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.