Monday 22 August 2011

Salzburg Festival (1) - Le Rossignol and Iolanta (concert performances), 20 August 2011

Grosses Festspielhaus

Nightingale – Julia Novikohova
Cook – Julia Lezhneva
Fisherman – Antonio Poli
Emperor of China – Andrei Bondarenko
Chamberlain – Andrè Schuen
Bonze – Yuri Vorobiev
Death – Maria Radner
Soprano solo – Claudio Galli
Contralto solo – Theresa Holzhauser
Tenor solo, First Japanese Emissary – Andrew Owens
Second Japanese Emissary – Derek Welton
Third Japanese Emissary – Elliot Madore

Iolanta – Anna Netrebko
Count Vaudémont – Piotr Beczala
King René – John Relyea
Ibn-Hakia – Evgeny Nikitin
Robert, Duke of Burgundy – Alxey Markov
Alméric – Antonio Poli
Bertrand – Yuri Vorobiev
Martha – Maria Radner
Julia Lezhneva – Brigitta
Rachel Frankel – Laura

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Jörn H Andresen)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)

I first heard The Nightingale as a schoolboy, watching a BBC television broadcast conducted by Boulez. Though I instantly fell in love with the work, and have remained fond of it, opportunities to hear it seem bewilderingly infrequent: this indeed was my first live performance, and even then only in concert. Though the singing was often very good, I am afraid to say it was let down by the listless direction of Ivor Bolton. I had not thought of him previously in terms of Russian music, and shall certainly not do so now. Colours that should sound beautiful, ravishing even, were here merely nondescript. If one strained, there might be a little Debussy to be heard here and there, but one should not have to strain. The Wagnerisms – and there are many more than one might expect – were nowhere to be heard at all. As for post-Rimsky orientalism, of whatever persuasion, this was by comparison as grey as a slab of concrete. That extraordinary opening to the second act, in which St Petersburg telegraph wire should meet a Franco-Russian Orient fell utterly flat, given the lack of harmonic urgency. God forbid that Bolton should be let loose – and this conducting was loose indeed – upon The Rite of Spring. Nor was there any real sense of harmonic progression. That the singing still registered must be accounted a compliment to the cast. Julia Novikhova naturally stood out as the Nightingale: hers is a beautiful, clean, agile voice, ideally suited to the role. Maria Radner’s Death chilled yet somehow also exuded beguiling warmth, whilst Andrè Schuen impressed in the small yet far from insignificant role of the Chamberlain. They deserved better, though, much better. What generally seems to fly by seemed to last forever.

If anything, Bolton’s conducting of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta began in still worse fashion, though it would improve. The orchestral introduction sounded – and looked – as if it were conducted by a band master, beat to beat, laborious and with no sense of what might connect one note to another, let alone one phrase or period to another. This certainly was not pointillistic – that might have been interesting – but merely dull and inept. Forget the idea that Tchaikovsky’s melodies might soar: or at least rely entirely upon the singers for them to do so. The Mozarteum Orchestra did what it could; indeed, its sound was often gorgeous, if a little on the small side. But it and the singers were more often than not constricted. When, later on, Bolton seemed to attempt something a little more unbuttoned and idiomatic, his flailing around was both visually off-putting and seemingly disconnected from the results. Again, the singers provided a great deal of compensation. Anna Netrebko was simply outstanding in the title role, whose style and character she inhabited as completely as I could imagine (in the circumstances). It is a long time since I have heard a soprano soar so effortlessly and brilliantly above a Romantic orchestra, though her intimacy was equally affecting. Netrebko clearly itched to portray the blind princess on stage, but nevertheless succeeded both in moving and in exhilarating. Indeed, it was in her duet with Piotr Beczala as Vaudémont that the best was brought out of him: thrillingly operatic in a (mostly) good sense, though the audience’s philistine applause impeded what dramatic flow they had managed to impart. Bolton should have driven the music on regardless, but simply stopped and then started again. Earlier on, Beczala sounded unduly Italianate: more a ‘star tenor’, albeit with sometimes alarmingly wide vibrato, than the embodiment of a character, his persistent vocal sob a poor parody of late Pavarotti, minus the personality. John Relyea, however, proved a splendidly sonorous King René, who yet somehow managed to be outshone by the stunning, virile Duke Robert of Alexey Markov. His aria is perhaps a little too much dramatically, but it impressed tremendously on its own terms. Let us hope for a staging soon, but from a conductor with some feeling, and preferably more than that, for Tchaikovsky – and either a more appropriate coupling or none at all.