Monday, 18 March 2019

Heath Quartet - Haydn, Ligeti, and Beethoven, 16 March 2019

Wigmore Hall

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.20 no.4
Ligeti: String Quartet no.2
Beethoven: String Quartet in E-flat major, op.127

Oliver Heath, Sara Wolstenholme (violins)
Gary Pomeroy (viola)
Christopher Murray (cello)

To the Wigmore Hall for a highly rewarding programme of Haydn, Ligeti, and Beethoven from the excellent Heath Quartet: all standing, save the cellist. Whilst it would be banal in the extreme to attribute such alert, illuminating performances to the lack of seating, it doubtless did no harm. Who knows? At any rate, those of us who were sedentary doubtless found ourselves on the edge of our seats, such was the electricity of the music-making we heard.

Haydn always seems to be on the cusp; most great composers do when considered historically. (A good few lesser composers too, come to think of it.) He is surely nowhere more so, however, than in his op.20 quartets, of which he heard the fourth, in D major. ‘Baroque’ and ‘Classical’ are little more than labels, really, often highly misleading labels at that, but perhaps that cusp had said something to tell us – at least until the sudden eruptions of the first movement, which, if not quite Beethovenian, were not exactly un-Beethovenian either. Cultivated tone, conversation, and keen dramatic sense conspired to make play with a thoroughly dialectical relationship between material and its performance. And so, it continued, throughout the development and recapitulation, not least between counterpoint and harmony. Relative – only relative, for this was no no-vibrato freak-show – astringency of tone in the slow movement proved highly apt for the numerous suspensions and general Affekt. The variations’ unfolding proved unquestionably Haydnesque, quite different from, say, that of Mozart or Beethoven – without ever feeling the need to trumpet individuality or, God help us, ‘quirkiness’. There was much fun, both ‘rustic’ and ‘intellectual’, to be had in the ‘Menuet alla zingarese’, with respect to metre and its relationship to harmony. The trio properly relaxed, going its own way: not less but differently challenging. The Heaths’ finale captured the essence of Haydn’s marking (‘Presto e scherzando’) and, beyond it, a sheer brilliance that seemed to extend from the minuet and trio rather than merely contrast with it. It had all the hallmarks of one of Haydn’s free-wheeling symphonic finales, whilst retaining the individual and conversational voices of his quartet writing. Best of all, it put a smile on my face.

Ligeti’s Second Quartet (1968) opened with an éclat from which, it seemed, both all and nothing derived: testament to a decidedly un-, even anti-Haydn-and-Beethoven, denial of motivic development in a ‘conventional’ sense. Scurrying sounds, eruptions, a primacy of texture, and much else besides pointed to kinship instead with a work such as Ramifications, also heard in a Wigmore Hall concert earlier this month (albeit onlocation at the Roundhouse). And that was only in the first few bars! As with George Benjamin and the Ensemble Modern in that concert, the Heath Quartet made us listen – as, of course, did Ligeti. Indeed, it was the composer’s sheer invention, rather than any particular manifestion thereof, that proved most suggestive of kinship with the Classical masters who were his companions on the programme. The second movement, ‘Sostenuto, molto calmo’, sang in and through the uncertainity of an overarching drama that was underway, yet nowhere near resolution, be it on a micro- or macro-level. Technique, both in work and performance, truly proved the liberator of the imagination – just as in Haydn.

The central, third movement, ‘Come un meccanismo di precisione’, certainly spoke of its marking, a multiplicity of ghosts making themselves felt in this machine or mechanism – or should it have been machines in this uncanny, ghostly world? Clocks ticked and malfunctioned, if only figuratively, yet for that reason perhaps all the more tellingly, for they struck as if heartbeats: heartbeats, perhaps, of insanity. Truly pivotal, then, prefacing a wonderful sense of fourth movement play between apparent unanimity and harmony. But was it play? Everything felt both strongly purposive and called into question. The final movement brought delicacy and apparent continuity, at least at first. Yet again, the more one listened, the more one doubted, Ligeti’s notes both binding together and dissolving their very material: ever changing and yet ever similar. It was a finale, yes, just as much as Haydn’s had been, but one was left in no doubt that a finale by now meant something quite different.

The opening of Beethoven’s op.127 Quartet offered so much in the way of E-flat resonance (in more than one sense). The so-called Emperor Concerto, Mozart in all manner of guises: such were the ghosts briefly summoned, prior to a decidedly late, different path on which Beethoven and his interpreters led us: exploratory, yet in the surest of hands. It may be a cliché – what is not, when writing of this music? – but the Heaths truly imparted a sense, however illusory, of the music being composed on the spot: nothing taken for granted, everything ‘new’. Once again, the first movement from its outset made us listen to, indeed participate in, a drama of dialectics, and a specifically tonal drama in this case, a drama of E-flat major. Motivic method reasserted itself in the wake of Ligeti: no mere reversion, perhaps even a progression. Concision, however, was not the least of the qualities held in common, at least in context.

How does one speak of a late Beethoven slow movement? Maybe one should not even try. This, at any rate, unfolded with a rapt sublimity – another cliché, I know – that was anything but generic, bathed, it seemed, in the glow of the Missa solemnis. And how we were compelled to listen to Beethoven’s harmony! In a concert offering us startling original third movements, Beethoven’s scherzo had nothing to fear. Tension and relaxation proved both co-dependent and perfectly judged. Metrical dislocations may have recalled Haydn, but they were very much the composer’s, the work’s, the performance’s own. Modernist and neoclassical impulses were held and encouraged in dialogue for the finale. By what? By many things, but not least a gruff humour that spoke of a humanity it is difficult not to think of as ‘Beethovenian’. Such, once again, proved just the right note for a finale, moreover for this finale.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Die Zauberflöte, English National Opera, 14 March 2019


Images: © Donald Cooper

Tamino – Rupert Charlesworth
Three Ladies – Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Katie Stevenson
Papageno – Thomas Oliemans
Queen of the Night – Julia Bauer
Monostatos – Daniel Norman
Pamina – Lucy Crowe
Three Spirits – Guillermo Fernandez-Aguaya Martin, Richard Wolfson, Nao Fukui
Speaker – Jonathan Lemalu
Sarastro – Brindley Sherratt
First Priest, First Armoured Man – David Webb
Second Priest, Second Armoured Man – David Ireland
Papagena – Rowan Pierce

Simon McBurney (director)
Josie Daxter (associate director, movement)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Jean Kalman, Mike Gunning (lighting)
Finn Ross (video)
Gareth Fry, Matthieu Maurice (sound design)

English National Opera Chorus (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Ben Gernon (conductor)

Tamino (Rupert Charlesworth) and Pamina (Lucy Crowe)

When Simon McBurney’s Magic Flute was first staged by ENO, it needed, I think it fair to say, some further work. That it seemed to have received at the time of its first revival, although there was certainly room for more. (Is there not always?) Here, upon its second revival, I could not help but think that there had been something of a reversion, or at least that a general aggressive silliness to the audience made it feel so. Is it really quite so side-splittingly hilarious for someone to write ‘The Magic Flute’ on a board, or for someone to take a photograph? (Worse still, is it really necessary to applaud within a number? A conductor should at least stamp upon such practices, rather than indulge them by pausing.) The most obviously ‘Complicité’ elements of the action, or better its framing, are still handled very well: in general lightly worn, the metatheatricality of sound effects, paper birds, and other ‘workings’ has meaning, wit, and if not quite poignancy, at least permits thoughts of that order. 

A balance is, of course, very difficult to strike in a work with so many competing demands. tendencies, sources, strands of reception; some might argue that it is better not even to try, instead concentrating on one or two. Perhaps. Something more all-embracing is, I think, required or at least desirable. This production certainly attempts that – and sometimes succeeds. It is certainly preferable to its predecessor (Nicholas Hytner), which did not even seem to try. What I missed on this occasion was a greater integration between different strands. A wartime setting seems hinted at, perhaps more than that. (Or is it just a fondness for combat fatigues?) Likewise a somewhat sinister bureaucracy for Sarastro’s brotherhood. (‘Of course’, you might reply, not without reason.) Alas, the logic, the mystery, the magic that might bind these to the rest of what is going on, do not seem to be there; either that, or – perfectly possible, this – I missed them. Inclusion of the Queen of the Night at the close is now such a cliché that it barely registers: nothing wrong with it in itself, but why? Again, it seems unmotivated. The work’s cosmos is unusually varied – not least because, written for a non-court-theatre, and as a Singspiel, it offered librettist and composer far greater freedom than they would ever have been granted for an opera seria or indeed an opera buffa. Making sense of that cosmos and its communicating through words, gesture, and music are key to a success in performance only intermittently realised here.

Papageno (Thomas Oliemans) and
Papagena (Rowan Pierce)

Stephen Jeffreys’s translation sometimes departs considerably from Schikaneder, yet offers welcome relief from the preening self-regard of usual suspects. The translation ‘Queen of Night’ – reproduced in the programme – is a bit odd: not incorrect, yet a departure from universal usage to ends unclear. More seriously, why are the Armoured Men (Geharnischter) listed in the programme as ‘Armed Men’, not at all the same thing? Do such things matter? Yes, especially for a company that prides itself on presenting works in English – and, for once, presented a good case for doing so, the cast’s diction proving uncommonly fine.

For the evening’s true rewards were to be found in the singing – and stage performances more generally. Rupert Charlesworth proved an excellent Tamino, beauty of vocal line allied to unmistakeable sincerity of purpose. It would have been a strange audience member indeed who did not root for him and Lucy Crowe’s equally touching, finely sung Pamina. Julia Bauer’s Queen of (the) Night came as close as many, closer than most, to fulfilling Mozart’s absurd demands. Thomas Oliemans’s Papageno proved a worthy successor to Schikaneder himself, alert to the role’s competing demands without ever alerting us to their difficulty. Brindley Sherratt’s considered – never too considered – Sarastro, Daniel Norman’s lively Monastatos, a fine trio of Ladies and pair of Priests/Armoured Men attested to a casting in depth that has not always been in evidence in recent years at the Coliseum, but which proved very welcome indeed.

Three Ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Katie Stevenson) and Tamino

Ben Gernon’s conducting had much to be said for it: a few rushed passages notwithstanding, generally sane and varied tempi; command and coordination of the orchestra in the pit and the singers on stage; and undoubted knowledge of the score. What it lacked, at least for me, was any sense of magic, of awe. Partly, that seemed owed to a determination to keep the orchestra down, strings in particular. So much magic and meaning are to be found not on stage, in the pit, that much, alas, was lost. Moreover, as with the production, a sense of greater structure, of the construction of a musico-dramatic world, often proved elusive. How does it make sense for Papageno and the Queen of the Night to feature in the same work, indeed to interact meaningfully? How, moreover, does it make sense for a neo-Bachian chorale prelude and the Papageno-Papagena duet not only to coexist, but to form part of a coherent, meaningfully dramatic whole? The answer may be magical as much as logical; it may not be reducible to words. Karl Böhm and Colin Davis knew how to accomplish this. So have directors such as Achim Freyer and David McVicar, both surely close to their best here. This is where the order’s ultimate wisdom lies, its secrets vouchsafed to and by a band of initiates whom we should treasure. We continue, it seems, to search for an interpretative Tamino and Pamina to join them.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Idomeneo, English Touring Opera, 8 March 2019

Hackney Empire Theatre

Images: © Richard Hubert Smith

Ilia – Galina Averina
Idamante – Catherine Carby
Idomeneo – Christopher Turner
Arbace, High Priest of Neptune – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Elettra – Paula Sides
Voice of the Oracle of Neptune – Ed Hawkins

James Conway (director)
Frankie Bradshaw (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)

Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Jonathan Peter Kenny (conductor)

The greatest miracle in operatic history? On balance, I tend to think so. The distinction of Idomeneo’s forebears, be they operas of Mozart, Gluck, or anyone else, ‘reformist’ or otherwise, is too readily overlooked. Nevertheless, the leap from La finta giardiniera to Idomeneo remains a challenge to explain – or, better, a mystery at which to marvel, in which to rejoice. I remember, as an undergraduate, once noting an examination question with a quotation something along the lines of ‘It is impossible to explain the quantum leap Wagner took from Rienzi to Der fliegende Holländer,’ followed by the injunction, ‘Nevertheless, make the attempt.’ Something similar might be said here, and Wagner is surely the only comparable case; I wonder, though whether Idomeneo might not offer a miracle still greater.

Idamante (Catherine Carby), Chorus, Ilia (Galina Averiana)

Speaking of miracles, English Touring Opera does not come so very far off with a production and performance that, considered as a whole, mark the finest I have seen. We do not live in a golden age of Mozart stagings, nor do we live in a golden age of Mozart conducting; most likely, such golden ages never existed in the first place. There are exceptions, though, just as there most likely always have been. Idomeneo nonetheless seems to have proved particularly unlucky – or perhaps I have been particularly unlucky with it. If Jonathan Peter Kenny’s direction of the keen ETO Chorus and Orchestra occasionally seemed to err a little on the bright and bubbly side – this is, after all, a work as much in the tradition of tragédie lyrique as anything else, and one Mozart wished, in the case of subsequent revision to take further in that direction – then there remained, once past the strangely perfunctory opening bars, much to admire. Admirably flexible, there was enough in Kenny’s conducting to convey the dramatic power and dazzling originality of Mozart’s intimations of so much nineteenth-century practice: orchestral colour (yes, with roots in Gluck, even Rameau, yet peering forward to Weber, Berlioz, and beyond), and both a shorter- and longer-term harmonic strategy, the latter married to Wagnerian dissolution of formal boundaries and consequent alternative, often sonata-led constructivism, that at the very least rival Don Giovanni. Slight roughness around the edges was a price well worth paying for such musico-dramatic commitment.

Elettra (Paula Sides)

Much of that came, of course, from the singers, more than a match for any other cast I have heard in the theatre. Christopher Turner’s Idomeneo was certainly the best I have heard: vulnerable, thoughtful, utterly secure of line, and possessed of all the necessary vocal firepower, wisely deployed. Galina Averina and Catherine Carby made for a beautifully matched, yet also contrasted, Ilia and Idamante, moral examples through struggle, without a hint of didacticism. Paula Saides’s Elettra proved little short of sensational, an object lesson in the combination of line, colour, and dramatic involvement to create in time something so much greater than the sum of its parts. John Colyn-Gyeantey combined the thankless role of Arbace with the slight role of the High Priest. A little confusingly, the roles were elided rather than simply sung by the same artist, but that was not his fault. Coloratura was, throughout the cast, deployed not only with accuracy but with meaning; much the same might be said of ornamentation.

Idomeneo (Christopher Turner)

James Conway offered a typically resourceful production: not only, of course, for the Hackney Empire, but for a host of theatres up and down the country, many of them in towns that will otherwise see and hear no opera all year. He proceeded from trusting the work, from seemingly – however much of a theatrical illusion this may be – permitting it to speak for itself. Costumes, lighting, facial expressions, especially from the chorus of Trojans and Greeks, hinted at the political backdrop, without reducing the work to the all-too-easy, if understandably appealing conception of a ‘wartime drama’. A Mediterranean, even Cretan setting was likewise apparent, without dominating or overwhelming. This was above all a drama of sacrifice, in the line of Antoine Danchet’s original Idomenée at least as much as the Abbé Varesco’s revision (much transformed by an often frustrated Mozart). Lest that all sound a touch too werktreu, an excellent twist, drawn out of the drama rather than imposed upon it, was brought to us in Elettra’s final attempt to hold Ilia hostage, perhaps even to slaughter her.

The only real disappointment one might have entertained lay in the considerable cuts visited upon the score. If I could live with them, I suspect anyone of good will would also have been able to do so. Richard Strauss, after all, conducted far more drastic surgery, especially to the recitative, eliminating the harpsichord entirely – alongside, of course, acts of wholesale recomposition. Might I have preferred to hear a more ‘complete’ version, leaving aside for the moment the lack of what we – or Mozart – might consider a definitive text? (Many would consider the Munich ‘original’ preferable to the single Vienna performance; I should broadly, not without qualification, agree.) Of course. That, however, is quite beside the point. Within all manner of unavoidable constraints, not least the needs of touring, it would have to have been this, something like it, or nothing at all.

Idamante and Idomeneo

That ‘this’ emerged superior to any other Idomeneo I have experienced in the theatre thus says all the more, given its regrettable – in a utopian sense – constraints. Magnificent, musically and dramatically, though the ballet music may be, we could hardly expect the company to stage that too. Martin Kušej’s 2014 Covent Garden production, sadly let down by atrocious conducting and a still more atrocious Idamante, offered a one-off solution of no dance whatsoever, a provocative frieze of shell-shocked regime change; such, however, is hardly a negative coup de théâtre gladly to suffer repetition. There is often much to be said for straightforwardness; there is pretty much everything to be said for conviction. This production and these performances offered both – and more.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Wiget/Ensemble Modern/Benjamin - Boulez, Messiaen, Ustvolskaya, Ligeti, and Benjamin, 6 March 2019

Roundhouse, Camden

Boulez: Initiale
Messiaen: Sept haïkai
Ustvolskaya: Composition no.2, ‘Dies irae’
Ligeti: Ramifications
Benjamin: Palimpsests

Ueli Wiget (piano)
Ensemble Modern
George Benjamin (conductor)

Pierre Boulez’s Initiale was chosen to inaugurate Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal almost two years ago to the day. If not quite inaugurating the Roundhouse, home to what seem to have been some of Boulez’s most memorable concerts during his time with the BBC, it nonetheless offered a fitting fanfare to the Wigmore Hall’s new series of new music concerts there. George Benjamin and the Ensemble Modern had given splendid performances ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street the previous night. Here the ensemble was in full orchestral form, at least for three of the five pieces, though none is conventionally scored by late-Romantic standards. Initiale, in any case, is for brass septet. I had imagined, foolishly, that the instruments might, in homage to Gabrieli et al., have been placed around us. The hall is on the large side for that, whatever might have worked in Berlin. In both this and Messiaen’s Sept haïkai, my ears took a while to adjust to the acoustic, but there was nevertheless much to be gleaned in this miniature masterclass in typically Boulezian proliferation. It left one wanting more – which, in a way, we received – from Boulez’s teacher.

Messaien seems to have become strangely unfashionable at the moment; perhaps he awaits ‘rediscovery’. He unquestionably deserves it. Boulez had conducted the 1963 premiere, with Yvonne Loriod at the piano. I had a few doubts, especially to start with, concerning this performance, but again I think the need to adjust to the acoustic may have been the real enemy here. Ueli Wiget certainly relished the virtuosity of the piano part, especially in the extraordinary cadenza-like passages, their roots very much in nineteenth-century pianism, quite transformed here by the unmistakeable voice and imagination of this most singular of composers. Benjamin had the measure – in more than one sense – of the music’s varying metrical demands, quite rightly making light of them, art concealing art. Birds sang, chimes sounded, vistas were made manifest before our eyes and ears, synaesthetic or otherwise.

Perhaps the greatest surprise on the programme was Galina Ustvolskaya’s Composition no.2, ‘Dies irae’, for eight double basses, percussion (a huge wooden block), and piano. The word ‘uncompromising’ is all too readily reached for, both generally and specifically, but is almost impossible to avoid here. I was surprised both by Benjamin’s inclusion of the work and indeed by the power with which it struck me, neither he nor I necessarily being the most obvious audience for this music. Its starkness, its unswerving faith, its economy of means provided many points of comparison and contrast with Messiaen’s music. Neither is music with which one argues; or, if one does, one will come off the worse. Performances, nicely lodged between ritual and drama – I even thought briefly, however incongruously, of Parsifal – likewise brooked no dissent. For me, this perhaps proved the revelation, a decidedly un-Boulezian revelation, of the programme.

Whereas I had thought Ustvolskaya’s piece might have been the one to stand out oddly from the rest of the programme, it was actually Ligeti’s Ramifications I had more trouble placing in context with the others. Perhaps it was chosen simply as a work Boulez had performed here in those earlier Roundhouse concerts. It hardly mattered, in any case. Whether it were my ears or the playing that had now properly adjusted, or both, I do not know; what I do know is that Ligeti’s masterwork registered with great clarity and drama. Benjamin and his players, as well as the score ‘itself’, drew one in, compelled one to listen – to listen in ways one could never have imagined, even if one had actually approached them before. The differences in tuning between string groups proved so richly expressive that one never so much as noticed the lack of metre in a conventional sense. (Perhaps that was the definite contrast with the works preceding?) Swarming string plainsong – its reimagination, at any rate, if only by me – reinvented tradition before our ears.

Benjamin’s own Palimpsests was written for Boulez and the LSO – who, if memory serves correctly, had vividly relished the challenges. (How could they not?) Both movements – ‘Palimpsest I’ and ‘Palimpsest II’, the first originally performed as a stand-alone work – recreate not only vertically but horizontally the drama of rediscovery, of rereading a succession of manuscript texts. So, at least, it sounded here, in splendidly committed performances. A brass interjection here, a seraphic flight of fancy there played with ideas of what was and what might have been: all part of a whole that yet depended upon the call of the moment. Some, at least, of the roots of Written on Skin sounded uncommonly apparent: emotionally as well as intellectually, whatever the fallacy of the dichotomy. Was such writing and rewriting not, after all, one of the points both of programme and performance?

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Ensemble Modern/Benjamin - Milliken, Mason, Dallapiccola, and Benjamin, 5 March 2019

Wigmore Hall

Cathy Milliken: Bright Ring (UK premiere)
Christian Mason: Layers of Love
Dallapiccola: Piccola musica notturna
Benjamin: Into the Little Hill

Anu Komsi (soprano)
Helena Rasker (contralto)
Ensemble Modern
George Benjamin (conductor)

This week, the Wigmore Hall presents two concerts from George Benjamin and Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, the first ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street, the second moving north to Camden’s Roundhouse. For the first, we heard Benjamin’s now classic first opera, Into the Little Hill, prefaced by three ensemble works by Cathy Milliken, Christian Mason, and, for the evening’s spot of ‘early music’, Luigi Dallapiccola.

An Ensemble Modern commission, here receiving its United Kingdom premiere, Milliken’s Bright Ring spoke, to quote the composer, of ‘fields of energy that I perceived whilst performing with the Ensemble Modern,’ an energy ‘of collaboration and interaction, whether pulsing or still (or both)’. I initially read such lines with a degree of scepticism, but having heard the piece, they made a good deal of sense, the idea furthered by the title reference to the line, ‘Bright is the ring of words’, from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and the rings of Saturn. Two violins vied with each other at the opening, joined by viola and intermittently others, in music that seemed to depict and/or express both pent-up rhythmic violence and something (ring-like?) more numinous, often led by flute or tuned percussion. There was, I think, a sense of something akin to an extra-terrestrial landscape and narrative, not in a filmic way, but perhaps more akin to the tone poems of the past. The close, in which a flickering cello line initiated a final explosion, thereafter subsiding, seemed once again to encapsulate that tension between ensemble and solo instrument, planet and ring, pulse and its withdrawal.

Christian Mason’s 2015 Layers of Love, written for and recorded by Klangforum Wien, announced itself with slithering, mysterious microtones. Movement in various ways, rhythmic and harmonic, was initially slow and hard won, yet undeniable. There was a strangeness that seemed more of this world than Milliken’s other, but I am not sure I could explain what, practically, I mean by that. Certainly there was drama, albeit less pictorial than in the previous work. More than once, Bernd Alois Zimmermann came to my mind: again, I am not entirely sure why, but think it may have had something to do with the ultimately achieved rhythms and their relationship to sound, not least from the double bass.

Dallapiccola’s Piccola musica notturna spoke with the distilled mastery of a true classic, as perfectly formed in work and performance as a piece by Mozart, Schoenberg, or Debussy. Indeed, rather to my surprise, I found something naggingly Debussyan, if only in correspondence, to the turns of several phrases, however different the serial method one could hear and feel as clearly as if chez Schoenberg or his pupils. It was not difficult to understand what might have attracted Benjamin to so exquisitely logical, warmly expressive a miniature. If ever there were a composer whose music we should hear far more often…

I had last heard Into the Little Hill only in September, in Berlin, also conducted by the composer, albeit with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Its small performing forces (two vocal soloists and ensemble), formal perfection, and dramatic power render it a highly attractive work for regular performance, whether on stage or in concert; yet possession of such qualities does not always translate into such (relative) popularity. In this case, as with Benjamin’s two subsequent, larger-scale operas, Written on Skin and Lessons of Love and Violence, it is heartening to report that widespread enthusiasm continues. Stravinskian incision, violence, and economy, marked the opening – not just for itself, but as the opening to this complete (compleat) drama of modern political life, more bitingly relevant, so it seems, with every hearing. Whether it were the cool hieratic (Symphonies of Wind Instruments?) quality to the Minister’s addressing the crowd; the latter’s controlled yet increasing hysteria; the deathly tension of electric woodwind lines as the Minister meets the Stranger; or the latter’s wheedling, seductive way (heightened no end by Anu Komsi in particular, likewise her bloodcurdling cries ‘Swear by your sleeping child’): one could have cut the air with a knife – and that only in the first scenes to Part One.

As so often, operatic mastery shows itself particularly in the interludes between scenes. What a composer says and does not, unconstrained by words and indeed voices, will often – not always – penetrate to the heart of his or her musical dramaturgy. Such was certainly the case here, both in work and performance; so too in orchestral writing and playing elsewhere, as for instance in the terror of the intricately inviting processional that underlies the scene between Mother and Child. ‘The rats will stream like hot metal to the rim of the world.’ Indeed, they would – and did. A similar observation might be made of the division into two parts, the latter’s opening sounding and feeling strongly as if a new act, as if marking the return from an interval for the opera’s final, fatal events to unfold. ‘And music?’ ‘All music – smiles the minister – is incidental.’ Not at all. For the true rodent ghosts were now in the machine; so too, led by far-from-incidental music, was the child whose grasping, mendacious politician of a father had stolen its future. The will of the people had been enacted: The Little Hill meant The Little Hill.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Happy 90th birthday, Bernard Haitink!

Image: Monika Rittershaus

Of any performing musician alive today, none has had a more formative influence on me than Bernard Haitink. Not only did I hear my first Ring – at the Royal Albert Hall, when the Royal Opera looked in grave danger of never returning to Covent Garden – from him; it has remained musically one of the very best. (Ironically, its sole rival would hail also from that same, unpromising venue, under the direction of Daniel Barenboim.) I took the train down from Cambridge and back every day, and stood right up in the Gallery, seemingly miles from the stage. Not once did my feet tire, let alone my ears and mind. Haitink’s integrity, wisdom, and communicative understanding gripped me from beginning to end. I had barely attended any live opera, let alone Wagner, at the time. Even without his quietly heroic plea on the day of Götterdämmerung, beseeching us in the shortest of sentences to do what we could to defend an institution Rupert Murdoch and philistine New Labour stood eager to consign to the flames, it would have been an unforgettable experience. To me, it seemed, rightly or wrongly, that he saved the Royal Opera. He certainly inspired me early on to continue a Wagner journey that will most likely never end.

Since then, I have tried to hear him whenever I can: mostly here in London, occasionally elsewhere. In Amsterdam with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe for Brahms; in Zurich for Tristan (my one and only visit to date to cripplingly expensive Switzerland, but worth every penny); in Salzburg for Haydn’s Creation; but above all, since what proved, regrettably, his final Covent Garden appearance, for Parsifal in 2007, in concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra: time and time again, his musicianship, his inspiration of musicians and audience alike, have afforded an undemonstrative masterclass in that most unfashionable of virtues, musical ‘greatness’. We can chip away at that all we like, often with good reason. Bernard Haitink reminds us how and why it can still matter: not in terms of some throwback to an age of great ‘maestri’, but now, in the present, in our terms. May I wish him the happiest of ninetieth birthdays, and look forward to the next time I shall share in his artistry?

In the meantime, here is a link to my review of Haitink conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the LSO at the Proms in 2009: a performance I shall never forget.

And here is his legendary recording of La Mer with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Robin Hood, The Opera Story, 27 February 2019 (world premiere)

Bussey Building, Peckham

The Merry Men (Oliver Brignall, Cliff Zammit Stevens, Nicholas Merryweather)
Images: Robert Workman

Robin Hood – Nicholas Merryweather
Joanna – Lorna Anderson
Marian – Siân Cameron
Little John – Oliver Brignall
Will Scarlett – Cliff Zammit Stevens
The Boy – William Barter-Sheppard

Polly Graham (director)
April Dalton (designs)
Claire Childs (lighting)

Berrak Dyer (conductor)

The Opera Story has given birth to a new opera by a young composer and young creative team each year in Peckham since it was founded, three years ago. Unable to attend previous productions, I was eager to hear what was made of Robin Hood, with libretto by Zoe Palmer and Rebecca Hurst, and score by Dani Howard. As with so many essays in the genre from Jacopo Peri’s Dafne onwards, an existing story has been taken and modified. Intrinsically, the idea has much to recommend it: delving beneath the surface of the legend to ask whether Robin Hood and his merry men really were – are – what they seem.

And so, Palmer, Hurst, Howard, and director Polly Graham present a contemporary (to us) political fable, in which a Bullingdon-style group of male politicians in tweeds profess concern for the poor and yet do something quite different; or so it initially seems. At a certain point, it became difficult (at least for me) to grasp quite what drives the plot. Is it that these were essentially posh boys (men-children)? Is it destruction to the environment, the Greenwood, threatened by property developer, Joanna, and defended by Robin’s sister, Marian? Is it paedophilia, the men having gone into the woods and killing a passing child, Joanna’s? Or is it (homosexual) love, Little John at a couple of points having declared himself Robin’s lover? There is nothing wrong with complexity, of course, with themes that intertwine; far from it. For the first two of the three acts, I found the libretto suggestive of how such ideas might coexist and conflict; in the third, resolution, such as it was, seemed a little contrived, the whole amounting to less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it would have been better to have retained a little more of the ‘original’, so that the implied comparison and contrast would have meant more.

Marian (Siân Cameron)

Meanwhile, Howard’s score seemed to grow, more impressive in that third act than in what had gone before. Strangely, even bizarrely, tonal – post-minimalist, I suppose – it had seemed content earlier on just to offer a background to what was transpiring onstage, more interesting in the passages where it came closer to Britten in creepy mode, less so when it sounded as though it might have been written for a television series. A greater focus on ensemble writing in the third act paid dividends, though, perhaps indicative of greater confidence and flair acquired through the business of writing. There was no gainsaying the commitment of performances from a fine cast of singers, nor of that from the ten-piece ensemble (string quartet, double bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, and percussion), incisively directed by Berrak Dyer. Oddly, the players sounded heavily amplified. Either that, or it was a very peculiar acoustic (always possible!) A pity, I thought.

Perhaps, then, it is better to think of this as a valuable workshop opportunity, from which all – those of us in the audience too – will have learned. Performances were excellent and, if I had my doubts about the work itself, there was certainly promise to be discerned. Whatever one’s thoughts on that, there was insight to be had both into the writing and performance of opera by those at an early stage in their careers and, just as important, into the success of so worthy an initiative. I look forward to seeing – and hearing – what The Opera Story brings us next.

Così fan tutte, Royal Opera, 25 February 2019

Royal Opera House

Dorabella (Serena Malfia)
Images: ROH 2019/Stephen Cummiskey

Ferrando – Paolo Fanale
Guglielmo – Gyula Orendt
Don Alfonso – Thomas Allen
Fiordiligi – Salome Jicia
Dorabella – Serena Malfi
Despina – Serena Gamberoni

Jan Philipp Gloger (director)
Julia Burbach (revival director)
Ben Baur (set designs)
Karin Jud (costumes)
Bernd Purkrabek (lighting)
Katharina John (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Stefano Montanari (conductor)


First the good news. With one partial exception, there was much splendid singing, and stage performance more generally, to enjoy from an entirely new cast for the first revival of Jan Philipp Gloger’s Così fan tutte (reviewed here first time around). Our pairs of male and female lovers were nicely differentiated, whilst blending with equal skill and pleasure – crucial in an opera with so much ensemble writing, endlessly varied, endlessly revised and renewed. (There is dramaturgical genius in that, of course, not that sceptics and outright decriers – believe it or not, there remain a few – bother to think about that before regaling us with their ‘thoughts’ on the work.) Salome Jicia and Serena Malfia made for a sparkling pairing of ladies from Ferrara, linear clarity matched by complementary contrast such as one might enjoy in a fine wind ensemble. Much the same, perhaps still more so, might be said of Paolo Fanale’s Ferrando and Gyula Orendt’s Guglielmo, the former’s arias as sweetly sung, tenderly phrased as anyone might reasonably ask. Serena Gamberoni’s keenly sung Despina was properly knowing without lapsing into the unduly arch. Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso had its moments, but it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that this, a role he long made his own, is now a vocal challenge too far, whatever his continued enthusiasm on stage. Hand on heart, I cannot say that any of these performances surpassed those at Holland Park last year, but I doubt that anyone would have had serious grounds for disappointment either.
Dorabella and Guglielmo (Gyula Orendt)

There were, alas, grounds aplenty for disappointment in both the conducting and the production: concerning the former, rather more than mere disappointment. Described in the programme as ‘charismatic’, Stefano Montanari certainly made his presence felt Charisma, however, entails a gift, not a curse, be it divine or otherwise. It is difficult to think of anyone more deserving of the claim than Mozart. If only we had heard a little more of his work and a little less of Montanari’s extraordinary – extraordinarily ignorant, too – arrogance. Arrogating to himself the fortepiano continuo too, Montanari went on to show us that he has little ability at conducting but considerable ability at obscuring scores with his own, allegedly witty, yet in truth tediously predictable, sonic vandalism. To begin with, his ‘contributions’ remained within the realm of the unnecessary, if still highly irritating. The level of premature ejaculation soon, however, reached the level of medical emergency, at times entirely taking leave of Mozart’s bass line and harmony so as simply to present some ‘songs from the shows’. It was the sort of thing a bumptious first-year organ scholar might have done over late-night drinks, albeit more cleverly; here, the results were quite unforgivable. Occasionally hard-driven, Montanari’s conducting was more often merely flaccid: nothing to do with speed, everything to do with a lack of harmonic and formal understanding; it was as if the performance were led by the lovechild of René Jacobs and Marc Minkowski. For a performance of Così fan tutte drag so much is an achievement of sorts, not one I wish to hear repeated. To hear it in the house that was once Sir Colin Davis’s was little short of scandalous.

Dorabella and Ferrando (Paolo Fanale)

Some changes have been made to Gloger’s production since its first outing, presumably by revival director, Julia Burbach. In the first act in particular, they are to its benefit, tightening and clarifying, although the second act fizzles out much as it had done before (if slightly differently). It is, perhaps, indicative of the state of British opera audiences that anyone would see something remotely adventurous in the hamfisted attempt at metatheatricality on show – ‘show’ being the thing – here. Clichés abound, without apparent awareness that clichés they are, and therefore might be played with. The more promising moment remains the substitution of applauding members of the real cast, initially seated in an audience box, for the cast in eighteenth-century garb on stage. There is nothing wrong with the idea that the characters might learn from a performance of the work; it has much to commend it. There is everything wrong, however, with the confusion – somewhat mitigated now, yet only somewhat – with which that is allegedly accomplished. Identities, acts, characters are not ambiguous; they appear simply not to have been thought through, rather as if this were an early sketch for a production rather than the finished article.

As for Gloger’s preposterous claim, allegedly justifying such confusion, namely that to be ‘realisable in realistic terms’, the female characters must ‘know from the beginning of the second act that the “foreign men” are really their own boyfriends,’ it is difficult to think of a graver admission of incompetence. By all means play with such an idea, should it prove dramatically fruitful. The idea, however, that such banal realism has anything to do with the work, that ‘we decided to explain…’ signifies anything other than a catastrophic misunderstanding of the opera’s artificiality and its dramatic consequences, is both saddening and infuriating. Perhaps there is scope for further revisions; I certainly appreciate the attempt. I cannot, however, claim to be hopeful. Like Montanari's conducting, if less so, the production thinks itself far cleverer than it is. More seriously, neither seems remotely to appreciate not only the intelligence but the profundity of this most ravishing of operas.