Thursday 30 July 2009

Prom 19: Hallé/Elder - Berlioz and Mendelssohn, 30 July 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Berlioz – Overture: Benvenuto Cellini
Berlioz – La mort de Cléopâtre
Mendelssohn, Symphony no.2 in B-flat major, op.52, ‘Lobegesang’

Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Sally Matthews (soprano)
Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano)
Steve Davislim (tenor)

Hallé Choir (chorus master: James Burton)
Hallé Youth Choir (chorus master: Gregory Batsleer)
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

I entertained high hopes for this concert. Sadly, many, though by no means all, remained unfulfilled. Londoners are spoilt when it comes to Berlioz, but it would be a pity if the presence of Sir Colin Davis scared off all challengers. It does not seem to do so, which is all well and good, but Sir Mark Elder’s account of the overture to Benvenuto Cellini disappointed. Opening rhythms were sharply defined but the music was simply too hard-driven, a problem exacerbated by a lack of orchestral balance, the brass often drowning out or at least unduly subduing the strings. Then came a very slow section, the contrast being overdone, to put it mildly. Berlioz is fully able to withstand – indeed, it might well be argued that he invites – a less Classical approach than that of Davis, but the stop-start, sectional nature of at least the first half of this performance dragged him down to the level of the Italian repertoire he so despised. I had the impression that Elder had Verdi in mind, a comparison that might please many, but not me. Nevertheless, during the slower passages, the strings of the Hallé – when did it stop being the Hallé Orchestra? – sounded unusually rich for an English orchestra. Once Elder had settled down a bit, there was an impressive command of line to be heard, but it was too late. This performance did not add up to more than the sum of his parts; I cannot imagine that it would have converted any of the still numerous Berlioz sceptics out there.

La mort de Cléopâtre was another matter altogether and could be accounted an unqualified success. The presence of Susan Graham certainly helped. By turns imperious, deranged, wistful, and devastated, her effortless command, both of the French text – almost if not quite always audible – and of Berlioz’s tricky vocal lines ensured that one truly understood and experienced the fate of that most alluring and tragic of heroines. That Cleopatra was the last of her line, the shame she therefore felt at her actions, could hardly have been more palpable, likewise the inexorability of fate. A similar figure, Cassandre from Les Troyens, beckoned as life ebbed away in the final stanza. But here, as elsewhere, the orchestra was an equal partner in the tragedy, the desolation of the final few bars truly worthy of the life and line extinguished. Such had been apparent from the very opening, in which orchestral turbulence plunged us in medias res. Thereafter, the alertness of the Hallé’s and Elder’s response to Graham was impeccable. The crucial transformation of atmosphere at the opening of the Méditation was established forthwith, from the pizzicato strings and funereal trombones. Later, plangent woodwind joined the ominous triple-time rhythmic tread. Fate could not be stopped; nor, so captivated had one become, did one wish it to be.

Mendelssohn’s second symphony, the Lobgesang, has not been blessed at the Proms. According to the programme, it was last performed forty years ago, by Rudolph Schwarz and the Philharmonia, and before that, one had to go back to the turn of the century for no fewer than three performances under Sir Henry Wood. Fashions change, of course, and this is a work that lends itself to be tainted with suspicions of Victorianism. I sensed an eagerness on Elder’s part to dispel such suspicions; however, I was far less convinced by the way he went about it.

The first section of the opening Sinfonia was brisk, to put it mildly, and bright rather than grand: a strange understanding, at least to my ears, of the instruction, Maestoso con moto. The following Allegro sounded more like a Presto and, crucially, ended up sounding breathless. Even fast music, indeed often fast music in particular, needs space from time to time to breathe. One might argue, I suppose, that Mendelssohn’s own practice warrants a hurried approach. Certainly a passage in Wagner’s wonderful essay, On Conducting, suggests this. Concerning a Dresden performance of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, Wagner remarked:

I told Mendelssohn that I believed I had convinced ... [the conductor that he should] take the tempo slower than usual. Mendelssohn perfectly agreed with me. We listened. The third movement began and I was horrified to hear precisely the same old Ländler tempo; but before I could voice my annoyance, Mendelssohn smiled and pleasantly nodded his head ... I thought myself standing before an abyss of superficiality, a veritable void.

Wagner was quite right about the tempo of that minuet, though modern practice has largely disowned his advice. However – and this, I realise, might be considered a controversial twist – a better way to absolve Mendelssohn of unfair (Wagnerian or otherwise) accusations of superficiality than aping Mendelssohn’s own preferences or manners, even if it were possible to establish them, might be to hear a little more Wagner in Mendelssohn. Flexibility of tempo, a sense of drama and occasion: these go a long way to rescue the composer both from hidebound Victorian pieties and from superficialities either of the composer’s own time or ours. Karajan understood this, at least instinctively, and recorded a truly commanding version of this symphony. I could not help but wish that Elder’s reading had resembled that recording, or at least that of Claudio Abbado, a little more.

For there clearly was something of an ‘authenticist’ agenda at work here, and not just in the tempi. The strings – with one notable exception later on – were permitted vibrato, but very short bow strokes were the order of the day. One definite advantage was splitting of the violins, however, permitting one to hear fully the delightful antiphonal exchanges between the two violin parts. Nevertheless, and despite the large orchestra, an apparent ‘lightness’ was insisted upon, akin to that which is often, misguidedly, inflicted nowadays upon another ‘early Romantic’, Schumann. Both composers end up sounding short-breathed and foursquare. (Perhaps this is partly what was going on in the Berlioz overture, though certainly not in La mort de Cléopâtre.) The Allegretto un poco agitato was graceful within its short-breathed confines, but again did not help Mendelssohn escape accusations of elegant superficiality. Woodwind solos, however, were ravishing: straight out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Adagio religioso was taken at quite a flowing pace, yet it sounded pleasingly unaffected, like a Song Without Words. Again, the woodwind provided additional pleasure, but the strings seemed uncertain whether to opt for Romantic warmth or ‘period’ inhibition.

With the advent of the chorus – or rather, choruses – matters improved considerably. I have nothing but praise for the Hallé Choir and Hallé Youth Choir, both clearly impeccably trained by their chorus masters, James Burton and Gregory Batsleer. A full yet clear choral sound announced itself from the very first entry. The clarity of the counterpoint made Mendelssohn, quite rightly, sound more Bachian than is often the case, and yet with no sacrifice to weight of tone. Orchestral mannerisms were less apparent, though not less present, during the choral movements. It was also a delight to hear a full contribution, here and elsewhere, from the organ. In the chorus, ‘Sagt es, die ihr erlöset seid,’ the choral singing was nothing short of superlative: dramatically characterful in the fashion of the Bach Passions and Handel’s oratorios, and demonstrating triumphantly that large forces need not entail fusty piety. The a cappella first stanza of ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ – that echt-Lutheran chorale – approached perfection, every word and every note audible and meaningful, as if we were hearing an outsize College choir.

Steve Davislim’s tenor contributions were generally of a high standard, especially in the flexible recitative – at last some flexibility! – of ‘Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid durch den Herrn’. The following passage, ‘Er zählet unsre Tränen,’ was also well sung but let down by gingerly treated orchestral parts. If only the Hallé’s musicians had been allowed to sing more. When, at last they were, in the second stanza of ‘Nun danket alle Gott,’ the effect was undeniably powerful – and moving. (I should, however, note an excellent horn solo in ‘Ich harrete des Herrn’.) I felt extremely sorry for Sally Matthews in her solo following the first chorus. Taken at an utterly breackneck speed – Mendelssohn marks it Molto più moderato ma con fuoco – she sounded and looked rushed, harassed even, which may help to explain some very odd vowel sounds. In that cruelly exposed solo turning-point, ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen,’ she was almost, but not quite, there in terms of intonation. (Having lauded Karajan’s recording, I should perhaps note that Edith Mathis is further away there.) During the extraordinary – indeed rather Wagnerian – tenor lead-up to this moment, Davislim was variable. A darker orchestral sound would have helped, but he also on occasion proved over-rhetorical, breaking up the musical line on the first call of ‘Hüter, ist die Nacht bald hin?’ (‘Watchman, will the night soon pass?’) Having said that, he improved upon its repetitions, bringing a sense of eagerness to the coming of the day: in this work, allied to the advent of the printed word.

Elder continued, however, to provide jarring orchestral contributions, most notably of all in the horribly emaciated sound of the lower strings in ‘Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede’. It could have been a slightly augmented viol consort we heard. An exultant opening to the final chorus provided some compensation, but this was to an extent vitiated by the return to an excessively fast tempo for the final lines. I suppose he had to do so, since it is marked Maestoso come I, but the come I part of the instruction negated any sense of majesty. There were, then, good things in this performance but, like that of the Berlioz overture, there were many aspects that neither convinced on their own terms nor complemented each other.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Il mondo della luna, Opera East Productions, 25 July 2009

(sung in English, as A World upon the Moon)

Ecclitico – Andy Morton
Buonafede – Colin Morris
Ernesto – Håkan Vramsmo
Cecco – Alexander Anderson-Hall
Flaminia – Lara Martins
Clarice – Katie Bird
Lisetta – Kate Flowers
Prospero – Damian Dudkiewicz
Fabrizio – Ivan Luptak

Jeff Clarke (director)
Elroy Ashmore (designs)
Chris Ellis (lighting)

Orchestra of Opera East Productions
Benjamin Bayl (conductor)

Haydn’s operas require no apologies. Rarely, if ever, do they show the composer at his very greatest; they fall short, especially in modern terms, when it comes to characterisation; and, of course, they are not written by Mozart. However, they are full of splendid music; without exception, they satisfy in formal terms; the comedies, this one by Goldoni no less, are excellent fun; and, quite frankly, they are superior to a considerable number of works considered far more central to the operatic repertoire. Armida received a landmark Salzburg Festival production in 2007, to be revived this summer. Il mondo della luna is perhaps a slighter work but a wonderful opera nevertheless. Here, marking the two hundredth anniversary of the composer’s death, the fortieth of the lunar landings, and the tenth of Opera East Productions itself, we were treated to rather a riotous commemoration.

Jeff Clarke, quite astonishingly, was presenting his third production of Il mondo della luna. Great attention had clearly been paid to the characters, lending them greater ‘personality’ than libretto and music might in themselves suggest. Some might object, but I thought this a good thing. Elroy Ashmore’s costumes start off in what seems to be an increasingly fashionable vein: eighteenth-century with a modern, stylised twist, poised on occasion between surrealism and simply sending the whole thing up. Garsington’s recent Mirandolina – another Goldoni comedy – was similar in this respect. Once the old fool Buonafede has been persuaded that he has been taken to the moon, the costumes and designs become straightforwardly outrageous, likewise much of the acting. As an exercise in high camp meets slapstick, this was one of the funniest operatic performances I can recall, though some might think it all a little overdone. My only real objection lay with Clarke’s own translation. This goes beyond mere colloquialisation and becomes pointlessly crude, and indeed considerably remote from Goldoni. In any case, the sound of Italian suits Haydn’s music so much better.

Colin Morris was an impressive, if bizarre Buonafede, better considered in Carry On acting terms than as a purely musical performance, though he did manage to impart the vocal impression of an elderly man without sounding inadequate. For me, the star of the show was Kate Flowers’s Lisetta. As ever in opera buffa, it is the servants who know best – as this Lisetta knew very well. Knowing but also invitingly warm of tone, I wished we had heard more from here. (The work was subjected to a good number of cuts and not only in the recitatives.) Alexander Anderson-Hall’s Cecco was the other, sharply-characterised servant, though I thought it a pity he had been instructed to sing in a Mockney accent throughout. It becomes wearing and cannot really be maintained. Still, that was hardly his fault, and he has a winning stage presence. Andy Morton and Håkan Vramsmo improved as time went along, in the roles of the bogus astronomer Ecclitico and his noble accomplice, Ernesto. Where in the first act they had seemed a little stilted and vocally underpowered, their performances in the second and third acts were more impressive, more integrated into the company as a whole. The objects of their affection – Buonafede’s daughters, Flaminia and Clarice – were given good performances, sure in their phrasing and for the most part their coloratura, by Lara Martins and Katie Bird.

Benjamin Bayl’s direction was flowing and stylish. Some tempo choices I might have quibbled at, but even when arguably erring on the fast side, Bayl withstood any temptation to the merely hard-driven – unfortunately all too common in contemporary performances of eighteenth-century music. He clearly delighted in the score and thereby enabled the audience to do so too. His continuo playing was sprightly and witty too. For the most part, the orchestra played well enough, though earlier on there were a few too many occasions of sour intonation from the leader, Philippa Mo. It is an exceptionally difficult task to play such music one-to-a-part, doubtless dictated by economic circumstances. However, what sounded very much like amplification – unless it were a very strange trick of the acoustic – did not help. The balance remained the same, solo strings remaining underpowered, whilst the sound became unreal. However, this was a performance in which – perhaps wisely, given relatively straitened circumstances – theatrical values took precedence over the purely musical, and those theatrical values often impressed. One does not expect Covent Garden on the Cam, but there was a great deal of enjoyment, musical too, to be had here. Opera East Productions certainly presented a far superior performance to the most recent occasion on which I had heard English Touring Opera, a higher profile but roughly comparable outfit. Oliver Gooch’s company deserves our encouragement and support.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Prom 5: LSO/Haitink - Mahler, 20 July 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Greatness, by definition, manifests itself rarely, yet I find myself in the curious position of asking whether I have really heard two great performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony this year. Perhaps distance, temporal and critical, will disenchant, but I suspect not. Just six months after Daniele Gatti’s shattering account with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra came a very different, yet at least as ‘great’ performance from the London Symphony Orchestra and Bernard Haitink. What a relief, moreover, it is to credit the LSO, showing that a truly dreadful – ‘extraordinary’ in more than one sense – rendition of the very same work, little more than a year ago, had nothing to do with the orchestra itself and everything to do with uncomprehending direction from Valery Gergiev. Indeed, in terms of orchestral execution, the present performance could not fail to consign the RPO, on good form though it was, to the relative shade.

The first movement opened slowly, and continued that way, more world-weary than one might perhaps have expected, yet from the outset radiantly beautiful. An inexorable onward tread - I do not think I have ever heard Mahler’s harp sound so ominous – recalled the Schubert of Winterreise. This in turn reminded me of a recent observation from Michael Tilson Thomas, that ‘Mahler pursues Schubert’s goals with Wagner’s technique’. Sure enough, virtuoso brass brought out echoes of Götterdämmerung and the timpani recalled the indelible impression Fafner clearly made upon Mahler. For, as with Wagner, the Mahlerian and especially late-Mahlerian dialectic between beauty and ugliness suggests, as did this performance, that the latter might enhance rather than detract from the former. Haitink did not exaggerate in his evocation of the dark side of the orchestral moon, yet he knew precisely where to highlight not only the discordant but also the shocking in timbre. During moments of apparent calm – anything but, in retrospect – we appeared to stare straight into the abyss. Divert one’s eyes or ears though one might wish, so compelling was this performance that such was not an option. The closing horn calls of consolation – but are they? – resounded as if from the dawn of German Romanticism, yet with a knowledge that even relative innocence could no longer pertain. Gareth Davies’s flute solo quite rightly suggested something more fragmentary, modernistic, whilst other attempts at completion, not least that of leader Gordan Nikolitch, simply could not square the circle. This despite, or even partly on account of, the latter’s sweetness of tone.

The rusticity with which the next movement opened cast another backward glance to the world of Der Freischütz, yet again acknowledged that such a world could no longer be. For all the buoyancy of Mahler’s Ländler rhythms, there was something hollowed out to their expression. The composer’s ghostly counterpoint attempted to fill the gap, yet necessarily fell short, despite a busy quality that recalled the Fifth Symphony in particular. Such failure was not so stark as one might hear in a reading from Boulez, yet it nevertheless remained clear. The oases of ‘calm’ once again struck terror into one’s heart; clear-eyed in their depiction, there was no need for shrieking shock tactics. And when the marionettes came out to play, they terrified too.

Such play was, however, a mere presentiment for the Totentanz of the Rondo-Burleske. Again, Haitink’s absolute rhythmic surety provided a sure foundation for the horrors to come. The conductor proved equally adept at reminding one not only of the connections with the previous movements, but also with the way Mahler now pushes further whatever had already seemed extreme. Thus sepulchral brass once again evoked Wagnerian twilight. We also heard echoes turned bad of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies’ counterpoint: Die Meistersinger without Gemeinschaft, the twentieth-century nightmare. Just when all might have turned too sour, there was required a vision of what might be – or what might have been. Yet even that would soon be cruelly distorted, all the more cruelly for retaining so much of its initial fleeting beauty. Those vistas, physical and metaphysical, of whose evocation Mahler is so supreme a master, come no more ravishingly spell-binding than in this turn from A minor to D major. However, magical harp glissandi that needed to be heard to be believed cautioned one to remain equivocal: the view is agonising in both its proximity and its distance. And so it was that the marionettes of death must return, fairly mocking us in their exultant triumph, cosmic Norn chatter turned acidic.

Yet, if such mockery remains chatter, we can retain hope, vindicated by the dawn – or should it be twilight? – of the Adagio. This was a warm account, the LSO’s strings beguiling both in their vibrato and their occasional use of portamento. One recalled the final movement of the Third Symphony, albeit whilst recognising that much has changed since then, as Mahler’s ghostly interruptions reminded us. Counterpoint was now reconciled with harmony, as if the movement were a giant Bach chorale prelude. Perhaps, in some senses, it is. Although there would be instances after Mahler when an orchestral string section could once again sing together, perhaps even occasional instances without irony, one nevertheless felt that here was the end of a line. Haitink imparted, crucially, both a sense of loss and a sense of resolve. Debating whether this movement, or indeed the symphony, is ‘about’ life or death misses the point; how can one consider the one without the other? Bach knew that – and so should we. Thus, we arrived somewhere, even if it were uncertain where; progressive tonality can have that effect. This was a destination and a new beginning, though one could never forget what had happened before; true reconciliation is not amnesia. In both work and performance, something had subsided, yet some possibility had opened up before our ears.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (4) - Orphée aux enfers, 9 July 2009

(Images copyright: Elisabeth Carecchio)

Théâtre de l’Archevêché

Eurydice – Pauline Courtin
Orphée – Julien Behr
Aristée/Pluton – Mathias Vidal
Jupiter – Francis Bouyer
L’Opinion Publique – Marie Gautrot
John Styx – Jérôme Billy
Mercure – Paul Cremazy
Cupidon – Emmanuelle de Negri
Diane – Soula Parassidis
Vénus – Marie Kalinine
Minerve – Estelle Kaique
Junon – Sabine Revault d’Allonnes

Yves Beaunesne (director)
Damien Caille-Perret (designs)
Patrice Cauchetier (costumes)
Joël Hourbeigt (lighting)

Chœur du Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (chorus master: Nicolas Krüger)
Camerata Salzburg
Alain Altinoglu (conductor)

Götterdämmerung would have been a struggle to put on in the courtyard of Aix’s archepiscopal palace. Torchlight procession echoes of the Eumenides notwithstanding, it was doubtless wise to reserve Wagner’s drama for the splendid new Grand Théâtre de Provence. The Théâtre de l’Archevêché remains, however, the traditional heart of the festival, and it was here, as dusk fell, that I saw and heard my final performance, a satyr play almost, from this year’s programme. Orphée aux enfers does not have much in common with Götterdämmerung, although both came under the umbrella of the festival heading, opera and myth. This was really too general a heading to be of value – the Orpheus myth itself might have been more manageable, whilst still offering a plethora of choices – but no matter. Offenbach’s opéra bouffe provided an enjoyable contrast.

The production, for the Aix Festival and the Académie européene de musique, subsequently transferring to co-production partners in Toulon and Dijon, had its problems. Yves Beaunesne seemed unable to decide what he was trying to accomplish. According to an interview in the programme booklet, he sees Offenbach as having had two targets in mind for his satire: political and social matters on the one hand and myth on the other. Beaunesne then makes the questionable assertion that, ‘in order to find once again the original radicalism’ of the work, one should invert the proportions of the original targets, concentrating on political and social satire, since ‘mythology no longer belongs to our [frame of] references’. Perhaps not to his, though he might be wiser only to speak for himself in that respect. More importantly, this claim, whether accurate or otherwise, does not seem to be carried through into what we witness on stage. In the first scene, which, like the rest of the production, seems to be set vaguely in the 1920s, mythology seems barely present. Orpheus and Eurydice are just a musician and his wife, though, given the downplaying of the satire on myth, there does not seem to be anything amusing about this. Thereafter, however, we seem to be vaguely in the world of myth, albeit in vaguely 1920s guise. None of this is of supreme importance, but I cannot understand what is gained. Had the proposition been that updating to the present was necessary, it might have been incomprehensible, but an interwar setting does not seem especially more relevant to the early twenty-first century than a production set at the time of composition, or indeed at almost any other time. A case, of course, might have been made, but I am not sure that it was.

What we had, instead, were some intermittently pretty sets and some splendid costumes (Patrice Cauchetier) and a few puzzling interpolations, such as Pluto, in his initial guise as Aristaeus, arriving upon stage on roller-skates – handled with great aplomb, I might add. Insofar as I could trace an idea, it seemed to be that Eurydice was a social climber, seduced by a picture of a film star (?), who whisked her off; she became bored and ended up being whisked off by someone (Jupiter) more influential. The problem was less the idea than that it was weakly presented. The gods’ banquet in the second scene – this was the original, two-act version, with some additions from 1874 – seemed just a bit old-fashioned, redolent yet not emphatically so of the Second Empire, whereas I had imagined we might have had a real taste of Hollywood. Public Opinion, after all, seemed to be a busybody reporter, forever taking photographs. Enjoyable – yes; coherent – no.

Alain Altinoglu, however, provided a fizzing account of the score, for which much praise should also be given to the Camerata Salzburg. Hardly their core repertoire, one would have thought, but Altinoglu’s direction provided drive and tenderness, though never deathly sentimentality, and a welcome opportunity to hear the ample soloistic opportunities Offenbach grants various instruments. Chief of these, of course, is Orpheus’s violin, in the hands of the excellent leader, Roman Simovic, but there are many more, all of which were well taken here.

The young cast, drawn from the ranks of the Académie européene de musique, generally made the most of its opportunities too. Chief amongst them must surely be ranked Mathias Vidal’s Pluto, sweet of tone in a classically French manner, and a good actor too. Francis Bouyer attracted a somewhat lukewarm reception as Jupiter, but I thought him rather good too, with a fine swagger, both vocal and visual, though he seemed to tire a little during the second act. Julien Behr’s Orpheus was sweetly sung and convincingly portrayed. Pauline Courtin generally handled well the demands of her part as Eurydice, albeit not without a certain tendency for her voice to harden during vocal display. I was enchanted by Emmanuelle de Negri’s splendidly boyish Cupid, whilst Jérôme Billy did an excellent job as John Styx, though he was not at all assisted by the production, which, under the guise of amusement, really made the character outstay his welcome. The smaller parts were also generally well taken, not least in terms of stage presence. I do not doubt that we shall be hearing from some of these singers again.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (3) - Lang/BPO/Rattle, 8 July 2009

Haydn – Symphony no.91 in E-flat major
Haydn – Piano concerto in D major, Hob.XVIII/11
Ravel – Piano concerto in G major
Ravel – Ma mère l’oye

Lang Lang (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

This really was a ‘game of two halves’, the only difference being that the excellent half consisted of the first and last items, whilst the two concertos, performed either side of the interval, received solo performances of an uncomprehending vulgarity that beggared belief. I had entertained the vain hope that Lang Lang might yet redeem himself, following an execrable performance of Brahms’s first piano concerto, which I heard in Berlin last year. If anything, these performances were even worse.

The concert started well, with a fine performance of Haydn’s ninety-first symphony, the programming choice of a true Haydn connoisseur, since it is a marvellous work, yet little heard even by Haydn’s standards. Sir Simon Rattle elected to employ a relatively but not excessively small orchestra, strings in the proportion Although the Grand Théâtre de Provence is a reasonably large space, the orchestra did not sound undernourished. The first movement introduction sounded full of hope rather than grave, with woodwind timbres as beautiful as one could ever hope to hear. Articulation was sprightly throughout. Even the exposition was full of contrast, without seeming disconnected: counterpoint in the bridge passage was clearly projected, whilst the second subject’s ‘character’ was full of grace. Following András Schiff’s bizarre experiment with the Philharmonia, employing natural horns with an otherwise modern orchestra (including other brass), it was a great relief, especially during the development section, to hear the superlative Berlin horns. Rattle could not but relish a modulation, breathtaking in an almost Schubertian fashion, in the recapitulation, yet without undue exaggeration. The Andante was flowing but not rushed, its variations unfolding delectably, that with solo bassoon (the first), proving a particular joy. We had a sense of the neo-Baroque but also of the rustic, the latter heightened by pairs of oboes and horns, and the principal cello. The minuet was taken fast, a little too much for my taste, and seemed a touch over-directed, the fussiness to which Rattle can sometimes be prone once again exhibiting itself. Yet if the minuet wanted naturalness, the trio was nicely relaxed, full of colour and grace, and with a true sense of chamber music writ (relatively) large. The finale opened with a Mozartian grace, which has seemed lacking in Rattle’s own Mozart, followed by a warranted orchestral display. Interplay between the two quite rightly proved the dramatic material for the rest of the movement, with a welcome touch of humour projected, without underlining, in an unexpected repetition at the end of the movement.

The Haydn D major concerto started well enough, with nice antiphonal response between the first and second violins (both sections reduced by one instrument apiece). Enter Lang Lang. My first reaction was that his was a genuinely beautiful instrumental tone but it was not long before tiresome ‘effects’ reared their head – and, of course, those pained expressions, followed by a self-satisfied grin, as if he knew he were playing a gullible audience. Unmotivated dynamic and tempo variations obliterated all sense of musical line. Something approaching absolute zero was reached with a preposterous cadenza, accorded a superficial sense of extemporisation, yet clearly rehearsed, not least since the orchestral players knew precisely when to pick up their instruments. An irrelevant quotation from Beethoven’s fifth symphony led to music which sounded as though it might have emanated from Tin Pan Alley. Once again, the orchestral opening to the second movement sounded full of grace, highlighting the paradox that Rattle’s Haydn can sometimes sound more Mozartian than his Mozart. Soon, of course, we were subjected to further soloistic posturing. Piano-stool conducting, unrelated to what the orchestra was playing, heralded more of the same so far as the performance was concerned. This time, the cadenza opened with sub-Lisztian fioritura and descended into a meandering exchange between Broadway and cod-Rachmaninov. The ‘Hungarian’ aspects of the finale were predictably over-indulged, and arguably so in the orchestra too, but that was the least of the movement’s problems. The distracting – had there been any musical substance from which to distract – movements of the soloist reached a climax when I thought the pianist was about to fall from his stool. If only he had... His foot-tapping grew in volume too. I should not have minded the sub-Bartókian exaggerations, if there had been any sense of how the solo part fitted together, but no. This was nothing more than a circus act. All the technique in the world does not guarantee any degree of musical understanding.

I wondered whether the Ravel G major concerto might prove more bearable; it did not. The first movement was taken very fast. Perhaps Rattle simply wanted to get it over with; who could blame him? The Berlin Philharmonic sounded lighter than one generally hears in this music, closer to Gershwin: a valid interpretative choice, I suppose, but not one to which I warm. Lang Lang’s glissandi were just that, with no sense of musical meaning. After that, much of his part was heavy, choppy, augmented by an additional part for tapped foot. Accents were arbitrarily – absurdly – placed on certain notes, with the climax milked as if it were once again imitation Rachmaninov. At least the BPO’s harp managed briefly to mesmerise. The opening cantilena of the slow movement illustrated how to make one hear every bar line. Then, suddenly, Lang moved from the metronomic to the gratuitously indulgent (and heavy-handed). This was graceless and forced; indeed, never have I heard Ravel sound less like Ravel. Later on, the pianist seemed to have no conception of when his part was of an ‘accompanying’ nature, merely carrying on in his narcissistic, attention-seeking way. If he could do less damage in the finale, it was not for the want of trying, some terrible clattering sounds pouring forth. Incomprehensibly to me, the audience erupted with approval at the end. For one dreadful moment, I feared that we were to be ‘treated’ to an encore. Small mercies and all that...

Ma mère l’oye came as balm to the senses and soul after such a farrago. In the opening movement, I had a sense of the orchestra being the instrument, played by Rattle; out of this, other, single instruments emerged. There were some intriguing hints, especially earlier on, of pastel Wagner, though there was much that was sharper-edged too. A winning spring to rhythms allowed the various dances to work their magic. The contrabassoon’s vivid characterisation of the Beast was an especial joy. However, there were so many solo virtues, that I could not list them all: silky solos from leader, Guy Braunstein, richness of tone from the principal viola, a woodwind section full of character, not least when it came to the flute cuckoo... Nor should I neglect to mention the superlative percussion section. Finally, Le jardin féerique would surely have touched the hearts of children and adults alike. The strings were possessed of an almost Elgarian nobility and the final climax was truly exultant. Ravel and his performers proved beyond a shadow of doubt that childlike is in no sense equivalent to trivial.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (2) - Götterdämmerung, 6 July 2009

(Images copyright: Elisabeth Carecchio)

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Siegfried – Ben Heppner
Gunther – Gerd Grochowski
Hagen – Mikhail Petrenko
Alberich – Dale Duesing
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman
Gutrune – Emma Vetter
Waltraute – Anne Sofie von Otter
First Norn – Maria Radner
Second Norn – Lilli Paasikivi
Third Norn – Miranda Keys
Woglinde – Anna Siminska
Wellgunde – Eva Vogel
Flosshilde – Maria Radner

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

Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

And so, this Ring, a co-production between the Aix Festival and the Salzburg Easter Festival, has reached its conclusion. I have not seen the Rheingold yet, but have seen Die Walküre on DVD and Siegfried in the theatre. As with those previous dramas, the greatest signal achievement proved to be that of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Luxury casting seems something of an understatement when one hears so virtuosic an orchestra in the pit. There were very occasional slips, almost inevitable from the horns, but barely a handful, which really only served to remind one that these were human beings – not such a bad thing when it comes to Wagner’s tale of the twilight of the gods. There remains a degree of loss in terms of ‘old German’ orchestral sound: Karajan’s work is perhaps now more than complete. However, if one takes the internationalisation of the Berlin orchestra as a given, there were aspects of this performance that bade fair to create new standards for technical excellence. I have certainly never heard the low brass play with such dramatic force in those passages later in the first act and during the second, in which Wagner creates sounds of instrumental and harmonic ugliness wholly new, and yet entirely necessary for his drama. The trombones and Wagner tubas had to be heard to be believed. Hagen’s call to the vassals and their response registered as truly terrifying, on the basis of the voice of Wagner’ orchestral Greek chorus, at least as important in this respect as that of the excellent actual chorus.

Sir Simon Rattle continued his good work in the pit. Again, I had the impression that his interpretation would deepen with further immersion in the score, but there could be no doubt that he had the measure of its structural import and its orchestral detail. Even the BPO cannot play Göttterdämmerung by itself. Wagner conductors whom we rightly praise to the skies, for instance Hans Knappertsbusch, could often prove surprisingly casual with matters of colour, but not Rattle. His experience and that of his orchestra in French music – take the previous night’s Ravel and Boulez, concucted by Boulez himself, or Rattle’s own recent L’Enfant et les sortilèges – is put to excellent use in back-projection of a sometimes undervalued aspect of Wagner’s compositional legacy. My only real reservation was an occasional tendency to press too hard, not so much in terms of tempo, although there were one or two instances of that, as of orchestral sound. There were, especially during the first act, just a few instances of a brutalisation of sound that did not always tally with dramatic purpose. This was reminiscent not so much of Karajan’s Wagner – the Ring in particular often exhibited a chamber-like delicacy under the Austrian conductor’s baton – as some of his 1970s Beethoven.

Ben Heppner would doubtless be many listeners’ Siegfried of choice today. He certainly has the vocal resources to bring off a near-impossible role, though the results are accomplished rather than exciting. It might seem churlish, given some of the horrors to which we have been subjected, to withhold fuller appreciation but, on stage, this Siegfried cuts a less than heroic, indeed a less than convincing, figure – and this is not a dramatic strategy. There is something a little awry when Hagen exudes charismatic leadership whilst Siegfried appears to be unsuccessfully auditioning for the title role in an am-dram assault upon Peter Grimes. The lumberjack shirt did not help. In Wagner’s words, ‘The Greeks’ tragic hero stepped forward from the Chorus and, turning back towards it, said: “Behold, thus does a man act; that which you celebrate in commentaries and adages, I depict to you as irrefutable and necessary.”’ This cannot be said to have been accomplished, despite a surer command of the vocal line than one otherwise might experience. Mikhail Petrenko’s Hagen, as I have hinted, was another matter altogether. Strikingly different from the typical portrayal, this was a Hagen whose personal and political skills might well have persuaded rather than bludgeoned one into following him. I did not think him as black of tone as when he essayed Hunding, let alone when compared to other Hagens. Though not an unduly light reading, there were chilling moments of almost whispered – yet still sung – menace, ably supported by the orchestra, as well as a terrifying, partly because understated, Jekyll and Hyde routine. Confident and unabashedly sexy – when did one last think that of a Hagen? – when pulling the strings, whether with the vassals or his half-siblings, there were signs of deformity, in physical and other senses, and of potential unravelling in more private moments. This was a superb revisionist performance, in terms of stage and voice.

Katarina Dalayman’s Brünnhilde had a few wayward moments but was otherwise a strong presence. She drew upon a varied vocal palette with great discrimination, rendering her characterisation unusually credible. When she strode on stage following Siegfried’s return, there was an almost Hollywood sense of star quality, heightened, I think, by Rattle’s handling of the BPO strings. Yet the aura added to rather than distracted from her final deeds as Brünnhilde. Gerd Grochowski’s Gunther resembled his Telramund, seen recently in two productions in Berlin and in London. This is not an especially powerful voice, but Grochowski made a dramatic virtue out of a vocal necessity, with a detailed portrait of political vacillation, aided by his stage demeanour of aristocratic distraction. Emma Vetter’s Gutrune was made to resemble a cross between Linda Evans in Dynasty and the late Diana Dors, not the only occasion when Thibault Vancraenenbroeck’s costumes seemed at odds with Stéphane Braunschweig’s generally non-interventionist – some might say Konzeptlos – production (more on the latter below). This might not especially have mattered, had we been treated to a more than adequate vocal performance. I was also disappointed, surprisingly so, by Anne Sofie von Otter’s Waltraute. There was, as one might have expected, detailed attention to the words, but this remained a strangely earthbound portrayal in vocal terms. Dale Duesing’s Alberich again impressed as an example – appropriate, considering his son – of a lighter-toned, word-sensitive approach to the role. I shall be interested to see him in Das Rheingold. The Norns and Rhinemaidens were cast from strength and did not disappoint.

I am at a loss when it comes to Braunschweig’s production. There is nothing to which one could, with reason, vehemently object, but nor could I discern any insights, let alone revelations. According to a programme interview, what Braunschweig ‘likes’ in Götterdämmerung is that here, following ‘the development of great philosophical and psychological’ questions in the preceding dramas, ‘one returns to a more trivial level, to an almost bourgeois drama.’ It is a point of view, I suppose: not entirely unrelated to George Bernard Shaw’s writing off the Ring’s final drama as succumbing to the love panacea, and perhaps not entirely unrelated to the parallels with Ibsen some commentators have discovered. Yet, wrongheaded though I might have thought Braunschweig’s almost complete disavowal of Wagner’s political for the director’s – and to a certain extent Wagner’s – psychoanalytical concerns earlier in the cycle, it might have been more rewarding to have carried the latter through into the final instalment. It was now not at all clear why the characters, despite some very strong individual performances, notably those of Petrenko and Dalayman, should be of any greater significance. If Götterdämmerung takes place on a relatively ‘trivial level,’ then I hardly dare think what might qualify as profound, as world-historical. Even Alberich’s re-appearance to observe, Wanderer-like, the Immolation Scene – to start with, I thought he might be Wotan, though I have no idea whether the resemblance were deliberate – somehow seemed shorn of significance. Perhaps this nihilism was the ultimate in Wagner domesticated.

For, whereas what I had previously seen had led me to wonder whether this might turn out to be a culmination inspired by Robert Donington, it now seemed nihilist, not in a sense that Nietzsche would have understood, but simply because the ideas had run out. Even in its own terms, the production did not seem to have the Ibsen-like quality at which Braunschewig appeared to hint in the quoted programme note. Attention-seeking touches such as a final, apparently ‘amusing’ bobbing up from the Rhine of the Rhinemaidens, seemed just that. I have no especial regrets at a lack of staging for Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, but I could not help suspecting that the fall of the curtain suggested lack of interest rather than a positive decision. If it were not for the stylishly minimalist sets – yet to what end? – or the technically accomplished, if oddly reticent video projection of the Rhine in the opening scene of the third act, it is difficult to imagine what would have been lost in a concert performance. Considered almost as such, however, there was a great deal to praise.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (1) - Aimard/BPO/Boulez

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Bartók – Music for strings, percussion, and celesta
Ravel – Concerto for the left hand (piano) and orchestra in D major
Boulez – Notations I, VII, IV, III, and II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Pierre Boulez, and the Berlin Philharmonic in a programme of twentieth-century orchestral masterpieces: how could it fail? Of course, it could not, for this proved an outstanding concert in every respect.

Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion, and celesta opened the programme. The viola opening sounded icy, frozen opening, with an utter inevitability in the build up to the climax of this opening fugal movement. Everything stood perfectly in proportion, thereby heightening the emotional import of the music, just as in Bach (everything, that is, except a watch alarm). Eerie beauty was enhanced by an excellent rendition of the celesta part. The return to freezing point, albeit from the first violins, was equally impressive, truly conveying the perfection of Bartók’s form. Division of the violins to right and left of the conductor – an unusual seating arrangement for Boulez, not continued in the second half – gave a true sense of answering back and forth in the ensuing Adagio. Precision of rhythm was absolute, again heightening rather than detracting from – as some might have it – the music’s expressive content. That applied to all of the musicians, though the piano part was perhaps especially noteworthy in this respect. A great mass of string tone, whether bowed or plucked, helped here too, without loss to exactitude. In Bartók’s almost Mozartian profusion of melody every line is – and was here – essential. Boulez’s reading was febrile but controlled: a perfect marriage. He and the Berlin players showed that the opening of the third movement can still sound weird, without resort to mere freakishness. Bartók’s trademark ‘night music’ benefited from chilling yet magical sonorities and, once again, absolute precision. The spatial element of the music was throughout readily apparent. Rhythm and melody came together in perfect harmony, as it were, for the finale, which also reminded us of the yearning quality in so much of this composer’s music.

It is a while before one hears the soloist in Ravel’s left-hand concerto. The orchestral introduction truly sounded as if it emerged de profundis, characterised by a grim determination unusual in Ravel’s œuvre. The upward swell thereafter was magnificent. Aimard’s response was implacable, marrying strength and clarity. One heard a degree of effort, which is written into the score, but one could also more or less imagine, as Ravel desired, that the soloist’s part should sound as if it were being played with two hands – and two expert hands at that. The ‘impressionist’ label has never suited Ravel, whose clearness of purpose is often diametrically opposed to the vagueness of much of Debussy, but here it should surely have been lain to rest. One could luxuriate in the piano and orchestral harmonies without a hint of indulgence; once again, command of structure was absolute. The same implacability and strength of rhythm characterised the second of the concerto’s two movements. We heard warm, yet sharply-etched, ‘Chinese’ character, recalling Ma mère l’oye, followed by mesmerising, Lisztian solo figuration, prior to the inexorability of the climax. Daphnis et Chloé met the blues.

Aimard then treated the clamorous audience to an encore: the five Boulez Notations in their original, non-extended piano guise. The orchestral versions stand alone but it was fascinating to hear their progenitors and, of course, a treat to hear them in such dazzling performances. Here the single-mindedness of the young Boulez, born of Webern’s concision, yet already straining at the bounds, sounded explosively beguiling. Where Webern, even in his questing late works, generally seems content to say what he has to say, Boulez (‘like a lion that has been flayed alive’ – Messiaen) is restless, his work never completed. I have never heard the piano Notations register with quite such éclat as here. If only we could have heard all twelve...

But there was equally dazzling success to be heard in the account from Boulez and the BPO. The first piece’s sonority resembled magnified Ravel, at least in the context of this programme. It seemed to me what Boulez has said about the ever-expanding implications and limits of serial technique might be applied to orchestral colour too. Nevertheless, there was a relative restraint, especially when considered in relation to some of the subsequent movements. The seventh, placed second, was beguiling, languorous, luxuriant: had a hint of Messiaen made its way into work and performance? In the expansiveness of this reading, this was unquestionably ‘late’ Boulez, redolent of the magic of sur Incises. In the fourth Notation, the orchestration was made to sound – as it is – worthy of, if unrecognisable to, Ravel. The Berlin percussion truly had a chance, superlatively taken, to shine here. Number three made me realise how Boulez, having once written for his own instrument, the piano, was now writing for his own instrument, the orchestra, the transformation owed to decades of conducting experience. The writing sounded almost hyper-Romantic – that magnification and expansion of possibilities again – which is not at all the same thing as the easy solution of neo-Romanticism. Finally, came the second Notation, a riot of precision. Every section of this great orchestra was tested and passed with flying colours. If there was perhaps not quite the abandon of Boulez’s LSO performance last year, it was a close run thing. As has become his practice, this final piece was encored.

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Royal Opera, 4 July 2009

Royal Opera House

Figaro – Pietro Spagnoli
Rosina – Joyce DiDonato
Count Almaviva – Juan Diego Flórez
Doctor Bartolo – Alessandro Corbelli
Don Basilio – Ferruccio Furlanetto
Fiorello – Changhan Lim
Berta – Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Officer – Christopher Lackner
Ambrogio – Bryan Secombe
Notary – Andrew Macnair

Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser (directors)
Christian Fenouillat (designs)
Agostino Cavalca (costumes)
Christophe Forey (lighting)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera House Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

This was the best performance I have heard from Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House, or indeed anywhere else. I cannot bring myself to be wildly excited by nineteenth-century Italian opera – clearly unlike most of the audience – but this is clearly his thing and he would be well advised to concentrate upon this repertoire. Wagner, Beethoven, and Berg are avowedly not and he would be equally well advised to steer clear of them. The orchestra was on colourful, sprightly form, right from the beginning of the overture, and there was a clear sense of structure throughout. (How very unlike this conductor’s Wagner!) Whatever Rossini’s musical and dramatic limitations, his command of musical form, albeit in a somewhat old-fashioned way, is always apparent, a clear contrast with, for instance, Verdi. There are no depths to be plumbed here but there is a musical story to be old – and told it was.

Moreover, Pappano was extremely fortunate in his cast, which could scarcely have been bettered. Joyce DiDonato proved a heroine in more than one sense. Injuring her leg at some point during the first act, she insisted upon carrying on, despite her pain – and her crutches. Singing of cramp in her foot caused much amusement all round. None of this, however, affected her pinpoint coloratura accuracy, nor as expressive a delivery as Rossini’s style allows: far better to be slightly distanced, which she was not, than to approach the mawkishness of the composer’s dubious successors. Juan Diego Flórez was equally astonishing in his despatch of the technically fiendish demands his part presents. He also showed himself to be a fine comic actor, never seeking the limelight, in spite of a disruptive audience reaction that owed more to the football stadium than to dramatic appreciation. Florez’s voice is not large but he marshals it extraordinarily well. I fell to wondering whether it might be heard to advantage in more satisfying repertoire. Perhaps certain, but only certain, Mozart roles? In any case, the question would appear redundant, since he seems quite happy to devote himself to Rossini and Donizetti.

Pietro Spagnoli substituted for Simon Keenlyside. This Figaro had plenty of stage presence and a good command of musical character too. If not so dominant as might sometimes be the case, this was owed to the strength of ensemble rather than to any deficiency on Spagnoli’s part. Speaking of ensemble, there was at least as much joy to be had from Alessandro Corbelli’s Bartolo and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Basilio as anyone else. Their native command of Italian paid great dividends, in terms of the natural, unaffected quality of their comedy and verbal response. Jennifer Rhys-Davies proved an equally characterful, indeed rather lovable, Berta, although it seemed a pity that she was made to play her aria for laughs, when a degree of poignancy would have seemed more fitting. The Royal Opera Chorus was on excellent form too.

I could not warm to Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production, any more than I had the first time around. This, I suspect, is largely because it tries so very hard to be ‘heartwarming’, rather like those dreadful ‘romantic comedies’ that so plague modern British cinema, or, perhaps worse still, the Roberto Benigni film, La vita è bella. The latter’s treatment of its subject matter seems to me to border on the offensive. There is nothing by which to be offended here, but the bright, primary colours, the designs that resemble boxes of sweets and their contents, and the general tone of whimsy: for some of us grumpier souls, it is perhaps all a bit much. More seriously, Rossini’s formalism, the alienating quality his characters might be persuaded to take on, is shunned in favour of crowd-pleasing sentimentalism. Still, the musical performances were without exception of a very high standard.

Thursday 2 July 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Royal College of Music, 1 July 2009

(Images copyright: Chris Christodoulou)

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Oberon – Christopher Lowrey
Tytania – Colette Boushell
Puck – Luke Williams
Lysander – John McMunn
Demetrius – Philip Tebb
Hermia – Anna Huntley
Helena – Madeleine Pierard
Bottom – Jimmy Holiday
Quince – Ross McInroy
Flute – Alistair Digges
Snug – David Milner Pearce
Snout – Alex Vearey Roberts
Starveling – Alex Duliba
Hippolyta – Rosie Aldridge
Theseus – David Hansford
Peaseblossom – Ben Richardson
Cobweb – Crispin Lord
Moth – Christopher O’Brien
Mustardseed – Joe Brandon
Indian Boy – James Dugan

Ian Judge (director)
Mark Doubleday (lighting)

Trinity Boys Choir
Royal College of Music Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

I am no paid-up – or even subscription-lapsed – member of the Benjamin Britten fan club, having often, heretically, admired him more as a pianist and conductor than as a composer, and at least as often often suspected that his near-stratospheric critical esteem in this country is owed as much to his nationality as to anything else. (The English, stung by the dearth of anything worth listening to between Purcell and Elgar, seem especially prone to such strange nationalism. ‘We’ have plenty of great music, just not from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.) Peter Grimes, for instance, has always struck me as far better in terms of its plot than its music, though The Turn of the Screw is a considerably finer work in both respects. Yet, fresh from Garsington’s vapid if enjoyable Mirandolina (Martinů), I realised once again that, in the theatre and in a winning performance, the sceptic in me could be quietened. So long as absurd claims are not made for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it emerges – and certainly emerged at the Royal College of Music – as a more substantial work than many that continue to hold the operatic stage.

Ian Judge has directed a great deal of Shakespeare, both for the Royal Shakespeare Company and elsewhere. His experience shows in his familiarity with the text – and also in alertness to its necessary shortening. (Britten and Peter Pears themselves fashioned the libretto.) The stage is formed by a black disc, whose lighting (Mark Doubleday) indicates the world in which the action is taking place. The moon is nearer, or at any rate larger, when we are purely in the realm of the fairies, more distant for the human world. The costumes and acting – here again Judge’s directorial experience shows – indicate that the fairies are far from a pretty, benign presence. There is at least a twist of nastiness to their punk Elizabethan look, quite apposite since Shakespeare and Britten make it abundantly clear that their mischief is far from merely amusing; lives could be wrecked here – and almost are. The composer is not so backward-looking as some of his less helpful advocates would have him, and it is to Judge’s and the musicians’ credit that they both appreciate and project that. After all, mind-altering - and rather more than mind-altering in the case of Bottom – substances are being forced upon the characters.

There were a few occasions when the relatively small size of the Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra was apparent, but for the most part it sounded well suited to the acoustic, swelling to a glorious sound in the mock-Romantic music and exhibiting a due sense of the unsettled to other passages. Michael Rosewell has long been an advocate of Britten’s music. There was never any doubt that the score was in safe hands here; indeed, forgetting about hands, it was clearly in his head rather than vice versa. Britten’s music tends to sound strongest when it is – and sounds – most ‘constructed’. Rosewell and his players helped one to appreciate the generative quality of the twelve-note writing – again, the more conservative Britten devotees would surely be horrified to be made aware of this – without neglecting or unduly opposing the magic in the rest of the score. If I became a little tired of certain aspects of the latter – does the composer really need to use the harp quite so often? – then that is no fault of the performance. And the contribution from the Trinity Boys Choir, which has given more than 150 performances of this work, was as excellent as one might have expected from such a figure. The treble voice, both solo and choral, is of great importance to Britten; these young musicians did not fail him. They were rather good actors too, not least in terms of their movement skills.

There was a fine sense of ensemble from the rest of the cast, for which honours should doubtless be shared between them, the director, and the conductor. Not all contributions were at the same level, but none was truly disappointed, which is more than one can often say for professional houses. Christopher Lowrey as Oberon reminded us that a counter-tenor need not sound merely fey; the voice, as various composers from Britten, to Goehr, to Birtwistle, have shown, can exhibit an otherworldly strength, as it did here. Luke Williams was the punkest of the fairies as Puck. Normally a baritone, here he was given full rein to display his spoken acting abilities; I am not sure one would have guessed that he is primarily a singer. John McMunn and Madeleine Pierard were the strongest of the lovers, as Lysander and Helena respectively, although Philip Tebb’s Demetrius was probably more strongly acted. Jimmy Holliday’s Bottom was a splendid parody of the over-bearing members of an amateur dramatics society, with the other Rustics working well together. If Alistair Digges’s Flute had seemed a little too light earlier on, the third act play of Pyramus and Thisby signalled a considerably stronger performance, the humour proving quite contagious amongst his colleagues. I was not sure why Alex Duliba’s Starveling was required to carry a (real) dog wherever he went, but it did no particular harm. Rosie Aldridge’s duly regal Hippolyta made one wish her part were more extensive, whilst David Hansford, who had stepped in ‘at exceptionally late notice’ as Theseus, would doubtless have made a surer impression in more propitious circumstances. Diction was not always what it might have been, especially, though not exclusively, from Pierard and Anna Huntley’s Hermia. This is clearly something on which the young cast should work, since the problem would be magnified in a larger theatre than this. Nevertheless, the cast should be applauded for a high quality of performance throughout – and not just, or sometimes even primarily, in vocal terms.