Friday, 24 March 2023

RPO/Petrenko - Beethoven and Mahler, 22 March 2023

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven: Fidelio, op.72: Overture
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Revelge’, ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’
Beethoven, orch. Mahler: Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Claudia Huckle (contralto)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Matthew Brook (bass-baritone)
The Bach Choir
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)

This was a fascinating programme of Beethoven, Mahler, and Beethoven-meets-Mahler, performed with verve and conviction by a fine quartet of soloists, the Bach Choir, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Vasily Petrenko. Petrenko had stepped in at relatively short notice, substituting from an indisposed Andrew Davis, but especially during the second ‘half’, Mahler’s ‘retouching’ (Retusche[n]) of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, one would surely never have guessed. He and the orchestra fully entered into the spirit of the enterprise, viewing or rather hearing Beethoven via Mahler, without merely attempting to recreate. Such ‘recreation’ – ‘as close as possible to Mahler’s vision’, according to Petrenko’s spoken introduction – must remain a starting point, as opposed to a destination; the music still requires choices to be made, standpoints to be taken, just as in any performance. The crucial thing was that Beethoven and the Ninth in particular were rescued from their current malaise, in which deeply unsatisfactory, often plain inadequate, performances rob the music not only of its meaning, which will after all always be contested, but of any meaning whatsoever. 

But first came the Overture to Fidelio and a selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, introducing, as it were, our two principal musical characters. The RPO immediately sounded on top form, and what a joy it was to hear this music with so large an orchestra. (The recent, domesticating onslaught on Beethoven has been entirely negative, leaving what should go almost without saying as a rare luxury.) Attack and polish were impeccable; tension was maintained throughout. A slight absence of greater line immediately after the start was soon rectified, in an impressive performance all around.

Each vocal soloist from the symphony was allotted a Wunderhorn song: a nice idea, though having applause after each song, the next singer only then coming on stage, broke continuity and might have been reconsidered. Moving downward from soprano to bass(-baritone), the selection began with Helen Watts’s ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’. I quite liked Petrenko’s deliberate way with the song, though sometimes solo instruments were not entirely together. At any rate, Watts offered a sincere, communicative performance, intimate despite or perhaps even on account of the number of strings. A more alienated, unquestionably ‘later’ world than that of Beethoven was upon us, trumpets ironically connecting it with Fidelio. When the girl began to weep (‘Das Mädchen fing zu weinen an’), the accent, orchestral as well as vocal, on ‘weinen’ truly hit home. Claudia Huckle’s true contralto proved just as communicative in ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, the sardonic note of the performance, pursued and intensified in the two songs yet to come, arising ‘naturally’ from Mahler’s writing, not least the orchestral marching; there was no need to ‘apply’ anything from without. Nicky Spence’s dark, urgently compelling ‘Revelge’ took us to the brink of Wozzeck, bones grimly rattling. Matthew Brook engagingly played the (holy?) Fool in St Anthony’s sermon to the fish, his face even offering a close-up glimpse of the open-mouthed congregation. Petrenko’s supply of orchestral colour and continuity was spot on. I could even hear Berio waiting in the wings: further time-travel, all the better for it. 

The opening of the Ninth – surely the only Ninth in which even now one might not seek clarification, ‘do you mean Mahler’s?’ – sounded duly possessed, Petrenko’s judicious tempo ensuring urgency was not conflated with excessive speed or, worse still, metronomic inflexibility. Harmony and detail – Mahler’s as well as Beethoven’s, the former’s radical rewriting of some inner parts in particular immanent as well as merely apparent – once again emerged ‘naturally’, however much hard work may have been necessary to give that impression. Where earlier generations spoke of restoration of Beethoven’s letter, here one could experience restoration of his spirit. Whilst it may seem strange to speak of concision in this vast first movement, one can and should, unless something has gone horribly awry; one certainly felt it here. The battle royal of the development was won through counterpoint old and new, as much as harmony, Mahler (at times) winning the upper hand. The moment and section of return were cataclysmic, even carnivorous, for this was certainly no Beethoven for vegans. Mahler’s additions sounded close, at least, to necessary—and utterly convincing. The coda terrified as it must, yet nowadays rarely does. 

A scherzo as energetic as any, awe-inspiringly so, judged to a tee the particular qualities of ‘a’ Beethoven scherzo as well as this particular one. How the horns, doubled in number, rollicked, strings danced, and timpani bounced! The trio was its bubbling and consoling self, its propulsion, crucially, an ethical as well as ‘purely’ musical imperative. The Adagio molto e cantabile may have been a little lacking in the ‘molto’ department; it felt swifter than, say, Furtwängler or Barenboim. But who knows what Mahler did? Petrenko rightly took his own approach, concentrating on the ‘cantabile’, enabling not only song but nobility to emerge, not least through fine command of line. The crucial thing was that Beethoven mattered once more. And if one heard much of what must have inspired Mahler, all the better, whether in the role of woodwind, sounding hear close to a celestial organ, perhaps played on by one of those Wunderhorn saints, in harmony, or indeed in form. Presentiments of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in particular seemed unusually apparent. 

Terrible sounds, against which the sincerest, most eloquent entreaties of cellos and basses inveighed in vain, opened the finale. When those strings reached the ‘right’ theme, relatively swift in Petrenko’s hands, yet never too much so, it proved infectious for the rest of the orchestra, as if the gift of music (and, thank goodness, string vibrato) had been discovered anew. Brook’s verbal intervention set the scene for a conclusion that took us not only from Beethoven to Mahler, but also from Beethoven to Mozart; Don Giovanni hinted at previously, we could now hear generations of response to The Magic Flute. In context, the Turkish March seemed to hint also at Mahler’s own ‘Revelge’. Clarity and commitment from the Bach Choir, as well as the solo quartet, ensured, in wonderful fullness of sound, that Schiller also received a due hearing. If this were Beethoven in brighter colours than we imagine, say, Wagner’s to have been, why not? Ultimately, it needed to be Petrenko’s Beethoven as well as Mahler’s, and so it was. Musical history is never drawn, or at least never should be, in a straight line. To do so would be to rob it, as well as music, of its humanity. The speed of the final bars, whilst not prepared in Furtwängler’s way, nonetheless echoed it from a distance. ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’ That applies to interpretation too.

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Academy of Music, 21 March 2023

Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Images: Craig Fuller

Count Almaviva – Vitor Bispo
Countess Almaviva – Madison Horman
Susanna – Luiza Willert
Figaro – Michael Ronan
Cherubino – Georgia Mae Ellis
Marcellina – Chloe Harris
Bartolo – Wonsick Oh
Basilio – Magnus Walker
Don Curzio – George Curnow
Antonio – Oleksandr Ilvakhin
Barbarina – Clara Onif
Two Bridesmaids – Cerys MacAllister, Clover Kayne

Stephen Medcalf (director)
Jamie Vartan (designs)
Simon Corder (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Alice Farnham (conductor)

Countess Almaviva (Madison Horman), Susanna (Luiza Willert)

The first day of Spring brought the welcome sight of daffodils in Regent’s Park, followed a few yards away by the recurring epiphany that is The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Academy of Music. Our world may still be in dire straits, but there was something to lift the mood, as was the performance given by an excellent young cast of singers from Royal Academy Opera in a new production by Stephen Medcalf.

Medcalf lightly updates the action to the mid-twentieth century. Those with superior knowledge of fashions in military uniforms will be able to tell me more precisely when. It does no harm, enables the action still to speak pretty much for itself, and avoids the danger of fetishising eighteenth-century costumes to no particular end. The droit du seigneur might sit a little oddly with that on paper; yet as we all know, powerful male predators reinvent it constantly—and many of the finest Figaro productions have found explicit parallels elsewhere. Here, since the principal difference is of ‘look’, rather than substance, it really need not matter to anyone save the dullest Beckmesser. Where Medcalf particular scores is in imparting such a fine sense of theatre, and enabling the cast to do likewise. From the very first scene, one sees that Figaro and Susanna have learned to work together, as have the singer-actors portraying them; the drama could barely unfold more naturally as a result. Where it becomes stylised, as in a striking section of slow motion acting during the second-act finale, Medcalf has listened to the score and reacts accordingly, to the benefit of stage and pit alike. Simon Corder’s lighting similarly follows suit—and, on occasion, leads. And in scenes notorious for potential confusion – they are not especially so, yet some directors nonetheless manage to make a pig’s ear of them – Medcalf’s calm yet fond professionalism clarifies rather than obscures. Who is who in the garden during the fourth act is a case in point, though a curmudgeon (who, me?) might ask: without a degree of confusion, would they actually act in that way at all?

Count Almaviva (Vitor Bispo)

Each of the singers had something excellent to contribute. For me, the absolute pick of the bunch was Luiza Willert’s Susanna. She did not put a foot, or pitch a note, wrong; one came to realise quite how much of a lynchpin the role is, and how much the rest of the cast benefited from her spirit, her tirelessness, and her vocal artistry alike. Not that Michael Ronan’s Figaro paled by comparison. Here was a similarly human portrayal, alert to words, music, and gesture, and their alchemic combination. Vitor Bispo’s Count was startlingly good, full of toxic yet alluring masculinity, yet assuredly human nonetheless. His third-act aria was a true highpoint of the evening, recognised by the audience as such. Madison Horman’s Countess offered a lovely ‘Porgi, amor’ in particular; she conducted herself with great dignity throughout. As is so often the case, a small theatre worked wonders in Mozart, enabling us truly to engage with the characters and their interaction. Georgia Mae Ellis as Cherubino responded strongly to the comedy of Medcalf’s direction, as did Magnus Walker as a clerical Basilio. Clara Onif’s cavatina as Barbarina as so often had one wish she had more to sing, but what she did – assured stage presence included – she did very well indeed. There was no weak link, though; a fine company on stage had been created.

Barbarina (Clara Orif)

Alice Farnham’s conducting was sometimes rather hard-driven, the Overture a case in point. The abruptness of some orchestral phrase-endings also attested to puzzling mannerisms of ‘period’ performance. For the most part, though, Farnham maintained and propelled the flow of action well. There were a few – a few too many – noticeable cases of singers and orchestra falling apart, for a number of bars rather than beats, but rehearsal time is never enough and Farnham always ensured they came back together. Occasional thinness of violin tone was regrettable, but again that was doubtless to be attributed to a way of hearing Mozart that is simply not mine. The Royal Academy Sinfonia otherwise showed much to recommend itself, and will surely have learned much from the experience. Alexsander Ribeiro de Lara’s harpsichord continuo playing was excellent throughout: doing what it should with care and imagination, without narcissistically drawing attention to itself as is far too often the case nowadays. Whatever my misgivings orchestrally, this was a life-affirming Figaro at a time when such is sorely needed.

Monday, 13 March 2023

Liverman/Walker/Shibe/Gunnell - Henze, El Cimarrón, 11 March 2023

Wigmore Hall

Will Liverman (baritone)
Adam Walker (flute)
Sean Shibe (guitar)
Owen Gunnell (percussion)

I had waited a long, long time for a performance of Henze’s ‘recital for four musicians’ from 1969-70, El Cimarrón. Like other works from the zenith of Henze’s political commitment, it seems largely to be shunned by today’s performers and venues. Hats off, then, to both the Wigmore Hall and to the four musicians involved in this performance, baritone Will Liverman, percussionist Owen Gunnell, flautist Adam Walker and guitarist Sean Shibe, the last two doubling up on various percussion instruments throughout, both for putting on a performance at all and for giving so fine an account of the work. In a sense, one either does this properly or one does not do it at all, but that does not mean one should merely take for granted performing excellence. 

Any idea that El Cimarrón might seem merely dated was thus triumphantly despatched. Many of our ideas concerning cultural appropriation might have changed in the meantime, but the urgency of its message concerning capitalist-imperialist exploitation in general and enslavement of black people in particular, remains at least as apparent as ever. Moreover, Henze’s method of letting escaped slave Esteban Montejo’s testimony essentially speak for itself – albeit with that testimony noted first by the Cuban ethnologist Miguel Barnet, translated into German by Hans Magnus Enzensbeger no less, here further translated into English by Christopher Keene – holds up pretty well in terms of what we might consider respectful, whilst leaving open the question, as Henze explicitly acknowledged concerning works written at this time, of ‘bourgeois’ aesthetic value. 

The idea arose from a conversation Henze and Enzensberger had had round about 1968, concerning ‘the difficulties of writing political songs which would go beyond, or circumvent the achievements of Eisler, Weill, or Dessau’ (Henze). Henze thought some sort of song-cycle a likely result, but in the end El Cimarrón turned out to be, at least according to his understanding, ‘a trial run for a new type of concert’. This, I think, gave a flavour of that: recitation, some song, elements of music theatre, above all a testimony arising from true ensemble cooperation that ‘cannot be done in a few days of rehearsal’, not least when it comes to the necessity for the players to invent music themselves, ‘where only a “graphic” serves as clue, stimulus or signpost’. 

We could not know, of course, at least without detailed knowledge and memory of the score, quite what was notated and how. Nevertheless, a sense not only of ensemble, but of comradeship, emerged. There was no doubt that these were players who were listening closely to one another, listening moreover that was not only instinctive but had also been learned through a political process of rehearsal. The vast array of instruments before our eyes and ears was a mise-en-scène in itself, but also an invitation to a world partly known yet also quite new. Liverman’s move in the first song, ‘The World’, from wordless song to recitation, at times quite Schoenbergian – Henze, however much he distanced himself, could never help himself here – conveyed meaning both through words but also via their means and variety of delivery. Yet it was equally in the interludes, in instrumental transition, as so often in such music, that a good deal of the journey was to be had—and to be reflected upon. 

Elsewhere, music could be frankly pictorial; we all knew what inhuman catastrophe Liverman’s chains depicted, but there was far more: jew’s harp ‘which represents the stars in comic strips that, on such occasions, dance in front of the eyes of the injured party’; pounding African drums offering a truth in sharp contradistinction to that of imported, Roman Catholic priests, Henze and Montejo having no time whatsoever for the hypocrisy, economic, sexual, and otherwise, of the latter. It could also, however, effect mood and drama, for instance, in Montejo’s flight into the mountains—even though, perhaps especially though, this was not a straightforwardly dramatic piece. 

For me, the reflective and revolutionary centre came later than the mid-point; ‘The Rebellion’, ninth of fifteen numbers, went further, deeper, into something approaching true melancholy. The ensuing ecstasy of redress, of revenge, at ‘The Battle of Mal Tiempo’ was highly infectious. Agitprop? If so, it worked. An equally strong impression was made by ‘The Bad Victory’, which followed, the unease of its darkly military parade showing us everything was certainly not what it seemed. And if sounds from the opening returned at the end, this was not to denote something banally cyclical. As Henze explained, and as we seemed to feel, ‘the pre-revolutionary situation is reinstated, looking backwards is ruled out, everything is now directed forward towards a new identity’. 

Not long before El Cimarrón, Henze had resolved that he would no longer write, as he feared he might have fallen into doing, merely for himself and his friends, but rather ‘to help socialism’; that doing so would involving both embodying in his work ‘all the problems of contemporary bourgeois music,’ and transforming them ‘into something that the masses can understand’. That would not involve submitting to commercial considerations, but nor was there any ‘place for worry about losing elite notions of value’. From the beginning, that has led some to question the artistic and/or enduring ‘value’ of such interventions. To experience, however, something that spoke so vividly, if necessarily from its time, to the age of Black Lives Matter proved a necessary surprise and, in its way, a proper call to arms. 

Let us hope, then, that this will mark the beginning of many such opportunities, in London and elsewhere. What next? Perhaps the ‘vaudeville’ La Cubana, or the ‘show for 17 performers’, Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung Natascha Ungeheuers? Simon Rattle performed Henze’s Che Guevara requiem Das Floß der Medusa in Berlin in 2006; might he wish (and be enabled) to bring it to the LSO’s repertoire? (Its celebrated non-premiere, halted by police, might make interesting material for a drama of its own.) Surely it is long past time for the Royal Opera to revive Henze’s collaboration with Edward Bond We Come to the River, or indeed to stage one of Henze’s earlier or later operas. König Hirsch would come top of my list. As Henze’s 2026 centenary nears, a coordinated offering would be just the thing. One can dream...

Sunday, 12 March 2023

Turandot, Royal Opera, 10 March 2023

Royal Opera House

Turandot – Anna Pirozzi
Emperor Altoum – Alexander Kravets
Calaf – Yonghoo Lee
Liù – Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha
Timur – Vitalij Kowalkow
Ping – Hansung Yoo
Pang – Aled Hall
Pong – Michael Gibson
Mandarin – Blaise Malaba
Two Girls – Marianne Cotterill, Tamsin Coombs

Andrei Serban (director)
Jack Furness (revival director)
Sally Jacobs (designs)
Kate Flatt (choreography)
Tatiana Novaes Coelho (choreology)
E. Mitchell Dana (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Images: Marc Brenner

Andrei Serban’s production of Turandot has certainly offered the Royal Opera its money’s worth. First seen – somewhat oddly, not at Covent Garden, but on tour to Los Angeles – in 1984, it has had no fewer than fifteen revivals on home territory, as well as touring internationally and being adapted for performances at Wembley Arena (1991 and 1992). No wonder, as Serban’s programme biography states, that ‘he is both surprised and delighted that his production … is still revived.’ This, however, is apparently to be its final outing. Assuming that to be the case, it is receiving a good send off: not before time, yet with strong performances and revival direction from Jack Furness considerably more convincing than what I saw in earlier reincarnations (2013 and 2014). 

What we see seems understandably eager to veer towards Carlo Gozzi’s fairytale. Ping, Pang, and Pong (I know…) lose the worst of their racialised appearance, clearly taking their leave instead from commedia dell’arte. Lively performances from Hansung Yoo, Aled Hall, and Michael Gibson certainly helped in that respect, perhaps even going so far as to suggest that these, alongside Puccini, might be the real orchestrators of the action, playful as well as sadistic, intriguingly beyond morality in an almost Nieztschean sense. Where that leaves the story of Turandot, Calaf, and of course Liù remains, shall we say, problematical. The ‘arias’ embedded in the score stood out awkwardly, as if remnants – and in a way they are – of bygone technique, which the composer at the height of his musical powers was unable to banish entirely, on account of theatrical and audience expectations. 

The closer the story moves to realism, the more repellent its final sadism becomes: magnificent in a way, yet also strangely unsatisfactory. The more fantastical the framework and action, the greater the artifice, the better. This seems to be well understood and indeed communicated, not least through a parade of dances that might readily have seemed theatrical for the sake of theatre. In a way they still do, yet in this context, that offers a possibility if not quite for redemption, than for something less (im)morally outrageous. The framing of the set as a theatre of sorts, or at least a public arena suggestive of one – are not the two often coterminous and coexistent? – contributes with unusual success to that desirable distancing of standpoint. Masks serve with similar, indeed still more absolute, necessity.


In the title role, Anna Pirozzi offered a well sung, unusually human performance, warmer than many, though also posing the question as to whether that is what we should want here. Why not, really? In posing that question it is surely performing a dramatic service of its own, difficult conflict being part of the point. Yonghoon Lee’s heroic stab at Calaf should also be commended. Only on rare occasions, when something more inwardly vulnerable was required, did it sound lacking, but that is always a difficult near-circle to square. He can ride an orchestral wave, and did. He also seemed very much at one with Furness’s reimagining of the production. Even reimagined, the production arguably does Liù no favours, but that is much to ask of any staging. Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s heartfelt, sincere performance was very much in the mainstream of expectations here. Timur’s strange appearance – an old man, to be sure, though it is stranger than that – likewise does the role no favours, yet when he sang, Vitalij Kowalkow was able vocally to rise far above visual limitations. 

In the pit, Antonio Pappano offered what for me turned out to be one of his best performances at Covent Garden. I have given up trying to reconcile myself to his Wagner; we clearly hear and understand that and much other music in such different ways that I am unlikely to ‘get’ it any time soon. Here, however, a Puccini darkly haunted by, even founded upon, marriage of darkly Wagnerian chromaticism to a surprisingly Wagnerian way with motivic construction – to my ears, more so than in Pappano’s Wagner – offered just the sort of musico-theatrical experience that was called for. Flexible yet goal-directed, enabling of singers yet also revelling in Puccini’s ‘symphonism’, it told us what we knew yet perhaps still wished we did not. This was a murky, malevolent tale that could not quite be wished away with a welcome does of theatrical fantasy. The oft-remarked affinities with more contemporary (to Puccini) music, not least Stravinsky and Schoenberg, were perhaps less immediately present, but viciousness both of score and broader theatrical purpose were certainly very much with us. With orchestra and chorus on excellent form, Pappano brought something both old and new to the score, greatly to his – and its – credit.


Farewell then, we think, to Serban. Even when revived with such intelligence as seen here, this is not a production directly to address the very difficult, probably insoluble, questions this extraordinary, flawed opera presents. Yet, given space such as was granted here – and was not, to the best of my memory, so apparent when I first saw the production – it can nonetheless permit them to play out. Taking a view seems more of a moral imperative here, on account of the sadism as much as the racism; there are many ways to do that, whether by transforming the work into something more directly political (or something else?) or by confronting its issues head on. We shall see what Serban’s successor does. This however, offers an often intriguing and absorbing last hurrah, as well, I suspect, as a hint to why new steps may prove necessary.


Thursday, 9 March 2023

Kantorow - Brahms, Liszt, and Schubert, 8 March 2023

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Brahms: Piano Sonata no.1 in C major, op.1
Schubert-Liszt: Der Wanderer, S 558/11; Der Müller und der Bach, S 565/2; Frühlingsglaube, S 558/7; Die Stadt; S 560/1; Am Meer, S 560/5
Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D 760, ‘Wanderer Fantasy’

Alexandre Kantorow (piano)


I have come a little late to the party for Alexandre Kantorow, the first French pianist to win gold medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019. (A French winner seems unlikely this year, for sadly obvious reasons.) This was my first encounter with Kantorow, but I certainly hope it will not be the last. His Queen Elizabeth Hall recital revealed both transcendental virtuosity, very much in the line of Liszt, but also a first-rate musical mind. 

Having more or less given up on the Brahms piano sonatas as not for me, it was gratifying to be shown how wrong I had been. Kantorow’s performance was one of those times when one heard a work with which one had long had difficulties, only to wonder what those difficulties could ever have been. Grabbing the first movement by the scruff of its neck, he took Brahms’s opening Hammerklavier references for the red herring they are, revealing a work emphatically rather than incidentally in bright C major, Beethovenian precedent instead furnished by the Waldstein Sonata. The second group proved properly tender, taking its leave from Schumann, yet in half-lights already strikingly mature. Muscularity and freedom were both readily apparent; so too was a coherence surprising not so much in itself, but rather in that it was achieved through a command of line that never took the easy, formalistic route and was all the more convincing for that. A turbulent development section swept us into a recapitulation full of poetic magic. The second movement was darkly Schubertian. At times, its freedom was such as to sound quasi-extemporised, yet it was always sure of where it was heading. Quietly surprising, it found powerful contrast in an energetic scherzo whose trio melted somewhat yet never unduly, before building equally – at least – in power. Like its predecessor movements, the finale might on the surface have seemed rhapsodic, yet was despatched in gloriously Romantic freedom crucial to a far-reaching conception of the whole, with all the technique required to bring that off. 

There followed a selection of five Schubert songs as arranged for solo piano by Liszt. How every one sang—and sighed, each different in character yet similar in virtues technical and more broadly musical. Veiled yet full of tone, Der Wanderer and Der Müller und der Bach spun narratives and fantasy worthy of both Schubert and Liszt, privileging neither, the first song of course preparing the way for Kantorow’s later performance of the Wanderer-Fantasy. Shades of Schubert impromptus, heard through a Lisztian prism, were manifest in Frühlingsglaube, albeit with decoration that could only be Liszt. Schubert’s mysteries in Der Stadt were multiplied by Liszt—and kept multiplying. Here was truly sepulchral Romanticism. Am Meer, poised like the song itself, between the stable and the hallucinatory, proved equally yet differently poignant, as if it were experiencing and yet revisiting at once. 

The Wanderer-Fantasy opened with brighter tone, recalling the opening of the Brahms—as, of course, did the key. It was no less freely virtuosic than either Brahms or Schubert-Liszt, and Kantorow again worked the magic of having us hear Schubert at least partly via Liszt, perhaps via Brahms too. Familiar themes and progressions sounded newly minted. Likewise the song at the fantasy’s heart sounded both ancient and newly conjured. Finely shaped whilst always sounding spontaneous, it culminated in twin crowns of fugato and coda that, understandably, left the audience keen to hear more.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Stemme/Svensson - Wagner, Liszt, Koch, Mahler, and Weill, 2 March 2023

Wigmore Hall

Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder
Wagner-Liszt: Am stillen Herd aus Richard Wagner’s ‘Meistersinger’, S 448
Sigurd von Koch: Die geheimnisvolle Flöte
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
Weill: Happy End: ‘Surabaya Johnny’; Nannas Lied; Youkali

Nina Stemme (soprano)
Magnus Svensson (piano)

What it is to hear a great voice such as Nina Stemme’s at close quarters. Doubtless there will be some – there always are – for whom this was not, according to their own arbitrary definition, ‘true Lieder singing’. (They probably said the same about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though would deny it now.) Such silly, anti-operatic snobbery aside, though, anyone actually listening to Stemme’s way with words, here at the Wigmore Hall just as on the stage at Covent Garden or Bayreuth, will have heard that it was precisely that, furthered by a voice that never needed to strain, yet which never sounded too big, and which sounded as if it could have gone on all night. 

The Wesendonck-Lieder are perhaps not the easiest place to begin, cold, but here was the hochdramatisch thing from the start. The size of Stemme’s voice was apparent, of course, but so too were seemingly endless reserves of breath. Hardly surprisingly, echoes – presentiments, really – of Tristan und Isolde were heard. And the leisure of the close to the opening ‘Stehe still!’ was indicative of an approach that could and did take its time, seeing no reason to rush, without even the slightest hint of dragging. Magnus Svensson proved a supportive pianist, but this was really Stemme’s show, ‘Der Engel’ beginning with relative intimacy, blooming at her behest, the piano in tandem. There was a little of Isolde on stage too, Stemme gazing into the distance in the piano introductions to ‘Im Treibhaus’ and ‘Träume’: not stagey, but rather poised. The former’s tessitura permitted a taste of what her Brangäne might have been like too. Ringing top notes in ‘Schmerzen’ and ‘Träume’ alike, the former leading to a truly exultant climax, the latter’s detailed colouring, each reiteration of the word ‘Träume’ subtly different, a joy in itself. If Svensson’s solo rendition of Liszt’s Meistersinger paraphrase proved a little stiff, freer the more it became Liszt proper, then it was a welcome opportunity to hear a true rarity. 

Another rarity was Sigurd von Koch’s 1916 song-cycle, Die geheimnisvolle Flöte, in a well-judged performance that might have been prepared for a repertoire work. Setting poems from Hans Bethge’s collection Die chinesische Flöte, known to many musicians from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Koch offers well-crafted responses, firmly rooted in German song tradition, yet with occasional hints of something more Debussyan (in harmony, rather than word-setting). Stemme and Svensson treated each of the five songs individually, with their own moods, yet also as part of a greater whole. The sadness of ‘Traurig Frühlingsnacht’ and the dark defiance of the closing ‘Herbstgefühl’ – no gentle autumnal – were especially captivating, the latter quite something in performance. 

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder is, of course, absolutely central to the repertoire, more often heard in orchestral guise, yet with such clarity and spareness heard here perhaps sounding both more starkly modernist and closer to Bach. Stemme offered great clarity too, both of line and of purpose, though she was certainly not deaf to Mahler’s irony, a nice link to the Weill songs to come. If it were difficult not to think of this performance in some sense as ‘operatic’, it was certainly not so in a negative way. As in the Wesendonck-Lieder, Stemme was not afraid to colour with tuning, a sign of well-placed confidence as well as artistic judgement. She, as well as Svensson, used harmony – for instance on the words ‘O Augen’ in the second song – to evoke Wagnerian mystery. The intensity of ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’ gave way to still greater sadness, again not without irony or indeed straightforward delusion, in ‘Oft denk’ ich sie sind nur augegangen’. True Mahlerian horror was unleashed in the closing ‘In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus’, the hallucinatory final stanza a proper heir to Winterreise. (Now there is an intriguing prospect.) 

Stemme’s use of words was crucial in Weill – with and without Brecht – in which three songs she continued to hold the audience in the palm of her hand. Svensson’s pianism seemed just the thing here too, idiomatic throughout. So vividly communicative was Nannas Lied that surely a listener without texts and without a word of German would have had a strong idea of the ‘Liebesmarkt’ and the challenges of moving beyond ‘siebzehn’. The tango rhythms of Youkali offered still more alluring cabaret, also – perhaps oddly – making me think we need to hear Stemme in Schoenberg, from the cabaret of the Brettl-Lieder to full-throated Erwartung. As an encore we heard the Broadway Weill: ‘My Ship’ from Lady in the Dark, despatched indeed with sails made of silk, Stemme’s English as perfect as her German. Wonderful!

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Rusalka, Royal Opera, 27 February 2023

Royal Opera House

Rusalka – Asmik Grigorian
Prince – David Butt Philip
Vodník – Rafał Siwek
Ježibaba – Sarah Connolly
Duchess – Emma Bell
Kuchtík – Hongni Wu
Hajný – Ross Ramgobin
Wood Spirits – Vuvu Mpofu, Gabrielė Kupšytė, Anne Marie Stanley
Lovec – Josef Jeongmeen Ahn

Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami (directors)
Chloe Lamford (set designs)
Annemarie Woods (costumes)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Ann Yee (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Images: Camilla Greenwell

A strange evening: I very much enjoyed this new Rusalka, though found myself slightly haunted by the suspicion I did so more than I should have done. Musically magnificent yet theatrically inert: opera should intrinsically be more than that, yet I suppose we should be grateful that it can still partly satisfy, even when one crucial component misfires. 

The production is oddly listed as having been ‘created by Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee’ but with ‘Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami’ as directors. Equitable, perhaps, but does such re-listing really merit a line in the programme? (Does it really merit three lines in a review, one might also ask, I suppose.) I mention it only as a minor instance of something more irritating. Equity, sustainability, so much else: these are of course causes toward which we should all be working, a great deal faster and harder than we are now. They do not, however, in themselves make a production; they are certainly no substitute for one either. For here, whilst one could read an interesting programme note, promising much, by Jessica Duchen on ‘A Sustainable Rusalka for the Royal Opera House’, the results were actually neither sustainable – for that, ‘wed have to have started the control systems much earlier’ (Abrahami) – nor, contra what we read, saying anything much about sustainability or wider ecological issues. Instead, there was a strange boast, admittedly fulfilled, of having ‘worked with our creative team to create the illusion of water, using paint effects and lighting, and a set that can hold this without having to turn over actual water’. Fine, if hardly unprecedented. Is that not more often the case than not with water? How many productions will theatregoers already have seen that did just that?

Ultimately, the directors (or ‘creators’) feel the story is ‘not about nature’s conflict with humanity, but rather humanity’s need to connect and meld with nature’. It is a point of view: not one that makes a great deal of sense to me, either intrinsically or in the case of Rusalka, but worth a hearing or viewing. What, then, do we have? A sort of non-directed cartoon with words and music attached. Singers generally have to fend (creditably) for themselves. A mossy fairytale without irony or magic turns mildly trashy in the second act, presumably out of a desire to be ‘contemporary’. It looks as though a few items from Claire’s Accessories have been magnified on stage to frame the ‘party’. Inflatable toy animals are presumably intended to imply distance from Nature’s real animals, yet since no one seems to know what is going on, they just look silly. We return more or less to a slightly broken version of the setting for the first act. Alleged intentions go unrealised, as if our ‘creators’ have failed to appreciate that stating you will do, let alone explore, something is not the same as doing or exploring it. As a framework for the story, it works reasonably. Paule Constable’s lighting pretty much steals the visual show, saying so much more than Yee’s tedious, seemingly tone-deaf choreography.

And save, mercifully, for the musical performances: singers, orchestra, and conductor. My two other big house Rusalki over the past decade or so have been Paris in 2019, not so long before the end of the world, and Covent Garden’s first (!) staged performance in 2012. An excellent Komische Oper staging in Berlin was a slightly different animal, built as it was around a thriving company, as opposed to an ‘international’ cast; it offered by some way the most interesting, penetrating production (Barrie Kosky). Paris had Camilla Nylund, Klaus Florian Vogt, Karita Mattila, Thomas Johannes Mayer, and Michelle DeYoung, Covent Garden 2012 also had Camilla Nylund, working with Bryan Hymel, Petra Lang, Alan Held, and Agnes Zwierko. At this level, comparisons are often more a matter of taste than anything else, but I should unhesitatingly plump for David Butt Philip’s Prince from Covent Garden 2023 and consider its cast every inch the equal of its illustrious predecessors. 

One of my first thoughts was that surely we must be due a Lohengrin from Butt Philip soon; lo and behold, on later reading the programme biographies, one (Deutsche Oper Berlin) is forthcoming. Beautifully, unerringly musically phrased, his Prince conveyed a vulnerability and complexity of character considerably beyond either of the aforementioned performances. This was a considered character development, conveyed through words and music. Asmik Grigorian’s Rusalka likewise had it all: effortlessly scaling the vocal peaks, drawing in through hushed intimacy, and offering almost everything in between. Her stage presence likewise was second to none. Sarah Connolly’s Ježibaba and Emma Bell’s Duchess – I am not sure why the usual ‘Foreign Princess’ was not used here, but no matter – represented luxury casting. The former’s expressive range, controlled in technique yet with dramatic spontaneity (or the impression of such), could hardly have been bettered. The latter’s star quality shone through: both in itself and as something akin to metacommentary on the role. Rafał Siwek’s dark-toned Vodník was just the thing too, in voice and presence. Lively and warmly sympathetic performances from Hongni Wu (Kuchtík) and Ross Ramgobin (Hajný) were also highly worthy of note.

 Excellent conducting from Susanna Mälkki (Paris) and Yannick Nézet-Seguin (Covent Garden, 2012) notwithstanding, Semyon Bychkov was for me in a different league. His was world-class conducting, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounding the equal of its very starriest peers. One might expect operatic symphonism from Bychkov, but the extent to which the entire work sounded as if heard in a single, variegated breath nonetheless astonished. A symphony in three movements emerged, its first two acts strongly contrasted. The first was doubtless ‘objectively’ on the slow side, but emerged as an exquisitely conceived, quasi-Wagnerian tapestry in absolute commanded of our musical attention. The second entered more Italianate waters, enlivened by a welcome dash or two of Tchaikovsky, and the third effected due synthesis, culminating in a climax that can surely have never sounded closer to the pantheistic ecstasy of Janáček. Not, of course, that this was not first and foremost Dvořák, but it was a generous, cultivated and culturally broad performance that denied national, let alone nationalistic, clichés. 

Mention should also go to the language coaches, Lada Valesova and Lucie Spickova. I do not speak or understand Czech, save for odd words and phrases I have picked up. But I could have had a stab at transcribing some of it here, such were the clarity of diction and, insofar as I could tell, evident meaning with which words in their alchemic union with music were treated. All in all, then, a splendid evening—yet despite, rather than on account of, the inconsequential production.

Monday, 27 February 2023

Gould Piano Trio - Beethoven, 26 February 2023

Wigmore Hall

Piano Trio in G major, op.1 no.2
Variations in E-flat major, op.44
Piano Trio in E-flat major, op.70 no.2

Lucy Gould (violin)
Richard Lester (cello)
Benjamin Frith (piano)

There have been starrier and higher-octane performances of Beethoven piano trios, but this Wigmore Hall concert from the Gould Trio had much to offer an audience permitted, as it were, to eavesdrop on a Sunday evening’s music-making between friends: nothing especially to prove, other than the players’ clear love of music and this music in particular. That and, I should add, a delightful vindication of the rarely performed op.44 E-flat Variations. 

First up was the G major Trio, op.1 no.2, its first movement introduction broad and mysterious, yet clearly heading somewhere. But where? The main Allegro vivace emerged nicely, almost imperceptibly, though we were soon emphatically ‘there’. A few oddities of balance were to be heard in this notoriously tricky medium, but nothing that could not soon be ironed out. It was a pleasure to hear the development section driven motivically, especially via Benjamin Frith’s piano. As a whole, the movement struck the right note – for me – of sunniness, tinged by slight melancholy: Beethoven in G major. The second movement continued in expansiveness, with notably sweeter tone. The striking maturity of Beethoven’s writing here (1793) was relished and communicated, from rapt contemplation of the Kantian heavens to darker shadows below. Springing again from Haydn, yet similarly going beyond in new, surprising directions, the scherzo might at times have had a little more edge, but better that than the merciless hard driving of so many recent Beethoven performances. Haydn’s conception of a Presto was certainly to be heard in the finale, good-humoured yet tenacious. Perhaps the movement goes on a little, but if so, it was difficult to mind in so engaging a performance. 

The theme, or ‘non-theme’, as cellist Richard Lester called it in a brief spoken introduction, of the op.44 Variations was despatched straight, with a couple of opportune archings of eyebrows. Good-natured development allowed each musician – and instrument – moments to shine, Lester’s rich-toned yet variegated solo in the fourth variation a case in point. The sadness of the E-flat minor, ‘Largo’ seventh variation registered without exaggeration, a case study in quiet transformation, both as composition and performance. An increasing array of techniques, palpably sincere, even when – particularly when? – at the cheekier end of the spectrum, was deployed to round off a fine performance of a work deserving of more frequent outings. 

A ‘rarer’ tone was to be heard at the opening of the E-flat major Trio: not exactly ‘late’, yet already peering into that world. Comparison of introductions was instructive. Here, there was no doubt that every single note counted. Similarly, there was no doubt that the Allegro ma non troppo exposition, again clearly derived from what had gone before, was both more complex and yet, at least in some ways, more directly expressed. Subjective fragility was part of that, as were the surprises of developmental twists and turns. Throughout, the relationship – including, yet not restricted to balance – between instruments was well judged. Next, the players understood and conveyed the truth that, for Beethoven, ‘Allegretto’ is more a matter of character than speed. Both inner movements bore that character, yet sounded quite different. Haydn’s pupil is never more so than when he is being himself, the second movement playful and passionate, the third noble and almost infinitely subtle. The finale was more fractured, intonation perhaps a little awry at times. Beethoven on edge, though, is no bad thing; the battle must never be too easily won. His undeniable radicalism was here given its full due. As an encore, we heard a charming arrangement of the Septet’s Minuet.

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Stankiewicz/LSO/Roth - Schubert and Zimmermann, 19 February 2023

Barbican Hall

Schubert: Rosamunde, Overture and Entr’actes to Acts I and III
Zimmermann: Oboe Concerto
Schubert: Mass no.5 in A-flat major, D 678

Olivier Stankiewicz (oboe)
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano)
Cyrille Dubois (tenor)
William Thomas (bass)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Gregory Batsleer)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Trenchant opening chords giving way to a delightful oboe solo (Juliana Koch): the beginning of the so-called Rosamunde Overture, really the overture to Der Zauberharfe, offered a version in miniature of the first half of this LSO concert, arguably even of the concert as a whole. The introduction was undeniably on a grand, Romantic scale, though a fizzing ‘Allegro molto moderato’ proved more suggestive of Rossini than of Mendelssohn. François-Xavier Roth took it very fast, but crucially it worked, proving both nimble and full of incident, and if the lack of string vibrato surprised my ears, they (more or less) adapted. Ultimately, it put a smile on my face and proved a fine curtain-raiser. For the darker first entr’acte likewise proved suggestive of the theatre, of stage action about to commence. Its successor’s episodes offered delectable woodwind solos: not only oboe, but clarinet (Sérgio Pires) and flute (Gareth Davies) too. More veiled than sweet, the outer sections offered a different kind of intimacy given Roth’s non-vibrato approach. Signing off with string quartet rather than full strings proved a lovely idea. 

Olivier Stankiewicz joined the orchestra for Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1952 Oboe Concerto. Its first movement, ‘Hommage à Stravinsky’, pulled the older composer’s neoclassicism in multiple directions: homage, yes, but also embroidering and deconstructing. It was all despatched, as throughout, with the cleanest of lines, good humour, and a sign or two of something darker, carried forward into the central ‘Rhapsodie’, full of post-Bartókian night music. Magical solo (and other) evocations helped construct – for there was no ultimate doubt of the composer’s constructivism – a postwar pastoral, hinting at least at so much of what that historically might imply. Stankiewicz played this as the repertoire piece it should be, ably partnered by the LSO and Roth, the finale presented as a brilliant clash and reconciliation between serial and neoclassical tendencies: not only the earlier Stravinsky but Hindemith too. Passages of dissolution suggested men and machines, mannequins too, threatening to break down yet surviving—perhaps a metaphor for the work as a whole and, indeed, much of Zimmermann’s œuvre. 

What a joy, in the second half, it was to hear Schubert’s Mass in A-flat major. Why we do not hear Schubert’s masses all the time, I really do not know. It is a tremendous loss, and many will surely have been encountering this work for the first time. I doubt they will have been disappointed, especially in so sensitive and exultant a performance as this, a fine team of soloists and the excellent London Symphony Chorus now partnering Roth and the LSO. The opening exhortation for mercy sounded with humility, preparing the way for each of the soloists to introduce themselves with distinction in response: ‘Christe eleison’. This Kyrie as a whole had a splendid developmental quality, lightly worn, yet nonetheless telling: not the least example of Roth’s discerning musical judgement. Schubert sounded as a child of Mozart, yet with undeniable affinity to Beethoven, even to his Missa solemnis, as characteristic textures, ultimately to be reduced to no case of ‘influence’, were revealed before our ears. 

A whirlwind of praise was unleashed in the first section of the Gloria, incessant fiddling offering a flickering, moving halo to the choral company of heaven. Those cries of ‘Gloria’ could hardly fail to recall Beethoven, but not to the detriment of a more general impression of abiding, Austrian (perhaps rather than Viennese) loveliness. Lucy Crowe’s soprano duet with clarinet, paving the way once more for the entry of other soloists, in the second section, ‘Gratias agimus tibi…’ was not the least example of that; likewise Adèle Charvet’s rich mezzo solo a little later on, again entwined with clarinet, as well as bassoon. Once again, the LSO’s wind excelled themselves. Roth’s ear for orchestral colour suggested, in that well-worn cliché, a sensitive restoration of an old master painting, for instance in the Credo’s unusually colourful profession of faith. All concerned understood the task, varying in difficulty, of reconciling theological and musical imperatives, the ‘Crucifixus’ section’s pivotal ambiguity erupting in the glorious release of resurrection. Roth directed and shaped, without ever giving the impression of undue moulding. The censer swung in suggestion again of a characteristically Austrian otherworldliness in the Sanctus, both personal and beyond the personal. The Benedictus’s heavenly solo trio, soprano, mezzo, and tenor (an ardent Cyrille Dubois) must surely have had a few hearts skip a beat or two. Then the return of William Thomas’s dark-hued bass for the Agnus Dei rightly imparted a sense of completion: sadness and hope, even before the call to grant us peace.

Tuesday, 21 February 2023

Das Rheingold, English National Opera, 18 February 2023


Images: Marc Brenner
Rhinemaidens (Eleanor Dennis, Katie Stevenson, Idunnu Münch)

Woglinde – Eleanor Dennis
Wellgunde – Idunnu Münch
Flosshilde – Katie Stevenson
Alberich – Leigh Melrose
Mime – John Findon
Wotan – John Relyea
Fricka – Madeleine Shaw
Freia – Katie Lowe
Froh – Julian Hubbard
Donner – Blake Denson
Erda – Christine Rice
Loge - Frederick Ballentine  
Fasolt – Simon Bailey
Fafner – James Creswell

Richard Jones (director)
Stewart Laing (designs)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)
Akhila Krishnan (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Like the Biblical cosmos, that of the Ring offers more than one creation myth, not necessarily entirely consistent with one another. Therein lies the dramatic rub. Richard Jones’s new production of Das Rheingold brings the second creation myth to the fore before the first, the generatio æquivoca of the Prelude, is heard—at least for those mature enough not simply to laugh uproariously at the mere sight of a naked man. (Disruptive audience members who seemed throughout, without evident justification, to believe they were watching Carry on Rhinegold may have been better advised to stick to Donizetti, but doubtless we should ‘respect their choices’.) What the primæval figure does is the thing: he carries wood hewn from a tree across the stage, the wood diminishing in size (and distancing itself from life) in proportion to the civilised clothes he acquires. The World-ash tree and Wotan’s act of ecopolitical violence against it are placed centre-stage—and then, E-flat… 

A hallmark of Jones’s staging throughout is indeed the clarity of its narration. Where Keith Warner’s late Royal Opera staging clearly had ideas, many extremely worthy on paper, the director struggled, so it seemed, to bring them to visual clarity (not to be confused, necessarily, with simplicity) and much seemed confused rather than complex. There may not be much in the way of conceptual complexity; this will not, it seems, be a Ring that changes our conception of the work. But it – the Rheingold, anyway – is as well shaped as Martyn Brabbins’s conducting of the score, both (greatly to my surprise) transformed out of all recognition from the miserable preceding excursion for Die Walküre. The Rhinemaidens’ amoral hedonism is evoked by their fitness wear and activities, a cruel contrast with a clearly unfit Alberich. The golden cyber-child they guard – not very well – is the Rhinegold, original state and potential for capitalisation imaginatively conveyed. And, as throughout, the deed of violence in its theft furnishes a due moment of dramatic horror. It is straightforward rather than reactionary, but in many ways none the worse than that; it certainly compares favourably with the listless soap-opera inconsequentiality of Valentin Schwarz at Bayreuth last summer.

Alberich (Leigh Melrose)

Objects, a crucial, far-too-often overlooked aspect of Wagner’s drama are well dealt with too. The spear, hewn in turn from the ash-wood, appears properly centre-stage. Those new to the drama will see that it is important and be aided in understanding why; more experienced Wagnerites will connect it with the rest of the action and ideas of their own. The Tarnhelm and ring, as well as the hoard more generally, are likewise clearly represented and, just as important, their role in the drama is clearly delineated. Nibelheim’s essential basis as a modern factory is immediately apparent – excellent sound design helps beforehand, in bringing the sound of its anvils immediately before our ears – and Alberich, transformed out of all recognition into a horrifying dictator of modern capital, wields his capitalist ‘whip of hunger’ (George Bernard Shaw) over Nibelung kinsmen with immediate and clear effect. His further transformations, courtesy of the Tarnhelm, again make their point starkly: first, he truly is, as he tells them, ‘everywhere’, his forms multiplying in surveillance and punishment (sorry, ‘incentivisation’); second and third, metamorphoses into dragon and toad are handled simply and without any of the attendant usual confusion. (Again, quite why some engaged in bellyaching laughter at the moment of Alberich’s capture, I cannot imagine. Strange, at best.)

Erda (Christine Rice), Erda (John Relyea)

The final scene makes for powerful dramatic cumulation, well supported by keen Personenregie. Erda’s appearance in pyjamas, keen to resume her sleep, sand of time spraying from her hands, makes a number of important points without fuss; so too does another point of violence, Wotan kissing her—and seemingly changing all. Schoolgirl Norns in attendance may (or may not) know. Freia’s deep affection for Fasolt, in the light of his for her, is  moving, not least on account of deeply sympathetic performances from Katie Lowe and Simon Bailey. That Freia, as well as Loge, wishes to dissociate herself from the entrance into Valhalla is also genuinely moving, as indeed is the mounting of the gold to hide her form in the giants’ removal lorry. Rainbow lighting evokes Froh’s bridge with a delightful sense of the aesthetic that is yet not spectacle for its own sake. When furious, desperate Rhinemaidens, heard offstage, return to the stage to demand return of their gold, Wotan battens down the fortress hatches. The die is cast—as Loge, his bag packed, knows only too well. 

Loge is always a character well-placed to steal the show. Frederick Ballantine’s quicksilver portrayal certainly did that, securely poised on what might otherwise be a tightrope between personability and tales of political alienation. Key to his success, and to that of many other cast members, was crystal-clear diction, enabling the truths of John Deathridge’s excellent new singing translation to hit home with force – the truth that Wagner requires us to think for ourselves, his text a springboard rather than our dramatic destination not the least of them. John Relyea’s Wotan captured, in another strikingly mature portrayal, so many of the nuances and contradictions in the god’s complex, world-winning (perhaps) personality.

Loge (Frederick Ballentine), Alberich

Leigh Melrose’s Alberich was, quite simply, spellbinding. The shift from repressed dwarf to would-be world-dictator owed much to costumes and make-up, but was ultimately his. We sympathised, though not too much; the erotic urge (liebesgelüste, Wagner’s lower case) Wagner noted in Alberich’s case in a letter of 1851 was already a menace. We cowed, with the Nibelungs. And we felt, through his work and the orchestra’s, the ominous power of the curse. Indeed, every member of the cast contributed to this overall success. Madeleine Shaw’s uncommonly sympathetic Fricka, Christine Rice’s surprisingly deep-toned Erda, James Creswell’s contemptuous Fafner, among them. This trio of Rhinemaidens, for instance, would aurally adorn any house. 

The innermost core of Wagner music drama lies, we all know, in the orchestra, his Greek chorus. ENO here likewise had little to fear from the most august of comparisons, not that one felt compelled to draw them. For a signal virtue of this Rheingold was that one sensed how all aspects had come together as so much more than the sum of their considerable parts; had the production been different, so would the singing, and so on. Brabbins’s collegial, structurally comprehending – and communicative – conducting presented itself above all as an enabler of dramatic action and was well experienced as such. I can only imagine orchestral and sung contributions will go from strength to strength over the course of this run.

Donner (Blake Denson), Froh (Julian Hubbard), Wotan, Fricka (Madeleine Shaw)

What a difference, then, fifteen months make, and how great a pleasure it is to report so. When ENO’s new Ring opened in November 2021, oddly with its second instalment rather than its first, neither staging nor performance induced much enthusiasm. Now, at a time of existential concern for the company’s future, its presentation of Das Rheingold proves in most respects a triumph: a vindication for those fighting the philistine atrocities perpetrated by the Arts Council – sorry ‘Arts Council England’ – and the ‘government’ it all too readily serves. Roll on England’s Götterdämmerung, in more than one sense.

Sunday, 19 February 2023

Edward Lambert: The Burning Question, The Music Troupe, 18 February 2023

King’s Head Theatre

Arianna – Louise Fuller
The Pope – Arlene Belli
Ignacio – Harry Grigg
San Pietro – Samuel Lom
Heavenly Voices – Rosalind Dobson, Arlene Belli, Peter Martin, Samuel Lom

Elspeth Wilkes and Stephen Westrop (piano duet)

Tabita Benton-Evans (designs)
Jenny Weston (direction, movement)

Images: Tom Trevatt Photography

Two operas in one day: it happens (for a select, perhaps insane, few of us) from time to time, but one probably wants them to be quite contrasted, at least unless they are intended to be performed together. In that sense, Edward Lambert’s new chamber opera, his seventeenth, offered a nice amuse-bouche—and more than that, but not too much—to the first night of ENO’s new production of Das Rheingold, a shortish bus-ride away from Islington’s King’s Head Theatre. 

Inspired by a 2019 incident in which Pope Francis was delayed by twenty-five minutes from meeting the faithful in St Peter’s Square, finding himself stuck in a lift and eventually rescued by firefighters, this ‘comedy in song’, mostly in English but with a little Italian, as well as liturgical Latin, lightly plays with the destination of a soul. It seems that she has done good work in cleaning up the Church, so is destined to do the same for Hell/Hades, though her valet (a demon, Ignacio) worries about how his father there will react to a woman’s leadership. Petrine Security’s visit eventually resolves the matter, as, in recounting a youthful lustful sin, the Pope tells of the child she had had with Persephone, underworld goddess, left in the care of nuns in Woking. That child is Ignacio. Rather than revert to semi-divine status, both he and the angel-chambermaid Arianna resolve to build a life together on earth, the sparks of their love firing the purgatorial fire that will cleanse the Pope and permit her to enter Heaven after all.


To a libretto by Norman Welch and Edward Lambert, which incorporates not only the Latin Requiem Mass but also material by Ambrose Bierce, the opera plays out in what is less a parade of styles—that makes it sound arbitrary—then freely floating, essentially tonal, numbers that evoke a vaudeville spirit, theological-dramatic passage, and benign hauntings from the history of the genre. There are set-pieces, speech, passages of parlando connection, and sound design from, as it were, beyond the beyond, heavenly voices working their recorded yet immediate magic. Much though not all, is underpinned by excellent piano duet work from Elspeth Wilkes and Stephen Westrop. Coloratura embellishes, and ultimately sincerity of love wins, winningly expressed by soprano Louise Fuller and Harry Grigg, ably mentored by Arlene Belli’s Pope and Samuel Lom’s St Peter. Simple, yet undeniably powerful shifts of lighting make important contributions too. This, then, is a real company, thoroughly professional, affair from The Music Troupe, which can and maybe should provoke deeper thoughts, yet which can also certainly be enjoyed as a piece of fun on the surface. As Nietzsche (posthumously) reminded Wagner, not all art need or should be the Stone Guest scene; sometimes, il faut méditeranniser la musique.

Kopatchinskaja/LSO/Roth - Ligeti and Beethoven, 16 February 2023

Barbican Hall

Ligeti, arr. Elgar Howarth: Macabre Collage (UK premiere)
Ligeti: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Image: Mark Allan


György Ligeti will turn 100 on 28 May. Let us hope for many performances as excellent as this in celebration of perhaps the most abidingly concert-hall-popular of postwar musical modernists. First, François-Xavier Roth conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Elgar Howarth’s 2021 revision of his 1991 ‘collage’ from Le Grand Macabre. From the anarchic Monteverdi hommage of the opening, L’Orfeo’s Toccata revisited via twelve car-horns, to the closing passacaglia with swing, here to my ears slightly suggestive of Kurt Weill, Ligeti’s ‘anti-anti-opera’ or ‘comic apocalypse’ splendidly hit the absurdist spot of would-be annihilation in edited, wordless version. (If ever we needed a return to Breugelland, it is surely during our current NATO-Putin-Zelensky standoff.) Was that an allusion I heard early on to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Perhaps, perhaps not. Does it matter? Again, one can argue either way. A musical melodrama of drumroll and offstage trombone set the, or at least a, drama proper in motion, Death drunkenly fiddling offstage, having us both fear and ridicule him, caught in the headlines of a Fate Ligeti (and Beethoven) may or may not have summoned. The space was used resourcefully throughout, an E-flat clarinet peeking out from a hole in the wall that suggests, yet does not contain, an organ, various tricks beguiling and distracting as commedia dell’arte met something approaching music theatre. A tango-ish Rite, or just a rite? Hard-edged, metallic, it was splendidly theatrical, hallucinatory harpsichord, fairground Bach, and all; unsettling, even frightening fun at its best. 

The Violin Concerto emerged in context as a microtonal dance of something between life and death, the first movement memerising in its difficulties and in Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s (and the LSO’s) despatch of them. A folklike, vibratoless solo ‘Aria’ constantly surprised as other, hocketing instruments joined in deft evasion of the conventional, emotional or otherwise. Ocarinas versus virtuosic violin; piccolo, percussion, and horns: the ‘weird ironic homelessness’ (Seth Brodsky) of this movement held us in its thrall. Its successor, the ‘Intermezzo’ sounded as if an electronic Prokofiev reverie; it is none of those things really, of course, but perhaps the ‘real’ has been overrated. Another passacaglia, here of shifting stillness, ensued, lengthy violin harmonic notes eventually rudely assailed, so as to turn things loudly inwards—then outwards. Shaping from all concerned, Roth as much as the soloist, showed both careful precision and febrile abandon. The finale’s virtuoso fireworks emerged as strangely (in a good sense) hardwon: a further mystery of the macabre. Kopatchinskaja’s own cadenza culminated in singing, whistling, stamping, and more—and not only from her. Leader Carmen Lauri joined her for an encore of the early (1950) violin duo Baladă şi joc, evoking more strongly than anything in the concerto a Bartókian, indeed Hungarian, past that soon would no longer be a desirable, or even conceivable, option for composition. 

As agile in his podium pirouette from receipt of applause to commence Beethoven’s Fifth, applause still ongoing, as in his musical direction, Roth offered us a first movement unquestionably fast by historical standards, yet without being hard-driven. (For the nth time, speed and tempo are not the same thing.) Crucially, Beethoven’s score throughout pulsed with life: a banal cliché, no doubt, but sometimes words are truly insufficient. This was not, nor would anyone have expected it to be, a Beethoven in the line of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Barenboim, et al.; it was clearly influenced by Roth’s work with his period-instrument orchestra, Les Siècles, perhaps especially in the ripe, fruity presence of the LSO woodwind. (Just how did that metamorphosis take place?) But there was no dogmatism, simply a different, sincerely held, and powerfully communicated view. The astonishing textural clarity we heard was not an end in itself, but a means to hear, to feel, musical process. Just as the move to the relative major for the second group inevitably—and irrespective of ‘intention’—sounded a moral as well as a ‘purely’ musical transformation, so did the necessity of further struggle in the recapitulation-as-second-development. The movement’s concision shocked and enthralled as it must, and if, at the close, I felt energy had triumphed over tragedy, or rather there had been a degree of dissociation, then not everything, even in Beethoven, is or need be Romanticism. 

In the second movement, flowing freely, articulation enhanced rather than detracting from the longer line. The martial, French Revolutionary quality to brass interventions was rich in resonance (of various kinds). Every section of the LSO played superbly, but the gorgeous sound of the cellos perhaps merits special mention. Again, this was a vivid communication of form and melodic line as one: wholly involving, as was the implacable, subjectively aware scherzo, whether first time around or in ghostly (here, perhaps ghostlier than I have ever heard) reprise. The sheer energy of contrapuntal outburst in the trio offered an excellent presentiment of the transition to the finale, which was yet not foreshadowed by that presentiment. Again, Roth’s way here was neither Wagnerian nor even especially post-Wagnerian, but that is not to say it lacked its own metaphysics or at least philosophy. At any rate, the sheer physical thrill of what unfolded had its own, perhaps more materialist tale to tell. Later transitions were just as seamless, which is of course not to say without import. This, then, was a reading of great cumulative power, to which the LSO appeared and sounded entirely committed throughout.