Thursday, 26 May 2016

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bavarian State Opera, 22 May 2016

Walther (Jonas Kaufmann) centre stage, with the Chorus, the Mastersingers, and Eva (Sara Jakubiak) looking down adoringly from her platform
Images: © Bayerische Staatsoper/Wilfried Hösl

Nationaltheater, Munich

Hans Sachs – Wolfgang Koch
Veit Pogner – Christof Fischesser
Kunz Vogelgsang – Kevin Conners
Konrad Nachtigall – Christian Rieger
Sixtus Beckmesser – Markus Eiche
Fritz Kothner – Eike Wilm Schulte
Balthasar Zorn – Ulrich Reß
Ulrich Eißlinger – Stefan Heibach
Augustin Moser – Thorsten Scharnke
Hermann Ortel – Friedemann Röhlig
Hans Schwarz – Peter Lobert
Hans Foltz – Christoph Stephinger
Walther von Stolzing – Jonas Kaufmann
David – Benjamin Bruns
Eva – Sara Jakubiak
Magdalene – Okka von der Damerau
Night Watchman – Tareq Nazmi

David Bösch (director)
Patrick Bannwart (set designs)
Meentje Nielsen (costumes)
Falko Herold (video)

Michael Bauer (lighting)
Rainer Karlitschek (dramaturgy)

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months). Glyndebourne would come only four days later; my principal point of – inevitable – comparison would therefore be with Stefan Herheim’s staging, first seen in Salzburg, but later (this March) in Paris. Herheim’s production is, unsurprisingly, one for the ages. I have no doubt that it will reveal more upon every subsequent encounter. It comes, perhaps, closer to Wagner’s reconciliations. However, any good Adornian – is there such a thing? Are we not, necessarily, all at best bad Adornians? – will warn you of the dangers of such positive Hegelianisms. David Bösch’s staging gradually reveals itself to be quite the necessary negative indictment, with respect above all to two particular (related) aspects of the work: violence and gender. If less all-encompassing than Herheim’s staging – what is not? – then it lays claim to be the first Meistersinger production in my experience to address the work from a feminist standpoint. It also arguably offers the most intriguing treatment – I shall not say ‘solution’, for surely there is none – to the ‘Beckmesser problem’. Katharina Wagner’s notorious Bayreuth staging might have given it a run for its money, had only the competence of her craft matched the provocative thinking of her dramaturge, Robert Sollich. Above all, though, this proved to be great musical drama: everyone committed to something far greater than the sum of its parts, and that includes ‘parts’ such as Jonas Kaufmann and Kirill Petrenko.

Walther arriving in Nuremberg

Let us start, however, with Bösch’s staging, with excellent designs by Patrick Bannwart and Meentje Nielsen. We are in the 1950s. What could be more apt? And no, I am not being sarcastic. This is a work concerned with reconstruction, set in a city which, more than most, has had to be concerned with reconstruction. Wagner, I suppose I should reiterate for the nth time, was in no sense concerned to present a historical Nuremberg; the ever-present – well, nearly – spirit of Bach makes that abundantly clear. And did not the 1950s see ‘New Bayreuth’, in particularly Wieland Wagner’s Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg? As John Deathridge once acidly commented,  when Wieland spoke of “the clearing away of old lumber” (Entrümpelung), … [he produced] stage pictures bereft of their “reactionary” ethos — and, as sceptics were prone to add, most of their content as well.’ Indeed, and if many in the audience had more to hide even than Wieland, he had his own reasons too. The relationship between provincialism and the dreadful reconstructionalism of the 1950s is complicated yet undeniable. Lest we forget, 1955 was the year in which the West German Army was (re)founded, denying its origins in what had gone before; this was also the period of increasingly prevalent terraced dynamics and sewing-machine geometries of Bach performances by minor German chamber orchestras, performances that would soon metamorphose into ‘authenticke’ claims, deluded and cynically deluding, to ‘restore’ Baroque practice. ‘They say Bach, [but] mean Telemann,’ as Adorno unforgettably put it. Wagner meant – and means Bach, and vice versa. There is nastiness as well as homeliness in provincialism; Bösch draws out the former, in a useful corrective to the norm.
David (Benjamin Bruns) and Walther

What might seem a nostalgia for the period and its ‘popular culture’ – similarly in Bösch’s Munich L’Orfeo – is revealed to be far more complicated than that. For one thing, what does ‘popular culture’ mean? Such is a problem at the heart of the opera, at the heart of relationships between the Masters and the populace, and Sachs’s suggestion of testing the rules. And such has arguably become still more so given the rise of what some of us are old-fashioned enough still to regard with, the Frankfurt School, as the Culture Industry. If resistance is to come, it will be more likely to come from Helmut Lachenmann than from the world of commercial music, successfully masquerading as ‘of the people’. And so, when microphones and various other paraphernalia of the recording industry – ‘Classical’ in the deadly marketing-speak of that world, then as well as now – are put in place, we sense, amongst many other things, an act of domination such has been inflicted upon works by Bach, now more or less unperformable, and upon every other aspect of our ‘administered’ world and lives. Although the Personenregie of Bösch’s staging is always detailed, interesting, telling, it is only – as in the work itself – towards the end of the third act, in the Singschule, that things come closer into conceptual focus. It is, as always in the bourgeois state, with violence that that is accomplished. David has already, most intriguingly, seemed a nastier, vainer, and yes, more interesting character than usual, with the strong implication that his penchant for small-scale violent behaviour is owed in part not only to his provincialism but also to his inability truly to create. Walther has tried to defend David when the apprentices, at the beginning of the scene, attacked him, but he will have none of it; outsiders are not to be welcomed, perhaps not even for Magdalene’s sake. Will David prove a second Beckmesser? We shall see; it is, at least at this stage, the first Beckmesser who provides the shock – literally.

The electric shocks administered to Walther, forcibly restrained in his chair, by the Marker are the work of what Gudrun Esslin would soon call the Auschwitz generation; and as Ennslin went on, there is of course no arguing with them. That, despite, or perhaps because, of Beckmesser’s – and Pogner’s – relative attractiveness (relative to how we usually see them, and indeed to the definitely older-school Kothner). Who, after all, has not occasionally found something of attraction in the discipline of fascism, especially when (s)he has been emboldened by readily available bottles of Meisterbräu? Guilds had never been as stable as nostalgia suggested; that is surely part of Wagner’s meaning here. But Bösch brings already-existing divisions to the foreground. Some Masters look – costumes crucial here – and act with greater modernity, or at least in greater fashion than others. If the Guild is keeping things together – and such, of course, was the crux of nineteenth-century Romantic and Hegelian defences in the face of liberal attacks upon them – then it is not clear whether it will succeed for much longer. ‘Reconstruction’ tends to incite – as any Stolzing, Ensslin, or Lachenmann would tell you.

Beckmesser (Markus Eiche) and Hans Sachs
(Wolfgang Koch)

Sachs’s van – ‘Sachs’ says the neon, definitely not of Fifth Avenue – captures our attention at the beginning of the second act. There is no doubt that the mise-en-scene is of a grimmer 1950s: doubtless necessary in some ways given the cost of war, but this is not a suburb of joy. It is not the Munich we see in the second Heimat; nor is it the Nuremberg the tourist will see. But it is there. Beckmesser’s virtuosity comes to the fore. He is not a fraud, although he may be unimaginative; he has craft, even if he does not have art; he is, moreover, certainly not a mere figure of fun. His piccolo guitar to Walther’s full-size version invites a number of reflections. Yet his song works, in its way: perhaps of another age, another age that most likely never was, but such is reconstruction. Eva seems even more girlish than usual, almost Barbie-like; I asked myself whether we should ever see a feminist production that would address the monstrous nature of her treatment. The violence of the Prügel-Fuge’s staging eclipses any I have seen. Too often, we forget that there is real violence involved. (Perhaps Wagner did so too; if so, he stands as much in need of correction as anyone else.) Here, David’s deeds with baseball bat mark him out as every inch the neo-fascist; Pegida would welcome him with open arms. We then begin to wonder: what will the guild become in the hands of his generation. Is Sachs the last hope, rather than the harbinger? Likewise, how will Walther turn out? For ever Tariq Ali, think how many Blairs, or would-be-Blairs there have been. At the close, the Night Watchman (in modern policeman’s garb) is dealt with by the remaining small gang of young townsfolk. They take him back to his car and send him on his way, but it is made clear that he has no choice; this is their manor. Crossing themselves beforehand, they have mimicked the (deliberately?) incongruous procession at the opening; they know how to use traditional forms when it serves their purpose. The final punishment beating takes place as the curtain – and one of the thugs’ baseball bats – falls.

Beckmesser dragged to his beating

‘Sachs’ has lost its first and almost its second ‘s’ when we catch up, the morning after the night before. Make of that what you will. Walther has spent his night in the van. Beckmesser, when he hobbles back, is suicidal – quite understandably. It is discovery of the poem that turns his mood (just enough) around. Sachs is not the only one so to suffer, although Beckmesser would never have the imagination, nor the understanding, to come up with the Wahn monologue. Still, the ubiquity of Wahn is more than usually, atmospherically present. Yes, as Michael Tanner has pointed out, the work is about ‘coping’; and coping is difficult in a world such as this, which is one reason why we indulge in deluded and deluding reconstruction in the first place. Walther is too young, too callow really to understand; he and Eva are unable to keep their hands off each other, on top of the van, as Sachs confronts a further bout of depression. The violence of Wolfgang Koch’s – and the Bavarian State Orchestra’s – outburst here, the former occasionally edging towards Sprechgesang, even towards Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, was especially telling, and complemented, extended the production memorably, indeed frighteningly. But Walther eventually appreciates his selfishness, and comes down to help: a touching moment, especially in light of such darkness all around.

Let us leave the staging as some would doubtless like the work to be left, before the Festwiese. Unlike them, those who misunderstand the Quintet and do not appreciate that its moment of ‘beauty’ is quite deliberately foreshortened, we shall return, but I should rather deal with Bösch’s final scene at the end. (Think of this, perhaps, as a rupture to the account of the staging, just as Peter Konwitschny once ruptured the aura of this allegedly problematical scene, in order, controversially, to put it mildly, to deal with the allegations, most of them unfounded.)

I have never heard the work conducted better ‘live’ than by Kirill Petrenko. I was less convinced by his Bayreuth Ring performances than many were; perhaps I did not hear him at his best. This, however, was Wagner conducting – in a work in which I have heard even Daniel Barenboim and Daniele Gatti struggle to reach their highest standards – to speak of in the same breath as that of Bernard Haitink (my first). Petrenko’s command of the Wagnerian melos, assisted by, indeed expressed in, the outstanding playing of the Bavarian State Orchestra, was outstanding at every level. There was no doubting the overall structure, but that structure was formed by the needs of the moment, by the Schoenbergian working-out of the material, rather than imposed, Alfred Lorenz-like, upon it. This was not a David; this was a young Sachs. He could, indeed, hold back or press on when the singer seemed to be suggesting it, playing the orchestra like his own piano, albeit without the slightest hint of shallow virtuosity, for this was no Beckmesser either. But it would not jar; indeed, performance and work seemed to form one another, which, in this of all works, is surely the point. The orchestra had nothing to fear from the most exalted of comparisons; rather, those with whom it might have been compared, should fear them. Likewise the chorus, whether in terms of vocal heft and colour, of clarity of line, or of stage movement. The dialectic between individual and society (and changing conceptions thereof) was brought vividly to life here and elsewhere.

I took a little while to settle down to Koch’s Hans Sachs. That is partly personal, I think; to my ears – and indeed to my eyes – he somehow seems more to be an Alberich. That I found disconcerting, but it was my problem, really. There was no doubting the intelligence of his portrayal, and in the third act, my reservations evaporated. Here, there seemed to be a perfect marriage of Wort and Ton, of Oper and Drama. (And yes, I know that is not quite what Wagner meant in the latter case, but it is considerably closer than it might initially seem.) He took us through Sachs’s struggles, and took us through some more. There was no false reconciliation of ‘mere’ geniality, although manipulation of Wahn might prescribe it, successfully or otherwise, if as a palliative rather than as a cure.

Kaufmann’s Walther avoided the drawback of his first performance in the role (I think), in concert at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival. There, it was an astonishing performance, in which Kaufmann tired a little towards the end. Here, he was perhaps less golden of vocal tone, more baritonal, but that is an observation rather than an æsthetic judgement. There was no problem whatsoever with his pacing. And my goodness, he could act! The puppyish enthusiasm of the first acts, the inspiration Walther drew from Eva, whilst showing off to her, not unlike a tennis player at Wimbledon with his girlfriend in the crowd, the mixture of enforced, societal chivalry and the arousal of deeper, or at least more primal, urges: those and many more acutely observed moments denied the manufactured boundary between ‘musical performance’ and ‘acting’. If we are to talk of ‘Wagner’s intentions’, let it be in that manner.

Benjamin Bruns had a difficult time of it. This, after all, was anything but the typical David, but Bruns had us believe in the ‘new’ – or should that be ‘restored’ – character, his impotent (often, at least) rage as chilling as the ‘purely’ vocal delivery was thoughtful and indeed often beautiful. Sara Jakubiak really took to the demands of her role (on which more below). Visually and vocally striking, this was an Eva both at home in and estranged from her Nuremberg. Okka von der Damerau’s Magdalene brought a deeper, luxuriant vocal colour to the stage, again with clear ‘dramatic’ as well as vocal commitment. Tareq Nazmi’s Night Watchman was deep and dark of tone: just what the doctor has always ordered.

Pogner (Christof Fischesser) and
Kothner (Eike Wilm Schulte)

Of the other Masters, Christof Fischesser was definitely first among equals: handsomely, even suavely sung, a Pogner of ambition in which he was likely to succeed, rather than someone entering his twilight years. Kothner was played movingly by Eike Wilm Schulte, with the relative stiffness of his delivery, particularly striking in the first act, a move to distinguish this ‘old-school’ Master from the next generation(s). Markus Eiche’s Beckmesser was of the first class: more plausible a suitor than most, intelligently, often beautifully, sung, with a fine marriage of dignity and, increasingly, desperation.


Back, then, to the Festwiese. Who owns the guild, or at least its products? A corporation, albeit in the modern rather than the archaic sense: Pognervision. Privilege, be it of class, of gender, of other varieties, is always likely to emerge victorious. The early televisual variety show we see might seem ‘popular’ but it is deeply – and indeed shallowly – manipulative. (Admittedly, Bösch has nothing on ‘real life’, in this country at least, Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt appointing his friend, the creator of Big Brother, Peter Bazalgette, to chair the Arts Council, etc.) Falko Herold’s video work provides ‘titles’ for each Master (‘individual’ or styled to be corporate?) as he enters the scene, just ‘like on the television’. There is, of course, something for all the family – within strict limits. David and his camp dancers suggest what the real view of ‘deviance’ is: perhaps it will be tolerated as a harmless joke, but as for any serious attack on patriarchy… David is not in on the joke, anyway, and his humiliated by them: again, a proto-Beckmesser. When forced (‘peer pressure’ is like that) to drink too many shots, to prove his ‘real’ masculinity, he falls paralytic, unable to perform his functions (doubtless in any sense).

Magdalene (Okka von der Damerau), Beckmesser, and Eva, as the town clerk would claim his unwilling 'prize'

The cruelty meted out to Beckmesser will be even worse - although we should remember, and we are minded, that he too would essentially buy Eva, our bartered bride, and he makes clear his desire to possess her, even against her will, so is no 'victim' at all in that very important sense. Bedecked in gaudy ‘variety’ gold, in which he is clearly anything but comfortable, Beckmesser has been set up to fail. ‘Entertainment’ is the name of the game, and we are reminded of the cruelty of a work in which the comedy, in the common sense at least, is within, is of characters laughing at another; it is comedy, then, at which we should feel uncomfortable, and we do. Eva, who has learned a great deal during the course of the work, is increasingly disgusted by what she sees. Kothner is ‘marketed’ as celebrating his fiftieth year in office; even a ‘tribute’, indeed perhaps especially a tribute, must bear the ‘ratings’ in mind. (The relative stiffness of his delivery in the first act, via-à-vis that of Pogner and Beckmesser, thus falls into greater relief.) When Eva thinks that Sachs has fallen in with her father’s sell-off – for surely this ‘show’, with related ‘philanthropy’, is as much for business as anything else – she cannot bear to look at him any more. Whilst the crowd, manipulated by the ‘event’, sings his praises, she not only turns away; from her balcony, she haplessly throws the contents of her glass in his direction. No one notices; on stage, that is, for we do.

Sachs on stage, receiving the crowd's acclamation, before Eva (above with Pogner) turns her back in disgust

Yet Sachs is wiser than most, as we have always known. He realises that all has gone awry at the moment when most – whether on stage or in the typical audience – think it has been resolved. Has Walther joined the guild? It is not clear (deliberately so, I presume). In a more fundamental sense, however, Sachs is deeply troubled rather than triumphant. Beckmesser returns. Out of desperation, he tries to shoot dead the presumed author of his misfortunes, but falls before being able to carry out his punishment. The idea, we presume, was to let the poison, or whatever it was, do its work following the shooting. That may or may not be metaphorical. Of course, it does not work out as intended. It never did for Beckmesser; it never does for reconstruction. Well, not unless you are Wagner – or Herheim, and then you acknowledge that it is not what most people think it is. And even then…


Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Makropulos Case, Bavarian State Opera, 21 May 2016

Image: Bayerische Staatsoper, © Wilfried Hösl

Nationaltheater, Munich

Emilia Marty – Angela Denoke
Dr Kolenatý – Gustáv Beláček
Vítek – Kevin Conners
Krista – Rachael Wilson
Albert Gregor – Pavel Černoch
Jaroslav Prus – John Lundgren
Janek – Aleš Briscein
Hauk-Šendorf – Reiner Goldberg
Chambermaid – Deniz Uzun

Stage Technician – Peter Lobert
Cleaning Lady – Heike Grötzinger

Arpád Schilling (director)
Márton Ágh (designs)
Tamás Bányai (lighting)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Tomáš Hanus (conductor)

Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions. The Makropulos Case perhaps falls somewhere in between, although surely closer to the more ‘conventional’ trio, an unusual story notwithstanding. At any rate, no Janáček opera outstays its welcome. Every one is musically and dramatically interesting, without – save, arguably, in the case of From the House of the Dead – being ‘difficult’ (a silly concept, anyway, but let us leave that on one side). There are strong, central female characters in most (again, not in his final opera, but...) And yet…

What, then, is the problem? Is it simply that the works are in Czech? Is there still resistance to following titles, from those of us who do not have the language? Perhaps, although how many in the audience actually have an understanding, let alone a good one, of other, more typically-used languages? Translation is, perhaps even more than usual, a bad idea, since the music depends so much on Czech speech rhythms. One can tell that, even when one does not know the language. I mention that here, since a great virtue of this particular performance was the ability to follow the words (with German titles). The sounds are important, but it is not just a matter of sound. In conjunction with the orchestra, this made sense, even for those of us having to rely upon our memories and upon the titles.

First and foremost to be thanked for that excellent, indeed crucial, outcome must be conductor Tomáš Hanus. His direction of the equally (at least!) excellent Bavarian State Orchestra left us in no doubt that not only did the conductor know where he was taking us, and how to do so, but that just the right balance was struck between the demands of the moment, of the intricate relationships between words and music, between vocal line and orchestra, between melodic and harmonic impulses, were being observed and, above all, dramatically communicated. The golden sound of the orchestra – again, perhaps, like the Czech Philharmonic in a recent concert performance of Jenůfa, more Bohemian than Moravian, but none the worse for that – was no mere backdrop, but a musico-dramatic cauldron from which words emerged and in whose self-transforming broth they acquired their meaning and impulse. The disjunctures were not sold short either; they held their dramatic ground, without being fetishised.

Angela Denoke had also played E.M. – or whatever we wish to call her – in the Salzburg Festival performance I heard in 2011. Dramatically, Denoke’s performance here in Munich was at least as fine as in Salzburg; she remains an excellent singing actress. Vocally, however, it was, if anything, superior, with few of the occasional flaws of five years ago. The virtues of the orchestral performance were also her virtues. So indeed were they of the rest of the cast. Brno-born tenor, Pavel Černoch offered an Albert Gregor of what seemed to me (again with the caveat that I am not a Czech-speaker) of vocal beauty and verbal acuity in equal measure, his stage presence just as impressive. His first-act dialogue with Emilia Marty proved one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the performance. Gustáv Beláček and Kevin Conners impressed with their difficult legal performative briefs. John Lundgren’s darkly ambitious Jaroslav Prus and Rachael Wilson’s bright-toned Krista were similarly noteworthy. Aleš Briscein’s Janek furthered the excellent impressions given in that concert Jenůfa, his crestfallen withdrawal from the Marty game a study in musico-dramatic observation and communication. And how wonderful to welcome back Reiner Goldberg to the stage as Hauk-Šendorf: so much more than a mere ‘character’ appearance. Character and artist similarly rolled back the years: a moving moment indeed, not least given the opera in question.

I have left Arpád Schilling’s production until last, because I do not have much to say about it, I am afraid. The principal impression is made by Márton Ágh’s stylish designs, both sets – for instance, a visually arresting pile of chairs – and costumes, Černoch’s Gregor thereby enabled to look very much as he sounded. Of a concept, let alone a Konzept, beyond that, I struggled to discern anything very much. This, then, is stage direction of the kind operatic reactionaries claim to like: non-interventionist and pretty, if a little too modern in its style for them. The work could (sort of) speak for itself, I suppose, but that is hardly the point. Christoph Marthaler delved deeper in Salzburg.


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court, 17 May 2016

Jerwood Theatre, Downstairs, Royal Court

Cast: Iris Becher, Ulrich Hoppe, Jenny König, Glyn Pritchard, Renato Schuch

Katie Mitchell (director)
Chloe Lamford (designs)
Alice Birch (text)
Fabiana Piccioli (lighting)
Max Pappenheim (sound design)
Nils Haarmann (dramaturgy)
Lily McLeisch (associate director)

I do not usually write here about visits to the spoken theatre, or the cinema – not necessarily because I have nothing to say, but more so as to have some occasions for a ‘night off’. However, in this case, not only did the Royal Court kindly give me a press ticket; the identity of the director, Katie Mitchell, had me think it might be interesting to write something from the standpoint of one who has seen quite a few of her operatic stagings too.

There has recently been quite a furore about Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden (as well as Cleansed at the National Theatre). Not having seen the production, I cannot comment, although the hysteria aroused before people had seen it led me to suspect that this was another instance of Against Modern Opera Productions-style philistinism. (The Royal Opera did not, admittedly, help, by essentially issuing an apology to those delicate souls who might be offended. Frankly, if they were not, art would not be doing its job.) Mitchell’s operatic work has, in my experience, been mixed. Idomeneo for ENO was not for me a success, to put it mildly. However, Le Vin herbé in Berlin worked very well, bringing an oratorio to life that maintained its distance from opera whilst also releasing some of its ‘operatic’ quality. There was much to be said in favour of her Salzburg Al gran sole carico d’amore (even though I preferred Peter Konwitschny’s staging, which I saw that same year, 2009). However, it was perhaps After Dido, for ENO, a theatre-piece taking Dido and Aeneas as its starting-point, which most struck me, and has continued to do so.

That experience is perhaps also most relevant for Ophelias Zimmer. Not that this is necessarily entirely Mitchell’s show. She is credited as director; the text is by Alice Birch. We need not worry ourselves about who did precisely what; collaboration is surely the point. And here, this collaboration between the Royal Court and the Schaubühne is very impressive indeed. It had me thinking about all manner of metatheatrical questions; indeed, it still has. It is a ‘new work exploring Ophelia, freed from Hamlet’. Is she, though? It is certainly a work in which her Zimmer, her room, features strongly: not just as setting, not just as constraint and restraint, but also as part-metaphor, part-instantiation, part-various-other-things, for Ophelia’s drowning. Split into five parts – the first four relatively lengthy and feeling so, the final, the moment of death, brief, each preceded by an explanation, written and spoken, of the stage of drowning – it is a work that places Ophelia centre-stage. Not that she wishes to be; not, still more, that we have wished her to be. We might earnestly applaud that she now is, but how many of her reactions are, at best, still conditioned by the novelty of the experience? Do we actually long for Hamlet, especially when presented with such mesmerising physicality as by Renato Schuch? He is outside most of the time, looking in, trying to break in; do we not actually feel relieved when, finally, he breaks in? That may or may not be a metaphor; it is certainly an event. He terrorises her, of course, just as he has been all along, sending her cassettes on which he has recorded his thoughts, his desires (not least with respect to her ‘little wet cunt’). Narcissistic as ever: we nod, of course, applaud ourselves on restoring some balance, on adopting a radical new standpoint. But the violence of the moment in which he possesses the stage, gyrates to his music, repeatedly pushes her into her place: have we not ourselves wanted that whilst congratulating ourselves on our insipid liberalism?

Such is one of the questions that occurred to me repeatedly, and has continued to do so. Likewise the usual metatheatrical questions. Max Pappenheim’s sound designs – are they Hamlet’s, or Ophelia’s father’s, from the glass box? Are they ‘in’ Ophelia’s head? – in some respects dominate, but as much in their manufacture, and their ownership, as in their substance, whatever that might be. Is drowning the actual deed? Eventually, water begins to fill the stage. However, Ophelia has been drowning before that? Is that a metaphor? Or is the theatre-piece a metaphor for drowning? If we decline the either/or, what are we left with, or what might we yet create? Ophelia retains, regains some agency; she decides what to play on Hamlet’s tapes, what to rewind, what to repeat. Or does she? Can she actually any more prevent herself from listening to repeated, angry cries of ‘Fick dich! Fick dich! (Fuck you! Fuck you!)’ any more than she can prevent herself from following the dictates of this ‘new work’? Might she actually have been better off as she was? What are we (what is the theatre-piece) doing to her? And why, even her, particularly here, does she speak so little? Has anything changed at all? She meets her end, after all, through dubious medical treatment semi-forcibly administered to her, eventually having to end her life, just as she always has done.

This, then, is dialectical theatre, or at least can be understood, experienced as such. It is undoubtedly feminist theatre. In many respects, it is, I think, intensely psychoanalytical theatre; it certainly has us interrogate ourselves and our reactions. Was this what Mitchell intended, even accomplished, in that recent Lucia? I have no idea. However, I have no doubt that many opera-goers would have resisted such a theatrical impulse even more strongly than some of those seated behind me, who noisily walked out, disgusted at the ‘bad language’, did on this occasion. I could not help but think that part of this work might have had its roots in Nono’s flawed feminism as well as the ‘straight theatre’ of (The) Waves. Or that such might, at least, in Nono’s dramaturgical terms, have been a ‘provocation’, just as Hamlet undoubtedly had been. You, I am sure, would have different questions haunting you, were you to attend; it is highly recommended, if you can, that you do. That unusual turn - for me - to the second person is as self-conscious as it sounds. And that, of course, is as self-conscious a gloss as it sounds. Ophelia is still dead.

Madama Butterfly, English National Opera, 16 May 2016


(sung in English, as Madam Butterfly)

Cio-Cio San – Rena Harms
Suzuki – Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Kate Pinkerton – Samantha Price
Pinkerton – David Butt Philip
Sharpless – George van Bergen
Goro – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Prince Yamadori – Matthew Durkan
The Bonze – Mark Richardson
Yakuside – Philip Daggett
Imperial Commissioner – Paul Napier-Burrows
Official Registrar – Roger Begley
Mother –Natalie Herman
Cousin – Morag Boyle
Aunt – Judith Douglas
Sorrow – Laura Caldow, Tom Espiner, Irena Stratieva

Anthony Minghella (director)
Carolyn Choa (associate director, choreography, revived by Anita Griffin)
Sarah Tipple (revival director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Han Feng (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting, revived by Ian Jackson-French)
Blind Summit Theatre: Mark Down, Nick Barnes (puppetry)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Richard Armstrong (conductor)

This was my second viewing of the late Anthony Minghella’s much-revived production of Madam Butterfly. As on the first occasion, Sarah Tipple was the excellent (insofar as I could tell) revival director. I cannot claim knowledge of bunraku (Japanese puppet-theatre) beyond the little I have read, but the contribution of Blind Summit Theatre seemed to me as impressive as before, both in itself and with respect to the intriguing interaction between the realism of the work and the æsthetic artificiality of the puppetry. Arnold Toynbee, quoted in the programme, wrote of an Osaka puppet show in 1929: ‘I duly found, as I had been assured beforehand I should find, it possible to entertain the illusion that the puppets were animated by an autonomous life of their own, although the human artists manipulating them were in full view of the spectators.’ So did I, on this occasion. ‘An artistic effect which, in the West,’ Toynbee went on, ‘would have been produced by the artifice of keeping the manipulators out of sight, was produced in Japan by their artistry in keeping themselves out of mind notwithstanding their visibility.’ Again, such was my experience, likewise with Toynbee’s claim that the puppeteers succeeded ‘in subjectively effacing their objectively visible living human forms’.

The greatest problem of all with the work remains, though. Is its Orientalism more or less offensive than that of Turandot? Probably less, but more to the point, it is different.  Minghella’s production – and here, that is even more than usual, a shorthand, for the designs and choreography, as well as the puppetry, are surely just as important – offers, as I wrote last time, ‘a convincing blend of abstraction, stylisation, and moments through which more conventional, if highly disturbing, emotion, may flow like blood – or like the scarlet, silken banners unfurled by actors and dancers’. The brazen, colourful Orientalism of Hang Feng’s costumes might fool some, but surely not many; it accuses us, ensures that we acknowledge our complicity. Its relationship toward the relative abstraction of Michael Levine’s set designs is interesting; both aspects interrogate the other in a far more dialectical production than lazy glancing at production stills – or lazy slouching in the comfort of one’s seat – might suggest.

More problematical, I think, is the work’s objectification of its heroine. Clearly we are not supposed to sympathise with Turandot, or Turandot (even if we are cynically manipulated to sympathise with Liù, and then revolted by her treatment – both onstage and by Puccini). Equally clearly, we are supposed to sympathise with Cio-Cio San. Yet her objectification as a young, a very young, Japanese woman (or should we say girl?) is at best problematical. My inclination would be to bring the element of imperialistic sex tourism to the fore, but there are other routes, and that taken by Minghella is fruitful, not least in its apparent disinclination to take sides. Indeed, in that respect one might say he is acting more strongly against Puccini than a simple indictment would. Similarly, nightfall and moonlight – or rather, star light – at the end of the first act perform, or at least may be understood to perform, a similar role: drawing us in to Puccini’s manipulations but, at the same time, so clearly a construction of beauty – puppets an element, but only one such element, of that – that we are enabled, I should say encouraged, to interrogate those manipulations. More Straussian than Strauss? Perhaps; at any rate, the effect was not entirely dissimilar.

If one can progress beyond those problems, or at least prevent them from overwhelming everything else, the composer’s magic might work all too well. Here, it did not, but for rather the wrong reason. Rena Harms’s anonymous, small-voiced Cio-Cio San rarely convinced. Diction was a problem – so, of course, was the use of English in the first place, but let us leave that on one side – but there were difficulties too with stage presence and indeed with a convincing assumption on the terms of this particular staging. Too often, the voice sounded stretched, or worse. The orchestra and indeed other characters can supply some of what is missing, but they cannot – and could not – supply it all. Richard Armstrong’s conducting, moreover, whilst admirable in its lack of sentimentality, arguably went too far in the opposite direction. Too often, the orchestra sounded merely cold and brash; what we heard was neither ‘Romantic’ nor modernistic. That said, kinship with Götterdämmerung at the beginning of the third act registered more strongly than I recall. Orchestrally, this was a performance that improved significantly over the evening; maybe it will over the (lengthy) run too.

Elsewhere on stage there was much to enjoy. David Butt Philip’s Pinkerton was ambiguous. He seemed trapped by circumstance, by a degree of genuine enthusiasm for his tragic ‘project’. This was a rabbit trapped in the headlights, even if the headlights were of his own – as well as imperialism’s – making. Words and vocal line, moreover, were so clear that one could have taken dictation. George van Bergen’s Sharpless was also a fine musico-dramatic portrayal; again, the conflicts within the character were intelligently, even movingly, represented to us. Stephanie Windsor Lewis’s Suzuki was sympathetic throughout, especially during the third act. Most of the ‘smaller’ roles, not least the wheedling Goro of Alun Rhys-Jenkins, were cast from strength too, which makes it all the more surprising that such an error was made in the casting of so thin-voiced a Butterfly. Not for the first time – and I do not mean this in a nationalistic sense – one was left wondering why an American singer had been miscast by ENO, when there would surely have been many English, or other, singers well capable of taking on the role.

Open letter to students on EU membership from 171 Royal Holloway academics

Dear Students,

On 23 June, voters will decide in a referendum whether or not the UK continues to be a member of the European Union. The result will affect all our futures. We represent a number of academic disciplines, as well as a range of political persuasions. We strongly encourage everyone who is eligible to register and to vote, whatever their position in the debate. At the same time, it is our sincere view that Britain should remain in the EU. In this letter, we outline our reasons for supporting continued membership.

First, the economy. Britain is presently part of the world’s largest single market: nearly 50% of British trade is with the rest of the EU, and it is estimated that over three million jobs in this country are connected to membership. But the EU is far more than a free-trade area.  Membership gives UK citizens the right to live, study and work in 27 other European countries. It guarantees progress towards equal pay for men and women. It provides us with common environmental and food-safety standards, security of food supply, consumer protection and a floor of basic employment rights. The EU also provides significant resources for scientific research that benefit British universities.

Second, politics.  The EU is a force for progressive values. It champions our civil and political rights, and has outlawed discrimination based on gender, race, sexuality or disability. Although it has its shortcomings, the EU is subject to more democratic accountability than any other international organisation. Crucially, membership allows us to influence EU laws.  It also allows us to play a role in reforming the EU’s institutions and procedures. Were Britain to leave the EU, it might be allowed to stay in the single market, but it would no longer have a say on deciding its rules or shaping its future.

Third, people. The right of free movement for EU citizens hugely benefits the UK. It boosts our economy and enriches us culturally. Universities in particular benefit from the rights of students and world-class researchers and teachers to move freely. Moreover, many hundreds of thousands of British people live, study and work in other EU countries. We will all be poorer if we lose this right.

Fourth, regional peace and stability. The EU has helped to keep the peace in Western Europe since its foundation. Before 1945, Europe was regularly devastated by conflict and war. Economic interdependence now makes war unthinkable between member states. The EU has also promoted the consolidation and spread of liberal democracy, in post-war Germany and Italy, in post-authoritarian Spain, Portugal and Greece, and most recently in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. For these reasons, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

In short, the economic, political, cultural and strategic benefits of remaining in the EU are enormous. Membership underpins peace and prosperity in our part of the world and vastly improves our lives. To us the choice is clear, which is why we are supporting remaining in the EU.



The list of signatories, yours truly included, may be found here

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Jerusalem Quartet - Beethoven and Bartók, 16 May 2016

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – String Quartet no.2 1 in G major, op.18 no.2
Bartók – String Quartet no.6

Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)

Bartók’s string quartets are surely as close to the equivalents for the twentieth century of Beethoven’s quartets to the nineteenth as any works for the medium not by Beethoven could be. I should be tempted to add ‘Discuss’; however, in the midst of exam season, the last thing I want is any more essays to mark. Let us take that, then, as read, and say that nothing could be more apt for the Jerusalem Quartet’s celebration of its twentieth anniversary than a series in which it combines works by Beethoven and Bartók.

In this BBC Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall, Beethoven’s G major Quartet, op.18 no.2, came first. The first movement opened with a typically cultivated sound and, just as important, a true sense of life in the music. This was recognisably post-Mozart, post-Haydn, but with some emphasis on the ‘post-’ too, not least in the accents and insistency of Kyril Zlotnikov’s  cello part, soon echoed elsewhere, for instance by Alexander Pavolovsky’s first violin, towards the end of the exposition. The exposition repeat was taken, the music heard for the second time fulfilling the twin functions of recollection and progression, the development section thus taking development further still. So did the recapitulation. My only real quibble was the (relative) withdrawal of vibrato for some of the fugal writing, which did not sound as though it were done entirely out of conviction. I loved, however, the (almost) throwaway ending.

The long lines and post-Mozartian luxuriance of the Adagio cantabile sections of the second movement were as striking as their decidedly ‘late’ or ‘late-ish’ Allegro counterparts: not so fragile or disjunct, perhaps, but played – and heard – in the knowledge that such would, in Beethoven’s œuvre, soon become a necessity, the generative quality of the composer’s rhythms notwithstanding. The return of the Adagio cantabile music sounded still more Elysian, yet there was sadness to the close too. Lilting joy and nagging insistence characterised the scherzo: here there were to be experienced both balance and dialectical interplay. The trio was finely poised, rightly, in similar yet contrasting fashion. Haydn’s spirit was present, indeed inescapable, in the opening statement of the finale – and why would anyone wish to escape it? Yet there was soon also a boisterousness to be heard that was not really his. Such were the terms of the human comedy that unfolded.

The first movement of Bartók’s final quartet opened with Ori Kam’s viola, not only mesto  as marked but splendidly misterioso, finding its way, asking (lamenting?): how did we (humanity?) come to this and yet, also, where must we go? I thought a little of the opening of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was barely suppressed fury in the ensuing Vivace material, like one of the insufficient instrumental answers prior to the entry of the word in the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Except, of course there would be no words: tragedy or another path? Uncertainty, here and elsewhere, seemed very much to be the game (which is not to say that these were ‘uncertain’ performances, quite the contrary.) The intensity of this first movement, and not only this movement, seemed to be part of a despairing attempt to turn inwards in the face of the horrors surrounding. In context, it seems anything but a cheap point to remind us that Bartók wrote the work in 1939, his last prior to leaving Europe.

The return to the mesto material at the beginning of the second movement was more clearly a cry, and yet the terms of that cry remained enigmatic. Cries became stronger still, more passionate, in the Marcia, without ever shaking off the shadow of sadness. Likewise in the third movement, although in both the mesto and the Burletta music, there was perhaps a greater note of bitterness, or was it resignation? The ambiguity was fruitful. What to make of the Stravinskian echoes? That question, not answering it, was surely the point. A Soldier seemed to wish to tell a new Tale; that did not mean that we could, or should, understand it. There was a sense of arrival, of inevitability, and yet also of uncertainty to the final Mesto movement: as finely balanced as the demands of Beethoven. In an atmosphere of serenity that disquieted, here was a destination that seemed at best to be a land of exile. And so it went on, until it did not. Almost the only thing not in doubt was the sincerity of work and performance alike. The rest would be silence.


Saturday, 14 May 2016

Mark Simpson, Pleasure, Royal Opera, 12 May 2016

(London premiere)
Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

Nathan – Timothy Nelson
Val – Lesley Garrett
Anna Fewmore – Steven Page
Matthew – Nick Pritchard

Tim Albery (director)
Leslie Travers (designs)
Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)

Nicholas Kok (conductor)

New work from composers new to opera – sometimes, as here, in the guise of co-commissions from the Royal Opera, Aldeburgh Music, and Opera North – has been prominent amongst the highlights from the Royal Opera House’s recent seasons. The London premiere of Mark Simpson’s first opera, Pleasure, would doubtless have taken place in the ROH’s own Linbury Studio Theatre, had it not been closed for refurbishment; instead, we travelled across town to the Hammersmith Lyric as part of a welcome trend for collaboration between London’s opera houses and alternative theatres and spaces. It may have been a bit of a trek for those of us living in the East – not, I promise, the only reason for my enthusiasm for the Hackney Empire – but the results, compositional and performative, justified the journey, and it is always interesting in itself to discover how opera will flourish, or otherwise, at a different venue.

Pleasure, we learned from the composer’s own note, was inspired by his ‘own experience of Liverpool’s nightlife’ during his late teens and early twenties. ‘One evening, as I stood pouring my heart out to a toilet attendant in one of the clubs, I suddenly started to see the world around me with a new sense of objectivity. I asked myself whether she might know much more about the clientele than she appeared to.’ At about the same time, in 2008, Simpson had begun to read Melanie Challenger’s poetry collection, Galatea: ‘Up until this point I had never experienced the written word as viscerally as I had experienced musical sound.’ His Royal Liverpool Philharmonic commission, A mirror-fragment… was inspired by one of her poems, and he asked Challenger, ‘in the pub after the premiere’ whether she would be willing to write a libretto for the opera whose idea had been taking root. ‘She immediately agreed, and so began our fruitful collaborative partnership.’

Not having read the programme beforehand, I admit that I had not noticed the background presence of the Hephaestus myth until reading Challenger’s note. One can certainly experience the story, ‘about a woman working in a gay bar who helps the young, lost men but is also inexplicable to them,’ purely on its own terms. However, on reflection – and a good, non-disposable opera will surely, whatever the philistines claim, always lend itself to reflection – the act of revenge of the unwanted son has provided me not only with an analogy but with a foundation for further consideration of the events and their presentation. In that respect, this may be considered in the best sense a highly traditional opera.

Simpson’s score treads a successful line between two understandings of setting: that of environment and that of the words and action. ‘Sound world’ might be an overused term, but here, I think, it really deserves mention. There is no mere imitation or importation of the sounds of clubland; the magic Mozart works with eighteenth-century dance music is, after all, alchemical, not mimetical. There is nevertheless much that is evocative: not just the synthesiser sound – often present, but never overused, and rarely albeit tellingly employed as the principal sonic ingredient – and not just the rhythms (for instance, of drag queen Anna Fewmore’s most public commentary), but also, and perhaps for me most intriguingly, in the darkness of the typical band sonority. Redolent in some respects of Weill before he (more or less) sold out, albeit a Weill of now rather than ‘then’, the music presents and furthers not only such alienation but also invitation. Indeed, the one feeds off the other, the drama anything but Brechtian: again, if I may, rather traditionally operatic. Henze came to my mind as, if not an inspiration, at least a forerunner.

Likewise its structuring and the consequent crystallisation of moments of realisation, of emotional climaxes. Val’s final lament belongs to, or at least may be placed in, a tradition one might trace back through Janáček to Purcell, and further back still. Having lost her son, Nathan, once, through the distant yet present tragedy of her rape, she has now lost him again, finally, from an overdose, brought on by her denial that she was the woman he thought – and presumably still knew – her to be. ‘A son she never wanted to have/A son she never wanted to know’. She cannot quite rise to the occasion as a Puccini heroine would; that, surely, is the point. Yet, ‘I’ll embrace you as I should have done. I’ll tell you that I know you.’ Meanwhile, in time-honoured tradition, the sounds of a callous external world intrude; Anna Fewmore calls. ‘Come, all you exquisite creatures. Come!’ That final cry echoes and subverts, yet also offers catharsis of a sort. The loneliness of all concerned – to whom we must add Matthew, intoxicated by Nathan’s beauty, cruelly disabused by the cynical wisdom of the drag queen who has seen it all – is perhaps the strongest echo of all, brought to dramatic life in both of those understandings of ‘setting’: environmental and verbal.

That would have come to very little, of course, without strong performances and staging. Nicholas Kok led the Manchester-based ensemble, Psappha in an incisive performance. It should perhaps come as no surprise that some of the most arresting instrumental writing should have been for clarinets (Dov Goldberg and Scott Lygate), given Simpson’s prowess as a clarinettist. The whole ensemble shone, though: positioned on stage as upstairs ‘band’: a Chorus of and for this world. The excellent set and costume designs of Leslie Travers and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting contributed greatly to so much of what I have outlined above. This was a setting in which one could believe, in which Tim Albery’s direction of the singers made sense and came to life – and death.

Leslie Garrett’s portrayal of Val duly tugged at the heart strings. In the opening scene, I was a little unsure. Would occasional imperfections of intonation prove too much of a difficulty? Not at all: vocal and verbal sincerity, coupled with palpable dramatic identification entirely won me over. Steven Page’s Anna was worldly-wise, yes, but just as emotionally truthful’. Not for nothing had Simpson’s original ambition been to write an opera set amongst the drag queens of Liverpool. Brought to life just as powerfully, just as intelligently, were the romantic yearning – this was certainly not all youthful lust – of Nick Pritchard’s Matthew and the tragic bewilderment and predicament of Timothy Nelson’s Nathan. All four singers, it seemed, not only believed in their characters; they created and gave form to them before our eyes and ears. Such is the godlike business of art, as Hephaestus’s father – or at least his poetic creators – might have told us. So also might Anna in her ‘art of decay’, born, Challenger revealed, of the ‘brilliant spit-and-sawdust humour of Mancunian drag queen, Divine David’. PLEASURE. then, was spelled out to us, sometimes completely, sometimes in forlorn or aspirant fragments: not just scenically, but musico-dramatically too.

‘Do you think,’ Nathan asked Matthew, ‘it’s possible to separate yourself and become something different?’ Performance and work alike asked more questions than they could answer; such, after all, is the role of drama. However, the part of that question that relates to opera in general as well as to this specific opera was, in a sense, answered, as well as further questioned, by so fruitful a development of tradition.