Wednesday 23 June 2010

Billy Budd, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 22 June 2010

Glyndebourne Opera House

Captain Vere – John Mark Ainsley
Billy Budd – Jacques Imbrailo
Claggart – Paul Whelan
Mr Redburn – Iain Paterson
Mr Flint – Matthew Rose
Lieutenant Ratcliffe – Darren Jeffery
Red Whiskers – Alasdair Elliott
Donald – John Moore
Dansker – Jeremy White
The Novice – Ben Johnson
Squeak – Colin Judson
Bosun – Richard Mosley-Evans

Michael Grandage (director)
Christopher Oram (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Tom Roden (movement)

Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

Glyndebourne’s first Billy Budd must be accounted a resounding success. (I have one principal reservation, which I shall leave to the end, but it is hardly the fault of Glyndebourne.) First and foremost are the extraordinary contributions of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Mark Elder. I have heard the LPO on good form many times, but never more so than here. The Glyndebourne acoustic doubtless helped, but even so, richness and roundness of tone from the pit were first class. Woodwind solos, chattering or plangent, were superbly taken, whilst the deeply expressive cellos would have fitted right in to a top Continental string section. Elder’s command of the score never faltered, guiding light through the fog and chief dramatist at the climaxes. The broad sweep never eclipsed smaller detail, that ‘conflict of thirds’ (Arnold Whittall) from which the ‘Rights o’Man’ motif evolves properly at the centre of so much of the action, properly haunting, and properly generative. Echoes of Berg were stronger than I recall hearing previously too: not just Wozzeck but Lulu too. The Glyndebourne Chorus was on equally exceptional form; it is some time since I have heard such accomplished singing, full of body yet never fuzzy, in the opera house. The two principal London companies should look to their laurels.

Solo singing was of a high standard too. Paul Whelan, understudy to Phillip Ens, had nothing to fear from any comparisons he might have courted, for his Claggart was a more subtle interpretation than the part might have had right to expect. Musically and dramatically detailed, his interpretation truly made the words tell.  There was no stronger portrayal on stage. Jacques Imbrailo’s Billy was less bright-eyed than that of Simon Keenlyside for ENO, and certainly less acrobatic. There was, though, at least some of the time, a strong sense that this might be a plausible character: not an easy thing to accomplish. He can act – and he did; he can also sing handsomely – and he did. John Mark Ainsley probed the ambivalence of Vere, properly Pilate-like, for better or worse. There were moments in the second act when his tuning wandered, but he regained focus. Standing out amongst the other men were Jeremy White’s loyal, generous-hearted Dansker and Ben Johnson’s credibly-led Novice, once spirited, now broken.

Michael Grandage’s production takes the work pretty much at face value. It takes place on a ship at the appointed time. One can tell what is happening and why, without the distraction of production ‘features’ that fail to cohere. Christopher Oram’s set is mightily impressive, again doing just what is supposed to do and perhaps a little more besides. Paule Constable’s lighting was evocative indeed. I cannot say that any especial insight struck me from the production, but nor did anything irritate. The lack of eroticism, however, was surprising, to say the least. One has only to follow the words, let alone the music, to discern it, but little was on visual display. Had this been subordinated to another angle, I could have understood; as it was, I was left wondering: why so coy? We are not in the 1950s now, thank God.

So most, if not quite all, was well and good. And yet… There remains the problem of the work itself. Even when granted so strong a performance as this, the dramatic cracks cannot quite be papered over. Motivation remains abrupt, even at times obscure, unless it is all really about something else. And if it is, can we not bring that out at least a little more strongly? We need to know more about Claggart if he is to become interesting, or at least plausible. Do men really hero-worship their captain as these men do? If so, why? What I really cannot stomach is the heavy-handedness of the Christian symbolism, quite incompatible in form and content with what otherwise seem to be the libretto’s concerns. Vere’s Pilate act is bad enough, but the Christ of Billy Budd? It borders uninterestingly upon the blasphemous. As for the reference to the peace that passes understanding, the reference perhaps surpasses anything in The Rape of Lucretia.The constant references to goodness and beauty are little more than creepy. Ultimately, Britten’s music is stronger than Forster’s libretto deserves, yet does not emerge untainted.

Pollini/LSO/Eötvös - Bach/Webern, Lachenmann, and Brahms, 20 June 2010

Barbican Hall

Bach-Webern – Fuga (Ricercata) a 6 voci, from Musical Offering, BWV 1079
Lachenmann – Double (Grido)
Brahms - Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.15

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Peter Eötvös (conductor)

I have attended surprisingly few orchestral concerts recently, Moreover, it is more than five months since I had heard a London Symphony Orchestra concert – and that an opera, Elektra, in concert performance. A little break is as nothing, however, compared to the fortunes of Helmut Lachenmann on these shores. I was genuinely surprised to read in the programme that, save for performances from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, this was the first Lachenmann performance from a British symphony orchestra. We are not considering a minor figure, but someone comparable, say, to Hans Werner Henze or Wolfgang Rihm, and more consistent in focus than either. (That is not to make a claim of superiority or otherwise, but simply to make a distinction.) One may or may not like Lachenmann’s music, but, even if for curiosity’s sake, it deserves attention such as it regularly receives on the Continent. Many thanks then are due to the LSO, and to Maurizio Pollini, who commissioned this expansion of the original Grido, Lachenmann’s 2003 third string quartet, into its 2004 Double for forty-eight-strong string orchestra. Pollini’s was the guiding inspiration behind the programme; it is sobering to wonder how long we might have waited for a Lachenmann performance, had it not been for his advocacy, born in part from a shared friendship (and, in Lachenmann’s case, teacher-pupil relationship) with Luigi Nono.

From the very outset, this was an experience, both work and performance of great intensity: eruptions, swarming, whispering, the sounds in some initial respects not unlike Xenakis’s Pithoprakta or Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an diotima, though with extended techniques and a formal strategy that are Lachenmann’s own. The extended techniques are just that: integrated extensions of a typical string sound, sometimes evocative of electronics, never superimposed, with the consequence that the work has more of a ‘traditional’ string orchestra sonority than one might have expected. Equally important – another sign of kinship with Nono, and beyond him Webern – is the defining quality of certain intervallic relationships. Such was the clarity with which the LSO under Peter Eötvös presented them that one would not have needed to define them in words – a major third, for instance – to perceive their import. Likewise the quarter-tone slides or indeed the progressive augmentation of pulse towards the end. There is a narrative, or one create a narrative, even if this is no sense programme music, and that greater sense of form, of progression, was readily perceptible to all. My immediate response was to wish to hear the work again.

Opening the concert we had heard Webern’s ravishing recomposition of the Ricercare from the Musical Offering: typically perceptive programming from Pollini, preparing us both for a mode of listening that pays due heed to intervallic relationships and for the contrapuntal complexities that so delight Bach, Webern, Lachenmann – and, as we should shortly hear, Brahms too. Eötvös ensured a wonderfully Romantic sound from the LSO, the strings expressively though never excessively laden with vibrato. Perhaps the falling away of phrases coincided a little too obviously with slowing of tempo, especially towards the end, but if a failing this were, it was a failing in the right direction, preferable to rigidity of tempo.

The second half saw Pollini join the orchestra for Brahms’s first piano concerto. His contribution was simply outstanding, likewise that of the LSO, the relative drawback being Eötvös’s side of the partnership, which rarely sounded quite on the same level. His contribution opened promisingly, the orchestral introduction sounding with great weight and commendable flexibility, but there were soon hints and more than that of a tendency to drive too hard. The first movement is marked Maestoso after all – and that summarises its character with Brahmsian succinctness. Flexibility would continue to intervene, creditable in itself, but sometimes with more convincing motivation than on other occasions. Pollini, meanwhile, revelled in the complexity of the piano writing, rendering every line expressively meaningful. On the technical side, his command of those fearsome double trills was awe inspiring, but musical meaning always remained paramount. Despite reservations concerning some of the conductor’s contribution, I was taken with the Hungarian lilt he imparted to some of the orchestral passages. The closing pages were most impressive from all, David Pyatt’s forlorn horn calls ushering in desolation from the piano, followed by defiance from all concerned.

Brahms’s presentiments of Ein deutsches Requiem were heard to full, moving effect in the slow movement, the relationship with Schoenbergian complexity and sonority in the piano writing properly dialectical, both inciting the other. The LSO woodwind gave a nice sense of Classical Harmoniemusik transformed: a world both vanished and yet present. The prescient instability of harmony and motivic development was powerfully voiced by the pianist, placing us somewhere between the St Matthew Passion and the Book of the Hanging Gardens. As Pollini was quoted in the programme notes:

The complexity in music makes the intensity. Think of the really complex pieces in the history of music – Bach’s Art of Fugue, the Prolation Mass by Ockeghem [which Webern knew so well], Beethoven’s Great Fugue, Boulez’s Second Sonata. There is enormous emotion in this music! The complexity does not go against the emotion, they go together in the most magical way…’

That, throughout this programme, was precisely what one heard. (May we hope for a Pollini Art of Fugue?)

Wisely, Pollini took the finale attacca, pre-empting all but a single cleverly-placed cough, though others and some shuffling followed. The piano outpouring was torrential, Bachian, playfully counterpoised with a Magyar sensibility that Eötvös once again winningly conveyed. Though the orchestral direction was not always at the same level as its execution, the string fugato was very well handled, casting a glance back (forward?) to Lachenmann, but also to Beethovenian purpose. Pollini’s voicing of the cadenza brought reminiscences of Mozart’s D minor concerto (and Beethoven’s cadenza thereto), and with enormous effort helped us finally to exorcise the driving daemon that possessed Brahms in this titanic work. As the horns led us into the playful conclusion, we knew that the battle had finally been won. Complexity had triumphed, rendered straightforward in its victory.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Quatuor Ebène - Mozart and Bartók, Wigmore Hall, 20 June 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – Divertimento for string quartet in D major, KV 136/125a
Bartók – String Quartet no.2, op.17

Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins)
Mathieu Herzog (viola)
Raphaël Merlin (violoncello)

What a pleasure it was to welcome back the Quatuor Ebène to the Wigmore Hall. This Sunday morning ‘coffee concert’ proved every inch the equal in quality to a full-scale evening performance. First came Mozart: KV 136/125a. What’s in a name? Sometimes everything, sometimes not so much. I am not sure one should read too much into the programme leaflet’s description of a divertimento as opposed to a string quartet: this D major work can be called either and I hedged my bets above by following another possibility, ‘divertimento for string quartet’. At any rate, the Ebènes gave a performance utterly without condescension, fully worthy of the elevated title ‘string quartet’, whilst also paying homage – as, after all, does so much mature Mozart – to the divertimento tradition. The opening Allegro was full of life, nicely shaded, with some truly beautiful soft playing. There was mystery in the minor mode and pizzicati of the development section and throughout a properly vocal treatment of phrasing. The richly expansive Andante captured perfectly the balance between stillness and motion, achieving both and elevating both to a higher level. Again, the players’ dynamic shading was near miraculous, without the slightest hint of fussiness. And yes, there was that vital – in more than one – sense of the outdoor serenade. Finally came the Haydnesque Presto: helter-skelter yet with poise retained. Above all, it was fun.

From a wonderful early work to an acknowledged masterpiece: Bartók’s second quartet. I was struck immediately by a certain French – or at least Franco-Flemish – quality to the string playing. This later showed itself to be not merely a matter of house style, but also, perhaps more so, a particular characterisation of the first movement. Echoes or pre-echoes of Debussy, Ravel, perhaps even Prokofiev – and not necessarily in their string quartet writing – drew us into a harmonic world that suggested the exploratory cosmopolitanism of Bartók’s Four Orchestral Pieces, op.12. Also striking from the outset was the marriage, indeed mutual incitement, of unanimity and individual voice, both of which developed according to the music’s dictates. The intensity of climaxes and would-be climaxes in this opening Andante brought out kinship with the Second Viennese School, again reminding one of the op.12 pieces. Moreover, and I almost wish I could find something negative to say but cannot, there was a well nigh perfect relationship between motivic integrity and overall structure. Each contributed to the other. Raphaël Merlin’s cello tone more than once brought Pierre Fournier to mind: suave, understated even, but there was no denying the power of the bass line where necessary.

The second movement immediately announced a different ‘character’. Magyar urgency and irregularity dramatised within a framework of absolute, yet never clinical, rhythmic precision. Crucially, the music sang. Wildness within overall structure once again ensured that each contributed to the other: a quintessentially modernist dialectic. The frozen viol-like opening of the final Lento truly took one’s breath away, likewise the gradual thaw. An especially impressive passage heard sorrow from Pierre Colombet’s plangent first violin, intensified by Gabriel Le Magadure’s second violin response, still further by Colombet in his response, whereupon Mathieu Herzog’s viola and Merlin’s cello could also join the throng: the magical effect of a celestial choir swelling, but behind it a great deal of consideration as to how every phrase should sound and contribute to the whole. Quiet intensity was every bit as expressive as its more obviously passionate counterpart. This was a memorable performance indeed.

Saturday 19 June 2010

Idomeneo, English National Opera, 18 June 2010

The Coliseum

(sung in English)

Idomeneo – Paul Nilon
Idamante – Robert Murray
Elettra – Emma Bell
Ilia – Sarah Tynan
Arbace – Adam Green
Voice of Neptune – Pauls Putninš
Choral soloists – Claire Mitcher, Lydia Marchione, Michelle Daly, David Newman, Michael Selby

Katie Mitchell (director)
Vicki Mortimer (set and costume designs)
Alex Eales (set designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Fifty Nine Productions (video)
Joseph Alford (movement)

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

This was only my second Idomeneo in the theatre, the first having been in Mozartjahr 2006, when I resolved that somehow, somewhere, I must hear this great work in the flesh. Frustrated by a substitution of conductor in the Salzburg Festival’s survey of the entire operatic œuvre that summer – there was no way that my first or indeed any Idomeneo was going to come from the baton of a certain, notorious vibrato-hating fanatic – I saw it in Vienna instead, the State Opera decamping to the Theater an der Wien. It was, of course, a joy simply to experience the work, but, despite the incalculable advantage of the Mozart orchestra in the pit, neither Willy Decker’s production nor Bertrand de Billy’s typically anonymous musical direction made the impression for which I had hoped. Moreover, the score was cut in a way that almost recalled the disadvantages of the old days without the musical compensation they might have offered. (Strauss’s reworking is an extraordinary thing, but one can hardly expect its revival to be an everyday occurrence, nor one would one necessarily wish it to be.) It was, therefore, with excitement that I noted a new production from the English National Opera: about time, and another repertoire object lesson to Covent Garden.

If only, then, production and performance had begun to live up to the hopes invested. The orchestra was undoubtedly the best, indeed pretty much the only good, aspect to the evening’s events. There were odd slips here and there, especially from suspiciously ‘natural’-sounding trumpets. (I cannot always tell whether they are just acting under perverse instructions to sound like that, or whether they actually are old instruments.) But the woodwind more than compensated, producing some delectable sounds, elegant in their phrasing. The strings were clearly acting under low- though thankfully not no-vibrato orders, but at least they rarely whined. Phrasing under Edward Gardner could be short-breathed, drawing attention to itself. He also seemed to act according to the widely-held delusion that dramatic urgency equates to fast tempi, but I have heard worse, and he was capable of flexibility. But having heard Sir Colin Davis conduct Figaro so recently, I could not but reflect upon the lack of natural ease and, grossly unfair though the comparison may be, the wisdom born of a lifetime’s experience with Mozart’s music, the most difficult music of all.

What of the singers? Paul Nilon was disappointing in the title role, utterly devoid of charisma – partly the production’s fault, no doubt, but even so – and often struggling with vocal projection and tuning. He struggled, to put it mildly, with the coloratura of the more difficult version of ‘Fuor del mar,’ or whatever it was called in English. This is a role that has been sung with great success by the likes of Pavarotti and Domingo, or, from a quite different tradition, Richard Lewis. (Pavarotti, singing Idamante, learned a great deal from Lewis at Glyndebourne.) A more modest contribution was perhaps more or less inevitable, but one needed more than this. A tenor was favoured as Idamante, in this case Robert Murray. He had some sweet-toned moments but again lacked stage presence. Much the same could be said of Sarah Tynan’s Ilia. Emma Bell certainly did possess stage presence as Elettra, but her intonation was too often awry. It is a treacherous role, of course, and one cannot expect always to hear the likes of Edita Gruberová, but it would be nice to hear more of the notes Mozart wrote. One can do without Arbace’s arias and the concluding ballet, but it is indicative of the standard of his performance that Adam Green, denied his arias, emerged on the basis of skilful handling of recitative as the strongest singer; it would have been good to have heard more from him.

The chorus improved as time went on, pretty rough during the first act but more settled thereafter. However, it never really assumed the Gluckian status that it ought. It did not help that the work was not only sung in English but in a truly dreadful translation, whose banality at times beggared belief. Even the best translation would doubtless sound wrong. However, to take a random example, ‘God of Love, send us your blessing,’ not only fails to translate ‘Scenda Amor, scenda Imeneo’; it ends up sounding like the text for an evangelical guitar-strumming session – many miles and years from Idomeneo’s Crete… It was strange to hear mention of Poseidon rather than Neptune, stranger still to hear in passing of other mythological figures, who could not have stood more distant – and not in a productive, alienating sense – from the airport lounge action on stage. Indeed, updated reference to Unite and volcanic ash might have jarred slightly less.

Which brings me more properly to Katie Mitchell’s production. Mitchell seems at her best when indulging her meta-theatrical bent, as recently in ENO’s own After Dido and the Salzburg Festival’s Al gran sole carico d’amore. In what, updating aside, is essentially a conventional presentation, she seems to have no ideas at all about the work, nor even the slightest sympathy with it. Much of the action takes place in what seemed to be a modern hotel, first off with irritating video projection of waves behind. (Video can sometimes add something; far too often it does not.) Clichés of operatic production a good twenty or thirty years out of date abound, not least the constant intervention of ‘extras’ pouring drinks. Supposedly in the corridors of power, this latter facet is taken to such an irritating extreme as to suggest that we are at a convention for non-recovering alcoholics. Perhaps I was being unfair, I thought, but then, lo and behold, the point appears to be made that Elettra’s madness was the product of having had too much to drink. Couples – who on earth were they? – danced and swapped partners whilst Idamante and Ilia sang their second-act duet: distracting and incomprehensible. Baffling from the point of view of the production, let alone the work, was the laugher provoked almost whenever Elettra came onto the stage – and not just when drunk. Carry on Crete: it is a point of view, though I fail to see its merits. Maybe its proponents find Das Lied von der Erde a laugh a minute too.

At least Calixto Bieito might have made something raunchy out of the arbitrary transformation of Elettra’s second act aria into a moment of ever-so-mild foot-fetishistic madness. Here it was merely embarrassing: in keeping with the Luton Airport theme, I suppose. There is, needless to say, no sense whatsoever that she might be a member of the House of Atreus until, clumsily, she is plonked into a first-class departures lounge at the airport, whilst her intended is for the most part banished to the ranks of the unwashed: odd, given that his father is king on the island. Even odder that Elettra too should have to leave her private quarters so that the cleaners can set to work. Utterly lacking is any other sense of hierarchy. The whole point of Idomeneo’s sacrificial dilemma – should he act as king or as father? – goes for naught. He is just some bloke in an ill-tailored suit. For some reason, or more likely none, at the beginning of the third act, Ilia turns biology lecturer, delivering her lines in front of a projector displaying floral photographs. Admittedly, her aria is supposed to take place in the royal gardens, and she sings, or at least should, of gently caressing zephyrs, but the only point here seems to be to give the video production team something more to do.

Idomeneo has never been a lucky work. Perhaps it is simply too rare, too magnificent, too dignified, too fragile for this world. It deserves and could surely receive better than this though. I shall have to hope that, for me, it will be a case of third time lucky.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Shad Thames by night

Since there will have been a little break between my most recent review and the next (Idomeneo at the English National Opera, performance on 18th), here is something to fill the gap, a picture of the Thames taken on my walk home tonight:

And here is a picture of the road Shad Thames itself:

Many of the buildings around here (converted warehouses) are named after the spices they used to contain:

This Thames Water station has a rather splendid door:

Friday 11 June 2010

Watts/Maltman/Vignoles - Strauss Lieder, 9 June 2010

Wigmore Hall

Das Rosenband, op.36 no.1
Rote Rosen, op.31 no.1
Blauer Sommer
Five Songs, op.15
Leises Lied, op.39 no.1
Am Ufer, op.41 no.3
Wiegenlied, op.41 no.1
Lied an meinen Sohn, op.39 no.5

Krämerspiegel, op.66: four songs
Des Dichters Abendgang, op.47 no.2
Einerlei, op.69 no.3
Gefunden, op.56 no.1
Das Lied des Steinklopfers, op.49 no.4
Schlechtes Wetter, op.69 no.5

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Roger Vignoles (piano)

A singular, though by no means the sole, virtue to this recital was the programming, for which I assume credit should be assigned to Roger Vignoles. The opportunity to hear such a fine selection of Strauss Lieder is far rarer than it should be. Quite why, I cannot understand, for every Straussian I know – and quite a few decided non- and even anti-Straussians – would aver that nowhere is the composer greater than in his songs. Indeed, a composer of rare discernment expressed the view to me a while ago that, whilst he would not especially mind never hearing a Strauss opera again, the songs were a different matter entirely, so perfect were many of them. (And no, I have not the slightest intention of divulging the composer’s identity.) Whilst I can appreciate and understand the sentiment, I cannot quite bring myself to share it, but then I have long been unhealthily drawn to the myriad of awkward questions thrown up by Strauss’s musical dramas. Nevertheless, a selection of Lieder such as this would be as powerful an incentive to jump ship as I can imagine. Not only thoughtfully selected, but intelligently apportioned between soprano and baritone, these songs ensured that one left the hall wishing for more, which is just as it should be. If only, though, we could have heard the entire cycle, rather than a mere four songs from Krämerspiegel

Key to the recital’s success was the consistent quality of Vignoles’s contribution at the piano. An enduring disappointment for pianists is the lack of any mature contributions from Strauss to their repertoire. (A few early pieces are worth hearing now and then, but I could not honestly plead their case more strongly than that.) Yet if they turn their attention to the world of Lieder, things look very different, unsparing though Strauss can be in his demands upon the pianist. Sometimes those demands are positively orchestral, yet rarely, at least in a fine performance, are they impossible to fulfil. Vignoles resourcefully conveyed a sense of inebriation to the second song, Blauer Sommer, whose whole world full of roses prepared us nicely for the Rote Rosen of its successor. And he whipped up quite a storm in Winternacht and the last of the four Richard Dehmel settings, Lied an meinen Sohn, though here the almost absurd demands from the composer were not always surmounted. They were, however, preceded by Mendelssohnian deftness of touch in the ravishing Wiegenlied. It is interesting to note the difference in musical language announced by some of the Dehmel settings: now inevitably associated in many of our minds with Schoenberg, his verse elicited a surprisingly Schoenbergian, perhaps even Debusssyan, response in the harmony of Leises Lied.

Vignoles captured equally well the combination of Lisztian fantasy and evening glow in Des Dichters Abendgang. Moreover, the Viennese waltz charm heard in the Krämerspiegel songs was spot on, nowhere more so than in the Rosenkavalier reminiscences of Einst kam der Bock als Bote. (We also heard, before that, Es war einmal ein Bock, and after it, Es liebte einst ein Hase and O Schöpferschwarm, O Händlerkreis.) The opening lines, indeed are ‘Einst kam der Bock als Bote/Zum Rosenkavalier an’s Haus,’ and there is a subsequent sly reference to ‘Der Strauss sticht seine Dornen schnell.’ The thorns of this Strauss/bush prick both with elegance and eloquence – how typical of the composer – the skin of publishers now as then. And the presentiment of the Mondscheinmusik from Capriccio, with which O Schöpferschwarm closes, brought tears to my eyes: the supreme riposte to the bloodsucking shopkeepers of the title.

What of the voices? Elizabeth Watts was a late replacement for Dorothea Röschmann. She took a little while to settle, the words of the opening Der Rosenband differing more than once from those Klopstock wrote and Strauss set. Yet, by the end of her first group, the sense of excitement and skittishness in Begegnung was readily and winningly conveyed. Unevenness in the vocal line was cruelly exposed in Wiegenlied, likewise a few intonational difficulties in Es war einmal ein Bock. Nevertheless, the hint of cabaret in Watts’s delivery keenly pointed up the satire of the latter, and by the third Krämerspiegel setting, Es liebte ein Hase, there was a considerable soprano presence indeed. (And how can one resist the play on words: ‘Sein Breitkopf hart und härter war,’ Breitkopf und Härtel lampooned through a hare, a lover of unctuous phrases, whose fat head, Breitkopf, became more and more wooden?) The final Rosenkavalier hurrah of cake-baking in the Heine setting, Schlechtes Wetter, was skilfully, elegantly presented.

Christopher Maltman brought typically burnished tone to his contributions. Schubertian echoes were to be heard in the Michelangelo Madrigal from the op.15 songs, and again in the Dehmel Am Ufer, Wagner too. Richness and sincerity of tone were a hallmark of Maltman’s performance, combining to especially powerful effect in Lob des Leidens, another of the op.15 set, not least on account of both musicians’ expert shaping of Strauss’s climaxes. Life shone through anger in its successor, Aus den Liedern der Trauer, likewise in the bitterness of the penultimate Das Lied des Steinklopfers, surely as close to the Berg of Wozzeck as Strauss ever came – far more so than in the merely apparent similarities of Elektra. Here the insistence of genuine anger – the poor wretch who has yet to eat today, breaking stones for the Fatherland – truly chilled. Here as elsewhere, the supreme clarity of Maltman’s diction should be noted, and not only were his words clear, they always meant something. The mezza voce employed in Gefunden had a magic all of its own, however, transcending mere words in a fashion that would equally delight the listener and annoy the poet. So much the worse for Goethe, and so much the better for us.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Carmen, Royal Opera, 5 June 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Moralés – Dawid Kimberg
Micaëla – Maija Kovalevska
Don José – Bryan Hymel
Zuniga – Nicolas Courjal
Carmen – Christine Rice
Frasquita – Elena Xanthoudakis
Mercédés – Paula Murrihy
Lillas Pastia – Caroline Lena Olsson
Escamillo – Aris Argiris
Le Dancaïre – Adrian Clarke
Le Remendado – Harry Nicoll
Guide – Anthony de Baeck

Francesca Zambello (director)
Duncan Macfarland (revival director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Arthur Pita (choreography)
Mike Loades (fight director)
Natalie Dakin (revival fight director)

Actors, Dancers
Members of Trinity Boys’ Choir and Trinity School, Croydon (director: David Swinson)
Members of Tiffin Girls’ School Choir (choirmaster: Simon Ferris)
Royal Opera Chorus and extra chorus (chorus director: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

I wish I could dislike Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen as much in practice as I do in theory. Zambello’s West-End spectacular approach relies upon a naturalism that might even give the stage directors of Shaftesbury Avenue pause for thought. It in no way seems to have moved on from what I saw at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin last year – except that was a 1979 production, hurriedly revived when a new director fell ill. There are manifold irritations: the ‘picturesque’ urchins, the horse and donkey, and worst of all, the grotesque Madonna wheeled on for a priest to bless Escamillo and Carmen before the bull-fight. (Zambello seems to have a thing about Madonna figures, as witnessed by her Covent Garden Don Giovanni, in which the religious imagery had more of a rightful place, though it was a far worse production.) And yet, in a way, it all works. There are no revelations; there is no discernible concept at work. One is nevertheless grateful for the lack of perversity and for relative lack of impediments to the characters’ expressing themselves. Intimacy is lost – and that is a serious thing for Carmen, an opéra comique, not a grand opera. If Zambello were a composer, she would surely be Meyerbeer. But Meyerbeer had a certain sense of theatre and there are times when one might prefer to listen to the best of Les Huguenots to certain other, far-from-neglected swathes of the operatic repertoire. Duncan Macfarland certainly does his best as revival director to make it all work and to ensure as much interaction between the characters as the too-grand staging will permit. It will probably look impressive in a straightforward sort of way on the big screen.

Vocally, we had a mixed bag. Bryan Hymel struggled for much of the time as Don José. At his most cruelly exposed during the arias, he picked up somewhat for the final scene. When I saw this production before, the role was taken by Jonas Kaufmann: a more than usually odious comparison. Likewise for Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s smouldering, chocolate-toned Escamillo and the present run’s Aris Argiris. Argiris can be forgiven, though, for lacking the sheer charisma of such an operatic star. All in all, he showed considerable promise, though he seemed to tire in the fourth act. Nicolas Courjal, however, made a more virile impression as the lieutenant, Zuniga, than either of the two principal men. Christine Rice is a versatile artist, with repertoire ranging – at least – from Monteverdi to Birtwistle. She is not, however, the first person I would have thought of as a Carmen. That said, she did a good job of confounding expectations through her innate musical intelligence and a stage presence of not inconsiderable sensuality. Her French compared favourably with that of most of her colleagues (a major bugbear throughout). Maija Kovalevska made Micaëla as interesting a character as I have experienced in the theatre, presenting a figure of greater allure than the typical pallid angel we and, to some extent, the score expect. This was an impressive house debut by any standards. There was, moreover, much to be impressed with in the smaller roles. Elena Xanthoudakis’s Frasquita and Paula Murrihy’s Mercédès sounded a true gypsy – or rather, Bizet’s fantasy-gypsy – presence, whilst a subtly modulated Moralès from Dawid Kimberg made one wish that the character might return. The choral singing was excellent: full marks not only to Renato Balsadonna and his Royal Opera chorus (augmented) but to the children’s choirs, from whom one could hear every word. Dancing and choreography were of an impeccably high standard too.

However, the true star of the evening was without a shadow of a doubt the conductor, Constantinos Carydis, marking another Royal Opera debut. He presented Bizet’s score with fire, colour, grace, precision, dramatic flow, and true structural coherence. The darkness that lies beneath the surface was powerfully conveyed, not least the ‘real story’, belying Carmen’s words, of which he spoke to me in an interview a week previously. Here we could feel, quite frighteningly, the nature of her real feelings for Don José – at least those of who bothered to listen and to turn off our mobile telephones. There was not an ounce of sentimentality, just as it should be in this work of realism. The omnipotence and omnipresence of Fate could be heard from the pit, without any descent into melodrama. In this, the contribution of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was, of course, crucial. Every section was excellent: one was reminded once again that this is an orchestra, which, on top form as here, can rival any. I hope that we shall hear more of Carydis in London and at Covent Garden. Many good things have been said about his Gluck and his Mozart: an opportunity to judge for ourselves would be most welcome.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

David Greilsammer - piano recital, 'Viennese Schools', 1 June 2010

Wigmore Hall

Webern – Variations for piano, op.27
Haydn – Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII/6
Berg – Piano Sonata, op.1
Mozart – Piano Sonata in A major, KV 331/300i
Schoenberg – Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19
Schubert – Six Moments Musicaux, D 780

David Greilsammer is fast making a name for himself both as pianist and conductor, recently having been appointed Music Director of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra. He certainly showed enterprise in programming, presenting pairs of works performed without a break: one from the Second Viennese School, followed by one from the ‘first’, attempting to make formal connections between them.

This worked very well with the opening Webern and Haydn pairing. The Webern op.27 Variations benefited from a beautifully soft opening, with no cost to subsequent dynamic contrast. Webern’s intervallic thinking and construction shone through, such that anyone would be able to perceive them, even were he not able to put a serial name to the processes at work. For instance, the minor seconds of the second variation had real bite, uniting expressive and formal function. If anything, the approach became at times a little too pointillistic, though there is of course no single way to perform Webern. There was little of Maurizio Pollini’s crystalline perfection here, but an intriguing, exploratory way that led directly into the Haydn F minor variations, themselves benefiting from a similarly beautiful, quiet opening, utterly pianistic in conception, thumbing a nose at bogus notions of ‘authenticity’. There was no absurd puritanism – is there a non-absurd form? – with respect to use of the sustaining pedal. Greilsammer clearly strove to bring out parallels between the works, relishing the chromaticism of the minor-key variations, which consequently sounded more Mozartian, Romantic even, than would often be the case. I did wonder, however, whether the conclusion of the second minor variation was simply too nineteenth-century in its conception. The coda was also unabashedly Romantic, exhibiting Beethovenian pride, insistence, even heroism.

The second pairing started equally well, with Berg’s one-movement piano sonata. Its opening couple of bars sounded relatively cool, but the atmosphere soon became more heated, with something of the Zemlinskian hothouse too it. Proximity to Schoenberg’s piano style, perhaps to Liszt even in the climaxes, was readily apparent. There was the odd wrong note, but this was clearly a slip of the fingers, nothing more. Then, however, came an account of Mozart’s Alla Turca piano sonata such as I have never heard, and such as I never wish to hear again. It is not at all clear to me that this was the best Mozart work to select to accompany the Berg – I can think of many pieces that would have made more sense in context – but what truly disturbed was the utterly un-Mozartian, even anti-Mozartian execution. Though there was a welcome flexibility to the first movement theme and variations, even the theme was rendered unnecessarily complicated. Points were made, perhaps valid in theory, but the Mozartian simplicity that conceals complexity was quite abandoned. The first variation sounded like a parody of Glenn Gould, whilst its successor was pulled around far too much. Phrases here and elsewhere became disjunct, unconnected with each other – surely the antithesis of a Bergian interpretation. The music lacked charm and indeed any sense of vocal inspiration; it was merely ‘interesting’, though the minore variation was something of an exception, showing that Greilsammer was perfectly capable of playing stylishly when he put his mind to it. Even there though, ornamentation for its own sake drew attention to itself and added a sense of disjuncture. There was also a great deal of straightforward heavy-handedness. The minuet proved equally charmless, though the trio was a little more relaxed, if still over-interpreted. (Harnoncourt and Rattle sprang to mind.) As for the celebrated finale, it opened in effortful fashion and continued still more so. The harshness of the major-mode passages was at best unpleasant.

Schoenberg and Schubert followed after the interval. The Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19, are a string of jewels even by Schoenberg’s standards, and received their due in Greilsammer’s performance. The pianist played with real insight into the connections between the notes and the phrasing that had been so lacking in his Mozart. A fine touch exhibited itself in the first piece and thereafter. The second was euphonious to an unusual degree, though the fourth was less successful in that respect; it needs to sound loud, but not heavy-handed. The sixth was simply beautiful, Klangfarbenmelodie somehow suggested by the allegedly monochrome piano, through its finely etched suggestion of Mahlerian funeral bells. It was played faster than is usual, but the tempo worked. I have my doubts about performing Schubert Moments Musicaux as a set like this, but in the context of the present recital it made sense, responding to the Schoenberg set of six pieces. Greilsammer’s Schubert, however, proved as controversial as his Mozart. The first piece marked a definite return to a style of disjuncture, with weird impressionistic interludes. It lacked rhythmic impetus – which includes harmonic rhythm. In its distended nature, I was put in mind of Ivo Pogorelich at his most perverse: there is clearly a mind at work, but sometimes less can be so much more. There were some beautiful ‘moments’ in the second piece, but as a whole it sounded too much as if it wished to be Chopin. (The parallels between Schubert and Chopin are fascinating, but I am not sure that the latter should sound as if he merely aspires to the character of the latter.) The F minor Allegretto moderato, however, beguiled with relative simplicity, though its successor witnessed a highlighting of voices that was revealing and exasperating in almost equal measure. I nevertheless warmed to the interesting – and not in a pejorative sense – premonitions of Chopin’s mazurkas. The fifth piece was hard-driven and harsh of tone, but the final piece brought unexpected harmonic consonance with the world of Schoenberg. If only it had not been pulled around so much, quite beyond what the music could reasonably be expected to bear.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera, 31 May 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Figaro – Erwin Schrott
Susanna – Eri Nakamura
Count Almaviva – Mariusz Kwiecien
Countess Almaviva – Annette Dasch
Cherubino – Jurgita Adamonytė
Bartolo – Robert Lloyd
Basilio – Peter Hoare
Don Curzio – Christopher Gillett
Marcellina – Marie McLaughlin
Barbarina – Amanda Forsythe
Antonio – Nicholas Folwell
Bridesmaids – Glenys Groves, Kate McCarney

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

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

Covent Garden’s present run of The Marriage of Figaro opened with an evening of true wonders, let down by some other aspects. Let me get the latter out of the way: first, a good or rather a bad part of the audience. How I weary of having to ask this, but is it impossible for people simply to behave in a fashion that does not detract from others’ experience? One almost grows inured to low- or even intermediate-level coughing, but the hayfever season was well marked by an epidemic of sneezing. Chatter, mobile telephones, banging, bracelet jangling, unwrapping of sweets: all and more were there. And if to applaud within acts infuriates, to do so before a number has even concluded is unforgivable. Lesser composers do not deserve this; Mozart certainly does not.

David McVicar’s production has its moments, but already looks a bit tired. The hyperactive army of servants continues to irritate, nowhere more so than during the overture, where Mozart should surely be left to speak for himself. I no more understand the updating to c.1830 than I did on previous encounters. One might make a case – though I suspect that it would be easier to do so in writing than on stage – for a production that looked back fifty years, engaged in a dialogue with the ancien regime, and considered the world of the Restoration in which the Bourbons remembered everything but had learned nothing. This, however, does not seem to do so; it merely moves everything on half a century and continues in relatively light vein. The feudalism of the Almaviva estate, especially the droit de seigneur, was exaggerated at the time of writing, quite deliberately so. If, as here, it seems to be central to the production, then it is difficult to make sense of a temporal relocation. This work is historical in a way that Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte are not; updating needs a point that is lacking here. The arrival of a dog on stage when the Count rushes back from hunting is a cheap trick, guaranteed to make the sentimental coo, but with as little dramatic point as the transformation of Don Basilio into a Danny La Rue de ses jours. (Camping it up does not go so far as that in Barrie Kosky’s dreadful Berlin production, but it remains unwarranted by words or music.) And the concentration on a mute serving girl at the end irritatingly reprises a McVicar trick of taking a minor or even invented character and, for reasons uncertain, thrusting him or her into the limelight. Naaman in Salome and Mohammed in Der Rosenkavalier are two further examples.

Sad to say, the female singers were mostly disappointing. Annette Dasch made for a bland Countess – which is surely not what this most wonderfully sophisticated of Mozart’s women should be. There was nothing especially wrong, other than excessive tremulousness in ‘Dove sono’, nor was there anything with which truly to empathise, let alone to adore. My thoughts wandered to the image and sound of Kiri Te Kanawa in the beautiful filmed production from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, conducted exquisitely by Karl Böhm. Eri Nakamura seemed simply to have bitten off more than she could chew as Susanna. There was a transformation of sorts from a thin-toned soubrette in the first two acts to inexpressive excess of volume during the latter two, but personality, whether vocal or stage, was notable only through its absence. Her Italian was as unidiomatic as I have heard. Jurgita Adamonytė’s Cherubino was perfectly adequate, but little more: one longed for Christine Schäfer, originally slated for the role. Marie McLaughlin, however, made a fine Marcellina. It was a pity to lose her aria, the ‘traditional’, regrettable cuts being made. It was a matter of great sadness, though, to witness Robert Lloyd’s Bartolo fail to keep up with the orchestra, both in his vendetta aria and in ensembles. Let us hope that this was just an off-day.

And yet… there were two stellar performances from Erwin Schrott as Figaro and Marius Kwiecien as the Count. Both are artists – and actors – of extraordinary charisma. Testosterone levels registered during their confrontations might well have exceeded all previous records. Never have I felt so keenly the fury of Figaro’s ‘Perché no?’ immediately prior to the third act finale. The Count’s frustrations of his valet had finally pushed him too far; I thought he might kill his master. For the chemistry between the two baritones was something special indeed, their relationship far more credible than any other. Kwiecien possessed the stage as to the manor born, the dark arrogance of his vocal portrayal enhanced by his physical presence. And the slipping away of his authority, supplanted by the upstart Figaro, was if anything all the more impressive in its astonishing subtlety. But victor, of course, there could only be one: Schrott left one in no doubt that this was ultimately Figaro’s show. Try as I might, I could not summon up a single reservation – and, to be frank, I have no inclination to do so. Whether it be his ease with the Italian language, the diction of extraordinary and meaningful clarity, not least in his daring sashays into parlando delivery, the beauty of his legato tone, the smouldering sexuality, or the equally extraordinary vulnerability displayed in his fourth-act aria, this Figaro had it all. Schrott’s is an assumption every bit the equal of his astounding Don Giovanni.

Greatness was present on stage, then, and also in the pit. Sir Colin Davis’s previous conducting of this production in 2006 marks one of the highlights of my operatic experience, unsurpassed and unsurpassable. My enthusiasm on this occasion was slightly tempered by a slightly staid quality to the opening of the first act, but I suspect that I should never even have noticed this from another conductor. I was unconvinced, moreover, by the need for harpsichord continuo during the orchestral recitatives, but nor was it a matter of great import. For warmth and dramatic flow proved second to none thereafter, likewise the sheer sensuous delight of Mozart’s orchestral genius. Nothing was rushed, and yet the score pulsated with life. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt is quite right to bemoan the current fad for performing Mozart as fast as possible, quite right to suggest that the music ends up sounding like Rossini. The only problem is that Harnoncourt’s own musical response to the ‘problem’ is generally so perverse.) Silken strings, beguiling woodwind, cruelly ravishing horns of cuckoldry: one could not have wished for more, and no praise would be high enough for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, which put not a finger wrong. This is what Mozart performance, the most difficult and yet rewarding task in the world, should sound like. Davis’s structural command was likewise as impressive as any I have heard, enough to silence once and for all the doubters who claim that sonata forms cannot be aurally perceived in theatrical performance. Try telling that to anyone who listened to – as opposed to merely heard – this rendition of the Act Two finale. And to hear the world stop for the moment of forgiveness at the end, with no disruption to the structure of the act, was an object lesson in operatic direction. Truly one has to go back to Böhm or Erich Kleiber to hear Mozart conducting of such distinction. One could forgive a great deal, if not quite the selfish audience contingent, for such an opportunity.