Friday, 24 May 2019

Levit - Bach, 22 May 2019

Wigmore Hall

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Igor Levit (piano)

With this outstanding performance of the Goldberg Variations, Igor Levit opened a series of three concerts performing celebrated sets of piano variations. To come are a pairing of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Frederic Rzewski’s set on The People United Shall not be Defeated, and finally Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH.

It struck me from the opening bars of the Aria that this would be a very different performance from that of Levit’s Sony recording. This was to be a performance for here and now, the work rethought and reimagined. Every note of the Aria seemed considered, quite without pedantry, instead freshly discovered: if not prelapsarian – Bach is too human for that – then pristine. This reading proved freer, I think, certainly different, and was very much a reading for the piano, sustained as only this instrument can. Pianists imitating harpsichordists seem to me as misguided as vice versa; they can and should learn from each other, but learning is a very different thing from an attempt to imitate that will always be in vain.

The first variation’s release of pent-up energy made for an ebullient contrast, variegated within a logical framework. (Is that not the essence of Bach?) Its two succeeding variations had a strong sense of succession, the third in particular already integrative of tendencies within the music we had heard up to the point. A pleasing sturdiness characterised the fourth, a sturdiness that yet quested – and how, leading to flawless virtuosity in the fifth: a brilliant moto perpetuo through which, crucially, music was realised. Harmonic twists told without exaggeration in the sixth, laying the groundwork for a finely pointed seventh variation that released Bach’s own caprice (as opposed to being capriciously realised). By the time that we reached the ninth variation, the third of the canons, a grace that elicited reflection – where we had been, would be, but also very much what lay beneath the surface – was, quite rightly, the order of the day. Intimations of a Mendelssohn scherzo in the eleventh, a twelfth variation that spoke of strong kinship with that sturdy fourth, and a thirteenth that presented Bach as inspiration for Mozartian classicism, left-hand voicing that was loved and elicited love, with a spring in its step: the dizzying conspectus of ways in which we might think of, perceive, and respond to variations could not have been more immanent. Energy once more released in the fourteenth invited Levit – invitation graciously accepted – to take all the time in the world for the fifteenth variation: an invitation, as Schumann might have put it, to explore new paths, technical and expressive.

And so, the ‘Ouverture’ sounded very much as such: a fierce, Frenchified exterior heralding just such new beginnings that were yet old. From the seventeenth variation onwards, there was very much a sense of new territory broached within that logical framework: for instance, a twentieth variation whose caprice connected us with the world of the seventh; a twenty-first that sounded both more archaic and more Romantic; and a twenty-second that proved beautifully, reassuringly reinventive, an utterance from the Bach whose well-nigh divine judgement brooks no appeal. Lisztian display in the twenty-third variation and Mozartian (perhaps Beethovenian too) response in its successor prepared the way for Wanda Landowska’s ‘black pearl’, taken slowly, as only a piano can. Composer and pianist alike offered a personal response of pathos that yet revelled in a labyrinthine harmonic imagination that looked towards Mozart’s reimagings of Bach and Handel, even to Berg. This was a slow movement, an Adagio, in the emphatic sense.

Its successor, the twenty-sixth variation, might have sounded conventional by comparison – unless and until one listened. It really grew during its course, too, as did its successor in response; for by now, it was difficult not to think in Classical developmental terms as well as Bach’s own. The twenty-eight variation brought, even at this late stage, a true sense of ringing the changes, not least through Mozartian subtlety in the chromatic melodies of those crossed-hand lines. Heading towards apparent climax, the twenty-ninth variation was of course followed, surprisingly and unsurprisingly, by the rejoicing of the ‘Quodlibet’. It was a moment for taking stock, a time for Bach the Christian, non-exclusivist, synthetic, to remind us of the fathomless world of the church cantatas through good-natured, ‘domestic’ humour. (Beethoven would surely have nodded assent.) At least that was how it spoke to me: to others, it would doubtless have done differently. With the return to the Aria, we heard and felt something that was both the same as before and very much not. It was, rightly, unclear how and why: music, like so much else, is ultimately a mystery. There is no right and wrong, correct and incorrect: not, at any rate, in the way Thomas Beecham’s ‘drowsy armchair pedants’ would have it. Bach’s score had been beautifully, meaningfully brought to life; next time it would be different.

Monday, 20 May 2019

La Damnation de Faust, Glyndebourne, 18 May 2019

Glyndebourne Opera House

Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Faust – Allan Clayton

Méphistophélès – Christopher Purves
Brander – Ashley Riches
Marguerite – Julie Boulianne

Richard Jones (director)
Sarah Fahie (assistant director, choreography)
Hyemi Shin (set design)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Andreas Fuchs (lighting)

Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Glyndebourne Youth Opera
Trinity Boys Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciati (conductor)

There may be a case for staging Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, The Damnation of Faust; it was certainly not made on this occasion. To be fair, here are arguments either way, not least with respect to Berlioz’s own wishes and practice, and there probably always be. This new Glyndebourne production, however, found itself stuck uncertainly, awkwardly, and most of all tediously, between various poles and possibilities. It seemed to lack belief in the work, or at least the wisdom of staging it as it stands, yet at the same time makes changes so half-hearted, arbitrary, and silly that one wishes it had not. Some of Richard Jones’s recent productions – for instance, anon-committal Bohème and a weirdly unfinished Katya Kabanova, both for Covent Garden have suggested running out of steam; this did nothing to dispel the impression.


Much might have been salvaged in the event of a stronger musical performance. Alas, the festival’s music director, Robin Ticciati failed to provide it. I have yet to hear a performance from him that was not at least disappointing. Here, Ticciati offered a masterclass in the perverse art of rendering Berlioz bland and tedious to the point of non-recognition; only the following evening, listening to Colin Davis’s classic Philips LSO recording, did I feel reassured that, yes, I did know the work after all. Such lack of orchestral colour and warmth – the LPO strings sadly wasted through well-nigh absurdist lack of vibrato –married to inability to marry harmony and pulse, on the rare occasion that the latter were discerned, seemed to indicate not so much an æsthetic as mere incompetence. Notes, bars, phrased, paragraphs, even numbers drifted interminably, until suddenly an abrupt, stiff minor – very minor – eruption would occur: quite arbitrary, yet doubtless considered ‘exciting’ by some. Many paths might be taken to ignite the flame of Berlioz’s Romanticism, from Davis to Boulez, from Munch to Markevitch; a prolonged damp squib leading nowhere at all was what we heard here. When it could be heard, the LPO woodwind sounded gorgeous, not least in solo work. Too much, however, was relegated to the status of a dull backing-track to events on stage, such as they were.

Singing was better, if often unidiomatic. French is a notoriously difficult language in which to sing, especially for non-Francophone singers, but this was not straightforwardly a matter of nationality. Many of Julie Boulianne’s words were indecipherable, for instance, and she only really came into her own after the interval. Both Christopher Purves and Allan Clayton enunciated far more clearly. If the latter were not ideally cast, straining at the top, there was little doubting his commitment. A few tricky French corners aside, Purves seemed most at home, a sorely needed energising presence. The chorus had a few rocky moments, its female voices in particular; many of the performance’s stronger musical virtues were nevertheless to be found there.


What of Jones’s production? It certainly acknowledged the difficulty in staging the work at all, incorporating additional texts, ‘derived from Goethe’s Faust’, by Agathé Mélinand. Derivation, however, was sometimes oblique – not only because they were, oddly, delivered in French. (Surely English translation would have made more sense in this context.) As with much else, I was left feeling that less or (considerably) more would have been better. Having seen Frank Castorf’s Faust (i.e. Goethe) at the Berlin Volksbühne and heard of his work with Gounod’s version, I could not help but find this both non-committal and unfinished. A half-hearted rearrangement, trying to undercut Marguerite’s assumption by following it with ballet music (the ‘Menuet des feux follets’) in which Faust and his devils rejoiced and bared prosthetic genitalia seemed more to proclaim, ‘let us show our feminist credentials’, than actually to do so. Otherwise, a strange domestication, speaking more by default than of conviction, ruled. Presumably the idea was to show an everyday life that might have been Faust’s and Marguerite’s, but never could have been. By all means question, even negate Faust’s – and Berlioz’s – Romantic questing, but it really needs doing with greater verve and belief. This was often as tired as Ticciati’s conducting.

It is difficult to imagine any Berlioz staging of this memorial year matching, let along surpassing, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s magnificiently uncompromising Paris reassessment of The Trojans. If one does, all the better. However, given the uncomprehending hostility with which that met from many, the world seems likely to continue to receive more of what it most likely deserves.


Sunday, 19 May 2019

Phaedra, Royal Opera, 16 May 2019

Linbury Theatre

Artemis (Patrick Terry), Hippolyt (Filipe Manu), Phaedra (Hongni Wu), Aphrodite (Jacquelyn Stucker)
Images (C) ROH 2019, by Bill Cooper

Phaedra – Hongni Wu
Hippolyt – Filipe Manu
Aphrodite – Jacquelyn Stucker
Artemis – Patrick Terry
Minotaurus – Michael Mofidian

Noa Naamat (director)

Southbank Sinfonia
Edmund Whitehead (conductor)

Hans Werner Henze’s penultimate opera, Phaedra has been fortunate indeed in London since its 2007 Berlin premiere. Astonishingly, this was the third time I had seen the work in London: first a Barbican concert performance; then the Guildhall’s excellent double-bill, coupled with the early radio opera, Ein Landarzt; now a staging at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Theatre, from members and one soon-to-be-member of its Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and the Southbank Sinfonia.

Hippolyt and Phaedra

I continue to find it an elusive, even enigmatic work, difficult to pin down – as often with Henze. There is nothing wrong with that, quite the contrary. Immediately obvious works that have little to reveal on subsequent encounters – Tosca, for instance, whatever its qualities – are not the most interesting. Layering of its libretto, by Christian Lehnert, is, for me at least, a little too self-conscious, indeed in that sense itself obvious; that of the score, however, continues to fascinate, both in itself and with respect to Henze’s lengthy career and well-nigh unmanageable œuvre. Conductor Edward Whitehead and the Southbank Sinfonia proved strong in their communication of the score’s textural layering, Schoenberg, Berg, Mahler, and Wagner lying behind or, perhaps better, beneath it, the orchestra’s lines seemingly summoned up like a refined Götterdämmerung oracle. I was put in mind of a remark by Henze from four decades earlier, from an interview with Die Welt given to coincide with the premiere of The Bassarids: ‘The road from Tristan to Mahler and Schoenberg is far from finished, and … I have tried to go further along it.’

Henze’s way was always, or usually, though, then to take up another path thereafter, perhaps resuming that earlier path some time later. We perhaps view his way with greater clarity now, or kid ourselves that we do. At any rate, other tendencies shone through too: Weill-like (Hindemith too?) wind and percussion; mesmerising saxophone lines that lured one seemingly to nowhere (a remimaging of Natascha Ungeheuer?); magical forest colours (König Hirsch); and, perhaps most tellingly, towards the close, when Hippolyt surprisingly, disconcertingly returns as Virbius, the transformational magic of Ariadne auf Naxos, Straussian reference clear, but kinship to Hofmannsthal’s ideas (perhaps via Elegy for Young Lovers) ultimately more meaningful. At its best, Noa Naamat’s staging seemed to take its leave from these circles, lines, interactions of musical and aesthetic meaning, a sense of eastern ritual (perhaps a little Robert Wilson, but less formulaic than his work has come) coming into contact and conflict with turning of the wheel. Comparison and contrast with the work of Birtwistle came to mind, as they had on my previous encounters with the work.


The singers all proved excellent. Though the work is called Phaedra, I do wonder whether Henze would have been better lending Hippolyt(us)’s name to it. (But then, arguably, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie is similarly misnamed.) Filipe Manu, due to join the JPYAP next year, proved compelling indeed in the would-be title role, as vulnerable an object of contemplation and, later, as equivocal a vehicle of reinvention as Henze’s earlier Prince of Homburg. Was Hongni Wu’s Phaedra presented too vampishly in this production (not necessarily in performance)? Perhaps, but the deepening of her range of vocal colour throughout the evening offered compensation. Jacquelyn Stucker and Patrick Terry (the programme’s first countertenor) offered strong, detailed performances as Aphrodite and Artemis, whilst Michael Mofidian’s Minotaurus, richly sonorous yet equally careful of detail, left one wishing greedily that he had had more to sing, his persistent stage presence notwithstanding.

Why, then, did I emerge feeling slightly dissatisfied – or perhaps wondering whether I should have done? It may just have been a matter of how I was feeling on the day: it happens to us all. I do not think, though, that it was just that. Did the decision to introduce an interval get in the way? I think it did, making the work seem longer, more drawn out, more sectional than it is. I am not sure that the parameters within which Naamat’s staging had to operate helped in that respect. Though necessarily simple in scenic terms, it paradoxically seemed to dart around somewhat from scene to scene, perhaps through no fault of its own somewhat blunting the underlying ritual power of the score. Perhaps, alternatively, that was actually a reflection of the fragmentary qualities of the opera, of Hippolyt’s partial, flawed regaining of consciousness under his new identity. If I continue to find Phaedra enigmatic, Henze’s genre designation of ‘concert opera’ included, then that will doubtless say something about it, me, the performance, the production, or about any combination of the above. Such, after all, is opera.

Minotaurus (Michael Mofidian), Hippolyt

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Jerusalem Quartet - Bartók, 8 May 2019

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.1
String Quartet no.3
String Quartet no.5

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

This was the first of two concerts in which the Jerusalem Quartet would perform Bartók’s six string quartets. If there were slight frustration in my only being able to hear the first, it surely augured well for the second, which I look forward to hearing about, if not, alas, to hearing.

The particular, sometimes competing demands of early Bartók can prove difficult to bring off: no such problem here, in as fine a performance of the First Quartet (1908-9) as I can recall hearing. The opening chromaticism of the violin-duo opening signalled a strongly Schoenbergian presence: one, I think, that endured throughout the quartet and beyond it. For it was not only in the score, though there it certainly was; it was played as such, too, intense yet variegated, in an unmistakeably Austro-Hungarian performance. The Jerusalem Quartet players showed keen ears – and a keen collective ear – for form and structure, expressed without didacticism, born from and living through the notes and their connections. Contrapuntal procedures were invested with dynamism both intellectual and emotional. And how each instrument came into its own through that! New possibilities were signalled and taken in the second movement, which struck a fine balance at its opening between emergence from what had gone before contrast therewith. The finale brought to life a rhetorical disjuncture that had something of Beethoven to it: not in the banal sense of sounding ‘like’ Beethoven’s music, but in spirit, in reinvention. Bartók’s music already seemed to presage the world of Bluebeard, its dramatic flight a product of fierce conviction in performance.

If that final movement, even in the strongest performance such as this, seems nonetheless to go on a little, no one could seriously make such a claim concerning the Third Quartet (1927). Tonality here seemed less on the verge of suspension than beside the point – until it was otherwise. It was certainly motivic working above all that afforded the dynamism in this performance of the opening ‘Prima partie’: dialectical motivic working, that is, in the line of Bach and Beethoven. The music’s emotional intensity somehow seemed both greater and more sparing: surely testament to Bartók’s mastery of form and genre by this stage in his career. The slow-fast ‘Hungarian’ relationship of the first two movements likewise seemed brought to perfection: internalised and thus the more meaningfully expressed. The ‘Recapitulazione della prima parte’ sounded, rightly, not so much as reconciliation but as arbiter and moulder of memory. It was as new as it was old, paving the way for an explosive coda section, as richly developmental within its concise frame as the score from which this magnificent performance sprang.

The Fifth Quartet (1934) had the second half to itself. That uncompromising intensity, intellect and emotion as one, characteristic of both works so far persisted, reinvented itself here too in its first movement and beyond. The players afforded the first subject – I think we can safely call it that – great detail without the slightest suspicion of fussiness, strokes broad, fine, even both, or so it seemed. A pale delirium, increasingly less pale, characterised the response: just as involving, quietly and less quietly generative. Disjuncture and coherence, melodic line and complexity played out in a fashion that perhaps inevitably brought late Beethoven to mind. It made me long to hear the Jerusalem Quartet in Ligeti too. How strange the final poco allargando phrase sounded, yet also how right. I loved the sense imparted in the following ‘Adagio molto’ of a somewhat disoriented and disorienting hymn. (Again, Beethoven’s precedent seemed fruitfully, never oppressively, immanent.) It is ‘night music’, of course, but far more than that. So too is the fourth movement, whose harmony likewise remained fundamental in a not un-Classical way, very much providing a sense of the celebrated Bartókian arch. In between, the scherzo had held harmony, melody, and yes, of course metre in fruitful, riveting dialogue: Haydn for the 1930s. It was Beethoven’s ghost that again lightly haunted the finale, titanic effort to wield material together amply rewarded. But if there were unanimity of purpose, there was equally fierce independence of instrumental voice within that purpose and progress. For work, ensemble, and performance alike, this was emphatically a string quartet.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Lortie - Liszt, 28 April 2019

Wigmore Hall

Années de pèlerinage, première année: ‘Suisse’, S 160
Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année: ‘Italie’, S 161
Années de pèlerinage, troisième année, S 163

On 27 April, Louis Lortie celebrated his sixtieth birthday. I can only presume the celebrations were not unduly arduous, since he played all three books of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage – omitting only the ‘Venezia e Napoli’ supplement to the second book – the following evening at the Wigmore Hall. If the best parties are a gift from the host to those invited, then this must surely rank amongst them. Some of these pieces one hears with reasonable frequency in the concert hall, although even the best-known come nowhere near over-familiarity: this is Liszt, not Chopin. Some one rarely hears at all: there were certainly some I, a keen Lisztian, was hearing for the first time in concert. But to hear them all together proved decidedly more than the sum of its parts. It was an extraordinary feat, yes, but more than that, it was a welcome tribute; more than that too, it was an opportunity to hear the composer’s development, transformation, and ongoing truthfulness to his inner self over a period of almost half a century.

The chronology is complex, and here is not the place to go into detail, but many of the pieces in the first, ‘Swiss’ book, published in 1855, have their roots in pieces written in the second half of the 1830s, later published as the 1842 Album d’un voyageur. The Romantic idea of the wayfarer thus becomes inscribed in the chronology and, implicitly at least, in the hearing and rehearing, performance and re-performance under way before a note has even been played. At any rate, the opening ‘Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’ left one in no doubt concerning its Schillerian genesis, its declamatory opening – so often with Liszt, as with Berlioz and Wagner, musical lines strain to speak, as if recitative without words – preparing the way to yield, yet also announcing the instrument itself (here a bright-toned Fazioli) as equal progenitor to music both general and specific. Very much a curtain-raiser, it ended open-endedly, ushering us ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’. Perhaps Lortie might have yielded more there, but there was something fascinating in hearing the ‘sigh of the waves and the cadence of the oars’ (Marie d’Agoult, quoted in Kenneth Hamilton’s programme note) founded upon a rock-solid basso continuo. Poetic musico-historical licence? As often with Liszt: yes and no. The ensuing ‘Pastorale’ echoed Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Sonata as much as the Swiss countryside, placing both strands in magical dialogue, leading us ‘Au bord d’une source’, in which Lortie showed himself unafraid to use plenty of pedal for atmosphere, creating a wash of fioriture such as to send puritans – whatever Liszt may have been, he was certainly not that – dashing for cover. The ‘Orage’ that followed would surely have left them cowed: splendidly grandiloquent in a virtuosity that, for composer and pianist alike, never came near ‘mere’ virtuosity.

If melodic lines had spoken in ‘Guillaume Tell’, they sang, as if lines from Eugene Onegin or some other such Romantic opera, in ‘Vallée d’Obermann’. As the melody passed between the hands, gorgeous harmonies – never ‘merely’ gorgeous – spoke and sang of nobility and idealism as much as Nature and sensual experience. Seraphic passion, melting belligerence: opposites attracted and confused in typically Romantic fashion. This may have fallen more than midway through the book; it nonetheless felt like its heart. And so, the ‘Eglogue’ sounded as if a reinvention of the ‘Pastorale’ – until, that is, like the book as a whole, it very much went on its own way. ‘Le mal du pays’ came as a necessary corrective, the world’s darkness to the fore, its strange harmonies duly unsettling. Finally, the ringing of ‘Les cloches de Genève’ proceeded both with otherworldly purity and ‘impressionist’ presentiment. Corrosive – or potentially corrosive – sounds in the bass proved enigmatic rather than Mephistophelian, which is probably as it should be. They were, in any case, rare. Liszt’s citation here of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, ‘I live not in myself, but I become a portion of that around me’, sounded apt as ever.

‘Sposalizio’ took us immediately to the opening of a new volume, illuminated by no less than Raphael. Debussy’s First Arabesque seemed already to have been written and surpassed, confronted by the more strenuous humanism of Michelangelo in ‘Il penseroso’. The ‘Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa’, heavy-handed in its jauntiness, I have never been able to warm to, but surely I miss its point. The three Petrarch Sonnets, however, I have long adored – and did so here. No.47 came as blissful, Romantic relief: metrical freedom, melody, harmony, voice-leading as one in a vision of expectancy and ardour. No.104 complemented, contrasted, deepened, the music breathing ‘as if’ sung, rather than slavishly imitating; a piano is a piano, just as a pianist is a pianist. No.123 brought together and extended, dreamlike in the best sense, rhetoric at the service of musical poetry. There was much incentive to abandon hope as we entered the final number of the Italian Book, ‘Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata’, in a duly Catholic performance of deeply Catholic music. However fancifully, one could imagine Liszt sitting down at the piano to quasi-improvise this response to his reading of Dante. That fantasia quality is surely of the essence here, in a way it is not in the more ‘worked-out’ B minor Sonata; this is an album-leaf or set of album-leaves, however superior, and so it sounded here, in hallucinatory, self-transforming flow. It thrilled, but thrilled with substance: there is nothing ‘mere’ to this music.

The tolling of the ‘Angelus’ opened the third book: ‘Rome’ in all but name, as Hamilton notes, albeit with the strange exception of the funeral march for Mexico’s Emperor Maximilian. Here there was unquestionably a sense of time having passed: not quite the third act of Parsifal, but perhaps – again with Rome in mind – of Tannhäuser. Again, there was a sense, illusory or otherwise, of remembrance, of reinventing the worlds of the second book in particular: even the Salvator Rosa piece. (Yes, I had been wrong.) Again, there was nothing ‘mere’ to this act of remembrance, as Liszt took us on neue Bahnen (as Schumann had once foretold of Brahms). Or so we think. Is there anything new under the sun? Again, the answer came: yes and no. The exultancy achieved was, aptly, both genuine and a little tired. And how Liszt’s harmonies represented, in his celebrated phrase, the hurling of a ‘lance into the boundless realms of the future’.

Two threnodies followed, both responses to the idea – and doubtless the ‘reality’ – of ‘Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este’. There was no denying the lateness here, but there was nothing generic either to music or performance; instead, we drew connections, noted and felt affinities, in a setting that afforded chiaroscuro whilst yet approaching twilight. The wonder one can feel in harmonic progression registered as strongly as ever – and more unnervingly. Here, especially in the second piece, was the melancholy of the (not quite) swansong. From cypresses to water, for ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’: the waters sparkled, whilst never quite effacing – why should they? – what had preceded them. Glitter surrounded a line as clear as anything in the first and second books, Liszt both the same and transformed. ‘Sunt lacrymae rerum’ offered further reminiscence, remembrance – whether that of Aeneas or something more personal to Liszt, to us – and incomplete, transformative synthesis. The ‘Marche funèbre’ likewise proved an idea familiar yet rethought, reimagined, reinterpreted, at least bordering on the realm of the ‘omnitonal’ the young Liszt had taken from the theorist, François-Joseph Fétis. But it is with the Eucharistic exhortation, ‘Sursum corda’ that the collection ends. There was darkness to the call, but there was likewise release from that darkness. Lortie relished this final piece in all its strangeness – strange, that is, so long as we listened. It could only have made sense coming as it did at the close; make sense of a sort, though, it did.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 21 April 2019

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Images: Bernd Uhlig (from the first performances, in 2015)

Hans Sachs – Wolfgang Koch
Veit Pogner – Matti Salminen
Eva – Julia Kleiter
Walther von Stolzing – Burkhard Fritz
David – Siyabonga Maqungo
Magdalene – Katharina Kammerloher
Kunz Vogelgesang – Graham Clark
Konrad Nachtigall – Adam Kutny
Sixtus Beckmesser – Martin Gantner
Fritz Kothner – Jürgen Limm
Balthasar Zorn – Siegfried Jerusalem
Ulrich Eisslinger – Reiner Goldberg
Augustin Moser – Florian Hoffmann
Hermann Ortel – Arttu Kataja
Hans Schwarz – Franz Mazura
Hans Foltz – Olaf Bär
Night Watchman – Erik Rosenius

Andrea Moses (director)
Jan Pappelbaum (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)

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

‘Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding,’ sings Strauss’s Marschallin: a truth that seems to grow truer with our – at least with my – every advancing year. More prosaically, and more specifically, we might also say that openings and re-openings, constructions and reconstructions, creations and recreations, unifications and reunifications are strange things: rarely what they seem, and rarely what the fashionable, the non-critical presume them to be. Such ideas lie at the heart of Die Meistersinger: at its heart, concerned with the ongoing creation and performance of a song, within a society that has both placed such endeavour at its heart and also done its utmost to thwart the same. Perhaps all societies, at least all bourgeois societies – what could be more bürgerlich than this early modernity created and recreated by the nineteenth century? – are like that. As Schiller and Marx, Wagner too, insisted, left to his own devices, man – woman too? – will create as an artist; as all three lamented, that ‘natural’ state of affairs rarely, if ever, pertains. At best, a higher, mediated state of unity might be achieved; but how?

Such thoughts came very much to mind watching, for the first time, Andrea Moses’ 2015 production of the work. Not because it really engages with them: alas, this is a sorry piece of theatre, considered as staging. Nonetheless, the work and its traditions enabled, at least in retrospect, some manner of critique. The gravest charge against the production is its tedium, the second its hapless incoherence. (The two are not unrelated.) It seems to suggest ideas, yet they never seem grounded, never connected; its amateurism, in the worst sense, suggests what the Masters might think of Walther before he sings a note (and many of them do once he has). For the action plays out mostly as if this were the most hidebound of traditionalist stagings, albeit without either that sixteenth-century (or even nineteenth-century) ‘original’ context or a new one to put in its place. The first act takes place in something resembling a concert hall – there are apprentice ushers, or something like that, in black tie – or perhaps a corporate event, Masters’ names displayed as if sponsors. Nothing, however, makes much sense, since there is no apparent effort to explain, to criticise, to create, to recreate, and so forth. Or is it a sportsground sponsors’ lounge, competition here being the thing? Perhaps, for the second act takes place in what seems to be the backstage of a stadium. For some reason – or none – the inhabitants of Nuremberg are now in punk garb. That seems implicitly to be the reason, though surely not the intention, for their descending into a riot, in which football flags are waved. Beckmesser has meanwhile, bafflingly, squeezed himself into sixteenth-century costume. Everyone else has otherwise wandered around aimlessly, save for Walther and Eva who wrap themselves in an ever-present German flag. An Orthodox Jew walks across stage during the turmoil, untouched by and seemingly oblivious to it. I have no idea either…

The first part of the third act moves to a library: fair enough in itself, as setting for Sachs’s world chronicle, although there is no sense of how it relates to anything that has gone before, still less of who these people might be and why they might act as they do. The Festwiese scene attempts, I think, to tie things together, but not only is it too late, the message it appears to project is glib and disturbing, as well as ultimately incoherent. For the production’s origins now come more clearly to the fore. It had originally been intended that this Meistersinger should reopen the renovated eighteenth-century house on Unter den Linden. Work having fallen behind – or new work having been necessitated – that was delayed until 2017, Daniel Barenboim and the outgoing Intendant, Jürgen Flimm, then presenting a staged version of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’. Both ‘reopenings’, anticipated and actual – even the latter was a little false, the theatre soon closing again until December – were scheduled for Germany’s new national day, the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, which explicitly celebrates the anniversary of reunification in 1990. The first performance, it seems, took place in two parts: the first two acts on the day itself, the third the following day (the equivalent to Wagner’s Johannistag morning-after to Polterabend, I suppose).

With that in mind, one can perhaps see the celebrations by the Spree, our Pegnitz substitute, as trying, Sachs-like, to bring peace, even unity, to the revelry and violence of the night before. Alas, it is all terribly confused. Is the ‘night before’ the troubled German, past and the ‘morning after’ the here and now? If so, that makes little sense in terms of the premiere chronology; it also makes no sense of the settings, all ‘present’, if little related. The backdrop of the absurdly ‘restored’ old Berliner Schloss – ironically, a mere Potemkin façade, – suggests, however, that we are intended to reflect in such a way. Those who might have preferred a restored GDR Palast der Republik or something new will have had very different thoughts, uneasy at this banal, Disneyfied celebration of capital’s victory over socialism. (I saw the ‘new-old’ façade for the first time fully risen, whilst walking to the performance: a dispiriting sight indeed.) Seemingly as an afterthought, a few Kaiserreich flags are flown and, captured by Sachs, cast into the river. Given that the palace was the Hohenzollerns’, ‘modern’ rejection of that flag seems disingenuous. Most bewildering, though, is the appearance of two Arab ‘sheikhs’ with bodyguard. Our Master ‘sponsors’, their logos again proudly displayed, act with great solicitude to them, explaining events – would that they had to us – and caring for their needs. Have they funded the ‘event’? And if so, what might that mean? They notably leave the stage before the close, excluded or excluding themselves from the final celebration, replete with German flag. A celebration of corporate, ‘moderate’ nationalism, then, from which financially enabling non-Germans must absent themselves? Try as I might, I cannot come up with an inoffensive explanation – even should that prove to be mere cluelessness.

Faced with such irritating nonsense, I found it difficult to concentrate on the musical performances in themselves, though much was clearly admirable. Barenboim’s command of the outstanding Staatskapelle Berlin continues greatly to impress, flexibility, clarity, delight in the score’s Mozartian, conversational qualities, and a thorough grounding in Wagner’s harmonic plan unquestionably apparent. His idea of presenting an array of old Masters – some may recall a similar concept at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival to mark Brian McMaster’s farewell – was engaging. It was a delightful thing indeed to encounter and re-encounter so many great names from the past, such as Siegfried Jerusalem, Graham Clark, and Olaf Bär, all the way to Franz Mazura, due to celebrate his ninety-fifth birthday the following day. Matti Salminen’s Pogner fell into that category too, occasional instability a price well-worth paying for sheer likeability. Wolfgang Koch gave a typically thoughtful, musicianly performance as Sachs, interacting nicely with Martin Gantner’s Beckmesser, Julia Kleiter’s sprightly, sometimes radiant Eva understandably torn. Burkhard Fritz’s Walther had his moments – though they were not always happy; he kept going, though, which is something. Siyabonga Maqungo’s David and Katharina Kammerloher’s Magdalene both impressed in lively, detailed assumptions, making as much as could reasonably be expected from a difficult situation.

If, ultimately, many of these performances seemed more observed than felt, that may well have been the fault of the production – and my inability to rise above it. There will be other creations and recreations, though, other attempts to construct and reconstruct the past, present, and future. This production’s predecessor from Harry Kupfer still lingers in the mind; let us hope the next in line will prove worthier.

Monday, 22 April 2019

La bohème and Poro, Komische Oper, 19 and 20 April 2019

Komische Oper

Image: Iko Freese/

Mimì – Heather Engebretson
Musetta – Hera Hyesang Park
Rodolfo – Jonathan Tetleman
Marcello – Huw Montague Rendall
Schaunard – Michael Borth
Colline – Samuli Taskinen
Alcindoro – Carsten Sabrowski
Parpignol – Emil Ławecki
Merchant – Mathias Spenke
Customs Sergeant – Jan-Frank Süße
Customs Guard – Tim Dietrich

Barrie Kosky (director)
Rufus Didwiszus (set designs)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Simon Berger (dramaturgy)
Alessandro Carletti (lighting)

Poros – Dominik Köninger
Mahamaya – Ruzan Mantashyan
Sir Alexander – Eric Jurenas
Nimbavati – Idunnu Münch
Gandharta – Philipp Meierhöfer
Timagenes – João Fernandes

Harry Kupfer (director)
Hans Schavernoch (set designs)
Yan Tax (costumes)
Simon Berger (dramaturgy)
Jürgen Hoffmann (lighting)
Thomas Reimer (video)

Children’s Chorus (chorus director: Dagmar Fiebach) and Chorus (chorus director: David Cavelius) of the Komische Oper, Berlin 
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Jordan de Souza and Jörg Halubeck (conductors).

Image: Monika Rittershaus

I do not usually review opera productions together like this, even when they might be thought to have something more obviously in common than stagings of Puccini (La bohème) and Handel (Poro; in German, Poros). On this occasion, however, it occurred to me that it might be interesting, even illuminating, to compare recently opened new productions by the Komische Oper’s present Intendant, Barrie Kosky, and one of his most celebrated predecessors, Harry Kupfer. Whether that should prove to be the case will, as always, be for the reader to decide.

An obvious comparison, or rather contrast, lies in the works and the language in which they were given. La bohème could hardly be more central to the opera repertory; finely crafted, greatly moving work though it may be, one might think it appeared on our stages a little too often. Poro, on the other hand, is one of Handel’s lesser-known works: not entirely without reason, I have to say. Puccini’s opera certainly benefited from being given in Italian, original language productions having been one of Kosky’s most welcome innovations during his tenure. Puccini in German is, for many of us, no more alluring a prospect than Puccini in English. Poro(s), however, was given, at Kupfer’s request, in German translation, harking back to his time as an assistant director at the Halle Handel Festival – which was the basis of his choice of work. It has its moments, perhaps especially in the third act, but whilst the arias are rarely unattractive, many of them could happily be transferred from one ‘character’ – does anyone really care about these people? – to another without loss. I suspect that some, at least, of the interest in this opera lies in Metastasio’s Italian – not knowing the original, I can only speculate – and that its translation not only into German, but into a somewhat prosaic contemporary German, detracts from the poetic worth and meaning. There is no need to be fundamentalist about such matters, but this seemed more an exercise in nostalgia than a real dramatic choice.

Image: Monika Rittershaus

That impression was heightened, I regret to say, by Kupfer’s production. No one would deny his place in operatic history. Moreover, recent stagings, if hardly showing him at his very best, have had much to offer. This, however, really does nothing other than move the action, such as it is, from the India of Alexander the Great’s time to that of the British Raj’s establishment. Orientalist scenic backdrops and costumes show no critical distance. Alexander’s demotion to ‘Sir Alexander’, officer of the English Crown, betokens nothing more than a change of uniform. A Union flag unfurled at the end has a little more ironic edge, given the more than usually absurd device of the lieto fine, but a brief, unmotivated shift to cricket whites earlier on at least verged on the embarrassment. Given the thinness – let us be kind – of musical characterisation here, a strong hand from the director is really needed for a critical, modern audience. What we saw here might, with the possible yet by no means certain exception of the updating, have been seen fifty or sixty years ago. Any play with the potentially fascinating disjuncture between antiquity, and two stages in British imperial history (the 1730s and the 1850s) was, so far as I could discern, entirely absent. Maybe it would have been better off staged in English…

Image: Iko Freese/

Kosky, by contrast, proved more able to draw compelling drama from his work, whilst still working essentially within a framework of what we might call ‘fidelity’ to it. The story is told clearly, bar a somewhat confusing excision of Benoît, the students’ landlord, his part sung instead by Colline (in character as Colline, unless I misunderstood). But the age old dramatic conflict between private and public comes very much to life visually and viscerally, as do questions of what we see, what we remember – and how. Photography, aptly enough for the age, lies at the heart; or, perhaps better, enables us to understand what we think of, rightly or wrongly, as the heart. The first and fourth scenes take place in Rodolfo’s studio – cramped like the garret it should be and so rarely is – and that is how Mimì comes to life: an image, invested with whatever it is he and we see in her. Not that she lacks agency, but we are left in little doubt as to the maleness of this Parisian gaze. The city, moreover, comes to life – or recedes into our memory – through faded, yet atmospheric daguerreotypes. Debussy’s claim to Manuel de Falla, cited in a programme interview with conductor, Jordan de Souza, that no one had represented Paris so well musically as Puccini, seemed very much to the fore here: past, present, even future brought together in dramatic unity that yet permitted for disjuncture, for play, for deception. The fleshpots were there too, memorably in the rotating orgy of the second act and beyond the stage for the third, but their (near-)presence was an integral part of the drama of the city, of these individuals, of their interaction, not in any sense a source of titillation. There was something painterly and indeed photographic in a dramatic sense – unlike the ‘jungle’ backdrop and statue of Poro.

De Souza was an unquestionable asset to the drama too. Rarely if ever have I heard this opera so well conducted. Often, with profit, one hears certain aspects of Puccini highlighted: Puccini the Wagnerian, Puccini the modernist, Puccini the colourist, Puccini the melodist, and so on. Here, however much of an illusion this may be – and, more important, however great the art that conceals art – it seemed that we heard not only those and other facets to the composer’s artistry held in balance and in dramatic contest, but that one heard this Bohème, this particular set of performances and production, in such balance. I can say no fairer than that. By contrast, Jörg Halubeck heightened rather than lessened the sense of the formulaic in Poro. There was rarely anything to which to object, but nor was there anything about which to enthuse. A few more strings, more warmly played, would not have gone amiss; that, it seemed, was to be attributed to Halubeck’s ‘period’ puritanism rather than to any such inclination on the players’ behalf.

If solo singing came across more strongly, with greater personality, in La bohème, that would perhaps be to be expected. There was nonetheless nothing to disappoint in Poro, even if in most cases, I suspected a more invigorating conductor (and director) might have helped. Soprano, Ruzan Mantashyan and mezzo, Idunnu Münch were for me the pick of the bunch, nicely contrasted and yet complementary. If only Handel (or rather Metastasio) had been more inclined to duets and ensembles; or, indeed, to choruses, in which one of Handel’s greatest strengths surely lies. (That is surely not the least reason for the general superiority of his oratorios.) The young cast for La bohème had wonderful chemistry as well as personality, Jonathan Tetelman and Huw Montague Rendall touching in kindred spirit and individuality as Rodolfo and Marcello. One could believe in both, feel with them, in a way never possible in the Handel opera. (And yes, I know that is not really the point.) Heather Engebretson’s Mimì duly lit up the room, personification, as it were, of the candle that insisted on self-extinction, whilst Hera Hyesang Park balanced with great expertise and sympathy the competing demands of Musetta’s personality. In short, the whole was greater than the sum of its considerable parts, whereas in Poro, both ultimately fell short. That said, both performances met with enthusiastic reception from the audience. There is doubtless room for both; there were unquestionably audiences for both too.