Saturday, 10 December 2016

Levit - Beethoven, 6 December 2016

Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor, op.31 no.2, ‘The Tempest’
Piano Sonata no.11 in B-flat major, op.22
Piano Sonata no.3 in C major, op.2 no.3
Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor, op.13, ‘Pathétique’

Igor Levit (piano)

You could probably write this yourselves know: well, the essential thrust, with a good few purple adjectives tastefully discarded. Contrarians would find something ‘different’ to say for the sake of it, but 2016 has had quite enough of contrarians, thank you. Suffice it to say that this was another outstanding Beethoven recital from Igor Levit, with a good few challenges to any preconceptions, whether concerning work or pianist, not least in the comparatively neglected op.22 Sonata.

The Tempest, though, opened in surprising fashion too. It always sounds exploratory, or at least always should. I am always put in mind – I think I have probably quoted this before – of Carl Dahlhaus’s Nineteenth-Century Music contrast with a melody from Les Huguenots:

By the criteria of Italo-French music, Beethoven’s movement does not have the slightest claim to a musical idea worthy of the name. What his work is based on is not a thematic — much less melodic — ‘inspiration’ so much as a formal concept: the arpeggiated triad … The opening, seemingly an introduction, can be viewed in retrospect as an exposition. … If one extreme of music is the melodic ‘inspiration’ [to exemplify which, he quotes that Meyerbeer melody], limited to a few measures and with the form functioning merely as an arrangement, the other would seem to be the almost disembodied formal process emerging from a void.

So it mysteriously did here, a world created before our ears, ex nihilo, with that creation ongoing, continual. Telling rubato, almost improvisatory in quality, was of course anything but arbitrary, ever grounded in Beethoven’s harmony. Levit’s playing was wondrously clear, without the slightest loss to ‘atmosphere’. (Think, perhaps, of Boulez’s conducting. If you do not know his Beethoven Fifth, greatly admired by Sviatoslav Richter amongst others, do rectify that omission!) Rhetoric formed structure, and all the while that arpeggio, those arpeggios acted as Prospero (perhaps Caliban too on occasion?) Recitative took us into the world of late Beethoven, every note impregnated with meaning, seeming almost to prepare for, as well as to contrast with, the post-Mozartian arioso of the slow movement. Relished, even adored, quite rightly, creation of melody was hard work, yet not without fancy, even fantasy. It was almost, at times, a Bagatelle writ-large, and not necessarily an early one. This, I thought, was an undeniably modernist Beethoven, after which, will-o’-the-wisp Romanticism came with the finale as another welcome contrast; so too, did a vehemence that seemed to hint at Chopin and Liszt. Beethoven sounded possessed, increasingly so, with all his trademark obstinacy. The end was almost a void: perhaps a return, yet not quite.

The B-flat Sonata, op.22, opened in dazzling, insistent fashion, with an air of detachment I found unsettling. It is an odd piece, but I am not sure I have heard it sound – let alone thought of it – as quite so odd before. Haydn on acid? How, though, I wish I could play a single bar of the left-hand part like that! The first-movement development was mysterious, the recapitulation quite the agōn. I was quite unsure what to make of the whole, but am sure that I shall never think of it quite the same way again. The slow movement sang with all the joy and regret of a valiant attempt to recapture the lost world of Mozart – until, that is, it did something different, when once again I felt a whole world of nineteenth-century music stretching out before me. It was increasingly ecstatic, as those two tendencies combined, interwove, all with unbroken line. The minuet was more capricious than one often hears, full of (ambiguous) character, its trio more furious, almost frighteningly so. The (faux-)naïveté of the finale’s post-Mozartian stance was itself played with, rendering the movement all the more mysterious. Contrast, when it came, registered with properly Beethovenian shock, almost as if I had never heard it before. Was there reconciliation? Almost, but not quite: if we are honest, modernity, Beethoven’s as well as ours, no longer permits that.

Almost nonchalant, whimsical even, the opening of the C major Sonata, op.2 no.3, announced its debt to Haydn, before announcing its Beethovenian ingratitude: such sforzandi! A little Mozartian glee completed the trinity, with Mozart also clearly the progenitor of the minor-mode material. The particular variety of humanism was of course Beethoven’s – and his interpreter’s – own, even at this early stage. Ripe lyricism was relished; harmonic muscles were flexed, a whole tonal universe lying in front of us. This was unquestionably a young man’s music, yet the development gave a taste of things to come, not least rhythmically. Harmonic direction was confirmed here, intensified in the recapitulation. Likewise humour. I was struck by the Schubertian (I suppose I should say ‘proto-Schubertian’) characteristics, melodic and harmonic, of the slow movement, characteristics I do not think I had noticed before. Much, of course, is a common debt to Mozart, but even so… And then, once again, echt-Beethovenian shock: shock in sublimity and humanity. We heard a strikingly mature variety of Beethovenian gruff humour in the scherzo, wryness too. The piano articulation so necessary to convey that was almost, yet not quite, a joy in itself. The finale was not dissimilar, yet possessed of its own particular ‘character’ – an idea to which I returned again and again, throughout the recital. The music responded to Mozart, yes, but was never to be mistaken for another’s writing. Imagining the music under one’s own fingers, however incompetent, it ‘felt’ like Beethoven. It was wonderfully playful, and playful in its sense of wonder.

How to make the Pathétique sound new? Not by doing things to it, but by playing it with burning belief. (The same goes, I might add, for listening to it, reading it, thinking about it.) The music was sculpted with a fine sense of musical drama, Michelangelesque, even: Il penseroso? After which, the exposition ‘proper’ – but is it? – came as release, albeit intensification too. The development sounded, felt, as if another rocket, its tonality ensuring the flames were of a different hue. It was a miracle, or so it seemed, how quickly we returned: such is art. And the recapitulation proved, quite rightly, to be a second development. The slow movement was imbued with simple songfulness, or so it seemed, for nothing is ever quite so simple as that, whatever Winckelmann might have had us believe about the Greeks. A heightened sense of the special quality to this material reminded us why it has long been so loved. Music is often, if not always, celebrated for a good reason. The finale blew in like an icy wind, which never failed to take us by surprise, however much we might thought we ‘knew’ it. C minor was always going to win, but there were other worlds to survey, even to enjoy. The brusqueness of the conclusion, neither too much nor too little, was spot on. Onwards, then, and upwards…

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Cavalleria rusticana/Sancta Susanna, Opéra national de Paris, 3 December 2016

Opéra Bastille

Images: Julien Benhamou /OnP

Santuzza – Elina Garanča
Turiddu – Yonghoon Lee
Lucia – Elena Zaremba
Alfio – Vitaliy Bilyy
Lola – Antoinette Dennefeld

Susanna – Anna Caterina Antonacci
Klementia – Renée Morloc
Old Nun – Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo
Maid – Katharina Crespo
Knight – Jeff Esperanza

Mario Martone (director)
Sergio Tramonti (set designs)
Ursula Patzak (costumes)
Pasquale Mari (lighting)
Daniela Schiavone (assistant director, Cavalleria rusticana)
Raffaella Giordana (choreography, Sancta Susanna)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: José Luis Basso)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Carlo Rizzi (conductor)

Two operas: one rather better known to the operatic public, but neither to me personally. I tried (perhaps that was the problem?) with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, yet felt rather nonplussed. There was nothing especially to ‘mind’, but the work left little impression beyond its strange pacing (dragging almost interminably, then abruptly concluding, or at least finishing). Somehow, it came across both as crude and bland. I heard dashes of undigested Wagner, devoid of context, washed up amongst mildly Verdian debris. Every so often, Mascagni seemed to aspire towards Puccini, yet barely left the starting block, falling time and time again on mere cliché, and failing to achieve anything of interest melodically, harmonically, orchestrally. Characterisation seemed minimal, the drama, such as it was, situational. As for the story, such as it was, would it not have embarrassed a 1980s television mini-series? I had been curious to discover what the fuss was all about; in a sense, I am all the more curious now, since I really did not ‘get it’. ‘Some of my best friends’, but not, alas, me…


If Mascagni’s opera would have seemed more suited to a ten or fifteen minutes scena, Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna left me wanting more: always a good sign. The final part of his Expressionist triptych (Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, and Das Nusch-Nuschi come first), it is much more my sort of thing, I suppose. Musically, it comes perhaps as close to ‘atonal’ Schoenberg as Hindemith would ever do: more than once, I was put in mind of Die glückliche Hand, even Bluebeard’s Castle, especially in terms of orchestral colour, but perhaps harmonically too. Subject matter – a convent riven by sexual frenzy and demonic possession – has certain points of contact with Erwartung, perhaps, and more generally with other contemporaneous musical explorations (mostly, of course by men) of female sexuality, but more obviously with Prokofiev’s later Fiery Angel. Hindemith certainly has no aspirations to the so-called athematicism of Erwartung, though, quasi-autonomous musical form already gesturing, from within its Expressionist cloak, to the Neue Sachlichkeit future.


What do the two works have in common? Very little, I think, although I suppose one might make some generic ‘religious’ claim. Mario Montane, perhaps mistakenly, made little or no effort to link them. An awkward five minutes or so (following curtain calls!) in between, house lights still off, did not help, audience members not unreasonably uncertain what to do (apart, that is, from some Hindemith foes who made a dash for it). It was not entirely clear to me whether the Cross seen in his Sicilian Church was supposed to be in some sense the same as that witnessed so strikingly in Sergio Tramonti’s design for the crypt or other underworld beneath the convent. At first, Montane’s Cavalleria rusticana seems highly conventional, but there is a greater degree of abstraction than one might first guess, much done with comparatively little, rescuing the work somewhat from its vulgar realism. A definite emphasis upon the menacing power of the village crowd, seated in judgement, is welcome too. (I thought of Peter Grimes.) The fun is really had to be had, though, in Sancta Susanna. The action initially takes place in a ‘window’, securely embedded, or so it seems, within a larger structure, which begins to fall to pieces – as, well, Susanna’s defences do. Nightmarish giant crucifixes, a huge insect (made up of a highly skilled movement team, well choreographed by Raffaella Giordana), and the past and present of nuns writhing on the Cross, tread with delicious ambiguity the line between sympathy and Gothic horror.

The orchestra of the Paris Opéra sounded sumptuous, with a splendid sheen but plenty of depth in the Hindemith too. Carlo Rizzi seemed perhaps more at home in Mascagni; I should not have minded a little more formal delineation in the Hindemith. Nevertheless, his exploration of orchestral colour there was greatly to be welcomed, and the climactic moments were viscerally exciting. Choral singing and blocking were well handled throughout.


Elina Garanča sang beautifully as Santuzza in the Mascagni, line impeccable, although there was a certain coldness to her performance that perhaps militated against the possibility of much emotional involvement. Yonghoon Lee’s excellent Turiddu was quite the peacock, also quite the mummy’s boy: just, I presume, as he should have been. Dramatic toing and froing between Anna Caterina Antonacci, every inch the queen of her stage, and Renée Morloc was gripping, reminding us that there is much to be pieced together from Hindemith’s vocal lines, not nearly so fragmentary as they might initially seem. Controlled frenzy was the order of the day, but never too controlled. All other parts were well taken. If only, though, Sancta Susanna had been presented with a more appropriate companion piece or pieces, though, whether Hindemith’s own or something more tellingly related or contrasted. Next time…


Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Iphigénie en Tauride, Opéra national de Paris, 2 December 2016

Palais Garnier

Iphigénie (Renate Jett)
Images: © Guergana Damianova / OnP

Iphigénie – Véronique Gens
Oreste – Étienne Dupuis
Pylade – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Thoas – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Diane, First Priestess – Adriana González
Second Priestess, Greek Woman – Emanuela Pascu
Scythian, Minister – Tomasz Kumiega
Iphigénie (non-singing role) – Renate Jett

Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Małgorzata Szczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Denis Guéguin (video)
Claude Bardouil (choreography)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Alessandro di Stefano) 
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Bertrand de Billy (conductor)

Thoas (Thomas Johannes Mayer) and Iphigénie (Véronique Gens)

The greatest of Gluck’s operas? Certainly. The greatest opera between Monteverdi and Mozart? Quite probably (give or take a Dido and Aeneas). Iphigénie en Tauride remains an incredible experience. I say ‘incredible’, since one never quite believes it – or at least I never quite do – from the previous encounter, until acquaintance shows that one’s memory was not playing tricks. For, as Raymond Leppard put it, whilst at work on Orfeo ed Euridice, not a bad opera itself: ‘The odd thing about Gluck is that you look at the music, and for a moment you feel that Handel was right and that he is rather a poor composer, in technique rather inadequate, but then with his flair for the theatre, you see what is behind the notes. I have never heard an instrumental piece of Gluck that I wanted to hear again, but when the big emotional moments come in his operas, they must be played for all they are worth. It all works in the theatre.’ One need not necessarily subscribe to every word of Leppard’s claim to know its essential theatrical truth. Gluck shows us, and this must surely be what so attracted Wagner to his works, that intellect and emotion, words (is this, perhaps the best of his libretti too?) and music, dramatic truth and theatrical imagination are not antithetical. Their relations are (differently) dialectical; they thrive on each other.

Barrie Kosky’s Berlin production (in German) was the first I saw. It packed quite a punch, and memories still do. Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Paris staging, first seen in 2006, is more complicated, more multivalent, yet just as powerful. It concerns itself not just with war – Abu Ghraib was very much Kosky’s name of the game – and its equally horrific aftermath, but specifically with women and war. Warlikowski does it with mirrors, a hall of mirrors if you like. Versailles of course did and does – and we are reminded of the dedication to Marie Antoinette as the Overture gets under way. (Yes, the opera was premiered in Paris, but the Queen was naturally in attendance.) Before that, though, as we have taken our place in the theatre, we have been confronted with glass, reflection (in more than one sense) of and on our place in the gilded Palais Garnier, and mysterious glimpses of what might be going on behind the glass. Theatre is a place of reflection and refraction, of truth and illusion, of seeing and indeed of failing to see (ditto listening). Women – old women – stride back and forth, from back to front of stage. They are confident, afraid, lost, found: they are, we discover, at a retirement home. Greek women need to remember, to be remembered, just as much as Trojan Women.

The elderly Iphigénie implores the gods for assistance. ‘Grands Dieux! soyez-nous secourables!’ She relives, with all the psychoanalytical brilliance of Gluck’s – and Nicolas-François Guillard’s – fusion of outward and inward storm what took place, and we realise that what she now seeks is an end to it all. That trauma has never left her; although she still dresses, not unlike a Dallas matriarch, to the nines, she is broken inside, condemned to relive those horrors of war, of sacrifice, of family. The woes of the House of Atreus were not concluded finished with Elektra. And so, amongst the annoyance, the viciousness, the touching moments of care, within her home, she prepares for the end, and achieves it. Mirrored action looks back, looks forward. Where are we? Back on Tauris? Or at the proud old woman’s obsequies, a royal funeral? Or are we still at the home, day in, day out, wishing, like her, to escape, almost anywhere, any time?

Iphigénie, Oreste (Étienne Dupuis), et al.

The world of dreams, of hidden familial desire is strongly present. A younger Oreste, starved yet beautiful, dreams of, creates his mother, possesses her, feeds from her breast, kills her. He loves Pylade, as strongly as anyone has loved anyone on stage: here, we feel, are the origins of Tristan and Kurwenal. And he loves, possesses Iphigénie too. Forbidden love was imagined, experienced, remembered in three guises: yet the hero then lived, almost Siegfried-like, in the moment. When he and his equally beautiful, all-too-perfect royal family, chiselled cheekbones, exquisite dress, and all, come to mourn the death of his sister, they seem almost as if they are the ones who have died, or perhaps never even lived. Embalmed, they keep it together for almost as long as they need, before the King’s children succumb to their forbidden desire – for each other.   

Two stages of future, then, neither of them good, frame the ‘actual’ action. It is not, in any banal way, ‘explained’ by the rest, but we make our own connections, we question, we recoil in horror, not least when those nagging orchestral figures – that celebrated Gluckian syncopation, for instance – prey upon our, their, raw emotions. Mystery, however, remains. The Scythians are certainly ‘other’, their rites not ‘ours’, but perhaps they are truer, less preoccupied, less weighed down by pasts and futures experienced or imagined. The first-act ballet exhilarates: not only do we come close to witnessing a rite we cannot understand, but we see one of Iphigénie’s elderly companions at its centre, a proud woman, undaunted, at least momentarily, by age, confident in her sexuality, in her dance. Or is it a throwback to Tauris, even a response to an old woman’s medication?

Pylade (Stanislas de Barbeyrac)

The cast was excellent, its silent members too. None of that would have been remotely possible without them. So often, French opera is plagued by an inability to sing in French: not just the language, but the style too. Such was never a question here. Véronique Gens drew one in, made us her confidants, never needing to raise her voice, although occasionally she could – and did – expand her dynamic range. Hers was a subtle, unfailingly alert performance in which all dramatic elements, just as Gluck requires, seemed to be at one. Her alter ego, Renate Jett, complemented, contrasted to powerful effect indeed. Étienne Dupuis, as (the sung) Oreste, for so long (seemingly literally) blinded by his past, rose to dramatic heights as his character progressed (and regressed). Stanislas de Barbeyrac’s Pylade was one of the most moving portrayals I have heard on stage for some time: unflinchingly honest, heart-rendingly beautiful of tone, the two qualities intertwined as if the souls of Oreste and Pylade themselves. ‘Smaller’ roles were all well taken.

Choral singing was impressive throughout, although, just sometimes, I longed for something a little more forthright. There is no room for crudity in Gluck, of course, but this should be visceral drama. (Perhaps, though, that was more a reflection, as it were, of the chorus rarely being seen on stage. Psychoanalytical approaches have their snares, practical as well as theoretical.) My only disappointment was with the somewhat lacklustre conducting of Bertrand de Billy. It was not bad, and indeed, once past a rushed Overture, was generally well paced. One rarely, however, had the sense of this musical drama – even music drama? – being lived, let alone lived as if there were no tomorrow, which, for Iphigénie, was here a thought very much of the essence. As ever, though, the Opéra’s orchestra was on fine form, euphonious to a degree. All we needed was a Riccardo Muti to stir them up…

One thing we did know, however (at least those who did not partake in philistine booing at the close): Iphigénie had seen – and heard – it all. We shall have our own particularly strong associations, whether operatically – Nono’s Algran sole carico d’amore, Stefan Herheim’s Götz Friedrich post-Second World War hommage in that legendary Bayreuth Parsifal, etc. – or from history and the world around us (where to start?) Warlikowski and a tremendous cast, allow her, allowed the scorned victims of war – women, men who love men, ‘foreigners’ – to speak, to sing, to remember, and to be remembered.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Book Review: Joy H. Calico, 'Arnold Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw" in Postwar Europe'

My review for H-Net German may be read by clicking here.

Here are Maximilian Schell, the European Community (as it then was) Youth Orchestra, and Claudio Abbado, along with a score to follow:

And here is a programme note I wrote for the Proms last year.

MCO/Uchida - Mozart and Bartók, 29 November 2016

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453
Bartók – Divertimento
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.25 in C major, KV 503

Mitsuko Uchida (piano/director)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra

‘Yes, of course I’m here,’ I tweeted a few minutes before the concert, with a picture of the programme and performers. Two Mozart piano concertos from Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with the Bartók Divertimento in between: give or take a piece by Schoenberg, I could hardly have asked for more. Perhaps, then, my expectations were unrealistic, for I found myself a little disappointed by the performance of the G major Piano Concerto, especially its first movement. I was impressed that Uchida had rethought, sometimes quite radically, the approach I recall from her celebrated recording with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra. However, I was not entirely convinced. It was partly a matter of coming to terms with the Festival Hall acoustic, I think, in so intimate a performance, but it was not only that. Nevertheless, intrigued and slightly nonplussed is surely better than bored by the ‘same old’.

The orchestra opened crisply, stylishly, but sounded a little undernourished in the opening tutti. Uchida was, I think, faster, certainly more impish, than in her ECO recording. There is nothing wrong with that, but her non legato passages struck me as odd: I could not work out why they were being played as they were, although she certainly had me listen – and puzzle. Phrasing remained beyond reproach, though, and the chamber quality to the performance as a whole had its advantages. Indeed, the concerto sounded very much the companion piece to the Piano Quintet, KV 452, with which, if I remember correctly, was the coupling for that concerto recording. Only occasionally was a fuller orchestral sound unleashed, but Uchida was – interestingly – considerably more muscular in her approach to the recapitulation. The cadenza offered an amalgam of the different tendencies we had heard, for better and for worse. I liked the lessening of string vibrato at the opening of the slow movement, as if launching an operatic accompagnato – which, in a sense, it is. Various wind soloists and ultimately the piano soloist responded with greater warmth; however, I was nevertheless quite taken aback – positively – by the frankly Romantic minor-mode playing, whether overtly passionate, or more innig. This and the finale were, for me, far more involving. They both seemed to benefit also from a more settled, more juste, tempo. (Both are often taken too fast.) The finale’s particular character, Papageno chafing at the bit, was conveyed with that crucial sense of effortlessness. Classical variation form, too often the butt of ill-considered denigration, was vindicated in the best way possible. Piano and flute sforzandi seemed to hint at Beethoven; again, I do not remember hearing the passages in question played like that before.

Uchida withdrew for the Bartók, played standing (save for the cellos), directed from the leader’s desk by Matthew Truscott – and very well too. The first movement announced a variegated, energetic (in the best sense) approach, yielding nicely at times, in almost Viennese style. There was again a happy sense of chamber scale, without in this case ever sounding remotely underpowered. The slow movement opened inwardly, mysteriously, not quite glacial, but not quite the contrary either. Its contours were well traced, with a keen sense of drama on offer throughout. There were many gradations of relative thawing and outright contrast to be enjoyed. Idiomatic, never clichéd, the ‘Hungarian’ qualities to the performance of the finale sang out, yet never dominated unduly. The relationship between solo and ripieno playing was very much at the heart of the MCO’s music-making. Bachian contrapuntal lessons had been well learned, so as to emerge as agents of liberation – just as they always should be. There was menace too, and more than a hint of bitter irony.

Amongst smaller-scale recordings of what I have long thought of as Mozart’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, I have long admired that from Alfred Brendel, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the late Neville Marriner. Again, I was taken by surprise quite how different Uchida’s performance here was: more rhetorical, although always directed towards its tonal goal. Trumpets and drums seemed to have emboldened the MCO strings too. Oscillation between tonic major and minor was rightly at the heart of the performance; Charles Rosen would surely have approved. The measured tempo was well chosen, providing plenty of space for the musical argument to unfold, and to be dramatised. There was not perhaps quite the dramatic conception of a Daniel Barenboim here, but there is more than one way to play a Mozart concerto; Uchida’s ‘incidental’ flights of fancy were not to be slighted, and here seemed better integrated. The cadenza offered hints of Beethoven, all to the good in this ‘imperial’ work. Uchida’s slow movement offered ‘chamber’ contrast. Mozart was cherished, heartrendingly so, but never suffocated, in this garden of late, yet not too late, delights. An unexaggerated dialectic between fragility and ebullience characterised the finale. What could be more Mozartian? Uchida again proved perhaps surprisingly mercurial, rhetorical too. Whatever my doubts about the first concerto, this was a delight to the last.


Thursday, 1 December 2016

La finta giardiniera, Royal College of Music, 28 November 2016

Britten Theatre
Violante/Sandrina – Josephine Goddard
Belfiore – Joel Williams
Anchise – Richard Pinkstone
Arminda – Ida Ränzlöv
Ramiro – Katie Coventry
Serpetta – Harriet Eyley
Roberto – Julien van Mellaerts
Harry Fehr (director)
Roxana Haines (assistant director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
John Bishop (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

Royal College of Music of Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

I saw my first Finta giardiniera close to eight years ago, at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre. In between, I have also been fortunate enough to see a very different staging, indeed a more or less total reimagining of the work, from Hans Neuenfels, in Berlin. Now, it was back to the Britten Theatre for a new staging. Not too bad, then, for a work that hovers on the fringes of the repertory – although how absurd that a work fully the equal of any of Haydn’s operas is still so relatively neglected, if not quite so scandalously neglected as Haydn’s works themselves. Three cheers, though, to the RCM, for another splendid evening, and for placing such faith in this lovely work!
Harry Fehr’s production is ‘based on one which was first presented at the 2013 Buxton Festival’: slightly odd wording, but anyway. The important thing is that it is fresh, lively, abidingly theatrical. It does not explore the depths that Neuenfels did in his Pforten der Liebe; there is little, perhaps no, sense of the darkness of love, nor indeed of the German director’s fantasy. By the same token, though, it avoids the tendency towards preciosity of the previous RCM production (Jean-Claude Auvray). A moneyed, contemporary Long Island setting works well and, quite simply, looks good. Yannis Thavoris’s excellent designs are resourceful in their suggestion of broader social milieu, but also provide elegant framing for the action. For my taste, Fehr perhaps overplays the farcical element; there were certainly times when I wished the production would calm down, just a little. On the other hand, a work very much, I think, in the tradition of Carlo Goldoni arguably brings Mozart closer than he had previously come, or would come again, to the world of Rossini. I just do not think it is that close, and should have preferred something that engaged with the surely undeniable presentiments of Così fan tutte. (On the other hand, when one thinks what Così often must endure…) In any case, all is smartly, slickly accomplished – and it offers a fine showcase for the young singers.
Fortunately, there was not much in the musical performances that approached Rossini. (However much I may differ from the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt with respect to what I want to hear in Mozart, I certainly share with him that vehement opposition he voiced to any tendency towards unvariegated breathlessness.) Michael Rosewell’s reading did not draw especial attention to itself. Tempi were judiciously varied; perhaps a little more variety would not have gone amiss, but I am being ungrateful. The spirited playing of the orchestra only occasionally had me miss the sound of a slightly larger band (strings a parsimonious, but that may well have been as much a matter of acoustics. Jo Ramadan’s harpsichord continuo proved supportive, exhibiting none of the irritating exhibitionism one often hears today (especially on the fortepiano). Orchestral solos were well taken throughout; if one does not miss the clarinet in Mozart, one must be on the right track.
The disguised marchioness herself, Violante/Sandrina, received a likeable performance from Josephine Goddard, integrity of character at the heart of her reading. Joel Williams’s cavalier, not a little devilish Belfiore would clearly return to her, and he did. The sparkle of his eminently musical performance was matched, at the very least, by Ida Ränzlöv’s Arminda, dressed to kill (not quite literally, although one would not necessarily have been surprised) by Thavoris. Richard Pinkstone’s tenor contrasted enough from Williams’s to suggest difference of character; his subtly more buffo (never too much) demeanour confirmed it. (There are considerable distinctions of social order in Mozart’s writing, even this early; almost the only thing this opera lacks is the later delineation and depth of individual character.) If Pinkstone’s Anchise, splendidly contrasted to this summer’s outstanding Hänsel und Gretel Witch, thereby attested to considerable versatility, Katie Coventry’s Ramiro confirmed her gift, already shown by her Hänsel, for the mezzo trouser role, both in timbre and demeanour. Such alertness and social awareness extended to the pair of servants rounding off the cast: Julien van Mellaerts’s affable Roberto and Harriet Eyley’s knowing Serpetta, very much in the line of Pergolesi. Ensemble was tight throughout, permitting different lines to tell and yet also to combine. Such is the essence of this opera; it was equally the essence of this performance.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

For Aleppo

It is not enough, not nearly enough, but I do not know what to say. Other than: a world that allows such barbarism is quite beyond redemption. In his particular way, perhaps Strauss, deeply flawed human that he was, knew that too.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Storm Large/Hudson Shad/BBC SO/Gaffigan - Korngold, Weill, et al., 23 November 2016

Barbican Hall

Korngold – Symphony in F-sharp
Walter Jurmann – Veronika, der Lenz ist da
Dimitri Tiomkin – High Noon: ‘Do not forsake me, O my darlin’’
Weill – A Touch of Venus: ‘Speak Low’
Weill – Klopslied
Jurmann/Bronisław Kaper – A Day at the Races: ‘All God’s Children Got Rhythm’
Weill – The Seven Deadly Sins

Storm Large (singer)
Hudson Shad
BBC Symphony Orchestra
James Gaffigan (conductor)

In the world’s present parlous state, Brecht (Weill too, perhaps) speaks to us more clearly, more sharply than most. Donald Trump could pretty much have sprung from the pages of Mahagonny, or indeed The Seven Deadly Sins. The fine performance of that masterly ballet chanté which was the necessary performance in this BBC Symphony Orchestra performance. The rest I could pretty much take or leave, although there were clearly admirers in the audience.

When first hearing Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp (in the BBC Philharmonic recording with Edward Downes), I rather liked it. It must have been years since I had last heard the piece; I cannot say that I had missed it greatly, and indeed found it something of a bore on this occasion. It was a well-enough upholstered bore, yet I did not find the material justified the length. In the first movement, it took a while for the orchestra to achieve a good balance, although the Barbican acoustic should probably take some blame for that. (Thanks to the Government, by the way, for scuppering the plan for a decent concert hall in London!) James Gaffigan went to considerable extremes of tempo, but held the movement together pretty well. A certain cinematic quality to its progress was not inappropriate, nor was a certain sonic similarity to the ‘heroic’ Prokofiev of the Fifth Symphony. Transitions were well handled in the scherzo, though ensemble was not always so precise as it might have been. I liked the languorous quality to its trio; Gaffigan’s tempo, however, sometimes brought the music to near-standstill. A Brucknerian quality was apparent in the slow movement, which received a warmly neo-Romantic reading, not lacking in necessary malice. The finale proved colourful, but a well-paced performance could not disguise its excess of repetitions.

The second half opened with a number of close-harmony pieces from the American group, Hudson Shad. I am not convinced that concert-hall listening is really quite right for such music: perhaps they would be better off in a bar, with drinks and chatter. (But then, I was never able to understand Cambridge choirs’ enthusiasm for them; I longed to hear more Byrd instead…) My patience for Kurt Jurmann’s hit Veronika, der Lenz its da was limited indeed, but others seemed to enjoy its ever-so-mild camp. Likewise the other Jurmann song, and the two contributions from Dimitri Tiomkin. ‘Speak Low’ from A Touch of Venus served to reinforce my prejudice that Weill’s music lost almost all interest upon emigration across the Atlantic. The short Klopslied, however, was recognisably the work of Busoni’s pupil, albeit with a healthy dose of surrealism thrown in. The gentlemen did not overplay it, thereby letting its anarchic wit speak for itself. It was a real find (for me, that is).


For The Seven Deadly Sins, Gaffigan and the orchestra returned, joined by Storm Large, a singer with real presence, indeed real star quality. For a performance in English (the translation by Auden and Kallman), one is better putting out of one’s mind the world of Lotte Lenya. That was surprisingly easy, for Large, ably accompanied, made the work very much her own, in a subtle, sharply observed, finely enunciated performance. She could act, but did not need to draw attention to the fact, just as she could sing and dance, again without any need for underlining. The shedding of her overcoat spoke volumes; so did the chill of those spoken Anna II statements: ‘Right, Anna’. With a wind-heavy band that sounded just right, with Gaffigan unfailingly adopting tempi that sounded equally right, and with just the proper sense, from time to time, of a little rhythmic drag, Weill permitted Brecht to speak. Dance rhythms pointed to Weill as ironic heir to Mahler. Much orchestral material reminded us that this was the composer of that magnificent Second Symphony. (What a pity we had not heard that in the first half instead! Or indeed the Violin Concerto.) Hudson Shad were on excellent form too, their ‘Family’ often sounding very much of a Neue Sachlichkeit world, the bite of Brecht’s text – ‘Shameless hoarders earn themselves a bad name’ – drawing blood. The exploration of sins had a properly cumulative effect as far as ‘Envy’, after which the Epilogue proved a further study in alienation. They were going home to Louisana, to that little home beside the Mississippi. ‘Right, Anna!’

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Royal Opera (cinema broadcast), 15 November 2016

Royal Opera House (viewed at Curzon Mayfair)

Hoffmann – Vittorio Grigòlo
Four Villains – Thomas Hampson
Olympia – Sofia Fomina
Giulietta – Christine Rice
Antonia – Sonya Yoncheva
Nicklausse – Kate Lindsey
Spalanzani – Christophe Montagne
Crespel – Eric Halfvarson
Four Servants – Vincent Ordonneau
Spirit of Antonia’s Mother – Catherine Carby
Nathanael – David Junghoon Kim
Hermann – Charles Rice
Schlemil – Yuriy Yurchuk
Luther – Jeremy White
Stella – Olga Sabadoch

John Schlesinger (director)
Daniel Dooner (revival director)
William Dudley (set designs)
David Hersey (lighting)
Maria Björnson (costumes)
Eleanor Fazan (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Evelino Pidò (conductor)

Oh dear! One might travel far before seeing so dramatically inert a production of anything. ‘Revived’ – hardly the mot juste here – by Daniel Dooner, pretty much the only saving grace accompanying this ancient staging by John Schlesinger was the news that it will be its last. In vain did one seek for irony. Offenbach’s taste and wit, it seemed, had been paid off, with a generous settlement. Indeed, one sensed that one Manhattan-based master of ‘settlements’ and theatrical criticism would have approved, together with his chums in the bizarre ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ group. As for the edition used, the less said the better, but imagine the outcry if Bruckner performances were still being given in the Schalk ‘versions’, perhaps with a few odds and ends thrown in for the hell of it. This, as Mahler would have put it, was tradition as Schlamperei.

For the designs – there is nothing more to the production, certainly no hint of a critical stance, let alone a Konzept – speak of vulgar ostentation. Although ostensibly set when it ‘should’ be, earlier in the nineteenth century, this looked more like a Second Empire recreation, albeit one that had seen better days. The Palais Garnier is a thing of wonder; if you are going to do ‘style of Napoleon III’, then go all out for it. This, however, is not; it is merely tedious. If the æsthetic aspired to Donald Trump, it ended up being more minor West End musical. If ‘lavish’, for some unfathomable reason, is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Offenbach, then I suppose you might have liked this, but surely anyone would have baulked at the bizarre, am-dram over-acting of some members of the chorus. Perhaps that was a matter of cinematic close-up, but it was at best an occasion, well-taken (unfortunately) for laughter. At any rate, for an evening that dragged so, I was grateful to be seated in the comfort of the Curzon Mayfair rather than squeezed into the Royal Opera House’s Amphitheatre.

That it dragged was also the fault of Evelino Pidò’s leaden conducting. There was no lightness, no air, no direction, just endless plodding through. Offenbach’s musical drama – and I am far from convinced he is at his most successful in this work – is a delicate flower. The score simply sounded suffocated.

At least the singing was better. Vittorio Grigòlo’s untiring commitment put me in mind of Roberto Alagna, although vocally, Grigòlo was certainly more secure than his mercurial counterpart can sometimes be. Stylistically, his voice and manner are perhaps not ideal, but there was much to be enjoy. (As you will have guessed, I took what I could.) Kate Lindsey impressed greatly as Nicklausse, in a stylish, equally committed performance. She can act too, and did. Christine Rice’s Giulietta brought a touch of vocal opulence. It was neither unwelcome nor inappropriate, tempered as it was with taste, quite unlike its scenic equivalent (For her act, Schlesinger seemed to have in mind, quite without irony, or indeed without eroticism, the world of ‘vintage’ soft porn. Again, laughter ensued.) Sofia Fomina handled the challenges of Olympia’s coloratura with ease, and portrayed the very particular acting challenges of her doll’s role convincingly. Sonya Yoncheva’s Antonia was sincere enough, but it sounded as if she would have been happier singing Verdi. Catherine Carby’s brief appearance as her mother brought much needed relief. Thomas Hampson’s performances suggested that his voice is now seriously beyond repair. Not only, as one might have suspected, did the lower notes lie awkwardly for him; so did many at the top too. Smaller roles were taken well; David Junghoon Kim’s Nathanael caught my ear.

As theatre, though, this was strictly for those who like to applaud scenery. And even they might have preferred to check into a certain Washington hotel for the real thing.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

London Sinfonietta/Furrer - Furrer, FAMA, 11 November 2016

St John’s, Smith Square

Isabelle Munke (actress)
Eva Furrer (contrabass flute)
EXAUDI (chorus master: James Weeks)
Sophie Motley (staging advisor)
London Sinfonietta
Beat Furrer (conductor)

Premiered in 2005 at Donaueschingen – how reassuringly modernist that sounds! – Beat Furrer’s sound theatre piece has now, finally, reached London. First performed in a large ‘box’, in which about 300 audience members were seated, the musicians outside, the speaker/actress moving within and without, it must have sounded – and indeed looked – very different from its incarnation at St John’s, Smith Square. There was here, of course, no question of opening and closing the walls and celings, but instruments and choir still moved around the audience, making use of the balcony too. If a work is not to remain entirely site-specific – in any case, the box apparently no longer exists – then it will need to take on new life. That goes for Parsifal as much as for the Monteverdi Vespers, for FAMA as much as for Nono’s Promoteo.  

Besides, one can imagine; as Wagner, Nono, and doubtless Monteverdi would tell us, imaginary theatre is often most powerful of all, or at least differently powerful. A young woman, her roots in Arthur Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else, will adapt in the theatre of our imagination, but will and should remain a stranger to herself, looking in dramatically as well as physically. She will still find herself eventually in the house of Ovid’s Fama, ‘entirely of sounding ore, resonating ubiquitously it hurls back in imitation what it hears,’ but it will always be for us to construct that house, as well as to make it resonate, perhaps visually as well as aurally. Whether I quite managed to do so on first acquaintance, I am less than sure, but deepening acquaintance, in something worth acquainting oneself with, will always be a Beckettian case of failing better. I should certainly like the opportunity to do so again.

One of the most arresting, even fantastical, passages for me came with the opening Latin ensemble. The sense of fantasy – not in the debased, modern usage – was as much instrumental as it was vocal, and in any case the border, in the best music-theatre tradition, was far from clear. Highly rhythmical, colourful exuberance played intriguingly with this particular acoustic. The London Sinfonietta and EXAUDI, both on typically outstanding form, were certainly not especially large of number, the latter only eight, but the ‘scale’ of work and performance sounded much larger. At times, one might have been forgiven for hearing a full-scale orchestra rather than ensemble, even if one should accept that distinction. A sense of falling away, of dissolution, more than once put me in mind of Wozzeck; but that was perhaps just my finding my bearings.  Swimming against the tide as the instrumental music sometimes seemed to be, Isabelle Menke’s role as speaker took different routes, sometimes connecting, sometimes at odds. At any rate, and not only because it opens with ‘ich höre das Feuer,’ it proved equally incendiary, paving the way for further musico-dramatic development – if I may borrow so Classical a term – in the wordless second scene.

An intriguing reinvention of recitative as well as Sprechstimme was suggested in the third scene, a pulsating instrumental tapestry both backcloth and participant. Instruments came close to speech, and vice versa. A quite different sound-world and sensibility were experienced in the short fourth scene. I do not think it was just the Italian language that made me think of Nono and Sciarrino, although that doubtless did no harm. A whistling riot of sound seemed to encapsulate the concept both of scene and work. Oh! Vi doveva pur essere, sulla terra di tutti i dolori, un giardino profondo, lontano, silente… One found the silence of that garden in sound, in music, not in silence: a liminality, perhaps, one might compare to Fama’s house. That sense of the numinous could be traced, albeit in different form, into the fifth scene. It was almost pictorial, at times, but the ‘almost’ was as important as the ‘pictorial’. Post-Romantic? Doubtless; for we all are, are we not? The experience remained fresh, though.

In the sixth scene, interaction between actress and contrabass flute solo (the excellent Eva Furrer) stood on the boundary between an acting ‘two hander’ and a post-operatic duet. Are not such confrontations, reinventions, always at the heart of music theatre? Ominous, antiphonal trombones inevitably brought resonances from the past in the seventh, before the final, eighth scene for ensemble, in which the music, the drama seemed to subside, open-ended. It struck a note that came close to, without ever quite ‘being’, or being capable of reduction to, tragedy.

The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for subsequent radio broadcast (date as yet unknown).

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Lulu, English National Opera, 9 November 2016


Lulu (Brenda Rae) and Dr Schön (James Morris)
Images: Catherine Ashmore
(sung in English)

Lulu – Brenda Rae
Countess Geschwitz – Sarah Connolly
Dresser, Schoolboy Waiter – Clare Presland
Painter, Second Client – Michael Colvin
Dr Schön, Jack the Ripper – James Morris
Alwa – Nicky Spence
Schigolch – Willard White
Animal Tamer, Athlete – David Soar
Prince, Manservant, Marquis – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Theatre Director, Banker – Graeme Danby
Fifteen-year old girl – Sarah Labiner
Girl’s Mother – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Artist – Sarah Champion
Journalist – Geoffrey Dolton
Dr Goll, Police Commissioner, First Client – Rolf Higgins
Servant – Paul Sheehan
Solo performers – Joanna Dudley, Andrea Fabi 

William Kentridge (director)
Luc de Wit (associate director)
Sabine Theunissen (set designs)
Greta Goiris (costumes)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Catherine Meyburgh, Kim Gunning (video)


ENO’s new Lulu proved another triumph for the company: just what ENO should be doing; just, indeed, what ENO is for. Will the cabal of management consultants and the Arts Council – or, as it insists on calling itself, sans article, ‘Arts Council England’ – listen? No, of course not. Their priorities, as they have shown time and time again, and with increasing vindictiveness, are quite different. Whoever met a neo-liberal artist or, indeed a neo-liberal art lover? (How I wish the translation had not left ‘Jungfrau’, or ‘Virgin’, tactfully in the German original…) One might, I suppose, quibble, whether ENO needed a new production; Richard Jones’s excellent staging might well have received another outing. (It should certainly have been staged more regularly than it was, but that, I suspect is more a comment on opera audiences than on artistic design.) But ENO did not mount this by itself; it performed us ‘citizens of the world’ a signal service by granting us the opportunity to see this much-discussed William Kentridge production, already seen in New York and Amsterdam. To say we should only have one, is akin to saying that because we have heard Daniel Barenboim play Beethoven, we have no need to hear Maurizio Pollini. It is the language of enemies of art, of accountancy; worse still, it is the language of those journalists determined never to miss an opportunity to find fault.  

Joanna Dudley, Lulu, and Schigolch (Willard White)

I shall admit to having been puzzled by some of the discussion I overheard. More than once I heard people complaining about there having been too much going on, even ‘sensory overload’. Have such people, I wonder, ever seen a Stefan Herheim production? More to the point, did they not think of how visual layering, the interaction between layers, between the visual and the aural, might actually be the point, a point very much in keeping with the work? What I saw was actually a relatively conventional, but highly theatrical telling of the story, enhanced, questioned, developed by an extension of its painterly imagery both in expressionistic drawings and film – an exhibition of Kentridge’s art may be seen presently at Whitechapel – and in the alluring yet sometimes ironic commentary, still very much in allusive ‘period’ style, by the silent artists, Joanna Dudley and Andrea Fabi. It was not remotely too much; indeed, like Berg’s score, it left me wanting more. This blackest of comedies gained in darkness – this was the night following the US election, something readily observable on almost every face in the house – and in sophistication of comedic response. I began to think of Berg’s musico-dramatic roots in Mozart and Wagner, in particular, and also of what he had in common with Strauss, another heir to that exalted pair, yet one far too little thought of has having much in common with the more overtly ‘progressive’, yet perhaps equally ‘nostalgic’, Berg.

Lulu and Geschwitz (Sarah Connolly)

Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting of the score, superlatively played by the ENO Orchestra was, of course, crucial in that respect. As Boulez, at work on the three-act premiere, once observed, ‘It is not so much the use of symmetry as the exploiting of multiple musical forms that is one of the most complex and attractive features’ of the music. Rather it in the confrontation between what Boulez broadly considered to be characteristic Mozartian number opera and the continuous – to which, I might add, increasingly symphonic – forms of Wagner that Lulu, in a different, or at least more complicated, less overt, way than Wozzeck will best find its performative voice. For Boulez, ‘The great advance from Wozzeck to Lulu lies in the fact that, although the scenes are still separated by interludes, there is now no “passage” between them.’ He found himself, unsurprisingly, especially attracted by the ‘fusion between continuity and formal separateness’. That, I think, was very much what we heard, and perhaps also what we saw, or at least what was suggested by what we saw, here. An especially fine woodwind section could not help but bring Mozart to mind: not just the Mozart of Così fan tutte but the composer of the wind serenades too. It was not for nothing that, in one of his final recordings, Boulez returned to Berg’s Chamber Concerto, coupling it with the Gran partita, KV 361. Melodies, harmonies, audibly generated before our ears by Berg’s endlessly fascinating compositional processes, and yet audibly as ‘free’ as they were ‘determined’, tantalised, instructed, informed, criticised, rather as the drawings, films, words, actions did before our eyes. This was no mere mirroring; it was mutual enhancement and elucidation, a new path through the Bergian labyrinth.


An excellent cast was necessary too, of course, and an excellent cast we had. Brenda Rae, who so greatly impressed me in the Bavarian State Opera’s Schweigsame Frau – now there is an interesting Strauss-Berg comparison to consider – shone at least as brightly as Lulu. The canvas on which we more or less uneasily project our fantasies of Lulu was no more empty than the changing visual decoration of the set, but, amidst, or perhaps beneath, the despatch of the coloratura and the seduction of the more conventional melodic line, there was a fine balance struck between nihilism and defiant character. Sarah Connolly’s Geschwitz certainly had the latter in spades; if I have seen and heard a stronger, more compassionate performance from her, I cannot recall it (which seems unlikely). If James Morris’s Dr Schön was at times a little stiff, there was certainly authority to be felt there, and his way with the words was especially admirable. Nicky Spence’s Alva struck another fine balance, in this case between the ardent and the cowardly; again, an admirable way with words and music projected ambiguity without easy, or perhaps any, answers. Willard White’s Schigolch was less caricatured, less repellent than one often experiences; such ambiguity was also decidedly a gain. There were no weak links, and a host of splendid character performances, artists such as Michael Colvin and Sarah Labiner particularly catching my ear. At least as impressive, though, was the ensemble work. In the Paris Scene, one might almost have thought this a crack new music ensemble, such was the clarity and confidence with which the lines were projected and with which they were interacted. It might almost have been a rehearsal for, or a response to, Strauss’s homage to his adored Così in Capriccio.