Sunday, 24 June 2018

City of London Choir/Davan Wetton - Elgar, Holst, Thalben-Ball, and Duruflé, 21 June 2018

St Giles-without-Cripplegate

Elgar: Psalm 29, ‘Give unto the Lord’, op.74
Holst: Nunc Dimittis
George Thalben-Ball: Elegy
Elgar: Psalm 48, ‘Great is the Lord’, op.67
Duruflé: Requiem, op.9

Marta Fonatanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano)
John Lee (baritone)
Mark Williams (organ)
Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
City of London Choir
Hilary Davan Wetton (conductor)

The City of London Festival has been missed since its demise was announced in 2016, One concert in particular will remain with me forever: the last time I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct: Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts in St Paul’s Cathedral. There were many smaller events, though, many of them free, most of them dotted around various of the City’s churches. Let us welcome, then, a new festival, Summer Music in City Churches, which seeks to recapture some of that essence and opportunity. In its opening year, a hundred years since the end of the Great War, it has decided to focus on ‘different aspects of … [that] era, and some later responses to war and peace’. This, the opening concert, was entitled ‘Storm and Refuge’; it offered in its first half works by English composers, followed by a later French requiem.

Far be it from me to speak in nationalist terms, but Elgar’s was certainly the finest of the music on offer here. (‘For balance’: the worst would also be English.) The City of London Choir under Hilary Davan Wetton seemed very much at home in two of his psalm settings for chorus and organ, as did organist Mark Williams. The first, Give unto the Lord, benefited from a performance both vigorous and variegated, its tricky corners unfailingly well navigated – occasional early issues of synchronisation notwithstanding. One could hear echoes of the composer’s great oratorios here, yet there was no doubting the singularity of his response to this particular text. Williams’s organ registration choices were apt, indeed telling, perhaps especially his use of reeds. Written in 1914 for St Paul’s, it was succeeded at the end of the first half by Great is the Lord, from two years earlier (Westminster Abbey). Again emphatically through-composed, Elgar’s response to the words proved clear, vivid, even joyous – both in work and performance. These settings are not easy to perform; they are very much worth the effort.

In between came two lesser works. Holst’s 1915 Nunc dimittis (Westminster Cathedral) is a curious piece. It opens intriguingly, in a very different – arguably more ‘modern’, even modernist – tonal language, before lapsing into something a little too close to English Renaissance pastiche. There are worse models than Byrd, of course, but it is difficult to understand how the whole might cohere. It received a full, rich-toned a cappella performance, though, very much in the tradition of Richard Terry’s celebrated Westminster Cathedral choir. As for Sir George Thalben-Ball’s Elegy, the less said the better. It doubtless worked in its plodding way as an organ improvisation; those wireless listeners reported to have called the BBC to ask him to write it down probably needed to get out more. The piece was played very well, though.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem probably works best in its version for organ and choir. The composer’s orchestral writing lacks interest and tends to distract rather than elucidate. From the opening of the Introit, what struck me here was how plainchant came more strongly still to the fore. There was a strong sense of building towards the light that will shine upon the souls of the dead, not unlike Fauré (an obvious comparison, yet surely not irrelevant). Climaxes in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ were especially well handled: ‘beautiful’ in a conventional sense, but this is hardly a work of avant-gardism. Quiet unease was nevertheless present too. Marta Fonatanals-Simmons’s solo in the Pie Jesu (joined by solo cello) was, especially at the opening, sometimes painfully out of tune and weirdly ‘operatic’ in the vulgar sense: a pity. Chorister John Lee did a better, more self-effacing job with his solos, here and in Elgar. Cross-rhythms really told in the ‘Agnus Dei’, preparing the way for quiet consolation and certainty in the return of the ‘Requiem’ music in the following ‘Lux aeterna’. It was good to hear a ‘Libera me’ that did not drag, as it can, leading to an equally well shaped final ‘In paradisum’. If the setting is always more likely to appeal to conservative choral scholars than to a wider musical public, it will doubtless retain a place on the fringes of the repertoire for that reason – and not unreasonably so, when well performed as here.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Esfahani - Bach, 19 June 2018

Wigmore Hall

Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Nine Little Preludes, BWV 924-932
Toccata in E minor, BWV 914
Toccata in D minor, BWV 913
Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother, BWV 992
Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Five Little Preludes, BWV 939-943
English Suite no.6 in D minor, BWV 911

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

Mahan Esfahani opened my ears – and mind – not only to Bach on the harpsichord, but to the instrument itself. With this Wigmore Hall recital, he continued to do so. It was certainly not that I had ever thought Bach that ‘must’ be performed on the piano; that would be as absurd as saying that it must be performed on any other instrument(s). (Not that that prevents many from making such an absurd claim.) However, with a few exceptions, such as recordings from Wanda Landowska and Ralph Kirkpatrick, I had heard few interesting performances: performances that treated the music in anything more than naïve archaeological fashion. If you are neither able nor willing to hear the Schoenberg in Bach, just as much as the Bach in Schoenberg, then you might as well give up. If only the sectarian ayatollahs of ‘authenticity’ would – or indeed those who present an image founded upon silly hairstyles and other carefully manufactured ‘quirks’. Esfahani, however, with his insistence on the harpsichord as a living instrument, at home in Xenakis as Bach, in Ligeti as Byrd, shows us not that the choice of instrument is irrelevant; of course it is not. Esfahani shows us, as he did once again here, that he is a musician worthy of the supreme challenges with which Bach confronts him – and us.

Nine Little Preludes from the Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach made for a wonderful overture: not unlike, perhaps, a selection from Boulez’s Notations, for another instrument (about which I shall now shut up). There was a sense less of a conspectus, of a summa – this is not the 48 – but of new paths opening up: not least in the ninth, left incomplete in work and performance, the break theatrical in the best sense, a curtain-raiser rather than something applied from outside. Esfahani played these little pieces as a set, tonal progression again emerging from within: a sign of freedom, not a straitjacket. This is not the age of the Classical sonata, but of the suite (all or mostly ‘in’ a single key): progression means something different here. It means something nevertheless, and holds implications both historical and musical.

Landowska’s style and indeed that of Willem Mengelberg came to mind in the E minor Toccata. I say ‘style’, but really I mean ‘spirit’ – not that one can or should dissociate style and idea, as Schoenberg would warn us. This, I felt, was a performance I should like to have given, if only I had the technical and indeed musical facility to do so. Esfahani revelled in the young Bach’s music, never trying to turn it into older Bach; why should he? Percussive moments seemed almost to suggest Scarlatti; indeed, there was more than a little of the Mediterranean, or rather a German’s longing for the Mediterranean, to the performance. Perhaps I am sentimentalising, or applying my own preoccupations to what I heard. This was a performance open to personalisation, though – in the best sense. And Bach sounded, quite rightly, at least as radical as Ligeti. A bravura performance of the D minor Toccata followed. Following a slightly improvisatory opening, it teased and charmed; the performance compelled the music to speak, not unlike a recitativo accompagnato. This was Bach as generative as Beethoven or Brahms, albeit in somewhat different ways. It was anything but austere, the dialectic between freedom and organisation as spellbinding as it would be in any later composer, Schoenberg included.

Registration choices truly rang the changes – musical changes, no mere ‘effects’ – in a performance of the Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother that permitted of many standpoints or, perhaps better, ways in. Roots in earlier music came to life: living traditions in themselves. Chromaticism grew out of simple, diatonic beginnings. Something Italianate or at least ‘southern’ – Scarlatti again a kinsman? – sang in the exultation of homecoming. But it was Bach, and only Bach, who spoke, sang, and told of the glory of God in the fugue. Old ‘debates’ about programme music refuse to die, at least in the popular imagination; surely such music and performances ought to kill them off forever. It is never either/or.

Five further Preludes, BWV 939-43, opened the second half, Esfahani beginning very much in medias res. They sounded – regardless of questions concerned their ‘authenticity’ – as jewels in a Webern-like suite. Whoever wrote them, their quality spoke for itself; as, at least in performance, did their diversity in unity.

A Prelude in every sense opened the Sixth English Suite. We heard, experienced a youthful, exhilirating representation of chaos: something I fancied both Landowska and Alfred Cortot would have appreciated. The Allemande and Courante seemed almost to function as secular(ish) – not that the distinction between sacred and secular is remotely meaningful for Bach, or indeed at all – versicle and response. Redemption seemed almost at hand, if not through our own works. The intrinsic grandeur of the Sarabande and its Double was released in a fashion that seemed haunted by an earlier ‘Englishness’: Purcell, perhaps, or Lawes. My expectations were confounded – in a good way – in the Gavottes, taken at quite a lick and all the better for it. Interplay between hands told a story just as it would in Liszt or Webern. The Gigue danced in, not despite, its almost Bergian density. And then, a surprise: a Fantasy in C minor, written apparently when Bach was only fifteen years old. I was delighted to make its acquaintance. As ever with Bach, it looked backward and forward, those long, profound glances in mutual service. That, surely, should be how we strive to understand his music too; such was certainly the case here.

Monday, 18 June 2018

‘Germans at Westminster Abbey’ – Gowers: Bach, Wagner, Liszt, and Strauss, 17 June 2018

Westminster Abbey

Bach-Schoenberg, arr. Gowers: Prelude in E-flat major, BWV 552
Wagner, arr. Edwin Lamare: Tannhäuser: ‘Lied an den Abendstern’
Liszt, arr. Louis Falk: Liebesträume, no.3, S 541
Strauss, arr. Gowers: Feuersnot: ‘Zwischenspiel/Liebesszene’

Richard Gowers (organ)

Theodor Adorno’s challenge to ‘authenticke’ colonisation of Bach’s music, a furious denunciation of the 1950 bicentenary reconstructionism he rightly saw mirroring that of the Federal Republic of Germany, remains in many respects unanswerable. Alas, as with so many things, being unanswerable does not necessarily translate into worldly acceptance. (‘Take back control’, anyone?) Bach still needs defending from his Liebhaber (devotees); or rather they need offending. Anyone with an ear and a mind knows the truth of this claim from another of Adorno’s essays, Tradition: ‘The difference between what is past and what is present … is not absolute. One can only understand Schoenberg if one understands Bach; one can only understand Bach if one understands Schoenberg.’ Alas, the musical world, like the world at large, is not always in the hands of those with ears and minds. In a modernist age, we need modernist Bach – which can take all manner of forms, certainly not to be restricted a priori. It is literalism that kills. Adorno thus commended Schoenberg’s Bach orchestrations along with Webern’s orchestration of the six-part Ricercare from the Musical Offering and Fritz Stiedry’s realization of the Art of Fugue as paragons of fidelity through infidelity to Bach’s music. The music was rethought rather than consigned to the researches of ‘philologists with no compositional ability,’ who would merely apportion the parts between individual instruments or groups of instruments. Modernist Bach takes its cue from Bach’s music, in that the ‘contradiction between music and sound-material,’ especially that between the Baroque organ and the ‘infinitely articulated structure,’ is acted upon, developed, brought into the open rather than falsely reconciled. In the final sentence of his Bach essay, Adorno put it like this: modernist ‘composition … calls his music by name in producing it anew’.

How wonderful, then, to hear a further turn of the dialectical screw in the opening piece of this recital from Richard Gowers on the organ of Westminster Abbey. Having studied Schoenberg’s orchestration of Bach’s St Anne Prelude and Fugue, Gowers attempted – with great success – to return, with interest, some of those fruitful contradictions to the organ. That ‘wondrous machine’ and its operator not only made music – sometimes easier said than done – but offered a stance that was critical, in the best sense, towards both Bach and Schoenberg, and indeed towards so many of our present occupations. A myriad of registration changes – fifty different sound combinations, I am told – worked in furtherance of that, but so did the organist’s structural command in a more conventional sense.

The Liszt and Wagner arrangements that followed were more conventional, I suppose: arrangements rather than transcriptions, should that distinction mean anything at all. (I am not entirely sure that it does, definition always ultimately failing.) Nevertheless, they were nicely shaped, with registration that was ‘appropriate’ in a nineteenth-century sense, without ever merely sounding conventional. Wolfram’s song certainly had one look to the heavens, almost as if one might hear the star of which he told us. Liszt’s Liebesträume initially sounded, I thought, slightly unsuited to its new habitat – not unlike some of Liszt’s ‘own’ organ transcriptions of his piano works. (I use inverted commas, since it is often far from clear how much he did and how much someone else did. His relationship with the instrument remains, however, not only fascinating but fruitful.) Filigree writing worked better than it had any right to; whether this were the doing of the arranger, the organist, or bother, I am not sure. Both, I suspect. And finally, Gowers’s own organ transcription (or arrangement?) from Strauss’s Feuersnot offered a rare treat indeed. For such a master of orchestration – the only composer who would have dared update Berlioz’s treatise, let alone succeeded in doing so – to translate so beautifully, even magnificently, into very different washes of sound in so very different an acoustic was quite a thing indeed. Bach’s is not the only music we honour in producing it anew.

La bohème, Royal Opera, 16 June 2018

Royal Opera House

Musetta (Danielle de Niese) at Café Momus
Images: Catherine Ashmore/ROH 2018

Marcello – Etienne Dupuis
Rodolfo – Matthew Polenzani
Colline – Fernando Radó
Schaunard – Duncan Rock
Benoît – Jeremy White
Mimì – Maria Agresta
Parpignol – Andrew Macnair
Musetta – Danielle de Niese
Alcindoro – Wyn Pencarreg
Customs Officer – John Morrissey
Sergeant – Thomas Barnard

Richard Jones (director)
Julia Burbach (revival director)
Stewart Laing (director)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Sarah Fahie, Danielle Urbas (movement)

Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Tiffin’s Children’s Chorus
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Nicola Luisotti (conductor)

Schaunard (Duncan Rock), Colline (Fernanrdo Radó), Marcello (Etienne Dupuis), Rodolfo (Matthew Polenzani)

Poor Puccini. He suffers more than any other composer I know from being treated as a box-office draw. (Dmitri Tcherniakov notwithstanding, Carmen is perhaps not so dissimilar; yet, given its status as the sole Bizet opera worth staging – Lord preserve us from the tedium of another Pearl Fishers – the situation remains different.) The requirement, however, for making at least four of his operas so unfailing a draw seems to be to prevent anything but the most ‘traditional’ of stagings from seeing the light of day. I have no idea what Claus Guth’s recent Bohème was like, but thank goodness the Paris Opéra showed itself willing to do something different with the work. Stefan Herheim’s superlative, death-haunted production for Oslo remains hors concours. Otherwise, ‘major houses’ remain not so much unwilling to experiment as adamantly opposed.

I wondered, then, what Richard Jones might make of the same opera. My sense, whilst away, was that reception of its first outing had not generally been favourable. A sign of hope, perhaps? Alas not. I have never been less moved, even when I maintained a frostier stance towards Puccini than I do now, by a performance of La bohème. Indeed, given that I was not so much as slightly moved even once, such would have been impossible. That cannot have been entirely the production’s fault, but it bore greater responsibility than anything else. Now a Brechtian, post-dramatic Bohème might be a fascinating prospect indeed: imagine what Achim Freyer (when on form) or Frank Castorf might do with, or to, the work. I know that Peter Konwitschny has staged it too, although I have yet, alas, to catch up with that production. Try as I might, though, I could find no edge, no critique. This seems merely cynical – and merely cynical in just about the worst way.

The first act is stark, or at least its design is. A basic roof frame is a little more suggestive of a garret than often one sees, although the fact that one sees no sleeping quarters is, within a realistic framework, perhaps a little odd. (I shall return to that.) There is not much more to it, yet often there is not: other than everyone shivering. I presume the slightly repellent hair – is it meant to look dirty or just nasty? – of the students is intended to convey poverty or slovenliness, or both, but am not sure. Snow falls throughout, though, in a seemingly sentimental fashion, as if to appease those who wanted ‘traditional’ atmosphere. Perhaps they are being sent up, but I am afraid I found little sign of that. Even if they were, should they be?

A seemingly obscene amount of money is then expended on designs for the second act: as if to say, ‘you thought you had the germs of an austere concept, so I’ll show you’. Lavish shopping arcades – nineteenth-century Paris, I suppose, yet hardly suggestive of Walter Benjamin – whirl around for a little while centre-stage, then are banished, so that the action can take place. It is all very chocolate-box musical comedy, yet seemingly not with irony. (And even if it is, why?) Café Momus is more Michelin-starred restaurant than a place for Bohemian encounters. There is little attempt, so far as I can ascertain, to suggest either that the characters are genuinely poor, or that they are privileged boys playing at being poor. It all just seems ill-thought-through. There is worse, though. Musetta, robbed of the elegance her music suggests, is merely a drunk, who climbs on the table and, with difficulty, delivers herself of her underwear to throw around. Perhaps there is a plausible non-misogynist reading of what we saw; if so, it passed me by. Snow continues to fall.

As indeed, it does in the second half: straightforward to a degree. (John Copley surely accomplished that better – and with far more of a sense of what the opera is, or at least might be, about.) Everything happens more or less as it ‘should’, yet with a casualness to the direction that makes one wonder why anyone bothered. The only real oddity is that, when Mimì arrives, and a bed has to be found for her, it is merely linen or a blanket, or something. Again, one might think that intended to convey poverty: have they really been living like that all that time? It does not seem like it, though, and such an idea does not seem to cohere with anything else. Perhaps because there is not anything much else with which to cohere. The work ends: unloved and yet also uncriticised. It would take a better production than this, however ‘traditional’, to manage either.

Nicola Luisotti’s conducting did not help, either – although oddly, it often seemed rather in keeping with Jones’s vision (or lack thereof). Much, especially in the outer acts, was marmoreal; much more almost – yet not quite – brutal. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played well enough, yet nothing like what once it could. (To think, this was once Bernard Haitink’s orchestra – and before that Colin Davis’s.) Luisotti, who impressed greatly in Il trittico in 2016, seemed at times so impatient as to be wishing to be elsewhere – I sympathised – and, when he did permit something loosely known as ‘emotion’, to be doing so less out of conviction than from duty: colouring-book Puccini. Structural grip was not lacking, yet it was mere external, imposed ‘structure’ rather than formal dynamism, content possessing but a tenuous relationship to the receptacle into which it had been squeezed. Even the Wagnerisms – a little hint of Tristan there, a Meistersinger-ish moment there – sounded incidental, certainly not generative. Puccini as modernist: forget it. As for Luisotti’s reprehensible slowing down so as actually to invite multiple instances of philistine applause within an act…

Musetta and Mimì (Maria Agresta)

The cast did a decent enough job but there was nothing to get too excited about in that respect either. How much was the responsibility of director and conductor was, in this case, difficult to tell; yet there must be something a little awry when the most memorable vocal performances come from an excellent Colline and Schaunard  (Fernando Radó and Duncan Rock). Both seemed far more alert to the drama of words and music than either Jones or Luisotti. Maria Agresta sang the part of Mimì nicely enough; I am not sure I have anything more to say about that. Danielle de Niese certainly gave a sincere, committed performance; she always has done in any role in which I have seen her. Leaving aside Jones’s perverse portrayal of her in the second act, though, sincerity was not enough to mask thinness of voice. Matthew Polenzani proved an ardent enough Rodolfo, Etienne Dupuis likewise as Marcello, but their hearts did not seem – perhaps understandably – really to be in it. For there was little heart on display at all here; nor was there anything dramatically on hand, alas, to replace it.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Mamzer Bastard (world premiere), Royal Opera, 14 June 2018

Hackney Empire Theatre

Younger Yoel - Edward Hyde
Yoel – Collin Shay
Stranger – Steven Page
Esther – Gundula Hintz
Menashe – Robert Burt
David – Netanel Hershtik

Jay Scheib (director)
Madeleine Boyd (designs)
D.M. Wood (lighting)
Paulina Jurzec (video)
Yair Elazar Glotman (sound design)

Aurora Orchestra
Jessica Cottis (conductor)

Paulina Jurzec (cinematographer), Collin Shay (Yoel), Steven Page (Stranger)
Images: Stephen Cummiskey (C) ROH

Let me begin, like an undergraduate unsure what to say at the beginning of an essay: there were many reasons to admire the first performance of Na’ama Zisser’s opera, Mamzer Bastard, a co-commission from the Royal Opera and the Guildhall. Even though the journey is now a bit of a pain for me, it is always a joy to visit the Hackney Empire, infinitely preferable to the other of Frank Matcham’s London theatres that is sometimes used for opera. The quality is often very high, the location seemingly inciting visiting companies to their best; I am not sure I have ever seen a better Marriage of Figaro than that from the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. Not only bringing opera to Hackney but also taking it out of the West End is a very good thing; it genuinely seemed to have attracted a new, highly appreciative audience, half of which offered a standing ovation (something even Bernard Haitink receives less often in London than he does). The idea of an opera set in the Hasidic Jewish community was enticing too. I had no idea what to expect from any part of it, which always adds to the anticipation. Moreover, performances from all concerned were excellent, the Aurora Orchestra under Jessica Cottis perhaps the greatest stars of all. One had little doubt that one was hearing what one was supposed to hear. Gundula Hintz shone, too, as the mother, Esther: clearly both moved and capable of moving.

Esther (Gundula Hintz), Menashe (Robert Burt)

Then, alas, comes the matter of the opera itself: so tedious that I genuinely feared – hoped? – I might fall asleep. I suspect something could have been made of some of the material (if not necessarily the musical material), given a few years’ hard work, rethinking, and experience. Director Jay Scheib wrote in the programme of the libretto, by Samantha Newton and Rachel C. Zisser, having been ‘written in the form of a screenplay. Transitions took the form of jump cuts,’ and so on. Would that it had come across with any such focus or direction. It jumps around with much confusion: not dramatic confusion, more ‘let’s say a bit about the Holocaust here … let’s stop for a while and have a “meaningful” pause,’ etc., etc.

The lack of focus in the libretto is redolent more of an initial pub sketch of ideas for an opera than anything more thought out. It is not fragmentary; it is certainly not challenging; it is barely a drama. Sub- (very sub-)Katie Mitchell filming – sometimes with an awkward time-lag – did little to help, and perhaps a little to hinder. In Scheib’s words, ‘Cameras have afforded us access to a dynamic vocabulary normally reserved for the visual world of the cinema.’ Quite apart from the ignorance and arrogance of the claim – have you seen any German theatre recently, even ventured so far as the Royal Court? – little is revealed other than occasional, clichéd flashes of blinding light: appearing, aptly enough, long after lightning is supposed to have struck.

Much, though not all, of the music stands on the verge of embarrassing: swathes of vague electronic noise, sound effects, interspersed with cantorial and other trivial melodies, the marriage of word and text in the latter quickly heading for the divorce courts. (As for the former, it is good, perhaps, to learn that the Church of England holds no monopoly on banal liturgical music.) Attempts to define what is and is not opera are most likely bound to fail. That said, surely the idea that it should in some way or other be more than a play with music, that its music itself should be dramatic, seems a reasonable assumption. There are, at the close, a few signs of such a dawning realisation on Na’ama Zisser’s part. Some simple musical figures start to add up to something a little more than themselves, musically and dramatically. For me, however, it was all too late. As I said, a period of revision would have been in order; such progress might then have been read back into what had gone before, far too much of which came across as something akin to a school project: fine for those involved and their proud parents, but for the wider world? Would you want your sixteen-year-old essays on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything published and distributed?

‘Eine Oper ist ein absurdes Ding,’ Strauss’s Capriccio Count tells his sister. In many ways, yes, although not always. It nevertheless takes a great deal of effort and experience to be properly absurd. The artifice in both Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos tell a story, moreover, quite different from that which a superficial reading of their synopses might suggest. Mozart was different, Apollo et Hyacinthus a superior work to half of those in the benighted working ‘repertoire’ of many opera houses. Perhaps if one is not Mozart, one might wait at least a little longer before testing the operatic waters. It has worked – magnificently – for George Benjamin. And yes, this doubtless rests on a view of works, masterpieces, the rest, considered hopelessly outmoded by some. I am not, however, even claiming that a work should necessarily be forever. (Let us leave posterity for another time, as it were.) However, if a work is not for now, or at least not yet ready, then someone ought to have asked questions more searching than the self-congratulatory discussion published in the programme.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Capriccio, Garsington Opera, 9 June 2018

Garsington Opera House, Wormsley

Images: Johan Persson
Andrew Shore (La Roche), William Dazeeley (Count), Hanna Hipp (Clairon),
Miah Persson (Countess), Benjamin Bevan (Major-Domo)

Flamand – Sam Furness
Olivier – Gavan Ring
La Roche – Andrew Shore
Countess Madeleine – Miah Persson
Count – William Dazeley
Clairon – Hanna Hipp
Major-Domo – Benjamin Bevan
Italian Soprano – Nika Gorič
Italian Tenor – Caspar Singh
Servants – Richard Bignall, Dominic Bowe, Robert Forrest, Andrew Hamilton, Emanuel Heitz, Jack Lawrence-Jones, David Lynn, Kieran Rayner
Monsieur Taupe – Graham Clark
Young Dabicer – Lowri Shone

Tim Albery (director)
Tobias Hoheisel (designs)
Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)
Laïla Diallo (choreography)

Garsington Opera Orchestra
Douglas Boyd (conductor)

Who among the younger generation can really imagine a great city like Munich in total darkness, or theatre-goers picking their way through the blacked-out street with the aid of small torches giving off a dim blue light through a narrow slit? All this for the experience of the Capriccio première. They risked being caught in a heavy air raid, yet their yearning to hear Strauss’s music, their desire to be part of a festive occasion and to experience a world of beauty beyond the dangers of war led them to overcome all these material problems... Afterwards it was difficult to relinquish the liberating and uniting atmosphere created by the artistic quality of the new work. But outside the blackened city waited, and one’s way homewards was fraught with potential danger.

With those words, the director Rudolf Hartmann recalled the 1942 Munich premiere of Richard Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio. They are not without sugary romanticism, which tells its own contemporary as well as subsequent story, yet by the same token, would surely touch all but the stoniest of hearts. (Of the many, there are alas far too many – especially when it comes to Germany.) Since first reading them, I have found it difficult to put them and their implications – some, to borrow from Nietzsche, beyond good and evil – out of mind when listening to and thinking about Capriccio.

The Servants (Robert Forrest, Jack Lawrence-Jones, Andrew Hamilton, Richard Bignall, Dominic Bowe, David Lynn, Kieran Rayner, Emanuel Heitz)

Perhaps, then, it is merely my problem that Tim Albery’s new production seems strangely uninterested in what for me has become very much part of the work. That despite a strange claim quoted in the programme: ‘I’ve worked with Tobias Hoheisel, a London-based German designer, who has a real sensibility for Strauss’s world and language. We talked a lot about the political context of the opera and decided that we should not set it in the ruins of a collapsing Europe. We set it in the time in which it was composed, when so many people were forced into exile.’ I am far from saying that a performance of any work should always concern itself with origins, the conditions of its first performance, or indeed any one time or place. Albery’s distinction, though, makes little sense, for Capriccio was composed during the Second World War: Europe was – again – collapsing. It was not 1945, but nor was it 1935, let alone 1925. One might accuse Strauss of evasion – although, by this stage, what on earth was he supposed to do? – but there seems to me here a degree of evasion here too.

Sam Furness (Flamand), Gavan Ring (Olivier), Andrew Shore (La Roche)

What we are left with is a typical rococo palace with more modern touches: costumes and artwork. The action and conversation – are they the same thing, somewhat different, even in some respects opposed? should we not at least ask? – proceed straightforwardly. Everything is well directed on stage, but there is little edge: which only the ignorant and/or hostile could claim of the work itself.  This might seem facile, but the very setting of the work in France has – and had – resonances. To have, moreover, the Countess comparing the musical merits of Rameau vis-à-vis Couperin is more telling than many might think: Brahms might have edited Couperin, but one will struggle to find his name or his music in Third Reich performances and musicology. Indeed, many composers, let alone others, would not necessarily have been well acquainted with the music of eighteenth-century France. Strauss certainly was – and showed through his composition that he was: sometimes through direct quotation, for instance the ‘Air italien’ from Les Indes galantes, when the composer is mentioned, at other times through allusion. Likewise for Gluck – what are we to make here of a ‘German’ composer acting as a ‘French’ one? – and much else.
William Dazeley (Count),Miah Persson (Countess), Sam Furness (Flamand)
The apolitical, especially at times such as this, may actually be read as highly political, whatever Strauss’s – or anyone else’s – straightforward intention. Perhaps the beauty of the costumes, the Countess (Miah Persson) truly resembling a star from the Golden Age of Hollywood, the servants’ livery truly impeccable, hints at something more; perhaps it does not. That ambiguity is welcome, but might we not have had a little more? One need not have Baldur von Schirach on stage to listen to the opening sextet – although why not? – to hint at something more troubling. (The sextet had its private premiere at Schirach’s villa, the Vienna Gauleiter having helped Strauss secure his Viennese Belvedere home. In return, moreover, for the composer playing his part in furthering Viennese musical life, Schirach, the only defendant other than Albert Speer to speak against Hitler at Nuremberg, had offered protection for Strauss’s Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice, and his grandsons.) A challenging work, ever more so the more one gets to know it and think about it, deserves perhaps rather more challenge than this. Otherwise, the updating might as well not have happened; it does not seem in any way to shape, to comment, or even to frame the drama. More fundamentally, though, I missed the achievement of Christian von Götz’s Cologne staging, which I saw at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival. There, not only was one forced to confront the work’s political difficulties; one emerged, at least I did, with ever-greater admiration for it. (Indeed, it was the aftermath of that experience that set me on the road to writing a chapter on Capriccio in my book After Wagner.)

Miah Persson (Countess)

If Albery’s production comes across as something for those as unconcerned with such matters as many have erroneously claimed Strauss to be – non-, even anti-metropolitan opera – there were many musical rewards to enjoy. That was true above all for Persson. Her musical line, subtly inflected brought into greater relief than anything on stage the central question of ‘Word oder Ton?’ This was in every respect, certainly verbal, yet not only so, a superior performance to that heard in concert from Renée Fleming a few years ago. (Why are Covent Garden and still more ENO so hostile to staging Strauss, or at least so reluctant to do so?) The vocal bloom of her final scene was well prepared, prefigured perhaps more subtly still than the theme on which Douglas Boyd had proved perhaps just a too insistent in his orchestral highlighting. That said, if sometimes apparently viewing Strauss’s motivic technique a little too much as concerned with reminiscence, and not quite enough as ‘the binding together of a music drama through a dense web of motivic connections from within’ (Carl Dahlhaus on Wagner), Boyd handled and communicated the ebb and flow well: no easy task. It was doubtless no coincidence, given his background as an oboist, that the woodwind of the excellent Garsington Orchestra were afforded especial opportunity to shine. If a few more strings would at times have been appreciated, there were no real grounds for complaint here either; the section certainly came into its own at climaxes.

Hanna Hipp (Clairon)

Otherwise, there was a fine sense of vocal ensemble, Andrew Shore’s typically characterful La Roche, Hanna Hipp’s rich-toned Clairon, and Graham Clark’s properly scene-stealing Monsieur Taupe (even without Götz’s yellow star, the escape carriage having been missed) for me the pick of the bunch. If Albery’s staging perhaps serves La Roche’s caricatured aesthetics better than his broader role as impresario and indeed spokesman for broader theatrical values – Max Reinhardt his obvious (Jewish) inspiration – the opera is such that a thinking audience member cannot help but reflect upon such matters. Capriccio is a good deal less fragile, as well as a great deal more political, than it might seem and than it might have been ‘intended’ to be.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Lohengrin, Royal Opera, 7 June 2018

Royal Opera House

Images: Clive Barda

King Henry the Fowler – Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin – Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa – Jennifer Davis
Friedrich von Telramund – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Ortrud – Christine Goerke
King’s Herald – Kostas Smoriginas
Brabantian Nobles – Konu Kim, Thomas Atkins, Gyula Nagy, Simon Shibambu
Pages – Katy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Dervla Ramsay, Louise Armit
Gottfried – Michael Curtis
David Alden (director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Gideon Davey (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Tal Rosner (video)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

Elsa (Jennifer Davis) at her wedding

Since returning to London in January, I have been heartened by much of what I have seen – and indeed heard – from the Royal Opera. If Barrie Kosky’s Carmen proved something of a flop, there has been much to ponder and indeed to inspire from Krzysztof Warlikowski’s From the House of the Dead, superlatively conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, and most recently, George Benjamin’s new operatic masterpiece, Lessons in Love and Violence. David Alden is perhaps not the most obvious directorial choice for Wagner, though his ENO Tristan – the first I saw – certainly had its merits. He pretty much had the field to himself, though, given that Covent Garden’s previous staging was the lamentable fancy-dress pageant served up by Elijah Moshinsky, its final reheating coming as late as 2009. On the face of it, Alden’s move to the 1930s must have come to a shock to the more reactionary elements always present in a Wagner audience. That it does not seem to have done so suggests either a welcome opening of minds or something – at least, according to one reading, like Lohengrin – rather less substantial than one might have initially presumed.

I wish it had been the former but Alden’s production ultimately proved conventional, all too conventional: more a potential shell for something more interesting than a remotely finished – even ready – production in itself. Designs and some stage direction, notably that of the chorus, are suggestive, but where is the dramatic grit? To offer a Lohengrin come as redeemer to a society broken by war is of course to follow Wagner precisely; to shift the actual war to something closer to our modern concerns is no bad thing at all. He unifies a people in disarray through his charismatic authority, yet ultimately cannot fulfil his duty and rejects his people.

Lohengrin (Klaus Florian Vogt) and Telramund (Thomas Johannes Mayer)

Ortrud (Christine Goerke) and Telramund
Nazi parallels, or rather premonitions – like Marx, Wagner is often at his very strongest in pointing to where the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would go wrong – are obvious, yet none the worse for that. Even that level of critique will, after all, stand as a rebuke to those who follow that disingenuous old Nazi, Curt von Westernhagen, railing against the fresh theatrical wind of the 1970s: ‘Directors who deem themselves progressive when they transform the Ring back into a drama with a “message” have no idea how regressive this approach is in relation to the genesis of the work itself.’ Westernhagen’s scholarly methods are now as discredited as his ideology. Disciples remain, though, and few things get them so hot under the collar as Nazis on stage. Clue: they like it, really.

That said, simply to update is never enough. Indeed, it is to adopt the Westernhagen fraternity’s strange delusion that a production more or less is its designs (here, handsome indeed, for which great credit should be accorded to Paul Steinberg in particular). In many ways, when and where something is set, or is not, is the least interesting thing of all; at best, it is a starting-point. Save for that arresting, almost cinematic (Riefenstahl at a push) direction of crowd movement, its dramatic import obvious yet undeniably powerful, there is not much to get one’s teeth into. If the setting remains largely undeveloped, too much also seems awkwardly reminiscent of other productions. Had you never seen a German Lohengrin, you might remain, often literally, in the dark; Wagner and indeed many in his audiences surely deserve greater credit than that.

Henry the Fowler (Georg Zeppenfeld)

A King Henry whose hunched body language was a little too close to comfort to that of Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth production is one thing, but a falling of banners for war that aped the close of the second act of Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal is another again. If some point had been made about Wagner, the Nazis, and Bayreuth, it might have worked, I suppose; here, it seemed gratuitous and frankly derivative. What the point of describing the pages as ‘four women at the wedding’ may have been I do not know: if you like that sort of thing, then that will doubtless be the sort of thing you like. A sudden design apparition from Neuschwanstein seems merely a change of scene. Again, one can see why such an image might have a point in a fascist, even Nazi, setting, but it needs at some level to be made, not merely assumed. Dramatic motivation, then, largely eluded me. Such irritations pointed to a greater problem: a conceptual weakness at the heart. I suspect it can be remedied: if a shell, it is a fine shell. It will not, however, remedy itself.

Perhaps the same once had been true of Moshinsky. At any rate, this evening shared something else important with that final outing of 2009: musical excellence. Andris Nelsons, who conducted Neuenfels’s production at Bayreuth, was not at his strongest here, especially in the first act. Indeed, there both Nelsons and Alden seemed intent, consciously or otherwise, to underline what can often seem to be its rather static nature rather than to enliven the drama. However, Nelsons drew increasingly lovely playing from the orchestra, lower strings and woodwind in particular, and made often quite extreme second-act rubato – not to be confused with tempo variation – work, rather than seem merely mannered. His command of the architecture in the second and third acts impressed. Still more so did the outstanding singing from the chorus and extra chorus. William Spaulding’s work here is clearly reaping rewards, just as it did at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper.

Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin is a known quantity: known also, of course, to Nelsons from Bayreuth. I am less enthusiastic than once I was: the purity is less consistently apparent, the blandness more so. (Or maybe I am just tired of it.) However, it remains impressive on its own terms; one’s response to his singing will perhaps be more than usually personal. Replacing the originally advertised Kristine Opolais, Jennifer Davis impressed greatly as Elsa. This was by any standards a high-profile debut. Vocal and dramatic sincerity were matched by a security one had little right to expect. Thomas Johannes Mayer, also of recent Bayreuth fame, more than hinted at a properly complex Telramund, even if his artistry received little help from the staging. Christine Goerke’s Ortrud climaxed in properly blood curdling cries at the close, although again I had the impression a deeper production would have brought out something – well, deeper. Georg Zeppenfeld did what he could with the Neuenfels King-redux; that again was impressive indeed. Only Kostas Smoriginas, as his Herald, disappointed: often uncertain of verbal and musical line alike.
Ortrud waiting

The audience, part of one’s experience whether we like it or not – unless one happens to be Ludwig II, and even then… – proved something of a trial. Someone’s telephone vibrated throughout the first minute or so of the first-act Prelude, the culprit eventually shouting ‘Yes! I’m going to turn it off’. A friend heard someone else announce upon Lohengrin’s arrival: ‘I prefer it when he wears golden armour.’ Coughing, electronic terrorism, and inanity aside, they seemed to like the production: rarely a good sign. Given what they will boo… Still, there is, I am sure, room for something more to take shape within its framework; perhaps they will do so then. Moreover, there is, I assure you, a genuinely exciting prospect for the new Lohengrin at Bayreuth this year. At least on this occasion, my lips must remain better sealed than Elsa’s. The world, however, is likely to see a worthy successor to Neuenfels from Yuval Sharon, in a production that penetrates more deeply to the work’s essence and grapples with its implications.