Friday, 18 October 2019

Shani/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Rachmaninov, Elgar, and Strauss, 15 October 2019


Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no.3 in D minor, op.30
Elgar: Falstaff, op.68
Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28

Lahav Shani (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The most German of all English composers, no one benefits more greatly than Elgar from rescue from the clammy, constricting embrace of ‘English music’. No conductor and orchestra perform that deed of rescue with greater conviction, insight, and rewards than Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. With this astonishing performance of Falstaff, they perhaps surpassed even themselves. Here, pre-empting Till Eulenspiegel, in danger of slightly overshadowing it, we heard a tone poem unmistakeably in Strauss’s tradition, albeit pushed still further, certainly not to be reduced to inheritance; yet equally unmistakeably, it spoke with Elgar’s voice, as if this were his true third symphony. Mordant yet affectionate, grand yet intimate, as thrilling as it was poignant, this performance, full of colour and incident, was, as much as any from Barenboim of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, or Wagner, founded securely and dynamically on harmonic and motivic development. Counterpoint was dramatically, even riotously, as generative as any in Die Meistersinger. Barenboim’s expert shaping at micro- and macro-levels never felt unduly moulded; this was music-making without so much as a hint of narcissism. Conductor and orchestra alike nonetheless revelled in the sheer complexity and virtuosity of a work that has eluded so many; I certainly felt that it had eluded me as a listener until then, hearing it as if for the first time. String tone was glorious, yet never for its own sake; every part of the orchestra, every soloist – principal bassoon, cello, and concertmaster first among equals – came truly into their own, as if this were their core repertoire. Thanks to Barenboim, it is not far off becoming so.

It was fascinating, then, to hear Till Eulenspiegel in Falstaff’s wake, in a performance that shared many of its virtues and added others of its own. Infinitely flexible, where called for, it was equally secure in direction and equally vivid in narrative. Above all, perhaps, it smiled – through Strauss’s mastery’, Barenboim’s, and that of the Staatskapelle Berlin. Technique is, or should be, a supremely enjoyable thing; so it was here. It should be a moving thing too, when in the service of something worthy, which here was the case in every sense.

In the first half, we had heard Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, with Lahav Shani as soloist. This is less obvious Barenboim territory, though he proved a wise, supportive accompanist to his protégé. In the first movement, depth and clarity alike characterised an often understated performance at swift tempi, not the only thing Shani’s approach had in common with the composer’s own. There was plenty of space nonetheless for pianistic reverie, for evocation of more than a few Lisztian sprites too. The second movement, arguably possessed of a broader emotional range here, sounded more in the line of Tchaikovsky. The piano part in particular proved more volatile, without loss to precision and pointing. There was no grandstanding to the finale, again taken swiftly, and none the worse for it. The turn to the major was especially well handled, Barenboim clearly understanding – and communicating – what was at stake. Harmony, then, once more.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Katya Kabanova, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 12 October 2019

Katěrina Kabanova – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanicha – Karita Mattila
Varvara – Anna Lapkovskaja
Boris Grigorjevič – Simon O’Neill
Váňa Kudrjáš – Florian Hoffmann
Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov – Stephan Rügamer
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj – Pavlo Hunka
Kuligin, Passer-by – Viktor Rud
Glaša – Emma Sarkisyan
Fekluša – Adriane Queiroz
Woman – Liane Oßwald

Andrea Breth (director)
Annette Murschetz (set designs)
Silke Willrett, Marc Weeger (costumes)
Alexander Koppelmann (lighting)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

Katya Kabanova (Eva-Maria Westbroek)
Images: Bernd Uhlig, from the 2014 premiere

Given the success of Andrea Breth’s Berlin Staatsoper production of Wozzeck, it was perhaps not surprising to emerge from this Katya Kabanova feeling similarly drained. It had not previously occurred to me to consider the points of affinity between these two tragic operatic masterpieces of similar length, written at a similar time – Berg started composition considerably earlier and completed his work later – but Breth’s approach played a suggestive role. For redemption, spiritual uplift, any such glimmer, one would likely have sought in vain – certainly at its conclusion. Where Wozzeck’s expressionism was tempered or expanded by something one might characterise, with certain reservations, as realism – not that the opera ‘itself’ lacks that too – here it is perhaps the other way around, Janáček’s drama extended in its final act by something that, if not quite expressionistic, certainly went beyond the realm of realism conventionally understood. The storm and its aftermath are, in any case, clearly not intended purely in meteorological terms; here, however, Breth’s ritualistic stylisation affords opportunity, without abdication of tragic content, for a form of starkness somewhat different from that more readily encountered.

There, as at the opening, we see action, movement, that seems either to tend towards or away from a tableau: secularised, doubtless, like Janáček’s outlook itself, yet not without a sense, for better or ill, of the religious. This, it seems, is a grim, difficult world in which women especially, but many men too, are cowed by social and political rather than more strictly theological constructs. ‘Modesty’ of female dress is clearly no matter of choice; likewise, the shrouded identity, if one may call it that at all, of many of the women we see. Repression and hypocrisy are, at least in considerable part (for perpetrators, that is, not for victims). And, of course, whatever the social similarities Breth suggests with Wozzeck, heightened by a destitute Eastern Bloc setting perhaps even going beyond that chosen by Christoph Marthaler for Paris several years ago, a major distinction remains the centrality of women to Janáček’s opera.

If anything, Breth pushes that further. We see Katya treated to the point of torture by domestic incarceration in a cupboard (or is it a refrigerator?). We witness perhaps a truly formidable Kabanicha, a fur-clad Karita Mattila, rule the roost and let her guard down in private: second-act drunkenness leading to an extraordinary scene with Dikoj, in which, rather than reject his advances, she joins him on the dinner table to masturbate him, only to react with anger when his stamina proves insufficient for her needs. And we see, likewise at beginning and close, a small girl led across the stage in quasi-religious procession. Who is she? Is she one of the female characters, whose life might have turned out differently, had it not been for this vicious society and ideology? Is it a baby girl Katya might have lost? There are various possibilities open to us; if only there had been to her.

A particular strength of Thomas Guggeis’s conducting of the Staatskapelle Berlin lay in kinship with Breth’s conception. No one in his right mind would eradicate Janáček’s lyricism from the orchestra, let alone from the vocal line. (How could one, anyway?) That said, these remained brief moments of thwarted possibility amongst a notably dark account of the score, its niggling motivic, even cellular, possibilities pointing already to the Dostoevskyan world of From the House of the Dead. If there were times, especially during the first act, when I missed a little in the way of more conventional musical narrative, it seemed to me that this was very much an aesthetic choice – and one that had me ask why, the answers seeming more than justifiable in context. When the storm came, the unleashing of orchestral power – almost a tone poem with voices – said what must be said. As, of course, in her conception, did Kabanicha at the close.

Mattila’s delivery of her final line, thanking the people for their efforts, offered an unanswerable summation not only of her richly expressive vocal portrayal; not only of her imperious stage presence, unquestionably possessed of a complicated back-story concerning whose nature we could only speculate; but also of work and tight-knit production as a whole. Equally impressive was Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, a character whose soul as well as her vocal line would constantly take flight, as much in societal repression as in those few, rare – in every sense – moments of free expression. Katya’s, Westbroek’s, and Janáček’s humanity shone through, extreme difficulties notwithstanding, indeed in many ways very much on their account. Simon O’Neill, if a little lacking in stage credibility, sang clearly and convincingly as Boris. Florian Hoffmann and Anna Lapkovskaja made for a lively, engaging pair of ‘secondary’ lovers; at least there was some hope remaining of matters turning out better in their case. Pavlo Hunka’s Dikoj and Stephan Rügamer’s Tichon proved keenly observed throughout. All, then, contributed intelligently and movingly to the greater dramatic conception. What a conception that continues to be.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Turandot, Deutsche Oper, 10 October 2019

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Turandot – Elisabeth Teige
Altoum – Peter Maus
Calaf – Ragaà Eldin
Liú – Meechot Marrero
Timur – Byung Gil Kim
Ping – Samuel Dale Johnson
Pang – Michael Kim
Pong – Ya-Chung Huang
Mandarin – Patrick Guetti
Prince of Persia – Olli Rantaseppä (voice), Spyridon Markopoulos (stage)
Two Girls – Alexandra Hutton, Anna Buslidze

Lorenzo Fioroni (director)
Claudia Gotta (revival director)
Paul Zoller (set designs and video)
Katharina Gault (costumes) 

Children’s Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus master: Christian Lindhorst)
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus master: Jeremy Bines) 
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Claude Schnitzler (conductor)

© Bettina Stöß, 2008

Having seen and thought well of Lorenzo Fioroni’s Deutsche Oper production of Turandot five years ago, I was keen once more to make its acquaintance. It did not disappoint, sadly remaining the only interesting staging I have seen,  even though what I took from it this time was somewhat different this time around: whether from difference in emphasis onstage or in my reception I am not entirely sure.

The setting is a relatively modern fascist state: perhaps 1970s, on the basis of costumes and flocked wallpaper, though I am not sure it especially matters beyond not being a regime of Puccini’s own time. (That would open up interesting possibilities for dealing with orientalism and downright racism, yet must await another day.) The people, who had never reminded me so strongly before of those in Boris Godunov, are kept in check by police brutality; quite who is running the show remains unclear, though, the Emperor clearly old and frail, and not alone in that in what seems externally to be a gerontocracy in desperate need of renewal. Why one woman in the crowd refuses to turn and bow to him is again never explained: is she deranged, a dissident, or both? She is eventually beaten into submission. Lack of explanation, though, enables one to draw connections as one will: of whom, or what, is she a harbinger? Liú in heroic defiance? Calaf in foolhardiness? Turandot in a hysteria that here strongly characterises both setting and action? We see Turandot desperately trying to keep things together both before and during the riddles. And she too must obey something higher, an initial refusal to concede following defeat met with police on either side of the stage barring her way.

Marriage of terror and hysteria is the overriding impression, indeed the true marriage, of which that of Calaf and Turandot will be but a reflection. It may and should be understood both politically and psychoanalytically. We see it in the video images of children unable to sleep prior to ‘Nessun dorma’; we see it in the crowd; we see it in the deeds of individuals. We see it also in the falling scenery after the interval (between the two scenes of the second act): the cruelty of a metal frame a metaphor for society and emotions alike. Liú remains hanging from a noose, a warning sign to those who might actually attempt to tell, let alone live, the truth: for her presence, at least that fashion, is also a lie: she was not hanged, but stabbed by the knife she grabbed and turned on herself. The repellent nature of Calaf’s victory is underscored by his final deed: moving to embrace his father, who had been wandering aimlessly before sinking in depression, only to stab him and, quite without emotion, return to his bride. A theatre of cruelty indeed.

Not that the commedia dell’arte is neglected, far from it, whatever the problematical nature of Puccini’s injection of (too much?) psychological realism into the scenario. (Perhaps the problem lies more with unsatisfactory performance traditions; a baleful operatic culture that too often damns Puccini’s operas with box-office-driven productions in mind has much to answer for.) Whatever the truth of that, the pantomimes performed by Ping, Pong, and Pang fascinate, enlivening yet ultimately disconcerting in their mockery. They anticipate, imitate, repeat endless rituals of hope and death that lie at the heart of this strange yet all too familiar society. Are they tellers of potentially liberating truths, in which a Turandot in travesty may gently be mocked? Ultimately not, it seems. Not only are they prisoners too; they, Ping in particular, participate with relish in the capture and torture of Liú. Perhaps they are not to blame; how could they act otherwise? (As we know, they would rather return to the country.) They offer a way of seeing ourselves in all our contradictions, as well as the other characters onstage. Rightly, they fail to live up to our delusional expectations.

Both the chorus and orchestra of the Deutsche Oper were on fine form, clearly relishing the cruel yet often playful drama of Puccini’s score. Claude Schnitzler led his forces well. If his direction sometimes seemed a little too hard-driven to begin with, only to relax a little too much in response, that should not be exaggerated. Harmonies that might have come from Schoenberg or Debussy were just as much the thing as Stravinskian rhythm. Puccini’s Italian heart continued to beat below, however sadistic its dictates. Elisabeth Teige and Ragàa Eldin both took a little time to settle into their roles as Turandot and Calaf. The former greatly benefited from relative taming of her vibrato, proceeding to offer a performance of considerable verbal and musical acuity. Once he had found his balance with the orchestra, Eldin likewise won his laurels, though he might have sung ‘Nessun dorma’ a little less as a stand-alone aria. The tragic tenderness of Liú’s death did great credit to Meechot Marrero, sadistic knife cuts from her torturer – onstage, that is, as opposed to the composer – rendering it close to unwatchable. From the rest of the cast, Samuel Dale Johnson’s quicksilver Ping made one especially keen to see and hear more, but his companions, Michael Kim and Ya-Chung Huang impressed too, as did Byung Gil Kim’s sonorous Timur. This was a strong company evening, then, that did credit both to the repertory system and to this ultimately bizarre and repellent opera.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Tristan und Isolde, Oper Leipzig, 5 October 2019

Leipzig Opera House

Tristan (Daniel Kirch) and Isolde (Meagan Miller)
Images: Tom Schulze

Tristan – Daniel Kirch
Isolde – Meagan Miller
King Marke – Sebastian Pilgrim
Kurwenal – Jukka Rasilainen
Melot – Matthias Stier
Brangäne – Barbara Koselj
Shepherd – Martin Petzold
Steersman – Franz Xaver Schlecht
Young Sailor – Alvaro Zambrano

Enrico Lübbe (director)
Torsten Buß (co-director)
Étienne Pluss (set designs)
Linda Redlin (costumes)
fettFilm (video)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Nele Winter (dramaturgy)

Leipzig Opera Chorus (chorus director: Thomas Eitler-de Lint)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Ulf Schirmer (conductor)

Sailors and Kurwenal (Jukka Rasilainen)

Leipzig’s relationship with its greatest son has never been easy, nor should it have been. Wagner, in all his glorious and inglorious contradictions, is too complicated, problematical, and interesting to be reduced to mere hero-worship; or, as Theodor Adorno put it, ‘progress and reaction in Wagner’s music cannot be separated as sheep from goats’. There has been – arguably, still is – enough of that in Bayreuth, anyway. Many Wagner productions of what we may broadly think of as the Regietheater era have acknowledged that: Rings from Joachim Herz to Frank Castorf and beyond, Parsifal and Meistersinger stagings too. Of the music dramas, however, Tristan has seemed more resistant to problematisation, deconstructive or otherwise. Rare examples with some degree of success have included Peter Konwitschny’s old Munich production and, more fully, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s 2018 staging for Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the latter loudly denounced by most, yet for me fruitful in its alienation. Ultimately, Tristan’s problems seem different: more a matter of balance between drama as conventionally understood and that metaphysical drama of the Schopenhauerian Will and representation which Wagner, for one, certainly came to see as the work’s true core. Or is it, perhaps, that one needs to look and indeed to listen more closely, more subtly, for the fissures of a modernity that no one has ever seriously been able to deny this most singular of works?

Isolde and Tristan

The question remains open, I think. In the meantime – we shall likely ever remain in that meantime – Oper Leipzig has steadily been renewing its Wagner roster. This new Tristan production arises from a welcome Leipzig collaboration with the Intendant at the city’s Schauspiel, Enrico Lübbe, and his deputy, Torsten Buss. Fundamental to the staging is a ship(wreck): the location, in a relatively straightforward realistic sense, of the first act, yet also a focus for memories, dreams, psychological states and philosophical ideas brought into being. Each act has the same basic setting, yet is seen from a different standpoint, in a different state of repair, on a different scale, so as to enable the quasi-symphonic emergence of unity in diversity, ultimately cyclical, as perhaps befits a nineteenth-century work, in a final, post-Liebestod return by Tristan and Isolde to a pristine ship, never previously seen – and perhaps never having existed – in that state. In its second-act ruins, we appreciate not only our construction of connections, but crucially, our capacity for imagination.

Brangäne (Barbara Kozelj) and Isolde

So too does Tristan, who, during Isolde’s initial confrontation with him, soon regresses to the role of a child, even an unborn one, lying in foetal fashion, as if to recapture the essence of a relationship he never consciously experienced first time around, his mother having died during childbirth. Is it his imagination, then, that creates the multiplying Isolde figures during the love duet? What do they signify? There is an aimlessness, an unsatisfactory nature to them, which may hint at dashing of romantic hopes long since foretold, psychoanalytically. There is something, moreover, of the delirium we encounter more fully in the third act, to the way people, settings, thoughts, and even narratives drift in and out of consciousness. Can one, should one, begin to piece them together? Temptation is unavoidable; the production seems to encourage it. A nagging doubt nonetheless remains, like the contemporary, or at least Adornian, nagging doubt concerning Wagnerian totality. It is Tristan und Isolde, of course, not Tristan oder Isolde; the celebrated second-act discussion of ‘diese süße Wörtlein: “und”’ is often understood to offer a conceptual key to the work. And yet, Tristan will tear off his bandages, will he not? In what sense are the two ever truly united? Is the union we witness at the close of this production noumenal, phenomenal, or a sham?

Tristan and Isolde

Oppositions will always play a crucial part in Tristan, above all that between night and day; it would be strange if that did not in some sense feature in a staging. It certainly does here, for instance when the stage turns almost, yet not quite, black – part of the ship may still just be perceived – after drinking of the potion and, again, during the love duet. Night, even then, is a creation: of Tristan and Isolde; of the ship, as foundation and locus of the drama; of Wagner; of the performer; of the audience; and so forth. That we wish the dimly perceptible set to disappear entirely is symptomatic: Romantic illusion and delusion are ours, as well as the characters', as well as Wagner’s. Perhaps, then, we did need to watch and listen more subtly. One might think of this as a collaboration between different forms of light: lighting and video, as well as those entrusted with it (Olaf Freese and Torge Møller of fettFilm); Freese in the programme booklet refers to a ‘Zusammenspiel [interplay] von Licht und Video’. Film, just as much as set design, creates and disintegrates the ship - at least until the close. Likewise, we might say, there are collaboration and, more dramatically, interplay between realism and abstraction; between the individual psychological of chamber theatre – often chamber music, too – and metaphysical symbolism; and, of particular importance to this production, between sea-voyage and its fateful, fatal culmination, symbolised by the image of a ship, perhaps as shipwreck, as its own graveyard, somewhere between stagnant and dead. It should move, yet it does not; rather our gaze moves, or is moved for us by the design team, and more broadly, the production. Our souls, similarly, are moved, or should be, by Wagner’s great Greek Chorus of the orchestra.

Visual and, more specifically, design values are strongly to the fore, yet not for their own sake, as mere backdrop, but as a portal to the dramatic and conceptual. One may think this a Seelenlandschaft (‘landscape of the soul’), as Lübbe describes it, not least when the excellent English horn player, Gundel Jannemann-Fischer, wanders across the stage, a different figure from the Shepherd: a relationship that may perhaps be understood in terms of Schopenhauerian aesthetics and implicit critique or at least (typically Wagnerian) extension thereof. The alte Weise is far more than something the Shepherd plays, yet Wagner would have considered that all the more justification for concealment of the player. Granting the instrument personification, albeit in gentle, non-provocative fashion, both heightens the importance of music and also lightly nods to a twentieth-century world of music theatre, even of post-Holocaust antagonism to idealist totality. Whatever the truth of that – one soon finds one is tied in knots – it is surely the case that even such a quasi-Schopenhauerian relationship may only be accomplished by parallel or, ideally, Hegelian-dialectical communication and understanding of, if not its negation, then at least its inversion; that is, by nurturing also a sense of soul in landscape, in Nature. It was a Romantic reading, ultimately, that I gleaned, as befits an ultimately Romantic work.

Isolde and Brangäne

Much to ponder, then, which is far from always the case in a Tristan staging. Unfortunately, musical fortunes proved patchier, above all from Wagner’s aforementioned tragic Chorus, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and its conductor, Ulf Schirmer. The orchestra has a wealth of Wagnerian experience to call upon; this was no vintage night, however, with some strikingly careless and non-committal playing and only intermittent presence of its distinctive, ‘old German’ tone. Schirmer’s direction certainly did not help, especially in the first act, whose form had yet to be mastered. The opening Prelude seemed to go on forever: not on account of tempo as such, but of a lack of unifying ‘unendliche Melodie’, vertically and horizontally. A striking lack of chemistry between orchestra and conductor may have betokened an off-night; it was nevertheless concerning, given that Schirmer is no visiting conductor, but the opera’s General Music Director and Intendant. As is often the case, ‘traditional’ cuts did their distorting work; neither sole nor even principal responsibility, however, lay with them. Ingolf Barchmann’s bass clarinet deserves a mention for its roving, malevolent, harmonically destabilising contributions.

King Marke (Sebastian Pilgrim) and
Melot (Matthias Stier)

There was more to enjoy vocally, though here the picture was also mixed. Most singers improved as the evening went on, Daniel Kirch’s Tristan fully coming into its own in a highly impressive third act. Too much in the way of first-act barking gave way, ironically, to a more lyrical style. Given that many tenors struggle to make their way through the work in one piece, perhaps this was a matter of first-night nerves and issues of pacing; dramatic instinct and technical ability were certainly present. Meagan Miller’s lyrical, touchingly human Isolde occasionally sounded overwhelmed, yet for the most part offered – and contributed - much. Barbara Koselj’s Brangäne offered the most consistently impressive vocal performance, as unfailingly intelligent as her subtly expressive gesture. Jukka Rasilainen struggled as Kurwenal in the first act, bluff and dry of tone, but recovered markedly in the third. Sebastian Pilgrim made a fine impression as King Marke, sonorous of tone and, again, unquestionably human. Smaller parts were all well sung and acted, Alvaro Zambrano’s Young Sailor in particular catching the ear. (He also, unusually, appeared briefly on stage.) Had there been more consistent collaboration with this chamber-drama sphere from ‘metaphysical’ orchestra and conductor – the opposition is, of course, not precise – the wholeness of the evening’s experience would undoubtedly have been furthered. Yet even in that (relative) lack, one was led to think about the desirability or otherwise of totalising intoxication. Nietzsche’s opus metaphysicum, its score only to be read when wearing gloves, may not always have been fully realised; in a deeper, yes metaphysical, sense, it remained untamed as ever.

Lezhneva/BPO/Fischer - Mozart and Haydn, 4 October 2019


Mozart: Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’
Haydn: Berenice, che fai? Hob. XXVIa:10
Mozart: Concert aria: ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te’ – ‘Non temer amato bene’, KV 505
Haydn: Symphony no.104 in D major, ‘London’

Julia Lezhneva (soprano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Ádám Fischer (conductor, piano)

When Sir Colin Davis returned to the LSO in the mid-1990s, he gave an interview in which he said that, as for most British orchestras, what was really required, in order to tackle their Achilles heel of depth of string tone, was to play more Mozart and Haydn. One is tempted to repeat the prescription, for orchestras and conductors alike, not just for depth of tone, but for basic formal understanding and communication, until one hears the results, after which one tends to conclude that many conductors should actually leave them well alone. Such was fortunately not the case here: whether for the Berlin Philharmonic, on excellent form, or for Ádám Fischer, at least in the first half. If, in the second, Fischer showed himself far too prone to mannerism, the minuet and trio of Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony the most grotesque offender, he also demonstrated beyond question that, when not indulging himself, he was able to lead intelligent and largely convincing performances of music by these two most indispensable, yet elusive, of composers.

Mozart’s Linz Symphony is too often overlooked, bewilderingly so for a work of its stature. First performed by the BPO in 1936, under Victor de Sabata, the orchestra had not played the symphony since 2006, when Daniel Barenboim had conducted it. Its first movement introduction hear opened with due C major pomp, Fischer navigating and communicating its darker side with audible appreciation of the role played by oscillation between major and minor modes in what Charles Rosen characterised as the ‘Classical style’, Mozart’s chromaticism crucial in this particular case. Indeed, the secret of so much Mozartian sonata form was well treated in the first movement as a whole: how to balance and/or project the twin demands of balance itself and formal dynamism. A questing – and surprising – development contributed to that success, likewise a commendably fresh and vigorous recapitulation, even if it lacked the last few degrees of seemingly effortless tension in great accounts of the past (Davis, of course, Böhm, Walter, et al.). Antiphonally placed violins proved telling, as soon as it was possible for them to do so, which is to say long before the introduction concluded.

A fine, generative balance and/or dialectic also characterised the slow movement: in this case, between courtly, Salzburg serenade – strings, almost operatically eloquent, just as much as heavenly Berlin winds – and the Romantic angel of death, which already haunts Mozart’s work here. (In truth, it always did.) Might it have been loved a little more? Perhaps, but relative sternness reaped its own rewards, Beethoven but a stone’s throw away, for all the talk – not entirely unjust – we hear of his symphonism owing more to Haydn than to Mozart. The minuet was not free of mannerism, or at least of manner, but the mitteleuropäisch swing Fischer imparted to it was fine with me. What a relief, moreover, it was not to have it rushed. Was it an affectation to allot its trio to solo instruments? Doubtless, but it worked, in its way, and there was no doubting the excellence of the playing. A fleet finale fizzed as it must, counterpoint commendably clear. It could at times have been a touch more directed, more inevitable, though only by the standards of those elusive great performances of the past. In the here and now, there was much to enjoy. If the Mozartian smile finally revealed were hard-won, a little effort is no bad thing.

Soprano Julia Lezhneva joined the orchestra for two vocal works, either side of the interval. First up was Haydn’s Metastasio setting, Berenice, che fai? Trumpets and drums left; flutes and clarinets arrived, Haydn’s woodwind writing – and the Berliners’ performance of it – reminding us just how close we stand here to The Creation. This was perhaps the highpoint of the concert for me, a vigorous, polished orchestral introduction very much setting the scene for the scena. Lezhneva, by turn imploring, vehement, and dignified, seemed to give everything. Ideally, one might have had a bigger voice, but only rarely did she sound parted. And that dignity, very much Haydn’s own, although perhaps owing a little to Handel, to the vocal line, was truly the thing. If Haydn cannot match the luxuriance, or indeed the characterisation, of the Idomeneo Mozart, there was a vehemence here almost to match.

It was fitting, then, that the second vocal work would be Mozart’s concert aria for Nancy Storace’s Vienna farewell, ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te? – Non temer, amato bene’, KV 505, its words taken (more or less) from the Abbé Varesco’s libretto for Idomeneo. One noted immediately the more personal tone, from Berlin violins even before Lezhneva’s entry. The string tone Fischer favoured here was lighter: perhaps too much on the light side, at least for me, but anyway. His decision to play the piano part himself, however attractive the idea – Mozart probably did so, both in Vienna, and for a Leipzig Gewandhaus performance in 1789 – proved a decidedly mixed blessing, some passages a little skated over, and phrase endings oddly abrupt. Nevertheless, the music was beautifully sung and (orchestrally) played, phrasing otherwise exemplary. If there were occasions when the tessitura seemed to sit somewhat awkwardly for Lezhneva, she certainly made the best of it. I should certainly rather hear her in this music than the mannered, aspirated Cecilia Bartoli, who had given the two most recent Berlin Philharmonic performances of both vocal works (Haydn: 2003, with Simon Rattle; Mozart; 2006, with Barenboim).

Given Rattle’s love for Haydn, I was surprised to see that the orchestra had not performed Haydn’s final symphony since 1991, under Jeffrey Tate. (Its Berlin Philharmonic premiere had been sixty years earlier, the conductor no less than Wilhelm Furtwängler.) I wish, then, that my enthusiasm for Fischer’s performance could have matched that of the audience. It had its moments, yes, but they were far from all positive. The first two movements came off best, the first’s introduction more single-minded than that to the Linz, as befits Haydn’s method here. The exposition proper was relished for precisely what it should be: as great a summation of eighteenth-century symphonic writing as Mozart’s Jupiter. Fischer did not pull around the music, as is fashionable today; it emerged all the stronger for it. If he could not match the grandeur and magnificence of great performances of the past, such as Jochum, Boulez, Davis, and of course Furtwangler, that was not necessarily his aim. There was true purpose to the development, and the recapitulation sounded both known and surprising. What concision and rigour there is here: worthy of Webern (or rather Webern’s is worthy of Haydn).

Fischer took the Andante swiftly, though not necessarily unduly so. There was space, just about, for detail to register without fussiness. Again, one could note the many differences between Mozart and Haydn – and why Wagner, for instance, tended to prefer Haydn’s sonata and symphonic forms to Mozart’s. I had heard grander accounts, but on its own terms, it worked well. Alas, it was with the minuet that things fell apart. Agogic accents, prolonged rests, interpolated grace notes: why, o why? It ended up stumbling rather than swaggering, or whatever it may have been Fischer was seeking to accomplish. The trio seemed to fare better at first, yet soon lost its pulse entirely. Haydn’s finale was taken very fast: not in itself a problem, but must it have been so mercilessly hard-driven? Ultimately, even paradoxically, it ended up sounding more effortful than its counterpart in the Linz. There was no doubting the excellence of the playing, notwithstanding Fischer’s repeated interpolation of grace notes that seemed to have strayed from a ‘Hungarian’-themed café. Bizarre – and a great pity.


Friday, 4 October 2019

Die lustigen Weiben von Windsor, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 3 October 2019

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Frau Fluth (Mandy Friedrich) and Frau Reich (Michaela Schuster)

Sir John Falstaff – René Pape
Herr Fluth – Michael Volle
Herr Reich – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Fenton – Pavol Breslik
Junker Spärlich – Linard Vrielink
Dr Cajus – David Oštrek
Frau Fluth – Mandy Friedrich
Frau Reich – Michaela Schuster
Jungfer Anna Reich – Anna Prohaska
First Citizen – Javier Bernando

David Bösch (director)
Patrick Bannwart (set designs)
Falko Herold (costumes)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

René Pape (Sir John Falstaff) and Chorus

No one would seriously claim Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor to be a masterpiece; the only question, it seems, is whether one might occasionally bear it. In that sense – and probably a few others – it is riper for conversion into opera than a play that stands in no ‘need’ of it. Verdi’s Falstaff has its devotees; if you like that sort of thing, then that is doubtless the sort of thing you will like. Otto Nicolai’s opera, for better or worse, stands closer to the play, for better, and is rarely seen on stage. All credit, then, to the Staatsoper Unter den Linden for resurrecting it for the first new production of the season, with a cast that can rarely have been matched, let alone bettered, and with Daniel Barenboim, no less, in the pit.

Barenboim’s direction prove sure and loving, the warmth of the Staatskapelle Berlin’s response, both to him and Nicolai’s score, exemplary. I cannot imagine that he or (m)any members of the orchestra had performed it before. (Its last outing on Unter den Linden had been three decades previously, in 1989: an apt anniversary, given that the new premiere took place, as seems now to have become customary, on the Day of German Unity.) There was certainly a sense of fresh discovery, but also, equally important, one of grounding in the fertile musical soil from which it had sprung. From the (relatively) celebrated overture onwards, the strings offered a lighter, more golden tone than one often one hears from this band: more Vienna than Berlin, one might say, and not inappropriately so for a composer formerly based in the Austrian capital and who somewhat reluctantly departed for its Prussian counterpart, at Frederick William IV’s invitation, only in order to have his new Singspiel, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor performed. As one of Nicolai’s many illustrious successors at the Linden house, Barenboim seemed to relish equally the composer’s debts to Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Weber, and Rossini, among others. Indeed, the correspondences with early Wagner – we might, perhaps, think this more convincing than Das Liebesverbot, if unquestionably less so than Die Feen – had me wish Barenboim would at last conduct one of the pre-Dutchman operas. Orchestral detail from the early German Romantics, form from the acknowledged masters of opera buffa – if tending more towards Rossini’s formalism than Mozart’s dynamism – and occasional hints of Fidelio and perhaps even Beethoven’s orchestral writing: there are worse mixes, far worse.

If you were expecting a ‘but’, you were not wrong. Nicolai, following ETA Hoffmann, described his work as a ‘comical, fantastical opera’. I suppose it is, if not of uniform success. Ultimately, it is difficult to say that the score, or indeed the opera as a whole, progresses beyond that. Its dramaturgy is somewhat weak, without much or anything in the way of characterisation. Mozart casts a heavy shadow, of course, but the action and humour, such as it is, remain situational and formalistic. Salomon Hermann’s libretto might profitably have distanced itself further from Shakespeare. Still, there are plenty of operas with unsatisfactory libretti and/or dramaturgy. We are not speaking of catastrophes such as Euryanthe or Oberon; nor, however, are we speaking of such scores. This, perhaps, is where a radical production might save the day – except, alas, it did not.

Junker Spärlich (Lienard Vrielink), Jungfer Anna Reich (Anna Prohaska), Fenton (Pavol Breslik), Dr Cajus (David Oštrek)

Save for updating, David Bösch’s production probably does too little. Some might say it does too much, not least with respect to the dialogue. Whatever the truth of that, this does not seem a happy medium. It is difficult to see what is gained, other than avoidance of folksiness – thank goodness for that – from the transposition of the action to what seems to be social housing with a swimming pool (!) Transformations are effected where required. The final scene, in Windsor Park, offers genuine fairy magic, alongside knowing awareness of that transformation. More of that, read back into the frankly laboured earlier comedy, would have been welcome. Bösch picks up on the verbal motif of Sekt and drunkenness, but surely most directors would. Otherwise, we are left with the ‘jokes’ of René Pape in a fat suit, two of the men, Junker Spärlich and Dr Cajus, donning tutus and falling for each other, and women getting the better of their menfolk. The latter victory is of course, a mainstay of comedy, but something more of a critical stance is surely needed at this stage. Or perhaps not: much of the audience seemed to love it. There are worse outcomes than that, far worse.

Dr Cajus, Frau Fluth, Sir John Falstaff

Given the quality of vocal and stage performances, they could be forgiven for that. Pape’s Sir John Falstaff is not nearly so central a role as some might expect, Nicolai and his librettist remaining true to the opera’s title. That said, he and Michael Volle, as Herr Fluth (Ford), offered a winning combination of vocal excellence and lightness of touch, Volle the more natural comedic actor. (If you want to see Pape draped in a shapeless white dress and bonnet, impersonating the old woman of Brentford, now is nevertheless your opportunity.) The greater interest, though, is surely allotted the womenfolk and Fenton. None of them disappointed; indeed, all excelled. Mandy Friedrich and Michaela Schuster’s fine match of stage presence, coloratura, and vocal security proved just the thing, in every respect. Insofar as one could be moved by the drama of characters, it would surely have been by the delightful duo of Anna Prohaska and Pavol Breslik, the former – speaking, uniquely, in German and English – presenting a performance of typical acuity and musicality, the latter ardent even beyond expectations. In their high-spirited, yet ultimately touching, parody of Romeo and Juliet, work, performances, and production surely reached their high point. All singers, however, deserved thanks for fine performances, so too the chorus.

As for Nicolai, it would be of interest to hear more of his music, not least to gain a broader impression. Reputations resting on a single work can often mislead. Ulrich Konrad’s New Grove article on the composer mentions, for instance, an 1832 ‘Baroque style’ Te Deum, which sounds, on the face of that description, rather different from this opera, a work of no mean historical importance. Its overture is charming, and deserves to be heard more often than is the case nowadays. A production willing to press further, to interrogate the work and its possibilities, indeed to create possibilities beyond those immanent, may yet provide us with a more compelling piece of theatre. It certainly offered opportunities, well taken, for fine singing: well appreciated, it seemed, by the audience and the singers themselves. I cannot help but think, however, that Nicolai’s ultimate legacy will remain his founding of the Vienna Philharmonic concerts a few years earlier. There are worse legacies than that, far worse.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Katharina Kammerloher and friends - Wolf, Schoenberg, Brahms, Mahler, Wolf, Reutter, and Falla, 2 October 2019

Apollo Saal, Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Wolf: Auf einer Wanderung; Verschwiegene Liebe; Begegnung; Nimmersatte Liebe; Lied vom Winde
Schoenberg: Brettl-Lieder: ‘Galathea’, ‘Mahnung’, ‘Arie aus dem “Spiegel von Arkadien”’
Brahms: Feinsliebchen, du sollst mir nicht barfuß gehn, WoO 33 no.12; Da unten im Tale, WoO 33 no.6; Vergebliches Ständchen, op.84 no.4
Mahler: Des knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Trost im Unglück’; ‘Verlorne Müh’’; ‘Aus! Aus!’
Brahms: Zigeunerlieder, op.103: ‘Brauner Bursche’, ‘Röslein dreie’
Wolf: In dem Schatten meiner Locken
Brahms: Liebesglut, op.47 no.2
Wolf: Die Zigeunerin
Hermann Reutter: Tanz
Falla, arr. Christian Dominik Dellacher: Siete canciones populares españolas (first performance)

Katharina Kammerloher (mezzo-soprano)
Roman Trekel (baritone)
Klaus Sallmann, (piano)
Ensemble Monbijou: Dana Sturm (piano), Tobias Sturm (violin), Boris Bardenhagen (viola), Hannah Eichberg (cello), Kaspar Loyal (double bass).

With this recital, mezzo-soprano Katharina Kammerloher, joined by colleagues Roman Trekel, Klaus Sallmann, and musicians drawn from the Staatskapelle Berlin under the name of Ensemble Monbijou, celebrated her twenty-five years as a member of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s ensemble. From the past couple of years or so, I have heard her as the Ariadne Composer, Marcellina, and Eva (Meistersinger), and in a trio of roles from Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust at the Linden opera’s reopening, a good number of performances before that too. This, however, was the first time I had heard her in recital. This evening in the Staatsoper’s Apollo Saal proved most enjoyable, heightening the sense of a likeable, intelligent, and versatile artist.

The opening set of Wolf songs did not necessarily offer the easiest way to start, yet struck just the right tone. Attention to detail in Auf einer Wanderung was noteworthy: the floating first syllable of ‘Nachitigallenchor’ indicative of a world of song to come. Pianist, Klaus Sallmann’s piano introduction proved skittish and generative, for both parts. A sense of change, of transformation following the song’s Wagnerian interlude was palpable, Richard Strauss and his world no longer distant; ‘Ach hier, wie liegt die Welt so licht!’ A rapt Eichendorff Verschwiegene Liebe, and vividly communicative performances of the two following songs, prepared the way for a dramatic, unmistakeably post-Wagnerian reading of the Mörike Lied vom Winde, Sallmann’s nimble, directed fingerwork rendering him at least an equal partner. Here and elsewhere, Kammerloher’s collegiality shone through: this was clearly as much an occasion to celebrate the company as a whole as her contribution over the past quarter of a century.

Why Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder are not performed all the time, I simply cannot understand, although I suppose I would say that. It would doubtless be an exaggeration to say they are as indicative of the composer’s subsequent path as his Gurrelieder, but an excellent performance, albeit here of only three, can persuade one otherwise – as this did. One thinks, perhaps inevitably, of Berlin, but a sense of the composer’s travelling between Vienna and Berlin is, or should be apparent, and was in this case. (The songs were not, as has sometimes been claimed, written for Ernst von Wolzogen’s Buntes Theater, where Schoenberg served as Kapellmeister; Schoenberg had written them in Vienna, before leaving for Berlin.) Whatever Schoenberg may have had to say about style and idea, style is crucial here, and Kammerloher – Sallmann too – captured that Schoenbergian cabaret style, leading to Pierrot and beyond. Driven by words in a different way from Wolf, yet without loss to the melodic line, these witty performances were equally driven or, perhaps better, founded upon a rhythmic lilt it is difficult not to consider Viennese.

Brahms and Mahler concluded the first half, the former in folksong mode, the latter not a million miles therefrom, albeit with a distancing that comes necessarily with the Mahlerian territory. Perhaps there might have been a little more sense of alienation in those Wunderhorn songs, although, by the same token, it might in context have sounded overdone. Joined now by pianist Dana Sturm and baritone Roman Trekel, Kammerloher and her partners again worked with the lilt of dance rhythms, to bring out verbal as well as musical meaning, the lightly worn sadness of Brahms’s Da Unten im Tale a particular highlight for me. I was intrigued, moreover, by how Mahler sounded with reference not only to Brahms but to Schoenberg: interesting programming, which paid off handsomely.

Brahms reappeared after the interval, this time accompanied by Wolf (and Sallmann). A lively Brauner Bursche offered perhaps more refulgent vocal tone than we had heard hitherto, yet not at the cost of precision and verbal communication. Brahms’s Liebesglut offered a welcome instance of the composer in darker mode: turbulent and determined in both parts, in work and performance. Such richness here in a single song, wonderfully revealed! Wolf’s Die Zigeunerin offered an intriguing pendant: much more than a more pendant, of course, but again indicative of intelligent, meaningful programming, as was the inclusion thereafter of Hermann Reutter’s post-war Lorca setting, Tanz. One rarely hears Reutter’s music, doubtless partly on political grounds. This song suggested, however, that we should. Motoric, after Hindemith, it proved quite thrilling, both as song and scena, Kammerloher not afraid to make a rawer sound, yet within the bounds of song.  

An accomplished new arrangement, by Christian Dominik Dellacher, for voice, piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, of Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, received its first performance as the final item on the programme: both well prepared and welcome in its contrast. Dellacher’s work was not overdone, yet helped lift or translate the songs into a new setting, the instrumental ensemble bringing an atmospheric sense, appropriate in context, of somewhere between the coffee house and the cabaret. In the most overtly ‘Spanish’ of the songs, such as ‘Nana’ and the closing ‘Polo’, the latter imbued with nervous energy by all concerned, Kammerloher seemed both possessed by and to possess the local idioms. The intervening ‘Canción’ proved, aptly enough, more conventionally songful, harking back to much of what we had heard before. It was a lovely evening, then, and a fitting tribute to Katharina Kammerloher as first among equals.