Friday, 30 May 2014

Birtwistle at 80 (3) - Yan Tan Tethera, Britten Sinfonia/Brönnimann

Barbican Hall

Alan – Roderick Williams
Caleb Raven – Omar Ebrahim
Hannah – Claire Booth
Piper/Bad’Un – Daniel Norman
Jack – Ben Knight
Dick – Benjamin Clegg
Davie – Joe Gooding
Rob – Duncan Tarboton

John Lloyd Davies (director, design, lighting)
Britten Sinfonia Voices (director: Eamonn Dougan)
Britten Sinfonia
Baldur Brönnimann (conductor)

A month in which London, or indeed anywhere else, saw one performances of a Birtwistle drama would be something. To have two, plus three associated concerts, all at the same venue, is something very special indeed. The Barbican has certainly done the composer proud with its ‘Birtwistle at 80’ series. Would that Britain’s greatest composer since Purcell were regularly so honoured; the contrast with the absurd overkill of last year’s Britten anniversary is instructive. At any rate, Yan Tan Tethera, written in 1983-4, first performed in 1986, and very rarely heard since – might Channel 4 make available its television broadcast? – shone both on its account and for the fuller sense it offered of Birtwistle’s music0-dramatic development.  

To a libretto by Tony Harrison – any chance of seeing and hearing their Oresteia, someone? – this may perhaps seem more conventionally a chamber opera than Birtwistle’s earlier music-theatre pieces. And yet, listen more closely, and this tale of North and South, of shepherds counting sheep, of a malevolent piper, becomes more complex. There is a linear story, yes. Alan, the good, northern shepherd, who adheres to the old counting system, ‘yan, tan, tethera, …’ is drawn into the great hill – a precursor to Benjamin’s ‘little hill’? – by the piper and Caleb seems about to triumph, but the tables are turned. A modern, yet timeless, folk-like version of Virgil’s first Eclogue, Alan and Caleb the new Meliboeus and Tityrus, is far, however, from the whole, or perhaps better the only, story. The interaction, and at times apparent lack of it, between Harrison’s words and Birtwistle’s score are at least as much the story.

We are, as it were, in a ‘secret theatre’ once again. The ‘mechanics’ of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ tell of a story perhaps deeper than Virgil, even than Theocritus. Counting itself is both external and internal drama, which repeats, is broken, is reconstructed, yet is never the same. The choral sheep are counted and ultimately they too count. Birtwistle’s division of the ensemble into groups is part of that story, so is the journey towards unison,  but, as Paul Griffiths noted in the final line of his helpful programme synopsis: ‘Alan leads his family and flock: Everyone is counting, eventually including Caleb underground, as the musical machinery moves on, now set aright.’ Who knows, however, whether the different perspectives, different pulses, different landscapes, different soundworlds we have passed through, will reassert themselves once again? Interestingly, and tellingly, Birtwistle (quoted in Michael Hall’s book on the composer, likened the structuring of his response to the libretto to that of Stravinsky to Auden. Yan Tan Tethera

… has things I’ve never done before and I’m really quite excited about it. Did you know that it was Stravinsky who divided Auden’s text for The Rake’s Progress into recitatives and arias? Auden wrote his libretto without the divisions. Well, I’m imposing something on Tony Harrison’s libretto. Had I asked Tony to provide it for me, it wouldn’t have worked; the result would be too formal in the wrong sense, too predictable.

As so often with this composer, anything but a Stravinsky epigone – there have been more than enough of those – but rather a true successor, the musical drama has a good deal of inspiration, conscious or otherwise, in his great predecessor. As Jonathan Cross has noted, the very notion of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ is rooted in ‘the imaginary song of a mechanical bird,’ just like Stravinsky’s Nightingale. The opposition between North and South, country and the town that encroaches upon it, above all natural and mechanical, may perhaps prove a further kinship between the two composers.

If at first, then, I was a little disappointed by the necessarily basic nature of John Lloyd Davies’s ‘concert hall staging’, I realised after the event that the concentration necessity had thrown upon the music had very much its own ‘dramatic’ virtues too, enabling me to experience and indeed to conceptualise crucial oppositions in a work I had never heard before. For that, of course, a great deal of praise must be accorded the excellent performances. Baldur Brönnimann’s leadership of the equally fine Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices was assured and (mechanically) expressive throughout. String glissandi – are they echoes of Tippett perhaps? – embodying, to quote David Beard, ‘both Alan’s subjective expression and the representative pastoral anecdote’ evoke both human acts and, perhaps still more so, that of the landscape, as ever with Birtwistle a potent force indeed.  Such was undoubtedly apparent even from this, my first acquaintance with the work. Likewise the distinction between the almost conventionally haunting piper’s melody – still lodged in my memory – and the dramatic mechanisms surrounding it. The scintillating brilliance of the Britten Sinfonia’s response to the score was not the least of the evening’s revelations.

Roderick Williams’s Alan and Omar Ebrahim’s Caleb – extraordinary to think he appeared also in the premiere – led a fine cast, all attentive to words, music, and disjuncture. William’s naïve, northern sincerity – flat vowels and all, though sometimes they came and went – contrasted just as it should with Ebrahim’s ‘southern’ malevolence. Claire Booth offered a typically fine performance as Alan’s wife, Hannah, beautiful of tone, dignified and assured of purpose. Daniel Norman’s Piper or Bad’Un, and four boys from Tiffin School, Kingston, all made their mark very well too. Above all, this was a splendid ensemble performance. Now, may we hope for a fully staged version, in which dramatic oppositions receive some degree of visualisation from an aurally alert director?  


Monday, 26 May 2014

Birtwistle at 80 (2) - Baerts/BCMG/Knussen

Milton Court Concert Hall

Cantus Iambeus (2004)
Cantata (1969)
Tragœdia (1965)
Monody for Corpus Christi (1959)
Fantasia on all the Notes (2011)
Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski (1991)
Silbury Air (1977)

Katrien Baerts (soprano)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Oliver Knussen (conductor)

What a joy it is to attend an intelligently-programmed concert of music, all of it receiving excellence in performance! The latest of the Barbican’s ‘Birtwistle at 80’ concerts offered music for ensemble, some with and some without soprano, from throughout the composer’s career. Although not presented chronologically, there was method in the ordering of Birtwistle’s mechanisms, Silbury Air seeming to bring various strands together and certainly offering a fitting climax. So many of Birtwistle’s preoccupations were there – both in work and, crucially in performance. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a more commanding performance than that given by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Oliver Knussen; it came across as just as much a ‘classic’ as Tragœdia. Landscape, ritual, processional, mechanism, the processes of re-viewing and re-hearing from different standpoints: all were there, all contributed to an overwhelming culmination. Such was the variety of expression, such was the strength of the inner trajectory, that one simply ‘knew’ one was hearing a masterwork. And beneath it all, beneath the ‘invented logic’ of which the composer has spoken, still lay the example of Stravinsky, above all here that of The Rite of Spring. Snatches of sound, elements of cellular writing, and of course the generative precision of rhythm; Stravinsky demeure, as Boulez once put it.

The concert had opened with Cantus Iambeus, which, in context, sounded very much as a curtain-raiser. We heard Birtwistle’s process, not just for the work but perhaps for the concert as a whole, set in motion; Stravinsky, both in rhythm and in colour, remained and inspired. Piano and harp inevitably brought the Symphony in Three Movements to mind, but it was not only a matter of instrumentation. There was drama aplenty, of course, in what seemed almost akin to a miniature tone-poem. This incisive performance enabled us then to take a step back to the 1969 Sappho-derived Cantata, for which the excellent Katrien Baerts joined the players. Sometimes the voice sounded instrumental, sometimes the instruments vocal; sometimes the relationship was more of contrast, sometimes more of affinity. The opening glissandi offered a wonderful case in point. Knussen and his players wrung out an intensity that was well-nigh Schoenbergian; perhaps it was no coincidence that this was a piece written for the Pierrot Players. Birtwistle has in any case rarely sounded so close to ‘Darmstadt’. The closing words, ‘No longer will my mouth utter sounds nor the clapping of hands follow,’ resounded as if a mini-Liebestod, as if refracted through the word-setting of Nono. There was heady, even drunken eroticism, precision enabling rather than detracting from dark expression.

Tragœdia presented the composer more fully still as dramatists – even without words. At the close, one knew one had witnessed and indeed experienced a ritual. The opening ‘Proloue’ offered toughness, violence, the obstinacy of the ostinato; the following ‘Parodos’ sounded again with a more Schoenbergian language than one might necessarily have expected, though there was certainly no denying Stravinsky’s example too. Inevitable ‘traditional’ horn resonances in the first strophe of the ‘Episodion’ – I think in particular of certain intervals – interacted intriguingly with the material, preparing the way for the hieraticism to follow. Birtwistle’s unsentimental melancholy found its true voice in the central ‘Stasimon’, after which the almost Renard-like instrumental exertions of the second ‘Episodion’ sounded as necessary, tragic continuation of the drama, likewise the relative still of its concluding antistrophe. As the ‘Exodos’ had us hear the opening material with new ears, varied and yet somehow the same, I sensed Punch and Judy in the making.

In the second half, Baerts, equally precise and alluring of tone, joined the ensemble twice more, in the early Monody for Corpus Christi and Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the former work, not unlike Cantata, gave obvious hints of Damstadt, not least the flute writing, here in the excellent hands of Elizabeth May. Vocal writing and performance alike offered an extraordinary range of accomplishment; tension and affinity between ‘old’ mediæval and new were our dramatic crucible. Four Poems by Jaan Kaplinski proved a revelation in terms of the continuity of composition and performance, its colours cohering mosaic-like: never too easy, but all the more tellingly for the effort involved. In between came Fantasia on all the Notes, which I have now had occasion to hear a few times in concert. Its myriad of colours did not disappoint, nor did the mastery of dramatic construction, leading to the inevitable yet still troubling winding down of the mechanism.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

Così fan tutte, English National Opera, 22 May 2014


Fiordiligi – Kate Valentine
Dorabella – Christine Rice
Guglielmo – Marcus Farnsworth
Ferrando – Randall Bills
Despina – Mary Bevan
Don Alfonso – Roderick Williams

Phelim McDermott (director)
Tom Pye (set designs)
Laura Hopkins (costumes)
Paule Constable (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

I hoped I should never live to see a worse staging of Così fan tutte than Jonathan Miller’s; indeed, I should not have thought it possible. It may resemble the proverbial variety of judgement concerning angels on a pinhead – though I have never quite understood the objection to scholasticism as such – but Phelim McDermott’s mindless farrago may well have edged to victory, or to whatever we shall elect to call it. Having deliberately waited a couple of days, to give my initial anger time to cool, I still find McDermott’s ‘entertainment’, for want of a better word, one of the most offensive vulgarisations Mozart can ever have received, even if we include nineteenth- and twentieth-century maulings of the text.

Miller at least spoke about the artificiality of the work being crucial to its understanding, though it was difficult to see how that informed a staging that was merely tacky. McDermott seems to have no ideas whatsoever, whether appropriate or otherwise. The designs are doubtless what had been requested; the problem is the lack of any justification for them or for what unfolded in front of them. This most exquisitely painful of works, in which that artificiality is the only way we can deal with realities that are otherwise simply too agonising to bear, becomes a silly story – well, barely even that – set, for no apparent reason, in a 1950s (?) American seaside resort. Now where Così is set really does not matter; it is in no sense ‘about’ eighteenth-century Naples, though an eighteenth-century understanding of musical form and parody remains absolutely crucial. (How on earth can one perform, stage, or appreciate ‘Come scoglio’ without some inkling of the opera seria it parodies? It is akin to the iconography of saints; some things one simply has to know, in order to understanding the painting in question.) Abstraction tends to work better, as in the case of the Magritte-like Salzburg production of Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, and/or an exploration of the work’s dark eroticism, as in Salzburg’s unforgettable predecessor, from Hans Neuenfels. At any rate, there is no danger of representation, let alone probing, of musical and/or verbal parody, of eroticism, or of anything whatsoever. Instead, we have a series of scenes whose sole purpose seemed to be to bring on an irrelevant troupe of circus-like artists, the ‘Skills Ensemble’. A moronic audience laughed at everything it did: people drawing words out of a box and holding them up resulted in helpless belly-aching.

Still worse, though, was the applause endured not only between numbers, but within them. I am not sure that I have heard greater violence done to Mozart than by those ‘clapping terrorists’. As for having Despina’s appearance as notary transformed into the appearance of a Texan (the accent…!) entertainer, to which some of the audience elected to clap along, I can safely say I have never experienced anything like it, and earnestly pray that I shall never do so again. In the context, the ‘traditional’ cuts I usually deplore might usefully have been expanded, perhaps to the extent that Mozart’s music were preserved entirely for another occasion. Jeremy Sams’s self-regarding ‘translation’ did not help. Veering wildly between something akin to translation and free composition, it had no settled voice of its own. For some reason, any forced rhyme – for instance, ‘rabbit’ with ‘grab it’ – elicited yet more helpless laughter from the audience. ‘Fifty bucks’ cued yet more hilarity; is it not utterly hilarious that someone should mention American currency? Perhaps the nadir, though, came with a bizarre interpolation of gratuitous racism, one of the men – I cannot remember which – saying that he would rather marry a ‘gypsy on a dung-hill’ than either of the ladies. It must, I think, have been at the exchange ‘Vorrei sposar piuttosto la barca di Caronte/La grotta di Vulcano’. Quite why that would suggest such a slur upon a vulnerable people is quite beyond me; needless to say, the audience exploded.

There was not a great deal to cheer about in the performances either, though, with one exception, they marked a significant improvement upon the staging. That exception was Randall Bills’s Ferrando, quite the worst I have heard: a mixture of strenuous over-emoting on top with persistent weakness of tone and flatness lower in the range. I have not had much patience with the talk in some quarters that ENO should be casting more English artists; it is not, after all, an extension of UKIP.  In this case, however, it is difficult to understand why one would go to the trouble of importing an American tenor who was so clearly not up to the job. Marcus Farnsworth, however, showed a good degree of swagger as Guglielmo. Kate Valentine and Christine Rice had their moments as Fiordiligi and Dorabella. There was palpable sincerity to much of what they sang, though neither quite had the measure of Mozart’s coloratura, and blend sometimes proved elusive. Mary Bevan’s Despina was strongly projected, if some way from a paragon of style. Even Roderick Williams, a singer whom I have always greatly admired, seemed somewhat out of sorts, his first scene in particular weakly sung, almost to the point of inaudibility. No one, however, should have been asked to indulge in the embarrassing finger-clicking that accompanied (I think) ‘È la fede delle femmine’. Maybe, with the exception of the tenor, matters would have improved dramatically with a better staging; maybe some of the cast were just having an off-night. If so, one could hardly blame them.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting proved disappointing too. The Overture was not only taken far too fast; it was brutal. As those of us who are regulars at the Coliseum know very well, the ENO Orchestra is a fine ensemble. Here it sounded dull and uninvolving, picking up a little in the second act. Of grace, agony, wonder, any of the human and divine qualities Mozart demands, and through which his drama develops, we heard little of all. It was not really a matter of tempi, although, more often than not, they were on the fast side. More fundamentally, there was little sense – and of course the staging did not help – of what lay in, between, beneath the notes. Wigglesworth is an excellent musician; Mozart, however, is very clearly not his thing. If only it had been possible to lie back, to think of Sir Colin Davis…

Friday, 23 May 2014

On 'critics', singers, and musical drama: the perils of this 'Rosenkavalier' debate

I have resisted writing anything here about the furore over the Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier reviews and still wonder whether discretion might have been the better part of valour. There is probably not much more to say about those dreadful reviews themselves, but I should at least begin there, if only to make abundantly clear that I have no sympathy with the sentiments or their expression. (It should also be made clear that what I say about particular critics is about them, not about criticism at large; indeed, the noble craft or even art of informed criticism would seem to have very little in common with the shabby journalism of those responsible for this controversy.)

Rupert Christiansen acts according to form; what more do we expect from someone who claims that Così fan tutte is taken ‘too seriously’, its second act containing ‘some indifferent numbers’ and benefiting ‘from neat cuts’, and for whom Gawain elicited little more than philistine, uncomprehending reference to ‘ugly vocal writing’, and outrage that he did not receive preferential treatment at the Royal Opera House’s bar? Added to the usual lack of musical comprehension – has he ever displayed the slightest knowledge of a score, let alone of any ability to interpret or to analyse it? – comes the most ridiculous, indefensible sexism. There is no discussion to be had on that count. If he were simply pointing out an alleged on-stage incompatibility between Kate Royal’s Marschallin and Tara Erraught’s Octavian, then there would, on the face of it, be just as much justification in saying that the Marschallin was too thin or too tall, though he would doubtless have used more charming vocabulary: ‘lanky’ perhaps, or ‘malnourished’. Given that an excuse often employed for newspaper critics is that they now have such a limited number of words to use, why on earth would one waste so many on the matter of a singer’s ‘motherhood’, rather than perhaps saying something about how the LPO strings sounded? (This is Strauss, after all; surely the orchestral sound is of no little importance here.) That the singer may have mentioned having become a mother in an interview, given in an entirely different context, is supremely irrelevant. It has no bearing upon her performance as the Marschallin, and when words are at a premium, such reference is simply incomprehensible – at best, the language of Hello magazine and ‘lifestyle features’. As for the worst of the lot, Michael Church’s cretinous claim that ‘Der Rosenkavalier is a rather irritating farce’, a mediocre seven-year-old would have been shamed by the writing, let alone by the viciousness of his description of Erraught or the writer’s horrified clutching at pearls at the prospect of a touch of lesbianism. (A brief comparison of Church’s ‘review’ with that of Julius Korngold may be found here.)  Richard Morrison's attempt at an apology, explanation, or whatever it was, remains better off behind the Murdoch pay wall; it falls back, apparently without irony, upon the 1970s sitcom explanation: how can I be sexist? I really like women? Just ask the wife... One can almost hear the canned laughter. Most grievously, none of these writers has any light to shed on Strauss, Hofmannsthal, and their drama.

Enough of all that, though. I am yet to be convinced that we need to find a Centre for Christiansen Studies; his dismissal of anything that might even slightly challenge is probably now better met with silence. There are, I think, more serious matters, which may be in danger of going forgotten. First, and perhaps foremost, the claim now being bandied around that opera is ‘all about singing’, or that it is to some arbitrarily-selected percentage ‘about singing’ is ridiculous, indeed pernicious. Serious musical drama, be it Così, Gawain, or Rosenkavalier, is that. That is not, I repeat not, to say that physical appearance – or rather, views on physical appearance boorishly touted by ageing, white, middle-class, male critics – is of particular importance, still less that there is any case for making bullying remarks concerning such matters. We should also remember that much of the drama can and should be expressed through music; ‘drama’ in opera is not to be identified merely with the libretto and/or the staging. That said, there is a great deal more to it than singing alone; otherwise, opera would be an un-staged, wordless, a cappella madrigal. Clearly the relative importance of constituent parts – insofar as they may be separated at all – will vary, according to the work, the production, even to personal inclination. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but the last thing we want to do is to return to the days of ‘park and bark’, or indeed to minimise the extraordinary importance of the orchestra and conductor.

For one of the glories of opera, as with music more generally, yet perhaps even more extremely so, is the element of joint endeavour. There is far more to go wrong, of course, which is doubtless why one is far less likely to be disappointed by, say, an evening of chamber music at the Wigmore Hall than by a new production at Covent Garden. But when we think of great performances of Der Rosenkavalier, we think equally of Schwarzkopf and Karajan, of the Philharmonia and Ludwig, perhaps more of Carlos Kleiber even than his distinguished cast or Otto Schenk. At least I do. Others may differ, and indeed on other occasions, so may I, recalling immediately, for instance, Robert Carsen's production, and only then his – or Peter Schneider’s – Salzburg cast; but can we please move away from the claim that one incalculably important element of the drama is and always must be ‘more important’ than the others? It is disrespectful to a host of others, be they those working back-stage or the highly-skilled musicians who toil away in the orchestra pit. (What would Octavian and his silver rose be without Strauss’s harmonic and colouristic phantasmagoria, and the orchestra’s evocation thereof?) It is also, moreover, a deeply worrying sign of capitulation, even if this were not remotely the manner in which it was intended, to those forces wishing to turn their backs upon even the modest success houses have had in reinstating opera as a living, developing, questioning art-form, and to limit it to a kitsch museum of exhibits that never were. Above all, let it be the work and fine performances such as this that ultimately matter:

(with reference to the above, the performance I attended had Peter Schneider, not Semyon Bychkov, in the pit)

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Changing newspaper criticism: Der Rosenkavalier, 1911 and 2014

Julius Korngold in the Neue Freie Presse, 9 April 1911
Opening: Although his superior talents have caused him to be designated a leading musician, no one is less suited to this role than Richard Strauss. The Germans want a priest, someone who will champion an art that serves profound ends. Strauss is driven by the ego sensibility of the modern artist, who wants, first of all, to serve himself and his sensations. Living entirely in the present, in its tendencies and interests, he smiles sceptically or storms impatiently past the solemn demands of immortality. Thus the strange opposition of the critics when the Rosenkavalier appeared.

Michael Church, The Independent, 19 May 2014
Opening: 'Der Rosenkavalier' is a rather irritating farce...

And now, when she [the Marschallin] is alone with her 'boy', comes the melancholy that follows pleasure.
The Marschallin and her Cherub are suddenly breakfasting in Mozartian style; Frau Maria Theresa suddenly becomes pensive in the style of Lortzing.

The Marschallin is infatuated with sexy Octavian half her age. ... In the post-coital opening scene, Kate Royal, his Marschallin, stands stark naked and statuesque under the shower while Octavian gazes at her, transfixed by her virginal beauty.
[Quite an achievement to exhibit 'virginal beauty' in a 'post-coital' opening scene...]

Monday, 19 May 2014

Hogarth’s Stages – Five short operas, Royal College of Music, 17 May 2014

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music


Josephine Stephenson: On False Perspective

Professor – Jerome Knox
The Raver – Rebecca Hardwick
Reader – Katie Coventry
Barista – Nick Pritchard
Mathematician – Keith Pun

Algirdas Kraunaitis: The Bet

Cait Frzzell (soprano)
Mélisand Froidure-Lavoine (alto)
Daniel Farrimond (tenor)
Julien van Mellaerts (baritone)
Matthew Buswell (bass)

Lewis Murphy: Now

Alice – Rose Stachniewska
Ruby – Laura Possonnier
Sarah – Charlotte Howes
Tim – William Wallace
Rupert – James Davies

Hunter Coblentz: Hogarth’s Bastards

Don Giovanni – Tai Oney
Donna Anna – Gemma Summerfield
Donna Elvira – Rannveig Káradóttir
Don Ottavio – Craig Jackson
Commendatore – Simon Grange

Edwin Hillier: Serpentine; or, The Analysis of Beauty

Architect – Nicholas Morton
Ida – Elizabeth Holmes
Will – Peter Aisher
Louche – Mark Nathan
Curl – Cait Frizzell
Coil – Rachel Bowden

Bill Bankes-Jones (director)
Sarah Booth (designs)

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Tim Murray (conductor)

The café of false perspective

It is a brave composer – or indeed librettist – who writes a Hogarth opera in the wake of The Rake’s Progress. Yet those concerned seemed neither to have been intimidated nor hamstrung by the precedents of Stravinsky or Auden and Kallman. Indeed, it was striking that there seemed to be no ‘leave-taking’ in that sense at all. We had instead five short operas, of roughly a quarter of an hour each, inspired by different paintings and engravings, yet contemporary in their settings, brought together as more than the sum of their parts by Bill Bankes-Jones staging and Sarah Booth’s designs, in which eighteenth-century periwigged onlookers mingled with their twenty-first century counterparts. Traffic included characters from previous operas, encouraging one to make connections, rather than too strenuously insisting upon them. Tim Murray and the excellent RCM Opera Orchestra offered excellent advocacy, as did an array of young singers.

The Bet

Not the least remarkable aspect of the evening was that all five composers are RCM composers: four of them Master’s students, one an undergraduate. With that in mind, and without in any sense intending to condescend, it is unlikely that many, perhaps any, of the composers will write as they have done here once they have fully discovered their mature ‘voices’. Yet they all proved themselves assured writers, employing a variety of styles. In the crudest sense, the musical language employed in Hogarth’s Bastards by Hunter Coblentz stood closest to the nineteenth century, that of Edwin Hillier, in the closing Serpentine, stood closest to the later twentieth and early twenty-first, the other composers falling somewhere in between.


On False Perspective, music by Josephine Stephenson, libretto by Benjamin Osborn, opens with an eighteenth-century reader (Professor) of John Joshua Kiry’s pamphlet on linear perspective, for which Hogarth provided the frontispiece, A Satire on False Perspective. That introduction frames – visually as well as metaphorically – a Sunday morning’s exchanges in a modern café ‘in the city of false perspective’, the morning after the police shut down a rave that broke the laws of physics. Water flows backwards and falls upwards, at the barista’s behest. In Stephenson’s score, one hears the musical counterpart to such antics, though the score never merely ‘depicts’; it contributes to the drama, as good operatic music should. Likewise, each one of the singers here – as in the subsequent operas – added something both musical and dramatic, indeed showed the danger of separating the two categories.
And so, the scene was set for The Bet, for which Algirdas Kraunaitis wrote both text and music, and for Now (music: Lewis Murphy; libretto: Laura Attridge). Visual framing connected On False Perspective with The Bet, but there was rhythmic contrast too, between all three scores. Dance rhythms appeared in different guises, sometimes more Germanically swung, sometimes more insistent, even perhaps Stravinskian. Instrumentation was resourceful, command of colour imaginative and apt. I must admit I could not quite understand why one character in The Bet was made to sing with a cod-American accent, ‘g’ omitted from the ends of gerunds, and so on; it jarred, at least to my ears. But again, the singers as a whole impressed, showing splendid commitment and versatility. Dystopia came to the fore in Now, but equally some sense of resolution, even hope.

The second half offered the aforementioned ‘extremes’ of Hogarth’s Bastards and Serpentine. The former (Coblentz/Jordan O’Connor) offered interaction between five singers prior to a performance in an apparently disastrous run of Don Giovanni. Coblentz’s score is allusive and witty, even in its allocation of Don Giovanni to a counter-tenor (the excellent Tai Oney). I was not entirely sure, though, why the audience found use of ‘fucking’ in the libretto so hilarious; doubtless there is a matter of confounding alleged expectations, but even so… There is nice characterisation, though, in O’Connor’s text: a good deal is done in a short amount of time.
Hogarth's Bastards

Serpentine; or, The Analysis of Beauty (Hillier; Edward Allen) was for me perhaps the most intriguing. Structure and instrumentation interact with dramatic possibility suggestively. The necessity both to ‘toe the line – the Serpentine Line’ in a club, measured up by the Architect, combines with a clear sense of liberty, or perhaps license. Hogarth’s eighteenth-century dance hall is reimagined, the ‘S’ figure curve visualised on stage and somehow also suggested by Hillier’s music. There was some exuberant transvestism to be enjoyed too. This seemed more dangerous, more exploratory, perhaps more ready to question what opera is and what it might be. That said, the truly striking impression of the evening was of an abundance of talent from all concerned: there is hope yet for a form which has always been far better placed to re-invent itself than the exaggerated prominence of its largest and often most conservative institutions might suggest.


Saturday, 17 May 2014

Birtwistle at 80 (1) - Gawain, 16 May 2014, BBC SO/Brabbins


Gawain – Leigh Melrose
The Green Knight, Sir Bertiak de Hautdesert – Sir John Tomlinson
Morgan Le Fay – Laura Aikin
Lady de Hautdesert – Jennifer Johnston
King Arthur – Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts
A Fool – John Graham Hall
Guinevere – Rachel Nicholls
Bishop Baldwin – William Towers
Agravain – Ivan Ludlow
Ywain – Robert Anthony Gardiner

Sound Intermedia (sound design)
Aqamera (projections)
John Lloyd Davies (direct0r)

BBC Singers (conductor: Andrew Griffiths)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

This was a truly outstanding performance, thoroughly worthy of its standing ovation. The only problem now will be of upholding such standards throughout the Barbican’s Birtwistle at 80 series. This was something no one present is likely to forget: a masterpiece, whose absence from opera houses, not just in this country but across the world, stands as a devastating indictment to all concerned, was given a ‘concert staging’ to match the finest efforts of any established house.  Last year’s Salzburg staging – incredibly, the only one since Covent Garden’s premiere and revivals – performed a signal service in bringing Birtwistle’s opera to an international audience, but a questionable production detracted somewhat from the impact of an excellent musical performance. Here, John Lloyd Davies’s unfussy direction did all that was necessary – or at least seemed to be necessary – with the support of excellent lighting. Quite whether the projections were necessary, I have my doubts, but they did no especial harm either.

A happy surprise was the reinstatement of the full version of the Turning of the Seasons, which I had never heard before. What utterly magnificent music this is – and, equally to the point, musical drama which strongly reinforces the power of ritual in this opera. Gawain’s year-long journey reminds us of the crucial importance of the passing of time; actions are not here merely repeated, revisited, viewed from different standpoints. There is surely a strong comparison to be drawn here with Siegfried’s going out into the world, ‘zu neuen Taten’, and of course both Wagner and Birtwistle question, indeed deconstruct the notion of heroism. As the disillusioned Gawain insists, he is not, almost certainly never was, that hero the court, the world had imagined him to be. That unnerving experience of returning to a place, to people, and it, they having carried on without one registered all the more powerfully, even chillingly. A stronger sense of the passing of time was gained, then, but so was a stronger sense of the sheer power of ritual, in this case of the calendar and of man’s relationship to it, ambivalently positioned as it is in this case between Church and something closer to paganism. Speaking to other audience members during the interval, some, though by no means all, seemed to have struggled with the consequent greater length of the first act. I did not feel that at the time, but admit to noting thereafter a certain imbalance with respect to the first and second. That need not necessarily be a bad thing, but I could not help but wonder whether a second revision might be in order. Perhaps the Turning of the Seasons could become a second act tableau in itself; perhaps it might be split between the two acts, for, as Birtwistle has noted, many of his works have a tendency to ‘stop’ rather than to ‘end’. (I am not sure that that is really the case with this work, which is in many ways more conventionally operatic than many give it credit for, but the point may still stand in general.) At any rate, experiencing this additional music for the first time was an overwhelming experience in itself; moreover, it permits more to be heard from Guinevere, Bishop Baldwin, and the chorus. I understand – I think – the case for the revised version, but I should now never wish the cuts to be reinstated. In practice, though, I shall have to take what, if anything, I am given.

Martyn Brabbins led a superlative performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the splendid BBC Singers (conducted offstage with equal excellence by Andrew Griffiths) and what I suspect may be the finest cast the work has yet received. The BBC SO’s contribution was almost beyond praise, every inch the equal of its Vienna counterpart last summer. It is perhaps all too tempting to resort to ‘national’ stereotypes, and maybe this was as much a matter of staging and venue, but I think I perceived a more generally internationally modernist Klang from the ORF Vienna Radio SO, and a more deeply English – but certainly not remotely nationalist – melancholy from the BBC orchestra. That is not to say that the violence of Birtwistle’s score did not register; it most certainly did, to searing effect. Nor that the powerful Stravinskian antecedents did not register. One may hear a fascinating struggle between a world born of Symphonies of Wind Instruments and one born of The Rite of Spring: doubtless an over-simplification, but perhaps not entirely gratuitous. The welding together of primitivism, mediævalism, and (Northern) English landscape was perhaps achieved still more idiomatically by Brabbins than by Ingo Metzmacher, matching the distinguished contribution by Elgar Howarth on the CD recording from the Royal Opera House. (Alas, that was made at a revival, so has the revised version of the score, but it remains an absolute ‘must’ for anyone who remotely cares about twentieth-century opera.) The brass – including three tubas and a euphonium – proved as powerful as any more celebrated section, but with none of the brashness one sometimes encounters from American orchestras in particular. A battery of percussion unleashed its fire at times, yet also offered true delicacy, not least in the guise of that unforgettable cimbalom part. Uneasy magic was conjured up – the observed and observing malevolence of Morgan le Fay? – from the woodwind, whilst the strings worked over-over-time throughout: incisive and, yes, at times beguiling. Courtly love and eroticism were given their due; one cannot deconstruct without in some sense having constructed.

Such was also the tale of the vocal performances. Leigh Melrose summoned up memories of his fine ENO Wozzeck as Gawain, and yet went further still. Very human choices, fears, and disappointments made the descent – or should that actually be ascent? – from his initial swagger all the more affecting. Sir John Tomlinson was his inimitable self, a true force of nature, if the more or less unforgivable cliché may be forgiven, as the Green Knight. An ‘objective’ review would have to mention the indulgence that needs to be offered to his higher range, here not so often employed, but frankly such cavils seem irrelevant in the face of so all-encompassing a dramatic assumption. The day will come – at least, we hope it will, if our opera houses will listen – when another bass will have to take on the role, but for the moment, the archetypal, apparent timelessness of this performance makes it impossible to imagine. For Tomlinson, moreover, there was no need for a score. Jennifer Johnston made a glorious impression as Lady de Hautdesert the wife of his alter ego: rich, even voluptuous, of tone, nicely ambiguous of purpose, and yet imparting something very important concerning the human and perhaps especially the female condition as constructed here. Laura Aikin was equally magnificent as Morgan le Fay. The cruel demands of the role clearly hold no fears for her; far more than ever before, I had the sense of her as a real character, as the moving force of events. Perhaps the longer version played a role in that; her manipulative appearance onstage – unseen to the hero – when Gawain arrived at the Hautdeserts certainly did. It was, however, an interpretative consequence too, born of vocal strength and palpable musical intelligence.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts and Rachel Nicholls made for an excellent royal couple, as attentive to words as to vocal line. William Towers made more of the role of Bishop Baldwin – again, doubtless partly a matter of the version, but not only that – than I had previously heard. His is a virile counter-tenor, put to piercing, perhaps sanctimonious use here. I certainly found myself asking more about the character, his role, his motivations, than I had done so before. John Graham-Hall fully inhabited the role of the Fool; there was an entirely appropriate correspondence with King Lear to be made in this case. Ivan Ludlow and Robert Anthony Gardiner offered finely sung portrayals of Agravain and Ywain. There was not a weak link in the cast, just as there was not in the evening as a whole. A resounding triumph! Now which company will do its duty and give us a properly thought-through new staging?



Men, Women and Guitars in Romantic England: Public Lectures

Having been appointed Gresham Professor of Music, Christopher Page will deliver what sounds like a very interesting series of six public lectures on Men, Women and Guitars in Romantic England: 

According to the press release, ‘The guitar is arguably the most widely cultivated instrument in the world. At a time when fifty or more pianos are broken up for scrap in Britain every week – sad relics of Victorian parlour entertainment – sales of guitars have never been higher.Nonetheless, it has been almost universally forgotten that there was an intense guitar craze in England between about 1800 and 1835, spanning the lifetimes of Keats, Byron, Shelley and Coleridge, and a craze whose history has never been traced. Histories of English music and society in the nineteenth century continue to be written as if it never happened, and yet the instrument was cultivated from the royal family in the person of Princess Charlotte (d. 1817) down to the poorest laundress. This is much more than the story of an instrument and its music: the rise of romanticism, the creation of an urban poor hungry for self improvement, the proliferation of newspapers, serialised fiction and printed sheet music, the social position of women and other aspects of English society and culture in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars all have a place within it.’

Each lecture will last an hour, and will be open free to the public, taking place between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. on selected Thursdays at the Church of St Sepulchre-Without-Newgate, Holborn: 

The ‘Romantic’ Guitar (9 October 2014)
Being a Guitarist in the time of Byron and Shelley (20 November 2014)
The Guitar, the Steamship and the Picnic: England on the move (11 December 2014)
The Guitar and the Romantic Vision of the Medieval World (8 January 2015)
Harmony in the Lowest Home: The Guitar and the labouring poor (19 February 2015)
The guitar and ‘the fair sex’ (23 April 2015)

In addition, all lectures will be recorded and released online for free, so those of us unable to attend will have a second (and indeed third) bite at the cherry.

Click here for further details.


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Graham/RPO/Dutoit - Ravel, Berlioz, and Saint-Saëns, 14 May 2014

Royal Festival Hall

Ravel – Valses nobles et sentimentales
Berlioz – Les Nuits d’été, op.7
Saint-Saëns – Symphony no.3 in C minor, op.78

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Stephen Disley (organ)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Dutoit (conductor)

The orchestral version of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales opened promisingly, the first waltz glossy, its surface properly shimmering, inviting and yet evading the question of what lay underneath. Properly responsive to Charles Dutoit’s direction, the Royal Philharmonic sounded on excellent form. This was not the probing, modernistic Ravel of Boulez but, on its own terms, it worked well. And if that first waltz was a little too driven, there was plenty of languor to its successor. Rubato was well judged, direction maintained. Phrasing was nicely pointed in the third, and there was much to admire throughout. It was a pity, then, that, on a few occasions, the strings were oddly tentative, a greater pity that Dutoit did little to rectify the problem. The Epilogue, however, was intriguingly crepuscular; fragments and memories were often menacing, at the very least ambiguous.

Susan Graham joined the orchestra for a spellbinding performance of Les Nuits d’été. Nervous energy from all concerned marked the opening and indeed the entirety of ‘Villanelle’. Berlioz’s individualty was celebrated, not masked, still less apologised for, melodic and harmonic twists relished, though not unduly exaggerated. Graham’s diction and sense of style, here and thereafter, were quite simply beyond reproach; Dutoit’s partnership showed him at his very best. The orchestral writing of ‘La Spectre de la rose’ – one simply cannot separate instrumentation from melody – looked forward, as it should, to Roméo et Juliette, even to Les Troyens. Graham’s sincerity of vocal delivery offered a fine example of art concealing art; it sounded as if this were an unmediated witness. ‘Léger parfum’, as heard from the harps, was properly beguiling indeed. Darkening of mood was immediately palpable in Sur les lagunes. Graham’s voice darkened and blended with a very different orchestral palate. At times, this might almost have been a contralto, not least when the voice sank for the night’s extending ‘comme un linceul’. Thereafter, there was Romantic defiance, the orchestra vividly ‘operatic’. A true sense of calling out, not just of recounting someone having done so, was to be heard with the opening – and subsequent – ‘Reviens, reviens, ma bien-aimée!’ of ‘Absence’. In its way, it emerged as a touching counterpart to the Marschallin’s melancholy concerning time’s passing. ‘Au Cimietière’ offered orchestral weirdness: positively in the subtlest of refractions from the Symphonie fantastique upon ‘rayon tremblant’, less so in the less than ideal balance to the close, the clarinet unduly prominent. But the latter was a minor blemish indeed, soon eclipsed by the experience of new horizons afforded by ‘L’Ile inconnue’.

Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony is a peculiar work: to my ears, a more or less irreconcilable mixture of styles and material. It is difficult to rid oneself of the suspicion that many respond more to the sound of the organ than to the music itself. And indeed, the writing for the King of Instruments is decidedly peculiar, still more so, given that the composer, an excellent organist, wrote plentiful music for it. The first movement, at any rate, had a welcome air of Mendelssohn to it, the RPO admirable in its precision. To English ears, there are perhaps in some turns of phrase, even harmonic shifts, presentiments of Elgar to be heard too. Motivic construction was clearly conveyed – though is perhaps this construction not a little too obvious? (If so, that is the composer’s fault, not the performers’.) The slow movement made its unhurried progress – again not entirely unlike Elgar – with great conviction. Dutoit offered a fine sense of line, and balance between organ and orchestra was well achieved. There was, again, more than a hint of Mendelssohn to the scherzo, impressively darkened second time around. The trio sounded unduly hurried, though I am not convinced that it displays particularly successful writing in any case. Be that as it may, the transition to the finale was convincingly shaped. Counterpoint was clear and well directed. There was splendid timpani playing at the end too. As for the rest of the movement, well: if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like. I cannot for the life of me understand what those loud organ chords are supposed to achieve, but the Royal Festival Hall audience was clearly impressed, roaring its approval at the end.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Tosca, Royal Opera, 10 May 2014

Royal Opera House

Cesare Angelotti – Michel de Souza
Sacristan – Jeremy White
Mario Cavaradossi – Roberto Alagna
Floria Tosca – Oksana Dyka
Baron Scarpia – Marco Vratogna
Spoletta – Martyn Hill
Sciarrone – Jihoon Kim
Shepherd Boy – Michael Clayton-Jolly
Gaoler – Olle Zetterström

Jonathan Kent (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)
Paul Brown (designs)
Mark Henderson (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Oleg Caetani (conductor)
Scarpia (Marco Vratogna) and Tosca (Oksana Dyka)
Copyright: ROH/Catherine Ashmore

All in all, a dispiriting evening, this. Jonathan Kent’s 2006 staging of Tosca, revived again, as last year (!), by Andrew Sinclair, certainly does not reveal greater subtleties of meaning with further acquaintance. Indeed, it makes little or no attempt at conveying meaning at all, be it subtle or otherwise. There is nothing wrong in principle with setting the work when and where specified in the libretto, just as there is nothing wrong with reimagining it, though an over-exposed opera such as this more or less cries out for some element of rethinking. But irrespective of the relatively unimportant question of setting, there needs to be something, or rather a great deal, more to a production than that. Not only is there no sense, as I wrote last time, of dialogue between Puccini’s time, our own, and the time at which the opera is set; there sadly is no sense of drama beyond the gunshots in the third act. Paul Brown’s large scale sets might have imparted a welcome impression of menace, of claustrophobia, but again they could hardly do that on their own. I have no idea how much or how little rehearsal was permitted, but interaction between the singers was often so rudimentary as to suggest none whatsoever (which cannot have been the case).

Roberto Alagna at least offered energetic commitment on stage, unlike his Tosca and Scarpia. Alagna’s first act was shaky vocally; indeed his opening suffered from wild intonation and vocal constriction. Later on, however, he improved, though cleaner lines would often have been welcome. Such matters are, however, partly a matter of taste, and on his own terms, the second and third acts were reasonably impressive. Alas, Oksana Dyka’s vibrato was so wide as often to encompass the best part a minor third; her acting skills on this occasion were well-nigh non-existent. Perhaps it was as well that she simply strolled off the battlement rather than attempting anything that would vaguely qualify as a ‘leap’, but it hardly made for much of a climax. Marco Vratogna’s Scarpia also suffered from dryness and constriction in the first act, proving more focused in the second. His acting, however, matched that of his Scarpia; would that the Carry On element of his demise had been born of irony. The smaller parts were generally well taken, however. If only we had seen and heard more from Michel de Souza’s dynamic Angelotti, Jeremy White's characterful, bumbling Sacristan, or Martyn Hill’s nasty Spoletta.

The orchestra played well enough, though the strings sometimes tended towards thinness. However, Oleg Caetani’s inconsistent conducting proved a considerable break upon the flowering or, more plainly, the progress of the score. He seemed undecided what he thought of it and therefore unable to make it cohere. The first act’s lack of sentimentality was to be welcomed, but instead it was brutalised; hard-driven rather than riven with menace. Phrasing throughout was short-breathed, instances of a longer line standing out awkwardly, given their lack of relation to what surrounded them. Alas, as with so much of what we saw and heard, what might have passed muster in a small, provincial theatre wedded to the repertory system simply was not good enough for a world stage, upon which this Tosca was presented as a major revival. All with ears to hear will have praised the Royal Opera House to the skies for its recent, superlative performances of Die Frau ohne Schatten; if a work which it performs so incessantly as Tosca is to be performed again any time soon, it needs to be done with similar care and attention. This spoke more of cynicism than of having ‘lived for art’.