Sunday 30 November 2008

Boris Godunov, English National Opera, 29 November 2008

London Coliseum

Priest – James Gower
Mityukha – Paul Napier-Burrows
Andrey Schelkalov – David Stephenson
Prince Vasily Shuisky – John Graham-Hall
Boris Godunov – Peter Rose
Simpleton – Robert Murray
Pimen – Brindley Sherratt
Grigory Otrepyev, later Dmitri the Pretender – Gregory Turay
Innkeeper – Yvonne Howard
Varlaam – Jonathan Veira
Missail – Anton Rich
Border guard – Charles Johnston
Xenia – Sophia Bevan
Fyodor – Anna Grevelius
Nurse – Deborah Davison
Boyar-in-attendance – Philip Daggett

Tim Albery (director)
Tobias Heheisel (designer)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreographer)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Edward Gardner (conductor)

‘Austerity’ seems to be the buzz word of the moment, latched onto by reactionary politicians who would have us return to the stifling societal conformity and bigotry of their beloved 1950s, and also, with more justification, by those who would press for a tiny reduction in the money being squandered upon the 2012 Olympic Games. As is well known, the arts are suffering greatly – and will come to suffer still more – in order that ‘state-of-the-art sporting facilities’ might be built and limousines provided for the leading lights of the supposedly amateur ‘Olympic movement’. Whether by accident, design, or – I fear – necessity, austerity appeared to be a guiding principle in the English National Opera’s Boris Godunov. In some senses, this is far from a bad thing. The sparseness of Tobias Hoheisel’s sets – I should probably employ the singular ‘set’ – and the generally minimalist bent of Tim Albery’s production lent an intensity consonant with the travails of Mother Russia lying at the heart of the work. This might have gone a little far when the Innkeeper was forced to wheel on her miniature inn in a little wagon, but even then it did no particular harm. The single chair for the scene with the boyars was more of a problem – ENO used to have a fetish for chairs, so must surely have a few lying around somewhere – in that the Tsar, most implausibly, had to stand, that the elderly Pimen might be seated. Updating to the last days of Imperial Russia worked well, emphasising the brutality of the state and the deadly consequences for the populace. Dostoevsky was almost a palpable presence.

‘Austerity’, or ‘economy’, was less welcome when it came to the choice of the 1869 ‘original’ version. Whatever arguments might be put in favour of it, none has ever convinced me, and this experience did no more than that of the Mariinsky’s relatively recent visit (with an horrendously unconvincing production) to Covent Garden. That it works well enough and we should still consider Boris to be a great opera, had Mussorgsky never revised it, is to me no argument at all for presenting it as here. In its ‘complete’ glory, Boris is, quite simply, the greatest of all Russian operas and is, to my mind, probably the greatest nineteenth-century opera not written by Beethoven or Wagner. To lose the Polish scenes of the third act is bad enough – as much for the loss of the scheming Jesuit, Rangoni, as for Marina – yet to lose the Kromy Forest scene, with the attendant tragedy for the Russian people, is more than a step too far. The issue of Rimskyfication is an entirely separate one – not that one would know it from the writings of some musical journalists – and it is of course quite right that we should generally hear Mussorgsky himself, even though Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coronation Scene adds something quite splendid, which I should love to hear in the theatre.

Anyway, 1869 was what we had. Edward Gardner steered a generally convincing path through the score, at least following a disturbingly disjointed, indeed barely phrased introduction to the first scene. He seemed more in his element with the crowd scenes, proving a little too ‘supportive’ to the singers and not quite enough of a leader. There was a pervasive melancholy lyricism to much of the orchestral writing, although more bite would not have gone amiss. (Listen to Claudio Abbado to hear how it might be done.) I liked, or rather was properly repelled by, the wheedling quality of the orchestra to match Shuisky’s manœuvrings. Moreover, there was real terror in the discussions of the people outside the cathedral, although, like so much else, a great deal was lost by the frankly inappropriate sound of them being conducted in English. Surtitles should surely by now have signed the death warrant of opera in translation. The bells – electronic, I assume – were simply atrocious, sounding more akin to someone banging together sheets of iron: further evidence of ‘austerity’ measures?*

Peter Rose did well enough in the title role. Boris’s descent into madness was convincingly portrayed. Yet ultimately Rose could not mask the unfortunate truth that he had been miscast. This role needs a deeper, more charismatic bass, from which it had certainly benefited last time around at the Coliseum, in the guise of John Tomlinson. John Graham-Hall presented a Shuisky of such insinuating malevolence that I could not help thinking of Peter Mandelson. Brindley Sherratt was an outstanding Pimen, his aged wisdom palpable in every phrase. Jonathan Veira shone in the wonderful role of Varlaam; he simply was the fraudulent mendicant friar. As Grigory, Gregory Turay convinced: one could well imagine him developing the charisma to rival the Tsar, and not only because this Boris so signally lacked that quality. Utopias may prove false but they may be preferable to more of the same.Yvonne Howard and Robert Murray also impressed. The royal children and nurse were little more than adequate. Nevertheless, there were some very strong individual performances – not inappropriate for an ‘austerity’ Boris, but not in themselves enough to provide an entirely satisfying performance.

[* I am now informed that the bells were real and acquired at considerable expense. The money could certainly have been better spent - or saved.]

Thursday 27 November 2008

Haydn - Hagen Quartet, 26 November 2008

Wigmore Hall

Haydn – String Quartet in B-flat major, Op.76 no.4, ‘Sunrise’
Haydn – String Quartet in D major, Op.76 no.5
Haydn – String Quartet in E-flat major, Op.76 no.6

Lukas Hagen (violin)
Rainer Schmidt (violin)
Veronika Hagen (violin)
Clemens Hagen (violoncello)

The Wigmore Hall is presenting all of Haydn’s string quartets from Op.20 onwards over its 2008-9 season, a laudable contribution to next year’s bicentenary celebrations. The Hagen Quartet had performed the first three Op.76 quartets the previous evening; here were the last three. These were fine performances indeed, which served to heighten my regret that I had been unable to attend the first concert.

The celebrated ‘sunrise’ opening of no.4 was arrestingly caught, at least as much so upon the exposition repeat: quite an achievement, given that everyone would by then know what to expect. Light vibrato – something mysteriously withheld, as in the ‘Representation of Chaos’ –from the three lower parts contrasted with Lukas Hagen’s rapt first violin solo. Thereafter, the music sprang into Haydnesque life. I marvelled anew at the concision of the exposition, indeed of the first movement as a whole, and appreciated once again how this music truly represents a conversation of equals. Haydn’s quartets are so much more than this, but they remain music of supreme civilisation: monuments to the most noble aspirations of the Enlightenment. The life with which the Hagens invested their performance put me in mind of a passage from Furtwängler’s notebooks, ‘I have always devoted a great deal of thought to the word vital. It is a word of intellectuals for intellectuals … Mozart and Beethoven are not vital, but simply beautiful, great, good, what they want to be. What highly praised modern art expresses: Vitalität.’ I am not entirely sure that I agree with Furtwängler, but the important point is that there was no secondary Vitalität here, but the inner life of the music allowed Haydn simply to be and to speak for himself. ‘Imitative’ entries were never merely imitative; they always brought something new and thereby found their place in the work as it developed over time. The purity of tone with which the Adagio opened epitomised the (neo-)Classical ideal, as trumpeted by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, of ‘noble simplicity and calm greatness’. Yet even more important was the sense of ongoing development, edging towards the Schoenbergian ideal of developing variation. The players were flexible, though never lax. Their attention to dynamic distinctions, especially in the lower dynamic range, was most praiseworthy in its expressive consequences. The minuet was fast – it is marked Allegro – but not rushed. Nor was it inflexible, as can often be the case in modern performances of eighteenth-century music; indeed, it evinced a winning swing. The trio, by contrast, was splendidly rustic, almost Bartókian at the extraordinary drone opening. If I had minor reservations, they related to the finale, in which the opening sounded a touch too delicately manicured: Furtwängler’s Vitalität perhaps trumped life. The B-flat minor episode might have benefited from a touch more Sturm und Drang, yet the Hagens’ relative restraint ensured that mere ‘effect’ was not the order of the day. And the precision with which the movement gathered momentum was mesmerising, even if it were bought at the expense of an equally valid wildness.

Lukas Hagen once again made his mark on the very opening of no.5, imprinting the ease of its siciliano rhythm upon our – and the quartet’s – consciousnesses. I was struck by the true sense of discovery, almost Newtonian, as the movement’s tonal plan unfolded; modulations were always infused with the greatest understanding and meaning. Once again, all parts teemed with life. The rare – in every sense – F-sharp major tonality of the slow movement ensured, along with the performance, that this would be the still centre of the work. The Hagens drew upon a seemingly infinite dynamic palette with extraordinary expressive care. Every modulation was an event yet also part of a greater plan: shades again of the Newtonian universe as celebrated in Haydn’s own Creation. This movement was, quite simply, sublime: in an eighteenth-century and a modern sense. A graceful minuet followed, underlining the care with which the players distinguished apparently ‘similar’ movements in different works. Clemens Hagen relished his especial opportunity to shine in the trio. With the moto perpetuo of the finale, we moved into an almost Figaro-like world of joy: fun, lively, but never breathless. (Think Colin Davis rather than those who would subject Classical music to the perverse indignities currently favoured in some quarters.)

The sixth Op.76 quartet is perhaps the crown of the set, although every work remains of course a jewel. Its first movement was characterised by a well-nigh perfect combination of delicacy and intellectual control. Haydn displayed to us his learning and his wit. So did the performers: both his and theirs. Bach inevitable came to mind, and not only in the final, fugal variation. The second movement brought both warmth of initial tonality and a splendidly exploratory nature to the subsequent tonal plan. Some modulations sounded almost Schubertian in their heart-stopping magic: such tonal daring! The minuet was properly scherzo-like (it is marked Presto), exuding a great sense of fun, not least in the danger and precision of its skipping intervals. This music truly looked forward to Beethoven. The mastery of both composer and performers was once again displayed in the trio’s counterpoint. And with the reprise of the minuet, the wit of slight agogic exaggerations reminded us that the music should not sound quite the same the second time around. The final Allegro spiritoso was just that: an archetypal ‘Haydn finale’. Rhythmic and harmonic momentum were as one. The surprising loud chords of the development section were expertly judged in their voicing. Both composer and performers played with our expectations – and won, hands down.

Monday 24 November 2008

LSO/Gergiev - Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, 23 November 2008

Barbican Hall

Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet, op.64

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

Following a wonderful Proms performance of Tchaikovsky’s greatest ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty, the London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev have now turned to what is Prokofiev’s greatest ballet, Romeo and Juliet. What a luxury it had been not only to hear The Sleeping Beauty complete, but also for it to have been performed by a great symphony orchestra and a conductor to whom this repertoire is so central. The same could be said of the present performance: characteristic of what Gergiev does best and yet also reminding us of the LSO’s longstanding form in such music, not least under André Previn during the 1970s.

The orchestral tone sounded just right from the very opening bars. Rhythms were always pointed so that we could hear that this was music to be danced to. The imaginary curtain rose upon a vividly characterised Romeo, as yet jejune in his feelings for Rosaline. Andrew Marriner’s clarinet solo was, however, so beguilingly set against flawless pizzicato strings that we might almost have believed that the story would turn out differently. Prokofiev’s ever-resourceful, ever-changing orchestration would grant almost every instrument in the orchestra a chance to shine; Rachel Gough certainly grasped this opportunity in her bassoon solo as the street awakened. As the rivalry between Montagues and Capulets came fully into focus, razor-sharp yet never merely brash orchestral motor-rhythms looked forward to the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony, Gergiev’s wide-ranging knowledge of Prokofiev’s œuvre readily apparent. The militarism of the warring families’ clash was terrifyingly portrayed, reminding me of the quasi-futurism of the Third Symphony and even Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry. Gergiev and his brass players conveyed an apposite sense both of implacability and of hollowness to the descending scales of the ensuing interlude, brass vibrato here and elsewhere sounding impeccably Russian. Juliet’s music, upon her appearance, provided a welcome sense of contrast: playful and tender by turns. That she would soon be something other than a girl was made abundantly clear by a magnificently Romantic ’cello solo (Floris Mjinders, I think), laden with a telling vibrato. The festal arrival of the guests put me in mind of that in Tannhäuser: not a connection I recall having made before. When, in Masks, we heard the return of those magical ‘Romeo chords’, I was struck not only by the silvery, Cinderella-like tone of the violins but also by Gergiev’s command of the thematic interrelationships in this, surely the most Wagnerian of Prokofiev’s scores. The conductor’s command of his orchestra was visibly and audibly apparent when, at the very opening of the balcony scene, the violins responded immediately to his hand gesture for more fulsome vibrato. Indeed, impassioned, soaring violins were crucial in conveying a Romantic ardour in full flow during the final numbers of the first act.

I was taken by the contrast during the second act between the lovers’ intimacy and the bustling, uncomprehending social world outside. The Dance of the five couples was suave, sardonic in the melodic and harmonic side-slipping so characteristic of the composer, whilst the choir of horns attending the secret wedding was an object lesson in the art of tenderness. Prokofiev’s originality in scoring was highlighted, albeit without undue exaggeration, in the combination of mandolins and trumpets during the Dance with mandolins. Mercutio’s death emerged as duly haunting, not least on account of such fine playing from bassoon and ’cellos. The parallel death of Tybalt packed an enormous dramatic punch: rhythmically and sonically implacable, indeed almost deafening at its climax.

The contrast between the forces of order (the Duke) and convention (Juliet’s father) and the young lovers continued to characterise the third act. We heard the brief, tender domesticity of Romeo and Juliet in soft tones, which yielded as much as the act’s opening music had refused to do so. During the lengthy sequence stretching from Juliet alone in her bedroom to her taking the potion acquired from Friar Laurence, Gergiev showed that, however hapless he might have proved in Mahler, in this, the most symphonic music of the ballet, he need fear no rivals in conveying the symphonic sweep of Prokofiev’s score. The short fourth act, or epilogue, presented a truly tragic and indeed defiant portrayal of the lovers’ death. The brass section rightly bludgeoned our ears, whilst strings and woodwind tugged at our heartstrings, the LSO’s percussion – and, of course, the conductor – mediating between these two related impulses. Gergiev proved himself a master narrator.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Elektra, Royal Opera, 15 November 2008

This should be read as an appendix to my principal review. I was fortunate enough to attend Elektra again and found that a very good performance had become a great one. Each of the singers was at least as good and most were even better, especially Johan Reuter, who sounded almost Wanderer-like upon his mysterious arrival. (We truly heard things through Elektra's ears here.) Susan Bullock was outstanding in the title role. Where, on the first night, her dance - and her accompanying words - did not quite come off, here they did, in a shocking yet inevitable ecstasy. Anne Schwanewilms's excellent performance - her diction was better this time around - reminds me that I did not mention Chrysothemis's weird, twisted, Frau-ohne-Schatten-ish obsession with marriage and children, played upon by Elektra in extremely nasty yet credible fashion. For this, Schwanewilms and director, Charles Edwards should be credited. Rarely can 'normality' have seemed so abnormal; Chrysothemis's transformation by the final scene thereby seems all the more credible.

Most transformed was Sir Mark Elder's conducting. Never having conducted Elektra before, it is now clear that he still had a little way to go on the first night. The Wagnerian inheritance was now clearer than ever. Everything now sounded 'right'; the Recognition Scene no longer dragged and balances appeared to have been reconsidered. (I wonder whether sitting in the amphitheatre rather than in the stalls made a difference too. The sound may be more distanced but the blend may be enhanced.) Indeed, there was a far stronger modernistic bent to the sounds and blends being produced - almost Boulezian at times. (What we lost when Wieland Wagner died prematurely, not least since he and Boulez had plans to perform Salome, Elektra, and Ariadne auf Naxos!) Yet there was also a lightness of touch that no longer seemed underplayed, but part of a long-term strategic, symphonic plan. The oft-quoted line from Strauss as to how one should hear Mendelssohnian fairy-music made as much sense as I can recall. This was a truly marvellous performance!

Friday 14 November 2008

DVD Review: Die Walküre, Festival d'Aix en Provence, BPO/Rattle

Bel Air Classiques BAC034. Filmed live in high definition at the Festival d'Aix en Provence, July 2007.

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Siegmund – Robert Gambill

Hunding – Mikhail Petrenko

Wotan – Sir Willard White

Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek

Brünnhilde – Eva Johansson

Fricka – Lilli Paasikivi

Gerhilde – Joanna Porackova

Ortlinde – Elaine McKrill

Waltraute – Julianne Young

Schwertleite – Andrea Baker

Helmwige – Erika Sunnegårdh

Siegrune – Heike Grötzinger

Grimgerde – Eva Vogel

Rossweisse – Anette Bod

Stéphane Braunschweig (director and designer)

Thibault Vancranenbroeck (costumes)

Marion Hewlett (lighting)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

The star of this Walküre is, without a shadow of doubt, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I doubt that the music can ever have been played better than it is here. Every section of the orchestra has an opportunity to shine and takes it; the blend is equally impressive. Astonishing immediacy of sound in the storm-Prelude to Act One, for which Bel Air's recording must take credit, enables us to hear and to feel bows flying off 'cello strings and the richness of tone really must be heard to be believed. The same may be said of the celebrated 'cello solo at the beginning of the act: full of hope, promise, potential. In much of this act there is a sense of chamber music, albeit on a grand scale, recalling Karajan’s Wagner. This does not preclude weight of orchestral tone, for instance at Siegmund’s cries of ‘Wälse, Wälse,’ yet such tone was differentiated, never monolithic. Kettledrums punctuate ominously whilst the woodwind are simply delectable. When Wotan tells Brünnhilde of the Nibelung host threatening Valhalla, it is in the orchestra – Wagner’s modern-day Greek chorus – that terror truly registers. The orchestral thunder as Wotan arrives in Act Three is not only splendid on its own terms; it ensures that even a Ride of the Valkyries as spirited as we have just heard does not overshadow what is to come: keen strategy on the part of Sir Simon Rattle. And by far the most moving parts of the final scene were those in which the orchestra truly spoke, unhindered by voices.

Rattle’s direction is generally reliable and often more than that. He certainly knows how to secure the sounds he desires from his orchestra and rarely indulges in the micromanagement that characterised some of his earlier work in Berlin. (Conductor and orchestra’s triumphant Tristan-excerpts and Turangalîla-Symphonie at this year’s Proms were indicative of a greater naturalness than had sometimes previously been the case.) If the long line does not sound quite so inevitable, quite so symphonically conceived, as in the work of the greatest Wagner conductors, they have all benefited from greater experience with the Ring. Rattle’s reading remains worlds away from the unstructured choppiness that has so bedevilled Antonio Pappano’s London Ring. My only real reservation lies with the conclusion to the first act. For all the extraordinary beauty of the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing, the direction during this scene sometimes wants greater forward propulsion. At times, it sounds oddly held back: almost defensible when we thereby revel in ravishing woodwind detail, not so otherwise, when it merely sounds arbitrary. There is no competition here for the all-consuming passion of the Boulez-Chéreau Ring on DVD – having Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer enhances visual credibility, of course – nor indeed for many audio recordings. Karajan, with Jon Vickers and Gundula Janowitz, remains a favourite of mine in this respect. Furtwängler naturally remains in a class of his own.

The cast is generally of a high, if not overwhelming standard. Mikhail Petrenko and Eva-Maria Westbroek seemed to me strongest. Petrenko’s Hunding arrives looking and sounding every inch the brutal bourgeois: black of tone, yet never unmodulated. This Hunding is no mere caricature, however; he is possessed of a dark, gangsterish attraction. Despite the odd instance of spread at the top of her range earlier on, Westbroek’s Sieglinde develops into a stronger character than we often see and hear. If I remain wedded to the silvery beauty of Gundula Janowitz as the examplar for how this part should sound, that is no reason to dismiss other approaches, especially when conceived so intelligently as here. In the third act, ‘O hehrstes Wunder! Herrlichster Maid’ sounds as expectantly radiant as I can recall, quite outshining Eva Johannson’s Brünnhilde, the weakest link in the cast. Johansson can ‘do’ youthfully impetuous, although camera close-ups do her no favours. More seriously, her diction and intonation leave a great deal to be desired. Much of her third act music is sharp, shrill, and wobbly. Moreover, she comes to sound and look somewhat deranged; it is difficult to ascertain whether this were intended.

Robert Gambill’s Siegmund is ardent if occasionally a little strained – ‘Winterstürme’ would be a case in point. It may be unfair but one inevitably compares him with his predecessors and the voice is not always at the level of the best of them. Still, he can act well – which cannot truthfully be said of all of them – and he looks the part of an outlaw. His tenor is often baritonal in heft yet remains unmistakeably a tenor. Sir Willard White is a good Wotan, although once again, when one considers his predecessors, one realises that this is no John Tomlinson, let alone Hans Hotter. One can see the anguish in White’s face and often hear it in his voice. His second act monologue was commanding, if some way short of unforgettable.

Rattle, according to a booklet interview, entertains a strange conception of Fricka. It is fair enough to recoil from portraying her as a shrew but ‘the most sympathetic and reasonable figure in the entire opera’? As ‘the orchestra makes ... clear’? What of the rapturous evocation of the Volsungs’ mutual love as Wotan speaks of them? Wagner, in a letter to Theodor Uhlig, refers to Wotan’s ‘struggle with his own inclination and with custom (Fricka)’. The incestuous union of Siegmund and Sieglinde entails no crime against nature; like that of Œdipus and Jocasta, it produces healthy offspring. Such unions merely offend against what Wagner, in Opera and Drama, called the ‘wonted relations’ of familial society, a society whose revenge was without mercy. ‘The old storm, the old trouble,’ is Wotan’s weary remark upon Fricka’s furious approach, indicating not merely a hen-pecked husband but also a clash between the new, developmental side to his ‘inclination’ and ‘custom’, set in stone as hard and unalterable as the Law of the Medes and the Persians. Thankfully, there is little in Lilli Paasikivi’s Fricka that bears witness to Rattle’s idea, other perhaps than the twinge of sympathy one feels as she laments her marital neglect. This is movingly accomplished and all the better for it.

What of Stéphane Braunschweig’s production? There is not much to obect to in it, although some aspects may irritate. However, I cannot discern any guiding principle behind it; there is little to suggest that we should have lost out by hearing a concert performance. ‘Little’, but perhaps not nothing, for there are a few nice touches. I liked the opening of the second act, in which we witness Wotan playing a chess-like war-game. He puts the pieces away as Fricka arrives and she tosses them aside when she sees them. There is an interesting likeness to an Ibsen family-drama during this confrontation, followed as it is by having Brünnhilde sit at Wotan’s feet as an obedient daughter in the nursery. The bodysnatching Valkyries impressed too. It is confusing, however, to have Siegmund and Sieglinde appear in the very same location in which the earlier parts of the second act have taken place, a confusion that put me in mind of similar loose ends in Keith Warner’s Royal Opera production. If relative location does not matter, then it is better to give no sense of location at all. How very different are Chéreau and indeed Harry Kupfer in this respect. Moreover, whilst we are treated to a grave Todesverkündigung, especially from the orchestra but also from Gambill’s well-acted response, it is not at all clear why Brünnhilde should kiss Siegmund as she does. This was not a hint in any sense prefigured or followed up. I was also confused by Marion Hewlett’s lighting in the first act. The orange lighting to accompany the glistening of the sword seems wildly excessive, more suggestive of fire. Spring’s entrance thereafter resembles a return of winter moonlight. Having said that, I welcomed the video-projection of fire in the third act, even as I puzzled at the point of the chairs – familiar from Act Two’s Valhalla – on which Brünnhilde is put to sleep. She would hardly awake refreshed.

There is, then, certainly no production challenge to Chéreau or Kupfer, though it is not difficult to imagine, or indeed to witness, worse: far better this than the prettified non-drama of Otto Schenk’s would-be exhumation for the Metropolitan Opera. The most pressing reason to acquaint oneself with the present Walküre remains the superlative performance from the orchestra. However, it is unforgivably philistine to have placed a disc-break during the second act.

Tristan und Isolde, Opéra national de Paris, 3 November 2008

Opéra Bastille

Tristan – Clinton Forbis
King Marke – Franz-Josef Selig
Isolde – Waltraud Meier
Kurwenal – Alexander Marco-Buhrmester
Brangäne – Ekaterina Gubanova
Melot – Ralf Lukas
Shepherd/Steersman – Bernard Richter
Young sailor – Robert Gleadow

Peter Sellars (director)
Bill Viola (video)
Martin Pakledinaz (costumes)
James F. Ingalls (lighting)

Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Alessandro di Stefano)

Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

The third outing for Peter Sellars’s Paris production of Tristan und Isolde is billed as its last. This collaboration with video artist Bill Viola has attracted a great deal of attention, so I was more than a little curious to catch it before it expired – Süß in Duften, or otherwise. Most of that attention has centred upon the production rather than upon the music, and understandably so. Therein lies the problem, for it is Viola’s video images that dominate everything else. This, I suppose, is fine if you are not a devotee of Tristan, of Wagner, nor indeed of great musical drama. As one who, by contrast, would place Tristan second only to Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the musico-dramatic pantheon, I found the result to be fatally compromised.

Distraction is greatest during the first act – and I do not think that this is simply the consequence of greater habituation later on. ‘Act I,’ in Viola’s words, ‘presents the theme of Purification, the universal act of the individual’s preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self.’ As the reader may have guessed, we are in the world of Orientalism – or, as Viola puts it, ‘the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra that lie submerged in the Western cultural consciousness’. Sellars made him aware of ‘this connection to Eastern sources,’ but the outcome was hardly a drawing into ‘Wagner’s 19th-century work’. For the first act of Tristan is anything but a process of purification; it is a reawakening and a headlong rush into catastrophe. The death that approaches, as understood at this point – and at least to a certain extent throughout – is not sacrificial but the selfish bidding of what Schopenhauer called the Will. Now one can sometimes get away with contradicting the essence of a work – ‘reading against the grain’ as it has tediously become known – but as this act progresses, the video projections of ceremonial purification seem disconnected rather than daringly contradictory. They have the deleterious consequence of distracting from the drama: both that presented, relatively conventionally, by Sellars in almost ‘semi-staged’ fashion, and, most importantly, by the singers and orchestra. There is more congruence in parts at least of the portentously titled second and third acts, ‘The Awakening of the Body of Light,’ and ‘The Dissolution of the Self’. I was rather taken with the forest imagery of the opening scene of the second act, not least since it put me in mind of a genuine ‘connection’, that with Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht. And the fire at the end fits well enough with Isolde’s transfiguration – if a little obviously.

Yet there remains too much that was simply superimposition. By all means create a video installation after sources of allegedly ‘Eastern’ inspiration – or perhaps, better, a very occidental fantasy; yet it does not necessarily follow that one should inflict that upon an existing masterwork. A telling phrase in the programme is Viola’s statement that ‘I did not want the images to illustrate or represent the story directly’. As a statement of method this is fair enough up to a point, yet the crucial word there is ‘want’. Should this really be a situation in which one does what one ‘wants’, rather than primarily responding – and one can do this in a myriad of ways – to the work? For in a sense the subject matter of the imagery is the stuff of Californian self-fulfilment. It would be familiar to any observer of ‘New Age’ fads that have reduced the word ‘spirituality’ to a penchant for scented candles. What I suspect many of Viola’s ilk do not appreciate is that the Age of Aquarius is now just as ‘period’ to many of us as the world of Jane Austen. There may be good reason to evoke either; however, evocation itself does not confer instant contemporary validity. There is a self-indulgence here typical of those unwilling to cede the stage to another generation, a generation left with a good number of social, economic, and environmental disasters to address. They must rehearse an old story ‘just one more time’.

I mentioned above the St Matthew Passion, a work with which, as Michael Tanner has observed, Tristan has so much in common. For many of us, a production that treated Tristan as the ‘passion of passion’, in Tanner’s formulation, would potentially have more to tell us than a presentation of superannuated clichés concerning self-fulfilment. The greatness of Tristan is manifold but a crucial aspect is its achievement in representing and involving us in both the ultimate celebration and the ultimate indictment of romantic – or indeed Romantic – love. As ever with Wagner and indeed the German tradition from Schütz to Stockhausen, dialectics are everything, which is part of the reason he could never have done more than take an interest in the very different tradition of Buddhism. His projected drama, Der Sieger, would be subsumed into Parsifal, the remaining Buddhistic-Schopenhauerian themes transmuted into heterodox Christian legend. Development rather than stasis: this is the way Wagner’s mind worked, a working far more complex and rewarding than this production of Tristan would allow.

Semyon Bychkov conducted a fine account of this treacherous score. Notwithstanding the occasional overly-audible gear-change, Bychkov’s reading was characterised by a true understanding of the Wagnerian melos. The orchestral music flowed and surged as the Schopenhauerian Will of which Wagner believed music to be the representation. Bychkov was aided by excellent and on occasion superlative playing from a much underrated orchestra, enabling an uncovering of detailed riches that one is far from always sure to hear. Shimmering strings, magical woodwind, and resounding brass all played their part; so did Bychkov’s ear for balance and subtle highlighting. There were times when I might have wanted a little more muscle but this should not be exaggerated.

Waltraud Meier bade fair to be the performance’s trump card. The odd instance of wild tuning aside, she delivered an eminently musical portrayal. However, the production had the extremely unfortunate consequence of neutralising her abilities as a true stage-animal. I well remember seeing her as Ortrud at Covent Garden. Even during the first act, during which she had almost nothing to sing, so compelling was her stage presence been that I was unable to take my eyes off her. Semi-staged and dominated by video projections, this was not the Tristan for her. Clinton Forbis started unpromisingly, sounding like an old man during the first act. However, in this most impossible of roles, he gained strength and gave a decent account of Tristan’s monologue. Perhaps he had been anxious to conserve his resources. I was disappointed by Franz-Josef Selig’s Marke. This is usually a role in which to excel; although Selig was not bad, he alternated a little too frequently between the emotingly tremulous and the slightly hoarse. I was far more impressed by Alexander Marco-Buhrmester’s subtly ardent Kurwenal, shaping words and music to considerable effect. Ekaterina Gubanova was not always the strongest of Brangänes but at her best, she impressed in a similar fashion to Marco-Buhrmeister. The choral singing, coming from behind rather than on-stage, sounded a little coarse to begin with, when there were worrying lapses in coordination, yet the chorus packed quite a punch by the end of the first act. However, my most unalloyed praise should be given to Bernard Richter and Robert Gleadow in their ‘minor’ roles. I do not think I have ever heard them better taken in the theatre. These artists were distinguished by their verbal acuity and diction, their musical line, and their sweetness of tone. It speaks well of the Opéra National de Paris that effort has been expended on casting these roles; Richter and Gleadow (recently an excellent Masetto at Covent Garden) will clearly go far.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Andreas Haefliger piano recital, 12 November 2008

Wigmore Hall

Janáček – Piano sonata 1.x.1905, ‘From the street’
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.21 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.24 in F sharp major, op.78
Brahms – Piano sonata no.2 in F sharp minor, op.2

Andreas Haefliger (piano)

Andreas Haefliger is a musician I have long admired, his intelligence in terms of programming and performance an example to many others. This recital, however, part of the London Pianoforte Series, was profoundly disappointing, the only estimable performance being the first, that of Janáček’s piano sonata.

As it stands, the sonata is in two movements, the composer having destroyed the third prior to the premiere. (He also attempted to destroy the other two shortly after, but the pages thrown into the Vltava failed to sink.) Like so many ‘unfinished’ works, however, the sonata works perfectly well as it stands; I have never felt the lack of a finale, intriguing though the prospect may be. The balance and development Haefliger posited between the Presentiment – Con moto and Death – Adagio seemed beyond reproach, reminiscent of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. Janáček’s soundworld was captured from the outset, as was the characteristic tension between fluidity and stubbornness of repetition, especially during the first movement. Haefliger evinced an almost Ravelian delight in sonority but the dark Moravian soul could only be Janáček’s. The adagio proceeded as a sung lament for, in the composer’s words, ‘a humble worker František Paclík, stained with blook. He came only to plead for a university, and was struck down by murderers.’ The reality of the demonstrations of 1905 was a good deal more complex than that but for the duration of the sonata, we could all sympathise with Janáček’s Czech nationalism. There was a calm inner strength to this movement, possessed of the same inner obstinacy as the first, which grew in strength until reaching a truly Romantic climax. Haefliger’s tone was full but never forced, subsiding as if to return us to everyday life, leaving behind a memorial that triumphantly vindicated words from the composer quoted in the programme: ‘A fellow was holding forth to me about how only the notes themselves meant anything in music. And I say they mean nothing at all unless they are steeped in life, blood, and nature, Otherwise they are like playthings, quite worthless.’ Take that, Stravinsky.

After the Janáček, Haefliger’s Beethoven proved quite a shock. The first movement of the Waldstein sonata was taken ruinously fast, leading to more than one notable slip in the semiquaver runs. I doubt that such a tempo could ever have worked, but the pianist should certainly then have slowed considerably for the second group, which utterly failed to melt hearts. It actually was slower on repetition of the exposition, but this sounded merely arbitrary. The development section was impassioned but also generalised – and still too fast. The harmonic surprises that mark its conclusion and the dawn of the recapitulation were masterfully presented, opening up a whole new world. These were breathtaking but it was more than a little too late. The coda sounded more like a series of finger exercises than middle-period Beethoven. There was a nicely mysterious opening to the Introduzione, whose rests were really made to tell. Sung, sustained: there was a true sense of the ineffable. Moreover, the rondo emerged from these shadows with profound inevitability. Thereafter, however, much was heavy-handed and plodding. I am usually the last person to complain of excessive Romanticism, but there is something awry when this music sounds more like a Liszt transcription. (I was put in mind of the Schubert-Liszt Erlkönig.) The prestissimo coda sounded utterly unprepared, merely tacked on. It was headlong but not exultant. The F sharp major sonata, which followed after the interval, was better but far from startling. The extraordinary four-bar introduction sounded soft-focussed rather than poetic. Whilst the rest of the movement continued amiably enough, it lacked distinctiveness. And the Allegro vivace lacked the economical humour that points forward to the Eighth Symphony. It was fluently dispatched but little more.

We do not hear Brahms’s piano sonatas so very often. I suspect that anyone coming to the F sharp minor sonata ‘cold’ would, from this performance, have struggled to ascertain the identity of the composer. This may be early Brahms but I have never heard it sound so utterly unlike him. Haefliger’s technique was certainly up to the notes. There was some splendid virtuosity here – at least on its own terms, especially in the second movement variations. However, there was a curiously – I am tempted even to say bizarrely – rhapsodic sense to all four movements and to the whole. I do not mean that in a sense akin to Brahms’s own later rhapsodies, which are anything but sprawling or undirected. Much of this sounded like minor Liszt. There was a series of fleeting impressions, sometimes impressive as episodes, but with little sense of connection to an overarching structure. And if we know anything of Brahms, it is his iron-clad command of formal structure. Another, at least in terms of the piano music, would be his utterly characteristic sonority. Again, Haefliger suggested Liszt or perhaps Chopin, but rarely Brahms; dazzling brightness replaced mahogany. Most perplexing.

Monday 10 November 2008

Stockhausen, RNCM Wind Orchestra/Rundell, et al., 9 November 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Stockhausen – Gesang der Jünglinge
Stockhausen – Lucifers Tanz (SAMSTAG from LICHT, London premiere)
Stockhausen – Michaels-Abschied (DONNERSTAG from LICHT)

Marco Blaauw (trumpet)
Karin de Fleyt (piccolo)
Nicholas Isherwood (bass)
Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra
Clark Rundell (conductor)

With this concert, the Southbank Centre’s KLANG festival, curated by Oliver Knussen, drew to a close. Gesang der Jünglinge is generally acknowledged to represent a milestone in electronic music. In the wake of the year-long Messiaen celebrations, I was put in mind of the correspondence between Stockhausen’s electronic chorus, founded upon a single treble voice, and Messiaen’s birdsong. That liturgical sense ever-present in Stockhausen’s œuvre shone through, as did the alleluias of the refrain ‘Preiset den Herrn’. Another correspondence I made was with the Leipzig Bach recordings of the early 1950s from Gunther Ramin and the Thomanerchor, for Stockhausen’s heterodox Catholicism was always inviting enough to encompass other traditions. The recording naturally sounds a little dated nowadays, as had that of Varèse’s Poème électronique at the Proms. Far more important, however, was the sense of the Royal Festival Hall being transformed into a cathedral of sound.

The musicians of the Royal Northern College of Music brought us the London premiere of Lucifers Tanz (‘Lucifer’s Dance’). It is of course a pity that we were unable to experience a staged performance, but this was certainly not a gift-horse to be looked in the mouth. Having ‘resurrected’ himself following apparent death, Lucifer’s project here is once again to enslave mankind, on this occasion through facial gestures, the material of the dance. If staged, the orchestra would be presented in the shape of a human face; here, there was of necessity some compromise, but the musicians were still compelled to move in their seats, as well as to play, in order to convey some impression of the facial gestures commanded by Lucifer. We also missed the stilt dancer who would have represented Lucifer onstage; instead, though, we had the compelling visible presence of the bass, Nicholas Isherwood, himself. Magician-like in aspect and in sonorous deep voice, he acted as guide to and initiator of the sequence of Left-Eyebrow Dance, Right-Eyebrow Dance, Left-Eye Dance, Right-Eye Dance, Left-Cheek Dance, Right-Cheek Dance, Wings-of-the-Nose Dance, Upper-Lip Dance, Tear Dance, Tip-of-the-Tongue Dance, Ribbon Dance, and Chin-Dance. The straightforward word-setting – one could hardly be more distant from Nono or indeed from many of Stockhausen’s contemporaries – is fitted to the liturgical intonation.

As Jerome Kohl explained in his excellent programme notes, the music ‘is scored in the Dionysian “section style” of the big-band jazz’ Stockhausen remembered from his youth. I recalled the echoes of such style in Henze’s Boulevard Solitude, although here the influence was more structural than stylistic. The pulsating opening, which to some extent provided the underpinning for the rest of the scene, gave a fine sense of the ritualistic, continued in and heightened by the physical nature of the performances. Although some, though by no means all, of the music is frankly tonal, it sounds primæval – this is, after all, a creation myth – and in no sense suggests compositional exhaustion. Whatever else Stockhausen may have been, he was no neo-classicist, nor neo-anything-else.

Ably conducted by Clark Rundell, the musicians of the RNCM wind-band proved superb advocates for Stockhausen’s score, fully at home with his requirements. The three instrumental soloists, Marco Blauuw (familiar from this year’s Stockhausen Prom), Karin de Fleyt, and an unnamed percussionist (a pity, since he deserved recognition) from the RNCM, were equally excellent. Blauuw’s alternation between unmated and muted trumpet, to which certain extended techniques were added, was as flawless as one would expect, yet nevertheless deserving of comment. This is a worthy successor to Markus Stockhausen in the role of Michael. His unsuccessful – dramatically, that is – yet impressive soliloquy marked an especial highpoint, as did the splendidly despatched percussive Wing-of-the-Nose Dance, echoing yet transcending any popular origins. De Fleyt conveyed in her line – which would have accompanied a solo Totentanz (dance of death) on stage – memories of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, her piccolo as sinuous and sensuous as I can recall hearing the instrument.

Following the concert, we were treated outside to a rendition of Michaels Abschied (Michael’s Farewell), from RNCM trumpeters. Standing on the Festival Terrace, surrounded by the sights and sounds of contemporary London, I was given to an uncharacteristically Cageian thought. The experience of hearing here Stockhausen’s music for the audience departing the theatre had the almost paradoxical consequence of making me truly listen to the sounds of the city and how they too might constitute musical sounds and progressions. The trumpet calls, once again excellently despatched, also recalled to me the brass leitmotif calls from Bayreuth, ushering the audience back into the Festspielhaus as intervals come to a close. What we really need, of course, is for LICHT to be fully staged. And where could be more appropriate than Bayreuth, out of season? If the new regime wishes to be serious about expanding its remit whilst remaining loyal to the spirit of Wagner’s principles, this would be a perfect statement of intent – and far more than that. Like Stockhausen, we can dream...

Sunday 9 November 2008

Elektra, Royal Opera, 8 November 2008

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Elektra – Susan Bullock
Chrysothemis – Anne Schwanewilms
Klytemnestra – Jane Henschel
Orest – Johan Reuter
First Maid – Frances McCafferty
Second Maid – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Third Maid – Kathleen Wilkinson
Fourth Maid – Elizabeth Woolett
Fifth Maid – Eri Nakamura
Overseer – Miriam Murphy
Young Servant – Alfie Boe
Confidante – Louise Armit
Trainbearer – Dervla Ramsy
Orest’s tutor – Vuyani Mlinde
Aegisth – Frank von Aken
Old servant – Jeremy White

Charles Edwards (director, set designer, and lighting)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Leah Hausman (choreography)

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renata Balsadonna)
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

This is my third Elektra within a year, having also seen productions in Berlin and in Munich. To think that I once worried about the effect that too much Mahler might have upon me! As with Mahler, albeit unnervingly without the catharsis, deepening knowledge of the work has served only to heighten my fascination and admiration. The Royal Opera’s revisiting of Charles Edwards’s production – Edwards rightly dislikes the term ‘revival’, although in some cases, it can sadly be all too appropriate – has much to commend it, as did the two German performances.

Edwards’s sets give an excellent impression of the corruption and depravity of Mycenae. It is not excessive, which must be a temptation, and is therefore all the more powerful. Antiquity and the early twentieth century – a little after the time of composition – are both suggested without being fetishised. Whatever Elektra is ‘about’, it is certainly not about historical ‘accuracy’; indeed, given how closely Hofmannsthal follows Sophocles, it is remarkable how little of the latter’s politics remain. And although the activity of archaeology is perhaps suggested by the bust of Agamemnon – chillingly kissed by Elektra – and by signs of digging, there is no dry archaeological positivism to the scene, which stands dialectically related to the dancing on a volcano of the 1920s. Had they not learned from the War (whether Trojan or Great)? Of course not. Violence is endemic though not unduly exaggerated. (David McVicar could have learned a great deal from this before his sensationalist Salome, as he could have done from Edwards’s intelligent rather than arbitrary suggestions of the interwar years.) The treatment of the Fifth Maid – a fine portrayal from Eri Nakamura, a Jette Parker Young Artist – by the other maids and Miriam Murphy’s splendidly horrifying Overseer really sets the scene for what is to come. The degrading – fatal? – punishment that follows horrifies still more. What helps to make this so powerful is the partial restoration of the political that Edwards so successfully achieves. He reminds us throughout that this is not simply a madhouse but the palace of Mycenae. We see from time to time other members of the household and the effect that the degeneration of the ruling house has upon the ruled, most crucially of all in the final bloodbath, in which the palace wall is lifted to reveal the carnage that has been unleashed, the latest – and, we must hope, the last – instalment of Thyestes’s curse upon the house of Atreus. This is not of course the only way to present Elektra but it is an interesting and valid route to take.

Sir Mark Elder’s reading stood distant from the blood-and-gore, priapism-a-minute approach of Sir Georg Solti. We heard a great deal of detail in the score, including some delectable woodwind lines, impeccably played by an orchestra on top form. The baleful Wagnerian brass sounded, rightly, as if it had originated in Fafner’s lair. Dance rhythms surfaced throughout, reminding us that Elektra is not only the high watermark of Strauss’s expressionism but also paves the way for Der Rosenkavalier (which is, in turn, a far nastier opera than nostalgics could ever understand.) There were times, however, when I thought that a little more menace, violence even, would not have gone amiss. One can tend towards the analytical without the occasional loss to the dramatic that we heard here. In Strauss, Christoph von Dohnányi is an example in this and so many respects, although Semyon Bychkov also impressed during the production’s initial run. In a generally well-paced account, the crucial Recognition Scene dragged somewhat, lessening the dramatic release upon the realisation of Orest and Elektra that they have finally been reunited. That said, it was a treat to hear the final scene develop rather than scream throughout. Even necrophiliac orgies of destruction need to gather pace. Moreover, the musical echoes here of the final scene of Tristan can rarely have registered so clearly.

The cast was impressive, not least in the smaller roles, all of which were well characterised, as well as well directed. Johan Reuter started somewhat anonymously as Orest – although, I suppose, he is anonymous to Elektra at this point – but his portrayal acquired greater strength. Frank von Aken was no Siegfried Jerusalem, to whose cameo we were treated last time; by the same token, he was no mere caricature in the role of Aegisth and he acted well, disturbingly well. Jane Henschel not only spitted malevolence and terrifying, jubilant hysteria, the latter upon the news of Orest’s death. She also imparted a sense of vulnerability, of the humanity that must at one time have existed in Klytämnestra. This made the sheer evil displayed at her last both shocking and credible. Anne Schwanewilms made a sympathetic Chrysothemis, as she had previously. One could forgive the occasional occlusion of the words – inevitable to some extent – given her beauty of tone and security of line. And Susan Bullock was a fine Elektra. She fully inhabited the role musically and dramatically, her fine diction and intonation permitting a more sophisticated portrayal than the screaming harpy of caricature. Desperation and damage, resilience and revenge: one understood how all of these feelings and more arose from the murder of her father, and beyond that from the terrible feud between the two sons of Pelops. In this, as in so much else, Bullock’s Elektra and Edwards’s Elektra were at one: at the service of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, yet nevertheless, and indeed consequently, engaged in imaginative recreation.

Thursday 6 November 2008

The Cunning Little Vixen, Opéra national de Paris, 4 November 2008

(Images copyright: B. Uhlig/ Opéra national de Paris)

Opéra Bastille

Forester – Jukka Rasilainen
Forester’s wife – Michèle Lagrange
Schoolmaster – David Kuebler
Parson – Roland Bracht
Harašta – Paul Gay
Vixen – Elena Tsallagova
Fox – Hannah Esther Minutillo

André Engel (director)
Nicky Rieti (designer)
Elizabeth Neumuller (costumes)
André Diot (lighting)

Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris
Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra national de Paris
Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine
Children’s chorus of the Opéra national de Paris
Alessandro di Stefano (chorus master)
Dennis Russell Davies (conductor)

This is, perhaps surprisingly, the Paris Opéra’s first production of The cunning little vixen. But then Janáček’s greatness has not been widely recognised for so long as one might expect. Early performances tended to be the preserve of Czech performers, with a few German exceptions. To take the standard-bearer of later twentieth-century modernism, it is not quite true to say that Pierre Boulez has only come now to the music of Janáček. As early as 1973, he conducted the Lachian Dances in New York. (The concert also featured music by Handel, Mozart, and Copland; recordings can readily mislead as to the breadth or otherwise of an artist’s repertoire.) This nevertheless proved an exception and it is only much later that Janáček has come to feature more regularly, if hardly frequently, in his programmes. A Prom this year marked, I think, the first opportunity – and I shall be pleased to be corrected – for a British audience to experience his Janáček. Moreover, it was only in 1978 that a collected edition was begun. Sir Charles Mackerras has of course proved an indefatigable champion from his Sadler’s Wells days onwards and Bernard Haitink conducted more than one might have expected whilst at Covent Garden. Gérard Mortier has certainly done his bit for the cause whilst at the helm in Paris, as he did in Salzburg too. This production must be accounted another success for his régime as it enters its final year.

The production comes from more or less the same team that brought us the estimable Paris Cardillac. André Engel, Nicky Rieti, and Andre Diot are common to both. This is clearly a team that has a sense of theatre. (What should be a given is far from always so.) It is, moreover, evidently willing to consider its approach according to the work and the circumstances rather than to impose a ‘house style’, irrespective of requirements. (Achim Freyer’s Eugene Onegin, anyone?) I say that, since a sense of theatre apart, the two productions did not have anything startlingly obvious in common. Where Cardillac had been highly stylish, there was something winningly homespun here, to appeal – in that tedious cliché – to children of all ages, but not only to do that. Amidst the apparent wide-eyed naïveté of the bright sets and delightful, anthropomorphic-but-not-too-anthropomorphic animals, serious and apposite points were made concerning the cycle of life and the somewhat fraught relationship between man and the natural world. (In the case of this opera, one might say vice versa too.) We saw the turning of the seasons – and almost felt them, the music helping very much here, of course. And the turning of the seasons, as in Haydn’s oratorio of that name, is also a metaphor for the stages of life, the first intimations of spring at the end moving as they should. The railway line running through each scene was not, as it might sound in abstracto, a merely fashionable device, but visible evidence of the impact of man upon Nature. It was not taken any further than that, turning a delightful work into a self-righteously environmentalist tract, but it nevertheless made us think.

The orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris sounded at least as good as it had for Tristan the previous evening, if anything even better. An especial delight was the vernally fresh woodwind, with the brass boasting an impressive night too. Early on, we heard fanfares that looked forward to the Sinfonietta, whilst the fine quartet of horns in the third act approached perfection. Dennis Russell Davies proved a steady hand at the helm. To start with, I missed a little of the lingering Romanticism that one can often hear in Janáček. However, as the evening progressed, I heard more, not a bad metaphor for the blossoming of the vixen herself. Rhythms, with the very occasional exception, were taut and the structure was admirably clear. Elena Tsallagova showed herself as agile of voice as she was on stage, in the title role. Her rapport with Hannah Esther Minutillo’s Fox was genuinely moving, whatever reservations one might entertain in principle about a couple of foxes falling in love. All of the other parts were taken with gusto; character acting and character singing were quite rightly to the fore. And the multifarious choral and silent movement parts were equally impressive: a tribute to a genuine company achievement.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

God in the nineteenth century: Wagner (Parsifal)

A sermon delivered at Evensong, at Trinity College, Cambridge on Sunday 26 October: The series, God in the nineteenth century, will culminate with Terry Eagleton on Nietzsche on Sunday 23 November. Other sermons may be found at: