Monday, 15 October 2018

Passion, Music Theatre Wales, 13 October 2018

(sung in English)

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Images: Clive Barda
Jennifer France (Her) and National Dance Company Wales

Her – Jennifer France
Him – Johnny Herford
Dancers – Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Nikita Goile, Ed Myhill, Julia Rieder, Malik Williams, Queenie Maidment-Otlet

Michael McCarthy, Caroline Finn (co-directors)
Simon Banham (designs)
Joe Fletcher (lighting)

Sound Intermedia (sound design, after original concept by Thierry Cudoys)
London Sinfonietta
Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)

Ten years ago, I saw one of the first performances of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Now, Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales give the opera its first United Kingdom production – in an English translation by Amanda Holden from the original Italian: the first time, I believe, that a Dusapin opera has been performed in translation. (I shall admit to a slight disappointment that it was not in Welsh: maybe next time.) The premiere took place two nights earlier in Basingstoke; I saw this resourceful, imaginative dance staging at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Titles might not have been a bad idea, but there is always something to be said for making an audience listen, or at least encouraging it to do so. (There was, alas, some extraordinary distracting behaviour from a few bad apples on this occasion, one woman near me aggressively scratching herself like an alley-cat throughout, another apparently running a tombola from her handbag. Such highly distracting goings on did not appear to be part of a directorial Konzept; perhaps, however, I was missing the point.)

Dusapin’s Orpheus or rather Eurydice, opera, the lovers abstracted to Her and Him, Lei and Lui, with shadowing support from ‘The Others’ (Gli Altri), takes its place in perhaps the most venerable of all operatic traditions. Orpheus, son of Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry, and, according to some tellings of the legend, Apollo’s too, tamed animals, even charmed Hades itself, through performance on his lyre – here suggested, yet perhaps not merely to be identified with, the oud, Rihib Azar’s part and performance evocative, generative, and questioning towards the close. Orpheus’s purview – and that of Greek mousikē more generally – was greater than what we, in an age cursed by specialisation, might consider to be ‘music’: he was poet, enchanter and prophet; he communicated the qualities of all the Muses through his identity as a musical performer. Where, however, is Eurydice in all that? As ‘traditional’ a supportive figure, a victim, as ever? Here she is granted, or better she assumes, newfound agency. As Dusapin, quoted in the progamme, put it: ‘I sincerely wanted to do something with this myth, and yet I wasn’t really attracted to a story where a woman dies, engulfed by flames, sacrificed by the stare of an impatient man … So I thought: “What if the woman knew? And what if she suddenly decided not to go back towards the light?”’ Just as composers from Monteverdi to Birtwistle have retold, remade the myth in the light of their own concerns, the concerns of their times too, so have Dusapin and a splendidly integrated team of performers.

Johnny Herford (Him) and National Dance Company Wales

Worthy successors to the not inconsiderable team of Barbara Hannigan, Georg Nigl, Ensemble Musicatreize, Ensemble Modern, and Franck Ollu, Jennifer France, Johnny Herford, EXAUDI, the London Sinfonietta, and Geoffrey Paterson offered an outstanding musical performance, ably shadowed, incited, and criticised by a fine team of dancers. One had little doubt that the Sinfonietta and Paterson were not only presenting what one was ‘supposed’ to hear, but in the emphatic sense performing it, bringing it into life and revealing its form in the dramatic here and now. Comparisons make little sense in the case of an artist such as Hannigan; perhaps they do far more rarely than many of us would care to admit. France’s performance had us believe in this particular Eurydice, her particular concerns and ‘character’: what could be more feminist than that? Herford cheerfully yet wistfully consented to and furthered a remodelling of Orpheus’s role that leaves us all the richer. With none of Nigl’s sometimes disconcerting idiosyncrasies, he – as indeed did the rest of the team – suggested that we are all the richer for this recent chapter in the progress of the myth. A subtly raucous – yes, that is intended – duet between trombone and oboe; a recognisably celestrial yet menacing glimpse of heaven; a (false?) witness of the clavecin ‘past’; an approach to an expected final unison that proved not to be such at all: these and many more such moments attested to the fleeting quality of memory, the necessity of multiple standpoints in and of the present.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Porgy and Bess, English National Opera, 11 October 2018


Images: Tristam Kenton
Sporting Life (Frederick Ballantine) and ensemble

Porgy – Eric Greene
Bess – Nicole Cabell
Crown – Nmon Ford
Serena – Latonia Moore
Clara – Nadine Benjamin
Maria – Tichina Vaughn
Jake – Donovan Singletary
Sporting Life – Frederick Ballentine
Mingo – Rheinhaldt Tshepo Moagi
Robbins, Crab Man – Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Peter – Ronald Samm
Frazier – Byron Jackson
Annie – Sarah-Jane Lewis
Lily – Pumza Mxinwa
Strawberry Woman – Nozuko Teto
Jim – Njabula Madlala
Undertaker – Whitaker Mills
Nelson – Thando Mjandana
Scipio – Olufemi Alaka
Detective – Stephen Pallister
Policeman – Christian Hurst
Coroner – Neil Kelly

James Robinson (director)
Michael Yeargan (set designs)
Catherine Zuber (costumes)
Donald Holder (lighting)
Dianne McIntyre (choreography)
Luke Halls (video)

Actors, Chorus
Orchestra of the English National Opera
John Wilson (conductor)

Serena (Latonia Moore)

In a new production by James Robinson, conducted by John Wilson, ENO performs Porgy and Bess for the first time. On the opening night it was very well received, in many ways rightly so – although I had my doubts too, especially earlier on. I shall come to those later, but first let me say what a joy it was not only to hear such an array of fine vocal performances but also to see such fine, committed, sincere acting from an ensemble of singers and actors, many making their debuts with the company, brought together specifically for this purpose.

If there were occasional slight shortcomings, not least a little too much occluded diction from Nicole Cabell as Bess, they were more than made up for by that strength of ensemble. Cabell’s performance was otherwise strong – strong in portraying vulnerability, even helplessness, that is – and was well matched by the humanity of Eric Greene as the ‘cripple’, Porgy. Nmon Ford’s toxic masculinity, as we should now call it, as Bess’s former lover, Crown, proved an object lesson in the marriage of words, music, and stage presence. The drug dealer Sporting Life’s insidious, irredeemable amorality, his ‘lowlife’ quality, to borrow from the text, was memorably captured and communicated by Frederick Ballentine. Tichina Vaughn and Latonia Moore sang their hearts out and wore their not uncomplicated consciences on their sleeves as Maria and Serena. I could doubtless continue down the cast list, but should end up merely replicating it.

Porgy (Eric Greene) and Bess (Nicole Cabell)

There was no gainsaying, moreover, the excellence of the ENO Orchestra, which was surely enjoying itself greatly. Likewise no one could argue with the results obtained from them by John Wilson: a film-score sheen second to none, and certainly not just from the strings. At least no one could in terms of getting what he wanted, something I have little doubt would and should be considered ‘authentic’ by those who care about such matters. For me, however, there were times when something a little more variegated would have been welcome. It is a lengthy opera, too lengthy for its material; generally slow tempi, married to almost unrelievedly opulent sound, exacerbated rather than relieved. There were, of course, passages of great incisiveness too. A few more gradations in between would have done no harm. Or would that actually have been possible? I cannot, I am afraid, hear this to be the masterpiece some claim it to be. Even if it were cut considerably, that still leaves something of a problem in a ‘symphonic’, better connective, ambition on Gershwin’s part that is at best intermittently realised. He is surely more a composer of songs than a symphonist, or indeed a post-Wagnerian musical dramatist, whatever apologists might claim to the contrary. Moreover, musical characterisation is often weak, at least earlier on. By the second act, the composer seems to have progressed considerably. Earlier on, he seems far better at communicative atmosphere, at dramatising events. 

There are many opera scores, however, that fall short of Figaro, Parsifal or Wozzeck. We tend for the most part to take them for what they are, rather than exercising ourselves unduly about what they are not. (Or if we do not, it tends to be indicative of some other problem we have with them, whether intrinsic or of taste.) More of a difficulty, I think, lies in the libretto and, more generally, in the (doubtless well-intentioned) racial and gender stereotyping – one might well put it considerably more strongly than that – of the work as a whole. It is there that a production should come into its own, offering a critical stance or at least an awareness of the problems. Robinson’s blithe production, however, almost screams ‘Made for the Met’. (This is a co-production not only with New York but Amsterdam too.) It is well executed, not least on account of Dianne McIntyre’s choreography, but appears either stuck in a time warp or better suited to expectations geared towards a ‘West End spectacular’. Following the ineptitude of ENO’s current Salome, there is something, indeed much, to be said for basic, wholesale competence. That is surely, though, no excuse for flattering an audience into thinking this a matter of harmless ‘entertainment’.

Crown (Nmon Ford) and Bess

Mine will, I am sure, be a minority report – and I repeat that there is much in a straightforward fashion to enjoy, should enjoyment be one’s sole or principal criterion. As the opera is what it is, so am I who I am. I increasingly find it difficult to take theatrical performances that might well have looked splendid half a century ago and might even do so on film now, yet which claim to be of the here and now. Too much dramatic water has passed under the bridge. Moreover, whilst I try to keep an open mind, my ears are not the same as everyone, or indeed anyone, else’s. When, for instance, I hear the banjo song, ‘I got Plenty o’Nuttin’,’ I think, doubtless idiosyncratically, of Blaze’s ballad from Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. That says nothing about either, if a little about me. Why mention it, then? Only as a banal illustration of our coming to artworks – not only to artworks - from different standpoints and situations.

Perhaps, knowing as I do of Schoenberg’s admiration for Gershwin – more circumscribed than some would allow, yet no less genuine for that – I wanted too much to listen with (post-)Schoenbergian ears and found myself a little disappointed. It has real virtues and certainly stands several notches above the fashionable bloated nonsense of Korngold and friends. Any reservations I entertain are unlikely to prevail over someone who finds more in the work than I do, nor am I seeking to persuade, merely to try to account for my own more equivocal reaction. Perhaps I should find more in a subsequent performance; perhaps it is simply not for me. If it is for you, and if you do not mind what is to my mind an absurdly ‘traditional’ style of staging, then you will find much to enjoy. I cannot help but wish, however, that the production had shown the courage to adopt so much as a point of view or to interrogate the work, to ask what it might fundamentally be about. That, surely, would have been to take it as seriously as Gershwin’s ambition demands.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Opolais/Gewandhaus/Nelsons - Dzenītis, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler, 9 October 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Andris Dzenītis: Māra (United Kingdom premiere)
Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades, op.68: ‘I am worn out with grief’
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, op.24: Polonaise and Letter Scene
Mahler: Symphony no.1 in D major

Kristine Opolais (soprano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

After the relative disappointment of the first of these two Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts, that disappointment relating to Andris Nelsons’s conducting rather than the orchestra itself, there came a second chance. I wish I could say that I had responded more warmly. There were, as before, sections of the concert to which I could – and did. However, Nelsons’s Mahler ultimately proved no more convincing than it had before, the final movement of the First Symphony as vulgar and uncomprehending a display as I have heard for a long time. An audience that once again seemed to value excellence of orchestral execution and sheer volume of sound rather than formal, interpretative coherence clearly felt otherwise. Again I thought of Beecham: ‘the English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes’. Perhaps Nelsons qualifies as an Englishman too, at least when it comes to Mahler.

His taste in new music seems odd too. Try as I might, I could not make anything much of Andris Dzenītis’s Māra – although, as ever, with a new work, that may well just have been my fault. Its first performance had been given by the same forces in Leipzig five days earlier; this performance certainly sounded committed and incisive. The title apparently refers to a notion of divine omnipotence: according to the programme note, ‘the entire physical, visible, audible and tangible world, the materialisation of all spiritual power’. Dzenītis can certainly write for an orchestra in a ‘traditional’, more or less Franco-Russian way: the quarter of an hour or so piece proved ‘colourful’, ‘ritualistic’, ‘pictorial’, ‘dramatic’, and so on, in predictable, generic fashion. Certain passages grabbed the attention: repeated pitches redolent of Morse Code, repeated figures that briefly offered something intriguingly hypnotic. What it all added up to, though, I could not say. ‘Eclectic’ would be one way of putting it, so too ‘at least twice as long as it need have been’. A solo bass clarinet solo at the close may or may not have held some programmatic meaning. According to the note, the piece allowed ‘runes to become visible in the score’. Perhaps they were audible too; I am afraid I have no idea.

Tchaikovsky made much more sense to me, Kristine Opolais on superlative form. In Liza’s third-act arioso from The Queen of Spades and the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, she truly brought to life her characters, without context, scenery, or titles. One knew and felt what Liza and Tatiana meant, what their plight was – and could have taken dictation, verbal or musical, from her. Hers were fully gestural performances too, very much those of a classic singing actress. The Gewandhaus Orchestra ‘spoke’ splendidly too: this, after all, is an orchestra that plays for the Leipzig Opera as well as the concert hall (and the Thomaskirche). If only Nelsons and/or Opolais had not indulged in quite so extreme gear changes towards the end of the Letter Scene, and if only he had not driven the Polonaise so hard, these would have been ideal performances. No one, however, would have been seriously disappointed.

The first movement of the Mahler symphony opened with great promise: opening string harmonics (and their later repetition) spot on, without sounding clinical, woodwind full of colour and character, offstage brass as well balanced as I can recall. There was first-rate audience bronchial interjection too, for which many thanks. Later on, an overall freshness of spirit was apt, winning, invigorating. Antiphonally placed first and second violins worked a magic that was little short of revelatory, whilst the tender tone of the Leipzig horn consort was simply to die for. Soon, however, Nelsons began to mould the music excessively, leaving one longing for the ideal of a Kubelík. (Few are the occasions when that conductor proves anything but ideal!) Climaxes grew more and more brash, in quite un-Mahlerian fashion, once again suggestive of a conductor more at home with Shostakovich. Formal coherence had soon gone quite out of the window too.

The Ländler likewise opened well: as vigorous, as earthy as I have heard, the Leipzig strings digging deep indeed. As it progressed, however, it seemed too determined by rhythm, too little by harmony: this should not be a zero-sum game. There was alienation in the Trio, if not quite enough, the material often sounding oddly close to Bruckner. Irony does not seem Nelsons’s strong suit. Nor was it so in the third movement, its weird echoes of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream apparently in spite of the conductor rather than on his account. There was no gainsaying, however, the excellence of the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s soloists here. It was a pity that Nelsons pulled around the Klezmer and other contrasting material so wildly; soon it made no sense at all, a mere succession of moments. One could hardly have wanted a louder, more emphatic opening to the finale; many of us indeed might have wished for something less ear-splitting. Such, however, was to be the order of the day, with extreme contrast that had the audience ‘excited’ in its seats. I felt merely bludgeoned. Had there been something in the way of formal coherence, it would not have been quite so bad; in its absence, this glorious movement felt interminable. Bizarre tempo changes added further frustration. What a waste of a great orchestra.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Hardenberger/Gewandhaus/Nelsons - Zimmermann and Mahler, 8 October 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Zimmermann: Trumpet Concerto, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’
Mahler: Symphony no.5

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

Images: Southbank Centre/Mark Allan

One can only be grateful for the performances that Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s centenary year has occasioned. This was my second hearing this year of his Trumpet Concerto, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’, the first also having been from Håkan Hardenberger, albeit in Vienna, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under John Storgårds. One fears that 2019 will bring nothing at all, but then, as things stand, 2019 seems destined to bring catastrophes far worse than that. We should, I suppose, enjoy the visits of fellow European orchestras whilst we can; soon enough it will be wall-to-wall Vera Lynn tribute acts, a spot of scavenging at the local rubbish dump, and the occasional rat thrown our way by hedge-fund billionaires for gastronomic delectation.

The Zimmermann was certainly the more successful performance on the programme, not only for Hardenberger, but also for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and, especially, its new Kapellmeister, Andris Nelsons. Its opening was taut, full of suspense, germinative – and not just the opening. Hardenberger, virtuoso musician that he is, played his part as the repertoire work it is for him and should be the rest for us. Both the pleasure and the difficulty of giving birth to the full chorale/spiritual tune were apparent and, crucially, felt. The menace of dark jazz sounds and the fantasy of ballet, and vice versa, paved the way for a full-scale riot of orchestral polystylism, tensions boiling over into chaos somewhat beyond the ‘Ed Miliband variety’, if perhaps less alien, alas, to those of us remaining, as it were, in the land of Theresa May and her multiple hostile environments. Zimmermann’s instrumental doublings, triplings, and so forth sounded more revelatory than I can recall, every bit as integral to work and performance as if they had come from Bach or Bartók. Swing rhythms did their work, of course, but so too did quite magnificent control of the orchestral volume, as if he were twisting the dial on a hi-fi system, by Nelsons. There was something uncanny to that evocation of both ‘real’ and the ‘recorded’ things: a positioning of ourselves and our music in what Zimmermann would later call the ‘sphericity of time’. Hardenberger’s final statement of the spiritual in full bore witness, as it must. But who in our time, any more than in Zimermann’s, will listen, truly listen?

The Nelsons way with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony proved remarkably popular with the audience, many of whom rose to their feet at the close. I could not help but recall Thomas Beecham’s quip that the English do not like music, but rather the noise that it makes. It had some wonderful moments, even passages, but I struggled in vain to hear a sense of irony, a sense of Vienna, even, for some of the time, much sense of coherence. This is an extraordinarily difficult symphony to bring off convincingly; not the least of the conductors I have heard fall considerably short here has been Daniel Barenboim. Of the many intimations of the Second Viennese School, I heard nothing.
Nelsons, not unlike Barenboim, seemed determined to turn it into something that is not, albeit in this case something stranded between a generic nineteenth-century symphony and Shostakovich.

The first movement perhaps fared worst. Insofar as there were a basic tempo at all, it felt incredibly slow: quite a trudge, yet it was never clear to what end. Then suddenly, an eruptive first episode went to the other extreme, contrast entirely supplanting connection. Symphonic thread, what symphonic thread? Nelsons seemed intent on micromanaged moulding of phrases too, reminiscent of Simon Rattle over the past few years. Conductors as different as Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez have shown that there are many ways to have this music work as a symphony; Nelsons, apparently, had other ideas. That said, a few liminal passages – a magical timpani solo, for instance – truly told: in themselves, though, without necessary context. The second movement proved similarly contrast, except back to front in terms of material, which is as it should be; it also proved more coherent, if still less so than one would have hoped. Again, it was Mahler at his most introverted who convinced most. Nelsons’s brutalising, proto-Shostakovich sound of a brass-led orchestra at full throttle simply sounded mistaken to my ears.

Nelsons certainly grasped, however, the structural role of the third movement, the symphony’s second ‘part’, its ambiguity relished. Even here, however, a tendency to hold back phrases to no particular end sounded indulgent and, frankly, irritating. The movement’s closing bars, taken hell for leather without evident preparation, proved merely bizarre, however well played.

The Adagietto was taken at an unfashionably slow speed, or so it felt. (I have never been one to consult my watch on such matters.) Nelsons seemed determined to make a meal out of it, often entirely losing its sense, however illusory, of loving simplicity. However gorgeous its final climax may have sounded, I could not help but suspect he might have preferred it to have been by Bruckner. The skies well and truly lifted for the finale, the problem being that there had been almost no preparation in the preceding movement. The Gewandhaus Orchestra relished the controlled abandon of Mahler’s neo-Bachian counterpoint, his good humour – or perhaps his impression thereof. Best of all, the movement unfolded without mannerism. Did the performance add up to more than the sum of its parts, though? At that, as perhaps at our present, seemingly hopeless worldly condition, Mahler laughed. He, after all, knew what it was to be, in that celebrated anti-Semitic phrase, a ‘citizen of nowhere’.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Salome, English National Opera, 3 October 2018


Salome (Allison Cooke) and dancers
Images: Catherine Ashmore

(sung in English translation)

Narraboth – Stuart Jackson
Page – Clare Presland
Soldiers – Simon Shibambu, Ronald Nairne
Jokanaan – David Soar
Cappadocian – Trevor Eliot Bowes
Salome – Allison Cook
Slave – Ceferina Penny
Herod Antipas – Michael Colvin
Herodias – Susan Bickley
Jews – Daniel Norman, Christopher Turner, Amar Muchhala, Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Jonathan Lemalu
Nazarenes – Robert Winslade Anderson, Adam Sullivan
Dancers – Corey Annand, Kazmin Borrer, Hannah Flynn, Iona Kirk, Nicle Neolove

Adena Jacobs (director)
Marg Horwell (designs)
Lucy Carter, Sean Gleason (lighting)
Melanie Lane (choreography)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Hmmm, oh dear. I think I might sometimes have been able to see what Adena Jacobs was trying to do in this new production of Salome. Who knows, though? I was clearly not its target audience, which would seem to have been an imaginary cohort of teenage girls viewed with extreme condescension and, doubtless, ‘concerned’ contempt. What I do know, however, is that its trashiness was exceeded only by its rank incompetence and incoherence. Quite how or why it was permitted to proceed anywhere near the Coliseum’s stage without, at the very least, radical revision is perhaps the greatest of its mysteries.

Jokanaan (David Soar)

It begins, if not promisingly, then at least within the realm of dreary cliché: dark, in what appears to be the queue to a nightclub. (Better not to ask too many questions: sadly, it will not be worth it.) That scene disappears, to be replaced by something else: unclear. Perhaps it was inside the club, although it did not really seem to be. People in all manner of peculiar outfits behave somewhat oddly, Jokanaan’s voice relayed quite unforgivably through strange electronic means so as to suggest that David Soar could not sing the role. (For the little while that he was on stage, it was perfectly clear that he could – and did.) For some reason, or none, his words are delivered via a huge video close up of his mouth. A dental surgery Salome: a concept of sorts, I suppose, but soon it is dead. Meanwhile, Salome runs around as if she were an extra hoping for more in a pop video. There is, I grant, the germs of a concept there; like everything else, it is not pursued. And so on, and so forth.

Later, however, the real extras appear, in the most embarrassing Dance of the Seven Veils anyone is, I trust, likely ever to see. Salome elects not to take part in that, instead engaging in what seems to be a concurrent one-woman game of rounders. Some smaller ‘twerking’ dancers do, however, gyrating with complete, tedious indifference to the music, to the drama, to everything. There are neither veils nor substitutes in sight. One can, I suppose, understand where such indifference was ‘coming from’. Before that, however, some gunge has been cast around the stage, as if in a half-hearted tribute to the late Keith Chegwin. Oh yes, lest one forget: an enormous headless horse – a reference to My Little Pony (?!) – has been hauled on stage, so that assorted people with nothing better to do may extract entrails from it and, well, sit on it for a while, looking bored. Herod on occasion slightly resembles the (mercifully) late Jimmy Savile: not, I think, by design. He too has a gameshow moment, when he writhes in that gunge: Narraboth’s blood, ‘supplied,’ I later read in the programme, ‘by Pigs Might Fly’. Quite. At the end, he commands her death, but nothing happens. He has long left the stage, and who can blame him? Instead, Salome, held by her mother, standing in front of a large black orifice – at least that symbolism is clear enough – shoots herself. The end.

Herod (Michael Colvin)

By all means present an abused Salome – it is surely difficult not to – but please: do it better than this or not at all. At least connect something to something else, and perhaps listen a little to Strauss’s score. There is certainly greater craft in the orchestration of any single note, let alone chord, than in anything seen in this hapless farrago. The musicians on the evening deserved far, far better too. Allison Cook’s voice is perhaps not quite what one expects in the title role, the higher range a little high for comfort, but there was ample compensation with a committed dramatic performance and a richer than usual tone for her insistence on Jokanaan’s head. (I cannot remember the actual English translation, which did well, however much one heard the original in one’s head.) Michael Colvin’s Herod was certainly done no favours by the production, but he responded with great professionalism and artistry, as did Susan Bickley as Herodias. Stuart Jackson and Clare Presland likewise impressed in sensitive – especially given the context – performances, attentive to word and line, of Narraboth and Herodias’s Page. If the ENO Orchestra’s strings were sometimes a little thin of tone when compared to what a German opera-goer will hear in this music, there was also much to be gleaned from the orchestra’s transparency and incisiveness, Martyn Brabbins steering a wise, knowledgeable course through Strauss’s directed phantasmagoria. Alas, such real virtues found themselves quite undone.

This will sound banal; indeed, it surely is banal. Nevertheless, if you neither understand nor care for an opera, nor apparently for opera in general, would you not be better off leaving its direction it to someone who does? Perhaps you are actually a greater artist than Richard Strauss or Oscar Wilde: probably not, however. Both other stagings of Salome I have seen this year, from Romeo Castellucci in Salzburg and, especially, from Hans Neuenfels in Berlin, had much to say, much to suggest, and yes, much to beguile. Moreover, they offered much, again especially in Neuenfels’s case, to provoke. I appreciate that this production tried to do likewise. Trying, however, was all it proved ultimately to be. 

Tallis Scholars/Phillips - Taverner, Cornysh, Browne, Tallis, and Sheppard, 2 October 2018

Cadogan Hall

Taverner: Magnificat a 6
Cornysh: Ave Maria
Browne: Stabat Mater
Tallis: Te Deum ‘for meanes’
Cornysh: Gaude virgo mater Christi
Sheppard: Jesus salvator seculi; Gaude virgo Christiphera

The Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (director)

In their typical non-emphatic way, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips presented here a selection of English sacred music from the Eton Choirbook to Tallis. There was little to ruffle anyone’s feathers here, little in the way of overt ‘interpretation’ – certainly in a modern sense – but ample opportunity to appreciate the mastery on offer in this music, its remoteness from many of our present concerns, and some fine singing.

The evening’s full complement of fourteen singers opened with John Taverner’s six-part Magnificat, ably, convincingly reconstructed from the parts that remain. Plainsong roots were evident – that is, after all, how it opens – as was the great musical flowering, both in work and performance, from that most fertile of soil. Melismatic duetting sopranos and tenors on ‘eius’, the whole choir likewise on ‘suo’: detail was attended to without exaggeration. The greater unfolding was, unsurprisingly, the thing, however. ‘Sound’ did not especially vary; textural variety spoke for itself, Taverner’s ornate doxology culminating in a radiant ‘Amen’.

William Cornysh’s Ave Maria – not the familiar text – perhaps sounds more ‘austere’ to our modern ears, closer to its mediæval past, not least in terms of harmonic relationships. Such would hardly be surprising, given its earlier date of composition. Yet it speaks – and here, in performance, spoke – just as clearly, if differently. Just as much ‘happens’, so long as one listens. John Brown’s Stabat Mater sounded, rightly or wrongly, somewhere in between: as much, I think, a matter of programming as of material. It flowed beautifully, sadness lying in the words rather than in any Romantic, ‘emotional’ sense. Antiphonal passages – such as that between soprano and bass parts, ‘Quis non potest contristari…’ – caught the ear and, more important, returned us to experience and contemplation of the celebrated poem. Nevertheless, the cries of ‘Crucifige, crucifige’, if hardly Bachian, seemed to echo through the ages with the accumulated weight of crucified tradition.

Tallis’s Te Deum ‘for meanes’, which opened the second half, immediately sounded very much of ‘our’ Anglican tradition, even thought that requires more than a little backdating. Its English text is one thing, of course, but its directness, its interplay between ‘dec’ and ‘can’ (the two sides of the choir’), its harmony, and much else had it sound more modern than perhaps it is. One drew parallels, of course, not least points of detail – false relations, for instance – with what had gone before, but it was a different church, a different Church too, brought forth in one’s visual as well as aural imagination. Might it have been performed with a little more drama? Yes. Should it have been? Perhaps. Again, however, there was much to glean from the gentle, informed respect with which these voices and their director brought it to life.

Cornysh’s Gaude virgo mater Christi seemed to offer merely in its notes something a little more – this is highly relative – of a lament. Our conceptions of what ‘fits’ a text, however, are not necessarily those of a fifteenth-century composer. It would be mightily strange if they were. The music once again drew us in to the text, another hymn of praise to the Virgin. Two works by John Sheppard concluded the concert. The Compline alternation of chant and polyphony founded upon it in Sheppard’s Jesu salvator saeculi yielded subtle secrets, not least in the surprising – so long as one listened! – final ‘Amen’. The Marian votive antiphon, Gaude virgo Cristiphera – according to James M. Potter’s helpful booklet note, the only example we have from Sheppard – took longer, considerably longer over its words, offering a radiant sense of culmination. This, one felt, was a world of wonders almost yet not quite vanished. The more we listened, the more we shared in it: quite right too.

The encore, Purcell’s Hear my Prayer, still sounds very much ‘with us’: too much so, some might argue, accusing us of sentimentalising. So be it; those grinding dissonances implored as few harmonies can. The English Orpheus will always be with us; so too will his predecessors – as, indeed, will his successors. Why choose?

Le nozze di Figaro, Semperoper Dresden, 30 September 2018

Count Almaviva – Sebastian Wartig
Countess Almaviva – Iulia Maria Dan
Susanna – Athanasia Zöhrer
Figaro – Martin-Jan Nijhof
Cherubino – Grace Durham
Marcellina – Sabine Brohm
Bartolo – Matthias Henneberg
Don Basilio – Aaron Pegram
Barbarina – Tahnee Niboro
Don Curzio – Gerald Hupacj
Antonio – Chao Deng
Bridesmaids – Beate Apitz, Heike Liebmann

Johannes Erath (director)
Katrin Connan (set designs)
Birgit Wensch (costumes)
Noëlle Blancpain (revival director, costumes)
Fabio Antoci (lighting)
Francis Hüsers (dramaturgy)

Saxon State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Cornelius Volke)
Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Kristiina Poska (conductor)

Rarely can an opera house run on full cylinders night in, night out – especially when the night before has entailed a Moses und Aron premiere. One would not necessarily expect a starry Elektra or, indeed, a starry Figaro to follow. If the performative musical side of this Marriage of Figaro rarely scaled the heights, nor was there anything truly to complain about. Sebastian Wartig’s Count came close at times, often strangely underpowered, although he marshalled his forces well at the very close. Matthias Henneberg’s Doctor Bartolo, moreover, made a strangely reticent impression in his first-act aria, not helped by Kristiina Poska’s breathless tempo, surely more suited to Rossini than to Mozart. Otherwise, Iulia Maria Dan increasingly impressed as a graceful, gracious Countess, Athanasia Zöhrer’s Susanna likewise grew in communicative character, and Grace Durham’s Cherubino came up trumps. (When was the last time you heard a Cherubino who did not?) Nevertheless, when the most memorable singing came from the Barbarina (Tahnee Niboro) and the Antonio (Chao Deng) it can hardly be accounted a vintage night in vocal terms.

Poska’s tempi were not, thank goodness, universally fast, although a brutal Overture had had me fear the worst. Some, indeed, proved slower than one might have expected, never ponderous. Given what ghastly perversities we must often endure in Mozart performance today, there was much for which to be grateful, and it is always a pleasure to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden in this music, its woodwind section here especially fine. No, it was not Sir Colin Davis – ‘Der Sir’, as this orchestra lovingly used to call him, his bust not so far more from my seat, in the First Balcony foyer – but it was a more than competent account of one of the most cruelly unsparing, cruelly familiar works in the repertoire: Kapellmeisterei in a far from negative sense, and not, I suspect, with a great deal of rehearsal.  

The problem, however, really lay with Johannes Erath’s 2015 production. It was once the case that Figaro seemed relatively director-proof; more recently, however, it seems to have proved as difficult for large houses to pull off as that notorious directorial graveyard, Don Giovanni. It may sound as if I exaggerate when I say that most of the excellent Mozart opera I have heard over the past few years has come from conservatoires, but it is genuinely the case, the Royal Academy’s 2015 Figaro a case in point. I say this not, I hope, from a reactionary standpoint. The most searching, revelatory staging of this opera I have yet to see was Claus Guth’s Strindbergian reimagining of the work for Salzburg. (Alas, Salzburg’s record in Mozart since has struggled even to reach mixed; I was relieved not to have to write for this year’s intolerably vacuous Magic Flute.) Erath tries to do something with the work, which is surely only to be applauded; any putative prize for effort, however, is immediately and, moreover, increasingly obscured by condescension, disrespect, and such tone-deafness as to have one wonder that the director began his career as a violinist.

The concept, if one may call it that, seems to be to set the first act, the second and third acts, and the fourth in different theatrical periods, with nods to their styles (or rather to their hoariest of clichés as seen, not by them, but by directors of little imagination yet much talk). The first act thus seems to nod to origins in the commedia dell’arte, but that is really nothing more than a matter of stylised (twenty-first-century stylised) costumes. The rest is mostly silliness: Figaro singing whilst his face is up Susanna’s absurdly large dress and so on. For some reason – or none – Marcellina lip synches along to much of Bartolo’s vengeance aria until she, well, stops doing so. Cherubino, pointlessly, sits on an electronically elevated table rather than hiding as he normally would. (It really is not difficult to get that scene right, although arch-mediocrity Jean-Louis Martinoty in Vienna must take the palm for having got it catastrophically wrong.) There are some interventions from stagehands, here as elsewhere splendidly executed themselves by dancers. I think, though, we need a little more – or a little less – metatheatricality than that for it to be worth our while.

The second and third acts proceed in that all-purpose ‘pop-eighteenth-century’ look favoured by directors who have no idea what to do with eighteenth-century opera: wigs with an attitude that is far fainter than their perruquiers fancy. Keyboard continuo, in itself excellently played by Sebastian Engel, moves from harpsichord to fortepiano. As we move toward the fourth and final act, textual ‘interventions’ by the director become more and more irritating, until we endure interpolations of French popular song and the removal of all secco recitative in favour of his own dialogue. All, meanwhile, lounge around the stage – generally at great distance from one another – in pyjamas. For once, it was a relief to have the ‘traditional’ cuts observed. Mozart will survive, of course; so will Lorenzo Da Ponte. But why?