Saturday, 31 October 2015

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Academy Opera, 30 October 2015

Images: Robert Workman

Hackney Empire Theatre

Susanna – Charlotte Schoeters
Figaro – Božidar Smiljanić
Bartolo – Timothy Murphy
Marcellina – Claire Barnett-Jones
Cherubino – Katherine Aitken
Count Almaviva – Henry Neil
Basilio – John Porter
Countess Almaviva – Emily Garland
Antonio – Alex Otterburn
Barbarina – Lorena Paz Nieto
Don Curzio – Mikhail Shepelenko
Two Girls – Lorena Paz Nieto, Katie Stevenson

Janet Suzman (director)
Fotini Dimou (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus (chorus master: Frederick Brown)
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

A lazy assumption I used to make was that Don Giovanni was, as the cliché now has it, ‘a director’s graveyard’; it also seemed almost always to lack something in performance, Daniel Barenboim being the Furtwänglerian exception. A parallel, or related, lazy assumption was that The Marriage of Figaro somehow always survived. Directors felt on surer ground, without the overt Catholicism of the later opera, which seemingly either mystified – in pretty much any sense – or repelled them. A good cast would see it through, and surely singers and conductors could hardly fail to respond to its magic, performing ideologies notwithstanding. The former assumption still seems to hold, although I am less inclined to make excuses on behalf of directors who make a mess of it; it really need not be so difficult as they seem to think it. The problem really does not lie with the work, and if opera houses present an unholy composite version from Prague and Vienna, then they only have themselves to blame. However, many recent performances of Figaro seem to have fallen prey to the curse too. I shall not list them, but too many have been dispiriting. And, frankly, one dispiriting Figaro is far too many.

Figaro (Božidar Smiljanić)

Such clouds were well and truly dispelled in this quickening evening at the Hackney Empire, the first of Royal Academy Opera’s temporary homes whilst its theatre is renovated. You might react with scepticism if I tell you that, overall – and opera is always a business of ‘overall’, as well as ‘in part’, and so on – this was one of the best Figaros I have seen, certainly one of the best for quite some time. I really did not have a single cause for complaint, which is quite something when it comes to Mozart in general and to this opera in particular, for whom and for which perfection seems, cruelly, to be the only acceptable response.

Janet Suzman’s production plays the work pretty straight: no bad thing, Claus Guth’s Strindbergian conception for Salzburg surely being destined to remain an exception. One might even, if not paying proper attention, think it more or less a ‘period’ production to begin with. However, it soon becomes clear – and indeed always is, so long as one’s eyes are doing a little light work – that we are not in eighteenth-century Spain, although there certainly seems to be a kinship, indeed a strong kinship, with Lorenzo da Ponte’s original setting. We are, in fact, in pre-revolutionary Cuba, as we hear too, as soon as Bartolo’s first aria, Siviglia having become Havana. Havana, Suzman writes, ‘boasted an elegant, bedraggled, inward-looking post-colonial aristocracy, a peasant population desperate for change, and sported perfectly beautiful great houses on the verge of collapse’. The ‘look’, then, is similar, but not the same; abuses are similar, if not quite the same; the droit du seigneur seems eminently credible, perhaps more so than before.

Susanna (Charlotte Schoeters)
However, none of that is hammered home. The political is present, yet, as with the librettist’s – let us leave the composer on one side, just for the moment – adaptation of Beaumarchais, it offers the framework for a human drama, rather than the crux of it. (One can say that, I think, without having to take refuge in the chimera of the ‘timeless’, without claiming that a production should not take a more political stance.) For Suzman, ‘an updated Figaro urges us to take another long look at the fate of the female protagonists, rather than resigning ourselves to their classically sanctioned fate.’ And that seems a good defence of updating and relocating in general. It is handsomely done, Fotini Dimou’s designs lending an air of faded grandeur, again without exaggeration, and Jake Wiltshire’s lighting doing what it should, especially for the garden in the fourth act. Above all, Suzman helps make these characters credible. They are busy, without that ‘busy-ness’ becoming an end in itself, as in the irritating Upstairs Downstairs quality to David McVicar’s Royal Opera staging. The difference between Mozart as composer of opera seria and Mozart as composer of opera buffa can be exaggerated, or relied upon as a substitute for engagement, but production and performance truly imparted a sense of what is wondrous and perhaps new here.
The Countess (Emily Garland)

For it was in the performances themselves that, quite rightly, the magic truly lay. Charlotte Schoeters and Božidar Smiljanić presented a lively, in no sense caricatured – as can sometimes be the danger with buffo characters – Susanna and Figaro. One felt their emotions almost as if they were one’s own, appreciated their knowingness – and their ignorance. Henry Neill, looking like a younger version of Jorge Bolet, at times perhaps seemed a little too young, but if the worst plaint one has is of youth, it is hardly serious. He captured Almaviva’s mood-swings well, and his lechery, without that descending into the unwanted realm of farce. His Countess, Emily Garland, enchanted on an operatic – with or without inverted commas – scale, intimate and grander gestures at one with her character and that character’s predicament. This was a worthy successor performance to her Suor Angelica earlier this year. Cherubinos rarely disappoint; it is such a gift of a mezzo role. That, however, is no reason to overlook a success such as that of Katherine Aitken, every moment of her performance, whether musically or acting, alive to the moment. Every member of the cast shone, and yet was very much part of a larger whole. To mention just two others, Claire Barnett-Jones carried off the burden of age with great success as Marcellina, whilst Lorna Paz Nieto made the most of her small role – a role which yet, so often, imprints itself upon the memory – as Barbarina. Diction was without exception excellent; one could have taken dictation, both verbal and musical.

Last but certainly not least, Jane Glover and the Royal Academy Sinfonia played Mozart’s score to the manoir born. I do not think I have heard such consummate conducting of Figaro since the late Sir Colin Davis. Glover never drew attention to herself, always sounded at Mozart’s service, and brought the music to life with a knowledge and wisdom that can only come with years of acquaintance. Her orchestra was crisp, warm, exciting, beguiling, knowing, innocent: all of those necessary things and more. It commented upon and partook in the action in equal measure, structure and ‘expression’ as one. Despite relatively small forces (, this was a proudly full-sounding ensemble, eminently capable of filling the theatre. So, I think, was this evening as a whole. If you still have chance, do what you can to beg, borrow, or steal a ticket. Otherwise, we shall hear May Night next term and, as Glover’s farewell as Director of Opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea in the summer.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Kopatchinskaja/LPO/Stenz - Beethoven, Larcher, and Stravinsky, 28 October 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.1 in C major, op.21
Thomas Larcher – Violin Concerto
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Markus Stenz (conductor)

This was a refreshing concert from the LPO and Markus Stenz, with one work entirely new to me, and two works I might have feared I knew too well, given thought-provoking performances. Stenz’s approach to Beethoven’s First Symphony struck me from the outset as refreshingly un-ideological, save for the puzzling use of natural trumpets (though not horns, I had assumed that to be a quirk of Vladimir Jurowski, but maybe it is an LPO ‘thing’ instead). A spruce and precise first movement, particularly impressive with respect to accents and crescendi, did not, at least on occasion, lack weight. It was certainly more ‘Classical’ than Wagnerian, but there is no one way to perform this music. I should not have minded more vibrato from the strings, but at least it was not absent. If Haydn’s spirit had come to the fore structurally and motivically in that movement, Stenz’s shaping of the opening theme in the second and indeed the progress of the movement as a whole proved strikingly Mozartian: a different sort of complexity, often overlooked in Beethoven. I thought in particular of the slow movement of the Jupiter Symphony, but that was far from the only kinship suggested. Kettledrums nevertheless reminded us that this could only be Beethoven (or perhaps Haydn). My only complaint was that the orchestra sounded a little as if it were being pressed to sound ‘small-scale’, as if it were inhibited by something. There was no doubt whatsoever that the third movement was a true Beethoven scherzo; it sounded the most ‘advanced’ of the four. Its trio was graceful, though no less Beethovenian, for all the reminiscence of ‘bucolic’ Haydn. A splendidly teasing introduction to the finale captured its vocal and jesting quality. The movement possessed many of the virtues of the first, sounding lithe and lively. Excitement was musical rather than something imposed upon the music. Ultimately, this was a performance that made me think.

Thomas Larcher’s frankly tonal Violin Concerto was not quite what I had been expecting, and the surprise again set me thinking. In two movements, it was written for Isabelle Faust, who have its first performance in 2009; here, the dazzlingly virtuosic, although not always tonally ingratiating, Patricia Kopatchinskaja was the estimable soloist. The first movement’s opening slow section offers an interesting combination of music-box sonorities and persistent, almost yet not quite minimalistic simplicity. The repeated E minor arpeggio put me in mind, a tone up, of the opening of The Art of Fugue: as if Bach were unable to get going and simply went around in a loop. (I have no reason to think that that is anything other than my own association.) The abruptness of change to the second section of this movement is striking – and was so too in performance. Tempo (very fast), sonority, harmony, rhythm: pretty much everything changes really, certainly the need, met with verve, for soloistic virtuosity. The close returns to the mood and material of the opening. ‘Romantic’ does not seem quite the right word for the second movement; nor does it seem entirely wrong (at least, I should stress, upon a single hearing, and without having seen the score). There is a hint of the ecstatic, which, despite its clear German Romantic roots, also put me in mind, perhaps arbitrarily, of Vaughan Williams. Pictorial virtuosity seems a particular hallmark of the violin writing. There is a strong narrative thrust, powerfully conveyed by Stenz and Kopatchinskaja. The close again returns to the arpeggio material and the general mood of the opening to the concerto, although it seems, quite deliberately, incomplete: perhaps deconstructed, perhaps not.

A performance of The Rite of Spring should always be an ‘occasion’; it certainly was here. As with the Beethoven, Stenz had clearly thought long and hard about the work. There was nothing routine to his interpretation; it undoubtedly had a logic and character of its own, without trying to be ‘different’ for the sake of it. There was menace in the slightly unusual drawn-out quality (a notable hairpin in particular) to Jonathan Davies’s opening bassoon solo. The teeming strangeness of what followed from the woodwind section really sounded as if being heard with fresh ears. Different sections of the work offered marked contrast, perhaps occasionally at the expense of a longer line, but also reflecting a strikingly balletic approach. That approach was reflected not only in sharply defined rhythm, such as one could imagine having helped the hapless corps on that notorious premiere, but as strong a kinship to the Petersburg colours of Petrushka as I can recall having heard. This was ‘Russian’, yes, but without stereotype. More ‘purely’ musical matters were not neglected. Stravinsky’s cellular method and his screwing up of dramatic tension were admirably conveyed, with a striking sense of theatre. The LPO brass’s screams straightforwardly demanded one’s attention. Some electronic intervention from an audience member proved an unwanted interloper in what should have been silence prior to the ‘Dance of the Earth’. The weirdness of the opening to the Second Part seemed more clearly than ever to refer back to where it had all begun, at the beginning of the First Part. By the same token, and this combination intrigued, there was very much a world-weary quality: perhaps not unusual in itself, but at least a little so in its degree, which even had me think of the Prelude to the Third Act of Parsifal. (Sorry, Stravinsky, but your Wagnerian inheritance was never shaken off quite so readily as you might have wished to claim.) As the music proceeded, there was again nothing routine to be heard. Stenz seemed to have rethought the music as a conscientious performer should naturally do. Throughout, it was the spirit of the Ballets Russes and of theatre in general that was most intriguingly apparent.

Orfeo (Rossi), Royal Opera, 23 October 2015

Photographs by Stephen Cummiskey; copyright: Royal Opera and Shakespeare's Globe.
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

(sung in English, as Orpheus)

Orfeo – Mary Bevan/Siobhan Stagg
Euridice – Louise Alder
Aristeo – Caitlin Hulcup
Endimione/Caronte – Philip Smith
Venere – Sky Ingram
Amore – Keri Fuge
Satyr/Pluto – Graeme Broadbent
Giove/Aikippe/Momo – Mark Milhofer
Aegea – Verena Gunz
Talia/Himeneo/Clotho – Lauren Fagan
Euphrosyne/Lachesis – Jennifer Davis
Aeglea/Atropos/Bacco – Emily Edmonds

Keith Warner (director)
Nicky Shaw (designs)
Karl Alfred Schreiner (choreography)

Orchestra of the Early Opera Company
Christian Curnyn (conductor)
Romain Rolland crops up in all manner of musical situations. His appearance here is owed to his discovery in 1888, in Rome, of the music for Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo; it would subsequently feature in his doctoral thesis, ‘Les Origines du théâtre lyrique moderne. Histoire de l'opéra avant Lully et Scarlatti.’ As well it should, and thank goodness he did. For this opera, long regarded as ‘historically important’, is also – the two do not always go together – a very attractive, interesting work for modern audiences too. It is ‘historically important’ both musicologically – the first opera written for Paris, with all that entails – and more politically, as part of Cardinal Mazarin’s Italianisation of the French court, on the eve of the Frondes. Moreover, in its musical quality and variety too it questions some of what remain the more commonly held teleologies of musical history, which is all to the good.

Euridice (Louise Alder) and Aristeo (Caitlin Hulcup)

None of those matters is especially evident in Keith Warner’s production, which concentrates not upon the metatheatrical but upon the immediate theatricalities of presenting an entertaining and often surprising three hours in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from Francesco Buti’s challengingly wide-ranging libretto. There will always be losses – at least in a work worth performing – in such an enterprise, but I suspect most of us can live, especially in a production not really concerned with such matters, with the loss of the Prologue and Epilogue. So out go the large-scale – twenty-four French solider – choruses of military victory, Mercury’s promise of immortality to the young Louis XIV, the god’s post hoc explanation that Orpheus’s lyre represents the fleur-de-lys, and so on. What we have is a non-pedantic, non-fetishistic period-ish look – not unreasonable, given the location – which concentrates upon creation of character, interaction of characters, and a good deal, perhaps too much, of unsuspected comedy. Christopher Cowell’s excellent English translation – if we must have one, it should be good – perhaps errs on the ‘humorous’ side too, but that is more a matter of taste than anything else. Warner and Cowell, along with Nicky Shaw’s sumptuous costume designs and, of course, the hard, often overlooked work of the costume makers from the Royal Opera House and Shakespeare’s Globe, bring alive a version and view of the work that may be partial – what is not? – but which, by the same token, and in far smaller surroundings than the Palais Royal gives a sense of its multi-faceted nature.


Satyr (Graeme Broadbent)
I have it on good authority that the Playhouse acoustic is a nightmare for singers. One would not have known, given committed performances from all concerned. Mary Bevan’s indisposition left her acting the title role with Siobhan Stagg singing from the gallery (with the orchestra). The ‘compromise’ did not come across as such at all, at least to my eyes and ears; it offered musico-theatrical commitment of a very high order and introduced – to me, at least – a soprano of considerable musical gifts, showing clarity and warmth to be anything but antithetical. The same could be said of Louise Alder’s Euridice, here allotted a larger role than one often encounters, not least because of the business involving Aristeus’s love for her and Venus’s attempts to further that forlorn prospect. Alder is, I hear, a Rosenkavalier Sophie, and, on the basis of this, is likely to prove more interesting in the part than many ‘whiter’ exponents. Caitlin Hulcup’s portrayal of Aristeus showed an artist apparently born for trouser roles (although doubtless not just for them), with a winning, convincing line in melancholy vulnerability. There was, crucially in an opera with so many duets and ensembles, a true sense of theatrical company from all concerned, with sensible doublings – and more – adopted. Standing out from the rest of the cast for me were Sky Ingram’s sexy, self-aware Venus, Keri Fuge's lively, mischievous Cupid, Graeme Broadbent’s earthy Satyr, and Mark Milhofer’s comedic, Cavalli-esque turn as Alkippe (Venus as crone).


Venere (Sky Ingram)
The acoustic also seemed to favour the Orchestra of the Early Opera Company, warmer and far less variable in intonation than it had been for the Royal Opera’s Monteverdi Orfeo at the Roundhouse. Players and conductor, Christian Curnyn, seemed in their element, the continuo group rich and varied, and the strings sounding lighter of foot and considerably less parsimonious of expression than one generally hears with ‘period groups’. Curnyn’s tempi seemed both sensible and dramatically quickening (perhaps in more than one sense). The orchestra was very small: not remotely on the scale of the French court’s Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi, but then the performing space was not the Palais Royal either. The authenticke lobby makes it up as it goes along, of course. There is nothing especially wrong with that, except if the claim of ‘authenticity’, be made, overtly or covertly. However, imagine the outcry from the period ayatollahs if a modern-instrument performance were so flagrantly to disregard antiquarian circumstances. There would certainly be calls to send a latter-day Raymond Leppard to The Hague (‘crimes evincing a semblance of humanity’ perhaps). Except there would not, since the chances of our being permitted to hear such a performance are – well: choose your own absurdist simile.

Amore (Keri Fuge)

This was, all in all, an excellent evening, yet I could not help but wonder what delights a larger-scale, arguably more ‘authentic’ performance and production – sets of parks, gardens, caves, Hades made quite an impression in 1647 – might have brought on the Royal Opera’s main stage itself. (Not that I resented the opportunity to spend an evening in this beautifully reimagined playhouse.) Perhaps with a newly-commissioned reorchestration. Berio would once have been the man for it; there are many composers who would surely relish the opportunity. Such dreams aside, however, three cheers to the Royal Opera for expanding its repertoire in such a stimulating direction.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Lighthouse, Royal Opera (Jette Parker Young Artists), 22 October 2015

Samuel Sakker as First Officer, Yuriy Yurchuk as Second Officer. David Shipley as Third Officer. All images: (C) ROH. Photographer: Clive Barda
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Sandy, First Officer – Samuel Sakker
Blazes, Second Officer – Yuriy Yurchuk
Arthur, Third Office – David Shipley

Greg Eldridge (director)
Alyson Cummins (designs)
Warren Letton (lighting)
Jo Meredith (movement)

Southbank Sinfonia
Jonathan Santagada (conductor)
Peter Maxwell Davies’s chamber opera, The Lighthouse, made an excellent showcase for three singers from the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. More to the point, they made an excellent case for the opera, which has been fortunate indeed in London over the past few years.

The opera, as I wrote when reviewing English Touring Opera’s 2012 production, has the gripping quality of a superior detective – and ghost – story. Inspired, as the cliché has it, by a true story, in this case an account from Craig Mair’s A Star for Seamen: The Stevenson Family of Engineers, the opera’s unsettling mix of courtroom drama, in almost modern televisual terms, and all-too-real (or is it?) Revelation-style apocalypticism presents both narrative and self-critique, verbally and musically. It makes sense out of, or at least deals with contradictory ‘truths’ – and the magpie tendencies, which yet synthesise, of Davies’s score lie at the heart of that achievement. Words and music from characters in ensemble come together to present something that may or may not be more or less truthful than what it is they and we think they are saying individually. The difficulties of the three men’s relationship – they have been penned together for several months – is menacingly conveyed, though not without affection either. Parody is present, of course, most evidently in the reimagination of the ballads – a street variety from Blazes and Sandy’s sickly drawing-room version – and hymns. Arthur is the sort of pig-headed Protestant fundamentalist who has always drawn Davies’s ire, but there is an element again of affection, such as memories so often bring in spite of themselves, as well as anger in Davies’s presentation and subversion of the hymn tunes. The rhythm of the closing automation – ‘The lighthouse is now automatic,’ we hear at the end of the Prologue – sounded as stubbornly memorable as ever in this performance from the Southbank Sinfonia and Jonathan Santagada.


Their performance had been a little hesitant at first. Indeed, a lack of definition at times, mostly from the strings, had made the Prologue drag somewhat. There were no such problems in ‘The Cry of the Beast’, in which the players and Santagada seemed very much in their element, a far more colourful and rhythmically alert performance. In that screwing up of dramatic tension, the orchestra seemed at one with Greg Eldridge’s period staging: straightforwardly presented, yet seething with menace later on. Alyson Cummins’s designs proved a major contributor, likewise Warren Letton’s lighting; in Eldridge’s words, he and his designer had ‘tried to capture the dichotomy between the naturalistic action and the heavy supernatural elements present throughout the score. In the world of the music everything is metaphor and this sis a theme that we have continued in our design. Everything on the stage … is physically real … but also serves a representative purpose that underscores a symbolic element of the story.’

Within that staging – that imprisonment, we might say – our singers brought the drama to life. Samuel Sakker’s lyric tenor covered an array of musico-psychological states as Sandy. He even pulled off the difficult trick of questionable singing – in the ballad – as character portrayal, rather than from inability to sing it ‘right’. Yuriy Yurchuk’s diction was on occasion a little occluded, yet for the most part his was a powerful performance as Blazes, again encompassing a good deal of musical and dramatic virtuosity (to refer to a concept the composer has suggested is necessary, and surely is). David Shipley’s Arthur was possessed of as well as by frightening fanaticism, all founded upon a splendidly deep bass voice. Interaction between all three soloists was convincing throughout. I look forward to hearing them again.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Orchestre de Paris/Salonen - Bartók, 21 October 2015

Philharmonie, Paris
Dance Suite, Sz.77
Concerto for two pianos and percussion, Sz.115
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116

Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos)
Camille Baslé, Eric Sammut (percussion)
Orchestre de Paris
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Yes, the new Parisian Philharmonie is a thing of wonder, especially when lit at night. Walking across the Parc de la Villette, I happened to be there just at the moment when the lighting, as if by magic, was turned on. Resplendent as a craggy mineral, the jewel-fancier’s find of the century, from the outside, the hall and its acoustic put any London counterparts to shame; as, of course, do the acoustics of so many. (Chamber music is, of course, another matter entirely.) This is the sort of thing London so desperately needs; alas, should we see a new hall, the City of London’s claim seems already a done deal. A new cultural quarter, perhaps in the East, say at Stratford, well connected by Tube, rail, and bus, would be a real Olympic ‘legacy’. Cue hollow laughter. Trident calls.

In this, my first visit, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Orchestre de Paris in an all-Bartók programme. I was struck at the opening of the Dance Suite by the bassoon sound, as if a French instrument of old. However, the dominant orchestral sound, that of the strings in particular, was surprisingly Germanic. Salonen’s conducting seemed to match that: surprisingly dark and, at times, deliberate. Then it came to life in the second movement, not unlike The Rite of Spring’s defrosting. Debussyan languor was another surprise, not at all unwelcome, visitor. The suite came across, then, in strikingly cosmopolitan manner. One heard at times a more traditionally ‘Hungarian’ accent, but it was one among many. What a joy, however, it was to hear this work, so often the province of chamber orchestras, played with such large forces. And how, in this acoustic, the final chord resounded!

The Labèque sisters joined orchestra percussionists., Camille Baslé and Eric Sammut for Bartók’s orchestral version of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. My reaction was much the same as when I have heard it in concerto form before; I do not mind the orchestral presence, but ultimately, do not feel that it adds so much, and should rather hear the ‘original’. The Labèques did ‘creepy’ well, for instance at the opening of the first movement; their percussionist colleagues played with masterly precision. However, much of the performance – who was in charge here? The pianists or the conductor? – seemed to sprawl somewhat: full of incident, but where was the direction? In the moment, though, soloists elicited sparks from each other, the layout and the hall permitting a welcome sense of spatial effect. Nocturnal mystery was palpable in the second movement, although again line was not always so apparent. Joyous contrast was the hallmark of the finale, almost as if this were Haydn reimagined. Bartók’s musical procedures spoke clearly; so did what they emotionally amounted to. The close was delightfully nonchalant.

It was the Concerto for Orchestra, however, which proved the highlight of the concert. Its opening offered dark, weighty sound from cellos and basses, deepened by the hall acoustic. The violin and flute response sounded almost frozen. Violas added warmth to the lower strings – a hint of the orchestral recitative in the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – and one heard, as it were, the full orchestra gradually come into being. Brass imparted if not quite yet a sense of arrival, then at least of a crucial staging-post. Salonen’s tempi here and indeed throughout the work were highly varied, with some of the deliberation that had marked the Dance Suite but also some more conventional ‘excitement’. The second movement proceeded similarly, albeit with its own instrumental character. I especially liked the grave yet rounded beauty of the Parisian trombones and horns, and of course the trio of bassoons, wonderfully fruity. Salonen’s view of the third movement fascinated. It emerged in strikingly cellular, quasi-Stravinskian fashion, with an almost Mahlerian pathos at its heart, assisted by great depth of string tone. This Elegy truly sang as a song of grief. That grief seemed to carry through into the shockingly vehement opening of the fourth movement. Then the clouds suddenly lifted, although the shadows were, perhaps inevitably, not entirely dispelled. Salonen was in no hurry here; the time given for the violas to sing was especially welcome. But it was not so slow overall, rather varied. The Lehár/Shostakovich deliberate banality hinted, enigmatically, at catastrophe. An enigma it yet remained. The finale offered the excitement of culmination and climax, sounding new, even equivocal at times, in this particular performative context. Tempi were again highly flexible; string tone again proved wonderfully deep. Bartók’s genius, never in doubt, felt nevertheless reaffirmed.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Moses und Aron, Opéra national de Paris, 20 October 2015

Images: © Bernd Uhlig

Opéra Bastille

Moses – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Aron – John Graham-Hall
Young Maiden – Julie Davies
Sick Woman – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Young Man – Nicky Spence
Naked Youth – Michael Pflumm
Man – Chae Wook Lim
Another Man, Ephraimite – Christopher Purves
Priest – Ralf Lukas
Four Naked Virgins – Julie Davies, Maren Favela, Valentina Kutzarova, Elena Suvorova
Three Elders – Shin Jae Kim, Olivier Ayault, Jian-Hong Zhao
Six Solo Voices – Béatrice Malleret, Isabelle Wnorowska-Pluchart, Marie-Cécile Chevassus, John Bernard, Chae Wook Lim, Julien Joguet

Romeo Castellucci (director, designs, lighting)
Cindy van Acker (choreography)
Silvia Costa (artistic collaboration)
Piersandra di Matteo, Christian Longchamp (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Opéra national de Paris and Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine Children’s Choir of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus masters: José Luis Basso and Alessandro di Stefano)
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

Moses und Aron remains a ‘special’ work, not unlike Parsifal. There are good reasons for that; as a greatly distinguished exponent of both dramas, Pierre Boulez, pointed out when at work on Parsifal at Bayreuth, Wagner was quite right to loath ‘opera houses … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: ‘One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!’ Such was not merely an offence to the composer’s amour propre, but testament to Wagner’s works’ incompatibility with existing theatrical conventions and norms. Likewise what, Parsifal included, must surely be the most theological of all operas, Schoenberg’s unfinished, most likely unfinishable, masterpiece. There are bad reasons too, though. I have lost count of the times I have heard claims that Schoenberg is ‘box office poison’, or some other such drivel. I could not see an empty seat in the vast Bastille amphitheatre; likewise, the Royal Opera House was full, not a seat remaining, for Welsh National Opera’s two performances in London last year. Stockhausen’s Mittwoch in Birmingham sold out even more quickly.


The allegedly ‘realistic’ guardians of the ‘possible’, Fafner-like protectors of the strangely uncompelling operatic repertoire and its practices, are no more to be trusted than their political counterparts, still screaming ‘unelectable’ at Jeremy Corbyn, long after his election has procured the Labour Party more new members than the Conservative Party has existing ones. If you do not want to stage Schoenberg or Stockhausen; if you do not want Corbyn to lead your (or someone else’s) party: fine, give your reasons for doing so. Such disingenuousness might have fooled the crowd, easily swayed as Schoenberg’s Children of Israel show, for a while. No longer. Sometimes the impossible is fruitfully impossible, as the apophatic theology of Moses suggests; most of the time, it is simply the weapon of those in power.

The only way to perform such works is, of course, to do them proud. There could be no gainsaying the achievement of the Opéra national de Paris in this case: a fitting achievement in its own right, but also a clear statement of intent from its new leadership under Stéphane Lissner. Signs matter, as Aron would counsel; so, too, does Moses’ Idea. Both are present here, in Romeo Castellucci’s thoughtful production, which opens up mental possibilities rather than closing them down. (Presumably, that is what, as usual, the fascist booing contingent objected to; if they do not wish to be made to think, Schoenberg might not be for them.)


The first act takes place in front of and, mostly, behind a white curtain, the characters – if we may call them that: somehow it does not quite seem the right word – in white too, although Moses is sometimes black. (Who is he? Or, as the Chorus will ask, where is Moses? Is he the Moses we know from the Bible, Freud’s putative non-Jewish Moses, an all-purpose founding father/Lycurgus, a dictator? How mutually exclusive are those identities?) Moses hears the Voice of the opening, prior to language (prior even to the nonsense language of the Rhinemaidens, for this is the Almighty Himself) and receives his inspiration (as an artist) or his command (as a politico-religious leader) in the clearer light of what we might call day, even if it be darker – one of many dialectics at work here – than the all-too-light world of obscurity, which may or may not be its opposite, or negation. The wilderness of the first act, the strange, flock-like behaviour of the Israelites (sheep, of course, are white, or black…) is an object of dim, perhaps in more than one sense, perception by us – and, one suspects, by those participating too. The commands God issues via Moses – if indeed Moses has not interpreted them himself – are, we should remember, unpresentable, incomprehensible, negatively defined; which is why it seems that we might need Aron in the first place. Words appear in front of the curtain: prohibitions? Some of them, doubtless. Others have more of an unclear status, just like most of what is written in, say, Leviticus, for most of us. To begin with, we can ‘process’ them, even if we cannot understand quite why they are there, or how we should act upon them. Eventually, we can take in but a few, if any, so quickly do they come and go: ‘information overload’.

Red seeps in briefly, via the mysterious, mystifying technology – God at work, or the necessary curse of modern communication and its theory? – that follows upon the initially comprehensible conjuring trick of Aron’s rod. As the Book of Numbers has it, ‘And it shall come to pass, that the man's rod, whom I shall choose, shall blossom.’ But we still have to trust both God, Moses, Aron, and probably their popular reception for that; should we? After all, there is not a single agent, perhaps with the exception of the Divinity – although, as with Kant, how can we know? – which does not err, which does not mislead. (Yes, Moses, that includes you.) Red is blood, Aron tells us, and the technology and – still white – costumes suggest something medical. But is this another conjuring trick? Is it perhaps even the Red Sea, a reminder – to what end? – of Pharoah and the Egypt in which many might place prince Moses himself?


Black enters. Or rather re-enters, for it had initially appeared as tape reel from which Moses had initially heard the Voice. Recording is a difficult business in itself; what is it we hear when we hear, say, Boulez conducting Moses und Aron at home? Philosophical questions, perhaps unanswerable, yet which cannot go unasked, continue to present themselves. Commandments, as any reader of the Pentateuch will tell us, issue thick and fast, perhaps too thick and fast. The thickness and the fastness confuse, capture, even enslave: tape here is black rather than red. Its sacerdotal quality is confirmed by its colouristic alliance – Holy Alliance? mésalliance? false friend? Again, how do we know? The epistemological challenge of Moses und Aron… – with the black which increasingly invades the stage and all but Moses in the second act, the obscuring curtain now vanished, drama as more conventionally understood to the fore. Whatever the tar-like liquid might be to Castellucci’s painterly imagination, and sometimes paint is just paint, even oil is just oil, its emergence from and apparent subsidence into, religious marking, from an undeniable achievement, however uneasy, of instrumental reason, marks an Adornian negative dialectic it would be willful to ignore.


The totemic object of worship – is it Aron, in fetishistic black, ‘fetish’ both old and new in our understanding? Or is it the (real) bull, apparently having undergone several weeks of dodecaphonic training prior to appearing on stage, and mysteriously disappearing from stage? – is bound to fail; we know that. And yet, we cannot write off – as Moses would do in anger with the words inscribed upon his tablets? – what has happened during Moses’ absence. Nor should we. Collapse suggests a Wizard of Oz, or a new lease of life and death for the Feuerbachian psychology of religion so enthusiastically adopted by Wagner, and so ambiguously retained even unto Parsifal. Aron, the people have made this new god; that is what modern politics and communications do; it is what ancient politics and communications did too. The (recorded) word of a one, true God might have triumphed briefly, just as Orpheus might once have tamed whatever and whomever it was he tamed, but the rest will not have gone away. Politics and religion, art too: are they destined, Beckett-like, to end in failure?


The religious rituals we have seen in the meantime, something akin to baptism – the River Jordan come early? – included, seem to have had meaning, but did they perhaps have none at all? Schoenberg and Castellucci continue to answer questions with questions. Not quite Socratic, but not entirely un-Socratic either: perhaps more dialectically Wagnerian? I always smile when I see Schoenberg’s marking of an ‘erotic orgy’. What would an ‘unerotic orgy’ be? A failure? Well, yes, but are both perhaps not failures; what would be success? There is nothing of the crowd-pleasingly ‘erotic’ or, alternatively, of its conservative-crowd-repelling alternative, to what we see on stage; it is restrained, perhaps or perhaps not an acknowledgement of the idolatry of artistic representation. The ritual around the Golden Calf that is not golden seems almost more akin to Parsifal, although I do not of course intend to imply that there is nothing of the erotic to Wagner’s drama. The excess, the twelve-note Meyerbeerian tendencies of the Orgy are countered both scenically and musico-theologically: the row remains, as do the controlling hands of the conductor, the director, and, dare one suggest, I AM.


Is this partial? Of course it is. But so, equally was the saturation in gold – colour, and the lucre of advertising – of Reto Nickler’s production for the Vienna State Opera (available on DVD). Perhaps a production has to be partial; indeed, it must almost certainly be so. Perhaps, as with the work itself, part of the greatness here lies in failure, in the modernistic fragment. Ours is a fractured, fragmented world, which longs all the more for unity, and might sometimes delude itself into believing it has once again found it. Visions of decidedly un-Sinai like, perhaps Alpine mountains appear like a kitschy mirage, inviting the acrobatic attempt at scaling we witness, still more so inviting the failure and collapse we know to be forthcoming. Is the tent-like image remaining a hint at the religion to come, at tabernacles and temples from which the instrumental reason, domination, and murder of the nation will come?

We do not, then, know entirely what is going on, and that is clearly the point, or part of it, or is it? We can certainly tell that what we are seeing is what the director intends to see; even when ‘meaningless’, this is not ‘merely’ arbitrary. Is that subsequent doubt part of the point? And so on, and so forth. If Adorno and Horkheimer, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, charted the domination of instrumental reason since Homer, did Schoenberg and does Castellucci attempt something similar since Moses? Such might indeed be understood to be part of the meaning of Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music. And to hear so stunningly played a performance of the orchestral music furthered that understanding further.

For this was an astonishing musical achievement from Philippe Jordan and the orchestra of the Paris Opéra: on top form, indeed magnificent form. (With the best will in the world, the smaller forces of WNO last summer at Covent Garden could not begin to match it, estimable though their performance was on its own terms.) I am not sure I have heard a conductor stress the individual nature of scenes and their subdivisions so much as Jordan, suggesting something a little closer to the closed forms of Berg in Wozzeck than I had ever contemplated. ‘Right’ or ‘wrong’, it convinced. There was Wagnerian chamber music, which yet had more than a little hint of the allegedly more ‘autonomous’ writing of works such as Schoenberg’s Serenade, op.24 and the Variations for Orchestra, op.31, and even perhaps of Hindemith, certainly of Bachian counterpoint. (Listen to Götterdämmerung from, say, Karajan or Boulez, or look at the score, if you doubt the preponderance of chamber writing in Schoenberg’s great musico-dramatic predecessor.) There were Viennese waltzes, of all degrees of straightness, evoking Mahler, Berg, even the ‘Marzipanmeister’, as Schoenberg once denounced him, Richard Strauss, although not necessarily in his case with fondness. There was all manner of orchestral colour, especially, although not only, in the Golden Calf Scene; the mandolins (Florentino Calvo and Cécile Duvot) registered more strongly with me than I can previously call, again evoking Schoenberg’s Serenade, but also Mahler, not least his attempt at religious synthesis in the Eighth Symphony. And it was the opening of the ‘Adagio’ to the Tenth Symphony which inevitably came to mind in the closing unison. What should we make of that? A gateway to another musical world? A recognition of the necessity and yet impossibility of further synthesis? The more committed the performance of Moses, the more negative the way that both opens up and vanishes.


Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Moses was stentorian, his stage and vocal presence seemingly one physical and intellectual whole. Tragically flawed, noble yet with all the dangers increasingly apparent of charismatic leadership, shading into dictatorship, we saw and heard on one level a political parable all-too-familiar to Schoenberg – and to us too, with æsthetic consequences just as important. It was not only Walter Benjamin who warned of the ‘æstheticisation of politics’. And it was certainly not only a danger, however superior the æsthetics might have been, for Schoenberg’s time. Mayer’s diction, as with that of everyone else on stage, was beyond reproach; his pitch, insofar as that were an issue for the notoriously thorny, negatively ‘unanswerable’ question of Sprechstimme, seemed to me pretty impressive too.

That was the case also for John Graham-Hall’s Aron. We think of Graham-Hall as a ‘character’ tenor, a Basilio or a Monastatos, yet his repertoire is far more varied than that, and who would want a ‘non-character’ tenor? (Sadly, many do.) Aron has been portrayed by tenors of many varieties, including bel canto ‘specialists’ – the reality is always more complex – such as Chris Merritt, for Boulez no less, and of course many a Heldentenor. A great strength of Graham-Hall’s performance was his complexity; Aron emerged more as a chameleon than one often sees – or hears. He could adapt, marshal his resources to the situation. Even at the moment of apparent defeat, a Mime-like obsequiousness or infantilism, immediately following upon Moses’ outburst, resolved itself into some of Aron’s initial composure, faith, and/or advocacy.

The power relationship, then, continually shifted, according to circumstances. That was just as much the case for the relationships between the two principal characters and others, whether soloists or the chorus. There was not a weak link, and the nature of the work is such that other soloists do not really stand out; that is not to gainsay their achievement. However, there was a triumph at least on the level of that of the orchestra from the chorus. It is difficult to overstate the task a chorus faces in taking on this immense part, or rather these immense parts. José Luis Basso and his deputy, Alessandro di Stefano, had clearly done their work with a thoroughness one rarely encounters, and which, in the modern opera house, is rarely permitted. So had the singers themselves. They seemed capable of doing whatever they were asked, whether by composer, by conductor, by chorus master, or by director. That, of course, contributed immeasurably to the success of their performance, and to the questions such ‘success’ continues to ask of us. If authority can achieve so much, that is both, as Moses und Aron acknowledges, a cause for celebration and a staging-point to catastrophe.


Saturday, 17 October 2015

Ramgobin/Melos Sinfonia/Zeffman - Zisser, Mahler, and Beethoven, 16 October 2015

Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s

Na’ama Zisser – Space melts like sand running through fingers (world premiere)
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Ross Ramgobin (baritone)
Melos Sinfonia
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)

An excellent concert from the Melos Sinfonia, opening with the world premiere performance of Na’ama Zisser’s Space melts like sand running through fingers, its title taken from a book by George Perec, the starting point, according to the composer, ‘the way in which we remember spaces that are close to us, and how these change in our memory over time’. That made sense when one heard the short, mostly quiet piece, helping to structure one’s listening.  Opening with just strings, other instruments joined, creating a sound that initially suggested minimalism, but soon became harmonically more interesting than that. Shards, clusters came and went, not unlike, at least on the surface, the Ligeti of Lontano, although without its extremes (or its huge orchestra). Perhaps there was a little neo-Romanticism to be heard too.

Ross Ramgobin, whose work I admired more than once at the Royal Academy, joined the orchestra for Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. First came ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’. Oliver Zeffman drew from the orchestra a bright, magical sound at its opening, Ramgobin singing his part with Italianate legato and excellent German diction. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’ was taken urgently, with less emphasis upon the legato line and more upon the way the words inform the vocal line: quite an appropriate distinction to have made between the two songs. The sense of orchestral magic remained. A more Romantic sound was to be heard from the Melos Sinfonia in ‘Liebst du am Schönheit,’ as orchestrated by Max Puttmann, Ramgobin reverting to a more aria-like style. Darkness was the hallmark of both vocal and orchestral performance in ‘Um Mitternacht. Ramgobin’s powerful, somewhat operatic delivery was matched by resplendent brass. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhandedn gekommen’ was placed last, ideally paced, the vocal line imbued with but not overburdened by meaning. Some especially beautiful woodwind playing and a nice piece of closing violin portamento were not the least of the instrumental delights. There then came quite a surprise: as a nod to Frank Sinatra’s centenary, an encore performance of I’ve got you under my skin. Both orchestra (luscious string vibrato and all) and soloist sounded quite in their element, as if this were their staple fare.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony offers an altogether sterner sort of test, of course, one I am happy to say was handled very well indeed. The introduction to the first movement offered a near-ideal blend of spaciousness and forward motion, attack and precision, with excellent balance too. Zeffman handled the transition to the exposition very well, Beethoven’s harmony doing just the work it should, and ensured the exposition itself was lively without being harried. Rhythm was not treated, as too often it is, as something that stands alone, although it retained a very strong force all the same.  There was highly commendable clarity too; this is clearly a conductor who cares for balance. The development seemed over all too quickly, the composer’s concision apparent for all to hear, and there was true mystery to the recapitulation, even before that coda. The Allegretto was clearly, cleanly articulated, without sacrifice to its essential mystery. Zeffman’s tempo was quick (at least for my taste) yet convincing. Initial low string vibrato proved a tool of expression rather than of dogma, permitting the section’s music to blossom thereafter – and how it did! There was consolation to be heard too, as well as icy chill, from the wind. The scherzo was vigorous, very fast, but never sounding too fast. Zeffman allowed the trio to relax considerably, at least by fashionable standards, and thus to evince true grandeur. It was only in the finale that I occasionally felt myself a little out of sympathy – but then I have felt the same even with Bernard Haitink. Here I missed a more malleable approach to tempo, seemingly wedded as I am to performances such as those of Furtwängler and Barenboim. On its own terms, however, the performance remained mightily impressive, with truly commanding playing and conducting. Zeffman’s insistence on a rock-solid tempo was, moreover, relaxed towards the close, with an accelerando of which either of those favoured conductors of mine might have approved. Joy, then, was quite rightly the overriding sentiment to the close.