occasioned a few thoughts.


First, and perhaps foremost, is a matter of gender. Have you ever heard a female boo-er? Doubtless there are a few here or there, but I cannot recall a single one. This seems very much to be behaviour associated not with all men, but predominantly, perhaps almost exclusively, with some of them.  I first encountered it, cruelly directed at a particular singer (who was hopeless, but nevertheless…) at the Bayreuth Festival, on the occasion of my first visit there in 2000. It seems more generally to be levelled, however, at directors and the production team more generally, though the behaviour of certain sections of the audience at La Scala, for instance, tells another story again. (A culture that treats opera as if it were football may well turn out to deserve neither. It certainly does not deserve Parsifal or Wozzeck.) Are the unabashedly reactionary loggionisti all male? I do not know, never having attended the opera in Milan, but I should be surprised if there were many women amongst them. Note, moreover, that whilst there may be criticism, sometimes savage, of the worst of ‘traditional’ stagings, it never seems to take the form of booing; it always seems to emanate from petit bourgeois outrage at something beyond the unimaginative ken of self-appointed ‘traditionalists’.


What does booing entail? A bestial response to something of which, presumably, the perpetrator disapproves, a response, moreover, which seems intended to garner attention, to threaten the scapegoated victim in the public arena of the theatrical here-and-now, and violently to drown out the applause and even the non-applause of others. Some have claimed that booing is merely the other side of the coin to applause. Now, admittedly, it can sometimes be irritating to encounter enthusiastic applause for something one has thought mediocre or worse, but one can always refrain from joining in. Is that not a better approach than seeking, in at least quasi-fascistic fashion, to drown out the enthusiasm, however well- or ill-founded, of others? We are not dealing with a game show, in which the contestant with the greatest balance of cheering against booing wins a cash prize; or at least we should not be dealing with that. Given that the generally accepted way of thanking performers for their efforts would be to applaud, is not withdrawal of applause quite enough to indicate displeasure and disapproval? What can someone have done that is so truly appalling that it necessitates assumption of the persona of a rowdy farmyard (male) animal?


‘We have paid for our tickets; we are entitled to do whatever we want,’ shout the ‘me-first’ boo-ers. Do you have no consideration for others and for how they might feel about your threatening, coercive behaviour?  There is a problem here, of course, in that part of the alleged justification for such behaviour is that of a commercial transaction. All the more reason, ultimately, to rid art of such alien concerns. Wagner’s vision of a festival theatre, free in every sense to all, is what we should be aiming for. Wildly utopian? Why? We offer free admission to our great museums and galleries. Why should music and theatre be different? The sums are miniscule when contrasted with what we spend on bombing to death fellow human beings in Iraq, on nuclear weapons, or on bailing out the banks. Ridding performances of those who consider their wealth offers them entitlement would be a victory in every sense. In the meantime, however, kindly offer some common courtesy towards other audience members. And yes, that also involves refraining from applause or other noise during an act, from coughing, chattering, allowing your mobile telephone to ring, etc., etc. Should you claim otherwise, then you really would seem to have no conception of art and of why it might matter, let alone of how one might behave decently towards other human beings. You are no more entitled to force your pathetic, caricatured attempts at ‘masculinity’ upon others in this arena than you are in any other.


For booing is not ‘refreshing’, ‘liberating’, ‘valid’, or any other such nonsense; it is a form of violence which should have no role in civil society. There are now more opportunities than ever before for every member of the audience and for interested parties beyond to contribute to appreciation, discussion, criticism, even downright demolition. Social media buzz after every performance. You can even set up your own blog; I am anything but a technological mastermind, and I managed to do so. Sometimes we may be guilty of excessive brutality in such arenas; it is a danger of which we should be mindful. That is really quite different, however, from the fascistic – let us lose the earlier ‘quasi’ – behaviour increasingly turning theatres into bear-pits.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Turn of the Screw, Opera Holland Park, 1 July 2014


Holland Park

The Governess – Ellie Laugharne
Peter Quint – Brenden Gunnell
Mrs Grove – Diana Montague
Miss Jessel – Elin Pritchard
The Prologue – Robin Tritschler
Miles – Dominic Lynch
Flora – Rosie Lomas
Annilese Miskimmon (director)
Leslie Travers (designs)
Mark Jonathan (lighting)

City of London Sinfonia
Steuart Bedford (conductor)

The absurdity of last year’s Britten over-saturation seemed to prove to the converted that their hero conquered all; to the rest of us, it confirmed us in our scepticism or, better, selectivity. Opera Holland Park did well to defer its first staging of a Britten opera until this year, and did better still to select The Turn of the Screw, by some distance the finest of the composer’s operas. It is not entirely free of the mere cleverness that bedevils many of Britten’s other scores, but the commands of construction and form keep that and other shortcomings more or less in check throughout. Indeed, the dialectic between the serial turnings of the screw and the development of the story, the impedimental and yet ultimately generative grit thereby ensured, are as much part and parcel of the drama as the ghost story itself.

A successful staging should recognise that as much as a successful performance; at the very least, it will not stand in the way. Anniliese Miskimmon’s production seems to me to do just that. It provides space for the score to ‘turn’, not in a hands-off abdication of responsibility, but with stage direction that treads a properly uneasy – and properly productive – line between freedom and determinism, an antimony lying at the root not only of many a philosophical problem, but equally many a dramatic problem. Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is surely the operatic exemplar in that respect, but Britten’s great respect for the Austrian master (as well as for his pupil, Berg, whose closed forms in Wozzeck have such profound implications for The Turn of the Screw) tends in any case to underpin, audibly and visually, his stronger works. What might on occasion therefore seem an uncertainty as to how the Governess is reacting, what she will do, is actually better understood as an indication of the extent to which she is trapped. Likewise with the premonitions of past and future, the latter presented by the directorial innovation of an old-fashioned, blackboarded schoolroom in Leslie Travers’s excellent designs, starkly atmospheric, with room for the drama to emerge from between the cracks. The regimented processions of schoolboys seek not, or at least so it seemed to me, to hammer home a point, but to present a possibility for reflection. Who are they? Are they ‘real’, whatever that might mean? Do they evoke a past, whether the work’s or the composer’s, a present, or a future? Again, they work in tandem with the score.

It is more or less impossible for us, especially in the light of recent and ongoing legal cases, not to pick up on the barely suppressed paedophilia in Britten’s opera. That is not shied away from, especially in the case when Miles, quite unsensationally, apparently quite ‘naturally’, removes his shirt, ready for his bath. But again, the point is not hammered home; it is perfectly possible for a production successfully to highlight this element, as indeed did David McVicar’s superlative ENO staging, but it is not the only way. Here, the space left for reflection enabled the possibility at least – it is largely up to the audience member whether to take it up – of asking him- or herself the difficult questions concerning personal and social complicity. To what extent is ‘childhood’ an adult, even voyeuristic, construct? Again, the construction of the opera, just as much as biographical knowledge, suggests answers that many will not want to hear.

Musical performance is most crucial of all, of course, in enabling the heightened state at which we might be compelled to ask ourselves such questions. I was slightly disappointed – and surprised to be slightly disappointed – at Steuart Bedford’s conducting of the first act. It certainly was not bad, and I suspect that there was an element of becoming used to the acoustic: both for the performers, with an audience, and for us in the audience too. But everything seemed tighter after the interval. The cruel, glistening beauty of Britten’s score registered more powerfully in the City of London Sinfonia’s now-expert performance; so too did the deadly constructionism of the composer’s musico-dramatic method. I should very much have liked to hear the first act again, if only to discover whether a second performance would have emerged the more tightly, or whether indeed the failing had been mine.

At the heart of the drama stood Ellie Laugharne’s Governess. Her helplessness and her goodness – not saccharine, but human – came across powerfully indeed, torn as she was between incompatible, maybe impossible, paths to take. Brenden Gunnell’s Peter Quint was eerily, at times frighteningly seductive: all too easy to succumb to, all too difficult to pin down with simplistic oppositions between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’. As his accomplice – or is she that at all? – Elin Pritchard’s Miss Jessel added a feminine complication that seemed intriguingly wilder. The compromised ‘normality’ of Diana Montague’s Mrs Grose registered with startling immediacy, little short of a master-class in the role. Robin Tritschler’s Prologue contributed ambivalence and ambiguity from the outset: perhaps not an unreliable narrator, but one we at least asked ourselves whether we should trust. As the children, Dominic Lynch and Rosie Lomas both impressed greatly. Lynch’s Miles conjured up just the right sort of all-too-pure innocence, disconcerting and provocative in context, as surely it was for Britten. Lomas’s Flora offered an interesting foil, slightly controlling, productively poised between ‘childhood’ and something else. It is difficult, of course, to discern precisely where personal performance ends and directorial conception begins; but that is the hallmark of a fine opera production. This is certainly one of the finest performances I have witnessed at Opera Holland Park.     
 




Sunday, 29 June 2014

LSO/Nott - Beethoven and Messiaen, 29 June 2014


Barbican Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36
Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphony

Steven Osborne (piano)
Cynthia Miller (ondes-Martenot)
London Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott (conductor)

 
Try as I might, I found it impossible, whether before, during, or after the performance, to fathom the idea behind programming Beethoven’s Second Symphony with Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphony. I suppose it showed two highly contrasting approaches to the idea of the symphony, but Messiaen’s example is such a thing-in-itself that comparison verges upon the meaningless. In the end, it was probably better simply to take the concert for what it was; at least that is what I had to do.
 

Jonathan Nott led the LSO in a decent account of the Beethoven, which is certainly not something to be taken for granted, especially in an age characterised largely either by perverse ideas about Beethoven or a manifest lack of ideas about him. That the introduction to the first movement began anything but promisingly was, however, no fault of the performers. Some unutterably selfish member of the audience decided to indulge not once but twice in flash photography; I hope that his or her name will have been taken and the culprit will never darken the doors of the Barbican Hall again. Thereafter, there was considerable relief to be had from a sensible tempo and excellent sense of line, which heightened, indeed engendered expectations. The exposition was on the fast side and might have yielded more – characteristics of the performance as a whole – but there was nothing objectionable to what we heard. Orchestral playing as such was alert, precise, cultured: beyond reproach really. The development section benefited from a sense of exploration, though the approach to the recapitulation was curiously throwaway. However, the great coda blazed as it should.

The slow movement flowed with grace, even if it lacked the profundity, the search for necessity and meaning, which characterise a great performance – such as we might have heard from, say, the late Sir Colin Davis, or today might still hear from Daniel Barenboim, surely the greatest Beethovenian alive. There was greater affection, though, here than elsewhere, and an admirable combination of clarity and warmth. Minor-mode passages had a proper sense of darkness to them. The scherzo was brisk, brusque even, but not in extreme fashion; the trio had an appealing lilt to its woodwind passages. It was difficult not to register a certain feeling of disappointment with respect to the finale. Very well-played though it was, it was probably taken too fast. At least that was how it seemed, with no opportunity to smile or indeed to deepen.
 

It is no tall order to follow a performance of a Beethoven symphony with something on the scale of Turangalîla. For that alone, and despite very occasional evidence of tiredness, the LSO deserves great credit – but its performance was highly estimable in its own right, the distinctly unhelpful acoustic of the Barbican notwithstanding. This Introduction went un-photographed (although the person whose telephone rang for what seemed like at least a minute during ‘Développement de l’amour should summarily have been shot). Either my ears or the orchestra, or both, took a little time to adjust to that problematical acoustic; for once, the Royal Albert Hall might have been preferable. But the congested sound experienced at the beginning was no real impediment to the expository function of the movement, ‘expository’ certainly not being understood in a Beethovenian fashion. String swooping in tandem with Cynthia Miller’s expert ondes-Martenot playing, a portentous brass ‘statue’ theme, a glittering piano entry from Steven Osborne, contrast aplenty with the demure brace of clarinets portraying the ‘flower’ to the brass’s ‘statue’: all made their point in an atmosphere of madness, delirium even, which yet remained musically grounded in rhythmic and melodic insistence. ‘Chant d’amour 1’ sounded somewhat too frenetic at first; again, that may have been as much an acoustical as a musical problem, and again the point should not be exaggerated. The saccharine theme from violins and ondes possessed a suitable combination of naïveté and sheer weirdness. Messiaen’s technique of juxtaposition came across very clearly: perhaps too clearly?
 

At any rate, the first ‘Turangalîla’ movement provided some respite. (The fastidious Pierre Boulez could never quite bring himself to conduct the symphony as a whole, but conducted the ‘Turangalîla’ movements.) It is – and in performance, was – less blanat, sounding imbued with mystery that could claim to be genuinely spiritual, if that shop-soiled word has not entirely lost all meaning by now. Moreover, elements of the music seemed to look forward to the 1950s, the 1960s, even beyond; there is surely a glimpse of Stockhausen to be had here. Perhaps it was not surprising, however saddening it may have been, that some members of the audience rudely began to depart during this wonderfully sphinx-like movement.
 

The second ‘Chant d’amour’ had a splendidly perky woodwind opening. Its clockwork craziness – presentiments of Chronochromie? – increased when the section was joined by other instruments, leading unerringly into the ‘response’ of the love theme. Nott’s shaping here was exemplary. The movement ended in frankly sexual fashion, but that was as nothing compared to the ensuing ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’, its performance unabashed with respect to what we might call its cosmic silliness. I found myself wondering whether the inhabitants of another planet, or indeed an étoile somewhere, might already play this music. Goodness knows what acts it would accompany or presage…
 

‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’ answered that question in no uncertain terms. Or at least such was the experience in a performance of great languor, even ‘insistent languor’, which apparent contradiction was suggested by Osborne’s piano commentary. As elsewhere, the pianist’s contribution was exemplary in its scintillation, quite the equal of a Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The second ‘Turangalîla’ movement was again welcome in its almost alien inscrutability after that spell in the garden of earthly delights. Now was the time for the LSO’s percussion truly to shine, and it did. Joy was felt in the combinatory aspects of the movement. There also seemed to be a welcome acknowledgement by Nott of its unhinged quality.
 

That telephonic interruption aside, ‘Développement de l’amour’ offered blazing climaxes which left little to the imagination. If not quite a cold shower, the third and final ‘Turangalîla’ movement at least presented a contrast of relative subtlety. Instrumental combinations fascinated, as did the notes ‘themselves’. It was beguilingly curious, and curiously beguiling. Musical processes were readily, revealingly apparent. The finale really had the sense of being a conclusion. It could hardly have been more exultant than some of what had passed before, but it certainly seemed imbued with homecoming, wherever this strangest of homes might be. This was a wonderful – in every way – conclusion to the LSO’s season. The final, prolonged, glowing chord sent shivers down the spine.

 

Gergiev speaks


Oh dear, or dear, oh dear...! Apparently Karita Mattila 'has no idea', but there is far, far worse. At least lives in the Crimea have been 'saved immediately'...

(Don't be put off by the Finnish introduction; the interview is in English.)

Click here: http://www.hs.fi/hstv/uutiset/v1403841452883?jako=a13f9021dce43b59c9dbbc4b96387862&ref=fb-share

Royal Academy of Music students/Wright - Bartók and Stravinsky, 28 June 2014


Hall One, Kings Place

Bartók – Seven pieces from ‘Mikrokosmos’, for two pianos, four hands, Sz.108
Sonata for two pianos and percusson, Sz.110
Stravinsky – The Soldier’s Tale

Florian Mitrea, Alexandra Vaduva (piano)
Tom Lee, Paul Stoneman, Oliver Butterworth (percussion)
Kate Suthers (violin)
Felix Lashmar (double bass)
Leonie Bluett (clarinet)
Hannah Rankin (bassoon)
Matthew Williams (trumpet)
Elliot Pooley (trombone)

Dame Harriet Walter (narrator)
Simon Wright (conductor)


What a treat, to hear not just one but two of Bartók’s two-piano works, followed by The Soldier’s Tale, especially in excellent performances from Royal Academy students! Florian Mitrea and Alexandra Vaduva followed in the hallowed footsteps of Bartók himself and his wife, Ditta Pásztory. Mitrea and  Vaduva conjured up from the start a sound that was recognisably Bartókian and of the ‘two piano’ variety: a banal observation, perhaps, but not, I think, one that goes entirely without saying. Both musicians, whether individually or together, offered clear delineation of lines, without sacrificing the spirit of the music. Stravinsky, Petruskha in particular, seemed to be echoed in ‘Chord Study’, the second of the Seven Pieces from ‘Mikrokosmos’, Mitrea imparting nicely shimmering tone where required. The following ‘Perpetuum Mobile’ was urgent, without running away; indeed, performances were admirably controlled throughout. The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and the Sonata for two pianos and percussion both seemed to be presaged in ‘Staccato and Legato’, after which the ecstatic lyricism and harmony of the ‘New Hungarian Folksong’ came both as intensification and contrast. A fine sense of rhythm and style ensured that the final ‘Ostinato’ registered as a true conclusion.
 

 

The Sonata itself followed, for which the pianists, now able fully to unleash their virtuosity, were joined by Tom Lee and Paul Stoneman, whose musicianship and execution proved every bit their partners’ equal. (If only we had a recording from the Bartóks!) There was never any doubt, from the wonderfully ominous opening, that we were dealing with a towering masterpiece. Co-ordination was impeccable, throughout a wide – and meaningful – dynamic range. If Vaduva’s piano contribution was often, though by no means always, more on the percussive side, then that is a perfectly valid choice to have made. The final, fugal section of that first movement was highly incisive, antiphonal writing coming across with admirable clarity. That opening to the second movement, quite unlike anything else I know, registered with the astonishment that it should, a credit to both percussionists. Night music wove its magic. Again, unanimity of ensemble was highly impressive throughout. The finale was exultant, though far from unambiguously so.    
 

A new group of musicians, joined by Harriet Walter and conducted by Simon Wright, gave us a splendid performance of The Soldier’s Tale. I was not always entirely sure about the new English version of the narration – I could not find a credit – but contemporary references to a ‘current account’ and the like did not jar too much. At any rate, Walter’s contribution captured the attention, gamely alternating between characters and properly adhering to the dictates of metre. Stravinsky’s miraculous score emerged in pungent, mordant fashion, properly poised between ‘Russian’ colour and neo-Classical desiccation, a forerunner indeed to both Mavra and the Octet, as well as the more obvious Symphonies of Wind Instruments. There was a keen sense of dialogue and confrontation between the instruments; again, the music really sounded as if it were by Stravinsky, which again, is not a quality to be taken for granted. Dances were well characterised, the Tango darkly erotic. If Kate Suthers’s excellent rendition of the violin part necessarily rendered her first amongst instrumental equals, there was not a weak link in the ensemble, directed with a fine ear for metre and colour by Wright.   




Friday, 27 June 2014

RPO/Zukerman - Bach, Schoenberg, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, 27 June 2014


Cadogan Hall

Bach – Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041
Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4
Mozart – Exsultate, jubilate, KV 165/158a
Mendelssohn – Symphony no.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’

Arianna Zukerman (soprano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Pinchas Zukerman (violin, conductor) 


Pinchas Zukerman is joining the RPO for a ‘Summer Music Festival’ at Cadogan Hall, involving chamber as well as orchestral music, the former with musicians from the Royal College of Music. This was the opening concert, in which we were treated to Zukerman as violinist as well as conductor. There was a great deal to enjoy, and we were treated to a previously unadvertised bonus, a performance of Exsultate, jubilate, with Zukerman’s daughter, Arianna.


Bach came first: the rarest of rare treats in the insanity of modern symphonic programming. Would that one could believe this to be a harbinger; alas, it seems more likely to be a late, if not quite last, hurrah from a generation of musicians who understood and experienced the necessity of performing a repertoire spanning as many centuries as possible. Zukerman’s recordings of the Bach violin concertos with Daniel Barenboim and the English Chamber Orchestra remain a choice recommendation, as do those of David Oistrakh with the RPO. Here, in a sense, then, we gained the best of both worlds, and this was for the most part a delightfully assured, musical performance, which sought to make no especial ‘points’ and was all the better for it. The tempo taken for the first movement had a sense of ‘rightness’ to it, setting up a performance whose variegated articulation was not the least of its virtues. Zukerman’s intonation was perfect throughout. (It is surprising how many violinists’ intonation is not.) Varied flourishes of vibrato were rightly the icing on the cake. And throughout, crucially, the continuo line (Clare Williams on harpsichord, Tim Gill leading the cellos) provided the foundation upon which Bach’s miraculous score was re-created. The slow movement was a little more problematical: taken at a very brisk pace and, more to the point, at times disconcertingly brusque. Matters improved as time went on, but tutti passages retained more than a little of that character. Zukerman could occasionally be a little fierce too, though there were some truly exquisite moments: diminuendi, in particular, and some especially rich tone in the lower registers of the instrument. Some might have found the finale a little on the sturdy side, but Zukerman’s tempo permitted musical values to eclipse the merely or mostly flash. Again, that perfectly centred tone of his was something truly to savour – and again, the RPO played with unflashy excellence. 


A good number more strings joined the orchestra for Verklärte Nacht. This proved to be quite an unusual performance. In many, though not quite all, it paid off, but Zukerman certainly proved himself no slave to received tradition. The veiled opening, dark, even ominuous, seemed all the more so for being taken at an unusually slow tempo. It actually made the music sound closer to Mahler, recalling the first movement of the Second Symphony and even looking forward to the Sixth, despite the different keys involved. The opening, at least, was quite different in its lack of Brahmsian flexibility, though that would come later, Zukerman showing himself willing both to linger and to press on. Indeed, different sections of the work exhibited clearly differentiated character, the programme coming across more strongly than often. Despite one passage in which conductor and orchestra seemed to lose their way – I am not quite sure what happened – climaxes and turning-points were handled with musical and dramatic understanding. Graver passages seemed especially to benefit from Zukerman’s approach; some others might have benefited from more in the way of late Romantic abandon, sounding a little studied by comparison with other performances. I was not entirely convinced by the considerable slowing towards the end, suggesting almost an formal arch rather than a journey toward transfiguration, but the final bars themselves somewhat redressed the balance.
 

Arianna Zukerman showed herself a winningly forthright soloist: not flawless, but with a nicely operatic spirit. In the first movement of Mozart’s motet, the lower range showed a degree of strain, and the cadenza’s intonation was unfortunate. But her phrasing was musical, and was clearly conceived of in tandem with Zukerman’s exquisite direction of the orchestra, woodwind in particular. Even when, once again, as in the third movement, the soloist’s intonation wandered, the RPO sounded gorgeous. The final ‘Alleluia’ was taken with evident relish; it was difficult not to smile, in Haydnesque fashion, at the prospect of the Divinity.
 

Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony received a lovely performance with which to finish. The first movement opened with real attack, a true sense of life. Bright and bushy-tailed, Mendelssohn’s score benefited once again from splendidly variegated playing. The vivace in Allegro vivace was properly heeded. There was a delightful, subtle slowing for the advent of the second group, but the exposition repeat was not taken and was missed (at least by me!) The development section was admirably clear with an excellent sense of direction, the recapitulation offering a real sense of arrival – and also of difference, bubbling woodwind nicely to the fore. What one might call the ‘light inexorability’ of tread to the second movement was perfectly captured. It was interesting to note that often Zukerman felt no need to conduct at all, suggestive of well-directed rehearsal. The minuet received a loving, old world performance. Too relaxed? Perhaps just a little, at times, though certainly not by much. Its trio continued in similar vein, boasting especially fine Harmoniemusik, which inevitably had one think of Mozart’s serenades. Any slight doubts had evaporated by the return of the minuet. The finale wanted nothing in vigour, urgency, or, where required, lightness of touch. A fine sense of chiaroscuro ensured that it was not unrelenting, indeed that it was blessed by musical ‘character’.