Sunday, 28 April 2013

Hannigan/LPO/Jurowski: Webern, Berg, Bartók, and Martinů, 27 April 2013

Royal Festival Hall

Webern – Variations for Orchestra, op.30
Berg – Lulu-Suite
Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
Martinů – Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani

Barbara Hannigan
London Philharmonic Orchestra,
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

It was good of Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO to dedicate this concert to the memory of Sir Colin Davis, although in reality it was not a very Davis-like programme. No matter: the focus was on ‘Music from Dark Times’, Berg’s Lulu-Suite having been written in 1934 and Webern’s Variations for Orchestra in 1940-1. There seems to have been some confusion concerning ordering: Jurowski at the opening claimed that the programme had been reordered, so that the pieces would be heard chronologically backwards. If so, Martinů’s Double Concerto should have swapped places with the Berg work, the earliest on the programme. As it was, it certainly made some sense for Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and the Martinů to be heard together, though Martinů’s work, despite what was undoubtedly the best performance of the night, could not help but pale into relative insignificance following Bartók’s masterpiece.

Anyone who programmes Webern’s Variations deserves a vote of thanks. It seems extraordinary that we find ourselves just as starved of Webern performances as audiences were decades earlier. A while ago, Pierre Boulez was asked whether Webern was back in purgatory, and responded by asking his questioner whether Webern had in fact ever left. That one of the most important, most intensely expressive composers of the twentieth century or indeed any other still languishes unperformed reflects poorly on all concerned. Whatever the shortcomings of this performance, Jurowski’s enthusiasm could not be doubted, both when he held the score up for applause at the end and when his spoken introduction helped prepare the audience beforehand. There was much to admire: this was highly dramatic Webern, almost as if communicating via a serial version of Baroque Affekt. Pieter Schoeman’s violin solos were especially well judged, sweetly Romantic, even hyper-Romantic, just as Webern’s music demands. However, the LPO’s performance suffered from a few loose ends, including one especially noticeable false entry. Moreover, this was a perhaps surprisingly pointillistic, or indeed intervallic, performance, at least earlier on; sometimes one longed for Jurowski and his players to join up the dots more audibly. It was closer, say, to the Boulez of his first, Sony Webern than to the later recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, though without the pinpoint accuracy. That said, one nevertheless emerged, especially from the later variations, with a proper sense of ‘late Webern’, that is, of straining towards larger, more extended forms. And Jurowski’s commitment was something to treasure in itself.

Berg’s Lulu-Suite immediately sounded more fluid in conception, as if heard in the opera house. The first movement was a little on the fast side, with the effect of somewhat skating over the admittedly beautiful surfaces; at least, if fast, it was not harried. Moreover, if weight had been lacking earlier on, there was an emotional payoff at the opening of the ‘Hymn’ that marks that movement’s conclusion. Dance rhythms were etched sharply, though not didactically. A tighter hand on the formal reins might, however, have put paid to nagging suspicions of sprawl, however wonderful it may be to luxuriate in Berg’s sonic tapestry. (One certainly never harbours such doubts with Boulez or Abbado.) There was excellent saxophone playing to be relished from Martin Robertson. The second movement was altogether tauter, more focused; it really packed quite a punch. Tempi, including transitions between them, were very well judged, simply sounding ‘right’. Barbara Hannigan arrived on stage for the ‘Lied der Lulu’, very much dressed for the role. Indeed, she offered a more ‘acted’ performance than I have hitherto encountered in the Suite, her use of the text very much bound to her visual expression. There was just the right degree of lilt to her performance, as there was to that of the LPO. High notes hit the spot in every sense, and coloratura told dramatically as well as musically. One longed to see her in the entire role. Jurowski balanced his forces and shaped the musical argument well. Berg’s extraordinary cityscape was relished at the opening of the fourth movement, almost as if this were Petrushka, albeit ‘Petrushka im Bauhaus’, with liberally applied sleaze. It was not all dramatic action without a stage though; variation form was audibly communicated throughout. The ending was somewhat abrupt, though. Grim foreboding characterised the closing ‘Adagio’; this was undoubtedly a different world, that of Whitechapel. The darkness of tragedy unfolded, though so eventually did the warmth of that reconciliation the young Boulez found so suspicious in Berg’s later work. Jurowski undoubtedly dug deeper here than in the first movement, and with excellent results; there was more than enough to make one keen to hear him conduct Berg’s operas in the theatre. Hannigan’s reappearance proved harrowing and yet consoling, like the opera itself.

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta had its moments. The first movement was very good indeed: the build-up potent, emotionally satisfying, with true depth to the LPO strings, expertly guided by Jurowski, their subsiding equally impressive. There was precision, though not always quite enough, in the ensuing ‘Allegro’. Perhaps, though, it was taken a little too fast; at any rate, the performance seemed unable, for whatever reason, to dig deeper, to take the music by the scruff of its neck. Catherine Edwards’s contribution on the piano was, however, excellent. The third movement was nicely alert to the apparent paradox, properly generative, of the clockwork nature to Bartók’s ‘night music’, having one think also of a not entirely dissimilar paradox, or dialectic, with respect to Webern’s ideas of Nature. The finale again seemed too fast to permit the full strength of the strings to shine through, though that may well have been a deliberate ‘lightness’ on Jurowski’s part. There was nothing especially wrong with it, but again, the music seemed skated over at times, almost balletic. A strangely excessive holding back of tempo just before the end caused confusion, seemingly catching the orchestra unawares.

Martinů continues to have his cheerleaders, and this Double Concerto certainly did not find him at his worst; by the same token, it hardly benefited from being performed in the same concert as Webern, Berg, and Bartók. Jurowski and the LPO nevertheless gave the concerto as convincing an account as conceivable; for one thing, it sounded more thoroughly rehearsed than the Bartók and Webern works. Rhythms in the first movement were ominously generative. Stravinskian motor-rhythms were relished, making one long to hear these musicians in the ‘real thing’, for instance the Symphony in Three Movements. Neo-classical – or better, neo-Baroque – form was sharply delineated, the implicit violence of such playing with time rendered explicit. Edwards again proved excellent in the slow movement. Jurowski could not dispel my doubts regarding the apparent emptiness at the heart of the composer’s note-spinning, though he did a good job in trying. It seems that Martinů’s music is attempting to depict turbulence from without rather than actually being turbulent; that, however, is not the performers’ fault. Again, rhythmic command was excellent in the finale. I wish I could have felt more enthusiastic about the music itself, which, despite its apparent ‘excitement’, is little more than derivative. Some Hindemith (the Nobilissima visione Suite?) or perhaps Honegger’s Second Symphony might ultimately have worked better, despite the outstanding performance and the second-half Paul Sacher connection.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Royal Academy of Music/BBC SO/Denève - Poulenc and Ravel, 26 April 2013

Barbican Hall

Poulenc – Les Animaux modèles
Ravel – L’Enfant et les sortilèges

The Child – Rozanna Madylus
Mother, The Dragonfly, The Ottoman – Fiona Mackay
The Bergère – Rosalind Coad
The Chinese Cup/The Female Cat/The Wicker Chair – Saraha Shorter
The Fire/The Nightingale – Jennifer France
The Princess – Sónia Grané
The Bat/Animal – Tereza Gevorgyan
The Owl/The Settle – Helen Bailey
The Squirrel – Irina Loskova
A Shepherdess/The Sofa – Alice Privett
A Shepherd/Animal – Katie Howden
The Armchair – Samuel Queen
The Grandfather Clock/The Tomcat – Samuel Pantcheff
The Teapot (Black Wedgwood) – Ross Scanlon
The Little Old Man (Arithmetic) – Bradley Smith
A Tree – Nicholas Crawley
The Frog – Iain Milne
Animal – Gwilym Bowen
Animal – Andri Björn Róbertsson

 Stephen Mangan (actor)
Members of the Royal Academy of Music
Jean-Baptiste Barrière (video)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Stéphane Denève (conductor)

A good number of my finest and enjoyable operatic experiences in London over the past few years have come courtesy of our conservatoires rather than our big houses. Royal Academy Opera seems to be on an especial high at the moment, this season having offered excellent performances of both Lavera costanza – the best performance I have attended of a Haydn opera anywhere – and Eugene Onegin. An enticing double bill awaits next month: Dido and Aeneas and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. This evening, however, a good number of familiar voices crossed town to the Barbican, to sing in a concert performance of L’Enfant et les sortilèges, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Stéphane Denève, a highly laudable form of collaboration, which one can only hope will continue.

There is absolutely no need for condescension when treating with these young singers; indeed, their contribution in many respects outclassed that of the orchestra and conductor. Not that, once past some very un-Ravelian imprecision at the opening, there was anything terribly wrong with it, and perhaps I am being grossly unfair, retaining very fond memories of a Berlin performance I heard from the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle in 2008, but a more luxuriant canvas might well have heightened the sense of fantasy. Denève’s drier approach offered, I suppose, a valid alternative, though I could not help but wonder whether it was in part a response to the thinner tone of the orchestra.

Anyway, the singers did Ravel proud. From such an extensive cast, it might seem hyperbole to say that there was not a weak link, but there really was not. Singers, save The Child, centre-stage throughout, came together at the side of the stage for the chorus, whose contributions were notably well directed by Denève, and moved to the front when required for solos. First amongst equals had to be Rozanna Madylus as The Child, impetuous and wide-eyed, as Ravel demands. Equally impressive, if anything more so still, was the star turn offered by Sónia Gráne’s beautifully floated yet splendidly precise Princess; I was delighted to read afterwards in her biography that she is about to join the Berlin Staatsoper, whence I have just returned, as a Young Artist there. It was a pleasure, moreover, to hear light, convincingly ‘French’ voices, with a fine command of language and idiom, from singers such as Ross Scanlon and Samuel Queen. Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s video sequences I found a little on the dull side, too straightforwardly representational, though at least they made a change from his screen-saver-cum-wallpaper contribution to a Philharmonia performance of Wozzeck a few years ago.

Perhaps Denève was simply being ‘considerate’ – not that I think it was necessary – to his soloists, since there was more bite to the first-half performance of Poulenc’s suite from the 1940s ballet, Les Animaux modèles. The opening ‘Le Petit jour,’ offered enticing echoes of Daphnis et Chloé, with a definite ‘French’ quality to the BBC SO’s sound, strings especially, with a vibrato it is difficult not to define as ‘glamorous’. The slight lack of body here was less of a problem; indeed, it arguably added to a sense of idiom, recalling recordings of Poulenc’s own time, some of them involving him. I was less sure about Stephen Mangan’s delivery of contemporary versions of La Fontaine’s fables, all too audibly miked. Surely an actor should be able to project without? The greater part of the audience, however, seemed to be eating out of his hand, so perhaps I am just being grumpy. (Might we not at least, however, progress beyond the idea that employment of a generic ‘Northern’ accent is intrinsically amusing?) ‘Le Lion amoureux’ offered similar sonic ‘glamour’ to the first movement, though brass at times seemed a little loud. Denève’s glittering, unsentimental direction of ‘L’Homme entre deux æges et ses deux maîtresses’ again recalled, or in this context, presaged Ravel, though with a more cinematic bent, whilst the opening gravity of ‘La Mort et la bûcheron’ was finally matched by the elegant, vielle France of Death as a duchess in response. Prokofiev-like spikiness at the opening of ‘Les Deux coqs’ was likewise balanced by the most chic of hen-houses. There is surprising weight, relatively speaking, to the final movement, ‘Le Repas de midi,’ though is that what Poulenc does best? I tended to think it was a bit like going to Bach for slapstick. Fine performances, anyway, for a little-heard score.



Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Götterdämmerung, Berlin Staatsoper, 21 April 2013

Schiller Theater, Berlin

Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Gunther – Gerd Grochowski
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Hagen – Mikhail Petrenko
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Gutrune – Anna Samuil
Waltraute – Waltraud Meier
First Norn – Margarita Nekrasova
Second Norn – Waltraud Meier
Third Norn – Anna Samuil
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde – Anna Lapkovskaja

Guy Cassiers (director, set design)
Enrico Bagnoli (set design, lighting)
Tim van Steenbergen (costumes)
Arjen Klerkx, Kurt D’Haeseleer (video)
Michael P Steinberg, Detlef Giese, Erwin Jans (dramaturgy)
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (choreography)
Luc de Wit (choral choreography)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Staatkapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

(Image: Monika Rittershaus)
Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde)

This, I know, has become wearily repetitive, but the rewards of the Berlin Ring were once again shown to be entirely musical. Götterdämmerung had for some reason acquired a third dramaturge, prior instalments having relied upon a mere brace. What they might have done, or rather what director Guy Cassiers might have listened to, is utterly beyond me. For all its faults, and it seems to me undeniable that Götterdämmerung was a bit of a mess dramaturgically, Keith Warner’s Covent Garden Ring had ambition, had ideas, and some of the time managed to communicate them. This sorry co-production with La Scala, brought to us courtesy of the Toneelhuis Antwerpen, appears, quite literally, to have nothing whatsoever to say to us. That would be odd in the case of any musical drama worthy of the name – many are not, but that is another story – but, in the case of Der Ring des Nibelungen, it is simply beyond comprehension. Yet again, we are simply faced with a few ‘tasteful’ costumes and effects, and in this case, far too much video. The Tarnhelm dancers return, rather to my surprise offering the saving grace of the staging. Their menacing writhing around Brünnhilde during her shameful and shaming possession by Siegfried struck a note of rare, indeed unique, dramatic power. The appearance of sub-Damien Hirst creatures in formaldehyde offers slight variety, but no discernible point, and more than anything irritates in its acquiescence to the wearisome stylisation of the designs. As I said with respect to Siegfried, we might as well have been at the Met. Of Wagner’s desired ‘emotionalisation of the intellect’, Cassiers offers neither emotion nor intellect, let alone a dialectic between the two. Baffling!

If not on quite such superlative form as in Siegfried, Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin nevertheless did Wagner’s score proud, a more than promising augury for the forthcoming Proms performances of the Ring as a whole. (I shall be speaking at an introduction to Siegfried.) Line and dramatic momentum were impressive, though tension sagged slightly – and surprisingly – at a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion to the second act. Maybe that was a matter of tiredness more than anything else. Barenboim’s almost ‘French’ ear for colour – he knows that Wagner leads to Debussy as well as to Schoenberg, and indeed employs that ear in the music of the latter composer too – offered more than its fair share of textural revelation, the Staatskapelle’s woodwind as euphonious here as in Mozart. Eberhard Friedrich’s chorus acquitted itself very well throughout.

There was a great deal to praise in terms of singing too. Waltraud Meier as Second Norn must be the very definition of luxury casting. Stage animal that she is, she made something out of the non-production even here, let alone in her well-nigh definitive Waltraute (also one of the very few redeeming features of the recent, dismal New York Götterdämmerung). Meier can have few peers, if any, and certainly no superiors, in her melding of text and music, in her instinctive yet searching theatrical communication. She offered a standing rebuke to the vacuity of the contribution from Cassiers. Iréne Theorin continued to present a creditably variegated account of Brünnhilde’s part. There was more of the lyrical, less of the heroic, than one often hears, though there remained plenty of the latter nonetheless. I wondered occasionally whether her choices with respect to scaling down, to containment, always made the best sense, but there was a great deal to admire here. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagen remains controversial. I first heard it in Aix-en-Provence, under Simon Rattle. During the first act, I was less convinced, the relative lightness – this is definitely not the black-toned Hagen we have come to expect – veered on occasion towards the non-committal, though of course Cassiers did not help. However, menace asserted itself, psychotically so, ensuring that the darkness of Hagen’s character duly struck a terror quite lacking in the staging. Gerd Grochowski offered more in the way of clear verbal projection than psychological depth, but again the fault for that may really have lain elsewhere. Anna Samuil’s Gutrune, alas, seemed a victim of miscasting; there was little sense of character and her blowsy delivery, though reined in during the third act, was by any standards stylistically quite inappropriate. The trio of Rhinemaidens (Aga Mikolaj, Maria Gortsevskaya, and Anna Lapkovskaja) was truly excellent, both in solo and ensemble terms.

Andreas Schager’s Siegfried I have left until last. Schager was a replacement for the advertised Ian Storey, Lance Ryan having taken the part in Siegfried, but not Götterdammerung. (Schlager had also had to step in for Ryan in the previous cycle, when the Canadian tenor arrived late to the theatre, missing the first act.) I am not sure that I have heard so excellent an account of the role in the theatre; I have certainly heard none better. We can hark back to Melchior all we like, even to Windgassen, but we all know that such expectations are, for whatever reasons, entirely unrealistic. Schager’s Siegfried was of the here and now, dramatically committed – certainly not something of which one could always accuse Melchior – and finely sung, without a hint of the dreadful barking, let alone shouting, that disfigures so many performances. There was no discernible tiring; indeed, a portrayal of youthful, naïve enthusiasm did much of the work the staging ought to have been doing by itself, contrasting tellingly with the corruption of the Gibichung court. This is a production, then, that should be discarded as quickly as humanly possible; it remains just possible, however, that a star may have been born amongst this all-too-tastefully-designed ‘heap of broken images’.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Die Feen, Oper Leipzig, 20 April 2013

Images: Tom Schulze
Igor Durlovski (Fairy King)
Leipzig Opera House

Fairy King, Voice of Groma – Igor Durlovski
Ada – Christiane Libor
Zemina – Viktoria Kaminskaite
Farzana – Jean Broiekhuizen
Arindal – Arnold Bezuyen
Lora – Eun Yee You
Morald – Detlef Roth
Drolla – Jennifer Porto
Gernot – Milcho Borovinov
Gunther – Guy Mannheim
Harald – Roland Schubert
Messenger – Tae Hee Kwon
Children of Ada and Arindal – Lukas Gosch, Leon Heilmann

Renaud Doucet (director)
André Barbe (designs)
Guy Simard (lighting)
Marita Müller (dramaturgy)


Chorus of Oper Leipzig (chorus master: Alessandro Zuppardo)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Ulf Schirmer (conductor)

What is it about London buses or, in this case, buses in London and Leipzig? Hot on the heels of the Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance of Die Feen last month, a fully-staged production has followed from Oper Leipzig. (In fact, its premiere took place in February, but this was my opportunity to see it.) The COG’s performance was a valiant effort, and boasted some fine singing, but was sadly let down by an apparently under-rehearsed orchestra. Leipzig did its greatest son proud, in a production and performance that made the case beyond any doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that Die Feen deserves a regular place in the repertory. It is not Parsifal, of course, yet what is? The Bayreuth ‘canon’ has done a great deal of harm, yet there is no reason why reparations should not be made, and in this of all years.

Since the Munich premiere in 1888, a production that received numerous repeat performances, stagings and concert performances have been sporadic. Angelo Neumann staged the work in Prague in 1893, as part of his cycle to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of Wagner’s birth and the tenth of his death. The first Leipzig performance took place in 1938, conducted by Paul Schmitz and directed by Hans Schüler, with designs by Max Elten, forming part of another cycle, in this case the Geburtstadt’s celebrations for Wagner’s 125th birthday. In more recent years, especially celebrated was Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1983 cycle of the complete operas; other stagings have been proffered by Munich (Gärtnerplatz, 1989), Kaiserslautern and Würzburg (2005), and the Châtelet (2009, on period instruments). Though the present production is offered in collaboration with the Bayreuth Festival, Bayreuth’s performance of Die Feen is, somewhat oddly, and unlike those of Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi, to be in concert. (None of the performances will belong to the Festival proper, but will instead take place in July, in the Statdhalle.)

So Leipzig may well be the only opportunity we have; it should be seized by anyone who can. As Wagner himself, far from ashamed of his first completed opera, put it in Mein Leben:

While I had written [the incomplete, preceding] Die Hochzeit without operatic embellishments and treated the material in the darkest vein, this time I festooned the subject with the most manifold variety: beside the principal pair of lovers I depicted a more ordinary couple and even introduced a coarse and comical third pair, which belonged to the operatic convention of servants and ladies’ maids. As to the poetic diction and the verses themselves, I was almost intentionally careless about them. I was not nourishing my former hopes of making a name as a poet; I had really become a ‘musician’ and a ‘composer’ and wanted simply to write a decent libretto, for I now realised nobody else could do this for me, inasmuch as an opera book is something unique unto itself and cannot be easily brought off by poets and literati.


Ada (Christiane Libor), Arindal (Arnold Bezuyen)
Renaud Doucet has a background in dance, though by now he has directed a good number of opera productions too. On this basis, I should happily see more, metatheatricality worn lightly, humorously, yet tellingly. Following a Saturday evening family meal, a father tunes in to a live broadcast of Die Feen from Oper Leipzig. The rest of the family departs, leaving him in peace to listen. (A nice touch is his turning up the volume for the Overture as the conductor does similarly in the pit.) Music becomes the key to the work as a whole; it enlists his emotions, transforms his understanding. In something of a modern fairy-tale, his living room becomes the performance space, not entirely unlike The Nutcracker, or indeed, closer to home, the tales of ETA Hoffmann. Romantic, pseudo-Nazarene mediævalism, Wagner’s (relative) youth, and our own time come together, in a (Midsummer Night’s?) dream-like mélange that prompts rather than answers our questions. What might seem a counterpart to all-too-comfortable Biedermeier home life soon has its tensions exposed: though the paterfamilias – and he is at best a weak example of the type – welcomes back his wife at the end of the broadcast, and leaves Ada to the fairies, beret-clad Wagner included, will he tire of his quotidian existence and hanker again after the immortality of that other world, that to which, as Arindal, he had exceptionally been admitted?

Wagner’s subsequent intellectual journey, via Feuerbach’s Thoughts on Death and Immortality, complicates the notion further. It is fitting, then, that Romanticism is both embraced and kept at a distance. (There is more than a little Romanticism in Feuerbach’s writings and indeed in Schopenhauer’s too.) At the time of writing, it was, especially in its German manifestation, at the time a somewhat problematical notion. (One might ask, in Goethian fashion, whether it has ever not been.) In the context of Metternichian repression, Heine and Young Germany suspected and attacked its reactionary tendencies, yet its progressive – a loaded word, but let us have that pass just for the moment – seeds were far from fruitless yet, especially in the musical world. The celebratory final scene, in some senses perhaps an early presentiment of the Festwiese scene from Die Meistersinger, is thus neither presented nor received straightforwardly. As ever with Wagner, we are left with more questions than we started with.

Ulf Schirmer’s conducting of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra proved well-judged. Influences were apparent, Weber and Marschner especially but far from exclusively, but so, as in the staging, were hints – and sometimes rather more than hints – of what was to come. A phrase here or there might be ever so slightly underlined, or so I fancied, to alert one to a similarity with a phrase in Lohengrin, and indeed beyond. More importantly, the straining even at this stage towards through-composition was readily apparent, without entirely undermining the ‘number’ structure of this Romantic opera. Wagner without a great, or at least a very good, orchestra really is a waste of everyone’s time; the dark, ‘German’ sonorities of the Gewandhaus Orchestra suited Die Feen to a tee. What a relief it was to hear that this great orchestra’s traditions have not been traduced by ill-advised forays into pseudo-authenticity at the hands of the bewilderingly fêted Riccardo Chailly.


The cast was strong too. Early Wagner, like early Mozart or early Beethoven, does not take kindly to condescension; there was not a hint of that here. First among equals was Christiane Libor’s stunning Ada, her insane, Abscheulicher-squared aria fully realising Wagner’s Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient-inspired vision. Arnold Bezuyen, quite understandably, tired a little at one point as Arindal, but otherwise impressed with a fine combination of heft and tone. Detlef Roth was everyone one might have hoped for as Morald, words and vocal line in properly Wagnerian, even musico-dramatic, tandem. Jennifer Porto and Milcho Borovinov delighted as Drolla and Gunther, their buffa duet cut in the COG concert performance yet triumphantly vindicated by its inclusion here, even though one could readily tell that it marked for Wagner more or less the end of a line, give or take a Liebesverbot. Only Eun Yee You’s Lora was a little disappointed, outclassed by COG’s wonderful Elisabeth Meister; the voice simply did not seem big enough and tuning was more than occasionally awry. Choral singing was of a consistently high standard throughout, as was direction of the chorus on stage.

London desperately needs a first-class performance of this wonderful work. If none of our companies can marshal the resources for a new production – and frankly, it is a matter of priorities; there is no reason why it should not be done – then I strongly urge bringing this staging here. Let us hope, also, for a DVD release. In the meantime, if at all possible, a visit to Leipzig approaches the mandatory for anyone with an interest in Wagner.

La finta giardiniera - Die Pforten der Liebe, Staatsoper Berlin, 19 April 2013

Images: (c) Ruth Walz
Sandrina (Annette Dasch), Belfiore (Joel Prieto)
Schiller Theater, Berlin

Podestà – Stephan Rügamer
Sandrina – Annette Dasch
Belfiore – Joel Prieto
Arminda – Alex Penda
Ramiro – Stephanie Atanasov
Serpetta – Regula Mühlemann
Nardo – Aris Argiris
Countess – Elisabeth Trissenaar
Count – Markus Boysen

Hans Neuenfels (director)
Reinhard von der Thannen (designs)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Henry Arnold (dramaturgy)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Christopher Moulds (conductor)

Hans Neuenfels’s production of La finta giardiniera, to which the subtitle – or should it be surtitle? – Die Pforten der Liebe (‘The Portals of Love’), has been added, received its premiere in November last year. The cliché of being destined ‘to divide opinion’ seems unavoidable here. I found it in many respects fascinating, causing me to reflect not only upon the work, but once again upon the concept of the musical artwork, especially in performance. That is not to say that I thought every aspect of Neuenfels’s reworking – it seems that designer Reinhard von der Thannen and dramaturge Henry Arnold (of Heimat 2 fame) deserve credit here too – convinced or was indeed ‘necessary’, but then one could say the same about most allegedly ‘traditional’ stagings. I am certainly not claiming that there is anything wrong with presenting the work ‘as it is’, or rather ‘as it has come down to us’, which is not really the same thing at all, but there should be room in theatre and in musical performance for re-examination, for disruption of what one might perhaps, in Benjamin-mode, call disruption of the work’s aura, not least when reception history plays a role, as it does here.

Arminda (Alex Penda) and actors
For there is something of a resurrection, or better, resuscitation, of the Singspiel-tendencies within the work and its history. It was, after all, as early as 1780, just five years after the Munich premiere, that the work was reimagined as Die verstellte Gärtnerin for Augsburg, a reworking with which Mozart may have been involved. The original Italian version of the first act having been lost for almost a century, La finta giardiniera as we understand it would not be revived until 1979, in Munich and Salzburg. I do not share Neuenfels’s poor opinion of the libretto, but nor do I think it an inviolate masterpiece, should indeed such a thing exist at all. (One can esteem Da Ponte’s libretti, without prescribing cruel and unusual punishments for those who might wish to make changes in particular performing circumstances.) There is, then, reordering. Recitativi secci are, without exception, cut. And we have introduced Neuenfels’s own German dialogue, centred upon an elderly Count and Countess: less a matter of flash-back to the action we recognise, though there seems to be an element of that, than of collage and sometimes of interaction. ‘German humour’ does not necessarily communicate itself well to foreigners, even if Emanuel Schikaneder suggests otherwise, and I cannot claim that all of it does in this particular case, though there are some splendid moments, not least that involving painful delivery of carrots from actors’ trousers, in preparation for their reduction in an electric blender (pictured above, with oranges). Eyebrows might also be raised by the return of Neuenfels’s wife, Elisabeth Trissenaar, as the elderly Countess; a Berlin friend tells me that she reappears with wearing regularity in his stagings. That said, I thought she performed her role splendidly, and there are plenty of conductors who cast spouses or lovers more often than might be strictly necessary.

More fundamentally, there remains an alertness to the darkness of ‘love’, whatever that might be, without turning to tragedy, a  sense of fantasy, by turns wide-eyed and surrealistic that seems to point in some sense towards The Magic Flute, and a sense in theory, if not, alas, always in practice, that Mozart’s music is the principal reason for our interest. Probing our conceptions of love seems to me a definite advance upon what is in some respects a stock buffa libretto. My thoughts turned to Neuenfels’s Così fan tutte, which I saw in Salzburg in 2000, and almost alone seem to have admired. There was kinship too with Stefan Herheim’s brilliant rethinking, again for Salzburg, of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a work transformed into a new and yet ancient parable concerning love, sex, and gender. Herheim’s staging is more thoroughly thought through, partly, I suspect, because he has a superior ear for music, and also, perhaps a related point, because he never stoops to banality, but if, as I hope, the Neuenfels ‘work’ should prove be released on DVD, it ought to be seen. It would, moreover, be interesting to see whether the shock of the new would bear repetition. There is, in any case, more than a hint here of Berlin’s Komische Oper invading the Staatsoper, just as Harry Kupfer once made that same journey, a sense of welcome cross-fertilisation in the city’s operatic world.

The Staatskapelle Berlin was on excellent form throughout. Though not so often recognised as such, this is one of the world’s great Mozart orchestras, indeed one of the world’s great orchestras. There was fullness of tone without over-ripeness; woodwind contributions were simply delectable. If Christopher Moulds began the Overture with incessant haste, his reading soon calmed down, without that entailing a loss of inner life. The delights, and they are manifold, of Mozart’s scoring were present for all to hear, even if listeners, as many understandably did, were confused or even appalled by what they saw on stage. The cast was excellent too. Joel Prieto’s honeyed tone made light yet substantial work of Count Belfiore. The match with Annette Dasch’s somewhat more hochdramatisch soprano might on paper have seemed questionable, but in practice worked very well, Dasch’s Sandrina offering cleanness of tone and dramatic commitment in equal measure. Alex Penda’s Arminda impressed in very much the same fashion, seizing her role by the scruff of the neck, and turning it into something beyond the call of duty. Aris Argiris offered a different experience, as befits Nardo, warmer, more buffo, welcome in its reinstatement of tendencies of character and genre the staging sometimes overlooked, or at least played down. But all of those participating brought something, both individually and collectively, to the experience. In an opera of this nature, and a staging of this nature, one needs a true sense of company, a sense that was here most impressively achieved, whether in vocal, acting, or orchestral contribution.    


Sunday, 21 April 2013

Siegfried, Staatsoper Berlin, 18 April 2013

Schiller Theater, Berlin

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Mime – Peter Bronder
The Wanderer – Terje Stensvold
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fafner – Mikhail Petrenko
Erda – Anna Larsson
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
The Woodbird – Rinnat Moriah

Guy Cassiers (director, set design)
Enrico Bagnoli (set design, lighting)
Tim van Steenbergen (costumes)
Arjen Klerkx, Kurt D’Haeseleer (video)
Michael P Steinberg, Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (choreography)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Image: (c) Monika Rittershaus

And so, the Berlin State Opera’s Ring nears completion. Nothing has changed with respect to the bafflingly vacuous production served up by Guy Cassiers and his colleagues from the Antwerp Toneelhuis. It is not that ideas are banal or underdeveloped; rather, there seem to be no ideas at all, a truly extraordinary state of affairs when it comes to Wagner, of all dramatists. The production apparently aspires to the condition of something one might see or have seen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, whether Otto Schenk or the still worse Robert Lepage, albeit with refined visual taste. Quite why anyone would think tasteful Wagner desirable is quite beyond me. There are pretty stage effects, sometimes from video, sometimes not, but effects without cause they remain. Oddly, given the plentiful use of video, the dragon is conjured up by the Eastman Company – yes, I am afraid the dancers are back – and some sheets. It starts off rather well, viewed with disinterested æsthetic contemplation, only to degenerate into a vision more akin to a group laundry activity. There is doubtless some enjoyment to be derived from the lithe dancers, choreographed well enough in the abstract, but what any of it might have to say about the Ring is not even obscure. If Cassiers presents, as is claimed, a Ring for the twenty-first century, may God have mercy upon our culture-industry-enfeebled souls. Politics, religion, any variety of thought, even any variety of drama, have been banished to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it is enough to have one wish to embark upon a spot of time travel.

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin came to the rescue. I have not heard a better conducted, better played Siegfried, even from the Royal Opera and Bernard Haitink. The Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle may have offered breathtaking orchestral virtuosity in Aix-en-Provence, but there was something of virtuosity for its own sake in that case, partly, I think, because Rattle’s reading failed to dig anything like so deep. This was Barenboim at his more than estimable best. The great paragraphs of Wagner’s imagination unfolded with unforced, unexaggerated inevitability, not monumental in, say, the Knappertsbusch mode, but teeming with dramatic life born of the musico-dramatic material. Scenes, dialogues, phrases were sharply, colourfully characterised, playful yet steely Beethoven to the fore in the final scene of the first act, a grinding sense of peripeteia possessing us at the opening of the third. There was none of the reluctance one encounters from lesser conductors to let the orchestra speak as Greek chorus, no alleged ‘consideration’ for vocal fallibility. This was above all orchestral drama, as fully achieved in a Furtwänglerian sense as I have heard from Barenboim in Wagner. 

Lance Ryan had his moments as Siegfried, especially during the second act. Up until the scene with Brünnhilde, I should have said that at least he did not tire – quite an achievement in itself – but alas, a pattern of too much shouting and not enough singing took its toll. Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde, by contrast, was highly variegated in tone, at times almost too much, having one strain to hear the words. A rather wooden Wanderer from Terje Stensvold was shown up by Johannes Martin Kränzle’s vivid, detailed Alberich. Peter Bronder was very much the singing actor as Mime, stronger in tone than one often hears, but sometimes edging too much, against Wagner’s urgings, toward caricature. Mikhail Petrenko’s voice seemed to have lost some of its darkness, but there could be few real complaints about his Fafner. Anna Larsson’s otherworldly depth of tone reminded us why she is very much the Erda de nos jours. Rinnat Moriah navigated the Woodbird’s lines with admirable ease. It remained, however, Barenboim’s and the Staatskapelle’s show.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Die Zauberflöte, Royal Opera, 16 April 2013

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Tamino – Charles Castronovo
Pamina – Ekaterina Siurina
Papageno – Christopher Maltman
Papagena – Susana Gaspar
Queen of the Night – Albina Shagumuratova
Monostatos – Peter Hoare
Sarastro – Brindley Sherratt
First Lady – Anita Watson
Second Lady – Hanna Hipp
Third Lady – Gaynor Keeble
Speaker – Sebastian Holecek
First Priest – Harry Nicoll
Second Priest – Donald Maxwell
First Armoured Man – David Butt Philip
Second Armoured Man – Jihonn Kim
First Boy – Archie Buchanan
Second Boy – Luciano Cusack
Third Boy – Filippo Turkheimer

Sir David McVicar (director)
Leah Hausman (revival director)
John Macfarlane (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Leah Hausman (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Julia Jones (conductor)

A shadow hung over this performance of The Magic Flute, the shadow being that of the late SirColin Davis. Yet at the same time, as Sir Antonio Pappano reminded us in a touching introductory speech, this was an especially fitting memorial, for if one wanted a sense of Sir Colin as a person, this was perhaps the work to which one should listen. The last time around, in 2011, had not necessarily shown Davis to his greatest advantage, though a variable cast shouldered much of the responsibility. But no one who heard Sir Colin in 2006, whether in the theatre or on the much-loved DVD of this production, is likely to forget so magical an experience.

It would have been an invidious situation for any conductor. With the best will in the world, one could not claim that Julia Jones proved a match for our pre-eminent Mozartian. Nevertheless, tempi were generally well-chosen, if occasionally a touch on the fast side. (Such things are relative; the provisional wing of the ‘authenticke’ movement would probably have had her knee-capped for Klemperer-like backsliding.) There was fluency, but little in the way of Davis’s twinkle-in-the-eye magic. Though the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, a few slips notwithstanding, played admirably on the whole, boasting a fullness tone that might almost have been intended for Sir Colin himself, the brass, trumpets especially, presented a significant fly in the ointment. Insensitive, undifferentiated rasping and blaring worthy of the likes of René Jacobs or Roger Norrington sounded entirely out of place in a generally cultivated performance. Jones should certainly have had them blend better. Rather to my surprise, the chorus, normally so dependable for its excellence, appeared to be having some of an off-day too, oscillating a little too much between shouting and the slightly lacklustre.

Charles Castronovo’s Tamino marked a significant improvement upon his recent Ferrando (under Davis). Style was more Mozartian, phrasing mellifluously handled, without detriment to welcome vocal heft. If his German fell somewhat short of perfec, that, sadly, was a failing common to most of the cast, with the exception of Christopher Maltman’s winning Papageno, ever alert to pathos as to humour, and to the pathos within the humour. Sir Colin would surely have applauded. Ekaterina Siurina made a lovely Pamina, clean toned and touching. Though Albina Shagimuratova’s first aria as the Queen of the Night was a little uncertain, noticeably slowing down towards the end, there was still a great deal to admire; her coloratura in the second aria came closer to what Mozart wrote than one generally hears. It was certainly a pleasure to hear a fuller-toned voice in the part. Brindley Sherratt’s Sarastro did the job without offering anything especially memorable; his well-judged low notes were perhaps an exception. Peter Hoare made an excellent Monostatos, more of a character, less of a mere caricature, than we have come to expect. An especially strong impression was made by the Three Ladies, more womanly than one often hears, and all the better for it. If only, here as elsewhere, more work had been done on the German, and not only in the dialogue, whose difficult racism – at least to our ears – had been excised, if not necessarily with sufficient care for continuity.

Sir David McVicar’s production had looked rather tired in 2011. I am pleased to report that it seemed to have gained something of a new lease of life under Leah Hausman. The sense of interplay between the timeless and the eighteenth century remains impressive, doing much to impart that sense of wonder lacking on this occasion from the orchestral contribution. The final scene still seems a miscalculation, an almost blinding light rolled on like a huge cheese; there is more to the Enlightenment, let alone to the stranger reaches of Rosicrucianism, than that. Revival of this production, however, remained a happy coincidence in the light of Sir Colin’s passing.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

R.I.P. Sir Colin Davis, 1927-2013

Any regular readers I may have will by now be well aware of the great esteem - that almost seems too lame a description - in which I held Sir Colin Davis. Latterly peerless as a Mozartian, indeed well-nigh universally recognised as the greatest Mozart conductor after the death of Karl Böhm, and quite simply the greatest champion Berlioz has ever had and could ever have, Sir Colin’s greatness as a musician went far beyond those composers. (He was as highly esteemed in the music of Sibelius, but I am afraid that music remains a blind spot for me.) I heard from him perhaps the greatest performance of the Eroica I have experienced in concert, unquestionably the greatest of any Mendelssohn symphony and  of Haydn’s Creation; I could go on and on, and some day probably should.

Living within London’s musical orbit as I do made Sir Colin an abiding presence in my personal musical life, given the opportunities I was afforded to hear him both with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera. Mozart requires but one thing, perfection, and more often than not, his operas received it from this conductor. Single-handedly rescuing Così fan tutte from an insufferably objectionable production was not the least of Sir Colin’s achievements; I doubt that even a Böhm performance would have ravished quite as that did, nor spoken with greater, more lightly-worn wisdom. Moreover, I cannot imagine a more loving performance than those I heard from his baton of Ariadne auf Naxos and Hänsel und Gretel. As for a 2000 Proms performance of Les Troyens, ‘definitive’ would almost seem inadequate to express the ‘rightness’ of every aspect of the conducting, utterly unforced, utterly convincing.

Two of his most recent towering achievements, both with the LSO, and equally important, with the London Symphony Chorus, were his Proms performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis – is there any sterner test? – and a City of London Festival performance, in St Paul’s Cathedral, of Berlioz’s Requiem. The latter must have been one of the last concerts he gave. (It may even have been the last; I am not ghoulish enough yet to check.) It was recently released on LSO Live, and would surely make the most fitting of memorials for any of us to acquire. Even at the time, both performances seemed especially haunted by intimations of mortality and yet all the more strengthened by humanistic resolution.

Yet it is ultimately the generosity, indeed greatness, of spirit that will linger still longer than any particular performance. When fully reunited with the LSO in 1995 as Principal Conductor, he accepted on condition that he should hold no management responsibilities, believing that power corrupted, and could only stand in the way of making music. (Not for nothing was he horrified by the excesses of the Thatcher government.) No martinet could ever hope to conduct Mozart sympathetically; Sir Colin’s humanity seemingly informed every note he conducted, and as he grew older, a still greater awareness of the tragedy lying behind Mozart’s every utterance grew evident. ‘Smiling through tears’ is a phrase I have employed perhaps too often for Mozart, but it seems especially appropriate now that we mourn one of his greatest servants. He will surely be in everyone's mind as the Royal Opera's revival of The Magic Flute opens on Tuesday.

(P.S. The above represents my spontaneous appreciation, written as soon as I heard the news of Sir Colin's death. I thought there might be some value in leaving it as it was, rather than revising. However, a fuller, somewhat more detailed version may be read as an obituary here at Seen and Heard International.)





Friday, 12 April 2013

Letter to Glenda Jackson, MP, 12 April 2013

(Text of a letter sent to Glenda Jackson, MP, following her speech in the House of Commons)
Dear Ms Jackson,

I thought twice about writing to you, not because I doubted that it was a good thing to do, but simply because I was sure that you and your staff would be drowning under a considerable number of similar missives. Nevertheless, I wanted to congratulate and, equally to the point, to thank you for your speech in the House of Commons debate on Margaret Thatcher. Not quite singlehandedly, but not so far off, you transformed a dubious state-sponsored eulogy into something a little more akin to a debate and, needless to say, found yourself heavily criticised for having done so. Although there will doubtless be no need for such reassurance by this stage, I can certainly say that you gave voice to a significant proportion of the population, both in and beyond London, a group which, in the face of relentless hagiography and stifling of our ability to speak, has found itself almost voiceless, at least in any official context. What I thought most admirable was the combination of a reminder of just how desperate our social plight had become during the last years of Conservative government and your concentration not upon personality but upon ideology and policy. A personal attack would have been unnecessary, or at least not the priority. (Thoughts of General Pinochet might tempt me to say otherwise, but let us leave him on one side for the moment.) However, to attack the catastrophic consequences of policies pursued and, in many cases, intensified during succeeding governments was absolutely necessary, especially in the context of the present government’s seeming intent to exceed the wildest of Margaret Thatcher’s expectations and dreams.

This is probably the last thing you would want to hear, but I cannot help but wonder whether you might be persuaded to consider standing as a future candidate London’s mayoralty. Someone needs to say these things, to repeat them, and to continue to do so in public political life; we shall certainly not hear them from the present Mayor of London with his insidious cocktail of infantilising demagoguery and extreme neo-liberal ideology.

Yours sincerely,

Mark Berry

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Andsnes - Beethoven, Bartók, Chopin and Liszt, 10 April 2013

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Bartók – Suite, op.14
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.28 in A major, op.101
Liszt – Pensée des morts, S 173/4
Chopin – Nocturne in C minor, op.48 no.1
Ballade no.4 in F minor, op.52

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Let there be no doubt about it: Leif Ove Andsnes is a pianist and a musician of great distinction, and this was a recital of distinction. Beethoven’s op.54 sonata opened the programme, Andsnes’s tone and touch announced as being to die for. (There would prove no exception whatsoever to that.) The pianist captured to perfection Beethoven’s marriage of stylisation and human warmth; then came the still shocking canonic disjuncture. Control of line during the reprises of the minuet stood almost beyond praise, as did the meaning imparted to its progressive decoration. The second movement exhibited a rare kaleidoscopic quality – such light and shade! – throughout its moto perpetuo; tempo was strict, and yet the music breathed, rhythmic propulsion achieved without the slightest exaggeration. It was riveting from beginning to end.

Bartók’s op.14 Suite was granted a rare performance. The Allegretto showed a perfectly judged balance between insistence and flexibility, Andsnes’s voicing quite mesmerising. Much the same could be said of the scherzo, whose vivid theatricality evoked the world of The Wooden Prince and even, peering into the future, that of The Miraculous Mandarin. Neo-Lisztian diabolicism, albeit more ‘Hungarian’ in Bartók’s terms, was the hallmark of the Allegro molto third movement. Fullness of tone was never sacrificed to technical necessity. The final movement emerged beautifully from its predecessor, as seductive as Liszt and indeed as ‘suspended’ as anything from his late years. It was unsettled and unsettling in its almost Schoenbergian beauty.

A major, wrote William S. Porter, in his 1834 Musical Cyclopædia was ‘Golden, warm, and sunny. Its brilliant effect is shown in many passages of Haydn’s Creation.’ That spirit and perhaps still more that of Mozart in A major – think, for instance, of the great KV 488 piano concerto – was captured in the exquisite yet honest presentation of the first movement of Beethoven’s op.101 sonata. Except, of course, quite rightly, there was always a sense that Elysium was already unattainable, the tragedy of Beethoven. Syncopated chords tolled like ambivalent Mozartian bells of joy; here Beethoven, like Mozart, smiled through tears. Andsnes, without in the slightest sentimentalising the music, imparted to it a poignancy that hinted at Schubert, whilst retaining echt-Beethovenian quirkiness. The second movement offered contrast, but a dialectical contrast, connected even if one could not explicitly say how. ‘Melting precision’ was the somewhat paradoxical – or perhaps better, dialectical – phrase I summoned up to describe Andsnes’s performance, delivered with a lightly-worn rhythmic insistency that was indubitably generative. The trio integrated characteristics both from that march and from the first movement, its almost seraphic quality preparing the way for a third movement that spoke with the integrity and beauty of a Bach arioso. I wondered slightly about the tempo for the finale. Was it a shade too fast? What it perhaps lost in sublimity was gained in a Haydn-like sense of play, in context a perfectly valid alternative to the ‘finale problem’.

The second half opened with Liszt’s Pensées des morts. Mysterious, sepulchral, the ‘voice’ remained eloquent. There was nothing murky to the left-hand chords; one imagined that, like Liszt himself, it would simply not be possible for Andsnes to do other than elicit a beautiful tone from the instrument. Understanding and communication of harmonic rhythm were impeccable. It would be wonderful to hear more Liszt from him, perhaps the Sonata, the Années de pèlerinage, or indeed the rest of the Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses.

Chopin’s C minor Nocturne, op.48 no.1, was uneasy from the start, benefiting from a dramatic tension I have rarely heard here, tension apparently arising from the conjunction of well-chosen tempo – it is easy to take the piece too slowly – and voicing of the left-hand line. Cumulative power was awe-inspiring, the nocturne heard as if in a single breath. Chopin was granted dignity without sentimentality. The Fourth Ballade followed on in wonderfully ‘natural’ fashion, a splendid piece of programming. It spoke initially with a similar unforced eloquence, to which again a well-judged tempo and equally finely-judged rubato contributed. What ultimately I felt it lacked – and this was really my only disappointment of the evening – were the electricity that a great Chopin player such as Maurizio Pollini would impart to the work and a more revealing approach to voice-leading. Some avenues were smoothed out rather than brought into relief. Otherwise, however, I shall repeat myself in describing this as a recital of distinction.