Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Rusalka, Royal Opera, 27 February 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Nymphs and Rusalka (Camilla Nylund)
Images: Royal Opera/Clive Barda

Rusalka – Camilla Nylund
Foreign Princess – Petra Lang
Prince – Bryan Hymel
Ježibaba – Agnes Zwierko
Vodník – Alan Held
Huntsman – Daniel Grice
Gamekeeper – Gyula Orendt
Kitchen Boy – Ilse Eerens
Wood Nymphs – Anna Devin, Justina Gringyte, Madeleine Pierard
Mourek – Claire Talbot

Jossi Wieler, Sergio Morabito (directors)
Samantha Seymour (revival director)
Barbara Ehnes (set designs)
Anja Rabes (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Chris Kondek (video designs)
Altea Garrido (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Yannick Nézet-Seguin (conductor)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an interesting opera production will be met with incomprehension and lazy, philistine hostility by vast swathes of the audience in many, perhaps most, of the world’s ‘major’ houses, a truth that renders one all the more grateful for the Royal Opera showing the courage to stage this new – to London – production of Rusalka. That is not to say that any production meeting with hostility qualifies as interesting; some, of course, are simply not very good, or worse. Yet, it seems that only the most vapid, unchallenging – and yes, I realise that the word ‘challenging’ is a red rag to self-appointed ‘traditionalist’ bulls – of productions will garner approval from the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie. The boorish behaviour of those who booed this Rusalka equates more or less precisely to the sort of antics they would condemn if they occurred on the street – the work of ‘hoodlums’, the ‘lower classes’, the ‘uneducated’, ‘rioters’, ‘immigrants’, et al. – yet somehow unwillingness or inability to think, the fascistic refusal to consider an alternative point of view, the threat of mob violence, becomes perfectly acceptable when one has paid the asking price for what they consider to be their rightful ‘entertainment’. They would no more bother to understand, to explore, to question, Rusalka were it depicted in the most ’traditional’ of fashions, of course, but they explode at the mere suggestion that a work and a performance might ask something of them. For, as John Stuart Mill famously noted, ‘Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.’ Wagner’s ‘emotionalisation of the intellect’ – ‘emotionalisation’, not abdication! – remains as foreign a country to them as it did to the Jockey Club thugs who prevented Tannhäuser from being performed in Paris; at least one might claim that the latter were having to deal with challenging ‘new music’, Zukunftsmuik, even. Here they were faced with an opera by Dvořák, first performed in 1901, in a staging that would barely raise an eyebrow in most German house or festivals. (The production, by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, hails initially from the Salzburg Festival.) It would be interesting to know how many of those booing had selfishly, uncomprehendingly disrupted a recent Marriage of Figaro in the same house by erupting into laughter at the very moment Count Almaviva sought forgiveness from the Countess. (There was also, bizarrely, to be heard at the opening of the third act a shouted call from a member of the audience for a ‘free’ Quebec.)

Rusalka, Prince (Bryan Hymel), and Foreign Princess (Petra Lang)

What, then, was it that incurred the wrath of the Tunbridge Wells beau monde? I can only assume that it was for the most part Barbara Ehnes’s sets, since the stage direction (presumably a good part of it from revival director, Samantha Seymour) was more often that not quite in harmony with the urgings and suggestions of Dvořák’s score. (The hostile rarely if ever listen to the music; at best, they follow the surtitles and bridle at deviations from what they imagine the stage directions might have been.) Even modern dress is mixed with a sense of the magical, the environment of Ježibaba the witch a case in point. There is even a cat, played both in giant form by Claire Talbot, and in real form, by – a cat, ‘Girlie’. What is real, and what is not? Collision between spirit and human worlds is compellingly brought to life, the devils and demons of a heathen past, including Slavonic river spirits (rusalki) come to tempt, to question, to lay bare the delusions of moralistic, bigoted modernity. Just as modern ‘love’ and marriage’ quickly boil down to money and power, so Vodník the water goblin finds his tawdry place of temptation whilst issuing his moralistic warnings. (Did the audience see itself reflected in the mirror? Perhaps, though I doubt that it even bothered to think that far.) Our ideas of Nature having been hopelessly compromised by what we have become, we ‘naturally’ see the world of rusalki from within the comforts of our hypocritical bordello. Who is exploiting whom, and who is ‘impure’? The souls of women who have committed suicide and of stillborn children – there are various accounts of who the rusalki actually are – or those who shun them in life and in death? Wieler and Morabito do not offer agitprop; rather they allow us to ask these questions of the work, and of ourselves. But equally importantly, they permit a sense of wonder to suffuse what remains very much a fairy tale, realism coexisting with, being corrected by, something older, more mysterious, more dangerous, and perhaps ultimately liberating. Chris Kondek’s video designs, not unlike the hydroelectric dam of Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Centenary’ Ring, both suggest Nature and through their necessary technological apparatus remind us of our distance from any supposed ‘Golden Age’, just as the opening scene will inevitably suggest to us Alberich, the Rhinemaidens, and the power of the erotic. (Wagner used the term liebesgelüste.)

Musical performances were equally strong, in many respects signalling a triumph for Covent Garden. First and foremost should be mentioned Yannick Nézet-Séguin, making his Royal Opera debut. The orchestra played for him as if for an old friend, offering a luscious, long-breathed Romanticism that made it sound a match – as, on its best days, it is – for any orchestra in the world. Magic was certainly to be heard: the sound of Dvořák’s harps again took me back to Das Rheingold – and to Bernard Haitink’s tenure at the house. Ominous fate was brought into being with similar conviction and communicative skill. Above all, Nézet-Séguin conveyed both a necessary sense of direction and a love for the score’s particular glories. If there are times when Dvořák might benefit from a little more, at least, of Janáček’s extraordinary dramatic concision, it would take a harder heart than mine to eschew the luxuriance on offer both in score and performance. Crucially, staging and performance interacted so that the contrast between worlds on stage intensified that in the pit, and vice versa.

Ježibaba (Agnes Zwierko)
and her cat, Mourek (Claire Talbot)
Camilla Nylund shone in the title role. At times, especially during the first act, one might have wondered whether her voice would prove to have the necessary heft, but it did, and Nylund proved herself an accomplished actress into the bargain. Bryan Hymel may not be the most exciting of singers; the voice is not especially variegated. However, he proved dependable, and often a great deal more, the final duet as moving as one could reasonably expect. Alan Held was everything a Vodník should be: baleful, threatening, sincere, and yet perhaps not quite. The Spirit of the Lake may well have his own agenda – and certainly did here. Agnes Zwierko played the witch Ježibaba with wit, menace, and a fine sense of hypocrisy that brought the closed environments of Janáček’s dramas to mind. The four Jette Parker Young Artists participating, nymphs Anna Devin, Madeleine Perard, and Justina Gringyte, and Huntsman Daniel Grice all acquitted themselves with glowing colours. Indeed, Grice’s solo, enveloped by miraculous Freischütz-like horns from the orchestra, movingly evoked a world of lost or never-existent woodland innocence. Last but not least, Petra Lang’s Foreign Princess emerged, like Wagner’s Ortrud, as in some respects the most truthful, as well as the most devious, character of all. Splendidly sung and acted, Lang’s was a performance truly to savour. But then, this was a performance as a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts, a triumphant return to form for Covent Garden with its first ever staging of the work.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

A few lessons in programming...

I have just been looking through some of Pierre Boulez's programmes, performed with a variety of orchestras and ensembles. When one considers the sorry state of so many, though by no means all, contemporary programmes - whether on account of timid organisation or musicians, or the inroads the 'authenticke' brigade has made into Boulez's 'museum', rendering so much repertoire out of bounds - the very thought of the following comes as a tonic. Here is a small, but mouthwatering sample:

30 January 1959
Cologne (WDR SO)

Webern - Symphony, Two Songs, op.19, Four Songs op.13, Das Augenlicht
Schoenberg - Incidental Music to a Motion Picture Scene, op.34
Boulez - Le soleil des eaux
Stravinsky - Renard

17 April 1964
Munich (BRSO)

Coronation Music from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries
Stravinsky - The Flood
Messiaen - Oiseaux exotiques (Yvonne Loriod)
Bartók - Cantata profana

11 March 1965
Cleveland Orchestra

Rameau - Concerts en sextuor, nos 3 and 6
Boulez - Figures-Doubles-Prismes
Debussy, Gigues, Rondes de printemps, Jeux
Stravinsky - Chant du rossignol

15 July 1965
Holland Festival (Hague Residence Orchestra)

Ives - Three Places in New England
Peter Schat - Dances from Labyrinth
Obrecht - Missa Maria zart

7 April 1969

Purcell - Fantasias
Stravinsky -Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Webern - Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring

15 May 1971

Gabrieli - Canzon duodecimi toni a 8, Sonata pian e forte, Canzon septimi toni a 8
Pousseur - Couleurs croisées
Debussy - Première rhapsodie, Images 

4 December 1971
Cleveland Orchestra

Haydn - Symphony no.26 in D minor
Webern - Passcaglia, op.1
Berg - Seven Early Songs, Altenberglieder (Halina Łukomska)
Schubert - Symphony no.4 in C minor, D 417

6 March 1972

Telemann - Tafelmusik III: excerpts
Berg - Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite
Mozart - Piano Concerto no.27 in B-flat major, KV 595 (Alicia de Larrocha)
Varèse - Arcana

1 November 1972
London BBC SO

Schubert - Ständchen, D 920, Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, D 656, Nachtgesang, D 913
Schoenberg - Herzgewächse, op.20 (Mady Mesplé), Three Pieces, op. posth., Herzgewächse [presumably a second performance]
Nono - Canti per tredici, Ha venido
Webern - Entflieht auf leichten Kähnen, op.2, Two Songs, op.19, Das Augenlicht, op.26

3 April 1974
London BBC SO

Schoenberg - Serenade, op.24
Schubert - Lazarus, S 689

3 November 1974
Leeds BBC SO (on receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Leeds)

Bach-Stravinsky - Chorale Variations on Von Himmel hoch
Bartók - Divertimento for strings
Goehr - Chaconne for wind (first performance)
Boulez - Eclat
Webern - Five Orchestral Pieces, op.10
Haydn - Symphony no.76 in E-flat major

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Bell/LPO/Jurowski - Mozart, Brahms, Zemlinsky, and Szymanowski, 22 February 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Symphony no.32, KV 318
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Zemlinsky – Psalm no.23, op.14
Szymanowski – Symphony no.3, ‘The Song of the Night’

Joshua Bell (violin)
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor)
London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

A peculiar programme, this, in which it was difficult to discern much of a connection between the first and second halves. But there was much to enjoy, and only one work – or rather, part of one work – proved a little disappointing. Saddeningly if predictably, audience acclaim tended to be in inverse proportion to the success of the performance; indeed, quite a few audience members did not even bother to stay for the second half.

Mozart’s thirty-second symphony received for the most part a splendid reading. It was heartening to see Vladimir Jurowski employ a sensible, if hardly excessive, complement of London Philharmonic strings: If only he had not deigned to employ natural trumpets and ‘period’ kettledrums – though not, curiously, natural horns. (He did the same last year, in a performance of Haydn’s eighty-eighth.) Nevertheless, the first section combined liveliness and grandeur, non-fussy articulation and a sense of drama. The Andante section flowed without being harried, breathing the outdoor air of the serenade, as well as its easy-going charm, whilst the reversion to the initial tempo brought with it a proper sense of return. It was just a pity that the kettledrums sounded like dustbin lids: I can imagine what Beecham would have said…

Joshua Bell joined the orchestra for Brahms’s Violin Concerto. The first movement could be accounted an unalloyed success, its orchestral introduction – ‘introduction’ hardly seems appropriate here – beautifully handled by Jurowski: well-phrased, mellifluous, clear of purpose. Bell’s tone proved silvery and golden by turn, the latter coming to predominate, always perfectly centred upon the notes. However, he could show vehemence where required, though even then it would be exquisitely shaded. And how the second subject sang – both from soloist and orchestra! Form was clear, as it should be, but without turning into a mere formula; there was always, for which Jurowski must surely be credited, a keen sense of the organic to Brahms’s progress. Bell should be applauded for trying out his own cadenza but, alas, it proved no match for Joachim’s. As for the rest of the movement, though, I could find no fault whatsoever; nor should I have wished to do so. It was unfortunate, to say the least, that an alarm of some sort coincided with the opening bar of the slow movement. But the real problem, or rather one of the two real problems, was the tempo: it simply sounded too fast for an Adagio, and more importantly, too fast for this Adagio. The opening, moreover, emerged a little too moulded in Jurowski’s hands. Bell seemed at times simply to be trying too hard. One could not fault his playing as violin playing, but his seeming insistence to wring out the last drop of intensity from every phrase became a little too much: Brahms veered dangerously close to Korngold, and Bell’s approach seemed strangely at odds with Jurowski’s. The finale was ideally paced: there was clearly much for the audience to enjoy and, I dare say, to swoon over, but a little less would have been more for me. Bell’s approach seemed better suited to lovers of violin virtuosity than Brahms, but if you consider Brahms an out-and-out Romantic, closer to Paganini than to Schoenberg, you would probably have thought differently. Even I, however, wearied a little of the intensity of his vibrato. It all seemed a great pity, since the first movement had promised so much, but sections of the audience whistled and hollered nevertheless.

The second half was what had attracted me to the concert in the first place. Performances of Zemlinsky’s setting of the twenty-third psalm and Szymanowski’s third symphony do not come along every day; indeed, I had heard neither in concert before. Zemlinsky’s piece is an endearing oddity, at least to me, since I cannot help but find some of the music at odds with the text. But Jurowski, the LPO, and the London Philharmonic Choir gave it a wonderful performance, probably finer than any recording I have heard. The opening offered nicely pastoral woodwind, responded to by a fine, rich-toned viola solo (guest principal, Jonathan Barritt), before the ‘heavenly’ Mahler-ish (Fourth Symphony) music took over. Jurowski proved adept at bringing out affinities not only with Mahler, but also with early Schoenberg – though it is not always clear who is influencing whom in the latter case. Whatever its oddities, the psalm was magically brought to life by all concerned, never more so than in the heavenly final bars (Mahler’s Fourth again).

Szymanowski’s Third Symphony is, I think, a masterpiece, quite on a level with Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and indeed the Polish composer’s own King Roger. It has much in common with the latter work, not least its sumptuous scoring and harmony, and of course its homoeroticism. Here, in this Song of the Night, Szymanowski responds to the verse of the thirteenth-century Persian mystic, Jalāl’ad-Dīn Rumi, and how he responds! If the opening bars are richly perfumed, and they certainly were in performance, then we soon hear something akin to an orchestral magic carpet. (Please forgive the orientalism, but it is more or less unavoidable in so orientalist a work.) If not quite possessing the sumptuousness of Boulez’s recent recording with the Vienna Philharmonic – surely now a first choice, though Rattle’s CBSO reading remains very fine indeed – then Jurowski’s LPO account still managed for the most part to emerge victorious over the Royal Festival Hall acoustic. The organ-founded climaxes, not always ideally prepared, packed quite a punch, but it was the Debussyan and Tristan-esque magic that truly ravished, for which conductor, orchestra, and choir were equally responsible. More than once, a progression recalled the Zemlinsky psalm too, but that seems most likely to have been coincidence and shared influence rather than direct connection. Ecstasy, when it came, proved quite overwhelming. Londoners will soon have a second opportunity to hear the symphony, when Boulez will conduct a performance with the LSO: doubtless not to be missed, but nor was this.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Mutter/Müller-Schott/Previn - Mozart, Previn, and Mendelssohn, 20 February 2012

Barbican Hall

Mozart – Piano Trio no.2 in B-flat major, KV 502
Previn – Trio no.1
Mendelssohn – Piano Trio no.1 in D minor, op.49

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
Daniel Müller-Schott (cello)
André Previn (conductor)

The Mozart trio, KV 502, did not augur well for the rest of the programme, yet, although it was certainly a pity that Mozart’s fortunes proved mixed, there was considerably more to be enjoyed in the performances of André Previn’s own 2009 trio – another is to be premiered in New York, later this year – and Mendelssohn’s delightful D minor essay in the genre. The first movement of the Mozart was taken fast, perhaps too fast for the players – save for the excellent Daniel Müller-Schott – really to delve beneath the admittedly attractive surface. I was perhaps most surprised at the outset by the intonational difficulties experienced by Anne-Sophie Mutter, but even once the music had settled down somewhat, there remained problems. Previn often sounded as if he were playing regardless of his partners. (I cannot believe that that was the case, but it was the impression.) The slow movement cohered better, Previn’s part sounding more integrated, the pianist showing a greater willingness to follow where necessary. I was struck here and elsewhere by the sensitivity of Müller-Schott’s playing, even when, perhaps especially when, he was called on only to play a ‘mere’ bass line. The piano part, however, remained distinctly cool. Despite a serious lapse early on from the pianist, the finale fared best: lively, whilst remaining an Allegretto. The string players imparted great character, Mozart at times looking forward – though only looking forward – to Beethoven’s trios.

The immediate impression in the first movement, marked ‘Spirited’, of Previn’s trio was of Copland meeting Prokofiev, later joined by more than a hint of Vienna-cum-Hollywood. Balance and idiom were here much surer: there was at last a true sense of interaction between all the players, whether the material were angular, sweet, or both. Opportunities were well taken by Müller-Schott to shine in the second movement, ‘Adagio’; he proved equally fine as a soloist and a chamber musician, or rather made one doubt the validity of any such distinction. The rapt lyricism often to be heard here again put me in mind of Prokofiev in Cinderella-mode, and a certain side-slipping quality again evoked the Russian composer. Jazzy tendencies present earlier on became more pronounced at the opening of the concluding movement, marked ‘Lightly’. It received a lively performance, every bit as rhythmically alert as its predecessors. Whatever the ultimate fortunes of the work, it sounded – and looked – fun to play.

Romantic yearning, counterbalanced by Classical sense of form, characterised the first movement of Mendelssohn’s D minor trio. Previn’s fingers could not always keep up with his mind: some scale passages were blurred, or skated over. The sense, however, was always present. Mutter and Müller-Schott were both on excellent form, their dialogue at the opening of the recapitulation quite heartrending. There were, moreover, real vehemence and passion to the closing bars. The opening of the slow movement offered perhaps the best piano playing of the concert so far, Previn sounding an unaffected, Schumannesque nobility of spirit. Violin and cello responded in kind: a Romantic kind, certainly, yet never mawkish, and above all songful. Previn seemed rejuvenated when the scherzo opened, as able as his colleagues to contribute not only to its elfin but also to its Beethovenian qualities. It was a delight, as was the finale. If there were occasions when, again, Previn could not quite articulate every note as he doubtless once would have done, the spirit was ever-willing. There was a fine sense of major-mode apotheosis at the close, not unlike Brahms, but less ‘late’ in character.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 16 February 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Don Giovanni – Erwin Schrott
Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Carmela Remigio
Donna Elvira – Ruxandra Donose
Don Ottavio – Pavol Breslik
Zerlina – Kate Lindsey
Masetto – Matthew Rose
Commendatore – Reinhard Hagen

Francesca Zambello (director)
Bárbara Lluch (revival director)
Maria Bjørnson (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
William Hobbs (fight director)
Stephen Mear (movement)

Images: Royal Opera/Mike Hoban
(except where otherwise stated)
Don Giovanni (Erwin Schrott) and Donna Anna
(Carmela Remigio)
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Constantinos Carydis (conductor)

For those whose operatic priorities lie firmly and indeed exclusively in the realm of singing, there would have been enough here to satisfy: not necessarily something to be taken entirely for granted, given the compromised vocalism one sometimes endures. But, even assuming that one could somehow disregard one of the noisiest, most ill-behaved audiences I have had the misfortune to experience at Covent Garden, a person with even the slightest interest in opera as drama would have been sorely disappointed. It frankly beggars belief that, especially for so popular a work, Francesca Zambello’s production was not retired after a single outing, for rarely in my experience has there been such critical unanimity about any staging of any opera. Doubtless revival director Bárbara Lluch did what she could, and there were even signs in the first act that the deep-frozen corpse might occasionally be twitching in the direction of the merely comatose. Nevetheless, Zambello’s production remained as vacuous as any opera production I can recall. Its one glimmer of an idea turns out to be nothing of the sort: religious imagery remains nothing more than religious tat. And that, despite ludicrous hairstyles and the bizarre pointing hand, is it. Faced with a re-dramatisation of the Fall, pre-emption of Mephistopheles, one of the greatest scores ever written, etc., etc., there comes nothing in response. Don Giovanni, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, seems to present almost insuperable difficulties to contemporary directors; the only two I can recall emerging with relative honour in the theatre are Graham Vick at Glyndebourne and Calixto Bieito at ENO. Yet even the most perverse concept, even the most unclear, such as that Roland Schwab recently served up for Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, would be preferable to nothing at all. Has Zambello ever read Da Ponte, let alone Mozart? If so, that only serves to render her ‘response’ the more pitiful. Her similarly ideas-free Carmen just about works on as straightforward level of response as one can muster, but this, like Giovanni himself, lies utterly beyond redemption.

It would be vain to claim that the directorial context held no implications for the vocal performances, but the singers almost all emerged with considerable credit, the sole disappointment being a woolly Masetto from Matthew Rose. Erwin Schrott’s Giovanni was beautifully sung and as well acted as one had any right to expect, yet even the darkness of his tone at its best sounded less dangerous than it had when he took the role in the same production in 2007. He could be readily forgiven for simply having had enough, though he would doubtless have been delighted by the support of Anna Netrebko from the audience. Alex Esposito is a fine Leporello, as he managed to show even in the aforementioned Berlin staging, but here too often he was forced to play the clown: a wasted opportunity, though he nevertheless managed to shine in the Catalogue Aria. Carmela Remigio proved an intelligent Donna Anna: no mean feat in context. What she achieved vocally, with fine command of line and ever-welcome ease in her native tongue, fully vindicated the faith placed in her by no less a conductor than Claudio Abbado. Ruxandra Donose actually seemed more at ease than she had in Berlin; again she did vocally what she could. Kate Lindsey was a spirited Zerlina, if perhaps sometimes too saucy for Mozartian style (though one could hardly blame her for attempting something, indeed anything, to alleviate the directorial tedium). Bar an unfortunate and highly-exposed scooping up to the note in ‘Il mio tesoro’ – the much- and justly-maligned ‘traditional’ conflation of Vienna and Prague was employed – Pavol Breslik made an attractive-toned Don Ottavio. Reinhard Hagen, despite a truly absurd tempo forced upon him, managed to make the Commendatore’s words during the Stone Guest scene at least count for something.

Don Ottavio (Pavol Breslik)
To begin with, I wondered whether the well-nigh uniformly negative criticism – from the first of the two casts – of Constantinos Carydis’s conducting had been unfair. The Overture was far too fast, in both sections; indeed, there was no discernible change of tempo between them. But thereafter for a while there was greater variation than I had been led to expect. If hardly Colin Davis or Daniel Barenboim, let alone Busch, Giulini, or Furtwängler, I had heard considerably worse. There was even some sensitively shaped handling of orchestral recitative, something not to be taken entirely for granted in an age with a dearth of Mozart conductors. But early relative promise dissipated, the end of the first act finale falling flatter than I have ever heard. It was not a matter of the climax running away with itself, as one might expect; there simply was no climax. The music stopped, and that was the end of that. What one might politely call eccentrically fast tempi became, if not quite the norm, than depressingly frequent in the second act, yet the effect was not hyperactive but inert. The appearance of the Stone Guest was somehow – and not just on account of the production – utterly inconsequential, Mozart’s chords skated over as if they were nothing, or worse than nothing: something out of Philip Glass, perhaps. The epilogue was as ruinously hard-driven as any Mozart performance I have encountered. Carydis’s singers and even some in the audience deserved far, far better.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Alexandre Tharaud - Scarlatti, Chopin, and Liszt, 15 February 2012

Wigmore Hall

Scarlatti – Sonata in D minor, Kk 64
Sonata in D minor, Kk 9
Sonata in C major, Kk 72
Sonata in C major, Kk 132
Sonata in D major, Kk 29
Sonata in E major, Kk 380
Sonata in A minor, Kk 3
Sonata in C major, Kk 514
Sonata in F minor, Kk 481
Sonata in D minor, Kk 141
Chopin – Piano Sonata no.2 in B-flat minor, op.35
Liszt – Funérailles, S 173/7

This proved a surprisingly mixed recital, the surprise lying for the most part in what came off best. On the basis of Alexandre Tharaud’s wonderful Couperin and Rameau, I had lazily expected that Scarlatti would fare equally well. Scarlatti’s music is of course different in almost every respect, and it was only at the end of the first half that Tharaud’s performances really caught fire, a good number of the earlier sonatas having proved frustratingly prosaic. Moreover, I had not expected that some of the most impressive pianism and musicianship would come in the music of Liszt.

Scarlatti first. As a schoolboy I played a good number of his sonatas, not least because they tended to crop up as alternatives to the more ‘difficult’ works by Bach in the Baroque lists for Associated Board exams. It was not really until I also took up the organ and became truly besotted with Bach that I persuaded my teacher that I should really have the chance to explore Bach on the piano. For children, the attractions of Scarlatti are many: rhythm, ‘Spanish’ colour, technical challenges that can generally be surmounted with a bit of hard work, and so on; one tends to assimilate him, consciously or otherwise, into a semi-alternative view of piano-history to the solidly Teutonic. In that respect, I was intrigued to hear what would be made of the juxtaposition with Chopin’s keyboard poetry, though more was offered in theory than reality. Tharaud’s lack of exaggeration in many of the sonatas was welcome; for instance the willingness only to hint at the Hispanic elements – guitars strumming, mordants and some of the harmonies – in the first sonata, Kk 64, though but there were times when I longed for a broader expressive range. Scarlatti as precursor of Chopin and Bartók, amongst others, might have been more apparent. There was a beautifully dreamy opening to the second of the D minor sonatas, Kk 9, but it suffered from a loss of momentum in the material that followed, meandering rather than directed. Kk 72 and Kk 29 were performed in virtuoso moto perpetuo mode; I could not help wishing that Tharaud would allow them to yield, if only a little, and there was occasional clumsiness too, especially in the former. There is more to this music than he allowed there, as some delicate shading in Kk 132 attested. Even in that case, however, more might well have been made of Scarlatti’s dissonances and other harmonic surprises.

A more generous palette was employed in Kk 380, whilst abrupt contrasts and extraordinary chromaticism were clearly relished in an impressive account of Kk 3. Kk 514 was somewhat on the brittle side, however: yes, there is an undeniable percussive element to the music, but there are also melodic phrases to be shaped. The final two sonatas received what were perhaps the best performances. Kk 481, in F minor, received a sensitive reading, showing Tharaud perfectly capable of cantabile tone and a recognisably pianistic touch; it was just a pity that they had not been more readily on offer earlier. There was a more pianistic sensibility to the closing D minor sonata, Kk 141, too; had Tharaud perhaps been a little too eager to imitate the harpsichord? It is difficult to say, but if so, it had not really worked. The sonata’s opening theme was an especial highlight, almost Lisztian in the sense of the first Mephisto Waltz. Fierce ‘Spanish’ repeated strumming notes opened an equally impressive second section.

The second Chopin sonata also took a long time to catch fire. Indeed, the first two movements proved disappointing. The first movement progressed from phrase to phrase in alarmingly four-square fashion, exhibiting little sign of any grander sweep. Weighting of chords could be heavy-handed too, sounding closer to Rachmaninov than Chopin. The second movement tended to grimace rather than to rage, whilst its trio material emerged in distended fashion, again largely a consequence of proceeding from phrase to phrase, even beat to beat. Harmonic rhythm was sadly lacking. The Funeral March, however, sounded on quite a different level. It was given a straightforward, unaffected performance, in which Chopin’s line was permitted magically to reveal itself. The cantilena of the second subject was sensitively, movingly shaped: quite absorbing. Chopin’s finale came across with a true sense of its weird, disorienting experimentalism.

Liszt was represented by Funérailles. Tharaud’s opening bars clearly meant business, seemingly invigorated by the success of the latter part of the Chopin sonata. They truly thundered, both as true piano music and telling of something beyond the concert hall: Liszt’s – and a revolution’s – grief. As the piece progressed, echoes of Chopin’s funeral march became more pronounced, not just in the obvious sense of ‘likeness’ but in their generative function for Liszt’s form, actually conveyed more tellingly, more dramatically, than the ‘original’. Again, the contrasting cantilena was beautifully handled. It was tempting to wish that, in the light of this performance, Tharaud would return to Scarlatti and see whether more might be done with his music now.

The recital was being recorded, I assume for Wigmore Hall Live.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera, 14 February 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Images: Royal Opera House/Bill Cooper, 2012
Figaro (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo)

Figaro – Ildebrando d’Arcangelo
Susanna – Aleksandra Kurzak
Bartolo – Carlo Lepore
Marcellina – Ann Murray
Cherubino – Anna Bonitatibus
Count Almaviva – Lucas Meacham
Don Basilio – Bonaventura Bottone
Countess Almaviva – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Antonio – Jeremy White
Don Curzio – Harry Nicoll
Barbarina – Susanna Gaspar
Bridesmaids – Melissa Alder, Louise Armit

David McVicar (director)
Leah Hausman (movement, revival director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

David McVicar’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, previously staged in 2006 (twice), 2008, and 2010, now returns as part of the Royal Opera House’s ‘Da Ponte cycle’. I cannot help wishing that funds had stretched to commissioning three new productions, preferably from the same director, with a sense of how the works might actually cohere as a ‘cycle’. Nevertheless, and despite a good number of reservations I continue to entertain, McVicar’s production remains preferable to Jonathan Miller’s vulgar Così fan tutte, and, assuming it not to have been overhauled beyond recognition, Francesca Zambello’s vacuous Don Giovanni. Moving the action to the Restoration period does no especial harm, but the motivation remains obscure. If the point be to highlight Talleyrand’s observation concerning the restored Bourbons, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, then it needs to be made, not assumed. The Count’s droit de seigneur is a gross exaggeration in the eighteenth century; in the nineteenth, it merely seems incredible. ‘Absolutism’ was of course a nineteenth-century way of understanding the ancien régime, painting a complex society in the bold, often crude colours of monarchs such as Charles X. A good deal of sophistication would be needed to make the shift coherent, yet here the political seems notable for the most part by its absence. We have neither a society of orders nor an emergent class-based society, merely a house with hyperactive servants in attractive costumes. The result, whatever the intention, seems to be pandering to devotees of mindless ‘costume dramas’. It all nevertheless looks good, and certain moments are very well handled, especially the magical falling of dusk between the third and fourth acts. (Incidentally, when audience members are relentlessly intent upon disrupting the action with mid-act applause, why do they then fall silent at the end of an act? Mystifying!) The servants’ running about during the Overture remains an unnecessary irritant – can anyone really think that Mozart’s music deserves to be drowned out by footsteps? – and Leah Hausman’s revival direction, sadly, tends towards the Carry On school, only encouraging a vocal, puerile section of the audience, about which more anon.

Susanna (Aleksandra Kursak), Figaro, Marcellina (Ann Murray)

The greatest surprise of the evening was perhaps Sir Antonio Pappano’s conducting. There were problems: too often, he seems to view Mozart as aspiring towards Rossini, and the consequent motor rhythms have no place whatsoever in Mozart’s music. Certain aspects of phrasing also suffered in that respect, perhaps most glaringly in the Overture; articulation, where desperately needed, came there none. The use of natural horns was at best questionable; their rasping at the conclusion of Figaro’s fourth act aria was unpleasant in the extreme. That said, and with the notable exception of the end of the second act, Pappano did not harry the score; indeed, there were moments when he clearly communicated his delight in its subtleties. Woodwind might not have ravished in the way they did for Sir Colin Davis in 2010, but they seduced nevertheless. Tempi convinced for the most part, and there was little of the tendency towards mere ‘accompaniment’ that has often held back this conductor’s work previously. I seem to be the only person who regrets the 'traditional' cuts in the fouth act, but regret them I do.

Casting Figaro successfully seems trickier than one would expect. Even in 2010, a simply astounding male team of Erwin Schrott (Figaro) and Marius Kwiecien (the Count) had to endure sub-par contributions from their Susanna and Countess. Here the undoubted star was Aleksandra Kursak’s Susanna, ever musical, ever lively, and above all ever alert to the twists and turns Da Ponte and Mozart lovingly throw her way. One could not, for the duration of the performance, imagine it being done better any other way. Phrasing was telling but unobtrusive, likewise her sideways glances. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo has never lacked stage presence, and his voice at its dark-chocolate best remains as attractive as his handsome visage and figure. There were, however, a good few moments, especially earlier on, when his delivery lacked focus. Lucas Meachem’s Count suffered similarly, though he also lacked his valet’s presence – a serious drawback, alas. Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Countess was a serious disappointment: I have never heard ‘Porgi, amor’ so ill-tuned, nor so squally. She improved as time went on, but throughout lacked grace and, straightforwardly, character. The Cherubino of Anna Bonatatibus also disappointed: ill-focused and short-breathed. Even the Marcellina of a stalwart such as Ann Murray, an artist I admire greatly, sometimes sounded out of sorts. And would directors please cease their fixation with turning Don Basilio into a camp monstrosity? It is entirely unwarranted in either libretto or score, and has simply become a tedious cliché.

Finally, alas, a character that was all too present on this occasion: the audience, or at least a considerable section thereof. I had been tempted to open with the words, ‘more in sorrow than in anger,’ but that would have misled, for both emotions ran to the surface dealing with so disruptive a crowd. All manner of disruption was present, unremittingly so. Barely a bar went by without a cough or two. Objects were dropped left, right, and centre – and I am not referring to the stage business. A watch alarm made a charming accompaniment to ‘Porgi, amor’, though we had to wait a little longer for telephones to make their first appearance. Worst of all was the incessant, moronic laughter, perhaps to a certain extent elicited by more dubious aspects of the production; but really, if one finds someone walking onstage with a dog intrinsically hilarious, then one may need to seek treatment. The slightest reference – via the surtitles, be it noted – to anything sexual was met with all the maturity of a convention for non-recovering Benny Hill Show addicts. I should say that those people needed to get out more, except I should much rather they stayed at home. Most unforgivable was the laughter that greeted those words: ‘Contessa, perdono’. McVicar’s production brings a true sense of revelation at that point, the show-stopping appearance of the Countess, ravishing and in more than one sense graceful, fully in tune with Mozart’s approaching benediction. What is even remotely hilarious about seeking a forgiveness that goes beyond even the humanity of the Countess to the Almighty Himself, that ‘peace … which passeth all understanding’? Even if somehow one were to find that hysterically amusing – presumably one would then guffaw through King Lear or the Missa Solemnis – one might have some regard for fellow members of the audience, those who might have come to hear Mozart’s score. As the gentleman seated next to me commented during the curtain calls, it made one long to be Ludwig II, alone with one’s art. None of this is, of course, in any sense the fault of the Royal Opera House, but perhaps an announcement requesting silence during performance and the occasional summary execution, pour encourager les autres, might be in order.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Richard Goode - Schumann and Chopin, 12 February 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann – Kinderszenen, op.15
Kreisleriana, op.16
Chopin – Nocturne in E-flat major, op.55 no.2
Scherzo no.3 in C-sharp minor, op.39
Waltzes: op.64 no.3 in A-flat major, op.64 no.2 in C sharp minor, op.34 no.3 in F major
Ballade no.3 in A-flat major, op.47

Richard Goode’s contribution to the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series offered almost unalloyed delight. Indeed, I should struggle – and see no reason why I ought to struggle – to find anything about which even to quibble from the first half, devoted to Schumann. The first piece of Kinderszenen welcomed us in, as if the welcome came directly – which, in a way, it did – from a wise and kindly storyteller. How was this accomplished, both here and later in the work? Through imagination, certainly, but also through well-nigh perfect weighting of every chord, and communication of the connections between every note. Memories of and sympathy towards childhood permeated performance and score alike. Pieces such as ‘Bittendes Kind’ and ‘Gluckes genug’ were delectable, thanks to Goode’s irreproachable tonal understanding. Voice-leading sounded impeccably natural, whilst judicious rubato made points without underlining. It is a cliché, doubtless, but ‘Träumerei’ proved the true, still centre to the work, not least to a marriage of pellucid, Murray Perahia-like tone with harmonic grounding that put me in mind of Wilhelm Kempff. Irresistible rhythmic impetus – and that includes harmonic rhythm – brought ‘Ritter von Steckenpferd’ to life. Goode’s placing of the opening chords in ‘Der Dichter spricht’ and his spinning of the line emerging therefrom brought a sense, despite horrendous bronchial contributions from sections of the audience, of magical reverie with direction. Sadly, some of the performance was blighted by noise from outside the hall: what sounded like drumming, at one point. But it is testimony to Goode’s performance that it rose above such distractions.

Kreisleriana opened with a movement by turns tempestuous and dreamily poetic, Florestan and Eusebius setting the scene for the work as a whole. The two ensuing intermezzi evoked a similar, continued contrast and competition, which yet retained common poetic ground. Scales were transmuted into something so much more in the third movement, whilst the fifth imparted a fine sense of a snapshot, neither begun nor completed, but rather revealed to us for a while. The opening of the final movement flickered like Schubert’s Irrlicht, though was always underpinned by absolute rhythmic security. Its passionate central section was striking for its unforced sincerity: that both of pianist and composer.

The Chopin works performed in the second half were different from those previously advertised (the E major Nocturne, op.62 no.2, and the third sonata). There was little to regret, though. The opening Nocturne, op.55 no.2, presented not an old world Chopin, but one whose sparkle, not least in the trills, looked forward to Debussy and Ravel. Dramatic rhetoric in the opening of the third Scherzo made me eager to hear Goode in Liszt; there was certainly a touch of Mephistopheles here, and the final climax proved as diabolical as anything in Liszt’s own music. One should not forget, though, the delicacy with which Goode made Chopin’s decoration sing: not ‘mere’ decoration, but true, melodic inspiration. The two op.64 waltzes performed (nos 2 and 3) charmed without skating over the very real depths to be found here, especially the yearning of the C-sharp minor waltz. For me, the only disappointment was the A-flat Ballade. Its fluency impressed, but here, and only here, I sensed that there was more to the music than was being revealed on the present occasion. Perhaps I have been listening too often to the ever- rigorous Maurizio Pollini.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Pražák Quartet - Mozart and Brahms, 12 February 2012

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.21 in D major, KV 575
Brahms – String Quartet no.3 in B-flat major, op.67

Pavel Hula, Vlastimil Holek (violins)
Josef Klusoň (viola)
Michal Kaňka (cello)

This was a puzzling concert from the Pražák Quartet, both works performed receiving distinctly mixed performances. Perhaps oddest was the opening movement of Mozart’s first ‘Prussian’ quartet. The exposition was strangely unstable, the players seemingly unable to settle upon a tempo, and when finally they did, it sounded far too fast for ‘Allegretto’, more like ‘Allegro [vivace]’. Despite some notably rich-toned viola playing from Josef Klusoň, the reading simply did not hang together, much of the movement sounding not only rushed but skated over. The ensuing ‘Andante’ was much more like it: the tempo worked, and was settled upon. There was, moreover, an apt mood of sweet elegance to the movement as a whole, and a far stronger sense of direction too. Vibrato would have horrified the puritans: good! The brisk minuet (one-to-a-bar, with a vengeance) needed to smile more; it emerged unduly fiercely, a little like a caricature of Beethoven. The high cello line in the trio sang clearly; perhaps it was emphasised a little too strongly, but at least we were reminded of its origins in the Prussian king’s cello-playing. Solos in the finale were better integrated. However, although eventful, it was rushed, even garbled at times. And that was before I recalled Mozart’s tempo marking: ‘Allegretto’. Grace, alas, stood at a premium.

Brahms’s B-flat major quartet suffered from a hard-driven first movement. The density of the composer’s argument came across, likewise to a certain extent Beethovenian antecedents (especially opp. 74 and 95) but Brahms never benefits from sounding frantic. Richer string tone would have been desirable too. That was forthcoming in the slow movement, which achieved a successful union of gravity and Classical poise. There was now a real sense of where the music was heading, though the journey remained as important as the destination. The third movement evinced nervous intensity and a delight in Brahms’s metrical intricacies and dislocations. Despite a barrage of coughing, this was highly, dramatically involving. A charming traversal of the finale’s variations was generally well characterised, though there were occasions when a little more (German?) intensity would have been welcome; Brahms sounded too much like Dvořák here.

Götterdämmerung, Met Opera Live, 11 February 2012

Metropolitan Opera, New York: HD Live, viewed at BFI IMAX

Brünnhilde – Deborah Voigt
Gutrune – Wendy Bryn Harmer
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
Siegfried – Jay Hunter Morris
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Alberich – Eric Owens
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
First Norn – Maria Radner
Second Norn – Elizabeth Bishop
Third Norn – Heidi Melton
Woglinde – Erin Morley
Wellgunde – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Flosshilde – Tamara Mumford

Robert Lepage (director)
Neilson Vignola (associate director)
Carl Fillion (set designs)
François St-Aubin (costumes)
Etienne Boucher (lighting)
Lionel Arnould (video image artist)

Patricia Racette (‘Live in HD’ host)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Fabio Luisi (conductor)

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. With the caveat that this is the only instalment of Robert Lepage’s Met Ring that I have seen, it really is as bad as everyone has said it is. In the face of uniformly negative reviews – I am sure there will be exceptions, but they have not come to my notice – Götterdämmerung proved to be one of the most vacuous productions of anything I have ever seen. Even the Otto Schenk production that this replaced seems in retrospect a monument to Wagner’s ‘emotionalisation of the intellect’ (the desired mode for reception of his yet-to-be-composed tetralogy, according to Opera and Drama). Well, not quite, but here, I am afraid, there is simply nothing. There has been a peculiar recent trend of presenting ideas-free or at least ideas-lite Ring cycles: witness Stéphane Braunschweig in Aix and Guy Cassiers in Berlin (and Milan). However one could fail to entertain any thoughts, however misplaced, about the Ring is a conundrum too far for me, but Lepage seems to have hit rock bottom. So far as I can discern, his only concern is the ‘machine’, about which we have all heard far too much already. A preposterously expensive mechanism for scene changes and video projections – disturbingly similar to Ex Machina’s ‘Cirque du Soleil’ – is not a substitute, or rather it is but not should be, for dramatic direction. A production that took technology as its starting-point could have a great deal to say. How about, say, starting with Victorian phantasmagoria in Nibelheim and making our way forward? (Memories of Patrice Chéreau’s hydroelectric dam necessarily return.) But here we simply have duller costumes than in Schenk, and video projections of a few natural phenomena. What is the drama about? What is at stake? The nihilism of Götterdämmerung, or at least that dramatised therein - Chéreau rightly characterised the world of the Gibichung court as ageing, pointing to the increasing desperation of its rituals, which seek some sort of moral code in a post-religious society that knows no morality, indeed finds it impossible to ‘know’ – is quite a different matter from presenting nothing at all. The mock-up horse seems so designed to appease ‘traditionalists’ that it would surely have been more honest to go the whole hog, if you will forgive the mixing of equine and porcine, and present a real animal on stage. It all looks at best like an expensive version of a school Viking play. Poor Waltraud Meier really pulls the short straw with Waltraute’s silly helmet.

Enough! If even the lobotomised would require a further lobotomy to find anything in the production, was there anything at least worth hearing? The score, after all, is not without interest. Fabio Luisi’s conducting was better than we tend to hear at Covent Garden; there was little of the stopping and starting that must be endured here post-Haitink. But if corners were for the most part safely navigated, the reading nevertheless struggled to rise above the efficient. How depressing it is to write that! In a brief interval conversation with Patricia Racette – may I never hear her inane questioning again! – Luisi claimed that he wished to rid the work of heavy German tradition. He accomplished that after a fashion, I suppose, but it might have been worth him considering whence that disparaged tradition arose. This was not a chamber reading – there is, up to a point, a place for such – but a dull one, quite uninvolving throughout. Again, I should remind you that we are talking about Götterdämmerung here. Choral singing, I am delighted to report, was excellent. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus was clearly well-trained, and sang with admirable heft, as well as clarity.

Meier’s Waltraute was, unsurprisingly, a highlight. Somehow she managed to wring some drama from the situation: she did so as only she can, with her extraordinary intensifying synthesis of word and gesture. Iain Paterson was an excellent Gunther, conflicted and insecure, and Wendy Bryn Harmer offered an excellent, complementary Gutrune, often quite beautiful of tone. Hans-Peter König’s Hagen was interesting. There were times when I thought him too benevolent, but his portrayal won me around: a nasty turn thereafter suggested that it might actually have been an act, Hagen’s act. We were left guessing. Sad to say, I missed Eric Owens’s Alberich: confusion – entirely my own fault – concerning the interval timings meant that I missed the very opening of the second act, surely one of the most extraordinary scenes in this extraordinary drama. Owens certainly received a rapturous curtain call. As for Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde, I have heard worse, but the view that her weight loss entailed a great deal of vocal loss seemed pretty close to confirmation here. There was a dignity to her portrayal that promised more than it delivered, but if hardly memorable, there was no disgrace here either. Jay Hunter Morris should probably be applauded for managing, more or less, to sing the well-nigh impossible role of Siegfried – we all have horror stories to recount in that respect – but there were times when he sounded strained, even in a recorded balance that offered undue emphasis to the singers. Moreover, this was a role for the most part presented as opposed to lived. The production of course did not help, but Meier and Paterson in particular showed what might nevertheless be done by intelligent singing-actors. Intelligence, alas, was not something with which Lepage and company credited their audience.

It was unfortunate that much of the final scene of the first act was vitiated by some problem with transmission. First an unpleasant noise replaced the music, then silence. Whether this were the fault of the broadcast or the cinema, I do not know. Strange computer announcements appeared on screen from time to time, too, and there were problems with the subtitles (quite apart from the often questionable translation). I shall not bore readers with too many of my thoughts concerning opera in the cinema – I have come rather late in the day to it, this being my first time – but this was, for whatever reasons, a far less involving experience than I had anticipated, and it would be good to hear a balance that sounded a little closer to what one might hear in the opera house. Wagner's great Chorus, the orchestra, suffered especially.

(See also the review by Classical Iconoclast, including links to reviews of previous instalments.)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Interview with Carmela Remigio

The second cast for the Royal Opera's production of Don Giovanni is about to take the stage. Headed by Erwin Schrott, there seems every reason to believe that the vocal performances and acting will be very strong. I shall be reporting back after the first night (16 February). Carmela Remigio will play Donna Anna; she was kind enough to answer some e-mailed questions. Her responses bode well for an interesting, intelligent performance...

MB: What are the greatest challenges and the greatest delights for you as an artist in singing the part of Donna Anna?

CR: My greatest challenge is to give Donna Anna a complex and faceted character. To let the audience feel how ambiguous and enigmatic she is. Passion and control at the same time. Musically, she is acrobatics every time she sings. A lot of high notes - maybe 35 natural A’s in just “Or sai chi l’onore”. A deep emotional strength is needed to play such a violent aria, so full of resentment, and a firm vocal control of all sounds as well. When I can reach this point, I am happy.

MB: Like Sena Jurinac, for instance, you have played both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. Do you find that singing one role helps you understand the other? How would you characterise the differences between the roles, temperamentally and musically?

CR: Playing both roles has certainly helped me to better understand many aspects – how to interact with the other characters, what happens while I am off stage. Among the three women, Elvira is the most simple and clear. She is the one who had the wedding promise from Don Giovanni. They have had a three-day long passion, which is a lot for Don Giovanni … but he shirks,and she goes mad for being deserted, she runs after the fire but gets burnt and is devastated, until she decides she will not love any one any longer, and wants to enter a convent.

Anna is different. I like to imagine her meeting Giovanni at a masked ball. The two have an immediate feeling, maybe also an intellectual one. Mozart and Da Ponte do not describe Anna as a transparent woman. The words, the music are full of misunderstandings, agilities I see as emotional weeknesses, unexpressed uneasiness in the attitude she has to play, as a noble woman, towards a fiancé who does exist, and whom she probably loved a lot until she met Don Giovanni. But Giovanni is the passion, the woman’s mental perversion – which is what a fiancé will never represent.

MB: Donna Anna is the character who stands closest to the apparently ‘eighteenth-century’ world of opera seria, yet she also appealed strongly to the Romantics – ETA Hoffmann, for example. Do you see her as a character looking both backward and forward? Or do you think the balance lies more in one direction?

CR: I absolutely believe Anna is already the nineteenth century. Mozart is a genius. What he writes for Donna Anna is unique. “Non mi dir” reminds me of Casta Diva, and when singing it I must use the same legato and the same drama in the agilities.

MB: What desire, if any, do you think Donna Anna feels towards Don Giovanni? Is she just better at hiding her desire than Donna Elvira?

CR: Donna Anna lies. She does know her lover, and thus the one who killed her father, but… she has to lie. She has a fiancé, she cannot confess she betrayed him with her father’s killer. How many times in life you happen to lie to the man you love! I believe many women know this feeling of love and contempt for someone they long for and will never have. And they do not dare to tell their fiancé – who is actually loved as well – he is not the first in their hearts. This turmoil of thoughts is what places Anna higher than other Mozart women, and maybe the closest one to Don Giovanni for her emotional complexity.

MB: Donna Anna also has a very strong relationship with her father. Do you have any thoughts about the nature of that relationship and its implications for her actions?

CR: I have never thought Donna Anna’s problem being her father. Mourning suddenly comes and upsets her mind, but I do not see any particular relation with her father as crucial for her emotional balance.

MB: Do you feel pity for Don Ottavio? His role is so often described as ‘thankless’, and one might say that that characterisation has much to do with the way Donna Anna treats him.

CR: I feel tenderness and also love for Don Ottavio. What makes Anna suffer is her awareness to betray someone she loves. How can you detest a man who says “Dalla sua pace la mia dipende” (my peace depends on hers)?

MB: Do you think she has anything in common with other Mozart characters? Elettra and Vitellia, for instance, both of which seria parts you have sung?

CR: Mozart female characters can have something in common. They are all interesting women, but different one from the other. Mozart shows he knows women’s sensitivity, weaknesses and strengths very well. Feeling and reason must live together in the purity of their cantos.

MB: To take another of your Mozart roles, Susanna, does that require an entirely different approach, both in terms of acting and vocal characterisation?

CR: Difficult Susanna… always on stage, with everybody, always singing… and at the end of the opera you have sore feet! Joking aside, Susanna kicks her legs up along the whole opera. Then the universe becomes still… and she sings “Deh vieni non tardar”… The aria is charged with high sensuality, a unique example of musical mastery. It is a very beautiful role, but she is very transparent as a woman.

MB: Mozart is generally praised for his sympathy towards female characters; that sympathy is what helps make them so believable, so human. Is that your experience, in this and other Mozart operas?

CR: I am just in love with Mozart. I wish I was his wife to know which folly these masterpieces would come out!

MB: Are there any other Mozart roles you are keen to play, whether now or in the future? Perhaps something from one of his earlier works?

CR: I would love to continue playing all the Mozart roles I have interpreted up to know.

MB: The male singers with whom you are working on this particular production – Erwin Schrott, Alex Esposito, and Pavol Breslik – are all artists whom I have admired greatly in other productions I have seen of Don Giovanni. How much does it help your own performance to be working with such fine actor-singers, and to interact with them on stage?

CR: It may seem an obvious reply, and it is open-hearted instead. I am really happy to play with this team. We work hard during rehearsals, but always with the right mix of play, fun and laugh. This helps the artistic outcome in a very positive way. With them it is possible to explore the infinite nuances of interpretation – which rises from the common wish to well accomplish a work we love and try to make it interesting. With Breslik, my partner on stage, I have a special musical and theatrical feeling.

MB: You have played Donna Anna in a production conducted by Claudio Abbado and directed by Peter Brook. What did you learn from collaborating with such distinguished artists? And how did you find their approach to Mozart, and to Don Giovanni in particular?

CR: I learnt a lot from my collaboration with Brook and Abbado. I was young enough, 23 years old, and could absorb all that an artist has to learn after studying the vocal technique for years searching for perfection. From Abbado I learnt the interpretative musical rigour, the Mozart style that must be impeccable and cogent, but also rich in musical nuances and thousand of colours. And then the use of the word and the consonant in the recitative. From Brook I learnt a very important thing he would always repeat us during a whole year of Don Giovanni on tour performance: “Forget you are an opera singer”. I cried at this at the beginning, then I understood that by detaching from myself I would let the right space for the character to seize me, and the voice would come out more freely. Still now, when I am on stage, I am Donna Anna for three hours. I cry, I love, give way to despair as she would do. Finally… I come back to Carmela only in my dressing room. He taught me that Freedom is Truth on Stage. And this has to go through minimalism and simplicity.

Click here to view Carmela Remigio's website.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann, English National Opera, 10 February 2012

(sung in English, as The Tales of Hoffmann)

The Coliseum
Images: Chris Christodoulou
Hoffmann (Barry Banks), Olympia (Georgia Jarman), and Nicklausse (Christine Rice)

Hoffmann – Barry Banks
Stella, Olympia, Antonia, Giulietta – Georgia Jarman
Muse, Nicklausse – Christine Rice
Counsellor Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr Miracle, Captain Dapertutto – Clive Bayley
Spalanzani – Iain Paton
Crespel, Luther – Graeme Danby
Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, Pitchinaccio – Simon Butteriss
Voice of Antonia’s mother – Catherine Young
Schlémil – Tom Fackrell
Students – Richard Gerard Jones, Luke Owens, Sebastian Sykes

Richard Jones (director)
Giles Cadle (set designs)
Buki Schiff (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Lucy Burge (movement)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Francine Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Antony Walker (conductor)

Olympia and Hoffmann

In many respects, The Tales of Hoffmann and Richard Jones would seem a good fit. An opéra fantastique, with which Offenbach at the end of his career wished to show the world that he was not a mere purveyor of enjoyable froth, certainly offers plenty of opportunity for the surreally-inclined. (Jones’s controversial 1990s Ring for the Royal Opera House garnered plaudits and brickbats on that basis. Sadly, if not entirely unpredictably, it proved not to be Bernard Haitink’s idea of a Ring at all.) The pipe emblazoned upon the stage curtain and the pipes being smoked by Hoffmann and the students seem to hold the key to the director’s conception. Whatever it is that is being smoked would appear to lie behind the visions. Fair enough, but there is perhaps a little too much of the surface psychedelic, especially during the second (here, first) act, and not enough truly Romantic, Gothic darkness. We are dealing with Offenbach rather than Hoffmann himself, of course, but it would be beneficial to see, if not to hear, a little more of the hero, a still grossly underappreciated figure in the English-speaking world. (One really needs German.) Some of what we see resembles a little too closely Jones’s Covent Garden productions of Gianni Schicchi and The Gambler. Difficult though it may be to feel sympathy for the 1950s, a decade of closed-mindedness if every there were one, is it always necessary to send them up so garishly as in the Olympia act? (At least I assume that was what was being attempted.) Why a gorilla was wandering around the stage before and during the fourth (here, third) act, I simply have no idea. Its inclusion seemed to add nothing beyond reminding us of the ménagerie in that splendid production of The Gambler. The appearance of Dr Miracle as Antonia opens her music is very nicely handled, though, likewise the appearance of her mother’s voice through a gramophone trumpet. It is, then, an enjoyable production; costumes, movement, and lighting are all well handled in the production’s own terms. The same basic set is varied imaginatively between acts, providing a finer sense of overall framing than the production as a whole. I just could not help but think that Offenbach’s desire to be taken seriously might have been taken a little more seriously.

Cochenille (Simon Butteriss), Olympia, and Spalanzani (Iain Paton)

From the singers, there was much to enjoy. Barry Banks sang a decent enough English-language Hoffmann, though his style was more Italianate, occasionally jarringly so, than Gallic. If there was not an especially strong sense of Hoffmann as artist, especially at the end, then that was at least as much down to production as performance. Christine Rice, however, made a fine Nicklausse. (She also appeared as Hoffmann’s Muse, that doubling respecting Offenbach’s original intention.) Again, one could not help but wish that the words were in French, but Rice’s palpable sincerity won through time and time again, ‘Vois sous l'archet frémissant’ – I cannot recall what the English was – a particular, soaring highlight. Georgia Jarman, making her ENO debut, truly impressed by taking on all four of Hoffmann’s lovers: Stella, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta. Her characterisation varied, bringing something quite new to each of them. Antonia’s fate was rendered as moving as the production – and the music – would allow; Giulietta proved properly seductive; and save for a few slight intonational problems at the very beginning, Olympia’s mechanical coloratura was despatched with great aplomb. Catherine Young’s off-stage turn as the Mother’s Voice (a ghost, traditionally) was beautifully performed. Mention must also be made of Simon Butteriss, kept busy with four different roles: Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio. Clearly at home in drag as Cochenille, he also provided a wickedly camp turn as the servant Frantz.

Dr Miracle (Clive Bayley)

The ENO orchestra once again proved to be on fine form, though Antony Walker’s direction was less sure-footed. Here, at least, one might have hoped for a little more Gallic suavity; there were times when his approach veered a little close to thinned-down Tchaikovsky (less a point of view, it seemed, than a lack of idiomatic command). Given that the work was performed in English, spoken dialogue might have been a better bet than recitative. Amplification of the chorus at the end was surely both unnecessary and oddly sentimentalising, as if we had come to the end of a Hollywood ‘Romantic comedy’. Again, Offenbach’s desire to be taken seriously might have been taken more seriously. The production is worth seeing, and the cast certainly makes it worth hearing, but one would struggle to discern a message, let alone a Konzept.

Giulietta (Georgia Jarman) and Hoffmann

Friday, 10 February 2012

Finalists announced for 2012 Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award

The following is just in from the Salzburg Festival. (I am afraid it is simply copied and pasted from the press release, with occasional excisions, since I have no time properly to edit it just now and thought the information better disseminated not.)

Out of 91 applicants, including 19 women, the jury, chaired by Ingo Metzmacher has selected three conductors, two men and one woman: the 20-year-old Englishman Jamie Phillips, the 33-year-old Argentinean Christian Baldini and the 26-year-old Lithuanian Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. The three finalists will present themselves to the public on April 28 and 29 during the Award Concert Weekend.

This year, the international competition for young conductors received applications from candidates from four continents. Artistic Director Alexander Pereira commented: “The goal of this initiative is to give young and highly talented artists a decisive impulse for their further careers. Therefore, we give the three candidates the chance to present themselves to the public together with international award-winning soloists, in order to increase the attractiveness of the award.” Pereira has had the idea of a concert weekend in April. "Now, all of Salzburg can participate in this great project without paying much,” Helga Rabl-Stadler, President of the Salzburg Festival, expressed her enthusiasm.

Award Concert Weekend – April 28 and 29, 2012

The three finalists will have the chance to conduct a concert with one of the three partner orchestras as part of the “Award Concert Weekend”. The following young soloists will perform at these concerts: Ingolf Wunder (piano), Alexej Gorlatch (piano) and Dan Zhu (violin). The programme will be chosen by the nominated conductors and announced at a later time.

In order to give as many people as possible the chance to participate in the development of this great idea, tickets will be especially affordable:

For students: 8,00 Euros per concert
For all others: 15,00 Euros per concert
General Pass: 30,00 Euros for all three concerts

Concert Dates

Saturday, April 28, 2012, 7:30 pm

Conductor: Jamie Phillips
Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg
Soloist: Ingolf Wunder, Piano (2nd Prize, International Chopin Competition 2010)

Sunday, April 29, 2012, 11:00 am

Conductor: Christian Baldini
Munich Radio Orchestra
Soloist: Alexej Gorlatch, Piano (1st Prize and Audience Prize of the ARD Music Competition 2011)

Sunday, April 29, 2012, 7:30 pm

Conductor: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Camerata Salzburg
Soloist: Dan Zhu, Violin (Winner of major international competitions, including the Queen Elisabeth Competition)

After the three concerts, the jury chaired by Ingo Metzmacher will determine the winner, who will conduct the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra at the Felsenreitschule on August 12, 2012.

The Finalists
Christian Baldini (33)

Born in Argentina, Christian Baldini studied orchestral conducting at Pennsylvania State University, earning a Master’s Degree. He has worked with renowned orchestras such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra London and the Buenos Aires Philharmonic and has participated in numerous master classes, for example with Kurt Masur. As a composer, Baldini has won several prizes for his works and has made a name for himself internationally, especially in the USA. He has taught at the State University of New York and is currently assistant professor at the University of California.


Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (25)

The native of Lithuania holds a degree in conducting from the University of Graz and continued her studies at the Conservatory in Bologna, the Academy of Music and Theater in Leipzig and most recently at the Arts Academy in Zurich. Gražinytė’s broad range of experience includes many public performances and successful participation in competitions, including the 5th German Music Academy Competition in Orchestral Conducting. Her talent also convinced the Conductors’ Forum of the German Music Council, which has granted Gražinytė a scholarship since 2009.


Jamie Phillips (20)

The young Englishman studies at the University of Manchester and at the Royal Northern College of Music. His level of musicality and expressivity are striking, and despite his youth, he already commands a comprehensive repertoire. He is founder and chief conductor of the Birmingham Festival Orchestra. This past year, he was the youngest finalist to reach the semi-finals at the Besançon International Competition for Young Conductors.


Wednesday, 8 February 2012

There may be something more depressing in the modern musical world ...

..., but if so, I have forgotten it, and feel no need to be reminded:

Some thoughts on Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte

(Originally published in the Royal Opera's programme booklet for Don Giovanni.)

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Stung by a review of Don Giovanni, which extolled Mozart’s music without so much as mentioning his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte cautioned: ‘A poet deserves to be esteemed no less because he labours on a well-known theme’. Poets from antiquity onwards would doubtless nod assent: what often proves of interest is divergence from previous retellings, the Orpheus myth our archetype, rather than inventing an ‘original’ tale. Quality is the thing, Romantic infatuation with originality notwithstanding. Yet librettists do not furnish completed works; ideally, they proffer a springboard for music, even when composer and librettist are one and the same. (That Wagner composed some of Tristan’s music before completing his poem says nothing about æsthetic priority.) Mozart’s libretti were always provisional in nature, pending various musical decisions. He was not unusual in that: consider the richly documented collaboration between Strauss and Hofmannsthal, wherein we read Strauss on Der Rosenkavalier’s opening scene: ‘delightful: it will set itself to music like oil and melted butter … You are Da Ponte and [Eugène] Scribe rolled into one.’ Now we certainly do not perform operas we consider only to boast good libretti, such as those Da Ponte wrote for Salieri and others, yet we speak of ‘Mozart’s Da Ponte operas’ as a particular – and particularly successful – trilogy. For, even if occasional difficulties inevitably arose, Mozart’s working relationship with Da Ponte proved easier and its results more unambiguously triumphant than the composer’s collaborations with other librettists. We have only to glance at earlier treatments of the stories in question to appreciate both men’s contribution. Without elevating Da Ponte over Molière and Beaumarchais, we appreciate that Da Ponte knew or would heed a composer’s requirements, including what should be left open.

Sena Jurinac as Donna Elvira (left) and Donna Anna (right)
For instance, the Romantic claim that Donna Anna desires Don Giovanni has received puritanical criticism, apparently deaf to erotic truths voiced in Mozart’s score. Even from an ultra-literalist reading of the libretto, it is by no means certain that Anna has not been seduced by Giovanni, nor that she has not in some sense sought seduction – and him. Da Ponte’s openness or ambiguity has enabled Mozart’s, or at least the audience’s, further development. Anna can hardly be said to burn with desire for Don Ottavio, though she certainly burns with vengeance and thus with feelings towards her father and Giovanni. The most unambiguously seria and therefore superficially ‘eighteenth-century’ character thus also looks forward towards the tragic conflicts of nineteenth-century opera and drama, Schiller as much as Wagner, just as Idomeneo had harked back to French tragédie lyrique (Gluck, even Rameau) and forward to Don Giovanni. (It did not benefit from a librettist such as Da Ponte though, long remaining ‘problematical.) Nineteenth-century musical drama is not straightforwardly born in opera buffa; it is at least as much a product of dramma giocoso, in which the whole world, socially, politically, sexually, æsthetically, metaphysically, becomes a stage.

In the absence of documentary evidence, we may argue ad nauseam about Da Ponte’s precise intention in calling Don Giovanni a dramma giocoso. However, although Carlo Goldoni neither invented the term nor employed it consistently, it retains the connotation of his operatic reforms, combining parti serie, noble characters from the world of serious opera, with parti buffi from comic opera – servants, peasants, etc. – with music set accordingly. Goldoni also often creates characters lying somewhere in between: di mezzo carattere. Whether or no Da Ponte intended something qualitatively different from Le nozze di Figaro by employing the term ‘dramma giocoso’, and whether Mozart deliberately used another (unlikely), Don Giovanni develops Goldoni’s tradition, not least by introducing ensembles in which serious and comic roles combine – and compete, just as in emergent bourgeois society.

Cesare Siepi as Don Giovanni
The mezzo carettere Giovanni is a nobleman, of course; however, his essence is instability, transforming all around him. It is no coincidence that noblemen would soon stand at the forefront of revolution in France, sans culottes operatically brought onstage by social ‘superiors’. We may note here the wish of Giovanni’s creator, Luigi Bassi, for a full-length aria, the sort of request to which Mozart was generally happy to respond (as in the additional ‘Mi tradì’, for Vienna’s Elvira). With Giovanni, however, avoidance of social typecasting is maintained by denial, upon which neither composer nor librettist seems to have wavered, of such a definitive portrayal. There may have been revolutionary trouble ahead for Almaviva, but the societal dissolution threatened by his licentious successor – ‘Viva la libertà!’ – is quite different: he dances on an existential volcano. Note Mozart’s quite startling emphasis upon Da Ponte’s words: trumpets, kettledrums, martial rhythms, and manifold repetition. The words might have passed for nothing in another setting, yet they had to be there in the first place. Exchange of clothes in the second act may primarily be a comic device, but also dramatises social and sexual tension – and transgression. Giovanni, notably, relishes the role-play more than Leporello.

Moreover, and this is Da Ponte’s doing, Giovanni is the only character to connect the other members of a small principal cast. He is socially cohesive, connecting noble Anna and peasant Masetto, and socially corrosive, undermining those orders or estates upon which such different social and musical characters rest. Elvira comes closest otherwise, but her (gendered) concerns relate entirely to her own feelings: she has no connection with the Commendatore. (That said, Da Ponte, let alone Mozart, renders the female characters far more sympathetic than his librettist predecessor, Giovanni Bertati. Likewise, it is Da Ponte’s masterstroke, of which Mozart takes full advantage, to keep the Countess, Figaro’s trump card, up his dramatic sleeve to open the second act.) The celebrated metrical combination and dislocation of socially-defined dances in the first-act finale – aristocratic minuet, middling contredanse, and plebeian Teitsch – are Mozart’s own, whirling eighteenth-century society to the very edge of the abyss, yet they extend rather than contradict Da Ponte’s libretto.

Max Slevogt, The Champagne Aria (1902)
That near-Faustian heroism which is the opera’s most telling legacy to the nineteenth century is most overwhelmingly expressed in Mozart’s music – Nietzsche berated Wagner for allegedly believing that all music must follow the Stone Guest Scene – yet again, Da Ponte is supportive. Tirso de Molina’s ‘original’ Juan, always intends to be pardoned through confession, though his cynicism will not be rewarded, his catchphrase, ‘Tan largo me lo fiáis’ (‘You give me such long credit’), proving in no sense heroic. Molière’s Juan is an atheist whose hypocrisy becomes increasingly marked. The atheist heroism of Da Ponte’s Giovanni intensifies. All three dramas nevertheless possess a fundamental religious element, which other re-tellings, not least the commedia dell’arte, had relegated to supernatural colour. The content-less – in more sense than one – kinetic energy of Giovanni himself, carelessly fizzing away in the ‘Champagne Aria’, is founded upon the libretto’s presentation avant la lettre of Goethe’s negating Mephistopheles. It finds fulfilment in our hero’s definitive self-opposition to the Commendatore’s tragic voice of orthodoxy. A-theism is defined by absence, negation.

Luigi Bassi as the first Don Giovanni
By contrast, Leporello, superstitious though probably in everyday practical terms a cheerful agnostic, cannot achieve his master’s atheist heroism. Leporello’s buffo interjections remain just that: interjections into a drama transformed verbally and musically, the dotted, neo-Baroque rhythms of both strings and Giovanni’s vocal line conveying otherworldly gravity. Mozart, as he would in his Requiem, pours proto-Wagnerian chromatic wine into Handelian bottles, less creating a mismatch – for the languages are not so very far apart – than permitting slight disjuncture so as to suggest new metaphysical vistas. Archaic trombones reach back further in musical history to recall not only the equali of Habsburg state funerals, not only Handel’s Saul and Israel in Egypt, but above all their ancient association with death and the supernatural. Mozart had employed three trombones in his early Waisenhausmesse, KV 139, its ‘Crucifixus’ an extraordinary premonition of the Day of Judgement. Here, however, such intimations attain final consummation. Christ’s Passion is relived and transformed through a Fall prefiguring Tristan in atheistic defiance, the more telling granted the Roman Catholicism of Mozart and the Abbé Da Ponte.

For we should understand Mozart’s operas better if we attended more closely to his sacred music, Stravinsky’s ‘Rococo sweets of sin’. Da Ponte certainly renders the peasant couple, Biagio/Masetto and Maturina/Zerlina more rounded characters than in the earlier Bertati-Giuseppe Gazzaniga opera. Crucially, however, Da Ponte introduces their loving reconciliation (‘Vedrai, carino’), fully exploited by a composer peerless in expressing the miracle of forgiveness. Its locus classicus lies in Figaro, the Countess’s radiant benediction vouchsafing not only human but divine grace, Da Ponte’s direction that the Count kneel before her when seeking forgiveness having set the theological scene. Man’s sinful nature is not denied, for we do not believe that the Count will remain faithful; nor, despite Da Ponte’s necessary excision of Beaumarchais’s most provocative political challenges, do we believe that the feudal society upon which Almaviva’s power rests will remain standing. Yet that ambivalently redemptive precedent renders all the more devastating Così’s non-redemptive non-resolution: further Mephistophelian negation in an unspeakably cruel ‘school for lovers’. Mozart’s most sweetly seductive sado-masochism, ravishing horns of cuckoldry (Fiordiligi’s ‘Per pieta, ben mio’) lingering long in the mind’s ear, lays bare the cruellest truths of the catastrophic delusion we name romantic love. It proceeds furthest beyond the ‘merely’ cynical libretto, which has nevertheless acted as springboard: added to, subverted, deepened. If Don Giovanni’s closing moral is not quite sung through its successor’s clenched teeth, it attains in its after-shock an almost Brechtian alienation, Giovanni’s challenge unforgotten. Further disruption and dislocation are deferred, but that is all. In all three operas, we travel pre-emptively beyond Wagner: further each time, redemption and transcendence first undercut and eventually unattainable. For Da Ponte and Mozart, there can be no Liebestod.