Saturday, 6 August 2022

Bayreuth Festival (4): Götterdämmerung, 5 August 2022


Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Gunther – Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Alberich – Olafur Sigurdarson
Hagen – Albert Dohmen
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Gutrune – Elisabeth Teige
Waltraute – Christa Meyer
First Norn – Okka von der Damerau
Second Norn – Stéphanie Müther
Third Norn – Kelly God
Woglinde – Lee-an Dunbar
Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde – Katie Stevenson
Grane – Igor Schwab

Valentin Schwarz (director)
Andrea Cozzi (designs)
Andy Besuch (costumes)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Luis August Krawen (video)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

Valentin Schwarz’s Ring ends more or less where it began, bar curtain-calls in which the long-awaited appearance of Schwarz and his team was greeted by the most intensive booing I have ever heard. I suppose a ‘cyclical’ turn will appeal to some who insist on referring to the Ring as a ‘cycle’, when it is nothing of the sort. Even those, however, who discern some kind of return at the close will have wanted a little more for their money than a hasty, borderline-cynical return of dual umbilical chord babies on video, and, prior to that, of a swimming pool for the Rhine.

Schwarz’s unwillingness or inability to formulate any kind of concept, let alone to present it successfully, has long since had hopes for drama run out of steam. Unwillingness—let us be charitable—to carry though any coherent correspondence between objects, themes, even often characters, leaves us with an incoherence that does not register as an aesthetic challenge, but simply as a careless mess. Siegfried apparently forgot to take Notung with him—or rather, the director forgot that he should. It was there, but Brünnhilde kept it, storing up various trouble for a final scene to the first act. This is not a matter of highlighting contradictions, already existing or even newly created. It is not freely associating; indeed, it is barely associating at all. It seems to speak more than anything of lack of acquaintance with Wagner’s work and—which may or may not be fair—sheer laziness. Like a child with an extremely limited attention span, Schwarz presents something, tires of it, presents a new thing without bothering to connect it to the previous thing, and continues. Occasionally, some older things return, yet neither with dramatic reason nor insight. To list them is almost the only thing one can do, given such absence of the conceptual; but it quickly becomes tedious, so I shall try to remain (relatively) selective.

The dark-haired boy we first saw in Das Rheingold shooting others with a water-pistol at the swimming pool seems in some sense to have become the gold, the ring, young Hagen, and now—oddly, having aged far faster than everyone else—‘old’ Hagen. A girl, who may or may not be the same as one also marked out at the swimming pool, who in turn may or may not be the same as the one Erda a little later seemed keen to protect, seems at times to take on the mantle of the ring, although there is also from time to time a ring too (which, given generally dim lighting, most of us can barely see). What we are supposed to make of that girl’s disappearance during the final scene, or indeed anything much in a scene that sadly had many in the audience laughing at its sheer ineptitude, I have no idea. Hagen’s return right at the end, stumbling on to shout ‘Zurück vom Ring’ (is he advising people to stay away from himself?) and then stumbling back off again, was not the least embarrassing episode in a renewed, though hardly rejuvenated, string of scenic non sequiturs.

Personal assistant Grane is still around too. It is hardly unusual for the gods to have nothing god-like to them at any stage whatsoever, though such is at best a one-sided view. Rarely if ever before, though, can they have been so recklessly divested of all character, even much in the way of motivation, and for that to have been the fate of dwarves, giants, heroes, and humans too. Turning a horse into a man in a suit does not seem much compensation, or even relevant. Anyway, Grane goes with Siegfried into the world (actually, back to part of Fafner’s house, I think) to encounter a Gunther who slightly resembles Peter Stringfellow or even Jimmy Savile, but whose inspiration a German friend tells me is a trashy television series called Die Geissens – eine schrecklich glamouröse Familie. Gunther wears a sparkly top that asks ‘Who the fuck is Grane?’ Quite, though one might ask that about anyone here, really. Grane is later beaten to something not a million miles from horsemeat. Gunther leaves the carrier bag with pieces of his body by the pool for Brünnhilde in pink dressing gown eventually to pick up Grane’s head to sing to. The unfortunate image resembles Golden Girl Rose Nylund doing a turn as Salome on her way to collect midnight cheesecake, albeit with none of the fun or interest that might entail.


But poor Brünnhilde (seriously). She too has been subjected to pretty horrific, all too casual abuse, seemingly to no end other than as something else to do (and not in a Clockwork Orange sort of way either). How much, if at all, violence towards women should be depicted on stage (or screen), especially by men, is of course very much a live topic at the moment. There may be no definitive answer, yet it is hardly a question simply to be ignored or, worse, trivialised. So many important questions, moreover, are treated similarly. Alberich’s alleged inability to father Hagen—‘it is not entirely clear’, writes dramaturge Konrad Kuhn in the programme, ‘how he could have conceived a son’—is at best problematical. ‘How,’ asks Kuhn, ‘did this “nasty”, this “hairy and hideous imp” … beget a child with the proud Queen Grimhild?’ Perhaps using the power he has amassed by foreswearing love? There is not much of a mystery, here, really, let alone inconsistency, though what form of power is of course open to speculation and interpretation. Instead, though, we end up with something that trivially disrupts the very parallelism the production seems to wish to construct between Wotan and Alberich, and arguably has more than a pinch of ableism to it. (Some might argue racism too; let us leave that for another day.)

Even Cornelius Meister’s conducting, a solid highlight of the previous three evenings, proved more mixed here. There is no shame in that; many conductors, at the best of times, are more successful in some parts of the Ring than others. That the prologue and first act in particular dragged, often seeming to lie behind whatever notional basic tempo had been set, was nonetheless unfortunate as nonsense upon nonsense unfolded onstage. That episodic quality continued into the second act, received with unusual rapture by the audience, but which to me lunged and lurched too often, making all too little musical sense. The third act, though, was much better, a sense of form as living structure once again imparted. There is no reason to think that the rest of the work will not follow in time. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, doubtless understandably, sounded at times tired. As an audience member, one could certainly relate. There were some splendid passages too, but this was not a vintage night for Wagner musically.

If vocal performances did not always reach the heights, nor did they ever fall below a reasonable level. Olafur Sigurdarson’s Alberich and Albert Dohmen’s were typically intelligent portrayals, founded in the poem and employing its musical marriage to considerable effect. Insofar as one could avoid Schwarz’s weird conception of Gunther—was he supposed to be high, or just very, very peculiar?—the same could be said of Michael Kupfer-Radecky in that role. If quality of diction came and went, there was much to appreciate in Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde, who managed to maintain a considerable degree of dignity, events around here notwithstanding. Fullness and bloom of voice were often as impressive as her sheer resolve to get on with it. Clay Hilley, a very late substitute as Siegfried, did more than could reasonably be asked of him. Not once did his voice tire; he committed himself with apparently equally enthusiasm to what was going on dramatically. Elisabeth Teige’s Gutrune was not helped by the production—who was?—but was a convincing vocal performance. Waltraute did not suit Christa Mayer quite so much as Fricka, but there was little doubting the quality of verbal response. The Rhinemaidens and Norns were all very good. If the chorus was far from overwhelming in the Vassals’ Scene, perhaps Covid restrictions were still in play; it looked as well as sounded smaller than usual.

It made for a long and dispiriting evening, though. I am only too aware of precedents, of how, say, Patrice Chéreau’s first run met with uproar and incomprehension, proceeding to become perhaps the best loved (and esteemed) Ring of all time. Not having been there, I can only speculate, but many have said it improved radically during its stint, a tribute to Bayreuth’s Werkstatt principle. Perhaps this might too, then; or perhaps I might change my mind and come to recant, as I did with Frank Castorf (parts of whose production I had, though, always admired). No one would be happier than I to admit he was wrong if so. It is far from the case that every idea advanced is unworthy of consideration; the problem more is that the production itself barely deigns to extend that consideration, already having jumped on something else. I think there would have to be a greater willingness, indeed any at all, to extend the frame of reference beyond a rich, unlikeable family. Why should we care, if that is all there is? Characterisation would help, to put it mildly, but so would a sense of the political and indeed the religious—of context whether broadly, specifically, or both (ideally). There is, it seems, no getting around that—and it is unclear why Schwarz, Kuhn, and company are so determined to try.

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Bayreuth Festival (3): Siegfried, 3 August 2022


Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Mime – Arnold Bezuyen
Wanderer – Tomasz Koniezcny
Alberich – Olafur Sigurdarson
Fafner – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Erda – Okka von der Damerau
Brünnhilde – Daniela Köhler
Woodbird – Alexandra Steiner
Young Hagen – Branko Buchberger
Grane – Igor Schwab

Valentin Schwarz (director)
Andrea Cozzi (designs)
Andy Besuch (costumes)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

This Siegfried made for pretty miserable music drama, I am afraid, the considerable qualities of the music ‘half’ notwithstanding. In a peculiar way, Wagner’s vision was vindicated. His works are not operas, nor are they intended to be. They may well impress in concert performances or in audio-only experiences at home—phenomena worthy of greater attention—but they need to impress musically and dramatically in the theatre, the whole so much more than the sum of its parts. One never knows what might be pulled out of the hat for Götterdämmerung, but it is difficult to imagine that it can truly redeem the incoherent, often tedious parade Valentin Schwarz has set before us so far. 

Incoherence may be the root problem, or at least a problem that takes us closer to the root. Some of the ideas set forth—some, rather than all—may well have merit, yet rarely do Schwarz and his team seem to have the persistence or even the attention-span necessary to pursue them. A claim might be put forward, I suppose, for an aesthetic of incoherence. Dramaturge Konrad Kuhn makes the claim in a programme note that ‘time and again, we encounter inconsistencies and contradictions in the Ring’. I am tempted to reply ‘speak for yourself’, but to an extent, it may well depend what one means. Rarely if ever are they straightforwardly ‘inconsistencies and contradictions’. The different standpoints presented, the dramatic and intellectual antagonisms put forward, the questions presented that are bigger than any possible attempt at answering them: these are part of what makes the Ring so extraordinary, so powerful, so life-changing a work. They are not signs of ineptitude, of carelessness, or some other shortcoming. This frankly slapdash attitude, however, does seem to inform what is set before us. It is not a matter of taking Wagner to task, of seeing how far a line may be pushed, but apparently of becoming bored with him and the challenges he sets us. It is a point of view, I suppose, or better an attitude or malaise; unsurprisingly, it offers little support for even a one-sided attempt to stage his most ambitious work. 

Siegfried opens in the same house in which we encountered Siegmund and Sieglinde, neither the first nor the last time when we return to the same location yet seek in vain a reason for having done so. Mime has done it up for Siegfried’s birthday party, ready to present a puppet show. If, like me, you are always intrigued by the possibilities of puppets and puppetry, you might have thought this augured well, I suspect you would soon have lost interest, when they were barely used—though perhaps not quite as quickly as the director. Having resolved to do without a sword in Die Walküre, or indeed Das Rheingold, Schwarz has Siegfried find one here concealed within Mime’s walking frame (which he does not appear to need). Since it is already there, never having been broken, the not inconsiderable time in words and music taken to reforge the sword requires something else on stage. Alas, none is forthcoming.

The second act takes place in Fafner’s expensive looking residence, irrespective of the changes in location required. Again, the starting idea does not seem unpromising. Various claimants to his wealth come to visit the giant-dragon (neither, in fact) to persuade him to leave it to them. Wotan, Alberich, Mime, Siegfried (in his way) all pay their house calls. Fafner’s carers do what needs to be done, the theme of abuse continuing to play out in his treatment of a female nurse who turns out to be the Woodbird. The other carer seems to be an adolescent version of the dark-haired boy from Das Rheingold. My speculation that he might turn out to be Hagen has been vindicated, though the symbolic identification Schwarz made between him and either the gold or the ring appears to have been dropped entirely. Siegfried has his sword but cannot be bothered to use it to kill Fafner; instead he throws him out of his chair and has Hagen strangle him to finish him off. Siegfried does use it on Mime, though. It looks at one point as if Siegfried and the Woodbird might go off together to further one part of his education, but instead he and Hagen run out together into the world, whilst the Woodbird returns to drop an item of clothing on top of her abuser as the curtain falls.


What should probably be the most decisive scene in the entire Ring, Wotan’s abandonment of Fate, quasi-identified with Erda, went for almost nothing, at least scenically. Another character, female, was present: a Valkyrie, a Norn, the girl Erda was chaperoning in Das Rheingold? Who knows? Increasingly, I was tempted also to ask: who cares? Hagen mostly sticks with Siegfried, who bullies the poor boy semi-insistently; until he does not, that is, disappearing at some point—I did not notice when—following the ascent to the mountain-top, which confusingly appears to be an adapted Valhalla. Nothing much else happens thereafter, though Grane-as-PA returns to compliment Brünnhilde on her new hat. Eventually, the work comes to a close.

Again, Cornelius Meister and the Festival Orchestra impressed. Meister’s discernment of the Ring’s architecture comes through unfailingly yet unobtrusively. If only some of this could have rubbed off on the production team. (I think as much of the dramaturge’s silly claim about inconsistency as in the inconsistencies and non sequiturs that play out visually. How well do they actually know the work?) Dynamic range was considerable, always with good reason, and never to the detriment of the singers. The theatre and covered pit help, of course, but they can only do so much. 

Andreas Schager’s Siegfried is for many of us a known quantity. On first hearing, it seems miraculous: at last someone who can sing this well-nigh impossible role and draw on seemingly infinite vocal resources to do so. None of that has changed—and we should all be thankful that we need no longer endure performances from singers who are simply not up to the job. Is it unfair to wish for something a little more, some greater verbal subtlety? Probably, yet in the absence of anything compelling from the production, I found myself doing so. Almost certainly, in fact, given the onstage chemistry shown with Arnold Bezuyen’s intelligent, wheedling Mime—who, for once, one never started wishing would emerge victorious.  Tomasz Koniezcny and Olafur Sigurdarson continued to prove themselves as the Wanderer and Alberich, the latter in particular never putting a dramatic foot wrong. This is fine singing, by any standards. 

I initially thought Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s Fafner a bit underpowered, but then realised that was not his fault; the lack of a cave and thus of any sort of projection just leaves him to himself. It is a perfectly intelligent performance on its own terms, let down by the staging. Okka von der Damerau’s Erda likewise deserved better, much better, yet could not be faulted on vocal terms. Likewise Alexandra Steiner’s Woodbird and Daniela Köhler’s Brünnhilde, whose gleaming tone and sheer relish for what promised to be new life offered both succour and inspiration. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Bayreuth Festival (2): Die Walküre, 1 August 2022


Siegmund – Klaus Florian Vogt
Hunding – Georg Zeppenfeld
Wotan – Tomasz Konieczny, Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Sieglinde – Lise Davidsen
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Fricka, Schwertleite – Christa Mayer
Gerhilde – Kelly God
Ortlinde – Brit-Tone Müllertz
Waltraute – Stéphanie Müther
Helmwige – Daniela Köhler
Siegrune – Stephanie Houtzeel
Grimgerde – Marie Henriette Reinhold
Rossweiße – Katie Stevenson
Grane – Igor Schwab

Valentin Schwarz (director)
Andrea Cozzi (designs)
Andy Besuch (costumes)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

The boos are getting louder: not, I think, for the musicians, but for the production of Valentin Schwarz, who has yet to appear for a curtain-call. That need be no bad thing artistically, though the practice itself is fascistic; should a bourgeois audience feel satisfied with what it has consumed, it will be a disturbing outcome for art. Here, though, the open mind I am endeavouring to keep concerning Schwarz’s production is struggling a little. As a distinguished Wagner scholar said to me when I met him afterwards, ‘It is getting worse.’ On the basis of what I saw in Die Walküre, I had little choice but to agree.

Short of the framing of the action as a saga of twins, which here seems more assumed to continue from Das Rheingold than illustrated, there is little at all to point to other than strange departures from Wagner’s drama, which taken separately or together fail to amount to anything very much. Siegmund and Sieglinde are, I think, taken back by their self-discovery to their childhood, joined by ‘symbolic’ star-children. (Either that, or they fantasise about the children they will have, but I think it is the former.) There is nothing wrong with that; it makes sense. But for it to have taken place in Wotan’s godly quarters seems peculiar—imagine Fricka’s thoughts on that—as well as quite at odds with what they have just sung, without obvious reason.

 It is later implied that Sieglinde, heavily pregnant throughout the first two acts, is carrying Wotan’s baby. At least I think that is why he ‘comforts’ her, whilst Siegmund and Hunding seek one another, pulling down her tights and apparently attempting to deliver the child. If not, it is a straightforward case of sexual assault, although I suppose it must have been anyway earlier. My guess would be that this is intended to enhance the parallelism between Wotan and Alberich, that both will be found to have produced children, Siegfried and Hagen, through rape. But where that leaves Siegmund, goodness knows: St Joseph with a twist, it would seem. Where, though, does that leave Hunding? He must surely have noticed. It is difficult not to conclude that Wagner’s plot would have been better left as it was.

In between, Freia’s funeral, or at least her lying in rest, had taken place. There were some germs of decent, if ultimately rather incidental ideas, here. Assuming we are still to take her as goddess of love, her death would have obvious implications (although its timing is arguably strange, given that Siegmund and Sieglinde have just met). In a Mafia-film-style mise-en-scène, a few people come to pay their respects, whilst Wotan and Fricka have their decisive confrontation. (Brünnhilde spends some of that scene in what appears to be a greenhouse. I don’t know either.) Hunding petitions the gods in person, an interesting touch. That Fricka returns at the end of the third act, after Wotan has put Brünnhilde to sleep (and made, you guessed it, his incestuous urges all too clear), suggests that she is confident in her triumph. She even wheels on a drinks trolley and offers Wotan a celebratory glass. He declines, though, so in the absence of a spear—just nothing at all, throughout—Fricka clinks together the glasses to make the requisite noise.


I am afraid I have no idea at all what happens in the Ride of the Valkyries. It veered all over the place—at least the BBC light entertainment place—from Dr Who to The Benny Hill Show to Casualty, with an apparently accidental turn for Diana Dors’s gender-reversal ‘The Worm that Turned’ series for The Two Ronnies. Sometimes the Valkyries were in charge, sometimes Wotan’s guards. There was a great deal of mobile telephone use. Perhaps it is time to call for a moratorium on those devices onstage, unless the director has a clear idea what they are for. As things stand, they seem to have become the new suitcases.

Lack of objects when called for and introduction of obscure alternatives does little to help. I have already mentioned the lack of a spear or any substitute.   Just as the role of Das Rheingold’s dark-haired boy is more unclear than ambiguous, so is that of the strange pyramid-in-a-box, earlier seen and quasi-worshipped upon the gods’ entry into Valhalla as if a grail-refugee from a production of Parsifal. It now reappears as a repository for a pistol. Sometimes a pistol is a Notung equivalent, sometimes not; sometimes there are several. None of it makes any sense, really, and try as I might to try to piece together some sort of explanation, I am really on the verge of giving up.

As for Grane’s reincarnation as Brünnhilde’s male, suited personal assistant, it makes even less sense when there have been a few apparently arbitrary visual references to actual horses elsewhere. Finally, there is a strong impression that the strongest acting is brought by the singers themselves to their roles. Personenregie is intermittent at best and sometimes disappears altogether in longer exchanges between characters. I suppose some of these things, minus the lack of Personenregie, might add up to something in retrospect, but I do not feel especially hopeful.

Musically, things are better, often much better. Cornelius Meister continues to impress greatly with his command of structure and detail, conveying and expressing a Wagner melos from the pit that drives and, in many respects, is the action. The sound he drew from the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra—and, I assume, to an extent, the sound its players wished to conjure too—was in some ways distant from that we might recall from old Bayreuth recordings, closer to those of other opera orchestras. Choices seem well justified to me, though, and there is no point merely trying to imitate Karl Böhm—or anyone else, for that matter. There is considerable emotional and conceptual range as the cauldron of Wagner’s Greek Chorus bubbles: quite a difference, alas, from what we see onstage.

Not, however, from what we hear onstage. Lise Davidsen’s Sieglinde was at least the equal of any I have heard. No one seems to have a bad word to say about this extraordinary soprano, and so far there seems no reason for anyone to do so. Her final peroration here, ‘O hehrstes Wunder!...’ was as vocally magnificent, riding the orchestral wave almost like no other, as it was clearly heartfelt, the culmination of a dramatic journey that now must end. Klaus Florian Vogt’s tenor will always divide opinion. Much of that is simply down to taste. Whether one liked his performance or not—and there is no getting away from the fact that its sound is very different from the baritonal Siegmunds we have come to expect—his was certainly a committed and, I think, highly likeable performance. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding offered a masterclass in the role, everything present and correct, both considered and alert to the moment.

Tomasz Konieczny and Michael Kupfer-Radecky shared the role of Wotan, the former having become unable to continue during the second interval. Both gave strong performances, deeply rooted in Wagner’s text; if the ear took a little while to adjust to new sound and delivery, that was a tiny price to pay for so crucial, short-notice a substitution. Christa Mayer’s Fricka was once again first-class, fuller-throated than often one hears, and all the better for it. Iréne Theorin impressed as head Valkyrie, youthfully impetuous and headstrong, yet clearly transformed by what she had witnessed. The rest of her team was cast from depth, including a return for Mayer as Schwertleite. Had this been a concert performance, I suspect it would have moved more than it did in the theatre. This Ring, however, will continue in Wagner’s own theatre.


Monday, 1 August 2022

Bayreuth Festival (1): Das Rheingold, 31 July 2022



Wotan – Egils Silins
Donner – Raimund Nolte
Froh – Attilio Glaser
Loge – Daniel Kirch
Fricka – Christa Mayer
Freia – Elisabeth Teige
Erda – Okka von der Damerau
Alberich – Olafur Sigurdarson
Mime – Arnold Bezuyen
Fasolt – Jens-Erik Aasbø
Fafner – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Woglinde – Lea-ann Dunbar
Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde – Katie Stevenson

Valentin Schwarz (director)
Andrea Cozzi (designs)
Andy Besuch (costumes)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Luis August Krawen (video)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

In der Erde Tiefe
tagen die Nibelungen:
Nibelheim ist ihr Land.
Schwarzalben sind sie;
Schwarz Alberich hütet’ als Herrscher sie einst!

So begins the Wanderer’s answer to the first of Mime’s three riddles, in which notoriously the dwarf asks his unwelcome visitor questions he hopes will catch him out—they do not—thereby wasting the opportunity to ask the chief of the gods what he, Mime, actually needs to know. Mime has asked which Geschlecht may be found in the earth’s depths. Wotan/the Wanderer tells him: the Nibelungs, that is Mime’s own kin. In response to the third riddle, when Mime asks him which Geschlecht lives in the cloud-hidden heights, the Wanderer, disguised chief of the gods, tells his interlocutor that it is those very gods, continuing, ‘Lichtalben sind sie; Licht-Alberich, Wotan, waltet der Schar.’

If I understand correctly—I should stress that I am writing this immediately after Das Rheingold, with much yet to be revealed—those points in that exchange point to something crucial in understanding Valentin Schwarz’s new Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring. That dialectical opposition between Wotan and Alberich, ‘white’ and ‘black’ Alberich—which is certainly the meat of the Rheingold drama, and in many ways underpins all that is to come—is taken a little more literally, rendering them twins. The Rheingold prologue is perhaps as close as we shall come to a musical presentation of the ‘spontaneous generation’ Wagner’s contemporary Karl Marx hymned in his long unpublished, Feuerbachian Paris Manuscripts: Generatio æquivoca is the only practical refutation’ of the theological ‘theory of creation,’ The ‘abstraction’ of the old way of thinking of oneself as apart from Nature overcome, ‘for you too are Nature and man’.  (Wagner would have read Arthur Schopenhauer’s description ‘spontaneity of the world of Nature’ in Parerga and Paralipomena when working on the score, but the roots of this idea unquestionably extend back to the Young Hegelian inheritance he and Marx—‘black’ and ‘white’ Marx?—found in Ludwig Feuerbach and other writers of the 1840s.)

Luis August Krawen’s opening video projection makes it very clear that we were in the waters (‘in the river Rhine’, as Anna Russell would have reminded us, ‘in it!’) so as to fit any number of creation or non-creation myths. What proceeds differently here is the vision of twin umbilical chords, leading us to twin babies—who, as the saga develops, we associate with Wotan and Alberich. At any rate, there are birth, kinship, and rivalry: a reminder that Mime’s ‘Geschlecht’, often translated as ‘race’, has here more to do with genealogy, with family, house, and lineage. Schwarz not only takes Wagner’s three lineages—dwarves, giants, and gods—as the basis of the drama to come, but takes Wagner further than himself by rendering at least two of them estranged branches of the same clan: Cain and Abel, Esau and Isaac, Wotan and Alberich…

Inheritance, therefore, is fundamental. In an underlining of the family saga element (which, at one level, surely no one could deny) Schwarz has Alberich steal and turn a child from the swimming pool over which the Rhinemaidens (glorified au pairs?) watch over a group of children. Notably, that child is black-haired, as opposed to the blond of the others. One can go down the route of trying to work out precisely what the ‘dark’ child symbolises: the gold, what it is turned into, inheritance? I am not sure that is really the way to go, though. There is a struggle between Black and White Alberich both for that boy and, intermittently, for a blonde girl, which perhaps represents—if at times, a little confusingly—the overall power struggle. Alberich is certainly an outsider and remains so, presumably at some stage cast out. Wotan’s crew is the ‘legitimate’ branch, with a ghastly family (shades of Murdoch, or even Dynasty?) in competition over the spoils and succession. I worry somewhat that the ‘racial’ element of Geschlecht may come to be seen as the point, rather than a metaphor, but perhaps the claim—it certainly has been claimed, if far from convincingly—is that race is the point here. As with much else, we shall see.

There are intriguing elements, for instance the ongoing element of the children ‘leaders’ educating and abusing other children, struggle and oppression already echoing down the ages. Wotan’s ecstasy in his own apparent victory at the close is compelling: high, it would seem, on his own ideology, or at least his own misdeeds. There are others I have yet to understand: why does Erda put in several appearances before her scheduled arrival, just to watch, and why does she walk off with the blonde girl in her care at the end? Is this in some sense a presentiment of Brünnhilde, as the boy might be of Hagen? Again, we shall see. It would be odd to understand everything, or even have much of a developed idea about at this stage. This, after all, is only the
Vorabend, the preliminary evening. Something more strongly political might not be a bad thing, but one might argue much attention, from Patrice Chéreau onwards, has been devoted to that already; perhaps it is time for a shift of emphasis. Again, we shall see.

Conducting anything at all at Bayreuth is a difficult task indeed, even when familiar with the set-up, let alone when not—likewise even when it is a single evening’s work, rather than that of four. Cornelius Meister, who was due to conduct Tristan but now substitutes for Pietari Inkinen, made a better job of Das Rheingold than I have previously heard here (Sinopoli, Petrenko, Janowski). Balance was excellent; so too was pacing. If there were a few orchestral fluffs—a couple of brass wrong entries, for instance—nothing was too grievous. The orchestra itself likewise sounded on good form. In both cases, more will surely come, but this was an impressive start.

So too was it for the cast. Olafur Sigurdarson garnered the greatest cheers from the audience as Alberich, probably rightly so. His was certainly an outstanding performance, seemingly instinctively alert to the dramatic reality and implications of Wagner’s particularly dialectical blend of verse, music, and gesture. A blond Egils Silins—that dark/light antagonism again—offered a proper battle as his principal antagonist. Christa Mayer’s Fricka was thoughtful, considered, and personal in tone and delivery. Much the same, albeit far from the same, might be said of Okka von der Damerau’s Erda. Arnold Bezuyen and Daniel Kirch made much of their tenor roles, verbally and physically, as Mime and Loge respectively. Elisabeth Teige’s Freia offered proper beauty of tone, well echoed by that forlorn violin solo of ‘love’ in the orchestra. Jens-Erik Aasbø and Wilhelm Schwinghammer contrasted actions and motivations well in the giants’ roles. It was an impressive trio of Rhinemaidens we heard too, their ensemble warning in the final scene fatally apparent. As for what is to come, we shall see (and hear).


Saturday, 30 July 2022

Prom 17 - BBC SSO/Volkov - Walshe and Brahms, 28 July 2022

Royal Albert Hall

Jennifer Walshe: The Site of an Investigation (London premiere)
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45

Jennifer Walshe (voice)
Elena Tsallagova (soprano)
Shenyang (bass-baritone)
National Youth Choir of Great Britain (chorus director: Ben Parry)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov (conductor)

I am sure one could find something these two works had in common if one tried; one always can. The question is whether it would be anything more than a parlour game trick to do so. For instance, does saying that both composers, Jennifer Walshe and Johannes Brahms, assembled (many of) the words they set from pre-existing texts shed light on anything? Not really. Perhaps there is something less tenuous in regarding both as having a memorial element, Walshe’s The Site of an Investigation being dedicated to the memory of a friend, the actor Stephen Swift. Again, though, I am not sure that helps connect Walshe and Brahms’s music. It is probably better to treat this Prom as a performance of two contrasting works and leave it at that. 

The Site of an Investigation, from 2018, presents a more eclectic range of texts and responds to them in similarly eclectic fashion. From tweets to NASA’s plans for Mars: there is certainly a world (and beyond) to choose from, and that kaleidoscopic intent seems to be part of the point, perhaps unified only in Walshe’s own highly varied, amplified vocal delivery. I am tempted to call it performance art, given ‘events’ such as percussionists wrapping a giraffe in brown paper, twirling ribbons, and building a little tower with plastic boxes, the final act set against a pop-minimalist orchestral backdrop. ‘My horizon goal/is a surface landing/on MARS!’ and—all fall down. Tonal music, deliberately (I think) banal, is soon invaded or derided in the ‘Normal person’ section, in which we hear of someone’s need to receive 200 social media likes. It is all highly anarchic, though also (again, I think) directed at contemporary mores, often used in themselves as found material. Its big-heartedness is inviting, likewise its sheer fearlessness (surely allied). Was that an initial reference to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony? It is now too long ago for me to be sure either way, but perhaps it is more important to think of John Cage’s deconstructionism, a post-Andy Warhol pop aesthetic, or even a Charles Ives-like orchestral riot in between ‘it’s hard ot tell exactly where the hate is coming from’ and the first advent of the wind machine. Perhaps, or perhaps not. Rather than seek for antecedents, I suspect it is better simply to listen here in the moment and take what you will—if anything. I rather enjoyed the half-hour or so it took and afterwards felt perplexed as to what to make of it. Over to you. 

If I say that I feel more at home with Brahms, that is not necessarily a value judgement, simply a statement of fact. I certainly liked this performance from the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and Ilan Volkov. What struck me, in addition to a startlingly slow tempo, in the opening chorus was the cultivated quality of the BBC SSO strings, as if a chamber group—or perhaps a small Bach orchestra, writ a little larger. It was not all maudlin, though, far from it; rarely have I heard such joy (aptly enough on ‘Freuden’) as in these young voices’ rendition under Volkov, both sides clearly responding to one another. This movement very much set the scene for what was to come: not only dark yet consoling, but also with moments of Baroque joy such as Bach, Handel, and the many earlier composers in whom Brahms so immersed himself both as composer and as choral director might well have recognised (at least in ahistorical fantasy). 

The sarabande that followed flowed beautifully without rushing; choral singing was nicely responsorial. Volkov kept a tight rein on dynamic contrasts, exercising them to maximum effect. A special words should be said for the BBC SSO’s angelic harps. (It probably helped that I was seated near them.) At any rate, this was a properly severe apostolic pronouncement that yet consoled, even prior to the uplift wrought by Isiaiah’s return of the ransomed. That final section was taken at quite a lick, but it worked. It also contrasted well with the confiding intimacy of ‘Herr, lehre doch mich,’ bass-baritone Shenyang contributing with keen intelligence to the sense of cumulative power in a moving homily. Patience, as Brahms certainly knew, is a virtue. Release at its close, the souls of the righteous in God’s hands, where no torment shall touch them, both paralleled and took further that at the close of the preceding number. 

‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ and ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ exuded sweetness without saccharine, the first bringing (however silly this may sound) summer strawberries to my mind. It was brisk, yet breathed, Volkov ensuring a fine sense of the longer line. Elena Tsallagova sometimes sounded tremulous in the latter, but at her best imparted a fine sense of a maternal angel leading us (Brahms included) on. There was no doubting our role as band of pilgrims in ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’. Seeking that city to come, we were in need of a guide and received one, the Royal Albert Hall organ (Richard Gowers) underlining that in a highly physical, again consoling, way. The struggle to come both terrified and thrilled, St Paul, Bach, and the rest personally yet universally synthesised for us in the here and now. (There are many ways to be contemporary.) Its final words from Revelation, Brahms’s music summoning up memories of Handel and Mendelssohn, without ever sounding ‘like’ them, brought us close to completion, though it was no easy journey. There was, however, one chorus still to go, the final step—tonal as well as theological, any such distinction meaningless. This may not be liturgical music, but it strongly conveyed the sense of a closing, seraphic benediction. It bade us good night and fortified us softly yet surely, as Brahms often does.

Tuesday, 26 July 2022

Margot la Rouge and Le Villi, Opera Holland Park, 23 July 2022

Margot, Anna – Anne Sophie Duprels
Sergeant Thibault – Samuel Sakker
L’Artiste – Paul Carey Jones
Lili Béguin – Sarah Minns
Nini – Laura Lolita Perešivana
La Patronne – Laura Woods
First Soldier – George von Bergen
La Poigne – Jack Holton
Second Soldier – Alistair Sutherland
Totor – David Woloszko
First Woman – Chloé Pardoe
First Drinker – Sean Webster
Second Drinker – Matthew Duncan
Third Drinker, A Man – Peter Lidbetter
Waiter – Richard Moore
Police Inspector – Dragoş Andrei Ionel
Roberto – Peter Auty
Guglielmo – Stephen Gadd
Dancers – Fern Grimbley, Isabel Le Cras, Gabriella Schmidt

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director)
takis (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Jami Reid-Quarrell (movement)

City of London Sinfonia
Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus director: Dominic Ellis-Peckham)
Francesco Cilluffo (conductor)

Images: Ali Wright
Chorus, Le Villi

Opera Holland Park’s new double-bill of operatic rarities proves a great success, highly recommended to anyone slightly curious to hear works off the beaten track. Delius’s Margot la Rouge, written from 1901-2 but unperformed until 1983, and Puccini’s first opera, Le Villi, here given in its 1884 two-act revision, were both unsuccessful entrants in the Milan publisher Sonzogno’s competition for new one-act operas. In Martin Lloyd-Evans’s production, both open with a father and his daughter, the unfortunate tales to follow initiated by the latter leaving the former. (Make of that what you will.)

Delius’s 45 minutes or so tell a straightforward story in which the woman Marguerite/Margot, fallen into Parisian prostitution, has a chance meeting with her childhood sweetheart, Thibauld, which rekindles their relationship, only for her pimp-lover, L’Artiste, to explode with anger, stab Thibauld, and in turn be stabbed by Margot, who is arrested. There is little in the way of dramatic conflict or surprise; people act precisely as one might expect them to. There is a frankly absurd number of cast-members for a work so short. But it is musically interesting, Delius not only at his most Wagnerian, but far more directed (or conventionally directed) than many of the composer’s more wandering scores. Lloyd Evans and his team summon up a seedy Paris bar, a storm, and various comings and goings with a gutsy verismo spirit that matches what one hears from orchestra and singers alike. If ultimately Margot la Rouge comes across more as a sketch in search of expansion, it certainly does not outstay its welcome and has much to fascinate audiences of various tastes.

Le Villi is, unsurprisingly, the more accomplished, finished work, the level of craftsmanship from Puccini at so early a stage in his career little short of astonishing. The Gothic tale has more in common with French and, perhaps still more, German Romanticism than one might expect. Here, takis’s shell of a bar transformed into a woodland house, Roberto and Anna, celebrating their betrothal, are separated by Roberto’s journey to Mainz to collect his inheritance. Waylaid by a Mainz ‘siren’, he fails to return, choosing instead a city life of debauchery, and Anna dies, her father calling for supernatural vengeance from the Villi who inhabit the forest. Roberto, having finally resolved to return home, meets these fairies instead of his beloved; they do as the legend foretells, dancing him to death.

Puccini is likewise not without Wagnerian influence here, but his truer predecessors seem to be earlier German (and again French) Romantics, as well as the purveyors of French grand opéra and ballet. For, in this early opera-ballet, what surprises most is just how much Puccini sounds like himself. Melodies, harmonies, scoring, if not so much characterisation: so much of his later mastery is already close—and sometimes more than close. Lloyd-Evans’s resourceful production takes full advantage of the magical descent into darkness an evening at Holland Park offers. Again, it tells the story directly, with a sharp eye for detail, and offers plenty for one to consider after the event, as indeed does the work itself.

Both orchestral reductions, by Andreas Luca Beraldo, seemed to me highly successful, in that I pretty much forgot we were not hearing quite the real thing. That success must also of course be attributed to Francesco Cilluffo and the City of London Sinfonia.  Cilluffo’s conducting, energetic yet long-breathed, was imbued with every inch of the conviction necessary to lift such scores off the page. The CLS sounded fuller of tone than many an opera house orchestra of twice the size. It drove the action as much as supported the singers in a true partnership between pit and stage. The Opera Holland Park Chorus, finely trained by Dominic Ellis-Peckham, proved both polished and enthusiastic in its singing—and game in its dancing too. Jami Reid-Quarrell’s choreography, whether for the chorus or the three Villi dancing, was sharp, illustrative, and dramatically conceived.

At the heart of both operas lay the outstanding singing of Anne Sophie Duprels: heartfelt, incisive, and variegated. She was poignantly partnered by Samuel Sakker as Thibauld in Margot la Rouge, Paul Carey Jones’s Artiste offering a contrasting, commanding, and vicious stage presence. The size of the cast offered a host of young singers opportunities to shine, all of them well taken. As Le Villi’s Roberto, Peter Auty might have graced any operatic stage. His marriage of vocal heft, lyricism, and command of detail fully complemented Duprels. Stephen Gadd’s performance as Anna’s father Guglielmo should also be commended. As so often at Holland Park, this was a fine company achievement.

Indeed, I think it was worth drawing attention to the achievement of the greater team at Holland Park. From Director of Opera James Clutton down (not to forget recently departed colleague Michael Volpe), or perhaps better, from a committed team of volunteers up, this is a friendly, welcoming, high-achieving company, crucial both to this country’s operatic ecology, past, present, and future, and also playing its part in building a more sustainable theatre in the broader, ecological sense. Since the pandemic, OHP has taken still greater care to work in partnership with local suppliers; a wonderful array of upscaled furniture provides audience seating; the auditorium has been constructed from reclaimed wood and recycled shipping containers. Art for art’s sake matters; let no one tell you otherwise. But art is never solely for art’s sake. To survive, it must assume and further social, environmental, and political responsibility. When everything goes right artistically, as it does here, that is even better, but human striving, artistic and social, matters greatly in itself and will only do so more as our world belatedly confronts a host of crises that never should have been permitted to reach this stage. Every theatre company, every orchestra, every artist, every partner organisation will have its/his/her/their own solutions, but they must work together too; that includes us as audiences. What better place to learn from hard work, effort, and example than here in Holland Park?


Saturday, 23 July 2022

Prom 10: BBC Concert Orchestra/Wordsworth - ‘Music for Royal Occasions’, 22 July 2022

Royal Albert Hall

Bliss: Jubilant Fanfare no.1
Handel: Coronation Anthem no.1, ‘Zadok the Priest
Walton: Coronation March: ‘Orb and Sceptre’
Elgar: O hearken thou, op.64
William Henry Harris, arr. Jonathan Manners: The Windsor Dances
Henry VIII: Pastime with good companie
Britten: Gloriana: Courtly Dances
Parry: Coronation Anthem: ‘I was glad’
John Ireland: Epic March
Judith Weir: I love all beauteous things
Byrd: O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen
Handel, arr. Hamilton Harty: Water Music: excerpts from Suite no.1
Vaughan Williams: Silence and Music
Cheryl Frances-Hoad: Your servant, Elizabeth (world premiere)
Elgar: ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ March no.4 in G major

BBC Singers (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
BBC Concert Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth (conductor)


Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou 

Having gone to this Prom with an open mind, buoyed by the sight of Handel, Byrd, and Elgar among the rest, I am tempted to conclude so much the worse for open minds. Should one keep an open mind about ‘Brexit’ as living standards plunge, goods disappear from shops, stations and airports overflow, vehicles pile up en route (sorry, ‘on the way’) to Dover, and so on? Of course not, though the Foreign Secretary Liz ‘Pork Markets’ Truss’s ‘innovative’ demand that France should sort things out is doubtless worth considering. Certainly France could have sorted out some of this programme: if ‘Music for Royal Occasions’, where was Versailles, let alone Vienna, Dresden, or Berlin? But really, even were one to take the English/British restriction at face, non-political value, a ‘Music for Royal Occasions’ that excluded Purcell in favour of William Henry Harris? The programming looked eccentric, but perhaps we should ‘make Harris work’, ‘get Parry done’, and so on?

Perhaps. There were, to be fair, some better moments, a good few of them, although the BBC Singers seemed an odd match for the repertoire. A local choral society might have been more apt. The brass and percussion of Arthur Bliss’s Jubilant Fanfare no.1, apparently composed for a BBC broadcast of George VI’s Christmas speech, made for an effective, even anticipatory curtain-raiser. The contrast with those celebrated anticipatory strings of Zadok the Priest, mercifully free of ‘period’ affectation from the BBC Concert Orchestra and Barry Wordsworth, worked well and if the performance was on the small side for the Royal Albert Hall, one could hear the words, largely thanks to excellent articulation from the BBC Singers. I could have done without the weird twirling crowns behind them, though, presumably set up for Sunday’s television broadcast but increasingly aggravating in the hall. Elgar’s O hearken thou, written for the coronation of George V, was far more interesting than its monarch. It may be a ‘minor’ work, but it is a finely crafted one: a prayer, rather than a public profession, and moved through its mastery of harmonic progression both in work and performance. If there is little that cannot be traced back to Mendelssohn or, if not, to Wagner, these are two masters worthy of the utmost respect, and what Elgar does can be reduced neither to influence nor to function. Drums, woodwind, and voices made for a refreshing Pastime with good companie from Henry VIII (so far as we know). 

Moreover, in the second half, Byrd’s O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen, from about the time of his appointment to Elizabeth I’s Chapel Royal, came as a relief in every sense: neither simpler nor more complex, shorter nor longer, than needed be, a jewel that gleamed even in a setting to which it was hardly suited. In the circumstances, a relatively ‘neutral’ performance from the BBC Singers was no bad decision, more or less allowing the illusion of words and music ‘speaking for itself’. A little later, the evening’s commission, Cheryl Frances Hoad’s Your servant, Elizabeth, took Byrd’s words and music and refracted them through a twentieth-century aural lens, various elements, different tonalities included, intelligently set in counterpoint (literal and metaphorical) with one another, imparting also a sense of Anglican versicle and response. More of this spirit would have been welcome. In between, an outing for Vaughan Williams’s Silence and Music, written for an Arts Council set of part-songs for Elizabeth II’s coronation, revealed harmonic oscillation and persistence in happy alliance with thoughtful English word-setting. 

One could even have waved through Walton’s Orb and Sceptre Coronation March. Its opening, after all, breathed the air of a postwar, televisual age. The reprise, however, of that opening more than outstayed its welcome, and the composer’s typical self-satisfaction soon had one realise this was music that, a certain technical skill notwithstanding, was all surface—without that surface ever approaching that of, say, a Ravel. Walton came across as a kindred spirit to Webern, though, by comparison with the aforementioned William Henry Harris, whose Windsor Dances, receiving their first and, let us hope, last performance at the Proms, barely attempted, let alone achieved musical interest. It was plausible enough to imagine them ‘inspired’ by our current Head of State. The titles of these mercifully brief orchestral arrangements from piano duet pieces—‘Castle Walls’, ‘Down by the River’, ‘At a Canter’—said it all. 

The same drum used to announce Henry VIII’s contribution did so for Britten’s ‘Courtly Dances’ from Gloriana. The opera has its devotees, I know, making typically extravagant claims for it, but these dances are thin gruel, far from helped by a pretension that the material cannot and does not justify. I thought the Pavane would never end. The Lavolta was at least a little more colourful, though a programme description of it as ‘fiery’ bewildered. Maybe the performance was lacking, for it sounded about as fiery as, well, Elizabeth II. Alas, Judith Weir’s strangely inconsequential I love all beauteous things, written for the Queen’s ninetieth birthday, also seemed to have its dedicatee in mind. Harris, I suppose, had not even managed the ‘strangely’ part. 

John Ireland was certainly capable of writing music of interest, especially for the piano. His Epic March, though seemingly played well, proved utterly devoid of musical interest. Intended, apparently, as wartime propaganda music, it semeed more likely to disillusion those poor souls on the Home Front fated to endure it. And where—I should have asked this earlier—was even a desultory nod towards decolonisation? Place these pieces in some sort of counterpoint with a wider world, especially a wider world brutalised by the empire they (often) hymned, contrast them with other ‘royal’ music, even simply choose better examples: but this, really? Did anyone seriously think it worth of revival; and, if so, why? 

Hamilton Harty’s Handel may sound intriguing on paper, but rarely has it emerged with the courage of convictions. Wordsworth here seemed curiously tentative, as did the orchestra. The abiding impression left would probably have been that the ‘authentic’ movement had a point, which is surely to have missed the point. If one wants Handel-Harty, one should go to Georg Szell. Even Elgar’s Fourth Pomp and Circumstance March was treated with kid-gloves. What initially sounded as though it might have offered a fresh look, inspired by Mendelssohn-like lightness, turned out merely to be glib and, reading between the lines, a little embarrassed by it all. Lack of sentimentality was welcome; what stood positively in the performance’s favour remained unclear. 

I have saved nearly the worst (after Harris) until last: Parry’s execrable I was glad, which manages somehow to be both vulgar and tedious. (I see it was revived for the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which again makes a sort of grimly apt sense.) Here the clash with the BBC Singers seemed strangest, a mismatch that certainly did not reflect badly on them. What empty, shop-worn rhetoric, and to what end? Pierre Boulez once referred to Shostakovich’s music by way of an olive-oil metaphor: a third pressing of Mahler. This sounded like a fifth of an already bowdlerised Victorian-Edwardian Brahms. It was as dull as ditchwater. All hail the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha/Windsor.

Friday, 22 July 2022

Prom 9: Finch/BBC NOW/Matiakh - Ravel, Beamish, and Rimsky-Korsakov, 21 July 2022

Royal Albert Hall

Ravel: Shéhérazade – ouverture de féerie
Sally Beamish: Hive (world premiere)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Catrin Finch (harp)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Ariane Matiakh (conductor)

Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou 

Two responses to the Persian legend of Scheherazade, the first clearly influenced by the second, sandwiched a new work (seemingly intended to be danced, though not here) for harp and orchestra in this, the first of my visits to this year’s BBC Proms. Ravel’s early overture Shéhérazade—not his song-cycle of the same name—was heard first in an excellent performance from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Ariane Matiakh. Steven Hudson’s warmly inviting oboe solo, free yet directed, swiftly joined by other fine woodwind soloists, imparted a fitting air of fantasy, of unfolding, Ravel’s motivic working—whatever prejudices one might hear concerning ‘national’ styles—crucial to the piece’s success and that of its performance too. Without ventriloquising the sound of a French orchestra, the BBC NOW assumed its spirit. If Matiakh could not quite conceal all the corners, a strong case was made. And if a certain sectional quality inherent to the piece endured, it was nicely sectional, as it were, suggesting both variety and a narrative path. This was a well-shaped reading, whose hothouse passages were relished, albeit integrated within a greater whole. Intervention from an audience member’s mobile telephone over several bars was less welcome, though just as apparent. 

Sally Beamish’s Hive, a BBC co-commission with the World Harp Congress, was at first a pandemic casualty, due for its premiere in the dread year of 2020. Its belated first performance was received enthusiastically, taking us through the four seasons of a beehive. ‘Winter: Inside the Hive’ opened promisingly: a non-hackneyed yet evocative impression of the season, here (to quote the composer) depicting ‘a close mass of bees, all shivering their flight muscles to keep their body temperature constant’. There was cold, yes, as there was shivering; but there was also a muscular strength, married to and in some cases expressed through orchestral colour. If the language were relatively ‘traditional’, it was definitely ‘traditional plus’, no mere resting on laurels (or honeycombs). Rhythmic drive increased as the movement progressed, interspersed with or, perhaps better, punctuated by passages of wonder. 

Spring brought well-nigh onomatopoeic birdsong, renewed energy, and dance, a bee’s ‘waggle dance’ included. Lightly scored—this is music for harp and orchestra, after all—there was nonetheless variety within that lightness, Catrin Finch’s harp playing surely definitive here (and elsewhere). One could readily visualise the drama throughout. Summer I found somewhat filmic, though it began in darker fashion. Again, the music’s representative character was evident as rival potential queens fought for their title and drones subsequently seized their moment. Autumn, for me at least, proved the most intriguing, both concluding and offering an uncertain future. With character and events of its own, its fade into the unknown had one stop, pause, think, and question whether this necessary cycle would continue forever. 

Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherazade had the second half to itself. I rather liked Matiakh’s unassuming performance, determined to give the work something of that ‘symphonic’ stature rather than simply wallowing, but the Royal Albert Hall’s notorious acoustic proved less than ideal, swallowing up much sound before ever it could reach us. A severe opening, immediately balanced by post-Mendelssohnian woodwind and then the Scheherazade violin solo itself (leader Lesley Hatfield sweet and sinuous throughout) seemed a little flattened by the wall of sound that followed in the first movement. Others proved more variegated—or perhaps it was my ears that adapted to the acoustic. At any rate, all four movements flowed well, the first boasting lovely duetting between violin and various woodwind soloists. They too shone in ‘The Tale of the Kalendar Prince’, winningly pictorial, even swashbuckling, but never only that, always musical. 

One could take ‘The Young Prince and Princess’ as an object lesson in orientalism, but this sympathetic performance brought one as close to ‘true’ sentiment as Rimsky comes here. It was spun gorgeously, yet languor was never excessive. Its metrical transformations, Liszt never far away, charmed. Like the fourth movement of Beamish’s Hive, the finale here sounded from the outset as a last chapter. Indeed, a keen sense of narrative was a hallmark of Matiakh’s performance throughout, revisiting and rehearing past material included. ‘Symphonic’? Yes, if you will, though perhaps ‘cyclical’ would be better. Ultimately, who cares? It was enjoyable and, at times, delectable.

Monday, 11 July 2022

The Blue Woman, Royal Opera, 6 July 2022

Image:Camilla Greenwell, ROH

Linbury Studio Theatre

Woman 1 – Elaine Mitchener
Woman 2 – Lucy Schaufer
Woman 3 – Gweneth Ann Rand
Woman 4 – Rosie Middleton
Cellos – Louise McMonagle, Su-a Lee, Tamaki Sugimoto, Clare O’ConnellPercussionist – Angela Wai-Nok Hui
Actor – Eve Ponsonby
Voice-over Artist – Eleanor Henderson

Katie Mitchell (director)
Lizzie Clachan (designs)
Emma Doherty (assistant director)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Grant Gee (video)
Ellie Horne (dramaturgy)

Matthew Fairclough (sound design)
Jessica Cottis (music director)
Jamie Man (conductor)

What is opera? It may seem self-indulgent to begin by repeating, rehearsing, even reheating that question. It both matters and does not. The Tête a Tête Festival has surely shown London opera-goers that opera can be pretty much anything one wants it to be. And that, I think, is the point here. One may think The Blue Woman as much a theatre piece or even an installation as an opera, but does it matter? In some cases, it might—or at least might be interesting. This collaboration between composer Laura Bowler, librettist Laura Lomas, director Katie Mitchell, and a fine creative team of live musicians and electronics makes the question seem somewhat beside the point.

Images and narration, words and music come together to represent—or something akin to representing—the aftermath of a rape. Postdramatic in more than one sense, the fractures of memory, the circular tricks it plays are apparent. Time, which may or may not qualify as action, passes between unbearable, empty desolation of an abandoned south London flat—where it happened, where it is remembered, both, or a metaphor?—and beyond its horrible, familiar suffocation. Walking the streets leading from Clapham Junction to Clapham Common—uncanny enough for to see it pass the end of my old street in Battersea, rather more than uncanny for women in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder—the woman’s psyche is rent asunder, awareness both heightened and dulled by rupture. Four outstanding women singers, shadowed neither sequentially nor arbitrarily by four outstanding female cellists, bring that home. Witnesses yet also participants, their commanding performance is clearly inspired by Mitchell’s guiding hand, Lomas’s evocative broken verse, and the sounds, transformations, and connections Bowler summons ‘live’ and otherwise.

Music, poetry, image, gesture present ‘the room I was raised in/Hard edges/Brick walls…’ and yet ‘In the splintered light/… I am dancing’. It is not hope, at least I do not think it is, but rather reality, beyond good and evil in an almost Nietzschean sense, although, for obvious reasons, this is not the place to pursue such philosophy. Perhaps I cannot help myself. I even began to wonder whether, as a man, I should be there, let alone comment. But then, it would surely be too easy a way out simply to absent oneself. Rape is not a ‘women’s problem’, but a men’s problem. There is a search going on here, for the woman she was before: if we cannot help, and surely I cannot, then at least we owe this woman an hour or so of our time. Observing and, ultimately, experiencing some fellow-feeling, engenders solidarity and maybe—I am not sure—defiance. I did not feel it was for me to define the piece’s terms. Song, speech, face, hands, solo, ensemble: things never quite come together, for they cannot, whilst remaining clearly, even fatally connected. There is no escape, least of all in escape. 

If it were all the more real and hallucinatory for those of us who knew the streets concerned, how much more must it have been for those who knew something akin to what this women knew. At the close, I might have found myself asking once more what opera is (and is not), but I did not. Instead, I felt a degree of necessary numbness: not enough, yet not nothing. It was the artists’ achievement, not mine. Opera may not be witness, but bearing witness is something it does, or should do.

Friday, 1 July 2022

Prohaska/Gerhaher/Bushakevitz - Wolf, Mörike-Lieder, 30 June 2022


Wigmore Hall

Verborgenheit; Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchen; Das verlassene Mägdlein; Lied eines Verliebten; Bei einer Trauung; Ein Stündlein wohl vor Tag; Zitronenfalter im April; In der Frühe; Er ist’s; An den Schlaf; Im Frühling; Auf einer Wanderung; Um Mitternacht; Peregrina I; An eine Aölsharfe; Peregrina II; Begegnung; Denk’ es, o Seele!; Auf ein altes Bild; Auf eine Christblume I; Schlafendes Jesuskind; Auf eine Christblume II; Karwoche; Seufzer; Wo find ich Trost?; An die Geliebte; Gesang Weylas; Der Tambour; Die Geister am Mummelsee; Der Jäger; Nixe Binsefuss; Der Feuerreiter; Lied vom Winde

Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Ammiel Bushakevitz (piano)

A decidedly superior Liederabend, in terms of verse, musical setting, and performance. Hugo Wolf remains a connoisseur’s composer: slightly perplexing, perhaps, but then there is no playing to the gallery, no folkish dalliance, nothing that might strain toward the evidently popular. This is song born above all in verse and perhaps, especially for a non-German audience, that will never vie with the more obvious, which is not to say lesser, charms of Schubert or even Schumann. Be that as it may, it is difficult not to imagine Wolf—and Eduard Mörike—gaining a few converts among audience members who may initially have been attracted by the starry pairing of Anna Prohaska and Christian Gerhaher. Many, the present writer included, will have been equally impressed by the performances of the sensitive, comprehending pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz. 

There is all manner of ways to programme such a selection, most with something to recommend them. This was intelligently ordered to provide coherence and contrast without didacticism. Gerhaher’s opening Verborgenheit came recognisably from the Wolfram we know and love, albeit definitely song rather than opera, even in the more dramatic second stanza. Wolf’s Lisztian harmonies were relished by Bushakevitz, again setting up expectations and prospects for subsequent development. A breathless (in mood, not technique!) Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens introduced Prohaska in impetuous contrast, her subsequent Das verlassene Mägdlein offering piano (and pianist) the opportunity for something more Wagnerian, whilst the Lied eines Verliebten that followed gave Gerhaher a counterpart to that Liebesleid, in neo-Schubertian vein. Moving from a love-song to a wedding, Prohaska was able to ‘tell it as it is’ in a sardonic Bei einer Trauung: ‘Denn leider freilich, freilich, keine Lieb’ ist nicht dabei’. Whether there were a note of bitterness here remained fruitfully ambiguous.

Ambiguities arising from the text, be that verbal, musical, or both were frequent, whether in the complex, ambiguous peace with which Gerhaher and Bushakevitz left us at the close of Um Mitternacht, the day now ended, the springs murmuring on. We heard—and felt—eery darkness, progressing to relative light (Gerhaher, In der Frühe), which led in turn to a spring-like Er ist’s (Prohaska), full of life, even hope. Though commendably detailed, as Wolf performances must surely be, there was no missing the wood for the trees; this was a pictorialism of the spirit rather than mere tone-painting. Wolf—and his interpreters—could be ardent too: take Gerhaher’s ecstatic climax in Peregrina I, the invitation to ‘consume us both in fire’ and to partake of the ‘chalice of sin’ followed by a splendid pianistic afterglow. Haunted, rich in potential meaning, Gerhaher’s Auf ein altes Bild, which opened the second half, was nicely open to interpretation, as if ‘reading’ that old painting itself. 

Shaping of individual songs, whether short or ballad-like (e.g. Prohaska’s Der Tambour and Die Geister am Mummelsee) was a particular strength; likewise their integration into a greater recital whole. Phrasing, such as that of Prohaska and Bushakevitz, in a beautiful Zitronenfalter im April, told without exaggeration. Variety within unity was certainly present between, but in many respects also within, songs. Bushakevitz knew where to lean into dissonances, for instance in the extraordinary, brief Seufzer (‘Sighs’). Harp-music, verbally explicit in An eine Äolsharfe, and implicit in Gesang Weylas, offered another set of strings to the pianist’s bow. A final trio that brought other-worldliness (a post-Mendelssohn Nixe Binsefuss, Prohaska), urgent vehemence and much else (Gerhaher), and windswept virtuosity (Lied vom Winde, Prohaska) was shaped at least as much by Bushakevitz as his partners: truly collaborative music-making.