Saturday, 5 April 2008

The Rape of Lucretia, Klangforum Wien, 5 April 2008

(concert performance)

Konzerthaus, Vienna

Angelika Kirchschlager – Lucretia
Emma Bell – Female Chorus
Ian Bostridge – Male Chorus
Christopher Maltman – Tarquinius
John Relyea – Collatinus
James Rutherford – Junius
Jean Rigby – Bianca
Malin Christensson – Lucia

Klangforum Wien
Robin Ticciati (conductor)

The idea of Britten in Vienna was appealing. No music benefits from being treated as the property of a particular nation – unless, that is, such particularist ‘tradition’ involves special pleading. Britten anyway seems now to be gaining greater exposure on the Continent than would have been the case until quite recently. Looking at the cast list, however, dispelled the illusion that this might have been a truly international performance. There is, of course, nothing wrong with casting English singers, but it was more of a home from home than one might have initially expected. Angelika Kirchschlager and Malin Christensson were the only exceptions to the Anglophone rule.

That said, there was no uniformity amongst the cast. Ian Bostridge and Emma Bell delivered their roles as Chorus with great skill, although in rather different fashion. With Bostridge, most listeners will know what to expect. The contorted facial expressions were not for the queasy, and there was, needless to say, more than a little vocal mannerism. Britten supplies quite enough of that already for my taste. By the same token, however, Bostridge’s delivery was in general impressively handled, with due attention paid to words, pitch, and modulation. It was only really during the Interlude to Act One, in which the Male Chorus recounts Tarquinius’s furious ride to Rome, that I felt the music and words ran away with him a little. (This may of course not have been by the singer’s own design.) Bell, by contrast, provided a ‘straighter’ reading, for which I stood most grateful. This is not intended to imply dullness or lack of imagination, but it was well focused and free of histrionics, if a little obscure of diction on occasion.

This was not a problem for Christopher Maltman, who to my mind delivered the best performance of the evening. One could sense him itching to be on stage, without this compromising the conditions of concert performance. Every word was made to tell, and the character of Tarquinius – dangerous, powerfully attractive, yet in thrall to his passions and so ultimately weak – was superbly portrayed. I cannot summon up a single caveat regarding this performance. John Relyea was also very fine in the less interesting role of Collatinus. I had most recently heard him in Sir Colin Davis’s LSO concert performance last year of Benvenuto Cellini, and there was no sign of dilution of promise. Relyea has a fine, truly powerful voice, which he knows how to marshal. James Rutherford, by contrast, was a variable Junius. Much of what he sang was respectable, but there was too much imprecision with regard both to pitch – mostly in the lower notes – and to diction.

Perhaps surprisingly, the best female diction came from Malin Christensson, whose silvery soprano was a delight in the role of Lucia. Her interest in Tarquinius, both before and after the deed – unbeknown to her, of course – was genuinely touching. Jean Rigby was in general a characterful Bianca, although not especially alluring. Angelika Kirchschlager varied in the role of Lucretia. Much of her portrayal was impressive: well-acted, within the constraints of a concert performance, and secure of tone. Sometimes, however, the acting got the better of the music, which is more of a problem in a concert performance than on stage. Her words were not always clear either. I have mentioned diction a few times, because it is important in itself, but also since if I, as a native English-speaker could often not discern the words, then I doubt that many of the Viennese could. Printing the words with German translation in the programme doubtless helped, but consulting them should be a last resort.

For the Klangforum Wien I have nothing but praise. The ensemble’s contribution was the clearest example of Britten freed from parochialism; the music clearly benefited. I do not regard all of the score as equally successful; Britten’s musical facility too often led him in the direction of mere note-spinning. However, the passages most obviously ‘constructed’ here gained an almost Schoenbergian instrumental intensity, relating more to inter-war modernism than to Suffolk. The strings were perhaps exceptional in this regard, but that is more a reflection upon the score than upon the performance. Nothing, I am afraid, can repair the dramatic flaw of the Christian ‘interpretation’ – by turns sentimental, incoherent, or both – transplanted onto an inherently powerful plot, but Klangforum Wien reminded us that there was musical interest nevertheless. I was less sure about Robin Ticciati’s direction. There was nothing terribly wrong with it, apart from a few overtly interventionist passages that simply sounded exaggeratedly slow or fast. For the most part, though, it was not clear that he really added anything. Perhaps most of his work had been done during rehearsal, but the ensemble seemed often – very successfully – to be doing its own thing. Eyes were certainly not always upon the conductor, whose beat seemed vague and who certainly did not help by ostentatiously performing the piano part himself. Just because one can does not mean that one should; numerous instances of arising from the piano stool should either have been more unobtrusively handled or, better still, rendered unnecessary by engaging a pianist from the ensemble. Still, the instrumentalists, every one of them, sounded excellent regardless, although even they could not entirely disguise some of Britten’s more threadbare invention.