Friday 30 July 2010

Prom 17: SCO/Boyd - Mozart and Dvořák, 29 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Dvořák – Serenade in D minor, for wind instruments, violoncello, and double bass, op.44, B.77

Mozart – Serenade no.10 in B-flat major, for thirteen instruments, KV 361/370a

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Douglas Boyd (conductor)

This late-night Prom was to have been conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, featuring two particular loves of his: Dvořák and Mozart. One might add a third: the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, of which he had long been Conductor Laureate. For a programme of music for wind ensemble, it was not unfitting that Mackerras’s replacement should be another former oboist, Douglas Boyd.

The first of two works on the programme was Dvořák’s D minor Serenade. Its first movement is marked Moderato, quasi marcia. One certainly heard a strong impression of the march, even if Boyd was somewhat on the fast side for Moderato; nevertheless, the tempo worked well enough. There was nothing small-scale about the interpretation, which had a welcome sense of the symphonic to it. Particularly striking were the SCO’s grainy bassoons (Peter Whelan and Alison Green). The second movement flowed nicely; if its trio was a touch fussy, it was despatched with panache. I cannot claim to find the main body of the slow movement especially compelling: it comes and goes, and would doubtless make for superior background music. However, the agitated middle section intriguingly presented intimations of Mahler. There was an infectious sense of countryside music-making to the finale. At times, it perhaps sounded a little too ‘conducted’, though this aspect came into its own with the march reminiscence from the first movement.

The masterpiece on the programme was, of course, Mozart’s Gran Partita. My reservations here were usually concerned with tempi – and also, I am afraid, with the use of natural horns, which simply cannot play in tune to the expectations of modern ears and which must also uncomfortably resort to rasping. Valves were invented for a very good reason. The Largo introduction to the first movement was full of promise, perhaps a touch moulded by Boyd, but I should not exaggerate. The Molto allegro was properly lively, with clear counterpoint, if again a little too obviously ‘conducted’. Minuets – the second and fourth movements – were brisk, but not unreasonably so; again clarity was commendable. The second trio of the first minuet brought an extremely noticeable fluff from one of the natural horns, but those of the second minuet could certainly swing. In between those movements comes the sublime Adagio. Boyd’s was not my idea of an Adagio, nor was it Furtwängler’s in his incomparable Vienna Philharmonic recording, but if one could take the Andante approach, there was some beautiful playing to hear from the SCO: less blended than, say, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, but graininess has its own rewards. The ‘flowing’ – a current ‘period’ euphemism for fast – tempo certainly fitted with Boyd’s conception, outlined in a brief pre-performance discussion, of the movement as an aria in an overtly operatic work. It was beautiful, however, rather than profound: no metaphysics here. I was taken aback to hear the Adagio section of the fifth movement taken slower than I could recall hearing previously. Unfortunately, it sounded laboured, since Boyd gave the impression of hearing it on a bar-to-bar, sometimes even a beat-to-beat, basis; the longer line was lacking. There was great contrast with a fast, driven Allegretto, which would have benefited from time to breathe. The bubbly theme and variations that followed was, however, quite delightful. Here a longer line was discernible, save for a somewhat choppy minor key variation. Then came the finale. Molto allegro is generally an extremely difficult tempo to bring off in Mozart. The modern tendency is to drive too hard: not in itself so much a matter of tempo. Boyd did not entirely avoid this trap, but I have heard worse. All in all, a mixed performance, then, but there remained much to enjoy.

Prom 16: Lewis/CBSO/Nelsons - Wagner, Beethoven, and Dvořák, 29 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Wagner – Overture: Rienzi
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.19
Dvořák – Symphony no.9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’, Op.95, B.178

Paul Lewis (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

To my shame, it is many years since the last time I heard the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; indeed, I think it was probably under Simon Rattle. On the basis of this concert, I shall hasten to do so again, since the orchestra sounds finer still if anything, certainly more continental, under its (relatively) new Music Director, Andris Nelsons. I shall also hasten to hear Nelsons wherever he may be conducting. If only I had been able to go to Bayreuth this year to hear his Lohengrin, with Jonas Kaufmann no less. Still, there was a taste of Wagner in the Overture to Rienzi. Nelsons dared – and won – a magnificently slow opening, the orchestra sounding gorgeous, the nobility of the Prayer theme fully and quite naturally brought out. There was at this stage an almost Klemperer-like deliberateness that truly paid off – which can only be the case if accompanied, as here, by profound musical understanding of rhythmic and harmonic progression. Then came the contrast of excitement: the external world opposed to Rienzi’s internal conflict. The CBSO’s brass choir proved it an equal to pretty much any other. Finally, enhanced Meyerbeer – just as it should be.

Though Beethoven was already Wagner’s greatest musical hero at this stage in his career, one would not necessarily have guessed it from Rienzi. The contrast with Beethoven’s ‘second’ piano concerto was therefore starker than it might have been with later Wagner. Paul Lewis, who has recently recorded all five concertos, joined Nelsons and the CBSO for a fine performance of an oft-slighted work, the success of which was at least as much to be attributed to conductor as pianist. For the opening bars alerted one to an uncommon Beethovenian talent too – and this is perhaps an even rarer thing. There was a true sense of life communicated: the music articulated, but never fussy, and Mozartian colours, especially darker hues, beautifully painted. (I thought above all of the E-flat concerto, KV 482.) These virtues were echoed, responded to, when the pianist entered, suggesting something of his great mentor, Alfred Brendel. There were occasions when I wished that Lewis would let himself go a little more, but there could be no gainsaying his command of the score. A rare (minor) cavil was a certain brusqueness to some sections of the development, which did not quite convince. Lewis employed an unusual degree of ornamentation in the recapitulation, but it worked. My only other real criticism was a plodding start to the cadenza. (Whatever Daniel Barenboim’s occasional shortcomings at the Royal Festival Hall earlier this year, he could not be accused of that.) By the time of its climax, this was no longer the case, however. Thereafter I do not think I have a single reservation. From the outset of the Adagio, Nelsons showed command of that long line Beethovenian line, which defeats so many; the maturity of Lewis’s contribution was equally striking. Nelsons continued to emphasise the darker side of Beethoven’s Mozartian inheritance. I should be eager to hear him in Mozart himself – and I cannot remember the last time I thought that of anyone. There was a ravishing oboe solo (Rainer Gibbons), whilst the final bars exuded ineffable magic, verging at least upon greatness (coughing notwithstanding). The rondo sounded just as a rondo should: fun, lively, gently insistent, never driven too hard. Nelsons’s command of Beethoven’s rhythms was notable, once again matched by Lewis. A distinguished performance: I cannot help but wish that Lewis had recorded the Beethoven concertos with Nelsons instead.

Coughing again marred the opening bars of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, though the intrusion of at least four mobile telephone calls – three to the same person! – was greater still. The beauty of the CBSO’s woodwind section could not be entirely obliterated, however. Nelsons proceeded to attack the Allegro molto with great urgency, yet still more spellbinding was the stillness as the flute announced the movement’s second group. True defiance, terror even, characterised its closing pages. And – a sign of charisma this! – keeping his hands in the air miraculously forestalled gloomily expected minority applause, setting a precedent thereafter adhered to. That solo, or rather those solos, were beautifully taken in the slow movement, Alan Garner drawing on seemingly endless reserves of breath. Nelsons’s tempo seemed so right that one only really noticed it in retrospect. The combination of woodwind soloists and double bass pizzicato in the movement’s middle section was simply ravishing, as were the violins when they took over the theme. Once again, I thought this might have been a great continental orchestra. Perhaps the most delicate pianissimo playing I have heard in the Royal Albert Hall was blighted by yet another telephone call. (Can nothing be done about these miscreants?) The scherzo married Beethovenian muscularity to delightful local colour and lilt: Dvořák has nothing to fear from comparisons with Smetana, even in this respect, and certainly not with Nelsons and the CBSO on his case. Always the long line again – marking out Nelsons as so much more the real thing than many of his touted contemporaries. The opening bars of the finale sent shivers down the spine, thanks to the CBSO brass. Even during more tender moments – an exquisite oboe solo, for instance – Nelsons maintained and increased the underlying tension to the movement. If I am to be ultra-critical, there were perhaps occasions on which he drove a little hard, but truly I am straining to find anything ambivalent, let alone negative, to say. More importantly, I heard orchestral detail that I cannot recall previously having heard – and without any of the point-scoring perversity one associates with conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The orchestral unisons just before the close gave Bruckner a run for his money. This was a wonderful performance indeed.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Prom 15: Josefowicz/BBC SO/Knussen - Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Colin Matthews, Luke Bedford, Zimmermann, and Schumann, 28 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Stockhausen – Jubilee (first Proms performance)
Birtwistle – Sonance Severance 2000 (first Proms performance)
Colin Matthews – Violin Concerto (London premiere)
Luke Bedford – Outblaze the Sky (first Proms performance)
Zimmermann – Rheinische Kirmestänze (first Proms performance)
Schumann – Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, ‘Rhenish’, op.97

Leila Josefowicz (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen (conductor)

Not the most coherent of programmes this. One might claim a Rhenish connection between the delightful Zimmermann dances and the Schumann symphony, Stockhausen too at a pinch; the middle three works are all by English composers. But a sandwich of nationality does not itself a programme make. There was much to enjoy, though, even if there was not much sense of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The problematic performance was the last; I shall get that out of the way first. Knussen conducting Schumann was an interesting prospect: hardly his core repertoire. The outer movements, however, were extremely disappointing, despite surprisingly good performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, much better than in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony on the First Night. I have never heard a brisker opening to the first movement, though I do not spend my time listening to the wilder reaches of ‘period’ performance. Schumann’s tempo indication, Lebhaft, does not, however, imply metronomic rigidity, which is what we had here: the antithesis of ‘lively’ in fact. Phrasing was short-breathed too. Some might have discerned ‘urgency’, I suppose; for me, the effect was more akin to a series of premature ejaculations, with, as one might expect, rapidly diminishing returns. The development somehow meandered at speed, whilst the recapitulation seemed almost to be over before it had begun. I spent the while wishing for Sawallisch, Thielemann, or a host of others. The prospect of a modernist Schumann was genuinely intriguing, but this was not what we heard; Boulez used to perform quite a lot of Schumann, so it seems as though we shall have to wait for release of his old radio recordings. Much better was the scherzo, which flowed nicely, much to the benefit of the orchestral sound. Ironically, there was not only greater beauty to that sound but there was greater heft to the orchestra than there had been during the Mahler. To this and the third movement there was an appealing Mendelssohn-like quality, the latter movement sounding properly like an intermezzo. It would have been good to hear a little more yield in the music’s ebb and flow, however. The ‘Cologne Cathedral’ movement was really rather good. Thielemann-style Wagnerian gravity would have been out of place in such a performance, but the brass nevertheless sounded imposing and the violins, to my surprise, revelled in their Continental sheen. Alas, the finale was little more than an untidy scramble. One was left with the impression that the programme, performed in three rather than two parts, had one piece too many.

Back to the recent future, then, with Stockhausen’s JUBILÄUM (JUBILEE), commissioned for the Hanover Opera’s 125th anniversary in 1977. This is a true rarity, not even featuring upon the Stockhausen-Verlag recorded edition. I am not sure why, for it is written for relatively conventional orchestral forces and presents no obvious challenges for the listener. If anything, it is somewhat disappointingly ‘mainstream’ – or at least appears so to start with. Once one has listened one’s way in, Stockhausen’s ritual becomes ever more compelling, ever more real. Messiaen more than once sprang to mind, especially his Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The workings are clear, the twelve-note formula and its transpositions audible to all, but the whirling music of the apparently subsidiary groups adds fantasy to the hieratic procession. (The same could not be said of a mobile telephone intervention.) Trombones and tuba from a box above added further solemnity: a connection perhaps to Gabrieli’s Venice or the venerable German tradition of Schütz. Whilst others employ off-stage brass, Stockhausen surprises with off-stage oboes, an effect that yet connects with the past, in this case Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Soloists stood in turn: horn, violin, flute, and oboe, each joining the other(s) as intensity mounted. Their contributions were outstanding – and the rest of the orchestra was pretty good too.

Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance 2000, commissioned for the reopening of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Severance Hall, was an all too brief opening to the second part. Growing out of a primæval bass C, a typical creatio ex nihilo statement, the rest of the orchestra awakens, in a fashion not entirely unlike the swirling groups of Stockhausen’s ‘overture’. There is characteristically masterful brass writing, clearly relished by the BBC forces and Knussen. But it was the final solo trumpet call that truly haunted: a reminiscence of the opening to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony? Luke Bedford’s 2006 Outblaze the Sky impressed too: a short, six-minute work, in a sense a process of orchestral growth parallel to the Birtwistle, though it glows in a fashion quite foreign to the senior composer. What struck me, even before the virtuosic handling of harmonics, flutter-tonguing, and so forth, was a voice that, on first hearing at least, sounded original. If anyone, Mark-Anthony Turnage came to mind, but I could not claim that the music really sounded ‘like’ his. At any rate, there was an impressive build up to climax, for which the BBC SO and Knussen should also be credited.

There were connections to be made, then, but it was not clear how they would be made with Colin Matthews’s Violin Concerto, which came in between the Birtwistle and Bedford pieces. I quite enjoyed this London premiere of the work, finely performed by orchestra and soloist, Leila Josefowicz (sporting an eye-catching zebra-print dress), but much of it sounded as if it could have been written eighty years or more earlier and models such as Prokofiev, Szymanowski, and Berg were audibly apparent. The first of the two movements boasted luscious, luxuriant harmonies, but drew a little close to the Berg concerto for comfort. (I am not sure, however, that this necessitated a distracting walk-out from a woman in the row in front of me, clicking her high heels as she went.) Josefowicz clearly relished the composer’s grateful virtuosity, however, as did the BBC SO’s splendid percussion section, joined by a flexitone in the darker second movement. Here there seemed perhaps to be more of an individual voice: the tolling percussion sounded ominous indeed. I cannot imagine a more auspicious London premiere in any case.

Last but not least, I come to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Rheinische Kirmestänze. It was worth the visit to the Royal Albert Hall just for these. Never having heard them before, I was taken aback by their wicked sense of fun, freely distorting traditional dances for the Cologne carnival in recompositions for seventeen instruments (wind and four double basses). If Petrushka sprang to mind in the first, it was the Stravinskian ghost of Pulcinella that cheekily hovered over the rest, though there was perhaps a dash of the spirit of Webern’s Schubert arrangements too. Bizarre though the claim may sound, the dance in which piccolos sound against oom-pah tuba even reminded me – at a distance – of Vaughan Williams. If we must have a Last Night of the Proms, might we at least hear these pieces, perhaps with works such as the Overture (either of them, or both) to Peter Cornelius’s Barber of Baghdad and Busoni’s Tanzwalzer? Such would go a long way to redeem the ghastly chauvinism that still infects the occasion.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Parsifal: The Search for the Grail, dir. Tony Palmer, 26 July 2010

Purcell Room, Southbank Centre

I started by thinking that this marked a slight improvement upon The Wagner Family, Tony Palmer’s appalling recent film for The South Bank Show. I was soon disabused: for one thing, it was actually made in 1998; more importantly, it managed to be more distorting, more disingenuous, even more poorly put together. Whatever Palmer’s strengths as a film-maker may once have been – despite a large number of errors, his Wagner biopic with Richard Burton is often quite compelling dramatically – he no longer seems to possess them. In a tedious, irrelevant self-justification at the opening of the film, he told us how well he knew Plácido Domingo and how ghastly the BBC was, despite its recent agreement to screen ten of his films. The BBC has indeed a great deal to answer for in terms of its populism, but it is not clear to me that it will be redeemed by screening material such as this. An old-fashioned documentary would have been a hundred times more enlightening.

Still, if Palmer’s rambling introduction were tedious and irrelevant, so was the film itself, to which one should add pernicious, ramshackle, recycled, and a host of other none too complimentary adjectives. At the heart, such as it is, of the film are an outline of the drama from Domingo, delightfully accented, with some additional commentary in which the tenor, Miss World-like, outlines his hopes for world peace, and excerpts from Palmer’s production of Parsifal for the Mariinsky Theatre, with Domingo in the title role, conducted by Valery Gergiev. Domingo sings well, if hardly idiomatically. Some of the other singers sing less well, if hardly idiomatically. Gergiev is better when he made the score sound like Tchaikovsky, worse when he drives it too hard, Solti-lite, worse still when he distends phrases for no apparent reason. The Mariinksy – or Kirov, I think, at this time – brass lack something in refinement and the choral contribution is redolent of the Red Army Choir. We hear quite a lot of the Flowermaidens’ music; it seems interminable and could hardly be less erotic. One prominent maiden looks and sounds distinctly mature. Violeta Urmana’s Kundry impressed me in London; she is done no favours here, however, not least on account of the staging.

For Palmer’s production, from what one can see of it, resembles a parody of ‘traditional’ Eastern European operatic presentations. One of his ‘experts’, Robert Gutman, about whom more, sadly, below, bemoans the alleged fact that some audiences think Wagner’s dramas to be mere mediæval pageants. Perhaps they do; I cannot say that I have ever met anyone who thought such a thing. This is what they receive here, however. Palmer’s animus against Bayreuth belies the fact that that festival has engaged directors from whose table he is not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs. Stefan Herheim’s present production of Parsifal, for instance, is not only far and away the best I have seen of the work in question; I do not think I have seen a superior production of anything. For some reason, or perhaps none, the St Petersburg production sometimes morphs into film footage of actors in a hazy setting some might think redolent of soft porn (without the porn). Perhaps this has something to do with Domingo’s puzzling emphasis upon the ‘magic lake’, perhaps not.

So far, so bad. There is, alas, much worse that must be mentioned, though I shall limit myself. Considerable attention is paid to Karen Armstrong, described as a ‘New Testament scholar’. An ex-nun who has made a media career out of attacking institutional religion and claiming that the basic message of all religions is the same, Armstrong waffles on about how some people preferred the certainty (?!) of the Grail to the challenges of mysticism. No effort, however strained, is made to connect her contributions to Parsifal. There are a couple of clips showing Wolfgang Wagner giving a tour of the Festspielhaus. Again, these are curiously disconnected from anything else, leading one to suspect that they may not have been originally intended for this film at all. It is certainly difficult to imagine Wolfgang lending his approval to such an enterprise. To fill in some time, lengthy excerpts are played, without mention of their provenance, from Palmer’s early Wagner film. No explanation is given as to why we should see quite so much material, or indeed any, of Ludwig II or of the Dresden revolt; nor is any mention made that much of the music from these clips is not from Parsifal at all. Further padding is provided by irrelevant scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Indiana Jones.

A cheap trick Palmer plays more than once is simply to sound excerpts from Parsifal against visual footage from the Third Reich; at least the latter is well choreographed, but what does this prove? Absolutely nothing. Enter Robert Gutman. I had thought he might by now have gone the way of Titurel, but apparently not. The film’s sole ‘Wagner scholar’ – someone might consider him such, I suppose, since he just about edges this side of ‘Wagner and UFOs’ – he proceeds to rant against the evil of Parsifal, completely unchallenged, just as he does in The Wagner Family: further recycling. Gutman’s claims concerning the drama are merely preposterous assertions. No argument is given as to how this pacifist work is actually an incitement to genocide. Gutman however appears so much like a bad parody of a Bond villain, cackling and rubbing his hands with glee – surely a strange reaction to so wicked a work? – that no one could possibly take him seriously.

Believe it or not, there is still worse to come. We have apparently reached the end, but suddenly we move to a strange woman with a nose piercing, singing a pop song about what it would be like if there were a God. Pictures of Rwandan genocide accompany, or rather overwhelm, her excruciating wailings. Horrendous it is, of course, to see such images, but the implication that they have something somehow to do with Parsifal brings offence to a new level. Joachim Köhler seemed to have set the bar high in his Wagner’s Hitler – not, the reader will note, Hitler’s Wagner – in which a monocausal explanation of the Second World War, namely Richard Wagner, is advanced. Palmer here manages to go further. We then return to the final bars of Parsifal.

Not a word is said concerning Wagner’s music in all of this: a strange conception of a music drama. No opposing voices are heard in what is ultimately an embarrassingly poor parody – that word again, I know – of a Nazi propaganda film. At least Goebbels had some skill in the dark arts. Palmer makes Michael Moore seem a model of balance without either his good cause or his (relatively) interesting method of filmic construction. One would rarely watch a Ken Russell film out of concern for historical accuracy; next to this, one would. And one would go to Russell every time were one interested in some degree of dramatic flow and coherence. Perhaps the most obvious question arising is this: why should Palmer involve himself in a production of Parsifal at all, if this is what he thinks of it? If I, perish the thought, considered it to be an incitement to genocide, then I doubt that I should busy myself by foisting pseudo-mediævalist kitsch representations of it upon St Petersburg. Production and film display profound, or rather shallow, dishonesty; the latter alternately elicits seething rage and mere boredom.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Recital I/Into the Little Hill, The Opera Group, 24 July 2010

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Berio - Recital I

The Singer – Susan Bickley
The Accompanist – John Constable
The Dresser – Nina Kate

Benjamin - Into the Little Hill

Claire Booth (soprano)
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)

John Fulljames (director)
Soutra Gilmour (designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)

London Sinfonietta
Franck Ollu (conductor)

If only all the offerings on the Royal Opera House’s main stage were of the quality of this fine double bill at the Linbury Studio Theatre. Some are first-class, of course, yet some could learn a great deal from performance, direction, and choice of repertoire here. I attended the first Covent Garden performance of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, last February. There it was programmed, in this same production, with Birtwistle’s music-theatre piece Down by the Greenwood Side. That received a fine performance; unfortunately, a power failure put paid to the Benjamin (ironically, given the threat rats pose to electricity supplies in the work itself), so that I only heard a few minutes of it. Some time after I had left, Into the Little Hill was eventually performed in the Linbury Bar. I wish I had experienced that, but alas it was not to be, so this was essentially my first hearing, albeit with a taster of what was to come.

On the present occasion, an equally apt coupling, albeit entirely different in nature, was Berio’s Recital I, written for Cathy Berberian, but now performed by Susan Bickley. Berio presents a singer who, having arrived on stage to give a recital, realising after she has begun to sing that her pianist is not there. The ‘accompaniment’ to her opening Monteverdi piece – an appropriate nod to the arie antiche tradition, and also a signal of Berio’s love for the composer and Berberian’s expertise in his music – therefore requires an orchestra she conjures up in her mind. We have all done it, though perhaps not in such extreme circumstances – assuming this to be ‘real’: is it, and what does that even mean? Her ‘accompanist’, the ever-dependable – except in terms of the drama – John Constable, comes and goes, but the orchestra is always there, like her neuroses, her failed loves, her attempts to construct some sense from her experience. Through the myriad of musical fragments she presents, we learn something of a relationship that has disintegrated. From folk song to Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene, from ‘Dido’s Lament’ to Pierrot Lunaire, from Meyerbeer to Benjamin, performer, director, and audience must perform complementary but doubtless divergent acts of construction. For instance, hat I had heard Dame Felicity Lott give Poulenc’s Hôtel as a recent encore would perforce make me listen differently from someone not present at that Wigmore Hall recital.

Bickley has always been a versatile artist, just as Berberian was, but this was a challenge indeed, which she surmounted with great aplomb. One could believe in her as a character, as The Singer, too, likewise in Nina Kate’s splendidly observed, wryly ‘alternative’ Dresser. Soutra Gilmour’s costumes and John Fulljames’s direction were all very much of a piece, and the London Sinfonietta’s contribution under Franck Ollu (whom I had previously heard conduct Pascal Dusapin’s Passion in Aix) was typically excellent. At various points, members of the Sinfonietta were called to come on stage, to act, even to exchange instruments. Needless to say, they remained unfazed by such a challenge. Not for nothing are they considered second to none as a new-music ensemble. The final Lied, Berio’s own, was deeply – and yet lightly – moving, just as it should be for the avant-gardist with a sense of humour.

The Sinfonietta’s sterling work, and Ollu’s, continued in Into the Little Hill. If it had taken more than a year before I was able to hear the entire work, my expectations were matched by my experience. The work Benjamin and his librettist, Martin Crimp, present is a modern, equally chilling version of the Pied-Piper of Hamelin story. Here, the Minister, threatened by the populace, gives into its demands that the rats, who, he personally believes, have a place in society, be exterminated. He gains re-election, to the ‘grateful shriek’ of the crowd, by promising the blank-faced Stranger, whom he discovers in his daughter’s bedroom ‘stooped over his sleeping child’, a large sum of money in return for ridding society of the rodent menace. When payment time comes, the Minister welches on his debt, the Stranger takes the city’s children away, the Minister’s daughter included; the Minister’s Wife hears the children sing that they are now ‘inside the Little Hill,’ which is now their new home. New Labour all over, really; if only that nightmare had been so eloquently expressed, and had been over with in just under three-quarters of an hour...

Benjamin’s sinuous score is concise yet generous, sharp-edged yet beautiful. The pain of the Stranger’s flute has a multiplicity of meanings for us, amongst which one should doubtless account contemporary obsession with ‘the paedophile’. As a parable of the disgusting corruption of modern political life, this short opera seems to me well-nigh perfectly judged. Bickley was now joined by Claire Booth. Between them, two female voices must narrate, take the part of various characters, and act as the crowd. One would have thought this the easiest thing in the world, such was the success with which they accomplished it. The abstraction of the set permitted us to concentrate upon the unfolding drama, but was much more than a blank stage; it shaped, enclosed, enabled. Booth’s Child will linger uncomfortably long in the mind, as will the final cries: ‘And the deeper we burrow the brighter his [the Stranger’s] music burns. Can’t you see? Can’t you see? Can’t you see?’ I was taken with Crimp’s description of the librettist as former of magnesium ribbon, whilst the composer must light it with pure oxygen, that it might burn with intense white light. This role, it seemed to me, he fulfilled admirably, save for a misjudged, jarring ‘by who [sic]’, in order to rhyme with ‘you’. If that, however, is the only fault I can find with the evening, and I think it is, then The Opera Group, ROH2, and all those involved in these performances are justly entitled to their laurels.

Good news: Crimp and Benjamin are writing a new opera, to receive its first performance at the 2012 Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Prom 5: Hagner/WDR SO/Bychkov - Wagner, Mendelssohn, Gunther Schuller, and Strauss, 20 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Wagner – Lohengrin: Prelude to Act One
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, op.64
Gunther Schuller – Where the Word Ends (United Kingdom premiere)
Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie, op.64

Viviane Hagner (violin)
WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

If this concert proved a little mixed in quality, that was in no way the fault of either the fine WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, or its outgoing – outgone? – Chief Conductor, Semyon Bychkov. The Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin kindled in its burnished glow memories of Bychkov conducting the complete opera at Covent Garden last season. Wagner’s unendliche Melodie was to the fore, even before the letter. The orchestra’s silken strings ensured æthereal beauty, whilst Bychkov guided the music’s progress with a sure hand. Even a barrage of coughing and, immediately in front of me, mobile telephone usage could not entirely obscure the performance.

The problem arose when Viviane Hagner arrived on stage for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. I had heard Hagner once before, at the Proms in 2007; whilst underwhelmed, I had given her the benefit of the doubt in the Beethoven concerto on account of so lacklustre a contribution from the podium. Here, I am afraid, there was no one else to blame, for her constricted tone and tight vibrato, unrelieved throughout, contrasted so starkly, and not in a creative fashion, with the warmth of the WDR SO’s strings and its enchanted woodwind. If only a Mendelssohn symphony or the Midsummer Night’s Dream music had been on the programme instead… At best, this was a merely efficient rendition, with no sense of any meaning lying behind the notes, no soul. Hagner sounded as if she would have been happier playing Paganini or Vieuxtemps, especially when she engaged in self-conscious, quite inappropriately virtuosic antics during the finale. Sometimes, arbitrary fussiness of phrasing intruded, once again in stark contrast with Bychkov’s handling of the orchestral ebb and flow. All the while, that tight, unremitting vibrato would not let one go. It was like hearing a Schubert Liederabend from a mechanical soubrette.

The final item in the third half could hardly have been more different: the United Kingdom premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Where the World Ends. Written for the 125th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2006, it was eventually performed, after the necessary extra rehearsals, in 2009 under James Levine. Though I was not entirely convinced by the piece – the fault, upon a single hearing, may well, I own, be entirely mine – this is just the sort of thing the BBC should be supporting. We are not exactly overburdened with performances of New England modernism in this country; sadly, orchestras or at least orchestral managers prefer to foist crowd-pleasing Adams or excruciating Glass upon us rather than take a chance with Babbitt. Schuller is a figure more difficult to pin down: as Calum Macdonald’s programme’s note put it, ‘he has absorbed many different musical tendencies (post-Schoenbergian serialism, Stravinskian orchestration, the combinatorial thinking of Milton Babbitt, big-band jazz, electronic music and popular commercial ballad style, all of these sometimes seriously and sometimes in parody) in a remarkably undoctrinaire way, calling on whatever means he has thought appropriate for the matter in hand.’ One could certainly hear a few of those tendencies in Where the World Ends, so titled, according to the composer, because music takes over where words can no longer express. In essence, one might speak of a concerto for orchestra: Schuller, himself a conductor, clearly has an expert ear for orchestral sound. One of the most absorbing sounds was at the very opening, when we seemed to hear a primaeval string becoming, extremely finely played by the WDR SO strings; it was fun to hear a Fafner-like tuba towards the end too. Trombone slides and muted trumpets would evoke the world of jazz, whilst the ghost of Stravinsky hovered over the repeated-note figures of the final Allegro vivace section. Leader, Slava Chestiglasov performed his solo in the trio of the third (of four) section ravishingly, so much better than Hagner in the Mendelssohn! The second, Adagio section, however opened in a fashion startlingly – doubtless unintentionally – reminiscent of the Khatchaturian Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia. This set the tone for the neo-Romanticism – born, it would seem from Schuller’s ‘magic row’, in which groupings of three adjacent pitch classes form tonal triads – of that section, which seemed a little too eclectic, incongruous even. Bychkov and his orchestra played with commitment throughout; they will surely have won the composer converts.

The second half of the concert was given over to the work I had most wanted to hear: Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Though there were many instrumental beauties en route, Bychkov’s account was uncompromisingly symphonic, to the extent that occasionally, for instance as we passed the waterfall, I should have been happy to linger a little longer. He was doubtless right: the last thing this work needs, given the continued existence of nay-sayers, is a sprawling performance. The night from which the tone poem emerges was full of expectancy, which even a very noisy audience, or section thereof, could not quite obliterate. Key to this was a wonderfully clear, Rheingold¬-like bass line: Richard the Third indeed. If I found the sunrise slightly precipitate, there was clearly symphonic method to Bychkov’s approach; the ascent was also no dawdle, but it was heroic, in a Heldenleben-like, even Beethovenian, way – all to the good. And the heft of the WDR SO string section – larger, it should be noted, than the paltry BBC forces for the Proms opener, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony! – was both welcome and necessary, here and at the glorious summit itself. As I regretted the brevity of the mountain-side apparition, I appreciated its symphonic necessity: Bychkov’s musical instinct was absolutely right not to linger over Strauss’s phantasmagorical delights. We were lost in the thickets, but this was a conductor who knew how to put us on our way. I should not, however, mean to imply that there was no sense of Nature, far from it: here, in contrast to Mahler, a cowbell is just a cowbell. And how evocative those Alpine bells sounded! Within formal bounds, that is. Brass proved resplendent in the face of the glacier, whilst Manuel Bilz’s solo oboe, Lothar Koch-like, provided a true sense of human frailty: faltering, but ever so musically. Upon the descent, Bychkov impressed upon us the battle between the physical and metaphysical Strauss thought he had settled – but this tone poem tells us otherwise. The rising mists and obscuring of the sun were properly ambiguous: are they just that, or is there something more? One can revel in Strauss’s orchestration, and the orchestra did, but there was purpose here too, even if one cannot quite define it. Roderick Shaw sounded tremendous on the organ – what a work out it has been receiving during the opening Proms! – but the WDR SO brass were at least equally so, quite magnificent. Likewise the unsettling, even slightly nauseating, strings with their Frau ohne Schatten harmonies. I am not entirely sure that Strauss’s storm evades melodrama, but Bychkov’s no-nonsense way with it paid dividends. More importantly, the epilogue sang a noble tune indeed, the final horn calls moving this listener to tears. What a pity, then, that premature applause killed the mood before Bychkov had even dropped his arms. A little consideration would go a long way.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Prom 4: Trpčeski/RLPO/Petrenko - Schumann, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky, 19 July 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Schumann (re-orch. Mahler) – Overture: Manfred, op.115
Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor, op.18
Tchaikovsky – Manfred: Symphony in four scenes after the dramatic poem by Byron, op.58

Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)

Outstanding! I am tempted to leave it at that, but had better not. After my first two Proms (Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Die Meistersinger), I was beginning to think that I must have been unduly harsh; perhaps I had not given due regard to the notorious vagaries of the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic. This stunning performance from all concerned persuaded me that, if anything, I had been lenient, for there was a world of difference to be heard from the opening bar of Schumann’s Manfred Overture, as re-orchestrated by Mahler.

There is no need to become hung up on Mahler’s role here, though it is noteworthy that this orchestration was being performed for the first time at the Proms. Mahler sharpens up the definition a little, but this still sounds like Schumann. The overture opened dashingly; Vasily Petrenko’s more or less immediate downbeat announced silken string sound of an entirely different order from that served up on those earlier two Proms. I was put in mind of the Philharmonia under Christian Thielemann, though Petrenko’s reading pulsated with life whilst remaining highly flexible. (The Philharmonia/Thielemann recording of Schumann’s Third Symphony is first-rate, however.) Petrenko had no time for the latter-day nonsense of scaling down strings. That there were as many double basses (eight) as for the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of the Mahler was partly testament to their insufficiency; more importantly, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic sounded like a full orchestra. How the cellos sang – and how sepulchral the trombones sounded! This Manfred was febrile, heroic, but always in the orbit of Beethovenian humanism, never driven too hard. There was also a loving tenderness that looked forward to Strauss’s Don Juan; Petrenko really made those Neapolitan sixths tell.

Petrenko and Simon Trpčeski then went on to impress upon me that Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is merely over-performed – and over-performed at an insufficient level. For in this reading it sounded minted afresh. Trpčeski’s magical opening chords and crescendo showed that, if ever a composer wrote for the Steinway, it was Rachmaninov, but he needs a pianist equal to the task, which he found here. Trpčeski (almost) made it sound easy, but never routine. Petrenko’s orchestral part was the equal of any I have heard: well, perhaps not the Philadelphia Orchestra of old, with the composer himself at the keyboard, but certainly, for instance, Haitink’s Concertgebouw for Ashkenazy. Moreover, the partnership between Trpčeski and Petrenko was as tight as any I have heard, revealingly as much about integration as opposition. With touches of echt-Russian vibrato in the brass, this was a reading that drew upon tradition but also presented something new: an almost Mendelssohnian, elfin performance at times, nevertheless lacking nothing in weight when it came to the great climaxes. As for the intervention of a mobile telephone, I can only hope that the offending object was put to its proper use as rectal thermometer for its owner. The tender slow movement permitted Trpčeski to impart an interestingly Brahmsian quality to the placing and voicing of the piano chords. Nicholas Cox’s melting clarinet solo would rival any I have heard. For the most part, this Adagio sostenuto was restrained, but there was no doubting the genuine quality of the emotion bubbling beneath the surface – and occasionally over it. Such subtlety would of course have been impossible without absolute security in terms of understanding and outlining the music’s harmonic progression. Taking the finale attacca prevented applause from once again being sounded, though bronchial dissent was not to be stifled. Trpčeski unleashed a veritably Lisztian devilry in his pianism, complemented by a combination of warmth and sardonicism – snarling brass in particular – from the RLPO. Brahms was not yet vanquished, however, in the voicing of the chords; indeed, a battle royal between him and Liszt was not least of the musical excitements on offer. The fugato was likewise clear and exciting. Though I fancied myself weary of this music, I should eagerly have heard it repeated immediately in a performance of this quality.

If the Rachmaninov is oft-performed, one cannot say the same of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Petrenko and the RLPO have recorded the work, as indeed they have the concerto with Trpčeski; if either performance matches this concert, it should be highly commended indeed. Liszt once again came to mind with the opening, the hero’s theme surely a reminiscence of the questing Faust Symphony, likewise the unusual tonal instability. There was no mistaking, however, the utter Russianness of the RLPO strings’ interventions. Once again, their depth of tone put earlier performances to shame. Petrenko proved a sure guide – no easy thing in music that can readily meander – and imparted a taste of Swan Lake to the magnificent yet rounded climaxes. The scherzo, the realm of the Alpine fairy, brings hints of Mendelssohn, albeit with Liszt’s – and Berlioz’s – means. The lyricism, however, is all Tchaikovsky’s own; Petrenko revelled in both aspects. So did his crack players: the strings took us to St Petersburg, the trio of flutes proving equally beautiful of tone. And if the movement goes on a bit, there is only so much performers can do – but they did. Ravishing horn playing was one of many highlights in the Andante con moto. It flowed, but rightly took its time too, permitting the strings to sing. There were hints of the ‘Scène aux champs’ from the Symphonie fantastique, but rustic elements were given their due too, albeit without the hideous over-emphasis in which one can imagine some conductors indulging. Sterner moments looked forward towards the late symphonies. And the bells tolled atmospherically, inevitably reminding once again of Berlioz. The finale proved equally colourful, if more resplendently so, given its nature. I was again struck by how well-drilled the orchestra was, though never bureaucratically so. The fugato was despatched with flair, whilst a strong narrative sense emerged through the movement’s – indeed, the symphony’s – progress. There was, finally, a true sense of tragedy to the denouement. Graham Eccles’s organ contribution was properly grandiose: this may be hokum, but when done with such style, who can complain? It was, however, the orchestral subsiding, beautiful and noble, that lingered more stubbornly in the mind. On this showing, Petrenko and his orchestra are a pairing to match any resident in London.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Prom 2: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Welsh National Opera, 17 July 2010

(concert staging)

Hans Sachs – Bryn Terfel
Walther von Stoltzing – Raymond Very
Eva – Amanda Roocroft
Sixtus Beckmesser – Christopher Purves
David – Andrew Tortise
Magdalene – Anna Burford
Nightwatchman – David Soar
Veit Pogner – Brindley Sherratt
Fritz Kothner – Simon Thorpe
Konrad Nachtigall – David Stout
Hans Schwartz – Paul Hodges
Balthasar Zorn – Rhys Meirion
Ulrich Eisslinger – Andrew Rees
Augustin Moser – Stephen Rooke
Hans Foltz – Arwel Huw Morgan
Kunz Vogelgesang – Geraint Dodd
Hermann Ortel – Owen Webb

Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (chorus-master: Stephen Harris)
Lothar Koenigs (conductor)

Most reports of Richard Jones’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have been laudatory, though there has been a significant minority report decrying a perceived conservative turn. Not having seen it, I am in no position to assess Jones’s contribution, but this visit to the Proms from the Welsh National Opera granted an opportunity to appraise its musical values. There were many virtues to be heard here, but there were also significant drawbacks one might more readily have overlooked in the theatre.

Bryn Terfel was clearly the main attraction for many. It was depressing to note the BBC presented him as such in its television coverage. ‘Bryn Terfel sings Wagner’s Meistersinger’. Nice to see the composer gain a mention, I suppose, though it also makes one wonder what other Meistersinger it might have been, if not his. At any rate, Terfel’s legion of fans will not have been disappointed. This is a role better suited to him than that of Wotan, let alone that of the Wanderer, from which he notoriously cried off for the Royal Opera. His other recent London Wagner appearance, as the Dutchman, ought to have suited him better but was marred by alternate whispering and barking. This was not necessarily a Sachs for the ages, nor was it a profoundly philosophical reading: it was difficult to imagine the folio in which he was absorbed at the opening of the third act being, as has often been suggested, a harbinger of Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation. There were, moreover, cases in which important lines and phrases were somewhat casually thrown away. Nevertheless, the cast gained from Terfel’s undeniable star quality: there was a palpable upping of game as soon as he set foot upon the stage. And he generally took great care with his words, all of them audible, most of them invested with meaning. His acting at the end of the Wahn monologue was odd, though, seemingly dissociated from what he was singing, more the ardent, romantic hero.

At least as impressive, to my mind more so, was Andrew Tortise’s David. Deliciously camp, though never excessively so, it was difficult to imagine this apprentice having much interest in Magdalene. But from the outset, one could not be impressed by his careful distinction between the various tones of master-singing, without ever sounding unduly contrived. Wagner helps, of course, but it is no mean feat to bring this off so intelligently and so musically. There were manifold nice touches such as the word-painting, visual too, on the ‘brummt’ (buzz/hum) of ‘Nach dem Wort mit dem Mund auch nicht brummt,’ and withdrawal of vibrato for the ‘eitel Brot und Wasser’ (pure bread and water) melody. In the third act, his intervention to Sachs, ‘Am Jordan Sankt Johannes stand,’ was genuinely funny in its recollection of Beckmesser’s serenade: a trick that can only be pulled off with secure musical and theatrical grounding, sporting just enough crudity to draw the listener into the joke, but without undue disruptive effect. Tortise has an appealing lyric tenor voice that can yet withstand competition with Wagner’s orchestra, and can clearly act too – even in a ‘concert staging’. I hope to hear – and to see – more from him.

Christopher Purves was a fine Beckmesser, credible as the serenading lutenist too (though sadly, he tired a little towards the end of his song). Real anger was imparted during the confrontation with Sachs in his shop – and crucially without sounding a mere caricature. His was a portrayal that clearly itched to be on stage; I wish I could have seen him in the theatre. I have heard more imposing Pogners than that of Brindley Sherratt, but this was intelligently sung. Simon Thorpe’s dry Kothner veered alarmingly in terms of pitch, however. I liked Anna Burford’s colourful Magdalene; as so often, I wished that there were more to hear in this role. Likewise as so often, I found myself wishing that she could trade places with her Eva. Amanda Roocroft’s intonation was not quite so variable as when I heard her as Tatiana at Covent Garden, but in conjunction with intrusive, thick vibrato, this was not a part to savour. Her diction left a great deal to be desired too, and her over-acted style on stage, which may possibly have worked from a distance in the theatre, here simply made her look like a woman too mature for the part. Raymond Very’s Walther was equally disappointing: more accurate, doubtless, but thin, even elderly, of tone and in no sense credible as a charismatic hero. For rendition of the Prize Song merely to sound dull is an achievement I do not wish to hear repeated.

Lothar Koenigs’s conducting had its moments, but could often sound rushed or arbitrarily slow. Koenigs began well, with a first-act Prelude clearly born of experience in the theatre. Woodwind chatter and contrapuntal clarity registered nicely, as did magnificent kettledrum playing from Patrick King – not for the last time, for this was a genuine highlight of the performance throughout. The first act sounded as though it was going to end most impressively, the conductor screwing up the tension well as the bickering began, but unfortunately it degenerated into a rush. (Acting was of a high standard throughout the scene though, perhaps, as I suggested, testament to Terfel’s arrival on stage.) The Preludes in many ways constituted the better part of the conductor’s vision, that to the Second Act duly playful, and the great introduction to the Third gravely and meaningfully slow, cellos digging deep here for a tone that was sadly not always present during the performance. For it must be said that, whilst the orchestral playing was generally committed, the body of strings was simply too small for a true Wagnerian sound unerringly to emerge. One cannot always expect the Staatskapelle Dresden – though who can forget its golden sound under Karajan? – but greater heft is not an entirely unreasonable expectation. What might have passed muster in a small house was not always sufficient for the Royal Albert Hall. Moreover, Koenigs could meander, as during the baptismal scene, when one might have fancied Wagner’s orchestral chorus a mere agent of accompaniment. True choral singing was, however, mightily impressive, especially during the Festwiese scene, for which garlands should be presented to chorus and chorus-master, Stephen Harris.

This was an enjoyable Meistersinger, then, even when shorn of most visual aspects of its production. I did not, however, have the impression that it was born of a production that had penetrated into the darkness, the Wahn, at the very heart of this extraordinary work. This is a rare comedy, in that it should move as does any tragedy. I am tempted indeed to compare it to the greatest of Mozart and Shakespeare. For that, however, I must cast my mind back to the unforgettable performances from Bernard Haitink at Covent Garden – or, of course, listen on record to Furtwängler, Kubelík, and a select few others.

Saturday 17 July 2010

First Night of the Proms: BBC SO/Bělohlávek - Mahler's Eighth Symphony

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.8 in E-flat major

Mardi Byers (soprano, Magna Peccatrix)
Twyla Robinson (soprano, Una Poenitentium)
Malin Christensson (soprano, Mater Gloriosa)
Stephanie Blythe (mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana)
Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano, Maria Aegyptica)
Stefan Vinke (tenor, Doctor Marianus)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone, Pater Ecstaticus)
Tomasz Konieczny (bass, Pater Profundus)
Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral (chorus-master: Andrew Carwood)
Choristers of Westminster Abbey (chorus-master: James O’Donnell)
Choristers of Westminster Cathedral (chorus-master: Martin Baker)
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Stephen Jackson)
Crouch End Festival Chorus (chorus-master: David Temple)
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (chorus-master: Brett Weymark)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiři Bělohlávek (conductor)

A performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony could only ever be relatively underwhelming; even a car crash of a performance would impress in some sense, indeed most likely in quite a few. Yet this First Night of the Proms underwhelmed to an extent that surprised, a state of affairs for which responsibility lay squarely at the door of the conductor, Jiři Bělohlávek. Whatever the strengths of the present Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra may be, they always seemed unlikely to lie in Mahler, and so it proved. Should a performance of this work turn out to be merely a pleasant enough experience, something has clearly gone awry. It was not even wrong-headed enough to interest in the sense that, say, Sir Georg Solti’s relentlessly hard-driven, unabashedly operatic recording might, although, almost paradoxically, in its soft-grained way, it perhaps stood closer to such a reading than to probing renditions by the likes of Jascha Horenstein, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Boulez, or Michael Gielen.

My first impression was favourable, Bělohlávek rendering Mahler’s counterpoint surprisingly clear, apparently placing the work in the tradition of the composer’s fifth symphony. Doubts soon set in, however. The first ‘slower’ section set the pace, or lack of it, for its successors. Mahler writes, following his a tempo indication, ‘Etwas (aber unmerklich) gemäßigter; immer sehr fließend.’ Instead of relative moderation and care always to flow, the music almost ground to a halt. This is not simply a matter of tempo, of course; vitality was lacking. Returning to the comparison with Solti, the solo quintet sounded too ‘operatic’, in an almost Italianate sense: Mahler for those who prefer Verdi, albeit without fire. Bělohlávek guided a clear enough course through the first movement, but the reading was very four-square, lacking in dynamism, and ultimately quite debilitating in terms of its sectional approach. The work’s structure needs to be brought out, but just as important to that is the unity of the movement and indeed of the symphony as a whole. And so, the ‘Accende…’ music, exciting in itself, did not seem to come from anywhere. Moreover, the orchestra was underpowered – indeed, surprisingly small: just sixteen first violins down to eight double basses. The strings, especially during the first part, often sounded scrawny and there were uncomfortably shrill moments from the woodwind. There was, however, some splendid duo work towards the end of the movement from the kettledrums, and the presence of the Royal Albert Hall organ (Malcolm Hicks) was throughout impressive, almost violently so at times. Choral singing was here and elsewhere very fine indeed, undoubtedly the saving grace of the performance. Applause marred the conclusion of this first part.

The opening of the second part flowed but lacked mystery – at least until the sounding of beautifully grave horns, followed by shimmering violins: a passage to savour. The brass section was resplendent, yet it was impossible to overlook the general lack of depth to string tone. Mahler’s music needs to resound as if hailing from the bowels of the earth, not as if it were a thin layer of turf lain on the surface. Matters improved, however, once the chorus re-entered, and the echo effect was unusually impressive: not easy, with these forces. Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a typically thoughtful, beautiful-toned Pater Ecstaticus, and Tomasz Konieczny more or less followed suit, if hardly de profundis, as Pater Profundus. Stephanie Blythe stood out amongst the female soloists: a mezzo, but with hints of an earth-mother contralto. Stefan Vinke was a very late substitute for the indisposed Nikolai Schukoff as Doctor Marianus. He sounded a little nervous to start with, but grew into the part, though without the virility that so impressed me when I saw him in Leipzig as Lohengrin and Parsifal. (Doubtless the size of the hall has something to do with it too, but if ever there were a Royal Albert Hall work, it must be this.) Twyla Robinson improved dramatically as Una Poenitentium, the words of her first stanza indistinct, diction much superior thereafter, and with a glorious tone in conclusion: ‘Vergönne mir, ihn zu belehren, noch blendet ihn der neue Tag!’ Choral singing was once again of a very high standard; I was especially taken by the lovely tone of the Chorus of Blessed Boys as they circled (at least in one’s imagination).

The conductor, however, continued to let the side down. Thematic links with the first part were clearly brought out, but that was one of the interpretation’s few virtues. (In any case, the connections are pretty difficult to miss!) Orchestral heft was simply lacking; for much of the time, Bělohlávek sounded as though he would have been more at home with Mendelssohn or, at a push, Schumann. The latter’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust might have responded better to such treatment, though I fear that that work would have lacked fire too. Slow passages dragged and accelerations sounded arbitrary. There were some beautiful instrumental moments, for instance the sound of strings, harps, and harmonium as Mater Gloriosa floated into view, but again this was too much of a slow section in itself, preceded by an inordinately distended and downright sentimentalised ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne…’ from Doctor Marianus and chorus. It was again the latter that shone in the final Chorus Mysticus: beautifully sung, but that is not nearly enough. A performance of this work that fails to grab one by the scruff of one’s neck is barely a performance at all.

Friday 16 July 2010

Wagner and anti-Semitism

A debate commences between Barry Emslie, author of Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love, which I recently reviewed in The Wagner Journal, and me, concerning the issue of anti-Semitism and Wagner's music dramas. The intention is that this should be ongoing, for a while at least, but the opening two contributions are now online. Click here.

Sir Charles Mackerras

Herewith a press statement from the Royal Opera, including tributes from Antonio Pappano and Elaine Padmore. The breadth of repertoire listed is quite remarkable, and this of course only refers to his work for one company.

The Royal Opera is deeply saddened to hear the news of the death of Sir Charles Mackerras, who died on Wednesday 14 July 2010.

Antonio Pappano, Music Director, The Royal Opera:

“Charlie Mackerras’s impact on the development of musical performance practice over the last 60 years has been enormous. He was a force of nature, a true man of the theatre, who grappled with how to honour a composer’s intentions with the utmost rhythmic flair, drama and enthusiasm. His performances were always so full of life it is almost impossible to imagine he is no longer. A true friend of the Royal Opera House, he is irreplaceable; we will miss him terribly. Our sincere condolences to Judy and the rest of his family.”

Elaine Padmore, Director of Opera, The Royal Opera:

He was a very dear friend of the Royal Opera House and clearly loved his times with us. It was a great pleasure that he chose to spend his 80th birthday here at the Royal Opera House. We brought on a cake and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ on stage with the audience and had a splendid time with him, the audience and the Company together. Much as he was a great symphonic conductor, he was a man who loved opera houses. It was very apt that the last opera he conducted with us was one of his great favourites, Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, which we’d programmed at his request. We had two further seasons planned for him. Alas those are not to be, but the wonderful memories of his insightful performances of his beloved Janáček are the last we will have.”


Sir Charles Mackerras made his Royal Opera debut conducting Shostakovich’s Katerina Ismailova in 1964, having first conducted the Ballet Company at Covent Garden in 1955. During his long career at Covent Garden, he conducted over 30 operas for The Royal Opera. He celebrated his 80th birthday on 17 November 2005 at the Royal Opera House conducting the first in a run of nine performances of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.

Most recently, he conducted The Bartered Bride, Orlando, Katya Kabanova, Le nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni for The Royal Opera. His last performances with The Royal Opera were The Cunning Little Vixen in March 2010.



Pineapple Poll 13 Mar

(Sadler’s Wells)


Pineapple Poll 21 Aug

(Sadler’s Wells)


Pineapple Poll 27 Feb

(Sadler’s Wells)

The Lady and the Fool 27 Feb

(Sadler’s Wells)


The Lady and the Fool 9 June

(Sadler’s Wells)


Katerina Ismailova 8, 14, 16 Dec


Turandot 6, 11, 14, 19, 22, 24 Jan/ 20, 24, 28 May


Turandot 6, 9, 12, 14 Jan/ 24 Feb/ 6 Mar

Carmen 11, 16, 19, 24, 27 May/ 1, 5, 9 June


Carmen 3, 7, 15, 19, 23, 28 Feb/ 5, 8 Mar

Tosca 22, 30 Mar/ 2, 5, 11, 15 Apr

Così fan tutte 8, 12, 16, 18 July


Aida 29 May/ 4, 10, 14, 17, 20 June

Così fan tutte 4, 6, 9, 14, 17, 20 Jan

Simon Boccanegra 30 Apr/ 6, 10, 14, 20, 22, 26 May


Le Coq D’Or 12, 16, 22, 27, 30 Dec/ 2 Jan


Tosca 26, 28 May/ 1, 4, 9, 16 June


Turandot 6, 9, 12, 15 Jan/ 3, 12, 18 Feb

Orfeo ed Euridice 9, 13, 16, 19, 21 July


Billy Budd 30 Dec/ 3, 5, 11, 17 Jan


Jenůfa 13, 20, 25, 29 Apr/ 2 May

Orfeo ed Euridice 24, 27, 30 May/ 3, 6, 9 June


Aida 23, 27, 31 March/ 3, 6, 9, 12, 17 April

Il trovatore 23, 26, 30 May/ 2, 6, 11 June


A Midsummer Night’s Dream 2, 4, 11, 15, 19 Jan

Otello (Verdi) 1, 4, 10, 13, 17, 20, 24 May

Jenůfa 22, 25, 28 May/ 7, 10 June

Tosca 8, 12, 16, 18 Nov

Faust 5, 7, 10, 13 Dec


Jenůfa 8, 11, 14, 17 June

1978/ 79

Un ballo in maschera 21, 27, 29 Dec/ 3, 6 Jan


Alceste 26 Nov/ 1, 4, 9, 12, 15 Dec


Semele 25, 29 Nov/ 1, 4, 7, 11, 14 Dec


Tosca 18, 22, 26, 29 Sept


Semele 22, 28, 30 Dec/ 3, 7 Jan


Roméo et Juliette 28 Oct/ 1, 4, 9, 12, 15, 17 Nov


The Greek Passion 25, 27, 29 Apr/ 3, 5, 8 May

Roméo et Juliette 18, 21, 26 Feb / 1, 6, 9 March


The Bartered Bride 7, 10, 12, 20 Nov 2001

Die Entführung aus dem Serail 30 May / 2, 4, 7, 9 June


Don Giovanni 18, 20, 23, 28 Feb


Rusalka in concert 14, 17 July

Semele 25, 28 June / 2, 5, 8, 11 July


The Greek Passion 15, 19, 21, 23, 25 Sept / 1 Oct

Der Rosenkavalier 13, 19, 22, 24, 27, 30 Apr


Un ballo in maschera 17, 21, 25, 29 Nov / 3, 7, 10, 13, 16 Dec

Die Zauberflöte 11, 14, 16, 21, 23, 26, 28 Feb/ 3, 4 Mar


The Bartered Bride 6, 9, 12, 14, 17, 20 Jan


Katya Kabanova 19, 22, 15, 28 June / 2, 5 July

Orlando 26 Feb / 1, 3, 7, 9, 13 Mar


Don Giovanni 8, 10, 12, 15, 18 Sept

Le nozze di Figaro 24, 30 June/ 2, 5, 10, 12, 16 July


The Cunning Little Vixen 19, 22, 25, 29 Mar / 1 Apr


Born in 1925 of Australian parents in America, Sir Charles Mackerras studied in Sydney and Prague and made his debut as an opera conductor at Sadler’s Wells. He was First Conductor of the Hamburg Opera (1966-69) and Musical Director of both Sadler’s Wells (later English National Opera) (1970-77), and of Welsh National Opera (1987-92), where his notable Janáček productions, amongst many others, were acclaimed. From 1982-85 Sir Charles was Chief Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and also conducted the opening public concert at the Sydney Opera House. Sir Charles is Conductor Laureate of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Conductor Emeritus of the OAE, Conductor Laureate of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Conductor Emeritus of the Welsh National Opera and Principal Guest Conductor Emeritus of the San Francisco Opera. A specialist in Czech repertory, Sir Charles was Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from 1997 - 2003, following his life-long association with both the Orchestra and many aspects of Czech musical life.

Sir Charles had undertaken much research into performance practice of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the highlights of the 1991 season was the re-opening of the Estates Theatre in Prague, scene of the original premiere of Don Giovanni. Sir Charles conducted a new production of that opera to mark the bi-centenary of Mozart’s death. He recorded all Mozart’s Symphonies and Serenades with the Prague Chamber Orchestra. With the Scottish Chamber Orchestra he recorded seven Mozart operas, most recently La Clemenza di Tito following a performance at the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival. [2002 marked Sir Charles’ 50th year with the Edinburgh Festival, in which he conducted Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, Handel’s Jeptha and Mozart’s Gran Partita.] He was recently named Honorary President of the Edinburgh International Festival Society.

His vast discography includes an award-winning cycle of Janáček operas with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Britten’s Gloriana with WNO [awarded ‘Gramophone’ magazine’s Best Opera Recording for 1994] and Dvorak’s Rusalka with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra [awarded ‘Gramophone’ magazine’s ‘Best Opera Recording’ and ‘Best Recording of the Year’, the ‘Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik’, ‘Prix Caecilia’ and ‘Edison Award’ for 1999]. Notable are his recordings with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra of Beethoven’s and Mahler’s symphonies and Brahms’ four symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Sir Charles and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have recorded eight Mozart concertos with Alfred Brendel. Sir Charles has recorded much Czech music with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, including Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, Smetana’s Ma Vlast, Martinu’s Field Mass and Double Concerto and Janáček’s Katya Kabanova, Sarka and the Glagolitic Mass all for Supraphon. For Chandos he has recorded The Magic Flute, The Makropolous Case, Cosi fan tutte and Hansel and Gretel, which won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. He has recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies for Hyperion Records.

Sir Charles made his debut with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1964, where he has since conducted over 30 operas, including Un ballo in maschera which celebrated his 50th anniversary and 80th birthday in 2005. He also recently conducted Katya Kabanova there, an opera that he first introduced London audiences to in 1951 at the Sadler’s Wells theatre; the first performance of a Janáček opera in the United Kingdom. In addition to his many appearances with the San Francisco Opera, he has a long association with the Metropolitan Opera, New York. He made his debut at the Salzburg Festival, with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducting Le nozze di Figaro in 1998, and returned to Salzburg to conduct the orchestra in a programme of Schubert and Mozart in 2005. He made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2004, in which year he also made his debut at the National Theatre Prague, conducting Janáček’s Vylety pana broucka (The Excursions of Mr Broucek).

In the 2009/10 season he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. For English National Opera he conducted The Turn of the Screw, for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, he conducted The Cunning Little Vixen and for Glyndebourne Festival Opera he conducted Cosi fan tutte.

Sir Charles received a CBE in 1974 and was knighted in 1979. He was honoured with the Medal of Merit from the Czech Republic in 1996, made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1997 and made a Companion of Honour in the 2003 Queen’s Birthday Honours. In May 2005 he was presented with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal and in November 2005 was the first recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music. He was awarded a DMus (Hon) of the Universities of Hull, York, Nottingham, Griffith (Australia), Oxford, Napier, Melbourne, Sydney, the Janáček Academy of Music (Brno) and the Prague Academy of Music. Sir Charles was also President of Trinity College of Music.



Principal Oboist, Sydney Symphony Orchestra


Oboist, Sadler’s Wells Opera Orchestra


Won British Council scholarship to study conducting with Vaclav Talich in Prague


Staff conductor, Sadler’s Wells Opera (first opera Die Fledermaus, October 1948)


Conducted UK premiere of Janacek’s opera, Kat’a Kabanova at Sadler’s Wells Opera


Pineapple Poll – his arrangement of G & S for ballet choreographed by John Cranko (Sadler’s Wells); also made his first recording (Suite from Pineapple Poll)


Principal Conductor, BBC Concert Orchestra


Freelance conductor, orchestras in Britain, European Continent, USA, Australia


Debut at Covent Garden, with the Ballet Company – conducting The Lady and the Fool (for which he had arranged the music)


First worked with Philharmonia Orchestra (recording The Lady and the Fool)

1964 (Dec)

Debut with The Royal Opera (Katerina Ismailova)


First Conductor, Hamburg State Opera


Musical Director, Sadler’s Wells Opera (later, English National Opera)


Chief Guest Conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra


Chief Conductor, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Broadcasting Corporation


Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra


Musical Director, Welsh National Opera


Conductor Emeritus, Welsh National Opera


Principal Guest Conductor, Scottish Chamber Orchestra


Conductor Laureate, Scottish Chamber Orchestra


Principal Guest Conductor, San Francisco Opera


Conductor Emeritus, San Francisco Opera


Principal Guest Conductor, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra


Principal Guest Conductor, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra


Music Director, Orchestra of St Luke’s, New York


Music Director Emeritus, Orchestra of St Luke’s, NY


Principal Guest Conductor, Philharmonia Orchestra



Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (May)


The Queen’s Medal for Music (first recipient of this new annual award, to be presented at a private audience with HMQ and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music, on 22 November – St Cecilia’s Day


Companion of Honour (CH)


Companion of Order of Australia (AC)


Medal of Merit, Czech Republic





Honorary Fellow of:

Royal Academy of Music (1969)

Royal College of Music (1987)

Royal Northern College of Music (1999)

Trinity College of Music (1999)

Saint Peter’s College, Oxford (1999)

Cardiff University (2003)

DMus (Hon) - Honorary Doctor of Music – at the Universities of:

Hull (1990), Nottingham (1991), Brno (Czech Republic, 1994), York (1994), Griffith (Brisbane, 1994), Oxford (1997), Prague Academy of Music (1999), Napier (2000), Melbourne (2003), Sydney (2003), Janacek Academy of Music, Brno (2004), London (2005)

Sunday 11 July 2010

Lott/Johnson - Wolf, Duparc, Strauss, Britten, and Poulenc, 10 July 2010

Wigmore Hall

Wolf – Mörike Lieder (selection)
Duparc – L’invitation au voyage
La vie antérieure
Chanson triste
Strauss – Ständchen
Ruhe, meine Seele
Blauer Sommer
Schlechtes Wetter
Britten – The Ash Grove
O Waly, Waly
La belle est au jardin d’amour
Quand j’étais chez mon père
Poulenc – Banalités: ‘Voyage à Paris,’ ‘Sanglots’
Calligrammes: ‘Voyage’

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
Graham Johnson (piano)

Though I have long admired Dame Felicity Lott, both in the theatre and in the concert hall, this was the first time I had attended a recital of hers. I was not to be disappointed. A slightly hesitant opening Begegnung opened the way to a distinguished further selection from Wolf’s Mörike settings: Agnes, Der Gärtner, Heimweh, Das verlassene Mägdlein, An eine Äolsharfe, and finally Er ist’s. Typical clarity of diction, lightness of touch (not in any sense to be confused with lack of commitment), and responsiveness both to words and music were a hallmark of these Wolf songs and indeed the recital as a whole. Storytelling came to the fore in Der Gärtner and Das verlassene Mägdlein, though longing and reflection were just as present here as elsewhere. Graham Johnson proved a powerful presence at the piano, occasional slips in no way vitiating a finely tuned sense of the composer’s harmonic narrative. Wagnerian undertones were skilfully but never heavily brought out by both artists: the Wesendonk-Lieder were not far away at all. But nor was an impression of where Wolf was leading; Strauss and Schoenberg beckoned equally.

For the Strauss Lieder with which the second half opened would prove at least as successful. The qualities that combine to make a fine Marschallin combined here too to present longing without a hint of the lachrymose, charm without a hint of kitsch, verbal acuity, and command of line. If Strauss be a prince of Lieder, then Lott was a princess of their performance. Johnson again did not shrink from emphasising the often surprisingly modernistic harmony in some at least of these settings, though they always, quite rightly, remained within a Romantic context. The post-Rosenkavalier waltzing of Schlechtes Wetter, Strauss as masterful in his irony as Heine, rounded off an exquisite group.

The French song Dame Felicity has so much made her own was an important presence in this recital too. She has Duparc to a tee: the poise, the manner of the verse, the perfumed elegance. The Baudelaire settings, L’invitation au voyage and La vie antérieure, were an especial joy, the latter a master-class from both performers in economy and meaningfulness of climax. Britten featured in English and French. I cannot claim great fondness for his folksong settings. The Ash Grove’s contrary harmonies put me too much in mind of the ‘clever’ reharmonisations in which organ scholars from my undergraduate days would delight – though, in fairness, they surely had Britten’s greater originality in mind. O waly, waly is simply rather dull. Likewise, I should much rather hear the composer’s own melodic invention – and his response to verse – than the two French chansons populaires. There could, however, be no faulting the performances here.

This was equally true of the three Poulenc Apollinaire settings. Once again, the mood was just right: light but tender, and every word clearly and meaningfully – insofar as the idea be appropriate for this poet – discernible. Melancholy cast its spell, without the slightest danger of descent into the maudlin. A couple of encores – Britten’s Shakespeare setting, Tell me where is fancy bred, and Poulenc’s delightful, politically incorrect Hôtel – made one wish for still more. Sadly, my hoped-for Morgen was not to be; I suppose one cannot always hear it in a recital that includes Strauss. Next time, perhaps…

Friday 9 July 2010

La traviata, Royal Opera, 8 July 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Violetta Valéry – Angela Gheorghiu
Alfredo Germont – James Valenti
Giorgio Germont – Željko Lučič
Baron Douphol – Eddie Wade
Doctor Grenvil – Richard Wiegold
Flora Bervoix – Kai Rüütel
Marquis d’Obigny – Changhan Lim
Gastone de Letorières – Ji-Min Park
Annina – Sarah Pring
Giuseppe – Neil Gillespie
Messenger – Charbel Mattar
Servant – Jonathan Coad
Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends of Violetta and Flora, Guests, Servants

Sir Richard Eyre (director)
Bob Crowley (designs)
Jane Gibson (movement)
Jean Kalman (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus and extra chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Yves Abel (conductor)

This was my first Verdi performance in the theatre for thirteen years or so: I must have been the least jaded of critics for the opening night of the revival of Sir Richard Eyre’s La Traviata. Benjamin Britten was said to listen to the music of Brahms once a year, to remind him why he loathed it. (Oddly, however, there is a recording of the op.52 Liebeslieder Waltzes from Aldeburgh.) In a similar spirit, although on a considerably broader timescale, I considered that it would do me no harm to put my prejudices or judgements to the test.

There would be many worse ways of doing so than seeing Angela Gheorghiu as Violetta. I had not actually heard her in the flesh before and was a little surprised as to how small her voice is. She made it work though, so that it could be heard perfectly well even when singing pianissimo. Her coloratura was, so far as I discerned, flawless, no mean feat. I recall watching this production on the television as a schoolboy, the first run under Solti which really made Gheorghiu’s name. She obviously does not look – or sound – so young now, but this remains still a fine vocal performance. In terms of playing herself on stage she is also clearly without peer; Angela Gheorghiu is a role one is tempted to think she was born to play. Certainly one had the impression, rightly or wrongly, that her movements, her expressions, pretty much everything she is doing – all these are very much her own thing.

Given the conservatism of Eyre’s production, and especially of Bob Crowley’s designs, that is not necessarily so bad thing. Zeffirelli with a slightly lower calorie count doubtless appeals to some even on this side of the Atlantic, but there is suspension of disbelief and then there is the size of Violetta’s bedroom in act three of this production. Otherwise, the costumes look beautiful and so forth, but it is really only the presence of the soprano that grants any sense of theatre at all: ironic, since that then reinforces the idea that opera should be about star singers and therefore about works like this, and a vicious, doubtless highly commercial circle ensues. I can only assume, moreover, that some deal had been struck with the Association of Consumptives, for the state of the audience made poor Violetta seem hale and healthy.

James Valenti looked good as Alfredo and sang ardently, but often wavered in intonation. There was strength in the singing of Željko Lučič as Germont père, though his stage presence was somewhat wooden (how much is the production at fault here?) and his style sounded just a touch incongruously Slavic. The choral singing was excellent, for which thanks must once again go to Renato Balsadonna and of course the Royal Opera Chorus itself. And the orchestra played beautifully, Yves Abel directing unobtrusively but not without character.

There remains the work itself. I tried, but the esteem in which it and Verdi’s œuvre in general are held continues to baffle me. Puccini can be mawkish, Rossini can be shallow, but there is a degree of craftsmanship to be heard and admired there. Verdi seems to combine the worst aspects of both, standing perhaps slightly above Donizetti, but that is all. The orchestration is often rudimentary – though, as I said, the orchestra made the most of what it had. Harmony is uninteresting and the accompaniments – the word for once is apt – are often so derisory. And then there is the ‘tart with a heart, transfigured’ tale: does it go beyond the level of a women’s magazine story? I fail to see how – and it now seems utterly dated, not least in its attitude towards gender. Just when one thinks there might be some psychological insight, the music of the pizza parlour returns. The ‘tunes’, memorable because one hears them so often, are rarely integrated into the musical texture, such as it is, let alone into the drama, such as it is. Given the lack of musical interest, surely a more adventurous production might alleviate the ennui. Regietheater seems a necessity here. Were this a neglected work, one could understand someone thinking it worth a try, but a staple of the repertoire? Some people might, for a variety of reasons, dislike Wagner; but being something other than Wagner is not in itself a guarantee of anything. As Pierre Boulez once put it, Verdi is ‘picture-postcard music’. He said that he would prefer to see a whole landscape; the same goes for me.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Don Giovanni, Opera Holland Park, 6 July 2010

Don Giovanni – Nicholas Garrett
Commendatore – Simon Wilding
Donna Anna – Ana James
Donna Elvira – Laura Mitchell
Don Ottavio – Thomas Walker
Leporello – Matthew Hargreaves
Zerlina – Claire Wild
Masetto – Robert Winslade Anderson

Stephen Barlow (director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
Colin Grenfell (lighting)
Sam Spencer-Lane (choreography)

Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Robert Dean (conductor)

Opera Holland Park’s new production of Don Giovanni marks a definite step up from its Fidelio, at least as presently conducted. (The production is excellent.) I do not think I had heard Robert Dean before, but he and the City of London Sinfonia presented an eminently creditable account of the score: not the last word in exploring its unfathomable depths, but mercifully free of the doctrinaire point-making that mars so many present-day performances. By and large, Mozart was allowed to speak for himself and benefited from doing so. Tempi were sensible; if the overture had sounded the odd alarm bell (for another reason, see below), then the music soon settled down. Woodwind solos were a particular joy, but the strings too appeared to be enjoying a new lease of life following their leaden direction the previous night. There were a few occasions when I missed greater heft, but surprisingly few, given the extraordinary nature of Mozart’s proto-Romanticism and the relatively small forces. Ornamentation can often irritate, but here, whether in the orchestra or from the soloists, it was tastefully, interestingly, yet not at all shyly accomplished. Eighteenth-century style is quite a different thing from what those who most loudly trumpet their supposed adherence would have you imagine. There was, however, a questionably prominent harpsichord: both loud and strangely ‘present’ in sound. Surely it was amplified? It seemed to me an interesting idea, though hardly necessary, to employ it during the Handel parody of Elvira’s ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’, but its appearances became tiresomely frequent and increasingly inappropriate, culminating in unmerited – and out of sync – clattering during the Stone Guest scene. Choral singing impressed.

Stephen Barlow’s relocation to the High Victorian era worked well. As ever with such things, there are words that jar: the work is not in any real sense ‘about’ Seville, but why are it and Spain mentioned so much? That may not matter much, but it does more than in an abstracted, mythologised setting, in which specificity does not arise. If anything, the relocation might have benefited from greater concentration upon its new specificity: the weird, behind-closed-doors world of much Victorian sexuality might fruitfully have been explored. The costumes and sets were beautifully done, however, for which plaudits should be handed to Yannis Thavoris. And the focal, Dorian Gray-like narcissism – several wall portraits and all – of Don Giovanni was convincing to a degree. An especially effective idea was to have the Commendatore step forward from one of those portraits, an elderly version of the young libertine. Giovanni’s defiance acquires another layer of understanding when seen as rejecting the fate of growing old (relatively) gracefully. Some other touches convinced more than others. The comely bell boy – subsequently seen in the chorus of damnation – who thought it worth a play for the hero’s affections during his serenade amused, though surely not quite so much as the excessive guffawing from some well-oiled members of the audience might have suggested. However, the portrayal of Zerlina as a Plain Jane – who only at the end removes her spectacles and lets her hair down, to initiate sex with Masetto – is quite at odds both with libretto and, more importantly, Mozart’s music. A peasant girl who should exude natural fertility seemed more like a failed candidate for IVF. No wonder that Claire Wild seemed uncertain what tone to adopt for her music.

Her Masetto was the weakest link in the cast: strong on stage presence but sadly lacking in voice. Laura Mitchell was not dissimilar, though her lopsided portrayal, neurotic to the exclusion of the erotic, may possibly have been a product of directorial line. Simon Wilding was a powerful Commendatore, whilst Ana James sang beautifully as her almost-namesake. The production, however, seemed a little uncertain what to do with her. (I remain wedded to the post-ETA Hoffmann idea of Donna Anna as truly desiring Don Giovanni, but there are other possibilities.) Don Ottavio is, of course, the very definition of the thankless role, but Thomas Walker impressed with his style and musicality. Matthew Hargreaves was suffering from some ailment, but nevertheless caught attention as a fine Leporello, alert to the quicksilver shifts demanded and commendably attentive to the finer points of the libretto. Nicholas Garrett proved a splendid Giovanni, handsome of tone as well as aspect, suave, cruel, and yet credibly heroic at the last. This, then, was a Don Giovanni of which Opera Holland Park can justly be proud.

A few words, however, concerning the audience: whilst there was hilarity to be had during the overture from the sight of a former Conservative Cabinet minister, no Chelsea strip in sight, and his young companion engaging in a slanging match with the couple seated in front, there are perhaps better ways to appreciate Mozart’s shift of tempo – here a little abrupt, as it happened – than by having an ex-politician shout ‘Shut up!’ and his guest offer a one-finger salute at the row in front. For whatever reason, the happy couple rushed away the moment the final chord was heard. For connoisseurs of Conservative politics of a slightly earlier vintage – perhaps they exist – Lord Lawson of Blaby was also in attendance.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Fidelio, Opera Holland Park, 5 July 2010

Leonore – Yvonne Howard
Florestan – Tom Randle
Rocco – Stephen Richardson
Marzelline – Sarah Redgwick
Jacquino – Nicky Spence
Don Pizarro – Phillip Joll
Don Fernando – Njabulo Madlala
First Prisoner – Peter Kent
Second Prisoner – Henry Grant Kerswell

Olivia Fuchs (director)
Jamie Vartan (designs)
Colin Grenfell (lighting)
Clare Whistler (choreography)

Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Peter Robinson (conductor)

Olivia Fuchs’s production of Fidelio earned plaudits upon its first outing in 2003; though I did not see it then, it remains just as relevant and disturbing today. Guantánamo Bay references, brought out both in the stage direction and in Jamie Vartan’s excellent designs, need to be hammered home just as much as they did then. The United States may have a new administration and this country may have a new government, but the camp of infamy remains open for business and the war criminals who led us into Afghanistan and Iraq have never been tried. Even if some resolution had been reached, one would not need to look far to find equally urgent cases: Burma, Gaza, Tibet, let alone the domestic prisons of our own countries, cynically packed with unfortunate souls who have no reason to be there, solely in order to keep the likes of the Daily Mail happy – though when are such organs of poujadisme ever satisfied? This production’s revelation of the prisoners in their orange jumpsuits is shocking enough, but the way in which they are cowed, in need of the light yet almost unable to cope with it, is something to shame not only those who will never see it but those who have voted for or at least tacitly assented to such barbarism, even those of us who abhor it and yet have been unsuccessful in bringing it to an end.

It is, of course, tiresome to have to confront those who reckon Fidelio a failure; they so spectacularly miss the point that this is a work about freedom, and not in any sense that our political overlords would understand. Yet a production such as this might actually accomplish that confrontation for us. Fuchs’s reappraisal of Jacquino transforms a bit part into something truly horrifying: doubtless not an evil person, but a stupid one, brutalised by the situation, who engages in relatively ‘low-level’ abuse, or so the politicians would see it, of the prisoners. In another setting, he would doubtless be chanting ‘harmless’ nationalist slogans at a soccer match. And why should we trust the minister, who arrives with sinister bodyguards in shades? Likewise, the ‘media’, desperate to be let in to snap the first photographs? This souring of the final victory may not have been what Beethoven intended, but it works, and there is no harm in undercutting the music just a little, when it is done so well. It need not be done so every time, but is a valid option when confronted with an age of barbarism beyond anything the composer could have imagined.

Unfortunately, this proved to be very much a tale of the production and, to a lesser extent, the singing. Peter Robinson was the archetypal Kapellmeister in his conducting. There was no sense of the music meaning anything at all to him, let alone the astounding instantiation of a once-radical notion of bourgeois freedom. All he did was beat time. One could not only hear every bar line; one could set an atomic clock by the metronomic beat. The reading, or rather rendition – ‘extraordinary’ in its way – was free of Harnoncourtisms or worse, save for the kettledrum sticks, but that is the best one could say. The City of London Sinfonia played well enough, horns emerging triumphant from their ordeal in ‘Komm, Hoffnung’. Yet, even in a small performance space such as this, the strings were too small in number. One needs to be drowned in, driven on by, a torrent of symphonic lava. As it was, one concentrated on the fire of the production, with the orchestral contribution reduced to something akin to a soundtrack. This was not the orchestra’s fault at all, but a string section of can only do so much.

The soloists compensated considerably. Tom Randle has always seemed to me a highly intelligent musician and so he was again here. His Florestan could only really work in a small-scale performance, but after initial wavering intonation on his cruel opening ‘Gott!’, he threw his all into the role, emerging with true musico-dramatic credibility. Jonas Kaufmann in Paris is an experience I shall never forget, but until there is opportunity to see and to hear his astonishing assumption again, this will do fine. Yvonne Howard was a sincere Leonore. One may have heard greater vocal power and beauty, but she convinced on stage, and navigated Beethoven’s often cruel demands without faltering. The Pizarro and Fernando were unimpressive, but Sarah Redgwick was a feisty, characterful Marzelline. Stephen Richardson was unusually credible as the compromised Rocco, who manages yet to do the right thing: a truly Beethovenian inspiration. Richardson’s fine command of the vocal text was a significant contributing factor here. Nicky Spence was equally convincing in the characterisation of Fuchs’s reappraised Jacquino. As for the dialogue, it is rarely anything but a trial when delivered by non-native speakers; I have heard worse though.

There were drawbacks, then, significantly so in terms of the musical direction. This is not a Fidelio one would wish simply to hear. But such are the production's strength and conviction that it remains necessary to see it.