Monday 28 July 2008

Prom 15: Daniel/BBC SO/Robertson - Beethoven and Carter, 28 July 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Grosse Fuge, Op.133
Carter – Oboe Concerto
Beethoven – Symphony no.5 in C minor, Op.67

Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)

There are doubtless all sorts of connections to be made between Beethoven and Elliott Carter, to my mind the greatest American composer to date. However, I am not so sure that they were really made in this programme, notwithstanding the presence of that most ultra-modernist of Beethoven’s works, the Grosse Fuge. Instead, we had a well balanced if relatively short programme: nothing wrong with that, but it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity when one thinks what one might have chosen to follow the first two items. Perhaps the Fifth Symphony was there to boost the audience; if so, the ploy seemed to have worked, for there were few empty seats.

‘Though intended for string quartet,’ Barry Cooper wrote in his note for the Grosse Fuge, ‘the work can have an even more overwhelming effect when played, as tonight, by orchestral strings.’ I hesitate to disagree with so distinguished a Beethoven scholar, but disagree I do and strongly too. For me, some – though by no means all – of Beethoven’s radicalism is lost when the piece is transferred from a quartet, audibly and visibly straining at the bounds of what is possible, to the plusher sound of an orchestral string section. It is similar to the problem I have with the transcription of Verklärte Nacht; whilst I am happy to hear alternative versions, the real bite remains with the original. A Klemperer perhaps can make me change my mind momentarily when it comes to the Beethoven. However, despite this performance’s virtues, David Robertson is no Klemperer when it comes to Beethoven. The signs were promising: no half-hearted compromise with a chamber-size section, but full Romantic strings; if one is going to do this, one might as well do it properly. Violins were split, which paid off in conveying the echoes, imitations, and contrasts between the two violin parts. There was some beautifully hushed playing in the second of the three principal sections of the work: mysterious yet, unfortunately, also a little mushy. The double basses made a treasurable impact when they were included. And there was, in the final, compound duple section, an encouraging sense of fragmentation, of Beethoven bringing us to the very modern problematic of the unity of the work of art itself. The syncopations were well handled here, which added to the instability. And yet, the performance could have done with more of this throughout. It was good, yet it suffered a little from understatement. Whatever the Grosse Fuge may or should be, understated does not spring to mind.

Carter’s Oboe Concerto was written in 1986-7, shortly before he was eighty, so doubtless qualifies as relatively ‘early’, given the composer’s extraordinary late fecundity. It is written for solo oboe, a concertino group of four violas and percussionist, and orchestra, actually more of a chamber ensemble, comprising flute, clarinet, horn, trombone, two percussionists, and viola-less strings. Written in one continuous stretch, its twenty minutes or so nevertheless comprise something akin to the classical fast-slow-fast three-movement-structure of a concerto. The performers, all of them, did Carter proud. Indeed, it sounded as if this were a repertory piece, in which the players were as much at home as the composer with its modernity: just what a performance of new(-ish) music should be. Nicholas Daniel drew upon considerable twin reserves of musicality and virtuosity and blended them. He did not mask the sometimes extreme demands – the concerto was written for and inspired by Heinz Holliger, no less – but nor did he allow them to become his principal concern. Throughout, as with all of the players, there was sense to be made of the ever-changing and yet ever-present compositional line. Carter’s polyrhythms came across, as they should, although this is no mean feat, as the equivalent of melody in rhythm. Time played its tricks and kept its command, for which Robertson must be apportioned a great deal of credit. Carter’s skills as a colourist were not denied, the percussionist from the concertino group deserving especial mention in this respect. The sense of temporal progress and sonorous transformation as he switched from vibraphone to glockenspiel was an object lesson in rescuing his orchestral section from the charge of being mere purveyors of ‘effects’. But it was with the oboe alone that the concerto so memorably faded into nothingness.

What is one to do with Beethoven’s Fifth, given that most of us will have performances from Furtwängler, Klemperer, the Kleibers, Karajan, Böhm, etc., etc., burned into our memories? Robertson was quoted in the programme as saying, quite correctly, that we have ‘lost all sense of how radical Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony really is’. I wish that he had made it sound more so, for what I heard was a perfectly decent account, better than many of the merely perverse treatments it would receive today, yet never shocking and never truly inspiring. Once again, we had a good-sized orchestra, with sixteen first violins and other strings in proportion. Perhaps this should be partly attributed to the hall’s acoustic, but it rarely sounded as if we had so many. There was once again, I felt, a certain understatement to the performance, which is certainly not a quality for which I seek in this work. The first movement hurried along reasonably eventfully, but the splendidly implacable coda did not really seem to arise from what had gone before. Its true vehemence ought to have been unrelentingly present from the outset. And by vehemence I do not mean the unpleasant blaring we sometimes had to endure, here and during the scherzo, from the horns. The Andante was unquestionably con moto, perhaps a little much so, but there is plenty of room for different interpretations here. When it occasionally sounded too driven, I thought that Robertson overstepped the boundaries, but I suspect that many would have felt differently. He was successful in eliciting a sense of mystery from the orchestra and eventually a fine sense of momentum was built up. The scherzo followed immediately and at quite a breakneck tempo. This just about worked but the same tempo was simply too fast for the trio, in which the ’cellos and double basses sounded breathless. (A certain pay off, arguably, was the sense of connection with the Grosse Fuge.) Second – and rightly, final – time round, the scherzo purveyed an excellent sense of the ghostly, forcing one to listen closely to Beethoven’s still-wondrous scoring.

Unfortunately, mystery was quite absent from the humdrum transition to the finale, when this should sounds as one of the most extraordinary passages in all music. Day broke forth effectively enough, if a little on the fast side once again. However, the orchestra soon sounded somewhat tired. This was less so when repeated. There were some exultant moments in the finale and the piccolo shone as it should, yet there were equally some moments that were faltering or merely nondescript. I speak deliberately of ‘moments’, since the whole never quite added up, nor did it speak of the metaphysical. Karajan once advised Simon Rattle to ‘throw away’ his first hundred Beethoven Fifths, testament to what a difficult work this is to bring off. I have heard worse, much worse, but I have also heard much better, if mostly from great recordings of the past. Sometimes I wonder whether we really know Beethoven at all, although there is always Daniel Barenboim to put me right on that score.

Saturday 26 July 2008

Munich Opera Festival: Das Gehege and Salome, 26 July 2008

Nationaltheater, Munich

Die Frau – Gabriele Schnaut
Der Adler – Steven Barrett

Herod – Wolfgang Schmidt
Herodias – Iris Vermillion
Salome – Angela Denoke
Jochanaan – Alan Held
Narraboth – Wookyung Kim
Ein Page der Herodias – Daniela Sindram
Erster Jude – Ulrich Reß
Zweiter Jude – Kenneth Roberson
Dritter Jude – Tommaso Randazzo
Vierter Jude – Kevin Conners
Fünfter Jude – Alfred Kuhn
Erster Nazarener – Christian Rieger
Zweiter Nazarener – Markus Herzog
Erster Soldat – Steven Humes
Zweiter Soldat – Andreas Kohn
Ein Cappadocier – Rüdiger Trebes
Eine Sklavin – Stephanie Hampl
Engel des Todes – Steven Barrett

William Friedkin (director)
Hans Schavernoch (designs)
Petra Reinhardt (costumes)
Mark Jonathan (lighting)
David Bridel (choreographer)

Bavarian State Orchestra
Kent Nagano (conductor)

And so, ‘Richard Strauss Woche’ concluded with Salome, the first Strauss operatic masterpiece. In 2006, this double-bill with Wolfgang Rihm’s Das Gehege (‘The Enclosure’) had inaugurated Kent Nagano’s music directorship. I thought it a reasonable performance, more so in musical than stage terms, but nowhere near so good as the festival’s superlative Ariadne auf Naxos.

It was certainly interesting to make the acquaintance of Das Gehege. Based upon a story extracted from Botho Strauss, the action runs as follows (I quote from the programme synopsis):

A woman comes out of the darkness. It is night and the woman is alone. She arrives at the zoo. She speaks to the golden eagle in his aviary, takes a knife, frees the bird and admires the eagle’s body. She challenges the eagle to attack her. She mocks it. The more she irritates the eagle, the closer it comes to her. When the woman realises how old and powerless the bird is, she feels superior to it. The eagle pounces on her; she kills it.

The eagle’s is an unspoken part, so this is essentially a Schoenbergian monodrama. Gabriele Schnaut, creator of the role, was certainly more suited to it than she had been to that of Elektra. The vocalism remained flawed but her prowess as a singing actress was generally compensation enough. Nagano and the Bavarian State Orchestra sounded fully at home with Rihm’s language, which, the odd instance of extended instrumental technique notwithstanding, should not frighten away anyone who has come to terms with Berg. The composer can certainly write for orchestra, evincing an almost Henze-like fluency in that respect, replete with reminiscences and evocations of the dance and of the natural world. He also plots a convincing vocal-dramatic line. There are inevitably shades of Erwartung, although I do not think the newer work would come off so well in a straight comparison, for Schoenberg’s score is infinitely more complex. Rihm’s broader brush strokes might well seem a little too obvious – and generalised. William Friedkin’s production emphasised the psychological rather than the political. This seemed something of a missed opportunity, given the original play’s status as something of a commentary upon the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. In Germany, an eagle will rarely if ever just be an eagle. The production was unexceptionable on its own terms, although the stage direction itself seemed uninspired and unduly reliant upon Schnaut’s charisma; it is unclear that a concert performance would have been in any sense inferior. As a companion piece for Salome, Rihm’s piece works well enough, although I see no reason why it should be restricted to this role.

Nagano’s reading of Strauss's score lacked the magical delight of his Ariadne. It was an analytical account, bringing certain neglected lines to the fore, but at times a little deficient in dramatic thrust. Still, the orchestra sounded excellent on his terms. I had expected great things of Angela Denoke as Salome. Judging by the audience’s reaction, it believed it had heard them; however, I was less sure. Although she is possessed of a great stage presence and certainly used it on this occasion, there were times when she sounded vocally overwhelmed. I was delighted that she did not merely belt out the part after the all-too-approximate manner of Schnaut as Elektra, yet equally – and perhaps surprisingly – the Marschallin had seemed more suited to her. There was intelligent shading but sometimes a lack not only of power but also of sustained line. Alan Held passed muster as John the Baptist but did little more than that. Wolfgang Schmidt, whom I had last heard as a none-too-successful Siegfried, presented a somewhat caricatured but nevertheless perfectly reasonable Herod. Iris Vermillion sounded a bit out of sorts as his consort, although she certainly looked the part. Daniela Sindram was a truly excellent page to her. As Narraboth, Wookyung Kim wooed with his voice, but seemed a little at sea as an actor. The Jews and Nazarenes were an impressive bunch, both individually and as a whole, although Friedkin seemed to think them more important than they were. His would-be provocateur ‘Angel of Death’, the same actor and costume as the Eagle, was little more than a visual irritant.

Indeed, the greatest failing lay with the production. It sounds all too predictable to say this, but Friedkin seemed constrained by cinematic thinking, unable to accept the suggestive possibilities of the stage. Scene changes were all too frequent and all too pseudo-realistic. The Personenregie seemed almost quaint, reliant upon hammy stock gestures, that is, when it was not merely absent. Despite the partial nudity of Salome from her dance onwards, there was nary a trace of the erotic. For that, one had to turn, sometimes more successfully than others, to the pit. Nagano is on record as saying, quite rightly, that opera is first and foremost musical theatre, but I cannot believe that he meant this should be by default. For an example of theatre truly growing out of the music – and a tremendous musical performance – turn to Ariadne instead.

Friday 25 July 2008

Munich Opera Festival: Elektra, 25 July 2008

Nationaltheater, Munich

Klytämnestra – Agnes Baltsa
Elektra – Gabriele Schnaut
Chrysothemis – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Aegisth – Reiner Goldberg
Orest – Gerd Grochowski
Der Pfleger des Orest – Steven Humes
Die Vertraute – Anita Berry
Ein junger Diener – Kenneth Roberson
Ein alter Diener – Rüdiger Trebes
Die Schleppträgerin – Elif Aytekin
Die Aufseherin – Yvonne Wiedstruck
Erste Magd – Cynthia Jansen
Zweite Magd –Anaïk Morel
Dritte Magd – Heike Grötzinger
Vierte Magd – Lana Kos
Fünfte Magd – Aga Mikolaj

Herbert Wernicke (director, designs, costumes, lighting)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (Opera (chorus master: Andrés Maspéro)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Johannes Debus (conductor)

The late Herbert Wernicke’s Elektra is a fine production, similar in its colour abstraction to his Tristan und Isolde for Covent Garden. The starkness of its simple yet never simplistic sets and lighting packs a considerable visual and dramatic punch, quite distant from but probably more powerful than the gore and hysteria one might expect in this work. In a programme note, Wernicke commented that in an age of banal soap operas and family dramas, the last thing we required was more of the same. I am not sure that I agree: a quasi-realistic portrayal of the travails of the house of Atreus could readily point the way to something more profound. Regardless of the validity of alternative approaches, this production, hauntingly redolent of and yet alienated from Sophocles, worked very well. A splendid nod to location was presented by the regal red of Klytämnestra’s cloak – all the more remarkable given the monochrome austerity of the set – cut from the same cloth as the Nationaltheater’s stage curtain. This would subsequently be won, in chilling triumph, by Orest. Elektra’s dance, founded more upon her swinging of the axe than upon any other movement, was appropriately unhinged; I was slightly concerned that she might actually let go of the axe and hurl it into the audience.

Johannes Debus is evidently a talented conductor and acquitted himself well in this fearsome score. His approach was often somewhat pictorial: one could hear and almost see the horses’ gallop. If this occasionally detracted from a greater symphonic unity, I should not wish to exaggerate, for the form was generally clear. Debus stressed the music’s Wagnerian inheritance rather than its expressionistic tendencies. I should have preferred more of the latter but again this should not be exaggerated. My only real criticism was a stridency from the brass at its most aggressive: more Solti than Karajan or Böhm, it did not quite fit with the rest of the interpretation. That said, the orchestra sounded excellent on the whole and, one or two minor slips aside, was clearly doing whatever was asked of it. The chorus, brief though its intervention may be, was on magnificent form.

In Eva-Marie Westbroek, Munich boasted an excellent Chrysothemis. She injected, where possible, a haunting beauty to her role. Her lines were impeccably shaped and recognisably part of a greater whole. As her mother, Agnes Baltsa showed that, the occasional, almost irrelevant, vocal frailty aside, she can still command the stage and can make every word, indeed every spitted syllable, count.. She truly looked the part too. Gerd Grochowski was not the most memorable Orest, lacking conquering charisma, but he did nothing especially wrong. Reiner Goldberg was an impressive Aegisth. The problem, sadly, lay with Gabriele Schnaut in the title role. I can only assume, given her ecstatic reception, that the good burghers of Munich had heard a different performance from that at which I had been present. She had her moments, I admit, albeit in a generalised mature-Brünnhilde fashion. Yet, quite apart from the issue of her maturity – she looked and sounded more like Chrysothemis’s mother or even grandmother than her sister – there was simply too much vocal imprecision, whether arising from her omnipresent wobble or from straightforwardly poor tuning and diction. (Contrast her either with Baltsa or with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra for the Deutsche Oper.) Schnaut clearly threw her all into the role, but it is time that she turned to more appropriate parts. Her performance as Agave in The Bassarids showed that she is perfectly capable of impressing in the right roles; Elektra, however, is no longer one of them.

Thursday 24 July 2008

Munich Opera Festival: Ariadne auf Naxos, 24 July 2008

Prinzregententheater, Munich

Ein Musiklehrer – Martin Gantner
Haushofmeister – Johannes Klama
Der Komponist – Daniela Sindram
Bacchus/Der Tenor – Burkhard Fritz
Ein Tanzmeister – Guy de Mey
Ein Offizier – Francesco Petrozzi
Ein Lakai – Christian Rieger
Zerbinetta – Diana Damrau
Ein Perückenmacher – Adrian Sâmpetrean
Ariadne/Primadonna – Adrianne Pieczonka
Harlekin – Nikolay Borchev
Scaramuccio – Ulrich Reß
Truffaldin – Steven Humes
Brighella – Kevin Conners
Najade – Aga Mikolaj
Dryade – Anaïk Morel
Echo – Sine Bundgaard

Robert Carsen (director)
Peter Pabst (designs)
Falk Bauer (costumes)
Manfred Voss (lighting)
Marco Santi (choreography)

Bavarian State Orchestra
Opera Ballet of the Bavarian State Opera
Kent Nagano (conductor)

This was just the tonic following the relative disappointment of Arabella, the perfectly taken opportunity to restore my faith in Strauss and Hofmannsthal, with what is probably my favourite Strauss opera. Elektra may be the greatest but Ariadne auf Naxos approaches the magic of Così fan tutte, at least when performed as it should be. Yet this last of the festival's three premieres - the others having been Idomeneo and Doktor Faust - was no mere restorative: it was an unforgettable evening, probably my operatic highpoint so far for 2008.

Robert Carsen’s production is unquestionably the finest I have seen. It is by now relatively well established, at least amongst those productions that exist in the land of the theatrically alive, that the Prologue is an opportunity not only to show the making of the Opera, not only to show the making of an opera, but also to examine our attitudes, preconceptions, and prejudices. Vanities and other excesses were present but so was the genuine human enthusiasm so necessary to put together a show, which, when put together properly, can be one of the most wonderful experiences known to man. The production did all of this very well, without falling into unnecessary didacticism, and scored extra points by introducing the ballet corps as well: quite rightly, given the imaginative role it would be allotted during the Opera itself. Indeed, we saw the dancers warming up on stage as we took our seats in the theatre. Sparing use was made of the auditorium too, which involved the audience in the action without becoming tiresome. The relationship between the Composer and Zerbinetta was astutely moved into the foreground as the clutter of the rehearsal miraculously disappeared to focus upon their interaction. Manfred Voss’s lighting was extremely important here as elsewhere. And something simple yet extraordinarily powerful in context was the role allotted to the Composer from the moment the curtain went down upon the Prologue. Trapped on the other side of the curtain and stunned by the apparent desecration of his masterpiece, he found it within himself to walk round to the opening of the pit and to hand his score to the conductor. Thereafter, seated at the edge of the pit, he would watch the first performance of his work, be revisited by Zerbinetta, and finally, in what was arguably Carsen’s coup de théâtre, retreat to the suddenly revealed backstage, where the performers would congratulate each other and be congratulated by us. The lines, properly, were blurred.

At least an equal achievement and arguably greater was the treatment of the Opera. As I hinted above, one ought not to be able to go too far wrong with a treatment of the Prologue, given a degree of thought and theatrical imagination. (This has not, of course, prevented many from going far wrong indeed.) Yet how to present the Opera, especially how to build up to its conclusion, rather than having it seem bizarre or anti-climactic – neither of which it is – is probably the harder task. What one needs above all to do here is to listen to composer and librettist. They need not be slavishly followed but a sense of transformation, transfiguration even, is crucial. To a degree I do not recall experiencing before, Ariadne and Bacchus seemed real characters, not archetypes or cardboard cut-outs of ‘soprano’ and ‘tenor’. Of course, their relationship towards the vain artists we saw in the Prologue is important, but the magic of opera and of this Opera is how such failings may be put to good use. Zerbinetta played a crucial role in this respect, providing something of an example for Ariadne, persuading her – again to a degree that I do not recall from previous performances – that there may be something to be gained from taking a man after all. This need not be one of the host of dancers with whom Zerbinetta has so show-stoppingly played during her aria; such would hardly be proper for our princess. But Zerbinetta has ignited a change of heart or at least an openness to possibilities other than that of the departed Theseus. Ariadne must still go though her Brünnhilde’s awakening moment, frightened and repelled by her visitor, but the eventual outcome has been hinted at if not foretold. It is also stylishly mirrored in the male and female dancers who, during the final scene, come to reflect the actions of Ariadne and Bacchus. Once they have become real characters, this pair may then once again become more archetypal.

It is a somewhat false exercise to separate individual performances from the production, given how tightly integrated all aspects of this were, but I ought nevertheless now to turn to the performers themselves. My only slight doubt occurred at the beginning of the Overture, which sounded a little matter of fact. (Or maybe it was that I had not yet settled down to listen properly.) Thereafter, helped by the glorious acoustic of Munich’s Prinzregententheater – far superior, I think, to that of the far from negligible Nationaltheater – this would be a reading that exhibited a winning combination of clarity, warmth, flexibility, and narrative drive. One can hardly ask for more than that. This performance confirmed Kent Nagano as a Strauss conductor of the first order and the Bavarian State Orchestra as a Straussian instrument of at least equal rank. I shall not single out individual instruments or sections, since all were equally accomplished, but I shall note with pleasure how much one could hear of the piano and harmonium parts and not merely in their continuo role.

There was not a weak link in the cast, whether one considers the poise and athleticism of the dancers, superbly choreographed by Marco Santi, or, as I shall now do, the singers. All were fine singing actors but this should in no sense be taken to imply acted compensation for vocal shortcomings. Rather the musical and the theatrical acted in a truly complementary, indeed dialectical, fashion. Martin Gantner as the Music Master imparted wisdom to his Composer charge. In that crucial role, Daniela Sindram overcame a slight initial colourlessness, to inhabit the Composer’s person with moving credibility. Adrianne Pieczonka was a very fine Primadonna/Ariadne, who grew as her character did. Her voice was extremely beautiful throughout but the beauty was put to good dramatic ends. Likewise the most accomplished Najade, Dryade, and Echo, in the respective persons of Aga Mikolaj, Anaïk Morel, and Sine Bundgaard, I have ever heard. Burkhard Fritz was most convincing as the Tenor and hardly less so in the unenviable role of Bacchus. As I mentioned above, to have turned him into a real, flesh-and blood character is no mean achievement. Zerbinetta’s troupe did everything that could have been asked of it. All four of its members were fine singers and fine actors, utterly engaged and utterly engaging. Their several changes of costume astutely helped drive the narrative forward, for which many thanks to Falk Bauer. If I would single out Nikolay Borchev’s Harlequin, once again quite simply the finest I have seen and heard, that is probably more a consequence of the greater weight ascribed to the character in the work than of any manifest superiority in performance.

But it was Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta who delivered the absolute knock-out performance. Vocally and theatrically, it was of a level I doubt I shall ever witness again in the role. In lesser hands, her aria can become tedious as we wait for the preliminaries to be over and the coloratura to begin. Here, every aspect of what became a fully fledged scena, replete with full participation by the male dancers, Zerbinetta as their leading lady, was more compelling than one could ever imagine. She inhabited the text, the music, the production, and wrought true magic. No wonder the men stripped to their underwear as they sought to impress her, to win the contest for her favour. The give and take between singer and orchestra was every bit as impressive, leaving recollections of most other renderings seeming uninflected and downright unimaginative. Zerbinetta may have been in charge but this was not merely wilful; Damrau listened as well as led. Her aforementioned return to the watching Composer and the parodying of this action with her own troupe were strokes of theatrical genius too. This instance will give, I hope, some indication of how all aspects of the production were at one, so very much more than the sum of their parts. Any Straussian, any musician, or indeed any human being, should make strenuous efforts to share in this experience.

Munich Opera Festival: Arabella, 23 July 2008

Nationaltheater, Munich

Graf Waldner – Alfred Kuhn
Adelaide – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Arabella – Pamela Armstrong
Zdenka – Marlis Petersen
Mandryka – Wolfgang Brendel
Matteo – Will Hartmann
Graf Elemer – Ulrich Reß
Graf Dominik – Christian Rieger
Graf Lamoral – Rüdiger Trebes
Die Fiakermilli – Sine Bundgaard
Eine Kartenaufschlägerin – Heike Grötzinger
Ein Zimmerkellner – Hermann Sapell

Andreas Homoki (producer)
Wolfgang Gussmann (designs, costumes)
Hans Toelstede (lighting)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Andrés Maspéro)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Stefan Soltesz (conductor)

I wish I could respond to Arabella more favourably than I have done so far. Ultimately I cannot grasp what, if anything, is at stake in the work, which I suspect is hampered by Hofmannsthal’s untimely death. Oddly, however, I have tended – as on this occasion – to respond more warmly to the second and third acts, left in draft form, rather than to the apparently completed first act, which seems to me to end rather abruptly. (I am talking as much about the music as the libretto here.) Perhaps I need to see the ‘right’ production; perhaps it requires extraordinary singers. Whatever the cause, I was interested to reacquaint myself with the work yet I remained unconvinced. It is not so much that there is lack of characterisation as that I find it difficult to care much for them – with the exception of Zdenka and Matteo – or indeed for what appears so slender a plot. It does not repel me as Jane Austen does – apologies to her many admirers: I have tried and tried again – but there seems to me something in common.

Alfred Kuhn, after a slightly shaky start, convinced as Count Waldner. He managed to come across as an elderly character without undue sacrifice to musical values. Catherine Wyn-Rogers also impressed as Adelaide. Pamela Armstrong substituted for Anja Harteros in the title role. I do not know how much rehearsal time or indeed notice she had received but she proved a weak Arabella. There were moments when she sang strongly and freely but likewise there were several cases of hesitant singing. Her stage presence was none too strong and she lacked that charm which might well have lifted the work. Marlis Petersen was far better in the lovable trouser-role – at least until the end – of Zdenka. She impressively conveyed the sense of a girl having to act as a boy and that of her character’s oscillation between resentment toward and love for her favoured sister. Will Hartmann as Matteo was not flattered by his odd costume – he resembled a bell boy more than an officer – but he made a good deal of his role. Wolfgang Brendel presented a strong, if somewhat rough-and-ready, performance as Mandryka. I did not find him in any sense charming, but I wonder how much of that is to be attributed to the work itself. I find it difficult to care about the Fiakermilli – surely a re-re-heating of Zerbinetta – but Sine Bundgaard did what she could with the role and mostly handled her coloratura well. Arabella’s suitors (Ulrich Reß, Christian Rieger, and Rüdiger Trebes) were strongly cast.

Stefan Soltesz’s conducting did not make a great impression either way. In general, he kept the action flowing, but there were moments when I thought a fleeter touch would have paid off. The orchestra itself sounded splendid, not least the sweet-toned strings and the properly Mozartian woodwind. Sebastian Herberg’s viola solo was a model of its kind. The orchestral prelude to the third act was simply ravishing.

I did not especially care for the production. It was not at all clear to me why the action should take place in the same location for each act, nor why a bed should be at its centre. It is just about comprehensible, although a little odd, that there might be a modest single bed or indeed any bed whatsoever in the drawing-room of the Waldners’ hotel suite, but I have no idea why it should be present in the lobby of that hotel in the third act, let alone at the centre of the Coachmen’s Ball in the second. Little more was done with this item of furniture other than have the elderly count and his countess sit down on it from time to time. The confusion of place was considerable, without the trade-off of unity that can sometimes result from one set for an entire drama. Mandryka showered his money around rather too often and rather too aimlessly for anything really to be gleaned from his deeds. It is difficult to say much else concerning the stage action, but I do not think that it helped.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Munich Opera Festival: Jonas Kaufmann Lieder recital, 22 July 2008

Prinzregententheater, Munich

Schubert – Die Bürgschaft, D 246
Britten – Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, op.22
Strauss – Schlichte Weisen: Fünf Gedichte von Feliz Dahn, op.21
Strauss – Sehnsucht, op.32 no.3
Strauss – Nachtgang – op.29 no.3
Strauss – Freundliche Vision, op.48 no.1
Strauss – Ich liebe dich, op.37 no.2
Strauss – Vier Lieder, op.27

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

I expected a marvellous Liederabend and that is precisely what I experienced. It was a brave move to open the recital with Schubert’s Schiller ballad: no arie antiche warm-up here. Kaufmann proved an excellent narrator and Deutsch an able collaborator, putting me – somewhat oddly – in mind of a cinema pianist underlining the mood to a silent moving picture. There was, admittedly, the odd moment at which Kaufmann’s voice would doubtless have been stronger, had this item occurred later in the programme, but his versatility was announced from the very outset, alert and alive to the changing requirements of the text. I cannot pretend that I find Schubert at his most successful, but this often successful heightening of Schiller’s text is too good to lie unperformed, especially as it was here.

From Schiller’s hymn to romantic friendship, we moved to Britten’s gingerly homoerotic Michelangelo settings: intelligent programming indeed. Kaufmann is clearly very much at home singing in Italian and it was a great relief to hear Britten twice liberated – first by the text, then by the interpreter – from the confines of ‘English tradition’. Deutsch once again proved a very fine pianist, although there could be no doubt that he was playing a supportive but nevertheless second fiddle to the star of the show. The varied demands of the seven varied sonnets held no fear for Kaufmann; his mood and projection could change like quicksilver. In the final sonnet (no.24), his volume and depth of tone was so all-encompassing as to make one wish never to hear an ‘English tenor’ in these songs again. The stanzas unfolded as if in a single breath: conceptually, if not physically.

Yet the second half, all-Strauss, was better still. Kaufmann released last year an extremely well-received disc of Strauss Lieder; the justification for the reception was apparent here. He seemed more relaxed, at home, which was not so much a matter of the language as simply of his knowledge and understanding of the music. The partnership with Deutsch was clearly born of long experience and the latter certainly had his moments to shine, not least in the Lisztian piano-writing which Strauss could not, at least on occasion, quite resist. (Let us give thanks that he could not.) The ardent, Romantic quality of Kaufmann’s voice is extraordinary in itself, yet even more so is its transformation according to the text: both always itself and ever different. This could even be the case within a song – as, for instance, in the fourth of the Felix Dahn settings: ‘Ach weh mir unglücklichaftem Mann’. Here Kaufmann presented a variety of ‘voices’ and an extremely winning humour, which clearly had the audience eating out of his hand. It almost seems invidious to single out any of the songs, since they were all excellent, but the final two (at least prior to the four (!) Strauss encores), were so beautifully performed and contrasted that it is worth giving especial mention to a confiding, ineffably moving Morgen – is it everyone’s favourite Strauss Lied? – and to a virile, impetuous Cäcilie. As the encores ('Breit über mein Haupt', 'Wozu noch Mädchen soll es frommen', 'Nichts!' and 'Ich trage meine Minne') progressed, I was reminded of Kaufmann’s performance as Walther von Stolzing at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago. Then his voice had seemed ideal – perhaps more so than any I had heard in the flesh – but understandably, he had tired a little during the third act. Here it was recognisably the same voice but he appeared to go from strength to strength. It was as if he could have sung all night

Sunday 20 July 2008

Munich Opera Festival: Der Rosenkavalier, 20 July 2008

Nationaltheater, Munich

Die Feldmarschallin – Angela Denoke
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Sir John Tomlinson
Octavian – Anke Vondung
Herr von Faninal – Eike Wilm Schulte
Sophie – Chen Reiss
Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin – Ingrid Kaiserfeld
Valzacchi – Ulrich Reß
Annina – Anne Pellekoorne
Der Polizeikommissar – Gerhard Auer
Der Haushofmeister bei der Feldmarschallin – Markus Herzog
Der Haushofmeister bei Faninal / Ein Wirt –Kevin Conners
Ein Notar – Christian Rieger
Ein Sänger – Piotr Beczala
Drei adelige Waise – Laura Rey, Stephanie Hampl, Anaïk MorelEine Modistin – Elif AytekinEin Tierhändler – Ho-Chul Lee
Leopold, Leiblakai – Jürgen Fersch
Vier Lakaien der Marschallin – Jürgen Raml, Gintaras Vysniauskas, Dieter Miserre, Michael Skerka
Mohammed – Lotus Stark
Ein Hausknecht – David Jehle
Pikkolo – Claudia Küster

Production conceived by Otto Schenk and Jürgen Rose (1972)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera
Bavarian State Orchestra
Peter Schneider (conductor)

I tend to be sceptical about the repertory system. Vienna’s Ariadne auf Naxos certainly confirmed me in my scepticism: devoid of theatrical values and not so good musically either. Yet whilst it would be absurd to claim that this production – which appears more or less to play itself – presented any breathtaking insights into Der Rosenkavalier, it was interesting to note a greater degree of theatrical engagement in a satisfactory visual presentation. It is set where it 'should be' and the stage directions seem to be followed punctiliously. That alas, is all; there is not a hint of critical engagement, of any consideration of what the opera might actually be about. Many opera-lovers across the world will have seen it before, if not in Munich, then on the DVD conducted by Carlos Kleiber. Nothing much seemed to have changed – either for good or for ill. I was slightly alarmed by the applause – shades of the Met? – the set for Faninal’s palace received as the curtain rose for the second act but it was a minority affair. I can only recall one (relatively) radical reimagining of this opera, Robert Carsen’s brilliant production for Salzburg in 2004. That was theatre at a far higher level than I have otherwise seen, but Rosenkavalier does not, perhaps, suffer unduly from even the most ‘traditional’ of productions: a tribute, I think, as much to Hofmannsthal as to Strauss (although, as a non-German, I occasionally curse the former for the difficulty of his text). Whether I shall think differently when I have seen more productions in the theatre: watch this space...

This performance, which opened the Munich Opera Festival’s ‘Richard Strauss Woche’, was dedicated to the memory of Joseph Keilberth, on the fortieth anniversary, to the day, of his death. I suspect that Keilberth – newly and surprisingly fashionable, in the wake of the release of his Bayreuth Ring – would have imparted a stronger symphonic line to the score, but this was not entirely absent in Peter Schneider’s account. In contrast to the previous occasion when I had heard Schneider conduct the work – that Salzburg Rosenkavalier – the more modernistic aspects of the score were generally downplayed and there was a considerable degree of indulgence. Rosenkavalier can take quite a bit of that, of course, but I think it emerges more strongly when an embargo is placed upon the sentimental. (Some of it will seep through in any case.) Schneider – or was it Angela Denoke? – set a daringly slow pace for the Marschallin’s ‘Hab’s mir’s gelobt’, which worked astonishingly well, but there were also instances in which longueurs were underlined rather than dealt with. The exchanges between the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie, leading up to that point, seemed to go on forever. Whilst the Bavarian State Orchestra generally sounded very good, often excellent, there was little that was so truly exceptional as there had been for the previous night’s Die Bassariden. One can be spoilt, however.

The cast was mostly good and sometimes more than that. Denoke was wonderful as the Marschallin. During the first act, I missed some of the sheer beauty of tone one has come to expect in this role from great interpreters of the past – or even the present. Yet I think she grew in stature in this respect, especially by the time of the Trio, and she proved herself throughout a great singing actress. If she could not make that final 'Ja, ja,' touch as only Elisabeth Schwarzkopf could, that is certainly no fault of Denoke's. Her Octavian, Anke Vondung, was good but a considerable distance from unforgettable. Again, we have probably been spoilt in this respect, where the competition – horrible but unavoidable word – is so horrendously fierce. Chen Reiss’s Sophie, however, was extremely fine. She even almost made me suspend my disbelief that anyone could be so foolish as to choose that annoying bourgeois girl over one of the most adorable characters in all opera. Reiss, whom I had not previously encountered, possesses a beautiful voice and employed it to great advantage. If one could not hear every word, then one does not expect to do so for a Strauss soprano. John Tomlinson was a magnificenty hammy Ochs. I suspect that the composer would have found his turn exaggerated – Strauss’s writings certainly suggest so – but one could not resist this larger-than-life portrayal. It probably goes without saying, though should not, that one had no difficulty in hearing every word of his text. I should find it difficult to become excited about a Faninal, but Eike Wilm Schulte did a good job in his role. The Italians were excellent: grotesque, but not merely caricatured. My only real disappointment lay with Piotr Beczala’s Italian tenor. Strauss’s affectionate parody of Italian opera requires greater sweetness of tone than it received here. Perhaps he was simply having an off day. The rest of the cast worked well as a company, which is perhaps the key to the general success of the performance.

Saturday 19 July 2008

Munich Opera Festival: Henze - The Bassarids, 19 July 2008

(sung in German as Die Bassariden)

Nationaltheater, Munich

Dionysos – Nikolai Schukoff
Pentheus – Michael Volle
Kadmos – Sami Luttinen
Teiresias/ Kalliope – Reiner Goldberg
Hauptmann/Adonis – Christian Rieger
Agaue/Venus – Gabriele Schnaut
Autonoe/Proserpina – Eir Inderhaug
Beroe – Hanna Schwarz

Christof Loy (director)
Johannes Leiacker (designs, costumes)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Evita Galanou, Üli Nüesch, Thomas Wollenberger (video)
Thomas Wilhelm (choreography)
Peter Heilker (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Andrés Maspéro)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Marc Albrecht (conductor)

This was my second Auden and Kallman opera within a week, except that it was sung in Maria Bosse-Sporleder’s German translation (as generally seems to have been the practice in German-speaking countries, ever since the Salzburg premiere). I thought I should miss the original text but this performance, in the presence of the composer, was such an extraordinary triumph that I soon forgot all about that, my sole reservation.

Christof Loy’s production seemed to me to show a profound understanding of the issues at stake in this seemingly Dionysian opera, which is yet at best ambivalent towards the personal and sexual freedom apparently celebrated therein. There was nothing intrusive about the direction; it was evidently harnessed to the service of the work and its performance, and was therefore all the stronger for it. The state of a society in crisis came across vividly, as did the sense of very real, all-too-seductive danger, tending towards that society’s dissolution. The state of a society in crisis came across vividly, as did the sense of very real, all-too-seductive danger, tending towards that society’s dissolution. Dionysus’s own predicament – human, all too human, despite or perhaps on account of his divinity – was searingly portrayed too. There was even humour, in the nods – beyond Dionysus’s advice to Pentheus – towards cross-dressing, but not so much as to distract from the main thrust of the dramatic argument. It was clear that all on stage were securely directed and thereby liberated to take full control of their own contributions.

The Bavarian State Orchestra was nothing short of magnificent in what must rank as one of Henze’s most complex scores. Precision, tonal warmth, individuality, and blend: all were there, just as they would be in a great performance of Mahler, Strauss, Berg, or any other master of the late- or post-Romantic orchestra. The consoling sweetness of the violins during Pentheus’s final words astonished, coming as it did immediately following the furious Hunt of the Mænads. An excellent production touch was to place the trumpets on stage at the outset, so that one saw as well as heard the fanfares. It by now goes without saying that the musical contribution was flawless. The orchestra deserves a great deal of credit in itself, yet there can be no gainsaying Marc Albrecht’s role at its helm. Albrecht’s command of the score was at least as impressive as that of his father, Gerd, or that of Christoph von Dohnányi, in the two fine recordings this work has received. If anything, Albrecht fils might have had the edge. Dramatic drive and symphonic integrity – is there a more truly symphonic opera? – were never in opposition but, as they should, contributed to and intensified each other dialectically. I was gripped throughout and without exception. The magnificent contribution from the chorus, both dramatically and musically, was a crucial factor in this respect. Given how much its members had to do, one might have expected a little fatigue or routine to set in, but they were equally impressive individually and corporately.

The principal cast was very fine too. Eir Indehaug’s somewhat anonyomous Autonoe was the only slight disappointment but that was probably more a reflection upon the standard of the rest. Michael Volle was outstanding in the title role; such was his identification with Pentheus, musically and dramatically, that one could only believe that he actually was the tormented king of Thebes. Nikolai Schukoff was every bit as good as Dionysos, all too credible in his equally-tormented seduction of a people, born of revenge for his mother, Semele. I do not think I had previously encountered him; the loss is entirely mine, for his sinuous tenor, responsiveness to the text, and utterly convincing stage-presence mark him out as an important artist indeed. Gabriele Schnaut no longer possesses an alluring voice, if ever she did. She remains, however, an extraordinary stage animal, so much so that the wobble is rendered irrelevant. Her despair and anger at discovering that she had wrenched the head from her son’s shoulders was truly tragic. I can imagine her now taking on a second career á la Anja Silja, and doing extremely well. If this Tiresias is anything to go on, Reiner Goldberg is clearly prospering in character roles, although he was perhaps occasionally a little too loud – rarely a fault with such an orchestral battering taking place – as Calliope, during the intermezzo of Pentheus’s dream. (As an aside, I have never understood why ‘Venus’ rather than ‘Aphrodite’ appears here, but never mind.) Other than that, his contribution was both witty and moving. Sami Luttinen was every inch the tragic elder statesman and patriarch as Cadmus. Christian Rieger was another new name to me, but he was deeply impressive as the king’s trusted captain. He navigated with aplomb the potentially tricky transition to his role as Adonis during the dream sequence, before reverting with equal success to the prior role. Rieger is clearly a fine actor too. As for Hanna Schwarz in the wonderful role of Beroe, she threatened to steal the show every time she employed her still magnificently deep voice.

This production must be issued on DVD.

Monday 14 July 2008

The Rake's Progress, Royal Opera, 14 July 2008

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Anne Trulove - Sally Matthews
Tom Rakewell - Charles Castronovo
Nick Shadow - John Relyea
Mother Goose - Kathleen Wilkinson
Baba the Turk - Patricia Bardon
Trulove - Darren Jeffery
Sellem - Peter Bronder

Robert Lepage (director)
Sybille Wilson (associate director)
Carl Fillion (designs)
Francois Barbeau (costumes)
Etienne Boucher (lighting)
Michael Keegan Dolan (choreography)
Boris Firquet (video)

Royal Opera House Chorus (chorus master: Renato Baldasonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Thomas Adès (conductor)

After reading a few reviews of earlier performances from this production of The Rake's Progress, I was not really looking forward to it, but Robert Lepage's production seemed to me to delve deeper than many critics had allowed. I had braced myself to overlook the absence of London from the stage but, the odd reference apart, I barely noticed it; even when I did, I could readily make a mental substitution, which did little harm. When I think about it, the laments about the absence of Hogarth's London from the stage seem unintentionally ironic, given the absence of eighteenth-century 'Idea' from Stravinsky's (very) pseudo-eighteenth-century style. In a programme note, 'Stravinsky in the early days of television,' Lepage made a good case for the updating to 1950s America, for instance through his mention of Stravinsky's great interest in the new medium, delineation of Hollywood's 'false historicism', and citation of an essay in which Auden made clear his opposition to naturalism. The best case, however, was on stage, in which one was perfectly at liberty to consider the parallels between the setting and its original form, yet without feeling unduly constrained. Auden, after all, was convinced - like his venerated Wagner - that myth was the stuff of opera, and myth by its very nature must transcend historical particularity.

Lepage writes that he did not 'set out to make a piece of social criticism, so the political and social dimension to the production has arisen through choices that seemed right to me'. This is interesting, since the political and social dimension came across strong and clear. Today's 'celebrity'-fuelled culture, we were reminded, is in many respects nothing new, although it may somehow be even more vacuous than it once was. Hollywood and advertising, as we saw on stage, pursued this cult from the very earliest years, and the figure of Baba the Turk reminds us that notoriety was a great selling-point - literally - during the eighteenth century too. What could be more Hogarthian, post-war, or contemporary than setting off to the City in search of riches and losing them - and much else in the process? Perhaps the setting that most impressed me was the updated Bedlam of the final scene. One need only have the most cursory or even intuitive understanding of Foucault to appreciate the dialectical relationship between modern liberal-capitalist society and the construction of 'madness'. This, in a sense, a construction that has been the story of the opera: Nick Shadow's 'project'. Here, at the end - bar the 'moral - one could see and hear at first hand what our society's barbarism does and has done to us. The relationship of such madness to art, even - perhaps especially - at its most neo-classical-Apollonian, is personified in the relationships between Tom, Anne, Baba, and of course Nick: the Devil - or Dionysus? - himself. In the asylum, the control-room atmosphere chimed perfectly with the ever-increasing tentacles of the administered society. This could doubtless all have been done in an eighteenth-century setting, but the relative distancing, both from our own time and from Hogarth's London, had the benefit, at least for some of us, of making us consider the parallels, the differences, and the historical progression - or regression.

It was the production rather than the musical performances that ultimately made the greatest impression upon me. I had no quarrel with any of the singers; indeed, I thought most of them very good. Charles Castronovo did not erase memories of the composer's Alexander Young (Sony), but then no one else ever has for me either. I wondered to begin with whether Castronovo was a touch anonymous, but then realised - whether by design or default, it hardly matters - that there was to be a great deal of development in his character. This is, however ironically, a rake's progress. Musically he had full command of the score and the intricacies of the libretto. Sally Matthews sang her part beautifully, although I often had difficulty, at least without glancing up to the surtitles, in understanding the words she was singing. This matters, when the libretto is one of the greatest ever penned. Anne's cabaletta, 'I go, I go to him,' was nevertheless exceptionally well done. John Relyea was a highly accomplished Shadow, chameleon-like in his re-invention, yet with a constant heart (?) of darkness to his very being. Patricia Bardon came across as both absurd and touching, a combination which seemed to me to penetrate to the very real heart of Baba. The choral singing was good, if not outstanding, although that must at least partly be attributed to the musical direction, which failed to impart the incisiveness the chorus required.

For my principal reservation lay with the conducting of Thomas Adès. Whilst enthralled by the production, I was so bored by the stodgy, oddly soft-centred approach to the first act that I briefly considered leaving during the interval. So eager, however, was I to see where the production would leave us next that this was not a serious option. However, the aggressive, polemical bite of Stravinsky's score was largely absent, without anything much other than drift to take its place. Matters improved considerably after the interval, although I have still heard much better. Rather to my surprise, the graveyard music, almost Schoenbergian in its remarkably unironic intensity, was splendidly handled, for which tribute must be paid both to the strings and to Christopher Willis on the harpsichord. With that execption, however, Adès, unlike Bardon, let alone Lepage, never seemed to me to penetrate to the heart of Stravinsky's apparently heartless score. This reminded of the mere cleverness I have often fancied I heard in Adès's own music - except here the conducting did not even seem especially 'clever'. Whereas, even when I have been most repelled by Stravinsky - I can accept his brand of neo-classicism much more readily than once I could - I have never doubted that there was a core to the music. By contrast, I have on several occasions wondered about the state of the imperial clothes in the case of Adès, never more so than when I heard The Tempest at Covent Garden, a work that evinced the aimlessness of Britten at his worst, albeit without the individual voice. (Lest this seem unduly harsh, contrast the gracious responses of John Adams and Steve Reich to Pierre Boulez's eightieth birthday with the sourness of Adès.) Despite that, which must be tribute indeed, I left Lepage's Rake - or, perhaps more properly, that of his company, Ex Machina - feeling that I liked and had been challenged by the work more than had been the case before.

Saturday 12 July 2008

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera, 12 July 2008

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Figaro - Ildebrando d'Arcangelo
Susanna - Aleksandra Kurzak
Bartolo - Robert Lloyd
Marcellina - Ann Murray
Cherubino - Sophie Koch
Count Almaviva - Peter Mattei
Don Basilio - Robin Leggate
Countess Almaviva - Barbara Frittoli
Antonio - Donald Maxwell
Don Curzio - Harry Nicoll
Barbarina - Kishani Jayasinghe

David McVicar (director)
Leah Hausman (revival director and movement director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

David McVicar's production of Figaro is for some reason updated to the France of the July Monarchy. This does no particular harm but I cannot see that any light is shed upon the work by such an arbitrary transposition. One could doubtless have made something of the parallels and differences between the ancien régime and so-called 'Restoration Europe'; in fact, much was anything but restored, and the questions of 1789 remained to be answered. Yet there appeared to be little attempt to run with the idea of remembering everything and having learned nothing. Instead, we had beautiful sets and a great deal of McVicar's trademark 'stage business', looking rather more tired than it had during the first revival. There is, I admit, a case for giving an impression of the house at work, yet I found the incessant running and fooling around of servant 'extras' became tiresome and distracting. 'Became' is not quite the right word, however, since the overture fared worst of all. Many directors nowadays seem quite incapable of allowing the music to speak for itself, in the overture, let alone elsewhere. Here there was so much choreographed activity - choreographed very well on its own terms - that one sometimes strained to hear the music for the heaviness of the footsteps on stage. This would have mattered more in a better musical account of the overture, but even so, it was inconsiderate. Mozart and da Ponte's comedy threatened to become an operatic version of Upstairs, Downstairs: or Rossini, for short. Some of the truest genius in Figaro lies in its darker undercurrents, which passed for little or nothing here. Comedy need not equate to thigh-slapping. By all means re-imagine the work, as Claus Guth did so magnificently for Salzburg, but truly re-imagine it, instead of playing to the gallery. (Speaking of the gallery, I could have swung for the woman a row behind me, who laughed uproariously throughout, irrespective of what was going on musically or scenically. And why, o why, did most of the theatre find the Count's beseeching his wife for forgiveness hilarious? This did not even have any warrant on stage, let alone in the work itself.)

The esteem enjoyed by Sir Charles Mackerras in Mozart's music continues to baffle me. Janáček undoubtedly, Strauss often, Handel in former times, but his interpretations of Mozart have never seemed to me more than passable. (One hears far worse, of course, but that is another matter.) Mozart needs to breathe, as Sir Colin Davis understood in his truly magical account last time around. Is it, moreover, so very difficult to appreciate that an orchestra of a size that may have been adequate to a small eighteenth-century theatre will sound lost in a space the size of the Royal Opera House? The overture set the scene in more than one sense for the first act; it was mercilessly hard-driven. Malnourished strings were rarely allowed to sing as they might have done, whilst natural brass and hard sticks on kettledrums - shall we ever rid ourselves of this ridiculous fad? - sounded merely coarse. There were a couple of bizarre harpsichord incursions into the overture, although the handling of the continuo was generally excellent. Subsequent acts fared somewhat better, although the great finale to the second act again often sounded rushed in the extreme. One has no chance of hearing the words at such speed during ensembles, let alone of reflecting upon them, despite the valiant attempts of the cast. The moment when Susanna emerged from the Countess's closet, surely a point to stand back in knowing amazement, would have been more fitting to a horse cantering around a paddock. At least the music relaxed for the Countess's arias and her moment of forgiveness. And Mackerras's ornamentation of the vocal lines - I assume it was his, for such appears to be his usual practice - was tasteful and often interesting.

It would be difficult to fault the cast, and I shall not try. Ildebrando d'Arcangelo's attention to all aspects of the stage and to the staging was truly remarkable. His is a darker-toned Figaro than one often hears - which, to my mind, is all to the better. His devilish attraction is flawlessly exhibited both on stage and, most important, in the music. Aleksandra Kurzak was a lively, musical Susanna and Sophie Koch a youthfully ardent Cherubino. (It is just a pity that she was so often forced to adopt such breakneck tempi.) We had a fine noble couple in Peter Mattei and Barbara Frittoli. The former again has quite a dark voice for the role but he nevertheless managed to engage our sympathy as well as our enmity. Frittoli grew into her role, I thought. She was never less than very good, but one did not initially feel for her and with her in the way one often can. Her moment of (divine) forgiveness was, however, moving as only this moment can be. The smaller roles were all very keenly observed, in spite of the excision of arias for Basilio and Marcellina. Special mention should go to Jette Parker Young Artist, Kishani Jayasinghe: a winning Barbarina. This strong cast often redeemed the other shortcomings of this Figaro, but it should not have had to do so.

Friday 11 July 2008

LSO/Gergiev: Mahler, 10 July 2008

St Paul's Cathedral

Mahler - Symphony no.8 in E-flat major

Victoria Yastrebova (soprano)
Ailish Tynan (soprano)
Liudmilla Dudinova (soprano)
Lili Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
Zlata Bulycheva (mezzo-soprano)
Sergey Semishkur (tenor)
Alexey Markov (baritone)
Evgeny Nitikin (bass)
The Choir of Eltham College
London Symphony Chorus
The Choral Arts Society of Washington

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

This was the culmination of 'Gergiev's Mahler' and also part of the City of London Festival. I attended two previous performances in the cycle: an intermittently impressive Seventh, and a catastrophic Ninth (plus the Adagio from the Tenth). I had little idea, then, what to expect, although I did not really expect this. Put simply, it would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to reach any kind of judgement or even to gain any real impression concerning this performance, on account of the acoustic. St Paul's Cathedral is always likely to be a problematic venue for musical performances, although a performance I heard two or three years ago of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony (Hallé/Mark Elder) fared much better, not least since Elder appeared willing to use the acoustic to transform what would usually be silences into heavenly echoes. I am not sure that Valery Gergiev could have done much with Mahler's Eighth however: the problems appeared insuperable. Gergiev was never likely to have turned in a performance of the almost incredible marriage of tonal warmth and analytical clarity of Pierre Boulez last year, not to mention Boulez's awe-inspiring symphonic coherence. Yet Boulez had the Berlin Philharmonie; Gergiev had St Paul's. Most of the sound was swallowed up under the great dome; that which remained was mostly turned into a homogeneous mush. Sounds drifted into or - more often - out of focus. Everything sounded extremely distant. Oddly, the few sounds that fared well were those one might have expected to vanish from one's perceptions altogether: the violin solo, the outstanding boys' voices of the Choir of St Eltham's College, and even - just once - the mandolin.

My impression - and it can really be nothing more than this - was that otherwise, much of this most kaleidoscopic of works sounded laboured. Even though it was not an exceptionally slow reading by the clock (just about eighty minutes, I think), it sounded like it. Gergiev's tempo changes did not make much sense, sounding merely arbitrary. And the solo vocal contributions from an almost entirely Russian set of singers (perhaps a repeat from Gergiev's performance in St Petersburg?) sounded almost uniformly 'operatic' in nature, missing much of the point of Mahler's very singular approach in this symphony. Their vocalising sounded more akin to Verdi and Puccini than to Schubert or Wagner, let alone to Mahler himself. Perhaps they were just straining to be heard; after all, I heard Evgeni Nikitin give an excellent performance in Dallapiccola's Il prigioniero earlier this year. Lest one suspect that this shortcoming were a product of nationality, it was just as much the case with Ailish Tynan, with the exception that she added an absence - if one can add an absence - of vocal weight to the handicap of inappropriate style. As for Liudmilla Dudinova's hopelessly out-of-sync and out-of-tune Una Poenitentum, which reached us - eventually - from somewhere above, it was nothing short of a catastrophe. The choral contributions often sounded muted, although there was an impressive rise in temperature for the final peroration, Mahler's setting of some of the most celebrated words in the German language. Gergiev seemingly rose to the occasion here too, with the orchestral contribution for the last five minutes or so impressively stentorian and resolutely un-sentimental. This must all remain, however, hesitant and provisional. I can appreciate that the Barbican might not have been appropriate for this work, but it would have been better off performed in the Royal Albert Hall, or indeed in several other venues. Perhaps financial pressures played their part; perhaps some City subsidy was received. Whatever the story, the decision to perform this symphony at St Paul's proved disastrous.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Festival d'Aix en Provence: Siegfried, 7 July 2008

(Images - copyright: Elisabeth Carecchio)

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Siegfried – Ben Heppner
Mime – Burkhard Ulrich
The Wanderer – Sir Willard White
Alberich – Dale Duesing
Fafner – Alfred Reiter
Erda – Anna Larsson
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman
Woodbird – Mojca Erdmann

Stéphane Braunschweig (director, designs, and video)
Thibault Vancraenenbroeck (costumes)
Marion Hewlett (lighting)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

I was at something of a disadvantage in seeing this, the third instalment of the Aix Ring, without having seen the first two parts. (The dramas are being staged in turn year by year, repeated at the following year’s Salzburg Easter Festival.) Siegfried is arguably the least well-suited of the four dramas to viewing in isolation. There may also have been visual references on which I failed to pick up, although I tried to do a bit of homework beforehand. However, I suspect that there were not many such references, given the minimalist quality of the staging.

Stéphane Braunschweig’s designs provided a stylish frame for the action within, although little appeared to be said about the natural and (un-)social environment in which that action was taking place. This need not be portrayed naturalistically, but the forest is crucial to understanding of the drama in many ways. Siegfried’s home should remind the musician of Der Freischütz, the German Romantic opera par excellence. More broadly, there is any number of cultural references, which might fruitfully here be played with. As Simon Schama observed, in his book, Landscape and memory, it is ‘virtually impossible … to think of the Grimm tales without immediately conjuring up a forest’. It was in 1813, the year of Wagner’s birth in Leipzig – and of that city’s eponymous battle, in which Napoleon was roundly defeated – that the Brothers Grimm had begun to publish their collection of tales, poetry, proverbs, songs, and so forth, entitled Altdeutsche Wälder (‘Old German forests’). Moreover, the forest, writes Schama, is a world in which ‘Roman rules do not apply’. In the aftermath of the Wars of Liberation, one might justly have substituted French for Roman, echoing Caspar David Friedrich’s celebrated painting of a French chasseur lost in the German forest. Wotan’s spear of (Roman) law has made little headway in this fearful, uncivilised, world. It is no coincidence that Fafner has settled in a forest cave in order to protect the Nibelung hoard, nor that the Brünnhilde in Die Walküre has had Sieglinde hurry eastward to the forest, that she and her child might escape Wotan’s wrath. It is certainly no coincidence that Siegfried is thereby born and raised in the forest, a lawless and fearless child of Nature, unaffected by Mime’s attempts to ‘civilise’ him Since Braunschweig, by his own testimony, wished to present a psychoanalytical fairy-tale, I should have expected him to pick up at least upon the aspect of the forest as a space of magic, menace, and primitive redress, even if the political implications were largely to be eschewed. Not that I think they should be: a Siegfried in which the importance of a charismatic hero coming from nowhere to strike down Wotan’s spear of law is minimised seems to me fundamentally flawed. It is no coincidence that the young Engels would describe himself as a ‘first-class mythologist,’ and long for ‘Siegfried’s sons’ to be shown those ‘heroic deeds reserved for the nineteenth century’. The video-projection of fire worked very well; something along such lines for the forest – and perhaps its inhabitants too? – might have made an important contribution on many interpretative levels.

But what else of Brausnchweig’s fairy-tale? If it declined to be political, as Wagner and many of his contemporaries – not to mention successors – would have wished, was it convincingly psychoanalytical? The Personenregie on its own terms seemed to work quite well; there were no embarrassments of inept acting here, although some of the cast undoubtedly impressed more than others. Yet, apart from presenting the drama as Brünnhilde’s dream – we witnessed her asleep at the opening, to be awakened in more than one sense by Siegfried at the end – there was not a huge amount to go on. Mime’s attempt to teach Siegfried fear with a toy dragon presumably fell into this category, but it did not really seem integrated into the greater Konzept. Indeed, this did not seem properly thought through on its own terms; even if it had been, it would probably have begged more questions than it answered. Notung’s shattering of the spear could doubtless work in terms of an attack upon a father figure’s authority, but some aspects of the drama – those involving Alberich, for example – would have been extremely difficult to integrate, and there was little success in that respect here. Whilst I appreciate that any one production must make choices, decide upon aspects to be emphasised and so forth, it seems to me that, on the whole, the more successful productions will highlight at least some of the tensions between various aspects of the drama, rather than press too single-mindedly upon a single idea. Patrice Chéreau remains a gold standard in this regard, without any sacrifice to the guiding line of his – or Pierre Boulez’s – interpretation.

This brings me to the music. I did not feel especially convinced that Sir Simon Rattle’s interpretation was closely allied to Braunschweig’s. Considered on its own terms, however, there was much to enjoy. The Berlin Philharmonic provided a richly upholstered, deluxe account of the score. One may regret – and I certainly do – the loss of what was once its characteristically ‘German’ sound; for that, one must visit the Staatskapelle Berlin or indeed Wagner’s own orchestra in Dresden. That said, the orchestra remains a truly virtuoso international ensemble. My only real cavil would have been the surprising harshness of the brass at some of the climaxes, especially at the end of the final act. One might have feared that from an American orchestra but one does not expect that from Berlin. The section’s contribution elsewhere, however, was magnificent, not least during the strange preludes to the first two acts. The combination of Wagner tuba, bassoons, and kettledrums at the very opening was never ugly but was certainly spooky, invoking a good deal of the atmosphere that the staging would lack. Rattle’s daringly slow yet controlled speed here – perhaps contravening Wagner’s marking, Mässig bewegt, yet if so, fruitfully – certainly contributed to the impression of Freischütz-meets-Schoenberg. The woodwind, not least in the ‘Forest Murmurs’, sounded truly delectable, whilst the warm, if less individual, strings rarely put a foot – or rather, finger – wrong. One would not necessarily expect a ‘great’ interpretation from a conductor tackling Siegfried for the first time. Rattle, however, has by now considerable experience in terms of Parsifal and Tristan and certainly knows his way around Mahler. He provided as good as account of the score I can recall hearing since Bernard Haitink for the Royal Opera, which is praise indeed. There was a compelling sense of line for most of the work and there was certainly none of the frustratingly unstructured, stop-go quality to Antonio Pappano’s Covent Garden Ring. (That said, Pappano seemed stronger the last time round in Siegfried than in the other dramas of the cycle.) Unsurprisingly for one expert in the music of Debussy, Rattle was alert to the colouristic potential of the score, for instance in the balance between orchestral blend and characteristic solo quality in the first act Prelude as cited above, likewise for the unrelieved lugubriousness of that to the second act.

The undoubted star on stage was Burkhard Ulrich’s Mime: perhaps the most complete portrayal I have heard, let alone seen. There was, as Wagner insisted, nothing of the caricature to him. His horizons were fatally limited but it was not difficult to imagine him as the master craftsman who had invented the Tarnhelm. He was mellifluous of line, expressing the tragedy of Mime’s position and the wickedness of his will to power through the text and through musical inflection, but not through exaggerated screaming. Indeed, Mime often sounded stronger than Siegfried during the first act. Ben Heppner’s first Siegfried appeared – understandably yet still disappointingly – to be saving himself for what was to come. He was certainly superior to the catastrophic assumptions of the role we must generally endure, but his vocal heft did not sound to be what it once was: a worrying sign. If his tone rarely sounded truly heroic, his stage presence was anything but. Suspension of disbelief only goes so far: one could not credit this Siegfried as the bringer of revolution or the German Apollo. Sir Willard White proved an intermittently impressive Wanderer. Had I not recently been treated to Sir John Tomlinson’s towering portrayal at Covent Garden, I might have been more enthusiastic. White nevertheless paid considerable attention to word and line, although his diction was variable (and occasionally, as during his scene with Erda, just incorrect). He possessed a certain nobility, but the requisite impression of world-weary experience was not so apparent. Erdas rarely disappoint, yet Anna Larsson was outstanding in her imaginative attention to the score. Hers was a true contralto, of the kind one despairs of hearing nowadays. If her all-too-elegant costume somewhat detracted from a sense of the primæval, that was not her fault. Dale Duesing was a fine Alberich: ever alert to the possibilities of the text, malevolent yet once again never caricatured. I should like to hear him in the rest of the cycle. Alfred Reiter proved an excellent Fafner, stentorian in his possession and moving in his mortality. The Woodbird, Mojca Erdmann, was perfectly good, without making a great impression. Meanwhile, Katarina Dalayman sounded in good voice as Brünnhilde, despite her notoriously lengthy wait to appear on stage (bar her brief presence at the beginning, in this case). She evinced a brilliant yet flexible tone, which sadly overshadowed some of Heppner’s contribution. Musically then, this was as good a Siegfried as one is likely to hear today and I am sure that Rattle’s already commendable understanding will deepen.

Sunday 6 July 2008

Festival d'Aix en Provence: BPO/Rattle - Haydn, 6 July 2008

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Haydn – Symphony no.88, in G major, ‘Letter V’
Haydn – Sinfonia concertante in B-flat major, for oboe, bassoon, violin, and violoncello
Haydn – Symphony no.92 in G major, ‘Oxford’

Toru Yasunaga (violin)
Ludwig Quandt (’cello)
Albrecht Meyer (oboe)
Daniele Damiano (bassoon)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Sir Donald Tovey called him ‘Haydn the Inaccessible’. Not much has changed. A concert consisting of three Haydn symphonic works remains a rarity. Even Haydn’s most popular symphonies, which tend to be those having arbitrarily acquired nicknames, feature less frequently on concert programmes or on recordings than many vastly inferior works. (I shall resist the strong temptation to name any.) As for the rest of his symphonic œuvre, or indeed for considerably more than ninety per cent of his prolific output, enthusiasts esteem whilst the rest of the world ignores. This is some of the most life-affirming, intellectually and emotionally satisfying music ever composed. I find the situation incomprehensible, as, it would seem, do many others; yet we clearly cannot be many enough. Sir Simon Rattle has long been on the side of the angels. In fact, I seem to remember him once calling Haydn his favourite composer, although I am unable to find a source for my apparent recollection. The Berlin Philharmonic made memorable Haydn recordings under Wilhelm Furtwängler (probably still the greatest ever made of the first of this programme’s symphonies) and Herbert von Karajan (including what is for me unquestionably the greatest of The Creation). I am not, however, aware of any arising from Claudio Abbado’s tenure. It is therefore heartening to have Haydn performed and recorded once again from this source. Whilst the string section was smaller than it would have been under Furtwängler or Karajan, working its way down from nine first violins, it did not sound underpowered. One may miss the richer upholstery of the older BPO, but this music can work with fewer strings.

I shall deal with the second work first: the Sinfonia concertante. This is a much misunderstood genre, especially popular in later eighteenth-century Paris, which alone produced more than 150 between 1768 and 1789; it furthered greater independence and indeed virtuosity for all orchestral instruments and their performers. Haydn’s work was written for London in 1792 and certainly fulfilled these criteria, but I cannot account this amongst his stronger works; it pales beside Mozart’s towering contributions. It undoubtedly provided opportunities for all four Berlin Philharmonic soloists to shine, yet I slightly regretted that another symphony – given the wealth of choice – had not taken its place. I tended to think that it would have been better off programmed alongside works by other composers rather than with other (superior) Haydn. There were, nevertheless, promising hints – one could not really do more than hint – of darker undercurrents during the sunny first movement. If occasionally the orchestra sounded a little too micro-managed, Rattle’s heart was clearly in the right place; there are far worse crimes than loving Haydn a little too much. He wisely left the deluxe soloists to themselves during the cadenzas. Toru Yasunaga proved an attentive, if occasionally over-prominent, violinist and Ludwig Quandt an intensely musical and impressively agile ’cellist, whilst Albrecht Meyer and Daniele Damiano provided creamy tone and bubbly delight on the oboe and bassoon. The Andante was charming enough, even if some of the material finds Haydn on auto-pilot. The sense of recitative between violin and orchestra was well caught at the opening of the third movement and thereafter we were treated, alongside stellar solo contributions, to some splendid orchestral contrasts, not least from the second violins.

The meat of the programme, however, was to be found in the two G major symphonies. Rattle has been performing no.88 for many years now; I had heard him do so twice before. The Adagio introduction to the first movement imparted a true sense of occasion, without sounding unduly portentous. That simple joy to be alive which Haydn so often captures was certainly captured as Rattle launched into the Allegro. Rhythms were spruce and articulation was keen, although not in the unduly point-scoring fashion that disfigures so many contemporary performances. Although the tempo was considerably faster than Furtwängler’s, it never sounded rushed; indeed, it simply sounded juste. The development section was full of excitement, as Rattle, the players, and we traced its twists and turns. Crucial to this was the very real sense that every cell, every phrase had meaning. It is worth noting here that he woodwind, not least Mayer and Emmanuel Pahud, was almost unutterably beautiful in tone throughout. The slow movement was flowingly sung. Here again, Mayer shone, as did the superb ’cello section. The violins’ pizzicato was quite something too. I can imagine some listeners finding the expressive dynamic contrasts – including some breathtaking pianissimi from the strings – overdone, but I thought them delightful. The movement’s sterner movements were bracing but never ugly in the regrettable ‘authenticke’ fashion. This movement brought the first – but sadly not the last – bizarre intervention of a key-jangler in the row behind me. Was he expressing his disapproval, after the fashion of early Viennese opposition towards Schoenberg and his music? It is difficult to understand why. Rattle conducted the minuet, marked Allegretto, in the modern fashion, one-to-a-bar. I should have preferred it otherwise, but it did not sound unduly rushed and he maintained some sense of grace. Its trio, however, provided unalloyed delight. It was deliciously rustic, with the various soloists and the conductor all contributing towards the impression of a (very superior) village band. The trio was considerably more relaxed – both in terms of the general tempo, and in its touches of rubato – than the minuet, and benefited greatly from this. I had a few doubts concerning the finale. It was perhaps a little too consciously moulded and can certainly sound far more ‘natural’ – however much art may have to go into the impression – than it did here. Still, there always seemed to be reasons for what Rattle was doing; the pointing was never merely arbitrary. The counterpoint was admirably clear, far more so than the sense of harmonic progression, which I have heard sound far more inevitable than it did here. The final bars presented a fun and never tasteless dash to the finishing line.

The ‘Oxford’ symphony again opened with a mysterious and ravishingly beautiful introduction. What extraordinary music Haydn furnished for his symphonic introductions, preparing the way for the ‘Representation of Chaos’ in his Creation! Then the dam burst, as we hurtled excitingly into the Allegro spirituoso. As throughout these performances, seating the violins to left and right really paid off. And once again, the woodwind sounded simply delectable. Imaginative but never narcissistic inflections made one realise how deeply Rattle had thought about this music and how it might be performed. As with the first movement of no.88, this movement seemed over in the twinkling of an eye, leaving one wanting more. The Adagio cantabile was arguably a little on the fast side for an adagio, but the beautifully warm string opening, the inner parts teeming throughout with meaning, soon made one forget such a cavil. Joined by an equally warm horn and by Mayer’s beguiling oboe, Haydn’s fields sounded truly Elysian. There was vigour in the central section, although once again this never translated into anything coarse or ugly. We heard thereafter a hint of tragedy from the strings, before returning to the original material. Shortly before the conclusion, we were treated to a duet of straightforward perfection between Pahud and Mayer. On this occasion, I am afraid that the minuet was simply taken too fast. It sounded breathless and, whilst it may have boasted a polished vigour, the requisite aristocratic grace was nowhere to be heard. The trio fared better. Its astounding syncopations really told, although it could profitably have been taken at a more measured tempo, to heighten their effect. Rattle’s prolonged pause before the end would doubtless have irritated those inclined to be irritated, but I thought that it heightened expectation in a very winning fashion. The finale, like that to no.88, was once again exciting and full of humour. However, I felt that on this occasion, it was perhaps unduly hard-driven. The tremendous rhythmic drive was quite something in itself, but I am not sure that Haydn should sound turbo-charged. The counterpoint once again registered keenly, yet the movement as a whole wanted grace. I should not want to make too much of this slight disappointment, for on the whole, Rattle and his orchestra served Haydn proud.