Wednesday, 25 May 2022

The Wreckers, Glyndebourne, 21 May 2022

Tallan – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Jacquet – Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Harvey – Donovan Singletary
Pasko – Philip Horst
Avis – Lauren Fagan
Laurent – James Rutherford
Thurza – Karis Tucker
Marc – Rodrigo Porras Garulo
Dancers – Rosie Bell, Lucy Bruns, Tash Cru, Sirena Tocco

Melly Still (director)
Ama Inés Jabares-Pita (designs)
Mike Ashcroft (choreography)
Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)
Akhila Krishnan (video)

The Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus director: Aidan Oliver)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciati (conductor)

© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

I so much wanted to like this. Ethel Smyth was an interesting, admirable woman. What little of her other music I have heard I have always found at least to be of interest. Her opera The Wreckers is, moreover, an ambitious work, a great statement of intent, matched in many ways by Glyndebourne’s ambition and intent in staging it and by the commitment of those involved on stage and in the pit. None of that, alas, can disguise a signal dramatic failure, whose tedium was surely increased by the frankly bizarre decision to reinstate cuts made for its 1906 premiere. Sometimes cuts can actually make a work seem longer. (Think of Tristan; or rather do not, for the comparison is anything but forgiving.)

Henry Brewster's French libretto is a serious problem: not so much the language as such, though it is no literary masterpiece, as a broken-backed plot, which on paper looks interesting, even suggestive of a Cornish precursor to Peter Grimes. A multitude of incident and apparent conflict notwithstanding, though, it fails to convince. This is partly, I think, on account of so many trees of incident obscuring the dramatic wood. Here lies neither direction nor directness. One loses track—maybe just I did—of who is who, receives little musical help, and finds it difficult to care. Presentation of a host of unpleasant people in the service of a still more unpleasant occupation fails not only to engage, or even to ring true.  There is a message somewhere, but it struggles to emerge.

Smyth’s music is more immediately impressive: at its most structurally convincing when it comes to the choral writing, of which there is much. Even there, beyond being loud and accomplished, it remains anonymous, returning one to the questions of where the drama lies and why one should care. The rest, however, goes beyond mere eclecticism to a banquet of the derivative, all courses served more or less at once, resolving into a strange, indigestible purée of notes. Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Grieg, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Elgar; and so it goes on, and on, and on… Lack of a definable voice is one thing; so too is a lack of originality; this score, however, seems never to know where to turn, quite to lack harmonic and often even melodic direction. The third of three acts is probably the most interesting, perhaps not coincidentally the least backward-looking of the three. Maybe this was apprentice work, from which Smyth in other circumstances would have emerged more fully equipped; maybe a revision beyond cuts and greater theatrical experience would have produced something more convincing.

© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith


Perhaps some would have held Robin Ticciati’s conducting responsible; it is difficult to say confronted by an entirely unfamiliar work. My sense, though, was of committed musical direction that was determined to mould the score into something more cohesive, failing through not fault of its own. The LPO sounded possessed with belief, rather like the community of which we heard the words tell, yet never felt for ourselves. So too did the Glyndebourne Chorus, outstanding in every respect. I cannot imagine a better case being made for what is probably the oratorio-heart of Smyth’s writing. Heft, precision, and clarity were impeccable, as were these singers’ acting skills. The vocal cast was largely impressive too, Lauren Fagen and Karis Tucker shining throughout, but especially towards the close, in the two principal female roles, Rodrigo Porras Garulo ardent as Marc, a romantic hero in whom one would have liked to believe.

© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith


The conservatism of Melly Still’s production cannot have helped. I wonder what a director such as Katie Mitchell might have made of material that surely needed to be brought more out of itself, framed, interrogated, were it to have any hope of succeeding. As it is, the staging, half-heartedly ‘modern dress’—as people might have said half a century ago—shows little sign even of drawing basic distinctions between different standpoints. For something in one way so straightforward, it is paradoxically obscure and confusing. Female dancers in Edwardian dress, presumably in some sense signifying the composer, come and go; whatever it is their presence is supposed to contribute passed me by entirely. In a way, this mirrors the work, albeit with less octane and conviction: throw everything in, a shopping trolley included, and see what emerges. It is barely an æsthetic, though, let alone an enlightening one. The only respect in which Still really scores—this should certainly be acknowledged—is in detailed direction of the individuals who came together to make the chorus. 

So there you have it. Musical performances made as powerful a case as is likely to be made for the opera. The greater part of the first-night audience loved what it heard, roaring approval in no uncertain terms. A few more sober souls were simply relieved that it was over. I do not begrudge The Wreckers being afforded this opportunity; how else might we reach any sort of informed judgement? By the same token, I cannot imagine ever wanting to hear it again.

Monday, 23 May 2022

Venus and Adonis/Dido and Aeneas, HGO, 20 May 2022

Cockpit Theatre

Venus – Elizabeth Green
Adonis – Conall O’Neill
Cupid – Ralph Thomas Williams
Shepherdess – Hannah Savignon-Smythe
Huntsman – Matthew Secombe
Shepherds – Garreth Romain, Angelo Fallaria, Fabian Tindale Geere

Dido – Katey Rylands
Aeneas – Sonny Fielding
Belinda – Julia Surette
Sorceress – Helena Cooke
Second Woman – Isabelle Haile
Witches – Olivia Carrell, Abbie Ward
Spirit – Hannah Savignon-Smythe
Sailor – Matthew Secombe

Jessica Dalton (director)
Kate Goldie Cheetham (choreography)
Tom Turner (lighting) 

HGOAntiqua Orchestra
Seb Gillot (conductor)

Images: Laurent Compagnon, @LaurentCphotos 
Dido and Aeneas

Two operas from the English dawn of the genre: a winning combination, if not so frequently encountered as one might expect. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is, of course, universally considered a landmark in the histories both of English music and of opera: ‘Tristan and Isolde in a pint pot’, as Raymond Leppard once called it (and I have probably quoted at least once too often). Blow’s Venus and Adonis, still earlier and more closely tied to the Stuart court masque tradition, will doubtless always be less popular; it has many of its own virtues, though, which arguably emerge all the more clearly when one has such opportunity not only to compare but also to contrast. 

HGO’s Venus, directed by Jessica Dalton, begins aptly enough in the office of a modern dating bureau, an obvious yet telling location for Cupid to initiate his Prologue proceedings, essentially a programme of instruction (as becomes more apparent still in the second of the three short acts). Shepherds and shepherdesses try out, consider, and swap partners—probably inconclusively. Then the action returns to more or less where it ‘should’ be: a mythological setting that is probably ancient, but really could be anywhere, suggesting a ‘universality; that will be part, though only part, of our consideration when answering the puzzling—and puzzlingly little asked—question as to why we are so interested in the art of the past at all, and how it comes to speak to us. Various second-act dances—perhaps more masque than opera, even by this work’s standards—are well choreographed and danced, such as might well have pleased the man who above all had to be pleased: Charles II. Often, less is more; here, something straightforward and stylish eminently fits the bill. 

Venus (Elizabeth Green), Adonis (Conall O'Neill), Cupid (Ralph Thomas Williams)

Questions of performance and meaning are complicated further, of course, by a performing art such as music, indeed perhaps especially so by music, more so than spoken drama, in which we can cling to the fiction—we hardly have an alternative—that our ‘instruments’ remain the same. We do so, to greater or lesser extents, when it comes to voices, but greater controversies issue with respect to other musical instruments. Today, again somewhat puzzlingly, opera appears to have decided upon a mixture of ‘period’ musical practices and more  ‘contemporary’, or at least ‘modern’, theatre. This is not really the place to question that; it is a complex question, and much is a matter of business too, as well as allied pragmatics. What we see and hear is generally said to work, and we (nearly) all want something that works rather than something that does not. Such questions and others, related, are nevertheless worth reminding ourselves of, though, at least from time to time; for surely history interests when it renders strange, as well as when it renders familiar, and these things are likely to change according to what is (and is not) more common practice.   

For Dido, we return to an office. I admit I had not at all gathered Dalton’s concept, prior to reading the programme. Apparently, the action takes place ‘in the halls of a modern political institution, something a little like the UN perhaps, or the EU’, and Dido is a political leader. I am afraid it all looked rather like a provincial sales office to me, perhaps having an ‘away day’. It is probably not worth retelling my misunderstanding beyond that, other than to say that the witches appear to be cleaners, understandably offended by the mess people had made, and that Dido eventually swallows some pills, no pyre in sight. I was clearly not on the right wavelength, yet in retrospect can see a degree of overall framing between the two works, the loneliness of online dating replicated in that of Dido’s suicide and the inability of others to see in time what had happened.   

Dido (Katey Rylands) and Aeneas (Sonny Fielding)

Musically, however, one could enjoy a parade of excellent, increasingly confident young singers, all of them worth our attention, providing a sense of company both in dramatic interaction and in their coming together (some of them) as small chorus in both operas. Elizabeth Green’s Venus and Conall O’Neill’s Adonis were both beautifully sung, with excellent attention to verbal as well as musical matters. Ralph Thomas Williams’s Cupid made for a lively and mischievous cat to set among the pigeons. Katey Rylands and Sonny Fielding offered a Dido and Aeneas who grew considerably within the small confines of Purcell’s operas, the former’s Lament deeply moving in the best of traditions, the latter’s dark tone nicely suggestive of wounded masculinity. Again, verbal and musical acuity were finely matched. A fine ‘supporting’ cast had no weak links; I shall mention Isabelle Haile and Matthew Secombe as singers who especially caught my ear. 

Using his own, specially prepared editions, Seb Gillot led a small ‘period’ band in performances that loved to dance, but also to engage in dramatically generative gradations of recitative, aria, and much that lies between (whether in more Italianate, French, or English styles), as well as in affective tonality (perhaps especially strong in Dido). In Dido, Gillot provides music for much of what has been lost, though not the mythological prologue. The additional music works well, and permits a fuller, speculative experience—as in that of, say, Benjamin Britten’s edition—of what might have been. There is imagination If I was initially surprised to hear an oboe in the Overture, my ears adjusted: so much so that there was at least one moment later on when I could have sworn I heard a wind instrument, only to look and see that a viola had tricked me. There is probably an unflattering name for such an aural condition, but here we should take it to indicated a committed performance whose small scale did not preclude greater and amply realised ambition. The darker harmonies of Dido were certainly present, portraying Venus intriguingly and productively as the more distant from us. Form, vividly apparent, helped accomplish this too. This may not always be the way I hear Purcell or Blow in my head, but it would be surprising if it were. I learned much from listening, which is all I can ask.

I shall be hearing—and seeing—Dido again next month in very different circumstances, as part of a double-bill with Bluebeard’s Castle, directed by Barrie Kosky. There is room for all, and I do not doubt that memories of this performance, as well as others, will frame and inform how I respond to that too. However unfashionable it may be to speak in such terms, Dido and Aeneas is an imperishable masterpiece; every encounter should be a joy. This, in its well-chosen context, was certainly that. As for my misunderstanding of the staging, I shall ascribe it to tiredness at the end of a long week.

Friday, 20 May 2022

London Sinfonietta/Cornelius - Varèse, Boulez, Feldman, Berio, and Davies, 18 May 2022

Hall Two, Kings Place

Varèse: Density 21.5
Boulez: Dérive 1
Morton Feldman: The Viola in My Life 3
Berio: O King
Tansy Davies: grind show (unplugged)

Simone Ibbett-Brown (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Cox (flute)
Paul Silverthorne (viola)
London Sinfonietta
Gerry Cornelius (conductor)

The London Sinfonietta’s Couch to Concert programme is intended for ‘newcomers … an exercise programme for the ears that will help you work towards attending a concert of contemporary classical music, and arm yourself with the tools to listen to (and even enjoy!) this genre’. I confess that I have yet to listen to the podcasts, but what an excellent idea. There certainly seemed to be a reasonable turnout in Hall Two of Kings Place; let us hope that some at least of the audience was there for the first time as a result. 

Varèse’s Density 21.5, here performed by Michael Cox, has humanity’s oldest instrument become its newest. Cox offered detail without pedantry, a masterclass in notes becoming music. Variations in vibrato, attack, dynamics, as well as telling phrasing all contributed to overall shape and direction, in a vividly communicative performance that would surely have had many wonder why this music might ever have been considered ‘difficult’. Boulez’s Dérive 1 followed, that opening, generative figure pregnant with potential. Its febrile clarity, married to post-Debussyan languor created and constructed balance and direction before our ears. Endlessly transforming, both free and determined, this was a fine introduction to the Boulezian labyrinth. 

Morton Feldman offered an instructive contrast, with the third of his The Viola in My Life pieces, this for viola (Paul Silverthorne) and piano (Elizabeth Burley). Its introverted intensity put me in mind almost of a passive-aggressive Messiaen (!) More fundamentally, though, its undeniable minimalism emerged as a real aesthetic, not the populist tag of contemporary centrist dads who merely like the sound music makes. Like what had gone, as well as what was to come, it had one listen. 

Berio’s O King was the only piece to open the human voice: older still than the flute, of course. It is difficult, probably impossible, to imagine humanity without it. Mezzo Simone Ibbett-Brown proved utterly in control of her instrument, if we may call it that, dazzlingly so when dovetailing with other members of the ensemble. Differences were revealed too, as they were between other players, ultimately revealed as penumbra to her lament for Dr King. Last up was Tansy Davies’s grind show (unplugged), to my ears more clearly post-Stravinskian than anything else we had heard. Rhythmically insistent, even obstinate, its status as dance music was abundantly clear in this London Sinfonietta performance. Something for everyone, then, which I suspect was a good part of the point.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Mavra and Pierrot lunaire, Royal Opera, 17 May 2022

Linbury Studio Theatre

Parasha – April Koyejo-Audiger
Hussar, Mavra – Egor Zhuravskii
Mother – Sarah Pring
Neighbour – Idunnu Münch
Pierrot – Alexandra Lowe

Anthony Almeida (director)
Rosanna Vize (designs)
Lucy Carter, Alan Mooney (lighting)
Anjali Mehra (movement)

Britten Sinfonia
Michael Papadopoulos (conductor)

Images: Helen Murray / ROH

The Royal Opera’s Young Artists Programme celebrates twenty years with a Linbury double-bill of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Mavra and Pierrot lunaire. It is an odd combination: one of Stravinsky’s less-loved works, a very short opera, with a cabaret melodrama that is no opera, yet is probably its composer’s single most celebrated work. If one tried hard enough, one could doubtless fathom a tenuous connection, but then one could probably do so between anything. Director Anthony Almeida, then, is probably right to have left his guiding thread at little more than surface level, concentrating instead on presentation of two unequal halves. 

All too readily underestimated, Mavra, here given in a chamber arrangement by Paul Phillips, is in many ways emphatically a Russian work. If aspects of Stravinsky’s very particular sound world are necessarily lost—it was not solely on account of where I was seated that my experience was piano-heavy—an imaginative realisation, alluding consciously or otherwise to scores such as The Soldier’s Tale, presents other possibilities. Pushkin, in any case, seems unusually apparent, even, perhaps especially, in a staging that emphasises the formalism of something akin to face. Stravinsky always revels in patterns, in allusion, in parody, and in disjuncture: this has it all, musically and scenically. Colour and ‘look’ are to the fore, part of a surface that may or may not preclude discovery of anything beneath. The drag transformation of officer Vasily into maid Mavra amounts in a Warhol-like way to something, despite its essential nothingness. Is that, perhaps what a host of bin bags tell us? It also engineers a connection of sorts to Pierrot, where Almeida has a woman by contrast turn period androgyne. Indoors becomes outdoors; lighting becomes both alternative lighting (moon) and pitch blackness. Reappearance of Mavra’s cast seemed to me a little more forced, the sign interpreter more animated. Pierrot’s presence early on in in Mavra added little other than mild confusion, at least for me. Thought had been given, though, to an attempt to combine; that was enough, really. 

Michael Papadopoulos, members of the Britten Sinfonia, and an able, alert cast captured well the knowing devices of Stravinsky’s score. It twists and turns, so long as one listens, and provides a splendid counterpoise—it certainly did here—to stage action that continues to surprise in its entirely unsurprising course. April Koyejo-Audiger reminded us, throughout, that whatever the games Stravinsky may have been playing, a Russian heart beat, sometimes irregularly, always metrically, beneath. Egor Zhuravskii offered dislocated bel canto contrast and complement. Sarah Pring and Idunnu Münch navigated with wit the fine line between stock characters and their light deconstruction, Glinka and the 1920s. If there were times when I missed the full instrumentation, the youth of this eternally young work nonetheless shone through. 

Stravinsky must surely rank as one of Pierrot’s most quoted admirers. ‘The solar plexus as well as the mind of twentieth-century music,’ he called it, hailing on another occasion the ‘instrumental substance’ that had ‘impressed me immensely. And by saying “instrumental”, I mean not simply the instrumentation of this music but the whole contrapuntal and polyphonic structure of this brilliant masterpiece’. That came through, clearly, in a performance whose lines, reciter’s included, were supremely well balanced, wandering in tonality as in character. A touch more expressionism might not have gone amiss, but there are many worse things than a somewhat classicising Pierrot. Given its all-encompassing yet contradictory nature, the work doubtless resists a ‘complete’, let alone ‘ideal’, performance. It was nonetheless difficult to imagine Alexandra Lowe’s personal combination of speech, pitch, and gesture being readily improved upon.

If Pierrot took a slightly Stravinskian turn, what could be more contextually appropriate? Not that there was not darkness too, likewise catastrophe and sheer weirdness, but the balance had shifted. There will be other Pierrots, other attempts, as Beckett had it, to ‘fail better’, but this will have made new converts, who, like the rest of us, should prepare to be surprised once again by this ever-surprising chameleon of a work.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Buchbinder/Gewandhaus/Nelsons - Strauss, 10 May 2022

Barbican Hall

Don Juan, op.20
Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

At long last, London seems to be reopening its doors to visiting orchestras; that is, to orchestras visiting from what we on Brexit-Insel shall presumably soon be referring to as ‘the Continent’ and beyond. Not a moment too soon, as this all-Strauss concert from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra reminded us. The orchestra’s magnificent blend of individual virtuosity, from concertmaster to timpanist, with dark, unhomogenised, ‘old German’ tone showed what we have been missing in the meantime. Andris Nelsons revelled in the sheer capability of his orchestra, perhaps sometimes a little too much—but can we really blame him? Even the Barbican’s acoustic did not sound all that bad. 

Don Juan is quite the curtain-raiser, even for the second half of ‘The Strauss Project’, the first instalment having taken place the night before. (Must everything now be a ‘project’, let alone ‘the project’?) It was that combination of virtuosity, which is of course non-negotiable for the piece, with depth, of precision and warmth, that struck me from the outset. I was not entirely convinced by the extremes of tempo Nelsons brought to it, although if I am honest, I enjoyed the languor even as I knew it was wrong (partly how a younger, sterner, long-since-vanquished me thought of Strauss more generally). And there were always sheer phantasmagoria and phantasmagoria-about-to-be-revealed to be enjoyed too. Soloists too numerous to mention shone without exception, though I simply cannot fail to do so for Henrik Wahlgren’s oboe. And the sense of Lenau’s idealism at the end blazed, even if I could not quite tell you how we had got there. The orchestra itself was the thing; and what a thing it was. 

The Burleske for piano and orchestra I still find puzzling, unclear quite what it amounts to or why, though that is doubtless my fault. It seems mostly to fall under Brahms’s spell, with little sign of the real Strauss, but then it is a very early work. Rudolf Buchbinder brought solid technique to the piano part, though he lacked the magic the initially programmed Yuja Wang might have offered. The splendid dialogues between timpani and orchestra, and timpani and piano, were brought vividly to life by Tom Greenleaves. Once again, the Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded outstanding, whetting one’s appetite for Brahms, as well as more Strauss. The account as a whole was well shaped, with a fine command of detail. If ultimately it felt over-extended, that is surely a matter for Strauss rather than Nelsons and Buchbinder. Rather to my surprise, the latter gave a sparkling account as encore of Alfred Grünfeld’s Johann Strauss paraphrase, Soirée de Vienne. There was now something wonderfully old-school to his pianism; it made me smile. 

Also sprach Zarathustra is a very difficult piece to bring off, so much so that often one can wonder whether the fault lies with the piece itself. Nelsons and his orchestra triumphantly showed that it did not, in what is probably the best live performance I have heard of it. Nelsons’s way with it was rather operatic, or at least highly dramatic. And because the drama was there, so too was the irony, both meaningful in practice rather than mere theory. All too often, the opening sounds stiff; here, by contrast, it gave a sense of being alive, even of vitalism as a Nietzschean principle, that persisted and developed throughout. It was moulded, as Strauss must be—this is not music that plays itself—but unobtrusively, so as to give the illusion of something ‘natural’. Richness and cultivation of solo string tone simply had to be heard to be believed: next stop, the Prelude to Capriccio, it seemed. Its expansion into the entire string section likewise seemed to prefigure that opera’s ‘Mondscheinmusik’. Here, one knew, was a collection of soloists that could t turn into a unified mass at the drop of a hat. Hearing that transformation was itself worth the price of entry, as were those darker-still passages that threatened to turn into Die Frau ohne Schatten. The fugue took its time, but with an air of mystery to it such as I cannot recall; at last, I felt its dramatic sense. Waltzing was so infectious I could actually see members of the orchestra, listening to their colleagues, sway. Nelsons showed a keen sense, moreover, of how Strauss builds the tone-poem motivically, in tandem with harmony and overall structure. There is no room, nor was there in performance, for the either/or here. For there was a sense of joy, not always a characteristic associated with Strauss, that here seemed ineffably as right as it would in Bach, Handel, or Haydn. The comparison may seem odd, but it did not at the time. Nor, I think, would it have done so to Nietzsche. 

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Kožená/Staples/LPO/Gardner - Birtwistle and Mahler, 6 May 2022

Royal Festival Hall

Birtwistle: Deep Time
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner (c) Mark Allan 


For many, the greatest English composer since Purcell and the greatest English composer of opera tout court, Harrison Birtwistle died little more than a fortnight before this concert. Even for those more sceptical, or with other candidates, his was a titanic presence not only in English and British music, but in the music of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. With the partial exception of Elgar, here, rightly or wrongly, was the first major composer from this island viewed in his lifetime with equal esteem by the rest of the world. Was anyone ever disappointed by a Birtwistle work? Some were repelled, true, yet they were usually those who knew nothing of music and cared less, wishing simply to strike a reactionary pose. The claim that Britten walked out of the premiere of Punch and Judy seems almost certainly untrue—why would he?—though it does not stop the story being repeated. (I suppose I am at least part-guilty here.) The sheer quality—and individual quality at that—of each work was breathtaking. It was, then, a fitting albeit unexpected tribute, in a programme long planned, to have this concert dedicated to Birtwistle’s memory. 

Deep Time has gone deeper, I think, but Edward Gardner’s performance with the LPO nonetheless gave a good sense of its essence, of ‘how it goes’. A typical and typically unique opening, dark and ominous, growled, formed, developed, layers of geological sediment, both material and metaphorical, beginning to overlap, punctured and once again formed by shafts and shards of light. Processes, ‘natural’ and ‘mechanical’, the latter not a million miles from the clocks as well as the heavier industry of northern historical landscapes, had us ask initially whether the strange yet familiar musical juggernaut passing before us were animate or inanimate: Harrison’s Clocks or Minotaur? Or, as Birtwistle himself pointed out: ‘geologic time,’ as ‘first proposed by the eighteenth-century Scottish geologist James Hutton,’ involving ‘a perpetual cycle of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation for which there is “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”.’ 

Process, however, and drama—and colour, what colour! Birtwistle and Brahms probably do not have much in common, though their CDs sit close, alphabetically, on my shelves—likewise those of Britten and Boulez, contributing to a host of difficult relationships, sometimes shading into antipathies. Nonetheless, music by Birtwistle and Brahms shares a characteristic in that, though sometimes decried as lacking in colour compared, say, to fantastical creations from French and Russian schools, as soon as one listens, a myriad of colours opens up beneath the surface, in fact coming together to form that surface. In Brahms’s case, I once heard that likened to the magic of a pond: not meant unkindly, far from it. Here, it is a slice of geological landscape and its ecosystem. How does it fit together? It is difficult to say, though hocket appears to provide both glue and dynamism: continuity in discontinuity. Vertical shocks and after-shocks help form its beauty, but as so often, so does the landscape behind: changing, yet probably on account of our shifting standpoint, rather than its. Birtwistle’s memorial for Peter Maxwell Davies, premiered in 2017 by Daniel Barenboim, continued his own endless parade. 

Das Lied von der Erde can be understood, or at least experienced, as a memorial too, though it should no more be reduced to that than should Deep Time. For me—others may differ—Mahler ideally requires a firmer view; it is ‘conductor’s music’ in an emphatic sense, though certainly not only that. It can take many views, from Boulez to Haitink, Klemperer to Bernstein, but here Gardner seemed too ready to act, at least until the final song, as ‘accompanist’. This was a performance, at any rate, that, again until that long, final farewell, sounded very much as song-cycle rather than symphony. Fair enough, one might say; is that not a view in itself? And nowhere, after all, does Mahler call Das Lied a symphony. True, though surely there is an implicit call for greater continuity than we heard here. On the performance’s own terms, though, we heard estimable contributions by Magdalena Kožená, Andrew Staples, and the LPO, and were mercifully not subjected to a perverse standpoint, to a determination to do things to Mahler’s score, which can all too readily prove the obverse side to the ‘personal’ coin. 

Staples opened the cruel (to the tenor) first song not only valiantly, but with great success, a supportive Gardner doubtless drawing on his long operatic experience to unsure that the singer could be heard. If the orchestra sounded at times a little harsh—beyond, I think, the demands of sardonic mood—that was probably more a matter of the Festival Hall acoustic, especially in the Stalls, than a mark of interpretation. Its performance, like that of Staples, was in any case admirably clear and pointed, teeming (perhaps not entirely unlike Birtwistle’s piece) with life/death. ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.’ The difference between ice and fire was mediated on a knife-edge by sweet LPO violins. 

Kožená’s approach, ineffably sincere, unquestionably rooted in the verbal text, had an instrumental quality to it too, especially in the second song, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, as if her voice were another woodwind instrument, perhaps a chalumeau, joining the LPO consort. Ambiguity between twin needs for peace and refreshment (‘Ja, gib mir Ruh’, ich hab’ Erquickung not!’) was fundamental, the contrast with a bright-eyed ‘Von der Jugend’ (Staples) clear and meaningful. Nicely etched—one could well-nigh hear the brushstrokes—it was in turn succeeded in contrast by an expressive ‘Von der Schönheit’ from Kožená. A vivid orchestral parade could have been a little sharper, but resonances with earlier works made their point: another ‘endless parade’. Within the song, moreover, Kožená characterised with keen sense of drama contrasts between outer sections and more volatile middle, the steed’s mane tossed in frenzy. Staples and Gardner forged a sense of touching intimacy in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, as if the forest Siegfried had finally attained the capacity to reflect. Throughout, we heard intriguing contrasts and much lovely detail; slightly lacking, whether by default or design, was that symphonic guiding thread. 

The dark opening chords of ‘Der Abschied’ brought, in context, momentary remembrance of Deep Time, but more so, a sense of fate so as necessarily to introduce oboe and other solos. It was time for a long farewell, Kožená’s entry thoughtfully heralded by the arrival of a text message somewhere in the audience. Even that, however, could not stop the sun sinking as flute and mezzo sang. Kožená painted the landscape beautifully, not least the floating moon, ‘wie eine Silberbarke’. It was a world of silver and shadows, of moonlight, like Birtwistle’s very different landscape both physical and metaphysical. With the crucial new vista between ‘letzten Lebewohl’ and ‘Ich sehne mich’, as with subsequent return to darkness, not only did Kožená’s voice bloom, but the performance turned decisively to symphonic mode; via Schopenhauerian metaphysics, fate was proclaimed the order of the day. On that latter turn, the aural sky turned crimson; and so began the inexorable tread to eternal peace. ‘Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.’ And so it felt, woodwind barbs notwithstanding. For this might be death, but it was no longer dark; that had been life. A radiant, deeply moving, final farewell was heard and felt. With the fragile, ineffably touching advent of the mandolin, tears began to flow, reflected in heavenly (celestial) arpeggios from, yes, the celesta. ‘Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!’ A glimpse, then, of eternity: ‘Ewig … ewig…’.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Fin de partie, Opéra national de Paris, 30 April 2022

Palais Garnier

Hamm – Frode Olsen
Clov – Leigh Melrose
Nell – Hilary Summers
Nagg – Leonardo Cortelazzi

Pierre Audi (director)
Christof Hetzer (designs)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Klaus Bertisch (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Markus Stenz (conductor)

Images: Sébastien Mathé/OnP

Modernism’s endgame, modernist opera’s endgame, opera’s endgame: all have been proclaimed time and time again. One might say the same for Romanticism, Classicism, sonata, symphony, and other isms and genres. Whatever the truths of the matter—we can no longer justifiably speak in the singular, if ever we could—this first opera by György Kurtág, first heard in Milan in 2018 and now receiving its French premiere, suggests that twilight, however prolonged, has once again proved as productive, as challenging, as illuminating as first dawn or zenith. The owl of Minerva may or may not be spreading its wings; Kurtág may or may not be almost the last modernist standing; opera may or may not be stronger, more varied, more resistant than ever before. These are inevitable and may even be important questions. What matters above all, though, is that Kurtág’s Fin de partie/Endgame emerges, even from a single hearing, a single experience in the theatre, as an unqualified masterpiece.   

Janus-faced, like most—all?—artworks of stature, Fin de partie takes Beckett’s masterpiece, which Kurtág first saw in Paris in 1957, and, in concluding a modernist chapter, perhaps even a book, appears also to open several more. Although it feels very much a finished work, it remains at least in theory a work-in-progress, to which Kurtág might add further ‘scenes and monologues’ from Beckett’s play—or even conceivably from elsewhere, given its second Prologue (the first being purely orchestral) is a setting for Nell, startlingly in English rather than French, of the poem Roundelay. This ‘dramatic version’ of the play, in most respects literal, with the slightest addition here or somehow seems always to have been conceived for music, indeed seems never to have existed without it. Libretto (if one may call it that) instructions are as detailed musically—‘comme une mélodie de Debussy’—as they are scenically, or both: ‘mouvement très lent d’interrogation avec la main gauche esquisse le “et puis” de Gr. C. et Piatti … assez grand changement de ton’. Many thanks are due to the Opéra national de Paris for reprinting it: an invaluable resource for future study and reflection, as well, I hope, as for subsequent preparation.   

The ultimate synthetic distillation, though, is musical—just as one often fancies Beckett’s words to point not only to the limits, the endgame, of language, but to the beginning, the necessity of music. (His Schopenhauerism extended way beyond mere ‘pessimism’, to the truly aesthetic.) Words here are everything—one hears, and hears measured every one—until they are not. That ancient operatic alchemy we trace back at least as far as Monteverdi is once more at work, and Monteverdi—the Monteverdi of the dramatic madrigals and the two surviving late operas in particular—comes to mind among many ghosts of the opera-as-sung-play past. Mussorgsky, Debussy, Berg, Janáček stand prominently among them, as well inevitably—if perhaps more tangentially—as Wagner, Bach (‘not an opera composer, but’), and even Boulez (ditto?) Are these affinities or similarities, or are they actual influences? Does it really matter? It seems both to do so, as we reach the end of the game, but also not. After all, what does matter when we reach the end of the game, that any game, any game? 

For, apart from his own voice—what a strange provision!—that which comes most strongly to mind is another supreme writer of vocal-dramatic music on the smaller scale, whom we yet imagine desiring, wishing, ultimately aiming to bring forth an operatic synthesis. As it was in the beginning, it still is now: Webern. Perhaps not even in Webern have I heard such sustained, certainly not such dramatic, development of intervallic relationships, in themselves and in relation to timbre (probably other parameters too) so as to fulfil the tragic necessity of rebuilding a shattered universe: the same task, yet always different. Every note counts, of course, yet every note is heard and felt, and bears the ultimate weight of tragic and tragicomic existence that we may know it counts. The affinity with Beckett’s language and what some understandably, straining at the bounds, will term in despair anti-literature is clear; but music is no representative mirror, any more than it is in Monteverdi, Wagner, or Webern. Its autonomy, its pairings—here as crucial as any in Bach or Bartók—and so much else continue: in hope, if you like, yet only in the strange sense that Beckett does. Until, I think, the close, when something strange happens, a musical synthesis taking wing and building, such as can often happen almost irrespective of intention. Think, for instance, of Wagner. This is less evidently redemptive, though stirrings of sympathy for Hamm and Clov are not entirely denied. Fin de partie, however, seems to speak or sing of something that might refashion redemptive ideas through shattered glass, shattered lives, the fragmentary challenges of modernity and modernism.


An orchestra used sparingly and with very different balances from that of the Romantic past—a modern ‘ensemble’ writ large—tells us that throughout. Just five first violins and five seconds, against eight violas, eight cellos, and six double basses, and indeed five flutes, six percussionists, two bayans (Beckettian vaudeville movingly transmuted via Sofia Gubaidulina), and so on have seeped into our consciousness, yet rarely if ever together. Mahler haunts, but he cannot live. Conducting, as he did earlier performances in Milan and Amsterdam, Markus Stenz understands or at least appreciates—can anyone ‘understand’?—communicates, and lets that fragility breathe and expire. We all listen, whether something can be said or sung, or not. For what else is there to do? Not listen, of course, but which of us wishes to assume Nagg’s fate? We know there will be no sugar-plum at the end, celesta notwithstanding. 

And yet, music endures, as does theatre—as, perhaps, do literature and drama too. A wonderful quartet of soloists ensures that, as does Pierre Audi’s careful direction, doubtless treading a minefield of what the dread estate, as well as the dedicated composer, would permit. Action/inaction takes place outside the house, but it looks very much as we should expect, without ever feeling expected: post-drama, we might think, of the post-absurd. Frode Olsen, struggling with illness, nonetheless held the stage with a fiercely committed performance as Hamm, holding it all together, in the tragicomic absence of any ‘it’ to hold. Leigh Melrose’s protean Clov, wounded yet spirited, alert and alive, yet quite without hope, struck me as definitive, however illusory the idea. An outstanding artist whenever I have heard him, Melrose may have given his finest performance yet. Hilary Summers offered a masterclass in extracting much from little, as Kurtág and Beckett do themselves. Transformation of a vocal line, through pitch, dynamics, shifting colour said, as with the rest of the cast, the rest of the work, both something and nothing, often in chamber collaboration with an instrument or two from the pit. Crucially, Nell’s death could neither have been more nor less heartbreaking. Leonardo Cortelazzi’s made for a fine sidekick, his Nagg splendidly, pointlessly excitable yet resigned. Steeped, like the others, both in the text and in its twin possibilities and impossibilities, he closed and opened the square that should have been a circle. 

Here, then, is a masterpiece in a way that seems, both modestly and defiantly, not of our age. Many composers would now, quite understandably, tell us such is not their interest. They are not attempting to write works such as Fin de partie and failing, ‘better’ or otherwise. Given the ideological issues at play, we can all understand that. When, however, a work—and this is, emphatically, A Work—such as this comes along, it brooks no dissent. To be there is akin to being there for Gawain (may its composer now rest in peace), for Mittwoch (likewise, on Sirius), maybe even for Wozzeck or for Tristan. Kurtág may or may not have been writing for posterity. Until one of our politicians hastens the final endgame, perhaps tomorrow, posterity will nonetheless hear and listen to Kurtág.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

LSO/Rattle - Weill, 28 April 2022

Barbican Hall

Kleine Dreigroschenmusik
Vom Tod im Wald, op.23
Street Scene: ‘Lonely House’
Four Whitman Songs: ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ and ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’
Die Sieben Todsünden

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples, Alessandro Fisher (tenors)
Ross Ramgobin (baritone)
Florian Boesch (bass-baritone)

London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Images: Mark Allan

The opening of Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik struck a properly anti-Romantic note, the Overture clearly growing out of 1920s’ Neue Sachlichkeit, the ‘Anstatt-dass Song’ likewise wearing its post-Busoni-and-Hindemith constructivism wisely on its sleeve, a hard edge supplied by banjo and piano. In between, the ‘Ballad of Mackie Messer’ showed something a little more yielding, rapport between saxophone and piano especially noteworthy. At times, it perhaps felt a little too conducted, but there is a difficult balance to strike here. An intimate, inward account of ‘Polly’s Lied’ and a surprisingly fast—if only in context—‘Kanonen-Song’ worked well in tandem. Simon Rattle tied things up nicely in the Finale, whose temporary ghostliness trod a thin yet necessary line between alienation and something that might just have been pathos. In the excellent hands of the LSO brass, its Chorale proved properly inscrutable. 

We remained with wind band for the little ballad-like cantata, Vom Told im Wald, for which Rattle, his players, and Florian Boesch gave a compelling, sepulchral performance which, like the rest of the programme, never exaggerated, without quite straying into the world of understatement. Those who like Weill to go to extremes may have been disappointed, but there was much to be said for an approach, especially in the concert hall, that underlined his more ‘purely’ musical qualities, as well as the more traditional side to his acuity of verbal response. Weill’s flirtation with less tonal realms contrasted strongly with ‘Lonely House’ from Street Scene (Andrew Staples), its ‘American’ style well captured, now with the luxury of a full complement of LSO strings, idiomatic without cloying. Two of the Four Walt Whitman Songs, more interesting to me, were shared between Ross Ramgobin and Staples. The vivid quality of Ramgobin’s ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ had us see as well as hear the bugles and drums. ‘Dirge for Four Veterans’ proved nicely ambiguous in its military response. 

For the ballet-chanté, The Seven Deadly Sins, Rattle conducted the LSO without a score. Strikingly dressed and coiffured in ‘Weimar’ style, Magdalena Kožená navigated the demands of song and speech alike with typical excellence, her German outstanding in clarity as well as idiom. Rattle kept the action moving, though it never sounded remotely hard-driven. This is clearly a score he knows, understands, and loves; the LSO and his cast responded in kind. That tightrope between alienation and something more sympathetic was once more intelligently trod. Well shaped and paced, it almost sounded over before it had begun. A fine conspectus of Weill, then, though it was perhaps a pity not to hear any of his early concert music: to my ears, generally showing the composer at his finest.


Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Lohengrin, Royal Opera, 24 April 2022

Royal Opera House

Henry the Fowler – Gábor Bretz
Lohengrin – Brandon Jovanovich
Elsa – Jennifer Davis
Friedrich von Telramund – Craig Colclough
Ortrud – Anna Smirnova
King’s Herald – Derek Welton
Brabantian Nobles (‘Four Followers of Telramund’) – Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Thando Mjandana, Matthew Durkan, Thomas D. Hopkinson
Pages (‘Four Women at the Wedding’) – Katy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Renata Skarelyte, Louise Armit
Gottfried – Alfie Davis

David Alden (director)
Peter Relton (revival director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Gideon Davey (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Tal Rosner (video)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)

Considering the first night of David Alden’s (then) new production of Lohengrin in 2018, I found ‘a conceptual weakness at ... [its] heart. I suspect it can be remedied: if a shell, it is a fine shell. It will not, however, remedy itself.’ Rather to my surprise, I found this first revival, notably under a new director, Peter Relton, much stronger. It is not always easy to be sure what has actually changed, and what one is viewing differently for oneself. I shall not try; the earlier review remains for anyone who wishes to read it. In at least partial recantation, then, I am happy to say this made for a far more satisfying evening, dramatically and musically, than that experienced four years ago. Moreover, for Wagner to have returned so emphatically to one of the city’s main houses marked a step-change in London’s operatic recovery. However much one wished it to succeed, ENO’s autumn Walküre proved a bitter disappointment. If Lohengrin did not quite match the success of Covent Garden’s astonishing recent Peter Grimes, it stood closer to that than to November’s dispiriting evening at the Coliseum. 

An interwar fascist regime, on the verge at least of further war, is the setting (albeit with certain irritating Alden anachronisms of the sort that conceive postmodernism as style rather than philosophy). The aftermath of war, presumably the Great War, that haunts the first act in particular, every character seemingly damaged, mentally and often physically too. The charge of war and of preparations for another has obvious resonances to spring 2022; they could hardly fail to speak. If King Henry cowers like a question mark—in his throne, with crown, he seems an all-too-obvious rip off from Hans Neuenfels at Bayreuth—and the Herald wears his injuries anything but lightly, others struggle to stand too. Telramund and Elsa act and react in caricatured expressionist style. Even Lohengrin adopts a foetal position of comfort with Elsa, presumably seeking a mother figure lacking in the Grail brotherhood. (As Nietzsche did not say, let us not go there.) 

Only Ortrud, doubtless significantly, operates as normal. Perhaps it is her ‘magic’, or perhaps that magic is a metaphor for something broader; that is really up to us. A fine touch, at the close of the second act, is her apparition in a box, toasting (cursing) with champagne the unhappy couple. Hemmed in by Paul Steinberg’s sets, their crossings and their disjunctures a striking visualisation of catastrophe, the action is never likely to end happily. This, after all, is a tragedy, probably the purest in Wagner; a signal strength here is that we do not forget that. That is not, of course, to say that it always need be played exclusively as such, but there is an ultimate trajectory here less in evidence than last time, which certainly strengthens the drama in this context. 

So too did Jakub Hrůša’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House—and the golden orchestral playing itself. Hrůša is not afraid to take his time, the first act feeling especially broad, though never merely slow. Careful attention to detail and to its place in the whole had Wagner’s score veritably glow with inner life. The old operatic forms on which much of Wagner’s conception is ultimately based were clear. In Mein Leben, Wagner recalls Schumann’s puzzlement at a Dresden reading of the poem; he ‘liked it, yet couldn’t figure out the musical form I had in mind for it, as he couldn’t find any passages suitable for traditional musical numbers. I then had some fun reading him different parts of my poem just as if they were in aria and cavatina form, so that in the end he smilingly conceded the point.’ Full performance can heighten that sense further—yet also more dialectically. For equally clear were the development of those forms and the forces energising that development: harmony (especially that of Ortrud), of course, but also an energised conception of Gluckian accompagnato arising from Wagner’s work as conductor, editor, and director. 

At any rate, not only did Hrůša show a fine Wagnerian’s ability to hear vast structures—acts, at least—in a single breath, but he inspired the finest playing from all sections of the orchestra throughout. Each act had its own way of unfolding; no one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a patient, powerful strategic ear and mind. Moreover, he often favoured—unfashionably—long, quasi-vocal orchestral lines: not so much Straussian as with kinship to the Wagner of a conductor such as Karajan. The vertical was not ignored, but experience suggested ultimately a more horizontal conception of Wagner’s—‘endless melody’, perhaps—and convincingly so. 

Brandon Jovanovich offered a finely judged portrayal of Lohengrin, as acute in verbal as musical terms, its clarion heroism shielding—and sometimes not—a vulnerable and decidedly ambiguous inner core. Craig Colclough’s Telramund, tragically in thrall to Anna Smirnova’s sensational Ortrud, presented similar ambiguities, those similarities engaging sympathy and our appreciation of dramatic complexity. If there was something winningly ‘old-school’ to Smirnova’s vocal delivery and sheer star presence, that was not at the cost of more ‘modern’ engagement with directorial concept, far from it. Jennifer Davis’s movingly human Elsa grew in stature throughout a committed performance. Gábor Bretz vividly captured the King’s instability. Derek Welton made for an uncommonly vivid Herald, hinting intriguingly at psychological complications from a wartime past. 

Last but far from least, William Spaulding’s Royal Opera Chorus sounded on as fine form as I can recall for some time. How welcome, moreover, it was to have a large chorus seemingly unrestricted—reality may have been different—by pandemic restrictions in what it could do and, above all, how it could sing. Ultimately, then, it was that crucial, yet often elusive, sense of a dramatic whole that served to distinguish revival from first incarnation.

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Berlin Festtage (5) – Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Don Giovanni, 17 April 2022

Don Giovanni – Michael Volle
Donna Anna – Slávka Zámečníková
Don Ottavio – Bogdan Volkov
Commendatore – Peter Rose
Donna Elvira – Elsa Dreisig
Leporello – Riccardo Fassi
Masetto – David Oštrek
Zerlina – Serena Sáenz

Vincent Huguet (director)
Aurélie Maestre (set designs)
Clémence Pernoud (costumes)
Irene Selka (lighting)
Robert Pflanz (video)
Louis Geisler (dramaturgy)

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

Don Giovanni (Michael Volle), Commendatore (Peter Rose), Leporello (Riccardo Fassi)
Images: Matthias Baus

Don Giovanni was the first opera Daniel Barenboim conducted: at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival. Nearly fifty years on, this new production was eagerly awaited, if more for Barenboim than for director Vincent Huguet, whose previous contributions towards this Berlin Da Ponte ‘trilogy’ (see here and here) have generally been considered disappointing at best. Alas, Barenboim, whose incendiary conducting of Peter Mussbach’s production here on Unter den Linden in 2007 remains one of my Mozart operatic highlights, had to withdraw, replaced by Staatskapellmeister Thomas Guggeis. 

Not that Guggeis fared poorly, far from it. In such circumstances, it is difficult to know quite how much is Conductor B and how much is Conductor B leading what is essentially Conductor A’s conception. Guggeis had been involved with rehearsals, and was in any case due to conduct a later performance. There was certainly no question of ‘period’ faddism. Possible flashpoints went unscathed, the Overture’s opening and the Stone Guest scene itself taken at a well-chosen tempo that enhanced rather than detracted from the depth and grandeur of Mozart’s abidingly theological conception. Guggeis always drew something approaching the best from the Staatskapelle Berlin, and generally ensured fire, drama, and where appropriate depth and heft. The all-too-familiar conflation of Prague and Vienna versions was used, but that was not his fault. Damage wrought to the second act was minimised by continuing flow. If, ultimately, there was not that Furtwänglerian Fernhören one would have expected with Barenboim, who is to say what we should have heard in something entirely of Guggeis’s conception. Here is a conductor who always impresses; this was no exception. 

As for Huguet’s staging, it made some creditable efforts to connect with what we had seen before, but alternating as they did between vague and specific, without much in the way of rhyme or reason, it was difficult to know what to make of them. It seemed to be set in the present, the baritonal-heroic baton passed slightly awkwardly from Guglielmo to the Count to Don Giovanni. Leporello likewise seemed to be picking up from Figaro and Donna Elvira from the Countess. Whether they were intended to be the same people a generation on, or simply to be read with reference to what had gone before was never clear. On the one hand, there were clear references; on the other, much seemed not to make sense at all when one followed them through. Giovanni was a photographer, or was credited as such, though it seemed to be Leporello who took the photographs—of his master’s conquests, of course. Displayed on a tablet, projected onto a screen for the Catalogue Aria, the similarity of their subjects, without exception young, slim, and conventionally good-looking (see also Così) was markedly at odds with the variety of which Leporello sang. Whether this were a deliberate mismatch or mere carelessness was unclear; to be honest, it become difficult to care very much.


Why Elvira briefly became a politician/dignitary, handing Giovanni a prize for his retrospective during the first-act finale, I have no idea; at any rate, she took her wig off—or did she put it back on?—and that line of transformation abruptly closed. I wondered whether there was also a hint at Don Ottavio and Donna Anna reincarnating Ferrando and Dorabella, but perhaps not. A strange gap at the end of the first scene, entirely halting the action for a less-than-necessary scene change, did not do wonders for continuity; perhaps it was a metaphor. Don Giovanni's brief appearance in a coffin, which first I thought was a bath (!) might have seemed suggestive, but it was simply part of an unconvinving move, for no evident reason, to a chapel of rest. And why he, supposedly dead (straightforwardly murdered here) stood in the wings to watch the scena ultima was never clear either. Perhaps he too was trying to work out whether there had been any meaning to what had just unfolded. (In the programme, Huguet says that the hero died, merely adding to the confusion.) There was little, if anything, in the way of social differentiation, let alone of sin and punishment (that despite the Commendatore suddenly, arbitrarily, becoming a courtroom judge). One might have wondered why Mozart and Da Ponte bothered. 

Singing was mostly admirable, though it cannot be said that the production afforded singers much in the way of inspiration. Michael Volle is ever a consummate professional; and so he was here, fully in command of the title role and its demands. Riccardo Fassi’s agile Leporello provided vocal complement and contrast, differently dark in hue. Slávka Zámečníková and Bogdan Volkov perhaps lacked a little in dramatic stage presence, but that was as much a matter of the production as anything else. Guggeis might have drawn out the seria distinction of their parts more strongly, but again that would not necessarily have made much sense, given what unfolded (or did not) onstage. They sang well, at any rate, as did Elsa Dresig in a welcome return as a volatile Donna Elvira. If Peter Rose were on occasion slightly woolly as the Commendatore, David Oštrek and Serena Sáenz offered a winningly straightforward peasant couple, physical and vocal selves as one. If an air of missed opportunity proved impossible to dispel, responsibility lay squarely with the production.

Friday, 22 April 2022

Orpheus/L'Orfeo, Komische Oper, 16 April 2022

(sung as Orpheus in German translation by Susanne Felicitas Wolf)

Orfeo – Dominik Köninger
Euridice – Josefine Mindus
Amor – Peter Renz
Sylvia/Proserpina – Maria Fiselier
Plutone, Caronte – Tijl Faveyts
Figures of Orpheus and Eurydice – Alexander Soehnle, Helen Schumann
Dancers - Meri Ahmaniemi, Martina Borroni, Ana Dordevic, Zoltan Fekete, Michael Fernandez, Paul Gerritsen, Claudio Greco, Marcel Prét, Tara Rendell, Lorenzo Soragni

Barrie Kosky (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Katharina Tasch (costumes)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)
Otto Pichler (choreography)
Alexander Koppelmann (lighting)
Chorus (chorus master: David Caevlius) and Orchestra of the Komische Oper
Matthew Toogood (conductor)

Amor (Peter Renz), Orpheus (Dominik Köninger)
Images: Iko Freese /

Barrie Kosky’s advent as Intendant of the Komische Oper in 2012 was marked by a twelve-hour ‘Monteverdi Trilogy’, in which the three extant Monteverdi operas were given in new productions and in newly composed realisations by Elena Kats-Chernin (also new German translations by Susanne Felicitas Wolf). Avid Monteverdian, especially in non-‘period’ guise, though I be, I was unable to attend, but have tried to make up for that since. I saw Poppea five years later, in 2017; five years, after that, comes Orpheus/Orfeo. If I must wait another five for Ulisse, so be it, but I hope to have opportunity a little sooner.

Orpheus, as one would expect, was originally seen first. Although I was surprised how well Poppea adapted to German translation—testament, doubtless, to Wolf’s work, as well as to collaboration with Kosky and Kats-Chernin—this probably did still more so. It seemed, if anything, more conceived as a new whole. (Or perhaps I was more receptive. Who knows?) At any rate, Kats-Chernin’s opening suggests more powerfully something new, rising from a stable yet uncertain bass, to take in yet also go beyond Monteverdi (including leaving, with great regret, some elements of an acknowledged masterpiece). The sound-world in general speaks of the Mediterranean—all its shores, not just the north-west—though in more popular vein than, say, Henze’s extraordinary realisation of Ulisse. This, one might say, is Monteverdi for the Komische Oper rather than for Salzburg.

Orpheus, Eurydike (Josefine Mindus)

Kats-Chernin deploys a splendid array of continuo instruments (accordion, bandoneon, cimbalom, the ancient djoze, and double bass). Apparently, some listeners were unhappy with the use of accordion in particular, lamenting its lack of decay, which they associated, not entirely unreasonably, with continuo playing. It did not trouble me; quite the contrary, I found it atmospheric and duly flexible. I should also point doubters (on principle) to Monteverdi’s own use of organ, including the reedy regal, for Hades. Otherwise, we have six first violins, four seconds, two double basses, two flutes/piccolos, two clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, percussion (including vibraphone), celesta, and synthesiser; and, from the auditorium, used in sparing yet quite spectacular fashion, two antiphonal funeral bands (two bassoons; two horns, two trombones, tuba, and percussion; and two horns, two trumpets, bass trombone, tuba, and percussion). It is ‘interventionist’, I suppose. Whatever would be the point, especially in Orfeo, with its meticulous instrumentation, of not being so? But, with hints of a liminal electronic world, yet still rooted in worlds of Monteverdi and, one can fancy, of Thrace, it challenges us to locate ourselves and our responses within a lush, almost overgrown visual world prior to civilisation.

Kosky’s staging is, as one might expect, still more exuberant: literally, at times, all-singing, all-dancing. The energy of the opening wedding festivities must have come across as a powerful statement of intent, as well as a great deal of fun; it still does now, also as a fine testament to his years as Intendant. There are no inhibitions here, and somehow even fewer as time goes by. The sheer physicality and sensuality of by no means explicit portrayal, centred on Dominik Köninger’s sensationally sung, danced, and acted Orpheus (also a fine Nerone in Poppea) is impossible to resist. Amidst nymphs, fauns, a whole cosmogony of ancient-modern life, everyone can find his, her, or their part. One can see and more or less feel the sweat on their bodies, prior to tragedy and then again prior to what may or may not be apotheosis. La Musica becomes Amor/Cupid, signalling less a move away from the primacy of music as acknowledgement of its greater powers. Peter Renz I recognised from Poppea; he did a similarly characterful job here, and is clearly a crucial thread running between the three.


It is not Apollo, but a woman—Sylvia (Maria Fiselier), albeit singing Apollo’s words—who beautifully calls Orpheus to the stars. I am not quite sure why; at the time, I simply assumed it was, for some reason, a female Apollo. Contrast with Tijl Faveyts’s dark-hued bass (Pluto/Charon) is also heightened. It does no harm, though, and perhaps reflects a greater surrounding fluidity, to which all contribute, ambiguous puppet figures of Orpheus and Eurydike included. The latter’s return to Hades is accomplished in moving vocal terms by Josefine Mindus, as well as by a finely conceived—and executed—moment of stage decision, returning her to those depths from which she had never quite risen. In that connection, what happens at the close is interesting, Orpheus re-entering, at Cupid’s behest, the pool into which he had descended to find his love in Hades. Perhaps this is not, after all, the after-life he has been promised. Happy Easter.