Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Between Worlds, English National Opera, 11 April 2015 (world premiere)

Barbican Theatre

Shaman – Andrew Watts
Janitor – Eric Greene
Younger Woman – Rhian Lois
Realtor – Clare Presland
Younger Man – William Morgan
Older Man – Phillip Rhodes
Mother – Susan Bickley
Lover – Sarah Champion
Babysitter – Claire Egan
Wife – Susan Young
Security Guard – Ronald Samm
Firefighter 1 – Philip Sheffield
Firefighter 2 – Rodney Earl Clarke
Sister – Niamh Kelly
Child – Edward Green

Deborah Warner (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Tal Yarden (video)
Kim Brandstrup (choreography)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Higgins)
Gerry Cornelius (conductor)

An opera dealing with – or at least claiming to deal with – the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary. This co-commission from ENO and the Barbican seems, alas, founded upon a bad idea. One can make an opera out of almost anything, of course, but that does not mean that some subject matter is no more or no less suitable than any other. The problem with the highly fashionable – at least in some quarters – tendency to base operas upon recent(-ish) news stories is that, all too easily, their ‘documentary’ as opposed to artistic quality becomes the issue at stake. In the case of the bombing of the Twin Towers, there is also the question of attempting to put oneself beyond criticism, or at least of appearing to do so, by dealing with such portentous subject matter. Or, in the opposite case, of creating a controversy, when someone objects to the choice of subject matter.

But the problem lies more with the specific choices of Nick Drake’s libretto: which, frankly, is dire. What are we told? That some people, with differing personalities and differing personal and financial circumstances, went to work one day, not knowing what was to happen, and never came back. Not much more than that, really. As a friend said to me after the event, there is a reason why disaster films tend not to deal with actual disasters, but will have at least someone surviving. What is an undeniable tragedy in ‘real life’ does not necessarily transfer so well to tragedy on stage. Moreover, the banality of the words – which will doubtless be justified as ‘realistic’ – irritates and, worse than that, bores. There is a limit to how many times anyone wants to hear ‘What the fuck?’ repeated on stage. Snatches of ‘real-life’, if fictional, conversation, are heard from the chorus as well as the ‘characters’, presumably a nod to the celebrated telephone messages left by victims. What on earth the ‘Shaman’ character is doing is anyone’s guess. I assume he in some sense signifies Fate; to start with, I wondered whether we might have a guest appearance from Stockhausen; alas not. Anyway, he spouts gibberish, which at least offers verbal and indeed musical variety, which to some extent is taken up by other members of the cast, especially the Janitor. Then he disappears. That sits very oddly with the work’s ‘realism’, and not productively so. Might it not have been more interesting to deal with the creators of what Stockhausen so memorably called Lucifer’s greatest work of art? Or, better still, to create a more finely balanced, fictional story?

Tansy Davies’s score is better than that. I suppose one would describe it as ‘eclectic’. There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, as Hans Werner Henze put it, writing about The Bassarids, ‘with Goethe under my pillow, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the possibility of being accused of eclecticism. Goethe’s definition ran: “An eclectic … is anyone who, from that which surrounds him, takes what corresponds to his nature.” If you wanted to do so, you could count Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and Stravinsky as eclectics.’ What I missed, though, was any real sense of musical characterisation, or indeed of sympathy for voices. The score is atmospheric, and has a nice enough line in impending doom, ‘darkening’ in almost traditional ‘operatic’ style, but it tends more towards background, like a good film score, rather than participating in and creating the drama. That, at any rate, was my impression from a first hearing. Rightly or wrongly, music seemed subordinated not so much to ‘drama’, as to subject matter.

Deborah Warner’s production plays things pretty straight. What to do with the actual moments of impact? Stylisation is not a bad solution, so we see pieces of paper fall from the ceiling. Having a Mother sit at the front of the stage, looking ‘soulfully’ into the distance, at the close, risks bathos; but perhaps that is in the libretto. It does no particular harm. Insofar as I could discern, the ENO Orchestra and Chorus were very well prepared, incisively conducted by Gerry Cornelius. The cast is called upon more obviously to act than to display great vocal prowess, but its members all did what was asked of them. Andrew Watts’s counter-tenor Shaman stood out, but then, as mentioned, the role puzzling fizzled out. Susan Bickley’s talents seemed wasted, but as usual, impressed.

So then, I was happy to have gone, but cannot imagine rushing back. Apologists for new (alleged) conceptions of opera would ask where the problem was with that. Must everything, or indeed anything today, be a masterpiece? Well, clearly not everything will be, but I am not sure that I am willing to ditch the work concept or even the ‘masterpiece concept’ so emphatically, quite yet. Besides, this is clearly intended as a ‘work’, not as a ‘happening’, or some such alternative. ENO deserves credit for supporting and performing the work. Perhaps next time around, it will be luckier with respect to the outcome; this was, after all, the company that commissioned The Mask of Orpheus.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Gianni Schicchi and Bluebeard's Castle, Komische Oper, 5 April 2015

Komische Oper, Berlin

Gianni Schicchi – Günter Papendell
Lauretta – Kim-Lillian Strebel
Zita – Christiane Oertel
Rinuccio – Tansel Akzeybek
Gherardo – Christoph Späth
Nella – Mirka Wagner
Gherardino – Kosma Foik
Betto di Signa – Stefan Sevenich
Simone – Jens Larsen
Marco – Nikola Ivanov
Ciesca – Anna Werle
Maestro Spinellocio - Bruno Balmelli
Amantio di Nicolao – Philipp Meinhöfer
Pinellino – Ezra Jung
Guccio – Tim Dietrich
Buoso Donati – Bernd Guthmann 

Bluebeard – Gidon Saks
Judit – Ausrine Stundyte

Calixto Bieito (director)
Rebecca Ringst (set designs)
Ingo Krügler (costumes)
Pavel B Jiracek (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin, Rosalia Amato (lighting)

Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Henrik Nánási (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Easter Sunday in one of the most strongly atheist cities in Europe: it must be time for Calixto Bieito’s double-bill of Gianni Schicchi and Bluebeard’s Castle. And whilst it was difficult to find much prospect of resurrection, let alone Resurrection, what an enthralling evening it turned out to be. Both works were premiered in 1918, but beyond that, have little in common, contrast being more the order of the day. But the production, especially its designs, and those too-oft-unsung heroes of the opera house, the stagehands, did a magnificent job in bringing them together – if only ultimately to keep them apart. Performed without an interval, there is only a very short break. Little, apparently, has changed. The curtain rises to reveal the room in which Gianni Schicchi, the Florentine ‘trickster’ has comedically triumphed, following the death of Buoso Donati. Bluebeard and Judit seem initially to have triumphed, only for all to turn inexorably to tragedy.

The first opera fully inhabits an updated spirit of commedia dell’arte, ‘Europe’s oldest tradition of comedy,’ as Bieito comments in a programme booklet discussion. It is difficult to imagine any sense in which the work is fundamentally ‘about’ fourteenth-century Florence; its import is certainly more universal here. There is riotous earthiness, much as one expect from both director and company. So there is in the tradition in which it partakes. And whatever Puccini may have been, he was no prude. A gloriously bad-taste view of modern Italy – Bieito cites the ’60s and ’70s Spanish and Italian films, loved by his father, of Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, and Alfredo Landa – reigns, but as a frame rather than unwanted determinant, for the equally bad-taste antics of the squabbling relatives. As ever with this director, whatever one thinks of his ideas, there is no doubting the mastery of his craft; everything is clearly as it should be, and indeed there is probably too much to take in on a single viewing, just as there would be in ‘real life’. The filmic – or indeed ‘stagey’ – falling still of the characters in ‘O mio babbino caro’ shows it not as the fly in the ointment I once took it to be, but as a wry send-up of the sentimentality of a tradition that ensnared Puccini at least as much as it inspired him. The notary’s stamping of each clause of the will upon the back of his assistant, and the latter’s outrageous expressions of pain and anal pleasure is but one vignette; Rinuccio’s enjoyment of Lauretta (later clearly tempted by the aforesaid assistant) outside the window before they climb back in is another. You will either love or hate it, but cannot doubt the brilliance of the accomplishment. I found it more enthralling than any other staging I have seen.

At first, one thinks that there will merely be clever re-use of Rebecca Ringst’s set, dark, brooding emptiness substituted for Italian religious tat and ‘valuables’. But the conception is better than that. As the tragedy deepens, as Fate does its terrible work, walls move and new scenes present themselves, the mechanics dealt with superlatively. We do not see what lies behind each door; such would only lead to the gravest disappointment. In that sense, and despite my regret that I had long thought the work stood in little need of staging, this remains theatre of the imagination. Certainly ours, and maybe theirs. Yet we see a good deal of the castle, itself surely an important ‘character’ in its own right, although quite rightly, secondary to the antagonists. The castle is a setting, but also an intensification, of the searing struggle we witness, one of the most compelling psycho-dramas I have ever seen. Sado-masochistic, soaked in blood, a deadly serious game: I am not sure that any description can come close. Suffice it to say that Bieito penetrates to the very heart of what is going on in this extraordinary work, screwing up the tension like none – at least in my experience – before him and never letting go. One small example: the way they hide and exchange clothes, seeking to learn something, yet only adding to the sanguinary descent into madness and beyond. Nothing is added, but somehow the drama is set free.

That would be nothing, of course, without singers able to inhabit the roles as overwhelmingly as we saw and heard. Gidon Saks’s Bluebeard was not especially impressive in purely vocal terms; in a concert performance, one would have thought him underpowered, although his diction was beyond approach. Yet he somehow managed to project above the orchestra, perhaps at least in part by virtue of his stage presence. One felt the terror he felt as much as that he projected; one knew, almost before the text, whether verbal or musical, told us, that he had nobler intentions, yet was incapable of fulfilling them. As for Ausrine’s Judit, no praise could be too high. Hers was a complete portrayal, as distinguished vocally as on stage. She took the role to places I had no idea it could go: this was a woman driven by mysterious forces to do something she knew would end in tragedy, yet had no choice but to do. She exulted, she cowered; above all, she assumed the role – Bartók’s, Bieito’s, and hers – in every sense.


Gianni Schicchi is, of course, far more of a ‘company’ opera, and so it was here. There were powerful performances from the young lovers, an enthusiastic, puppyish Rinuccino, Tansel Akzeybek, and an adult-girlish Lauretta from Kim-Lillian Strebel. Günter Papendell proved wily and victorious in the title role. Everyone else contributed in his or her own way, the zany sum being still more than the sum of its numerous parts. Throughout, Henrick Nánási ensured an excellent contribution from the orchestra. Puccini’s scherzo’s followed by Bartók’s tragedy might sound ironically Mahlerian in the abstract, but it sounded very much of the two composers in the theatre. It was not, however, a performance which stood apart from what we saw on the stage; I heard it simply as part of the drama. That was not least the virtues of this unmissable double-bill (performed, I should note, in the original Italian and Hungarian).


Just published: 'Richard Wagner's Revolution: "Music Drama" against Bourgeois "Opera"'

As part of an ongoing series on the Focaal Blog on 'Music and Capitalism'. Please click here to read.

Berlin Festtage (7) – WEDO/Barenboim: Debussy, Boulez, and Ravel, 4 April 2015


Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune
Boulez – Dérive 2
Ravel – Rapsodie espagnole
Alborado del gracioso
Pavane pour une infant défunte

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

All good things must come to an end – though not, we can now be sure, the recent near-exponential growth of interest in Pierre Boulez’s music. The always-unpersuasive claims about the ‘box office’, ‘elitism’, and so on have, this year, already been shown to be utter nonsense. The Barbican sold out tickets for many of its ‘Total Immersion’ events; here again, a concert in which Boulez’s music made up half the programme sold out. What his music, like that of any other great composer, needs is at the very least excellent, committed performances. That was always Boulez’s claim concerning the music of the Second Viennese School, and how he showed that to be true! Now subsequent conductors are doing the same for his music, no conductor more so than Daniel Barenboim. The greatest Beethoven conductor alive, the founder of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: that is a ‘name’ who will bring people to Boulez, and indeed one who uncontestably has. My Festtage events thus went out on a high.

First came Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune. Barenboim did not conduct the beautifully played opening solo (others were equally beautiful), simply letting Guy Eshed get on with it. The baton was only lifted for the entry of the orchestra. In a sense, that gesture – and that lack thereof – prepared the way, consciously or otherwise, for the dialectic between freedom and determinism that lies at the heart of so much of Boulez’s work. This was, like Boulez’s VPO recording, a sultry account, almost as if Ravel’s Spanish sun were already risen, but not at the expense of the ambiguity that makes Debussy Debussy, and which may indeed be his most important legacy. I was struck by the difficult-to-pin-down French sound Barenboim elicited from the West-Eastern Divan, translucency not the least of its qualities. Gorgeous string vibrato was equally welcome.

Of all of Boulez’s music, I perhaps still find Dérive 2 the hardest to grasp as a whole. I am in no doubt that the fault lies with me, having no truck with a dismissal I heard in conversation with a distinguished composer, who described it as ‘culinary’ – surely an insult worthy of the young Boulez himself. Barenboim has said he considers it perhaps Boulez’s finest work, and many others are especially drawn to it. My journey towards understanding certainly seemed to be sped up by this fine performance from Barenboim and his players, who exhibited still greater confidence than they had in their Proms account in 2012. Whatever the ‘authenticists’ might say, and no one has been fuller of scorn for them than Boulez, one is far likely to play Beethoven better, once one has the music under one’s skin; the same is true of Boulez. Barenboim’s exposition of the opening material was clear and pregnant with possibility, faithful in the best sense to the work, just like his Debussy or indeed his Beethoven. (How I wish he would conduct Pelléas!) The uncredited marimba player’s early contributions were a particular joy, drawing me in to the musical argument. Michael Wendeberg, whom I heard as piano soloist earlier in the week, was, for all his excellence, very much an ensemble player here, his exemplary contributions clearly drawing on his experience as a member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Counterpoint, though not so much sonority, led me to think of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, of which I have never heard a finer performance than under Boulez here in Berlin. Ebb and flow sometimes seemed to draw more upon the composer’s Debussyan inheritance – or was that perhaps the canny programming? It need not, arguably should not, be either/or. At other times, a more ‘mechanistic’ spirit was manifest, the contrast putting me in mind of Boulez’s early – and, in their orchestral form, ongoing – Notations. A wonderful bassoon solo (Mor Biron) seemed momentarily to evoke the opening of The Rite of Spring, but whilst ‘derivation’ in Boulez’s sense may be the name of the game, there is absolutely nothing ‘derivative’ in the pejorative sense to this work. There is nothing enigmatic to the audible ‘derivation’, and this performance helpfully underlined its achievement. If I still find the work a little daunting, I do so less than I did; and my immediate reaction was that to hear again, preferably immediately, such a performance would bring me closer still.

Ravel’s Spanish works were the material of the second half, just as they had been for the WEDO’s Proms concert last year. The Rapsodie espagnole proceeded in quasi-symphonic style; certainly there was great purpose to the performance, though not in any sense at the expense of sonority and general atmosphere. The ‘Prélude á la nuit’ reprised and extended, made personal to Ravel, the sultriness we had heard in Debussy. It was – and not in an Ann Widdecombe/Michael Howard sense – very much ‘of the night’. The brilliance of the opening of the ‘Malagueña’ was owed in no small part to the excellence of the double basses. A darkened kaleidoscope revealed all manner of riches. Quiet insistence of rhythm marked the ‘Habanera’, preparing the way for a gorgeous celebration of sound in the closing ‘Feria’. Alborado del gracioso received a sparkling performance, colour and rhythm working their Ravelian alchemy. As at the Proms, Barenboim rarely conducted – at least with his baton. Pavane pour une infante défunte was arguably a little too languid at times, but that is to nitpick, for it remained a beautifully played performance. Boléro proceeded on its way for quite some time without Barenboim raising his baton. It was a showcase for the orchestra, but no mere showcase. Most important, the orchestra, if I am to go on the stolen glances between desks, clearly enjoyed itself. As did we; as, I think, did Barenboim. As, I think, would have Boulez. The now-inevitable Carmen excerpts offered brilliant, generous encores.


Monday, 6 April 2015

NDR Chorus/Konzerthausorchester Berlin/Spering - Bach and Schubert, 3 April 2015

Großer Saal, Konzerthaus

Bach – Cantata: ‘Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl’, BWV 198 (Trauerode)
Schubert – Mass in A-flat major, D 678

Marlis Petersen (soprano)
Katrin Wundsam (mezzo-soprano)
Colin Balzer (tenor)
Michael Nagy (bass)
NDR Chorus (chorus master: Michael Gläser)
Konzerthausorchester Berlin
Andreas Spering (conductor)

Mourning for the Saxon Electress, Christiane Eberhardine, ‘die Betsäule Sachsens’ (Saxony’s pillar of prayer), was deeply felt by her husband’s subjects, although neither he, nor their son, attended the funeral. Unlike Augustus the Strong, who had converted to Roman Catholicism to ascend the Polish throne, she had remained faithful to Protestantism. Protestantism thus remained faithful to her, not least in the guise of  Bach’s Trauerode, the text by Johann Christoph Gottsched, first performed in St Paul’s Church, Leipzig, in 1727. One of the touching aspects of the text is the sense of place: references to city, river, residence, and so on. Even in the Prussian capital, with a North German chorus, I could imagine myself back in Leipzig – not least since I tend always to think of that city on Good Friday, even when not attending a Passion or Parsifal.

In performance, Bach was not badly done by, although Christoph Spering might have offered greater ‘heart’ to a somewhat chilly account. The opening chorus, ‘Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl,’ was taken very fast, bur rhythms were well pointed. Here and throughout, the clarity of the NDR Chorus was beyond reproach. ‘An dir, du Fürbild großer Frauen,’ the chorus closing the first of the two parts, proved tumultuous, redolent of one of the turba choruses in the Passions. (Flutes struggled a little there, though.) The final chorus did not entirely dispel the suspicion that Spering had a train to catch, and phrasing might have been less choppy, but again, counterpoint was communicated clearly, even as the weight of harmonic meaning was lessened.

The extraordinary orchestra Bach employs made its mark, as it always does: visually as well as aurally transitional, two gambas (to the fore in ‘Wie starb die Heldin so vergnügt!’) and lutes placed in the centre, the ‘modern’ orchestra surrounding them. (Hermann Scherchen’s recording is a typically provocative exploration.) The alto recitative, ‘Der Glocken bebenes Getön,’ sounded wonderful orchestrally, flutes against pizzicato violins and violas.  Flute and oboe obbligati sounded splendid in the tenor aria with which the second part opens. Once again, I was reminded of Bach’s almost modernistic exploration of instrumentation, a feature of his music to which Boulez has, perhaps unsurprisingly, drawn attention. Marlis Petersen offered a keenly dramatic account of her recitatives and arias, harking back to Bach’s seventeenth-century forebears. Some might have cavilled at the evident difference of approach to vibrato, she largely eschewing it, the strings warmer, but it did not especially bother me. Katrin  Wundsam’s aria (that one with the gambas) exposed the differences in tone between different registers in her voice, but again, that was not unduly distracting, and it is partly a consequence of the particularities of Bach’s vocal writing. Colin Balzer proved the weakest of the soloists, intonation variable, and coloratura less than perfect. (The writing is difficult, but even so.) Michael Nagy navigated with great success the transitions between recitative and arioso, likewise achieving an excellent balance between declamation and the longer line.

Schubert’s choral works are, by contrast, cheerfully South German: nominally Catholic, without any obvious evidence of great belief. (Nor is there any evidence of Beethovenian struggle, despite the similarities with, and perhaps influence of, the Missa solemnis.) As one might have expected, this was not the most ‘symphonic’ of readings, but so long as one could, at least for a few minutes, put Wolfgang Sawallisch from one’s mind, a good enough account was given of the work in, the Berlin Konzerthaus notwithstanding, more church-like fashion. Strangely, given Spering’s lack of what we might call ‘Romanticism’, I was nevertheless put in mind of Bruckner and indeed twentieth-century writing. Perhaps that was in part testament to the long-lasting influence of Caecilianism. Quite why a chamber organ was used I am not entirely sure, but such seems almost to be de rigueur in ‘early music’ performances, even when a perfectly decent instrument is present in the hall.

The opening ‘Kyrie’ set the tone for much of the performance, in its strong contrast between passages for solo voices (whether individually or in ensemble) and those for chorus. The dramatic quality of the imploring ‘Christe’ solos was rather winning. Spering’s way with the ‘Gloria’ I found unduly fast and brutal, rather as if Toscanini were back with us; others will doubtless have felt differently. There were times when a greater body of strings too would have been of benefit. Spering’s conducting of the concluding fugue proved wooden too, leading to loss of much of its dynamism, though matters improved as it progressed. Again, at the opening of the ‘Credo’, although the performers (chorus and orchestra) were excellent, the conducting was four-square. The strings, however, dug in nicely upon the word ‘crucifixus’, especially important on this of all days. The closing ‘Amen’ sounded glorious – from all concerned. A well-shaped ‘Sanctus’ followed: lyrical, yet with a strong sense of underlying power. Phrasing was a bit odd in the ‘Osanna’ section, for no evident reason. The ‘Benedictus’, perhaps predictably, was taken very fast. It flowed nicely enough, but I remained unmoved. The ‘Agnus Dei’, though on the swift side, was imbued with greater feeling than earlier, although the contrast between choral and solo passages was perhaps excessive. Still, there was no doubting the prowess of the excellent chorus.


Sunday, 5 April 2015

Berlin Festtage (6) - Tannhäuser, Staatsoper Berlin, 2 April 2015

Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) and dancers in the Venusberg
Schiller Theater

Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Kwangchul Youn
Tannhäuser – Peter Seiffert
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Walther von der Wogelweide – Peter Soon
Biterolf – Tobias Schabel
Heinrich der Schreiber – Florian Hoffmann
Reinmar von Zweter – Jan Martiník
Elisabeth – Ann Petersen
Venus – Marina Prudenskaya
Young Shepherd – Sónia Grané
Four Pages – Julia Mencke, Regina Köstler-Motz, Antje Bahr-Molitor, Verena Allertz

Sasha Waltz (director, choreography, designs)
Pia-Maier-Schreier (designs)
Bernd Skodzig (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)

Jens Schroth, Jochen Sandig (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

First, the bad news. Sasha Waltz’s production – if one can call it that – of Tannhäuser has not improved over the year since it was first staged. Last time around, I wrote, with undue hesitation, that I ‘could not help but wonder whether she would have been better engaged simply as choreographer’. The idea that, because an opera contains a ballet, it might be better staged by a choreographer is a very odd one. That is not, of course, to say that someone cannot do both, likewise a film director, or indeed anyone else. However, the mania of some opera houses to enlist almost anyone but an experienced opera director is odd, to say the least, and more often than not, misguided. A year ago, I wrote: Insofar as there is a concept, it seems to be to present some sort of dialogue between opera house and opera, the designs for the song contest mirroring, subtly rather than gaudily, aspects of the Schiller Theater: for instance, the seats and the colour of the wood. Unfortunately, little is done with an idea of not inconsiderable metatheatrical promise.’ That is to perhaps to have put it mildly. Now, whether on account of modification, or the loss even of anticipation, dance – needless to say, far too readily present – seems all the more invasive. It is all well done on its own terms, and I mean no disrespect to the dancers, but I found myself wishing they would leave the singers alone. (Apologies if that makes me sound like an operatic reactionary, but here I stand…) As so often, attempts to mix the two troupes – Ariadne, anyone? – do not come off happily. It is perfectly clear who is who, and the singers’ moves inevitably appear for the most part leaden by comparison. Moreover, we really do not need the end of the first act to be danced by all concerned; still less, do we need male dancers exaggeratedly to shape their female partners’ breasts during the Song Contest. It is again more or less impossible to suppress a smile as Peter Seiffert’s less than balletic Tannhäuser awkwardly slides down to join the Bacchanale dancers. The Benny Hill shows unintentionally evoked, at least our hero seems to be having a good time. Seriously though, if dance and opera are to be combined or indeed placed in context, it needs to be done with greater thought than this.

The other news, however, is unambiguously good. If Daniel Barenboim’s conducting and the orchestral playing did not perhaps quite reach the heights of last year’s superlative performance – this was, after all, a revival, and more time will have been allocated to Parsifal, to Boulez, etc. – then this remained a performance that would have done enormous credit to any house. (Whether it meshed so well with the dance is another matter, but in the circumstances, that would have been an impossible dream to chase.) I wrote in some detail on Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin last year; suffice it to say that, save for Barenboim’s unaccountable favouring of the Dresden version with Paris Bacchanale, no one would have been disappointed if he or she closed his eyes. This remains one of the world’s greatest Wagner orchestras – and, it hardly needs to be said, perhaps the world’s greatest Wagner conductor. Line never deserted him, but nor did the ‘French’ ear for colour on which I have often had cause to remark. Debussyan and indeed Boulezian lessons have long been learned and internalised. What we hear is a Wagner full of possibilities: the Wagner so hated by those who claim to ‘protect’ him from indecent, ‘modern’ influences.

Bar a certain, perfectly understandable tiredness at the end of the second act, Seiffert offered a triumphant sung portrayal of Tannhäuser. His sheer volume often astounded, but that is not to say that his singing was crude. Yet again, we can only be thankful that there is someone who can sing this cruel role. Ann Petersen offered a beautifully sung, properly human Elisabeth; we seem, let us be thankful, to have moved decisively away from the days of the blandly virginal. Moreover, her way with Wagner's words delved far deeper than anything we saw on stage. Last year, I wrote: ‘Having heard Christian Gerhaher at Covent Garden, I feared that every subsequent Wolfram would disappoint. I am not sure that Peter Mattei’s performance did not prove Gerhaher’s equal.’ This year, I am not sure that Gerhaher did not even improve upon himself. The sheer beauty of his voice is something truly to be treasured; so too is the ability to combine the best of both Lieder and operatic worlds. Kwangchul Youn’s Landgrave was no match for 2014’s René Pape in terms of vocal beauty, but his was a thoughtful reading, clearly springing from the poem. The dramatic commitment of Marina Prudenskaya’s Venus was undimmed, her lower range especially rich. Once again, the chorus proved the equal of any starrier participant – well, perhaps with the exception of Gerhaher. Chorus master, Martin Wright has accomplished his task very well; if only our director had approached him, let alone Barenboim.


Saturday, 4 April 2015

Berlin Festtage (5) - Kremer/Kozhukhin: Weinberg, Brahms, and Franck, 1 April 2015

Philharmonie, Berlin

Weinberg – Sonata no.2 for solo violin, op.95
Brahms – Fantasies, op.116
Weinberg – Sonata no.3 for solo violin, op.126
Franck – Sonata in A major, for violin and piano

Gidon Kremer (violin)
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)

1 April: I suppose the date should have given it away. Perhaps I am being unduly cynical, but this was the fifth time I had booked to hear Martha Argerich, and the fifth time she had cancelled. At any rate, a ‘feverish flu’ led to her replacement with Denis Kozhukhin and consequent rearrangement of the programme. Out went a Beethoven sonata (op.30 no.3) and one of Mieczysław Weinberg’s sonatas for violin and piano; in came Brahms’s op.116 Fantasien and a second of Weinberg’s sonatas for solo violin.

Frankly, one would have been more than enough, not least given the sometimes shocking performance offered by Gidon Kremer of Weinberg’s op.95. It took until the sixth of its seven movements for the performance to sound like a performance at all; a friend commented that Kremer had often sounded as if he were someone practising in his bedroom, and it was difficult to dissent. Maybe he had been as irritated by the rearrangement of the programme as many others. The poverty of Weinberg’s invention nevertheless came through, the first movement, ‘Monody’, made of the sort of banal figuration with occasional wrong notes Shostakovich would offer with (in a generous reading) irony. With this piece, however, irony was difficult to discern. Likewise, the third movement seemed characterised by sub-Shostakovich impotent anger. Kremer’s somewhat fuller tone – before, only thinness had been striking – was welcome in the final two movements, but that did not, most likely could not, disguise the sense of straining and failing to achieve profundity.

The one-movement Third Sonata, with which the second half started, was much more of a performance, certainly more urgent. Indeed, it was in this that Kremer sounded at his best. Weinberg, perhaps, shows at times a slightly less reactionary language and, more to the point, a stronger sense of development. At best, at least at the beginning, there are some mildly attractive ideas, whose development was over-extended. That, I am afraid, is the greatest enthusiasm I can muster. I think it is time to say that, as with some of the Entartete Musik composers and, more often than not, Shostakovich that an undeniably moving personal story and political persecution do not guarantee convincing, let alone compelling, music.

Denis Kozhukhin’s contributions proved to be stronger than Kremer’s. Kozhukhin’s Brahms is not for me the most appealing; I simply – or perhaps not simply – hear and understand the music differently. However, on its own, Romantic, ‘grand manner’ terms, it worked very well. It is perhaps too easy to describe it as ‘Russian’ Brahms, but there was more than a hint of that. The opening Capriccio showed a great dynamic range: ‘big’ tone, which can certainly be scaled down. If the following Intermezzo might have been intimate in conception, especially to begin with, it was admirably flexible; this remained, however, very ‘public’ Brahms. (One might well argue that a large hall such as the Philharmonie invites such a conception.) A stormy third movement had little sense of Brahms as progenitor of Webern, but certainly held the attention. The succeeding Intermezzo was slower than is perhaps fashionable, but none the worse for that. It was played beautifully, if at times the sound edged a little close to Rachmaninov. Moreover, the central section achieved a beautiful sense of half-lighting. The next Intermezzo, the fifth movement, was meaningfully voiced, though not in a modernist fashion. Its successor was bracingly fast, at least according to pianistic ‘tradition’, but arguably – just about – an ‘Andantino’ nevertheless. Such a reading is preferable to a sentimental one, but was the piece’s heart perhaps lost? The final movement needs to be fast, and it was; it was certainly ‘agitato’ too. Voicing again was a particular strength. And how the poverty of Weinberg’s inspiration was shown up!

As for the Franck Sonata, the only piece in which violinist and pianist appeared together, it was Kozhukhin’s playing that proved by far the more compelling. Even relative understatement, as at the beginning of the first movement, drew one in. Kremer’s wiry tone was disappointing, his poor intonation rather more than that. The performance did not conceal the truth of Debussy’s jibe about Franck as a ‘modulating machine’; the best can. In the second movement, Kozhukhin’s tone, recognisable from his Brahms, offered much to admire, Kremer’s only rarely. Much the same could be said of the very different third movement. Kozhukhin’s legato was pleasing, but in itself could not paper over the cracks of the composer’s vaunted cyclic method. More of the same in the finale – with some breathtaking pianism from Kozhukhin. In replacing Argerich, he saved the day in more than one sense.


Friday, 3 April 2015

Berlin Festtage (4) - Wendeberg: Boulez complete (published) piano solo works, 30 March 2015

Schiller Theater

Sonatas nos 1-3
Une page d’éphéméride

Michael Wendeberg (piano)

Image: (C) Isabelle Meister

This concert was, by any standards, an extraordinary achievement. Simply to play Boulez’s complete published piano solo œuvre in a single recital is worthy of praise; to do so so convincingly, with all the excitement of an all-Liszt recital from a great Lisztian is worthy of still greater praise. This may have been the first time I had heard Michael Wendeberg – although it is possible that I heard him during his time as a pianist for the Ensemble Intercontemporain – but I hope that it will not be the last.

First come the twelve Notations, played as the classics – if not quite ‘classic Boulez’ – they have become, although with all the freshness of discovery too. The first was caressed; the second, whilst furious, still benefited from Wendeberg’s beautiful tone. In general, this was very much a post-Second Viennese School sound. The fourth was taken at what seems a more appropriate speed than Daniel Barenboim had done the morning before, whilst Wenderberg’s leaning into phrases in the fifth had me thinking, not inappropriately, of Chopin. The mini-toccata of no.6, a proper moto perpetuo, contrasted with the post-Debussy Prélude quality of no.8. If the ninth did what it said on the tin – ‘Lointain – Calme’, so equally did its successor, ‘Mécanique et très sec,’ without those markings substituting for interpretation. Throughout, musical process and pianism were as one.

The First Sonata then opened as if a continuation, an intensification (subtler, certainly), a deepening. In the first movement, Webern sounded all the more present – this is clearly a pianist who would make an excellent job of the Austrian composer’s piano music – in a performance possessed of a properly dynamic conception of form. The second movement offered sinuous serial process, not only as work but as performance. ‘Bergian’ would be an exaggeration, but perhaps some of the roots of Boulez’s later attraction for Berg’s music might be discerned here. And how the piano sang! This was a piano recital, not a completist duty.

Again, the first movement of the Second Sonata imparted a sense of continuation, deepening, and so on. This was infinitely surer, more well-shaped, than a performance I had heard just more than a week earlier at the Barbican. Wendeberg seduced, without loss of clarity and bite. Aspiration to – or should that be denial of? – Messiaenesque melody was integrated into a structure of disintegrating Beethovenian sonata form. Freedom and mechanism: a dialectic apparent between Notations here was present in, indeed propelled, the progress of a single movement. The close came both as confirmation and as surprise. Line was impressively present in the second movement, likewise pianistic eloquence. Outbursts and eruptions made their point, but in context, the radicalism of the final notes reinforced. The third movement was just as inexorable, just as characterful; so was the fourth. In the latter, colours were drawn just as they might be in Liszt, not least in the bass. An almost Bergian synthesis seemed within reach, although, quite rightly, it was never achieved. This extraordinary movement sounded as if a post-Debussyan piano fantasy, shaped by a drama that was very much of the other side of the Rhine. Boulez as we know and love him was indubitably here. If the final ‘Lent’ section could not reconcile, it spoke, even sang, as if the witness following some unspeakable catastrophe: the song of aftershock.

Wendeberg’s Third Sonata, following the interval, again offered a voice that was the same, yet different. Harmonies were sometimes familiar, yet the context was different. Form and structure are of course here entirely different – and would be different again in another performance. (This is in no sense meant as an adverse criticism, but it is a pity we could not hear another reading, immediately afterwards, or even at the end.) There was, in any case, a genuine sense of openness, which would surely have been discerned by those knowing nothing of Boulez’s post-Mallarmé formal conception. Yet even that openness faced dialectical assault, from what we might call a tendency towards post-pontillism. The early 1950s were, after all, not so very distant when Boulez began work on this sonata. All the while, the warm crystallisation of work and performance alike were dramatically apparent. ‘Trope’ seemed somehow more ‘completed’, or at least it did to begin with. Later, the music once again seemed to open up: dialectics aplenty, then, but dialectics with undeniable sonorous allure, even charm.

Incises seemed haunted by the ghost of Ravel: Scarbo? It was less haunted by, then bathed in, the refinement of later Boulez. There was a clear toccata-like quality as much in performance as in the work itself. Subtle, anything but pedantic, Wendeberg offered a wealth of dynamic gradations, which again would have graced a ‘Romantic’ piano recital, not least with respect to repeated notes. The work, then, emerged more strongly than ever as a reconciliation with, but not reversion to, pianistic and more broadly musical ‘tradition’. This was certainly the most accomplished performance I have heard. Likewise a mordant yet affectionate ‘programmed encore’ of Une page d’éphéméride: both (temporary) summation and tantalising hint at a new path. A ‘true’ and truly generous encore, the Sarabande from the E minor Partita, suggested that we need to hear Wendeberg in Bach too.

Just in case, you were not feeling envious (enough), Michael Wendeberg conducts too…

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Madama Butterfly, Deutsche Oper, 29 March 2015

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Cio-Cio San – Hui He
Suzuki – Jana Kurucová
Kate Pinkerton – Stephanie Lauricella
Pinkerton – Fabio Sartori
Sharpless – Elia Fabbian
Goro – Gideon Poppe
Prince Yamadori – Jörg Schörner
The Bonze – Marko Mimica
Imperial Commissiner – Carlton Ford
Official Registrar – Thomas Lehman
Mother – Martina Metzler
Cousin – Saskia Meusel
Aunt – Keum-Shin Kwon
Child – Birte Weigelt

Pier Luigi Samaritani (director, designs)
Gerlinde Pelkowski (revival director)

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Yves Abel (conductor)

For an evening off from the Staatsoper’s Festtage, I walked a little further up Bismarkstrasse to the Deutsche Oper, to see a revival of Pier Luigi Samritani’s Madama Butterfly. There is obviously no point in comparing the first night of a new Parsifal with such an instalment of the Deutsche Oper’s ‘Puccini weeks’, but by any standards, this very different evening did not do badly at all. There is not a great deal to say about the production; it looks very much like the other two productions I have seen of the work. (How I should love to see something different: say, Calixto Bieito’s staging for the Komische Oper!) But it does its job well in ‘traditional’ terms, and on this occasion, its 137th performance (!) since the premiere, benefits from keen revival direction by Gerlinde Pelkowski. Lovers of what might be called ‘conventionally beautiful’ Puccini stagings will be delighted, and doubtless will have been already. I am less sure about the use of sheets – often a device in such productions – which tends a little towards the bathetic, but it is not difficult to live with, even so.

Attention, then, is focused firmly on the musical performance, and especially on the singers. Yves Abel conducted the orchestra ably, without making any particular points. It was not the most symphonic Puccini I have heard, and certainly not the most modernistic, but by the same token, continuity was achieved. The orchestra could hardly be faulted, and I have no desire to try. When really given their head, the strings sounded gorgeous, the perfect compliment to a decidedly ‘traditional’ starring couple.

By that, I mean that these were big voices, employed to general audience delight. Hui He’s Cio-Cio San offered enormous dynamic range, sensitively deployed, although in the spirit of charity, I shall pass over her diction. Fabio Sartori’s Pinkerton was similarly ‘old school’, perhaps still more so. He will certainly win no prizes for his acting, but he showed that, in such repertoire, he would not be shamed by comparison with the starriest of Italian tenors. The first-act duet was, in musical terms, close to everything one might reasonably have hoped for. Jana Kurucová’s Suzuki was subtler, offering welcoming relief: a credible, indeed sympathetic character portrayal in its own right. Elia Fabbian’s Sharpless presented equivocation through musical strength: not the easiest achievement to bring off. Gideon Poppe’s Goro showed an alert stage as well as musical animal. I suspect we shall hear more from Stephanie Lauricella, the Kate Pinkerton. (I know she has little to sing, yet always find myself surprised by quite how little!) A highly creditable evening, then, for all concerned. I only wish the opera itself were a little less offensive and a little more ambiguous…

Berlin Festtage (3) - Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim, et al., Boulez, 29 March 2015


Le Visage nuptial
Anthèmes 2
Notations I, III, IV, VII, II (piano and orchestral versions)

Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Anna Lapkovskaja (mezzo-soprano)
Ladies of the MDR Choir and NDR Choir (chorus masters: James Wood and Bernhard Epstein)
Michael Barenboim (violin)
Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henriot (sound and live electronics, developed and realised at IRCAM)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (piano, conductor)

Boulez’s Le Visage nuptial remains a rare feast in every sense. It can certainly rarely have received a more ravishing performance, even when conducted by the composer. Mojca Edrmann, Anna Lapkovskaja, and the ladies of the MDR and NDR choruses, under Daniel Barenboim gave a first-class account, which must surely have won new converts both to work and composer. There can be few more inviting examples of Boulez’s Klee-inspired heterophony, geometrical (yet fantastical) surrounding of an ‘orginal’ line with others, even this relatively early work, revisions notwithstanding, paving the way for later masterpieces such as sur Incises. Perhaps the opening of the first movement, ‘Conduite’, acts as a primer in miniature for such method; so, at least, did it seem here, following the opening orchestral éclat, and the entry of ecstatic female solo voices, Erdmann very much the daring high soprano, Lapkovskaia’s rich mezzo often suggestive of a true(r) contralto. Shimmering strings after René Char’s words, ‘O ma Fourche, ma Soif anxieuse’ inevitably suggested the (post-)coital. Not the least aspect of this work is Boulez’s remarkably insightful exploration of female sexuality. Brief flowering of Messiaenesque rhythm in the final stanza both nodded to and expressed distance from Boulez’s teacher. Post-Debussyan languor was the order of the day in the beautifully-ordered – how could it be otherwise?! – after-glow of ‘Gravité’. Barenboim’s shaping and balancing was spot on throughout, the chorus almost sounding as if a (pre-)electronic halo for solo voices, offering a presentiment of Anthèmes 2, following the interval. Messiaen again sprang to mind, again distanced, in the choral writing of the central ‘Le Visage nuptial’ itself. But soon, Bergian intensity – partly a matter of the composer’s revisions, partly something that was always there, even whilst he doubted late Berg’s taste for ‘reconciliation’, partly a matter of the particular orchestra and conductor – supplemented and questioned that. Controlled frenzy from the superlative percussion, and the rest of the orchestra, made for a truly thrilling ride, the sweetness of the Staatskapelle Berlin violins not the least of these heavenly, yet earthly, delights. After Parsifal the night before, it was as if Kundry had truly returned – and turned the tables. The subsiding of the movement prior to its final ecstatic burst was, again, expertly shaped by Barenboim. ‘Evadné’ offered psalmodic choral chanting as response, with the final ‘Post-Scriptum’ framing the narrative, such as it is, very nicely with the return of the excellent soloists. The fragility of the close once again proved suggestive in every sense.

The Philharmonie proved in many ways a splendid venue for Anthèmes 2, the live electronic shadowing of Michael Barenboim’s violin (expertly provided by Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henriot) a showcase for a crucial aspect of Boulez’s later style. The kinship between earlier celestial choir and this proved striking, although Mephistophelian sniping (Liszt’s shadow?) was not to be denied either. Sweet post-Messiaenesque lines enhanced and were enhanced by occasional nods to an older, almost viol-like string tradition. This was a performance of which Barenboim fils could justly be proud – infinitely superior to the sorry state of Gidon Kremer’s violin technique three nights later (more on that in a subsequent review).

Barenboim père returned to the podium, with piano, for Notations. First, he offered a spoken introduction to the pieces (with piano and orchestral examples), the idea of Veränderung rightly to the fore. (Again, I thought of Liszt, still more of Wagner.) Each piano version preceded its orchestral child. If the piano versions were not always the most polished, and would in themselves be superseded by Michael Wenderberg’s superlative performances the following night, they did what they were supposed to, in spiritedly showing whence the orchestral versions had originated. Berg again came to mind in III (Très modéré); indeed, it was a (putative) brand of Klangfarbenmelodie related to him, perhaps, rather than to Schoenberg and Webern, that seemed the hallmark of that intriguing performance. There was, moreover, more than a soupçon of Debussyan awakening, in all its rich ambiguity. The Seventh, marked ‘Hiératique’, proved on a different scale in every sense to its predecessors, almost musico-dramatic in a Wagnerian and/or Mahlerian sense. Air from Debussy’s and Bartók’s planets vied with that of more Germanic ‘tradition’. For Boulez’s later serialism, this seemed an equivalent to Schoenberg’s Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene. As usual, the closing (for now) Second Notation offered a riotous conclusion – to an immaculately planned concert.


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Berlin Festtage (2) - Parsifal, Staatsoper Berlin, 28 March 2015


Images: Ruth Walz


Amfortas – Wolfgang Koch
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Parsifal – Andreas Schager
Klingsor – Tómas Tómasson
Kundry – Anja Kampe
Titurel – Matthias Hölle
Squires – Sónia Grané, Annika Schlicht, Stephen Chambers, Jonathan Winell
First Knight of the Grail – Paul O’Neill
Second Knight of the Grail – Grigory Shkarupa
Flowermaidens – Julia Novikova, Adriane Queiroz, Sónia Gráne, Narine Yeghiyan, Annika Schicht, Anja Schlosser
Voice from Above – Annika Schlicht

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Elena Zaysteva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Jens Schroth (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The Berlin State Opera’s new production of Parsifal could hardly have been burdened by greater expectations with respect to conductor, orchestra, cast, and director, let alone their combination, yet reality did not disappoint. Parsifal-stagings must now be considered post-Stefan Herheim, just as much as an earlier era thought of pre- and post-Wieland Wagner. (We still do too, of course, even those who never saw Wieland’s legendary Bayreuth staging.) Dmitri Tcherniakov proves, unsurprisingly, very much his own man; it would be as absurd to imitate Herheim as it would his predecessor. But perhaps, consciously or otherwise, he may be understood to continue some of the psychological explorations which seemed increasingly to come to the fore in the final two years of Herheim’s production.


The outer acts, in their different but similar ways, suggest a Russian thinker approaching Wagner. Crowds, their detailed yet certainly never pedantic direction long a Tcherniakov speciality, offer ample possibility for comparison. (That word ‘possibility’ is crucial here; like Herheim and indeed many of the most interesting contemporary opera directors, Tcherniakov seems more concerned to open up possibilities than to present definitive verdicts.) Modern, relatively indistinct dress does not distract, but suggests sameness and indeed an ossified dedication to something that no longer pertains: a lesson for ‘traditional’ staging fetishists, among others. (Kinder, macht neues!) But Tcherniakov does not disregard religion as religion; it is not a proxy for political or æsthetic concerns. As in Wagner, the relationship is complex, indeed provocative.

There is here a (once) Christian theology gone wrong, as Wagner’s conception of Monsalvat demands. Just as in the second act of Götterdämmerung, when increasingly desperate pleas are made to gods who have already departed the stage, so in Parsifal, the crowd continues to believe and to act out of desperation from that belief, or at least to act as if it still believed. A world of Russian holy men, perhaps allied to the mendicants of Boris Godunov, or indeed to the anti-Wagnerian challenges of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, reacts with that of Wagner’s still-live (and later, Tcherniakov’s still-life) contest between Feuerbach and Schopenhauer. These are old believers and, perhaps, Old Believers; certainly the final outward turn of the community on stage, magnificently presented as if a revivification of an Old Master painting, suggests Khovanschina with a Goya-like twist. Will the new rule, political or monastic, of Parsifal bring more of the same – Gurnemanz, after his shocking stabbing in the back of Kundry, seems effortlessly to have transferred his loyalty to the new regime – or something different? We do not know; nor do they. Who or what, if anything, has been redeemed? What we do know is that Gurnemanz has swiftly put paid to the 'purely human' - as the younger, Feuerbachian Wagner would have had it - rekindling of sexual relations between Kundry, or Woman, and Amfortas, or Christ, or at least Jesus of Nazareth.


There are certainly clues. Amfortas is identified more with Christ than I can previously recall. He is carried by the knights so as to make him, however unhappily and unwillingly, a visual if perhaps not spiritual reincarnation. More disturbingly still, we see during the final scene of the first act, a re-enactment not only of Amfortas’s wounding but also of some form of transubstantiation, or perhaps mere vampirism, of his own blood. The sustenance drawn may well be nothing – a negative reading of Feuerbach – or it may even be primarily vengeful. There is no doubt, however, that this sick community requires it, and, most intriguingly of all, it is commanded by Titurel, whom we see walk on stage and enter his coffin. Is he a fraud or a thaumaturge? The knights are desperate for him to touch them. He certainly appears to be pulling the theological strings of a cult that has become nasty indeed.

The sameness of the first act – the scene does not shift during the Transformation Music, and indeed the production here burns as slowly and yet as brightly as the work – receives its response in what to begin with seems the unconnected action of the second. Here, Tcherniakov offers a brave, challenging exploration of sexuality, above all of those paedophiliac tendencies our society would desperately wish away as aberration, as the misdeeds of individual ‘monsters’. Klingsor, the very image of a tabloid newspaper’s ‘paedophile monster’, has built a home with his daughters, the Flowermaidens. Some are young; some are older; all are dressed as ‘pretty girls’. Such is clearly what has proved the undoing of Monsalvat’s knights. He clearly repels Kundry, not least when he paws her, but she of course remains in his power. (Perhaps because he has put himself beyond the ‘moral’ pale? Very Nietzschean. Or perhaps we might think of Crime and Punishment.)


When in Klingsor’s power, she is certainly willing to learn from his example, or from what it might suggest. Her kissing him already suggests an inconvenient truth concerning the complexity of abuse. Wagner’s proto-Freudian path of realisation is given shocking realisation in Kundry’s education of Parsifal, partly visualised in the staging of his memories. He and Herzeleide were close, perhaps too close. She is furious when she sees his adolescent first exploration with a girl-next-door, or perhaps even his sister. The emotional fall-out kills her, just as Kundry tells him – and us. Kundry, however, attempts to play upon those complex feelings, to reignite them, reintroducing him to the miniature rocking horse with which once, under Herzeleide’s spell, he had played. Quite what happens remains unclear, since the moment of the ‘kiss’ – is it perhaps more than that? – takes place off stage. The transformation it effects, when undressed, Parsifal, followed by Kundry, runs back on stage, is, however, never in doubt. The would-be sign of the Cross in this dark world is Parsifal’s piercing of Klingsor with the spear.

A crucial feature of the production that has tied both acts together is the circular seating and action of the respective crowds: knights and Flowermaidens. Sickness pervades both; they may well be more closely connected. The third act continues the work of drawing the two together, though again, suggestively rather than didactically. Ritual to drama – to ritual aufgehoben by drama. But was it the wrong drama? When, in the third act, Amfortas opens his father’s tomb and has the body fall to the ground, is that simply revenge for the inhuman treatment – the abuse – our Christ-like, yet ultimately not-so-very-Christ-like, victim has suffered? Or is it also perhaps a hint at the death of God, Titurel being his father? Nietzsche as well as those Russian writers seems hinted at, or at least available. Nihilism or theological rescue mission? As when one reads Nietzsche, perspectivism demands and yet obscures the answers.

Tcherniakov has staged a number of operas in Berlin with Daniel Barenboim, but this is the first Wagner drama, and indeed Tcherniakov’s first Wagner outside Russia. Barenboim has, of course, considerably longer experience, and put it to great use. The expected long line both complemented and, in its dialectic with tonal and timbral variegation below and/or above, questioned the ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ of what we saw on stage. The extraordinary world-weariness, which must yet go on, of the Prelude to the third act would have been worth the price of admission alone, not least on account of the superlative playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, for whose dark-hued contribution throughout, occasionally disrupted by woodwind screams so vivid that they seemed the timbral instantiation of Kundry’s chromaticism, no praise could be high enough. Indeed, the road to Schoenberg, Webern, and to Boulez – his ninetieth birthday honoured in these Staatsoper Festtage – became apparently clear, in all its Boulezian complexity. Stage action may not have been subject to serial procedures, but in some sense its interlocking with the score through such close musico-dramatic collaboration, suggested such an analogy. Certainly, Boulez's proliferative technique is worth considering not just as having roots in Wagner, but as one potential tool in our quest to understand him.


Much the same might be said of the work of this excellent cast. Andreas Schager cemented his reputation as the finest Heldentenor alive, indeed the finest I have heard in the flesh. His tone beguiled yet remained at the service of the text. Moreover, his movements on stage offered a well-nigh perfect portrayal of the awkwardness of an adolescent discovering his sexuality. His reluctance to show himself, hiding himself under his hood, pulled down by Herzeleide and Kundry alike, finds its counterpart in his persistent changing of clothes: seemingly a desire to be clean that can never be fulfilled. Anja Kampe triumphantly overcame illness so as fully to inhabit her role. She seemed less to play Kundry than simply to be Kundry, tireless in fulfilling the demands placed upon her by Wagner and Tcherniakov alike. René Pape’s sonorous Gurnemanz, perhaps more beautifully sung than any I have heard, was chillingly brought into question by that final act of slaughter. Tómas Tómasson’s Klingsor and Matthias Hölle’s Titurel both impressed greatly too, like Kampe loyal servants to composer, to director, and most crucially of all, to the fusion of the two. Wolfgang Koch's Amfortas entered into that musico-dramatic realm with exemplary marriage of Wort und Ton: Sachs turned (very) sour. Choral singing and acting were likewise of the highest standard throughout, a credit to Tcherniakov, to Barenboim, and to chorus master, Martin Wright.

Why, then, was there such appalling booing to be heard at the end, including, incomprehensibly, some apparently levelled at Barenboim? The answer, alas, is all too readily apparent. If there is anything an unthinking audience cannot stand it is to be made to think; if there is anything an abusive society cannot stand it is to be shown that it is abusive. Such fascistic behaviour of course confirms the need for the very productions it so threateningly excoriates.