Friday, 21 December 2007

Parsifal, Royal Opera, 21 December 2007

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Gurnemanz – Sir John Tomlinson
Kundry – Petra Lang
Amfortas – Falk Struckmann
Parsifal – Christopher Ventris
Titurel – Gwynne Howell
Klingsor – Sir Willard White
First Knight – Nikola Matišic
Second Knight – Krysztof Szumanski
Esquires – Ji-Min Park, Harriet Williams, Haoyin Xue, Rebecca de Pont Davies
Flowermaidens – Pumeza Matshikza, Elizabeth Cragg, Malin Christensson, Ana James, Kishani Jayasinghe, Anita Watson

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Klaus Michael Grüber (director)
Ellen Hammer (revival director)
Vera Dobroschke and Giles Aillaud (designers)

Bernard Haitink’s return to Covent Garden was always going to be special. This, after all, was the man who saved the orchestra from New Labour’s attempts to disband it, and therefore saved the company as we know it. No one present at the Royal Albert Hall’s concert performances of the Ring will ever forget those performances or Haitink’s well-timed intervention when he asked the public for help. During his time at the Royal Opera, Haitink excelled in a wide range of repertoire, from Mozart to Tippett, but it is for his conducting of Wagner above all others that he will be remembered. We were fortunate indeed, then, that he chose to make his return with Parsifal – or, indeed, that he chose to make his return at all, given his understandable feelings concerning the political manœuvring at the Royal Opera House.

I am delighted to report that however high our expectations may have been, Haitink amply fulfilled them. Just occasionally, I had wondered whether I had been romanticising his tenure; if anything, I realised that I had underestimated what we have lost. Whilst I have been most fortunate to hear some very fine Wagner conducting in the theatre, including performances by Barenboim, Rattle, and Thielemann, this Parsifal confirmed once again why Haitink must rank as the greatest living Wagner conductor. He has the ability not only to hear Parsifal as one great span, but to convey this organically to the audience as if it were the easiest thing in the world. This is the directional hearing of music in the distance that Furtwängler termed Fernhören. It works at a more microscopic level too. Never do I recall hearing the Prelude to Act I evolving so seamlessly into the opening bars of that act proper. Yet variation within overarching unity in no way loses out. The ‘break’ came, as it should, yet so rarely does, when, after morning prayer, Gurnemanz instructs the squires to rise and to attend to Amfortas’s bath. Perhaps more impressive still was the opening of the second act. Haitink pulled off – seemingly effortlessly – the trick of introducing the contrast of a new world, that of Klingsor and a ‘different’ Kundry – whilst relating it to what had gone before. There was drive, fury even, but never brashness, and the melos resumed almost as if the interval had never occurred. A true sign of greatness, moreover, in Wagner conducting is economy with climaxes, an economy shared with the composer himself. There are few things worse than the climax-every-other-bar, deaf-and-blind-to-structure conducting of a Solti; Haitink could not be further removed from this.

I also noticed how careful Haitink was to delineate the very particular sound world of Parsifal. The music sounded truly ‘lit from behind’, in Debussy’s celebrated formulation and in many sense also sounded closer to Pelléas than I can recall hearing before. It would come as no surprise to anybody that this most ‘unshowy’ of operas is one in which Haitink has excelled, and the sense of more than one might initially realise bubbling beneath the surface is common to both. Wagner’s art of transition is all the more powerful for its magic being only just perceptible. This is not to say that there is no muscle, no rhythmic impetus, far from it, but the development is never four-square. It is all too easy to underline motifs in the Ring; here it would be truly deadly, since their meaning and status within the whole is all the more malleable. The long line and the slow burn are everything – and they certainly were in this performance.

Haitink was royally served by his old orchestra, whose joy in having a seasoned Wagnerian back at its helm was palpable. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House does not have the great ‘German’ sound of, say, the state orchestras of Berlin or Dresden, nor the magical sweetness of Vienna, yet this perhaps enabled it more readily to sound closer to Debussy. The strings were silky smooth, at times almost Karajanesque, albeit without the Austrian conductor’s occasional – and sometimes more than occasional – chrome plating. They exhibited a wonderful ability to play softly yet with richness of tone, and when the great climaxes came, the swell was beautifully rounded. The brass section was equally impressive, not least those crucial liturgical trombones. Not even under Karajan or Knappertsbusch, moreover, have I heard the dramatic role of the kettledrums so perfectly realised: punctuating, inciting, remarking. The end of the second act was a case in point, recalling what had gone before but also looking forward from this ‘drama’ to the return of ‘liturgy’ in the final act.

John Tomlinson, fresh from his triumph as Wotan, proved every bit as memorable as Gurnemanz. The old man’s narrations were crystal clear and ineffably moving through the depth of their experience: experience belonging to the character, the actor-singer, the orchestra and conductor, and of course to Wagner. The agony of Monsalvat, the community in crisis, was here personified in the stoic Gurnemanz as much as the wounded Amfortas, without ever tending towards facile hysteria. Falk Struckmann, almost incredibly making his Covent Garden debut, was a noble Amfortas, agonised but far from the Nietzschean caricature. Since there are more difficult Heldentenor roles than that of Parsifal, it is easy to underestimate the achievement of a well-sung, well-acted Parsifal, but this was what Christopher Ventris presented, within the confines of the production (on which more below). To begin with, the character seemed a little nondescript, but I soon realised that there was development at work, a development that the work if not the production ascribes to grace. It was quite right that the Parsifal of the third act should be more heroic than that of the callow, ignorant youth of the first. As Kundry, Petra Lang performed a similar service. There have been more searingly dramatic portrayals of this most extraordinary of Wagnerian roles, but there was no cause for complaint and much cause for rejoicing in this deeply musical assumption. Her acting skills, such as could be deployed, were very much of a piece with her singing. And Willard White, another deep-voiced musical knight, treated us to an excellent Klingsor, secure of line and full-bodied of tone. As Kundry appreciates early on, Klingsor is malevolent yet so utterly vulnerable; both qualities were dialectically apparent in White’s reading. The choral singing was well handled too, not just in its musical qualities but in its layered positioning, aptly suggesting the spatial qualities of a great basilica. There was admittedly something of a trade-off between atmosphere and verbal comprehensibility, but this should not be exaggerated.

It pains me then to say this but, as I have already implied, the production helped no one. It seemed a waste of time when the Royal Opera bought it in for Simon Rattle. If anything, the revival director (and previously ‘associate director’), Ellen Hammer appeared to have made things worse. And for the Royal Opera to have failed to have come up with its own production the second time around was insulting to the performers and to the audience. If absolutely necessary, another production on loan would have been preferable: pretty much any other production on loan. The first act was bearable, with one reasonably striking image – that echoing Leonardo’s Last Supper, albeit to no particular dramatic effect. For some reason the Grail was a smallish piece of rock. To describe the direction of the second act as amateurish would be charitable. Quite apart from the garish designs, Personenregie was almost entirely absent: the characters were casually and unforgivably abandoned by the direction. Poor Kundry had to spend most of the time standing in the same position of the stage, not even looking at Parsifal and merely singing to the audience: a quasi-concert performance without any of the real thing’s virtues. Nor did this appear to be saying anything about the characters’ separation, alienation, etc., etc. Herbert Wernicke’s Covent Garden Tristan made a point of doing so and worked very well, at a fascinating level of colour-symbolic abstraction. Klaus Michael Grüber and his team from the Berlin Schaubühne merely seemed to have no idea whatsoever what to do. As for the third act, the banality of the strange spotlit moving rock during the Transformation Music pretty much summed it up.

It would be in vain to pretend that this did not matter at all. Wagner’s theatrical vision is all-encompassing; his work deserves nothing less than the best in every department. Yet somehow, despite the hapless stage direction, the greatness of Haitink’s musical direction shone through. This was never more the case than in the transcendence of the closing bars, which reached a perfection such as I do not ever recall hearing before in Parsifal, not even in the awe-inspiring Zen of late Karajan. Schopenhauer’s Will seemed finally to have been pacified, which would have been achievement enough in more propitious circumstances. Inevitability and wholesale transformation were as one. Wagner conducting does not, indeed could not, get better than this.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Der Silbersee, 16 December 2007

Philharmonie, Berlin

Simon Pauly – Erster Bursche
Yorck Felix Speer – Zweiter Bursche
Torsten Kerl – Severin
Thomas Thieme – Olim
Mojca Erdmann – Erste Verkäuferin
Vanessa Barkowski – Zweite Verkäuferin
Burkhard Ulrich – Lotterieagent
Hanna Schwarz – Frau Luber
Christiane Oelze – Fennimore
Stephan Rügamer – Baron Laur

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

This concert performance of Der Silbersee by Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser was part of the Deutsches Symphonie Orchestra’s series, ‘Von deutscher Seele’, initiated by its new principal conductor, Ingo Metzmacher. For the ‘German’ Symphony Orchestra, an exploration of various aspects of what it feels and is to be German seems apt. The range of the series, named after Hans Pfitzner’s cantata, has been commendably wide-ranging. This is anything but a nationalistic exercise such as would have appealed to Pfitzner. The full title of the play with music, Der Silbersee: Ein Wintermärchen echoes Heine’s ironical and bitingly satirical Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen, a cri de coeur against the reactionary policies and attitudes the poet saw pursued and enthroned in his homeland. Weill and Kaiser likewise maintained an ambivalent – and in that, profoundly German – attitude towards their country. How could they not in 1933, the year of its first performances, just before the Nazi seizure of power? Heine had been writing from Parisian exile, which Weill was soon to experience for himself. This concert performance did not present the play, which would have made for a very long evening indeed, but rather introduced a linking commentary with some dialogue, which worked well. There were very minor cuts and occasional, again very minor, reordering.

Metzmacher led a splendid performance. Rhythmic impetus was balanced with relaxation where necessary, which told the more for its lack of indulgence. The orchestra seemed at home with Weill’s idiom, shining corporately and in terms of solos, not least in terms of the fine principal trumpet. What might in other circumstances have sounded hard-driven in the opening here seemed well considered: a sonic depiction of the hustle and bustle of inter-war Germany. The flip side, equally well handled, was the sleazier side of that world. Symphony orchestras can sometimes seem too refined in Weill. That was not the case here; nor was it the case that all refinement was thrown to the wind, in vain emulation of a ‘jazz’ style that is certainly not Weill’s either.

The vocal soloists were also of a high standard and equally idiomatic in their varied ways. Thomas Thieme’s role of Olim, the policeman who repents of his shooting of Severin, is largely a spoken role. Thieme did well enough in the little he had to sing; the discrepancy between his and the trained voices did not matter too much. And he spoke his other lines with clarity and feeling. He seemed genuinely to be enjoying taking part in a musical performance: sometimes one could see his foot tapping to Weill’s rhythms. Torsten Kerl gave a very fine performance as Severin, equally alert to the twists and turns of Kaiser’s text and Weill’s response. Such was the dramatic truth of his portrayal that one barely missed conventional staging. Christiane Oelze sang beautifully as Fennimore, which is the principal requirement of this slightly vacant siren role. Her final, distanced vocal entreaties as Severin and Olim reached the Silbersee were aptly moving. Save for one unfortunate slip, Burkhard Ulrich gave a splendid account of the sleazy lottery agent, all too ready to dispense financial advice to Olim, serendipitously come into an inheritance. And Hanna Schwarz stole the show with her wonderfully vampish Frau Luber. Although it seemed a pity that so experienced a singer had so little to sing, the acting of the rest of her part suggested that she could readily pursue a career in the spoken theatre. The twenty-nine strong chorus’s performance of Weill’s deceptively ‘straightforward’ music was of a very high standard throughout. It provided commentary, incitement, and response rather like an updated version of the chorus from a Bach passion – surely a model here, as in Mahagonny.

If Weill’s inspiration varies a little throughout the score, much of the music is of a high quality indeed, and none is dull. This was an extremely valuable performance of a neglected work, which ought to point the way to further performances both inside and outside Germany. The German soul of Pfitzner’s title, if not his intention, should be duly gratified and enriched. It would have taken a harsh soul indeed not to respond to this fine successor to Heine’s satirical yet far from hopeless vision. To reach and to cross the Silbersee did not seem totally out of reach.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Don Giovanni, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 15 December 2007

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Don Giovanni – René Pape
Donna Anna – Anna Samuil
Don Ottavio – Pavol Breslik
Commendatore – Christof Fischesser
Donna Elvira – Annette Dasch
Leporello – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Masetto – Arttu Kataja
Zerlina – Sylvia Schwartz

Staatskapelle Berlin
Staatsopernchor Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Peter Mussbach (director)

Don Giovanni was the first opera Daniel Barenboim conducted, with the English Chamber Orchestra at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival. He has lived with the score for more than thirty years, returning to it on several occasions. The results on this occasion were nothing less than magnificent so far as he and the Staatskapelle Berlin were concerned. I have never heard a better orchestral performance in the opera house. The burnished strings played with vigour, with tenderness, with clarity, with a richness of blend, with the occasional delicious and perfectly judged portamento, in short with every quality one could reasonably ask of the section and a few more besides. Even Ingo Kroll’s mandolin playing sounded more beautiful and more perfectly matched with the string section proper than I can recall hearing in any other performance. The beauty of the woodwind would have made Vienna look to its laurels. Woodwind solos were achingly beautiful; the sense of chamber music when section members combined inevitably put one in mind of Mozart’s great wind serenades. Some of the flute playing tempted one to suspect a pact with the Devil. Indeed, do not recall ever hearing such an array of orchestral colours, whether in terms of soli or ensembles, in a performance of Don Giovanni. The brass and timpani too were more impressive than one could ever have hoped. The trombones did not merely thrill, did not merely instill a sense of dread, during the Stone Guest scene; they imparted an almost noumenal presence of another world. They recalled not only the equali for trombone quartet of Habsburg state funerals, not only Handel’s Saul and Israel in Egypt, but above all the ancient – at least in eighteenth-century terms – association of the instrument with death and the supernatural.

Moreover, I was truly unprepared for the grand style of Barenboim’s interpretation, which harked back to Furtwängler without the slightest sense of restoration or preciousness. There was no question here of reductionism, no question of failing to put his great orchestra fully at the service of the drama. In this of all Mozart’s operas, such is not merely a luxury, but an absolute necessity, yet a necessity which in most performances counts for almost nothing. As Julian Rushton, whose Cambridge Opera Handbook is an invaluable if sober study of the work, has nevertheless been moved to write: ‘Mozart is … the catalyst whose influence changed the subject [of Don Juan] from the proper interest of Latin Europe and Catholic morality, and from the status of both vulgar and enlightened entertainment, to the proper interest of Northern Faustian philosophy.’ For at the very time at which Mozart, at the very height of his musico-dramatical powers, faced the task of setting and modifying Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, was also, far from coincidentally, the time at which the Don Juan myth, more than a century and a half old, was most ripe to look backward and forward, if only it could attract a dramatist or dramatists fit for the task. Worlds old and new are treated in terms social, political, cultural, and æsthetic – and in terms that combine various or all of these headings in different measure. The canvas then is vast, profound, and eclectic, as Barenboim and his orchestra succeeded supremely in bringing to the audience’s realisation. At the same time, and equally importantly, there was in Barenboim’s reading no want of tenderness, of heart-rending pianissimi, of willingness and indeed ability to relax the reins where required. Tempi were flexible, yet never at the expense of an all-encompassing structural control. The leaps of style, for instance Elvira’s neo-Handelian ‘Fuggi il traditor’ were navigated with aplomb, and without making them seem greater leaps than they actually are. Mozart knew precisely what he was doing here.

However, the soloists did not quite live up to the nigh impossible task of matching Barenboim and the Staatskapelle. One who may have done and certainly came very close was Hanno Müller-Brachmann. His Leporello was lively, attentive to the text, and unfailingly musical. Müller-Brachmann was impressively attuned to the social characteristics of his role. For instance, Leporello’s opening music, which immediately follows the Overture, has already been characterised by its rhythm. Upon expressing to his master the wish that he might become a gentleman, a socio-musical ascent occurs, slightly wild and certainly vigorous melodic leaps being replaced by conjunct melodic motion, characteristic of the aristocratic minuet. This was not lost upon Müller-Brachmann, whose quicksilver response was an object lesson in style.

As Don Giovanni, René Pape sang perfectly well, but ultimately seemed a little out of sorts, given the expectations one might have had of him in the role. There were even a couple of brief moments of disjunction with the orchestra, although it was impossible to know who was at fault there. Whilst there was no question of a lack of musicality, nor of depth of tone, the incessant energy lying at the heart of the role, epitomised by the fizz of the Champagne Aria, was not quite as it should be. That said, Pape’s heroic defiance in his final scene, refusing the Commendatore’s entreaties to repent, was breathtaking. Pavol Breslik impressed greatly in the thankless role of Don Ottavio. Breslik’s singing evinced great beauty and nobility, and somehow he avoided seeming unduly impressed by the bizarrely hideous costume and make-up he was compelled to wear. The Masetto and Commendatore despatched their parts without leaving any profound impression. Likewise, the female characters lacked any real sense of star quality. Sylvia Schwartz’s Zerlina came to life for a beautiful ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’, but otherwise remained somewhat anonyomous. Anna Samuil and Annette Dasch did nothing wrong, but again there was little presented that ultimately seared itself upon the memory.

And then, sadly, there was the production. Whatever was Peter Mussbach thinking of? The apparent answer would be very little, since there was almost nothing to the production and ‘designs’ – he is accredited with responsibility for both – other than an endlessly revolving wall and the occasional, irritating appearance of a motorcycle. Costumes, the work of Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, were dreadful and to no particular reason that I could discern. Pavel Breslik had the worst of it, but René Pape was hardly flattered either. The only other aspect worth mentioning (perhaps) is the inability of any of the characters to keep their hands off one another, sometimes at the most inappropriate of times. This was not daring; there was no sense of the terrifying sexual imperative that Calixto Bieto’s direction brought to Don Giovanni; it seemed rather to betoken a desperation from the aimless direction for the characters to ‘do’ something, indeed anything. This Don Giovanni, despite my reservations concerning some of the singing, would almost certainly have been one of my ‘Seen and Heard’ performances of the year, had it not been for the total dearth of theatrical engagement from the production.

However, I should reiterate the undeniable, indeed almost incredible, greatness of the contribution from Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. For them and for Müller-Brachmann this Don Giovanni demands to be seen, or at least to be heard.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Elektra, Deutsche Oper, 14 December 2007

Deutsche Oper Berlin

Klytämnestra – Jane Henschel
Elektra – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Chrysothemis – Claudia Iten
Aegisth – Burkhard Ulrich
Orest – Alfred Walker
Der Pfleger des Orest – Tomislav Lucic
Die Vertraute – Sarah Ferede
Die Schleppträgerin – Anna Fleischer
Ein junger Diener – Paul Kaufmann
Ein alter Diener – Jörn Schümann
Die Aufseherin – Stephanie Weiss
Erste Magd – Nicole Piccolomini
Zweite Magd – Julia Benzinger
Dritte Magd – Ulrike Helzel
Vierte Magd – Andion Fernandez
Fünfte Magd – Jacquelyn Wagner

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Dancers from the Ballet of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Leopold Hager (conductor)

Kirsten Harms (director)
Bernd Damovsky (stage design and costumes)

For earlier performances, the Deutsche Oper had hit upon the fascinating idea of preceding Elektra with Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra, known to Strauss and premiered four years earlier in 1905 under Toscanini. Cassandra deals with a preceding section of the myth of the accursed house of Atreus, focusing upon Klytemnestra’s murderous revenge upon Agamemnon for the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, as foretold by the ever-unheeded prophetess Cassandra. Sadly, the performance I could attend was solely of Elektra, yet I tried nevertheless to bear in mind the mythological context, with the result that the characters’ hysterical derangement seemed slightly less arbitrary than otherwise might have been the case. The curse of Pelops upon his sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of Chrysippos, their half-brother, reaches down to yet another generation.

Bernd Damovsky’s set, simple but not abstract, focused attention upon the bestial existence Elektra has led since the murder of Agamemnon. Banished from what passes for human society in the palace of Mycenae, she crawls around upon the ground, a waste land of broken images, awaiting vengeance from her brother, Orest. Others looked in upon her, whether from above or on her level, whether to mock or to fear, but this was definitely her space. The jeering maids, all very well sung, surrounded and yet could not break her, likewise the grotesque Klytämnestra. For Kirsten Harms’s excellent Personenregie focused our attention ever more keenly upon the extraordinary dynamics of this family and its supporting cast. The situation had become so desperate, as much for Klytämnestra and Aegisth as anyone else, that something had to happen. And of course it did.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet summoned up a tremendous performance in the title-role, a role as cruelly relentless as the opera itself. The very occasional moment of tiredness could easily be forgiven in the context of a portrayal encompassing such violent and yet never quite un-musical swings. It was certainly not all presented at full-throttle: despite the ominous presence of Strauss’s huge orchestra, there was considerable subtlety of vocal shading to this Elektra. Dancers from the opera’s ballet acted out her dance for her, albeit with her interaction, suggesting a projection of her dreams and nightmares even unto death.

Leopold Hager’s excellent conducting assisted greatly in permitting Charbonnet to accomplish this. A conductor who never quite seems to have gained the regard his due, and perhaps best known for his Mozart, Hager was quite at home with the exigencies of the score. Whilst in the final reckoning this reading may have lacked the razor-sharp attention to line and to colouristic extravagance of a Christoph von Dohnányi, I have rarely heard the crucial dance element to so much of the music brought out so tellingly, especially in the run up to Elektra’s final, wild dance itself. We are not nearly so far from Der Rosenkavalier as might be imagined. In this, of course, Hager was dependent upon the strength of his orchestra, whose strings and brass in particular impressed. The brass contribution to the coming of Orest was crucial not only in identifying the mysterious stranger, but also in underlying the Wagnerian sound of Fate, without which the drama would seem merely sensational.

Jane Henschel is not the sort of artist to give so searingly nasty a reading of Klytämnestra as, say, Felicity Palmer (whom I have seen in London and Amsterdam), but the grotesquerie of this mother on her very last legs provided compensation. This never tipped into caricature, but her hysterical laughter duly horrified, upon momentarily regaining the upper hand, having taunted her daughter with news of Orest’s death. It focused more sharply what her words and vocal line had already told us, proceeding from her dreams rather than seeming a gratuitous addition to an already over-heated atmosphere. Burkhard Ulrich’s Aegisth was suitably sinister, oozing malevolent decay, yet once again without edging into caricature, as so often happens in this small but crucial part. Alfred Walker presented a fine Orest, absolutely secure in the role that Fate has allotted him, beautiful and implacably strong of tone, and truly moving during the revelation of his identity to Elektra. The orchestra’s role in the Recognition Scene – essentially, following Wagner, as Chorus to the protagonists – assisted them greatly, as did Hager’s astute musical direction. So much that could not be said in words followed the moment of recognition. Also deeply moving was Claudia Iten’s heartfelt Chrysothemis, unconditional in her love for her afflicted sister, yet appropriately horrified by Elektra’s plans.

Viewed as a whole, the performance took a little while to scale the heights, or perhaps to plumb the depths, although it was never less than very good. If I found myself desperately wishing for Orest to arrive, even if only to introduce a male voice into the world of sometimes shrill female hysteria, then that is doubtless as it should be. From the moment of Orest’s arrival, everything appeared to move up a gear; the working out of Fate was made absolutely clear. The last half hour or so was almost unbearably powerful. In this strange tragedy without catharsis, one cannot but feel browbeaten by the end, but it would be unbearable in the wrong sense, were this to have resulted from a bad or mediocre performance. There was no question of that here, in what must be accounted a considerable triumph for Berlin’s Deutsche Oper.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Dessau/Brecht - Die Verurteiling des Lukullus, Komische Oper, 12 December 2007

Komische Oper, Berlin

12 December 2007

Kor-Jan Dusseljee – Lukullus
Markus John – Commentator
Jens Larsen – Judge of the Dead
Hans-Peter Scheidegger – The King
Erika Roos – The Queen
Gabriela Maria Schmeide – The Fishwife
Christiane Oertel – The Courtesan
Christoph Späth – The Teacher
Peter Renz – The Baker
Karen Rettinghaus, Miriam Meyer, Karolina Andersson – Women’s Voices
Anna Kokhanov – First Child
Sophia Duwensee – Second Child

Choir, Children’s Choir, and Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin

Eberhard Kloke (conductor)

Katja Czellnik (producer)
Hartmut Meyer (designer)
Nicole Timm und Sebastian Figal (costumes)
Franck Evin (lighting)

The Komische Oper has been named Opera House of the Year by German critics. It certainly proved worthy of that title by mounting Paul Dessau’s Die Verurteilung des Lukullus, ‘The Condemnation of Lucullus’. The text is by Brecht, closely following his radio play, Das Verhör des Lukullus, ‘The Trial of Lucullus’, also the title of the opera in its first version. At the time of its premiere at the Staatsoper, the opera became embroiled in a dispute over its alleged formalism, for failing to conform to the dictates of socialist realism, yet would soon be acknowledged in East Germany as a canonical work, receiving four new productions in East Berlin alone. It also gained considerable recognition in the West, although has rather fallen out of favour since reunification. To hear Brecht (and indeed Dessau) in Berlin, and in what was East Berlin, is of course an opportunity in itself.

At this remove, it is perhaps difficult to understand why the work proved so initially controversial, although it seems that Dessau made some concessions in the second, definitive version. Musically, it will scare off no one acquainted with Kurt Weill, hints of Stravinsky and perhaps Hindemith notwithstanding. The omission of upper strings gives a Weill-like edge to the orchestral band, replete with prepared piano and trautonium (an early synthesiser). And its political message, its abhorrence of dictatorship – this was composed and received very much in the shadow of the Nuremberg trials – could hardly be stronger. The dictator Lucullus, having died, must reckon for his deeds if he is to enter the after-life. Various witness-interrogators establish beyond reasonable doubt that his sole humanitarian achievement, introducing the cherry tree to Rome, is hardly enough to erase the loss of 80,000 lives. He must instead be consigned to eternal nothingness, as the plebeian jury gains its redress.

Falschfilm’s video clips of dictators past and present accompanied the political leader’s obsequies, making its point very clearly and yet without hysteria. Beyond that, Katja Czellnik’s production and Hartmut Meyer’s designs did not always make things easy for the innocent viewer. There was always a great deal going on, often to good effect, although the profusion of what was sometimes rather bizarre imagery, not least in terms of Nicole Timm und Sebastian Figal’s garish costumes, could grow a little wearing. Less would undoubtedly have been more, at least at times. Fortunately, the cast’s diction was generally excellent, so that I could understand most of what was being said or sung, even without titles. This was doubly important given that the text was by Brecht no less.

For if I had some misgivings concerning the production, the performances themselves could not fail to win one over. Kor-Jan Dusseljee put his considerable tenor voice to good use as the anti-hero. Like the rest of the cast, he could act too. Markus John, in the spoken role of the Commentator, ensured that we had little doubt understanding what was going on, or at least what should have been going on. The world of more conventional operatic beauty made a welcome cameo with Erika Roos’s Queen, and Jens Larsen impressed with his powerful deep voice as the Judge. Perhaps the most moving portrayal was that of Gabriela Maria Schmeide’s wronged Fishwife, struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son. She seemed to me to strike just the right balance between musical and dramatic demands, a tricky business in Brechtian works.

The orchestra sounded excellent throughout. Rhythmic power and precision were married to an impressive ear for Dessau’s palette in Eberhard Kloke’s fine interpretation. Moreover, the choral singing, from children and adults, was uniformly excellent. Once again, diction was not a problem, but this was never at the expense of warmth of tone, at least where required. The jury’s final consignment of Lukullus to nothingness presented a due sense of catharsis, even though Dessau’s ultimate resolution sounded a bit too much like a socialist realist cop-out: a little more Verfremdung would not have gone amiss.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Stravinsky, Haydn, Hindemith: Staatskapelle Berlin/Zukerman, 11 December 2007

Philharmonie, Berlin

Stravinsky – Concerto in D for string orchestra
Haydn – Violin Concerto no.1 in C major, Hob VIIa:I
Hindemith – Trauermusik for viola and string orchestra
Haydn – Symphony no.99 in E flat major

Staatskapelle Berlin
Pinchas Zukerman (violin, viola, conductor)

The Stravinsky Concerto in D began promisingly. That inhuman implacability of Stravinsky’s motor rhythms, the essence of his neo-classicism and yet utterly removed from ‘real’ Austro-German Classical-Romantic music, registered with considerable power. After that, however, the orchestra sounded out of sorts and simply miscast. The Staatskapelle Berlin is, after all, one of the great standard-bearers of the traditional German orchestral sound, far more so than the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The second-movement Arioso sounded sweet enough, but the sound was more appropriate to watered-down Tchaikovsky than to Stravinskian aggression.
The outer movements brought instances of incisive rhythm, but all too often the music simply chugged along, putting one in mind – perhaps not entirely unfairly – of an updated run-of-the-mill eighteenth-century composer. This work hardly represents Stravinsky at his greatest and needs a Karajan to convince one otherwise. Perhaps Pinchas Zukerman’s mind was distracted by his forthcoming instrumental duties, since he did little to impart the urgency requisite to this music.

Haydn’s first violin concerto fared much better. The strings were slightly reduced (from twelve first violins to ten, and so forth), which maybe was not strictly necessary but nor did it do any harm. A harpsichord continuo was introduced. Again, I am not convinced of the necessity of its tinkling, but again it did no harm. Although there is a limit to what one can accomplish directing from the violin, Zukerman here proved in command of the performance. He shaped phrases nicely and imparted a measured flexibility that does not always result from such situations, especially in the hands of less experienced directors, who might be happy simply to keep the show on the road. (They would undoubtedly benefit from a conductor, although this seems increasingly unfashionable.) Zukerman’s violin tone was as beautiful as ever, which is certainly not something one should take for granted in a soloist. The absolute surety of his technique and, more importantly, the utterly musical ends to which it was put, provided a master-class in violin performance. Phrases were perfectly rounded, and there was no question of unduly dominating his orchestra. Instead, he emerged as if the senior member of one of the most distinguished string sections in the world. Each movement was appropriately characterised, without resorting to the caricatures that many performers, especially of the ‘authentic’ variety, appear to believe appropriate to eighteenth-century music. Thus the Presto finale veritably sparkled, without ever sounding hard-driven, and – a rarity these days! – the Adagio actually was an Adagio, rather than a hurried, choppily-phrased Andante. Zukerman and his players truly captured the essence, not so easily distilled, of what is in many senses a Baroque concerto in Classical style. C.P.E. Bach more than once came to mind, and not without good reason. This is not Mozart, nor is it later Haydn; there was no attempt to force this sunny work into a more ‘developed’ mould than it could take.

Hindemith’s Trauermusik also convinced, even if the level of musical invention can hardly be said to represent the composer at his most inspired, let alone to approach Haydn. The players and conductor, however, sounded convinced, which is what matters. Once again, their sonority sounded just right for the music, although here I felt that the distinct character of the work’s four movements might have been more sharply characterised. As an opportunity for Zukerman to display the equal beauty of his viola tone, however, this was an undoubted success. Not only was there an almost incredible richness to his sound; the subtleties of shading were just as impressive. Once again, Zukerman achieved the right balance between leading where necessary but also sounding as though drawn from the ensemble under his direction.

Haydn’s Symphony no.99 is, of course, music on quite a different level. It received a good performance, without ever searing itself upon one’s memory as a great rendition should. The strings were now at last joined by woodwind, brass, and timpani, which made the logic of the programme somewhat difficult to follow. It might have made more sense had this been a purely string orchestral programme, but never mind. The clarinets sometimes sounded unduly forceful, so much so that I was momentarily in doubt whether they should have been there at all. There were also a couple of surprising blemishes from the otherwise beautiful horns. The orchestra in other respects despatched the music with considerable aplomb, but there was slightly a sense of it being despatched rather than of anything more profound. The strings’ burnished tone was a joy in itself, and certainly not something to be taken for granted, but I felt a slight lack of digging deeper than the notes. For instance, the Adagio flowed without ever sounding rushed, and its harmonies ravished, yet there was little sense of how close to the mysteries of Beethoven one really is with the London symphonies. Likewise, the minuet and trio danced along merrily – and musically. But there is more at stake, not least with Haydn’s cross rhythms, than registered here. Haydn’s fabled sense of humour counted for little at the end of the finale, flawlessly etched as it was by correctly antiphonal violins and their colleagues. That said, Zukerman once again turned phrases elegantly and his chosen tempi once again seemed just right. Given some of the horrors perpetuated in the name of ‘authenticity’ – does anyone seriously think that eighteenth-century musicians were quite that unmusical? – I was not unduly worried, although I could not help thinking of the altogether more arresting experience of Mariss Jansons’s Haydn, which I reviewed in November.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Lupu/Philharmonia/Muti: Beethoven, Schumann, Mussorgsky, 2 December 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven - Overture: Die Weihe des Hauses, Op.124
Schumann - Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel) - Pictures from an Exhibition

Radu Lupu (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

This celebratory concert, long sold out, marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of Riccardo Muti's first engagement with the (New) Philharmonia Orchestra, which also culminated in Pictures from an Exhibition. After the great success of that concert, Muti was immediately signed up as Principal Conductor. Thirty-five years might not be the most significant of anniversaries, but as a pretext it serves well enough.

The Beethoven overture was well performed, though not unforgettable. At times the orchestra was driven quite hard, but never breathlessly, and there was greater flexibility in Muti's reading than his Toscanini caricature would have one believe. The brass was probably the strongest part of the orchestra, with the strings sounding at times a little watery in tone.

Radu Lupu is a far from frequent visitor to London concert halls, rendering the prospect of hearing him in the Schumann concerto rather mouth-watering, not least since his self-imposed exile from the recording studio. For a concert mounted in Muti's honour, this was very much the soloist's show, with Muti and the Philharmonia largely relegated to an accompanying role, following the sometimes extreme variations in Lupu's account. Some passages were truly magical, never more so than when, defiantly un-score-bound, Lupu pulled the tempo right back to what seemed akin to half of what would be expected, in sections of the first movement. Such rêveries were truly heart-stopping, although at other times phrases seemed almost casually tossed aside. Some of the orchestral detail was beautifully etched, the quieter passages having the virtue of truly making one listen. The lower strings sounded wonderfully German during the second movement. This was an interesting if not utterly coherent performance.

However, the second half presented what sounded like a different orchestra. The marriage of precision and colour was staggering, as was the sharpness of characterisation. Sometimes I have entertained doubts as to whether Ravel's orchestration adds anything to the piano original; here such questions never occurred. I have never heard a superior account of Pictures from an Exhibition and offhand, can only think of Carlo Maria Giulini as matching this. The sheen of the strings and the variety of woodwind coloration might have taken one's breath away had that honour not already been granted to the astonishingly assured Philharmonia brass. This exhibited all the prowess of Chicago, yet without the slightest hint of brashness. Muti imparted a true sense of progression and unity to the work, though this never clashed with the individuality of each movement, in which great instrumental virtuosity was exhibited. 'The Market at Limoges' was a veritable Babel of activity, whilst the mysteries of the Paris catacombs duly chilled. The 'Great Gate of Kiev', pealing bells and all, seemed an inevitable culmination rather than a final distinct picture. Ravel returned with interest the crucial Russian influence upon early twentieth-century French music. The dividends accrued from Muti and the Philharmonia's performance were, if anything, greater still.

The Rake's Progress, Royal College of Music, 1 December 2007

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Tyler Clarke – Sellem, auctioneer
Lukas Jakobczyk – Trulove
Sadhbh Dennedy – Anne Trulove
Sigríđur Ósk Kristjánsdóttir – Mother Goose
Stephanie Lewis – Baba the Turk
Aaron McAuley – Nick Shadow
Jonathan Stoughton – Tom Rakewell
Philip Tebb – Keeper of the madhouse

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Michael Roswell (conductor)

Tim Carroll (director)
Soutra Gilmour (designer)
Giuseppe di Iorio (lighting)
Siân Williams (choreographer)

This was a wonderful evening in a wonderful theatre. (For those who do not know the Britten Theatre, it is a marvellously intimate space, with superb acoustics.) To hear a performance of this standard from student musicians of such a tricky work as The Rake’s Progress was a heartening experience indeed.

All of the voices showed great promise, and generally rather more than that. After a slightly wobbly start, Jonathan Stoughton’s Tom impressed, not least through his avoidance of too ‘English tenor’ a sound for the role. His acting convinced mightily, as did that of all the cast. By the time of the graveyard scene, we were truly moved by his plight, which was testament to his fine voice as well as to the production. Lukas Jakobczyk presented a virile bass, sensitively shaded where necessary, in the role of Trulove, whilst Sadhbh Dennedy carried off the difficult balancing act of beauty and blandness demanded by Anne. Her coloratura impressed, not least in her Act I cabaletta. Aaron McAuley’s Nick Shadow was not always quite so sure in his diction, but he presented an amusingly camp reading of the part, doubtless aided by the production. Sigríđur Ósk Kristjánsdóttir proved a worthy temptress as Mother Goose, clearly first amongst equals in her brothel. Stephanie Lewis navigated a steady course for Baba between caricature and undue sentimentality. The moment at which she revealed her bearded face shocked the London crowd and much of the audience too. Philip Tebb did not have much to do as Keeper of the madhouse but did it well, whilst Tyler Clarke was an excellent auctioneer, suave and sinister, yet full of humour too.

The chorus in its various roles, as whores and roaring boys, servants, citizens, and madmen, was excellent throughout. The antiphonal exchanges between men and women were especially well handled, crucial in allowing Auden’s clever rhymes to tell. Not only diction, but pitch and tone were also most impressive. Their choreography was very well conceived and executed too. Indeed, the production, with its stylish colouring of black, white, and red – handy for the role that playing cards play in the tale – told its story very well, without ever unduly drawing attention to itself. Stravinsky wrote that the work was ‘simple to perform musically,’ a claim I should contest in the extreme, ‘but difficult to realise on the stage’. This was certainly accomplished.

The Benjamin Britten International Opera School’s director, Michael Rosewell, was authoritative in his handling of the score: punchy and yet not without tenderness, and always sure of its treacherous twists and turns, from the opening bars’ homage to Monteverdi to the post-Don Giovanni non-moral after the curtain had gone down. The relentless ostinati propelled the action along in exemplary fashion, but the various soli also registered faultlessly and proved unfailingly willing in their decorative capacity. In this, the conductor was of course indebted to his superlative small orchestra, which could have put many professional counterparts to shame. Every section gave of its all. If special word there must be, then it should be awarded to James Southall on the harpsichord. What a weird and wonderful role Stravinsky allots to this alienated continuo, and how splendidly this was projected.

It is difficult, though not impossible, not to admire The Rake’s Progress, almost in spite of its polemical ultra-neo-classicism. Stravinsky was being more than usually disingenuous when he claimed that he wished to ‘release people from the argument and bring them to the music’. He wanted to do the latter, I am sure, but he was very well aware of how many would react and relished that prospect. But it has equally often been difficult to love, or even to like, the work. The performers’ evident success in doing so themselves must have proved infectious for a great part of their audience.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane, 21 November 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Patricia Racette - Heliane
Michael Hendrick - Stranger
Andreas Schmidt - Ruler
Ursula Hesse von den Steinen - Messenger
Sir Willard White - Porter
Robert Tear - Blind Judge
Andrew Kennedy - Young Man

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

This concert performance was the British premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane. As such, it was to be welcomed, but frankly I cannot say that I am flabbergasted at the work's absence from British stages. My reaction was that it was a still more unfocused sibling to Korngold's Die tote Stadt. The latter work has its cultish admirers, and it has some interesting sections; yet, as a whole, it seems somewhat ridiculous. For Heliane, delete the 'somewhat'. I am not sure that I can bear to delineate its absurd plot: merely absurd, not surrealist in any sense that I should understand. Various people - I hesitate to use the word characters, for there appeared to be no musical characterisation whatsoever - persist in killing each other and bringing themselves or others back to life, to no particular end. Or sometimes they just come close to doing this, or consider doing it. In between they have sex, come close to having sex, or consider having sex. It is not at all clear, or even interesting, whether these things are symbolic or real. The programme notes made a stab at proclaiming a long-running Korngold interest in 'resurrection'; 'clutching at straws' was the most charitable phrase that came to mind.

Everything seemed bathed in all-purpose film music, irrespective of what was supposed to be going on dramatically. This may have been middle-ranking Hollywood avant la lettre, but middle-ranking Hollywood it remained. Such structure as there was seemed superbly delineated by Vladimir Jurowski, but this was a thankless task. Everything was overheated from the word go, and little changed. The second act was perhaps a little more successful than the first, but the bar had been set low indeed. The relentless use of the xylophone irritated, since it seemed to be to no particular end. (Think, by way of contrast, of Jenůfa.) Granted, Korngold had a certain facility with the orchestra, but Strauss even at his most overblown is infinitely more subtle, not to mention easy on the ears. Much of the work sounded closer to Puccini, or rather to a Turandot that consisted of nothing but massed repetitions of sub-'Nessun dorma' music from all concerned. The great difference, of course, is that, whatever his shallowness, Puccini could write a tune.

The orchestra sounded good, if somewhat generalised in its approach, but I suspect this was as much to do with the music itself as anything else. Jurowski was duly fired up, and clearly had the score's measure: he gave the work his all, intellectually and emotionally. I only wish this effort had been better directed. The soloists were not an impressive bunch and had been misguidedly placed on a platform behind the orchestra. Andreas Schmidt displayed some serious tuning problems, whilst Patricia Racette seemed to veer in and out of focus. There was perhaps more of the latter, but who could entirely blame her? Michael Hendrick, in the principal tenor role, was profoundly disappointing, struggling to make himself heard over the orchestra. What we heard from the text of his great beauty was sharply at odds with what we heard from him. Even Robert Tear sounded lacklustre. On the other hand, the German choir produced rounded yet precise tone throughout. Its diction was decidedly superior to that of many of the soloists.

This was doubtless worth mounting - once. But there are many neglected works from this period which might merit attention before a resurrection. How long, for instance, is it since Busoni's Doktor Faust was performed in London? Where is Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-Bleue? There is also, most shamefully of all, the glaring absence from London, even in concert, of Moses und Aron. I could go on, but shall desist. The programme notes quoted an anonymous 'well-known German musicologist' as having declared Das Wunder der Heliane to be 'the most important operatic score of the 20th century'. More important than Wozzeck?! I am not at all sure that it was more important than Hugh the Drover.

Monday, 12 November 2007

BRSO/Jansons: Haydn and Mahler, 11 November 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Symphony no.104 in D, ‘London’
Mahler – Symphony no.5

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra remains a very fine ensemble indeed. Under its principal conductor, Mariss Jansons, it offered one of the best performances of a Haydn symphony I have heard in some time – not that we are overwhelmed with choice in that respect. Articulation was exemplary: musical rather than indulging in distorting point-scoring. That sort of thing is irritating enough when it comes from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but still worse when perpetrated by his imitators. Rhythms were spruce; they were pointed up by Jansons where necessary, but for the most part, he was happy to let the orchestra do what it could itself. The strings were allowed to play to their strengths, exhibiting sweetness and richness of tone without ever cloying or clogging up the arteries. The woodwind sounded delightful, adding to the string-based sonority rather than competing with it, and providing piquant soloistic colour. And the trumpets, horns, and kettledrum played their parts to perfection. There was once again no undue exhibitionism, simply fine musicianship, attentive to the rest of the orchestra and to the conductor, and marvellously pure in tone (the horns in particular).

The slow introduction to the first movement was relatively fleet, but was directed in such a way as to make this seem perfectly natural, its rhythmic and harmonic contours leading up to the outbreak of the exposition proper. Likewise, the second movement, admittedly an Andante rather than an Adagio, was taken at quite a flowing pace. Such was the care taken in phrasing and in the characterisation of every line, such was the attention paid to the combination of those lines, harmonically and contrapuntally, that again this felt just right, even if the timing on paper might have led one to suspect hurrying. The minuet was taken, as is now the fashion, one-to-a-bar. This generally leads to a loss of the stately character of the dance, but the technique and musicianship of conductor and players ensured that there was no loss of aristocratic grace. The cross rhythms were made to tell and there was none of the tedious short-breathed phrasing that disfigures so many contemporary performances: a longer line was always palpable. A slight relaxation of tempo for the trio was well judged. The celebrated drone finale swept all in its wake: fast but never rushed. Every instrumental line sang freely and joyfully, yet never merely for itself. Here especially, the antiphonal division of first and second violins paid dividends, Haydn’s imitative playfulness registering in delightful fashion.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony received for the most part a duly thrilling performance. There could again be no quarrel with the standard of orchestral playing, which impressed in every department, apart from a brief passage at the beginning of the final movement when some sections sounded a little tired. (One can certainly sympathise with their predicament.) Special mention should be made of the first horn and first trumpeter, whose solos were not only faultless but profoundly moving; there was no doubt that they understood the meaning behind the notes. The opening tattoo and its recurrences were ominous indeed. Moreover, the statements of the chorale, which at various points threatens to triumph but never quite does, were noble and thrilling: a tribute to all of the brass in particular. The ghostly pizzicati from the strings in the third movement were superbly managed, as was the Viennese Schwung of the final trio section of that movement. Thinking of the orchestra as a whole, and its direction from Jansons, an especially notable aspect of this performance was the bustling counterpoint , partly born of Mahler’s renewed interest in the music of Bach, and yet so utterly characteristic of the composer and his language. Not only the balance between various lines but also the impetus the sometimes frenetic activity gives to the symphony’s dramatic arch were as impressive as I can recall hearing them.

And yet, the interpretation did not seem to be quite settled. A noteworthy and commendable aspect was the clear division into Mahler’s three parts; the second and fifth movements were attacked immediately, so as to underline this. However, there were quite a few passages, which, if they did not quite meander, did not sound quite so necessary as they might. This was less the case in the first movement, whose funeral tread mightily impressed, but the complex Scherzo and the finale seemed – as so often it can, in all but the greatest performances – a little over-extended. There is a very difficult balance to strike in the finale, between the abundance of orchestral and contrapuntal virtuosity and the overall line, in terms of the movement itself and, even more trickily, its place in the symphonic whole. Leonard Bernstein, in his truly great Vienna recording, succeeded triumphantly in this as few have done before or since. Jansons is not there yet, but I have heard far more uncertain, prolix traversals. The Adagietto was beautiful, but a little earth-bound. Bernstein shows how it might be both æthereal and carnal, whilst also serving as an introduction to the boisterous high spirits of the fifth movement. Here it seemed somewhat static, the string tone slightly unleavened. The final characteristic I felt lacking was a sense of modernist adventure. One of the most enduringly fascinating aspects of Mahler is his position on the cusp of late Romanticism and the Second Viennese School. Different interpretations may choose to dwell more on one or the other, and may vary even within a single interpretation. However, the knife-edge experience of standing so close to the expressionist abyss should not be neglected entirely. There were times when the music sounded more like a presentiment of Shostakovich, and Mahler is far more ambiguous, far richer than that.

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to speak of the work being treated as a concerto for orchestra, this was on occasion the impression one might have gleaned, owing to the mismatch – which should not be exaggerated, but which likewise should not be ignored – between the overall conception and the execution. There seems to me every reason to believe that Jansons will deepen his understanding of the work, so that before too long it will rank with the towering performance I heard of the Sixth Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Salzburg in 2005. But the Fifth is an extremely treacherous work; I recall hearing Sir Simon Rattle say that he had left it alone for quite a while, having had his fingers burned early on. Earlier this year, I heard Daniel Barenboim fall much further short than Jansons, notwithstanding the fact that Barenboim went on to give extremely fine performances of the Seventh and Ninth. So there is no shame whatsoever in there being a longer journey to travel; this, after all, is part of the challenge and devotion Mahler inspires.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice - Maurizio Pollini et al., 31 October 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Schoenberg – Three Piano Pieces, Op.11
Schoenberg – Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19
Berg – Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.5
Nono – …sofferte onde serene …
Nono – ‘Djamila Boupacha,’ for solo voice, from Canti di vita e d’amore
Nono – A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
André Richard, Reinhold Braig (sound projection)
Alain Damiens (clarinet)
Cologne Percussion Quartet
Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts Freiburg
Sara Ecoli, Terence Roe, and Margot Nies (voci recitante)
Beat Furrer (conductor)

This concert represented an encounter, and a most fruitful one, between two of the South Bank Centre’s series: the International Piano Series and the Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice festival. At its heart, even when not performing, was Maurizio Pollini, one of Nono’s closest friends and the dedicatee of Nono’s only work for solo piano (and tape): …sofferte onde serene ....

Pollini’s prowess in the solo piano music of Schoenberg is well known, but that is no reason to take it for granted. As has often been the case in comparing his live performances with recordings, there was arguably a greater freedom in the two sets of pieces performed, albeit with no loss to the awe-inspiring crystalline perfection of his tone and projection. There was perhaps a more ‘Romantic’ sound here than in his Deutsche Grammophon recordings: more Brahms and less Bauhaus, one might say. One of the greatest strengths in both the Op.11 and Op.19 sets was the marriage – dialectic even – between the characteristics of individual pieces and their position within their respective works as a whole. The violent eruptions of Op.11 no.3 are mightily impressive as they are, but gain in power through the spinning of a longer line, which is revealed to be just as narrative in its conception – and execution – as more overtly programmatic works such as the Music to an Imaginary Film Scene or even the Piano Concerto. Pollini’s reserves of tone colour and their deployment, and his articulation of counterpoint without the slightest loss to harmonic richness and motion were an object lesson to any pianist or indeed to any musician.

The Berg Op.4 Pieces received an equally commanding performance from Pollini. I have never heard the final bars sound so richly and darkly expressive, bringing the work closer than usual to the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6. Alain Damiens certainly had the measure of his music, bringing a broad array of dynamic contrast, and matching Pollini in the difficult combination of rhythmic precision and flexibility that lies at the heart of such music. I did not feel that Damiens always evinced the most beguiling of tones; sometimes the tonal quality was somewhat breathy. This, however, was a minor blemish.

In …sofferte onde serene …, the ‘serenity’ and ‘suffering’ of Nono’s ‘waves’ was almost visually palpable. There could be no doubt as to the presence of Venice, what Nono called the ‘signals of life on the Laguna’ in this masterly rendition. The tolling of bells, as he would have heard in the Giudecca, seemed to follow on from the ethereal funeral bells of the last of Schoenberg’s Op.19 Pieces. Air from other planets once again came upon us. The interaction with, or rather amplification from, the pianist (Pollini himself) on tape seemed superbly judged, for which much credit must go to André Richard. Sometimes these waves of sound were indistinguishable from those emanating from the piano; sometimes the distinction was clearer. This contrast, of separation and coming together, is integral to the work, and heightened the sense of synergy between the human, the electronic, and the ‘natural’, apparent or otherwise. The sense of developing memory, just as in Schoenberg’s Op.19 no.6 tribute to Mahler, was all-pervasive, in a fitting tribute from Pollini to Nono.

The second half brought us first of all the second of Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore. Barbara Hannigan’s performance of ‘Djamila Boupacha’ was extremely powerful, both in its sense of drama and in the singer’s astonishing surmounting of the song’s technical challenges. The sense of hope, of ‘love … as consciousness of life,’ to quote Nono, won through over the almost unthinkable blackness of colonial oppression in Algeria. The words were not merely set to music, but became music, a triumph for both Nono and Hannigan.

This triumph was also achieved in the final work, long advocated by Pollini: A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida. The performance, under Beat Furrer, seemed to me exemplary. All participants imparted a true sense of commitment to the work and to its imperative of anti-imperialist struggle. Hannigan once again impressed mightily in her powerful yet acutely sensitive delivery of the soprano line. The three reciting voices added greatly to the sense, as palpable here as in ‘Djamila Boupacha’, of turning the words into music. The horror of partially heard words from the magnetic tape text, The Appeal of the American Committee for the Suspension of the Vietnam War, was superbly projected to provide the work’s subtext, sometimes in the background, other times more clearly heard. This rendered the ‘live’ vocal lines all the more piercing in their protest: human interventions into the darkness of an administered world. The same could be said of the interventions of the exemplary Cologne percussionists, visual as well as aural, , putting me in mind of the horrendous anvils of Wagner’s Nibelheim. And the same could be said of the songs and cries of the solo clarinet. Here, Damiens appeared to be completely in his element. Not only was his mastery of the necessary extended techniques never in doubt; the way in which his tone proved able to merge with and to emerge from the voices was quite extraordinary, another celebration of and tribute to Nono’s humanist vision. Both work and performance were thus political in the very broadest, most all-encompassing sense. This is no period piece but part of an ongoing struggle, happily reconstructed and made new. And so must be our reception. In the words of Gabriel, an Angolan guerrilla: ‘Não poden queimar a floresta pois ela è jovern e cheja de vida.’ (They can’t burn down the forest because it is young and full of life.)

Friday, 26 October 2007

Götterdämmerung, Royal Opera, 24 October 2007

Royal Opera House

First Norn – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Second Norn – Yvonne Howard
Third Norn – Marina Poplavskaya
Brünnhilde – Lisa Gasteen
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Gunther – Peter Coleman-Wright
Hagen – James Moellenhoff
Gutrune – Emily Magee
Waltraute – Mihoko Fujimura
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Woglinde – Sarah Fox
Wellgunde – Heather Shipp
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

It would be a poor Götterdämmerung indeed – believe me, they do exist – which failed to excite and to inspire, given the work’s position as the culmination of the Ring. I mean this not only in terms of being the finale, but also in the sense that this is where the tetralogy’s entire network of themes, musical, dramatic, and intellectual, come to a head. Some are resolved, some remain defiantly unresolved, perhaps even incapable of resolution; for, in the words of Carl Dahlhaus, ‘It is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts – so that “resolutions” are ruled out – that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’ This was not a definitive Götterdämmerung, if such a thing could exist; it was not even a great Götterdämmerung, although there were some very good things in it. But it was a creditable culmination to a cycle, which, I am happy to say, has in many respects confounded my expectations.

The production was largely back on course, after its below-par attempt at Siegfried. There were too glaring exception to this, the first relating to the end of the first act. Hagen’s continued presence on stage, following the move from the Hall of the Gibichungs to Brünnhilde’s rock, did not augur well. We all know that in a sense he is ‘still there’: his dramatic shadow hangs over the rest of the act, and the music could hardly make this clearer. Actually to have him on stage added little, except confusion as to where the action was taking place. But this was as nothing to the final scene (in which, needless to say, he remained on stage). Anyone who did not know what was supposed to be going on would have been utterly confused, since we had Siegfried as himself, wearing the Tarnhelm, and Siegfried transformed by the Tarnhelm into Gunther, on stage at the same time. All of the singing came from – audibly and visually – from the former Siegfried. This was logically incoherent, and the whole mess could easily have been avoided by following Wagner’s directions. To add insult to injury, the magnificently brutal orchestral conclusion was ruined by having Hagen get up from his chair, and bang it down on the floor a bit closer to the centre of the stage. I have no idea what this was intended to symbolise I have no idea, but it seemed merely bathetic. With the orchestra screaming Hagen’s malevolent presence, we have no need of any such stage business.

Siegfried’s Funeral March was also, visually, a disaster. It would have been far better blacked out to let the orchestra have its say. Instead, we had the perennially un-heroic Siegfried of John Treleaven get up and wander around the stage to no particular effect, before haplessly falling over. From my seat, I could also see him get up once again and canter off stage, an especially unfortunate moment. Given that this, along with the closing bars, is one of the greatest moments in the entire cycle for the orchestra to speak of what is going on, what has passed, and what may come, it would not seem unreasonable to avoid such distractions, even if they were less haplessly acted than was the case here.

Otherwise, the action was generally well handled. A highlight – perhaps the only highlight – from the production’s previous run remained: the statues of the gods, their role in proceedings, not least during the oath-swearing of the second act, and their final immolation, symbolising Warner’s Feuerbachian reading of the entire Ring as truly the twilight of the gods. The increasing desperation of Götterdämmerung’s sorry characters, as they engage in ever-unanswered rituals, shone through with commendable clarity. For Brünnhilde actually to deliver her Immolation Scene benediction lullaby, ‘Rest, rest, you god!’, to the Wotan statue, wrapped, as it were, in swaddling cloths, was a most convincing prelude to the burning of Valhalla. And the utter confusion of location that had previously disfigured the third act had received necessary attention, so that now we were no longer baffled by what was happening where, let alone why.

It was clear even before Götterdämmerung that John Tomlinson’s presence on stage had inspired much of the rest of the cast to greater heights than they might otherwise have reached. His absence was certainly felt, but several performances nevertheless impressed. The Norns and Rhinemaidens were uniformly excellent, both singly and corporately, although the direction of the latter irritated somewhat, emphasising girliness over their symbolic status in terms of the natural world. (I was not at all sure what much of the audience found amusing during the first scene of the third act: jumping in and out of the Rhine did not strike me as intrinsically hilarious.) Lisa Gasteen was recovered, and gave a heartfelt performance as Brünnhilde. She may not scale the heights of some of the great singers of the past, but she sings musically and with dramatic credibility. Peter Sidhom’s brief appearance as Alberich left one wanting more, his bitterness palpably transferred to Hagen, in which guise James Moellenhoeff impressed. He does not have the sheer blackness of tone of, say, Karl Riddersbusch; but there could be no doubting his evil. Both musically and physically his was an extremely powerful portrayal; we should hear more of him. Last time around, I had thought Mihoko Fujimura a good Waltraute, but had not shared in the quite excited reaction to her from many. This time, I thought her truly excellent. Her attention to the text – both verbal and musical – was most impressive, as was the way she transmitted this dramatically. One shared in her pain, and thereby in that of Wotan, who had sent her. The confrontation between Waltraute and Brünnhilde was properly moving, all the more so for its failure, Brünnhilde blinded by the delusions of love and her attempts to perpetuate it beyond its natural life-span.

Emily Magee looked the part as Gutrune, and acted extremely well. Her interaction in stage terms with Hagen was appropriately disturbing. Yet her voice lacked focus and sometimes was simply out of tune. Once again, however, the real weakest link was Siegfried. There was little progress in John Treleaven’s part from Siegfried; indeed, I thought his voice sounded still uglier. It might seem vindictive to recapitulate the criticisms I made in my previous review, so I shall simply refer the reader there. One cannot fault Treleaven for effort, which was there in abundance, but he simply does not have the wherewithal for the role. However – and this is a criticism of casting as much as of him – whilst there are many reasons for the characters and even the audience to wish the Volsung hero dead, vocal quality should not be one of them.

Much of the drama, of course, lies in the orchestra, perhaps more so in Götterdämmerung than in any of the preceding dramas. For the most part, the orchestra of the Royal Opera sounded magnificent. There were a few slips, which may perhaps be ascribed to tiredness, but rarely were they of great importance. Antonio Pappano’s conducting was not immune from the fits and starts characteristic of earlier efforts, but nor was it disfigured by them, as had previously been the case. His command of the score has improved enormously, as has his communication to the fine players in his orchestra. The end of the Immolation Scene, sadly, was something of a disappointment. Whilst the orchestra sounded gorgeous, almost Straussian, the direction was uncertain. Although Wagner’s meaning is unclear, or at least ambivalent – Patrice Chéreau astutely called the ending ‘oracular’, counselling ‘mistrust and anxiety’ – this needs to be conveyed positively, rather than merely sounding as if one has lost one’s way. Nevertheless, much of the rest of this final act was very well shaped indeed, after having taken a little time to find its bearings.

The chorus was, without reservation, excellent. I am not sure that I have ever heard it on better form. The vassals matched those of Haitink, which is praise indeed. The strength of individual lines and of the choral mass complemented each other, rather than standing in opposition, as can often be the case. The acting of chorus members, and indeed their direction, was first-rate too.

Whilst this was not a great Ring, then, there were very good and even excellent aspects to it. As I said at the end of Das Rheingold, no one who heard Haitink’s truly great traversal of the cycle will ever forget that; no one would think of comparing the performances to the advantage of the present. However, the progress made from earlier performances has been more than I could ever have reasonably expected. Much of the credit for this lies with Pappano, who has clearly devoted a great deal of time to a task of extraordinary complexity. The production has, with some exceptions, gained greatly in clarity, and there have been individual performances of considerable stature, Tomlinson’s possessing undeniable greatness. If one considers that, for a Ring to be successful, it must have changed one, and led one to marvel anew at Wagner’s staggering achievement, then there was a great deal of success.

Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice – Arditti Quartet, 23 October 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Webern – Six Bagatelles, op.9
Nono – Fragmente-Stille, an diotima
Schoenberg – String Quartet no.2, op.10

Arditti String Quartet (Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, Ralf Ehlers, Lucas Fels)
Claron McFadden (soprano)

The South Bank Centre’s Nono festival continued with a concert from the Arditti Quartet, long the acknowledged standard-bearers for serious contemporary string quartet music. Each of the three works performed during this concert may justly be considered to have changed the face of twentieth-century string quartet writing, and indeed to have proved influential beyond the realm of the quartet or even of chamber music. Much, then, was promised, and the promise was fulfilled.

Schoenberg’s preface to Webern's Six Bagatelles has often been quoted, but I think it is worth quoting from once again, since it so perfectly – ironically, given the final sentence quoted – encapsulates the essence of this enduringly extraordinary work:

Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. Each glance can be extended into a poem, each sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a single indrawn breath, such concentration is only found where self-pity is absent. These pieces (as, indeed, Webern’s music in general) will only be understood by those who believe that through sound something that can only be expressed in sound can be said.

The Arditti’s performance seemed to me to have everything: pin-point precision was married to great depth of expression. Every note counted, as it must, both in itself and in terms of its relationship to every note around it, both horizontally and vertically. The mood swings of each of the ‘bagatelles’ – these are no more ‘trifles’ than those of Beethoven’s late sets – were registered, sometimes quite shockingly so, yet nevertheless without exaggeration. Perhaps most importantly of all, the underlying unified pulse was present throughout, irrespective of the subdivisions within the varied beat. This is as crucial to Webern as to Beethoven and Wagner, or indeed as to Nono and Schoenberg.

Since the Webern piece is close to unique in having in some sense prefigured Nono’s sole essay in quartet form, it provided a perfect introduction to Fragmente–Stille, an diotima. It should have come as no surprise that Nono’s preferred interpreters of the work – favoured over its dedicatees, the LaSalle Quartet – gave so fine, well-nigh definitive, a performance, but equally this should not detract from the Arditti’s achievement. Although the time-scale is utterly different from that of Webern, the concentration allied to a greater architectural span is not so very different. Once again, every note registered, but this is not straightforwardly pointillistic music; to register truly, there must be a sense of conflict between fragmentation and combination, and this was unerringly present. This was a performance that gave the lie to claims of political disengagement in late Nono, of which Fragmente–Stille may be said to be the harbinger. For the construction necessary from the Hölderlin-inspired fragments – Hölderlin’s letters to Diotima are quoted in the score, to be ‘sung’ inwardly but never outwardly by the players – is a perfectly political act, an act of hope, of forging a whole from the almost impossible fragments, from silence as well as from notes. Nono appears to be saying that, for there to be hope, which there must be, the string quartet, along with the symphony surely the most venerable of all Classical forms, must be rethought, rebuilt, and ultimately rejoiced in. All four players, individually and collectively, must engage in this enterprise – and so must the audience. For this to be possible requires a great technical and communicative achievement on the quartet’s part. The Arditti Quartet’s success was palpable, not least in the audience’s rapt attention. Throughout the thirty-five minute span of the work, I do not think I noticed a single cough or shuffle, let alone whispered conversation. Nothing was quite inaudible, but there is much to stretch our ears. Nono’s attempt to rescue the difficult art of listening was not in vain, for the work and performance that resulted were of rare beauty indeed.

Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet is, of course, one of the most celebrated works in the history of music, the work in which Schoenberg, feeling ‘the air of another planet’, bade farewell to tonality. A great achievement – perhaps too great an achievement? – of this performance was the sense of liberation imparted by the break with tonality. I ask whether this was too great, since Schoenberg, like Berg, though unlike Webern, did experience regrets, and there was something of a sense here of the first two movements at least being preliminaries to the undoubted triumph of the final Entrückung. There was nothing especially wrong with the performance of the first movement, but it seemed just a little generalised in its post-Brahmsian development. The second movement, marked Sehr rasch, exhibited a mixture of similarly slight greyness with more richly-coloured and daringly-shaped performance, ’cellist Lucas Fels shining especially in these respects. I have nothing but praise for the final two movements, in which the participation of the excellent soprano, Claron McFadden, really seemed to engage the players. Her pointing of the words and vocal lines, poised midway between Lieder-singing and a more operatic approach, seemed to me perfectly judged. The import, both literally and more metaphorically, of Stefan George’s words could not have been more strongly projected, without ever sacrificing musical concerns for ‘effect’. Likewise, the quartet sounded inspired both by her participation and by Schoenberg’s gradual move towards suspension of tonal processes during the Litanei and then the new world so unforgettably announced by the words, ‘Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten’. This was not, of course, a world that rejected the past, but one which incorporated it. The same could be said of the Arditti’s performance of the two vocal movements, so precariously and yet rewardingly poised between late Romanticism, Expressionism, and already hinting at something yet newer to come.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Siegfried, Royal Opera, 21 October 2007

Royal Opera House

Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Wanderer – John Tomlinson
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Woodbird – Ailish Tynan
Erda – Jane Henschel
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

Antonio Pappano’s conducting has not only improved vastly from previous years’ performances; it has also improved considerably during this cycle. Siegfried received a commanding reading. It was not flawless, although there were fewer orchestral slips than in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; it did not possess the gravitas of Haitink, nor the chamber-music subtlety of Karajan, let alone the all-encompassing metaphysical drama of Furtwängler. Yet the orchestra sounded far more impressive in its rich and varied sonorities and in its dramatic range. The ebb and flow of narrative and commentary were surely navigated throughout, with none of the uncertainties that had characterised earlier attempts. For the first time, the orchestra could justly be said to have assumed the role allotted to it by Wagner, namely that of the Greek chorus. As he wrote, in a letter of 1849, ‘the heroes of absolute music … and especially Beethoven, have raised the expressive potential of music, notably through their handling of the orchestra, to the level of a completely new artistic force which had earlier scarcely been dreamt of.’ Such a force was now very much more than a dream, and never more so than in the extraordinary Prelude to Act III, in which by musical means alone Wagner prepares us for the turning-point – peripeteia in Aristotelian terms – of the Ring as a whole: Wotan’s renunciation of the Will. Contrapuntal clarity and the dramatic interplay between the host of motifs summarising the god’s predicament were combined with a propulsion that paid tribute indeed to the excellent Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

On stage, however, things were more mixed. I felt that the production, in particular that relating to design, rather lost its way. It began well enough, with scenes from Siegfried’s childhood and upbringing, although they did not necessarily complement the music of the Prelude, which should surely be the starting point for whatever is to happen on stage. Then, for some reason, the action of the first act took place around a crashed aeroplane. I could not understand what this was doing in Mime’s cave, nor why the Wanderer should emerge from it. Had he been there all along, watching? Perhaps, but none of this was made clear and it all seemed highly unnecessary. Equally baffling was the appearance of Fafner, supposedly invisible in his cave, as the giant we had seen in Das Rheingold rather than as a dragon. I could have understood if he had simply donned the Tarnhelm later and turned into a dragon, or indeed remained ‘in reality’ a giant throughout, pointing to the possibly illusory nature of the Tarnhelm’s promises. But we had Siegfried referring to a dragon’s jaws and teeth he could see, and a little while later a sudden, arbitrary transformation into the form of a dragon. This was rather unfortunate, since the dragon was one of the most convincing I have seen. The less that is said about the forest’s animal figures being wheeled around on trolleys the better, apart from noting that, to begin with, one of the trolleys conspicuously failed to move.

Perhaps oddest of all was the more or less empty stage for the final scene. This could have worked perfectly well in a more minimalist production, but here seemed unmotivated, as if the money had run out. All we had was a wall, which occasionally revolved, with a door, which occasionally opened, and a few images of clouds. I suppose, at a pinch, it might be claimed that this was a humanistic simplicity born of the removal of divine clutter and the reintroduction of ‘purely-human’ love into the world, but that was not how it seemed on stage. Siegfried and Brünnhilde floundered somewhat, as if in search of props. There was not even any sign of fire, which seemed especially odd given its undeniable reality when Wotan had put Brünnhilde to sleep, supposedly in the very same place, at the end of Die Walküre. Discovering the Valkyrie, it seemed, might have happened to anyone, rather than only to a hero without fear. The bad old confusions of place and (dis-)continuity, endemic to the earlier stages of the Ring dramas, had returned with a vengeance.

This might have mattered less had it not been for an equally signal, some would say fatal, flaw: the casting of Siegfried. Now the question might come back: ‘whom would you cast?’ I should have to admit that I have no idea, but what I can say is that John Treleaven is simply not up to it. Many would-be Siegfrieds lack the vocal power and sheer stamina for the role. Treleaven actually possesses these; indeed, his voice was as strong at the end of the final duet as it had been at the outset. The problem is that he has none of the vocal quality. One might politely refer to a Heldentenor bark, but in reality this is coarse and often downright unmusical singing. His vowels are all over the place and so, far too often, is his tuning. And his stage presence, is, to put it mildly, un-heroic. Siegfried is Wagner’s charismatic hero par excellence, the character who, at least at this stage, bids fair to conquer the world. Such prospects never entered one’s head here.

Elsewhere, Phillip Ens was adequate as Fafner, but little more than that. Gerhard Siegel’s Mime was well sung and acted, although it lacked the pathos that can make one sympathise all too readily with Mime’s miserable lot. As Michael Tanner has written, the problem with Mime is ‘not, as is usually alleged, that Wagner draws Mime too unsympathetically, but rather the reverse. He conveys to us what misery it is to be Mime, and thus tends to elicit our protectiveness.’ Had it not been for the orchestra, I should merely have wished that Mime and Siegfried could have hurried up with their dialogue, and perhaps finished each other off. Ailish Tynan did not seem even to attempt the purity that the role of the Woodbird demands, appearing – both vocally and visually – as a rather strange girl who had somehow wandered in from the set of another opera. (The production certainly did not help.) Jane Herschel once again impressed as Erda, although I felt she did not quite possess the gravitas evinced in Das Rheingold. Peter Sidhom was every bit as impressive as he had been in that Vorabend; his is certainly an Alberich that demands to be seen – and heard. The dejection and venom were all there, as was an astute handling of the sometimes extreme chromatic twists of his line. Lisa Gasteen was still suffering from a heavy cold, so Iréne Theorin took a step up from her Walküre Helmwige. In the circumstances, she did very well, and was a far more convincing stage and vocal presence than Treleaven. However, I often felt that the vibrato needed to be toned down a little, and sometimes rather more than that.

That leaves the crowning achievement of this Ring so far, which I cannot imagine being matched, let alone surpassed: John Tomlinson’s Wotan. In his guise as the Wanderer, Tomlinson is fully able to build upon his years of experience in the role. This worldly-wise traveller and observer, poised to relinquish joyfully what he had once resolved out of anger, ought to have eaten Siegfried for breakfast. His dismissal of Erda and her realm of Fate was truly awe-inspiring. The attentiveness to every vocal and verbal nuance is too easily taken for granted, as is the towering, Lear-like stage presence. Should there be just one thing we shall all remember from the present production, let it be Tomlinson.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Die Walküre, Royal Opera, 19 October 2007

Royal Opera House

Siegmund – Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Hunding – Stephen Milling
Wotan – John Tomlinson
Brünnhilde – Susan Bullock
Fricka – Rosalind Plowright
Gerhilde – Geraldine McGreevy
Ortlinde – Elaine McKrill
Waltraute – Claire Powell
Schwertleite – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Helmwige – Iréne Theorin
Siegrune – Sarah Castle
Grimgerde – Claire Shearer
Rossweisse – Elizabeth Sikora

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

This performance, like that of Das Rheingold, was almost unrecognisable from the first run, when the cycle was being mounted one drama at a time. I have just looked back at my notes from 2005, and see that I considered the first act to have been considerably worse than the second and third. On this occasion, I should say that it was less strong, but nevertheless it stood far removed from the catastrophe, which, despite reasonable singing, had previously ensued, the scene set all too well by a storm-Prelude that almost fell apart, followed by the most sluggish, formless reading I had ever heard of this wonderful act. On this occasion, the Prelude now really sounded like a storm, with the strings in particular shining, as they would throughout. The string chamber music, narrating the early stages of recognition for the Volsung twins, was beguiling indeed. There was a much greater sense of coherence, although there remained certain awkward corners. Antonio Pappano now seems far more willing to take the lead, as a Wagner conductor must, rather than to follow the singers as a mere accompanist. If the architecture is not all quite standing as it should yet, it is mostly there, which certainly could not have been said the first time around. It was a pity that the direction of the act’s tumultuous conclusion rather held fire, seeming a little unsure of where it was going. A few days previously, I had seen the same passage from the Boulez-Chéreau DVD; that torrid reading had known its direction all too well, the curtain coming down only just in time.

The three on-stage characters of the first act were sharply portrayed. The baritonal heft of Plácido Domingo’s tenor is just right for Siegmund. If anything, it seems to have become more pronounced since I last heard him assume the role, at Bayreuth in 2000. He took a little time truly to hit his stride, but this is all relative. He can sing and act both musically and heroically, and he always does; there is never anything approaching a weak moment. Moreover, for all the complaints one sometimes hears about his German, his diction was superb: I could hear every word he sang, which was not always the case elsewhere. Eva-Maria Westbroek did not fall into the trap of depicting Sieglinde as too passive a vessel. Hers was also a thoroughly musical portrayal throughout, and her eagerness to learn more about her mysterious guest was palpable. Stephen Milling’s Hunding was duly brutal, a representative of the bourgeois society Wagner wished revolution, in the guise of Siegmund, to sweep away forever. I thought his stage whisper – perhaps suggested by the director? – a mistake, however, both musically and dramatically. Whilst there was not much sense of the broader environment in which this act took place, the production worked well enough, and was certainly not intrusive.

Act II of Die Walküre is one of the sternest Wagnerian tests. Bernard Haitink, Pappano’s predecessor at Covent Garden, was well-nigh peerless here, but if Haitink’s profound symphonic understanding was an impossible act to follow, there was for the most part a good sense of direction. The orchestra, moreover, sounded generally in very good health, generally providing a true Wagner sound, despite the slightly disconcerting number of errors from woodwind and brass. John Tomlinson rose magnificently to the occasion. Projection of every word and every note had clearly been deeply considered, and the whole was very much more than the sum of its considerable parts. Here was a searing portrayal of Wotan’s predicament: ‘In my own fetters am I caught: – I, most unfree of all men!’ The protector of the laws has attempted to circumvent, or to pervert, those laws in the name of freedom, whilst continuing to wish to retain his legal authority. Yet Tomlinson brought home to us that this is very much a human as well as a political tragedy, which will result in Wotan being forced to sacrifice his cherished offspring. Rosalind Plowright was less impressive as Fricka than she had been in Das Rheingold. Her voice was sometimes rather thin and colourless, though she looked every inch the part of custom’s upholder, clad in duly Victorian costume. Susan Bullock, the (very) last-minute replacement for Lisa Gasteen, sounded a little impersonal at first, though never dramatically at sea, which, given the circumstances, would have been quite understandable. There was a certain Nilsson-like steel earlier on, which for me works better with Isolde than Brünnhilde. However, in retrospect, Bullock appeared to have been intimating the profound transformation in Brünnhilde’s condition, as she takes the upward path from divinity to humanity. In Feuerbach’s words, ‘If you recognise that there are sins in God, you will be free of them.’ This certainly seems to have been a guiding principle of Keith Warner’s production, an idea emerging far more clearly during this cycle than previously.

The Todesverkundigung (‘Annunciation of Death’) scene was quite moving indeed. Bullock and Domingo rose magnificently to the occasion, and Pappano handled the musico-dramatic progression very well. Here there could be no doubt as to Siegmund’s heroism, a heroism all the more impressive than that of Siegfried, for it is founded upon bravery rather than fearlessness. It is this that makes Siegmund’s rejection of Valhalla exceptional, since he does so in full knowledge that the best he can hope for is nothingness. Warner had the upward ladder (leading, I assume, towards the hereafter) snap at this point, rendering scenically explicit the anti-theological point. In the words of Feuerbach’s Thoughts on Death and Immortality:

And if the whole world wished to be divine, and to go to heaven –
which I cannot believe,
for there still are some brave men –
I would stay outside,
I would not go in.

There could then equally be no doubt as to the beginning of Brünnhilde’s conversion. So moved was she by Siegmund’s love for his sister-bride that there truly seemed that she could do no other than defy Wotan – or at least defy his stated decision. Tomlinson was almost overwhelmingly powerful in the consequent expression of anger and guilt, as he smashed Siegmund’s sword and then slew Hunding, Fricka’s slave. Having Fricka observe this denouement, chillingly satisfied in her victory over adulterous spontaneity, heightened the drama.

The third act was also excellent, although there were once again a few too many orchestral blemishes for comfort. They jarred all the more, especially during the Magic Fire Music, given the generally high level of orchestral performance; once again, the slips were be the province not of the strings, but of the woodwind and to a lesser extent the brass. The Magic Fire Music was also hindered a little by uncertain shaping from the conductor, which resulted in occasional disruption to the music’s flow and a few very odd balances. Nevertheless, Pappano despatched the rest of the act with considerable aplomb. After a peculiar directorial opening to the Ride of the Valkyries – strobe lighting mixed with ineffectively ritualistic moves – the scenic realisation settled down, albeit without any particular insights. (The fire at the end was, admittedly, rather impressive.) The Valkyries all sounded in fine voice, both individually and in combination. Sieglinde’s farewell was nothing less than magnificent, Westbroek once again emphasising her love-inspired heroism, which can often fall by the male-dominated wayside. And the confrontation and reconciliation between Wotan and Brünnhilde was quite something. Tomlinson searingly expressed Wotan’s anguish, born of the clash between the treacherous bonds of Wotan’s world of contracts and domination, and the power of love that Das Rheingold had so forcefully denied. Bullock came increasingly to personify that love, which Die Walküre had seen blossom and yet which had also been so viciously defeated. This was a heartfelt farewell indeed.