Tuesday 28 August 2012

Prom 57: Zimmermann/GMYO/Gatti - Wagner, Berg, Strauss, and Ravel, 26 August 2012

Royal Albert Hall

Wagner – Parsifal: Prelude to Act III and ‘Good Friday Music’
Berg – Violin Concerto
Strauss – Suite: Der Rosenkavalier (attrib. Artur Rodziński)
Ravel – La Valse

Frank-Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

There is probably no finer Parsifal conductor alive than Daniele Gatti. It was once again a privilege to hear his shaping of music from Wagner’s final drama, even if I find it difficult to reconcile myself with the practice of performing ‘bleeding chunks’ as the ‘Good Friday Music’, and remain a little surprised at conductors with a deep understanding of Wagner’s works performing such snippets out of context in this way. (That is not, I hasten to add, a matter of ‘purism’, simply a feeling that the experience remains insufficient. There is nothing wrong, for instance, with performing the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger as a curtain-raiser. If it works, it works; but if it does not...) At any rate, there seemed something a little odd about starting with the opening to the third act. Nevertheless, the performance was of such dramatic intensity that one expected to hear Kundry groaning, and felt a little disoriented by a transition of sorts into the ‘Good Froday Music’. The Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra’s woodwind solos were especially fine, reminiscent of the Siegfried-Idyll. Gatti’s varied pacing proved unerring, some though by no means all of it unerringly slow; the crucial thing was the unbroken communication of Wagner’s melos.


It was perhaps noteworthy that, as with all the music on this programme, Gatti conducted the Berg Violin Concerto from memory. Gatti has a distinguished track-record in the music of the Second Viennese School; there could certainly be no doubting either his or Frank-Peter Zimmermann’s knowledge of the score. The GMYO woodwind again played with great intensity throughout, though Zimmermann’s account began in somewhat subdued fashion. (Perhaps it was partly a matter of the Royal Albert Hall’s dreadful acoustic.) I wondered whether it were too subdued, despite the apt impression of the ‘angelic’ thereby imparted, but it came to life during the Allegretto section of the first part. Gatti’s understanding of Berg’s twelve-note writing was abundantly clear in his shaping of woodwind lines in particular, pointing the way to the Bach chorale that would be fully sounded in the second part. There was, moreover, a winning Viennese lilt, rubato and all, to be heard to the rhythms. The second part opened with a vehemence previously lacking; there could be no doubting Zimmermann’s virtuosity here either. Moments of Mahlerian stillness were just as striking, the vistas (Carinthian?) that opened up as striking as anything in the music of another composer with whom Gatti has long exhibited a particular affinity. Zimmermann’s working out of serial processes, and more generally Berg’s motivic development, was as impressive as Gatti’s. The Andante from Bach’s A minor Sonata, BWV 1003, made for an apt, wonderfully intimate, encore.


If I continue to harbour doubt about performing extracts from Parsifal, feelings about the Rodziński (allegedly his work) suite from Der Rosenkavalier go beyond any conceivable understanding of reasonable doubt. Yes, of course it is always a pleasure with a fine orchestra and conductor to hear this music, but it could surely have been better put together; indeed, one sometimes wonders whether it could have been worse put together. It was all wonderfully performed, making one long to hear Gatti and indeed the orchestra in the work as a whole. The opening horns resounded with such magnificence that I had to check first that we remained in the Royal Albert Hall, and second that there were only four of them. (We had remained there, and there were only four.) Masses strings could barely have sounded more Straussian in the Act I Prelude, but the melying away after Strauss’s initial flourishes was every bit as impressive. Gatti pointed up echoes of Elektra without overdoing them; this was less a determinedly modernistic Rosenkavalier selection than a Romantic performance with a sense of alternatives. Throughout tone and textures were subtly variegated, even when the allocation of vocal lines to instrumentalists, however splendidly played, proved a little difficult to take. I was left wondering how much, if any, sense the selection would have made to someone unacquainted with the opera as a whole, but that was not the fault of the performance.


For that reason alone, La Valse proved more satisfying. I was struck from the outset at the ‘French’ quality of the sound Gatti drew from the orchestra, not unlike that which one would expect from his own Orchestre National de France. Ravel’s score sounded as if a painterly, Cézanne-like, phantasmagoria. It seemed to be taken faster than usual, though not excessively so, and the tempo was certainly not unvaried. The vortex into which the Viennese waltz whirled itself had a mechanistic, Stravinskian quality: Ravel viewed through the prism of The Rite of Spring. There was something finer to come, however, and despite my reservations concerning ‘bleeding chunks’, a rapt account of the Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger, the orchestra’s strings offering a challenge to any permanent opera or symphony orchestra. Again, one longed to hear Gatti in the complete work.

Mittwoch, Birmingham Opera Company, 25 August 2012

Greeted by a camel at the Argyle Works
Argyle Works, Birmingham

Kathinka Pasveer (sound projection: Wednesday Greeting, World Parliament, Michaelion, music direction)
Igor Kavulek (sound engineer)
BALANCE Audio-Media, Cologne (sound equipment)
Graham Vick (director)
Paul Brown (designs)
Giuseppe di Iorio (lighting)
Ron Howell (choreography)       
Sheelagh Barnard (technical director)
Richard Willacy (executive producer)

World Parliament
Representatives – Ex Cathedra (chorus master: Jeffery Skidmore)
President – Ben Thapa
Substitute President – Elizabeth Drury

Orchestra Finalists

Dan Bates (oboe), Jonathan Rees (cello), Vicky Wright (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon), Debs White (violin), Ian Foster (tuba), Karin de Fleyt (flute), Andrew Connington (trombone), Bridget Carey (viola), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Jeremy Watt (double bass), Mark Smith (French horn), David Waring (percussion)

Helicopter String Quartet

Elysian Quartet (Emma Smith, Jennymay Logan (violins), Vincent Sipprell (viola), Laura Moody (cello)
Moderator – DJ Nihal
Ian Dearden (sound projection)
Miles Fletcher, Will Samuelson, Alistair Badman, Nigel Burton, Chris Holland, Peter Driver (pilots)


Delegates – London Voices (chorus director: Ben Parry)
Operator – Michael Leibendgut
Chloé l’Abbé (flute), Fie Schouten (basset horn), Marco Blauuw (trumpet), Stephen Menotti (trombone), Antonio Pérez Abelián (synthesiser)
Lucicamel – Marie-Louise Crawley, Nathan Lafayette

A 'cup of yellow'
The first performances of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch – the world premiere took place on Mittwoch 22 August, the composer’s birthday, whilst I attended the last of four performances on Samstag – could hardly have failed to be an ‘event’ of the highest order: the last of the Licht cycle, in duration roughly twice the length of Wagner’s Ring, to receive its first full performance, though it was the sixth of the seven days to be composed. These performances were, if possible, rendered all the more extraordinary by being given not by an established opera house and company, but by the heroic Birmingham Opera Company, founded by director, Graham Vick, as a community project, run from an office comprised of just three full-time workers in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Productions are site-specific: ‘We don't have an opera house and we don't work in conventional theatres. We conjure our theatres out of spaces used for other purposes or maybe just abandoned. A brief period of illumination and then we move on – not tied to bricks and mortar.’  But then Stockhausen was hardly a conventional composer, let alone a conventional opera composer. The Argyle Works, a disused chemical factory, proved an excellent setting, not only in terms of its large, adaptable spaces, but also on account of a fine acoustic, doubtless testament to a great deal of expert preparation by sound engineers.

Despite its use of a 'super-formula', Mittwoch is not easy - certainly far less so than, say, Donnerstag, to consider as a unified work, especially in terms of narrative. Perhaps it would be more so as part of a complete cycle, perhaps not. But musically, the opening Greeting and Farewell, sound projection by the tireless Kathinka Pasveer, provide electronic material employed, if not throughout, then in two of the four intervening scenes, 'Orchestra Finalists' and 'Michaelion'. In a sense, it is up to the individual whether he should construct his own Mittwoch narrative, but in a sense, that is always the case: the situation, as so often with Stockhausen, is simply more extreme here. Mittwoch was first intended to be the only opera in which the cycle's three principal protagonists, for want of a better word than 'characters', (Eve, Lucifer, Michael) cooperate.As it happened, none of them actuallyt appears in straightforward fashion, though Eve and Lucifer are represented by 'emanations' (the latter in the bizarre form of 'Lucicamel' (German, Luzicamel), yes, a pantomime caamel), and the name of Michael is frequently invoked in apparent awe. Yet the idea of 'cooperation', related to the idea of 'love', remains: as Richarp Toop points out, 'almost uniquely in Stockhausen's work, this collaboration is political, in a parliamentary sense, in the inner ones, it is more specifically musical'. Even when it is political, it seems a hundred light-years, or whatever measurement Stockhausen would employ, from the political commitment of contemporaries such as Henze or Nono, let alone the younger Lachenmann. Stockhausen's (quasi?-)theological cosmogony remains the thing, for better and/or worse.

With ‘Wednesday Greeting’ (‘Mittwochs-Gruss), which originates from the electronic music of ‘Michaelion’ rather than the other way round, we were plunged into darkness, at least visually, whilst a four-track (quadraphonic) performance of music ‘very seldom reminiscent of this world and which awakens the universe of the fantasy’ (Stockhausen) unfolded. ‘Listening to music in the dark will become much more important in the future than it is today,’ Stockhausen wrote  in Electronic Art Music (2006), going on to say, ‘The main function of art music will be to make the souls of the listeners fly freely through the universes, with infinite new surprises.’ Whatever one thinks of that, the darkness certainly made one concentrate, and brought into relief choreographed moments – in a scenic rather than musical sense – that appeared all around us, just like the sounding of the music. Aspects of creation myths, old and new, flashed before our eyes, all superbly executed by a fine team of dancers. It is difficult not to respond favourably to the intense seriousness of Stockhausen’s vision, if, at the same time, it is difficult – at least for this viewer and listener – not to find an unintentional absurdity to it too. ‘Yellow is the colour’, apparently, so we left the first hall to progress to the ‘World Parliament’, passing an artist apparently pleasurably writhing in yellow paint that he poured over himself, perhaps the closest we came to conventional eroticism.


‘World Parliament’ (‘Welt-Parlament’) proved, apart from anything else, quite beautiful in an almost conventional a cappella choral sense. Praise could not be too high for the representatives, members of Ex Cathedra, conducted by the President, Ben Thapa. Love is the subject for debate, its meaning discussed in a manner that perhaps came easier to a child of the sixties than to many of us today. But even if sentiments, sometimes in invented tongues, sometimes in the vernacular, such as ‘Love resounds in your voice. Listen to your tone, to the sound of your voice, to GOD, because love must be in it,’ might be a little difficult to take for us, however beautifully sung by tenors joining forces, let alone the President’s ‘Positive thinking – that’s it!’, the ritual, choral and visual, was entrancing. Perched high on yellow stools, representatives with different world flags emblazoned upon their faces – I saw them in make-up when entering the factory – interacted, debated, apparently learned from each other. The substitute President, an ‘Eve emanation’, her coloratura wonderfully despatched by soprano Elizabeth Drury, takes office after a janitor called out the President on account of his car being towed away. Stockhausen admitted that he ‘very consciously made it that banal.’ Quite: perhaps it is a matter of that ‘German humour’ even we Teutonophiles find baffling in the extreme. However, it was the beauties of Stockhausen’s choral writing, apparently not entirely removed from some of his earliest works, that offered greater sustenance.


‘Orchestra Finalists’ (‘Orchester-Finalisten’) had us turn to the often staggering instrumental prowess of a fine group of musicians named above, octophonic electronic music following the progress of the instrumentalists. Again, Pavseer’s expertise here was crucial to the scene’s success. Suspended from the ceiling, splashing in a paddling pool, shouting, even, according to Stockhausen, ‘moving in an individual way and projecting their personal aura’, this extends ‘the way musicians publicly perform during music competitions’. You can say that again. In addition to the musicians’ antics, there was much else to divert the eye: dance, processional, including men in top hats with billowing smoke, a man with an aeroplane on his head...


The ‘Helicopter String Quartet’, premiered by the Ardittis but here performed by the Elysian Quartet, has become so notorious that it is difficult to know what to say about it. It is probably best to understand it as further evidence of Stockhausen’s extraordinary imagination, somehow both naïve and incredibly complex. As theatre it is quite a thing – and one should remember that Mittwoch is theatre, not ‘absolute’ music, whatever that might mean. Reports I had read were highly critical of Radio 1 DJ Nihal as Moderator. Perhaps anyone who was not Stockhausen himself would have come in for considerable criticism here. Yet the role is prescribed in the work and our Moderator offered at least one sound piece of advice, to try to listen to the music, that is, not simply to be wowed by the effect, relayed to us via four screens. That is difficult to do, but especially towards the end, I found myself increasingly able to listen to the notes, to hear the passing of notes, even lines, as well as the shouted numbers of the Lucifer formula, between the players, as well as hearing the interaction of instruments and helicopters. In the post-quartet discussion, the pilots acquitted themselves very well indeed, one of them (Nigel Burton, I think) revealing a gift for dry wit.
The final scene, 'Michaelion', perhaps brings us closer to something more operatic as generally understood, though we remain distant indeed from The Marriage of Figaro. Indeed, at times we seem closer to the world of Dr Who. The name 'Michaelion' makes reference to Constantine's fourth-century temple at Chalcedon in honour of the archangel Michael, but the 'World Parliament' has now turned intergalactic, with absurdity whose humour may or may not be intentional. Cosmological solidarity is summarised by the uniquely cooperative role played by Lucifer's 'emanation', Lucicamel, though passages such as the 'Shoe-Shine Serenade', the appearance of a huge bottle of champagne, and of course Lucicamel's defecation of seven planet-globes, paralleling the seven days of the week, tend to linger longer in the memory. Luca, who arises out of the camel, is appointed Operator, and responds to delegates' concerns in a short-wave form that harks back to 1960s works such as Kurzwellen. Once again, the choral singing, this time from London Voices, was beyond reproach, similarly Pasveer's sound projection and the expert instrumental playing, including a 'Bassetsu-Trio' for basset horn, trumpet, and trombone, symbolising Eve, Michael, and Lucifer, perhaps echoing in its way the eighteenth-century, Mozartian serenade 'entertainement', albeit this time for delegates. Emerging from this strange yet compelling tableau-cum-drama, we were offered a 'cup of yellow' to the strains of the electronic 'Wednesday Farewell' ('Mittwochs'Abschied').
An extraordinary experience, by any standards, for which all concerned, from Vick to the musicians and other artists, to the Arts Council, deserves a huge round of whatever passes for applause on Sirius. Now we need someone to stage Licht in its entirety.


Friday 24 August 2012

Hänsel und Gretel, Co-Opera Co., 23 August 2012

John McIntosh Theatre, London Oratory School
Gretel – Llio Evans
Hänsel – Susanne Holmes
Mother, Witch – Shuna Sendall
Father – Stephen John Svanholm
Sandman, Dew Fairy – Rahel Moore
James Bonas (director)
Carl Davies (designs)
Paul J Need (lighting)
Katie Higgins (costumes)
Co-Opera Co. Orchestra
Stephen Higgins (conductor)
After a couple of weeks taking in the delights and challenges of Salzburg and Bayreuth, I might well have become a little jaded. Not a bit of it, and not least on account of this delightful performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (sung here in English) by the enterprising Co-Opera Co. Even my prejudice, or considered opinion (delete as applicable), against opera in translation wilted away, though I remain some way from ever wishing to hear Figaro in German again, save for Furtwängler. David Pountney’s lively, intelligently unfaithful translation suited occasion and production to a tee, and, wonder of wonders, one could hear almost every word of it too.
I should also have been sceptical about the prospect of a reduced orchestration. Even if the orchestra took a little while to settle down – the Overture had its rocky moments – taken as a whole, this proved quite a treat. One does not expect the Staatskapelle Dresden, nor Sir Colin Davis, in such circumstances, but there were genuine compensations, the woodwind in particular shining, and inner parts emerging as if from a Mozart serenade. Stephen Higgins shaped Humperdinck’s lovable score with care and wisdom; we were not only in a safe pair of hands, but one with a sense of theatre too. If, in the abstract, I think of the score as a little too derivative, its Meistersinger-isms (with no apology for the near-Teutonism) verging upon plagiarism, in performance it rarely fails to lift the spirits and certainly did not fail to do so on this occasion. I was surprised, moreover, that I really did not miss the chorus at all; instead I was able to hear more of the orchestra and experience the relevant moments as if they were further ‘pantomimes’.
James Bonas’s production worked extremely well, set in the austerity – sound familiar? – of that ghastly decade, the 1950s. The Mother’s housewife get-up, the washing on the lines, the hollowness of ‘family values’, and of course the very real danger of child abuse therein, were present in our dramatic experience without being unduly hammered home. There was a genuinely chilling moment, however, when the Witch showed pictures of missing children on an overhead projector. Fairy tales, as everyone should know but a surprising number refuse to recognise, are anything but saccharine, and that becomes doubly so with the Brothers Grimm. The appearance of her house offered a genuine coup de théâtre, every aspect of the staging both imaginative and resourceful.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of Co-Opera Co., however, is the opportunity it provides for young singers, both in its workshops, graced by the likes of Sir Thomas Allen, the late Philip Langridge, Janis Kelly, Ryland Davies, et al., and in actual performances. I was especially taken by the rich tones of both Shuna Sendall as Mother and Witch and Rahel Moore, doubling up as Sandman and Dew Fairy. Both can act splendidly too, doubtless testament to intensive work from the company. Llio Evans and Susanne Holmes made a convincing, complementary sibling pair of girl and boy, whilst Stephen John Svanholm relished the comic side of his role as their father.
Future Co-Opera Co. Performances are scheduled for Wolverhampton, Croydon, Bury St Edmunds, Darlington, Wellingborough, Blackpool, Epsom, Staplehurst, Buxton, Manchester (RNCM), Yeovil, and Hertford: not all offering Hansel and Gretel, for Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute are on offer too. Those interested in assisting the excellent work of Co-Opera Co., whether financially, for instance by contributing to the Philip Langridge Bursary Fund or becoming a friend, or simply by attending performances, should e-mail Kate Flowers, the company's artistic director, at info@co-opera-co.org, or visit the website, https://www.co-opera-co.org.

Salzburg Festival (8) - Die Soldaten, 20 August 2012


Wesener – Alfred Muff
Marie – Laura Aikin
Charlotte – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Wesener’s Old Mother – Cornelia Kallisch
Stolzius – Tomasz Konieczny
Stolzius’s Mother – Renée Morloc
Countess de la Roche – Gabriela Beňačková
The Young Count – Matthias Klink
Desportes – Daniel Brenna
Pirzel – Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke
Eisenhardt – Boaz Daniel
Mary – Morgan Moody
Haudy – Matjaž Robavs
Obrist – Reinhard Mayr
Three Young Officers – Andreas Früh, Paul Schweinester, Clemens Kerschbaumer,
Andalusian Woman, Servant – Beate Vollack
Countess de la Roche’s Servant – Werner Friedl
Petty Officer, Captain – Volker Wahl
Madame Roux – Anna-Eva Köck
Young Petty Officer, Young Hunter – Rupert Grössinger
Drunken Officer – Frederik Götz
Eighteen Officers – Svilen Angelov, David Fliri, Benedikt Flörsch, Simon Förster, Frederik Götz, Rupert Grössinger, Ludwig Hohl, Robert Huschenbett, Nikolaij Janocha, Petter Lindahl, Thomas Mahlknecht, Matuš Mráz, Kiril Stoyanov, Alexander Tröger, Tihomir Tonchev, Justus Wilcken, Wei Wei, Domink Worni
Artist – Katharina Dröscher

Alvis Hermanis (director, set designs)
Eva Dessecker (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Gudrun Hartmann (assistant director)
Uta Gruber-Ballehr (assistant set designs)
Götz Leineweber (dramaturgy)

Jazz Combo:
Johannes Bauer (guitar)
Tony Ganev (double bass)
Rudolf Matajsz (trumpet)
Petkov Nedialko (clarinet)

Markus Stepanek, Hans-Josef Knaust (organ)
Michael Richter (celesta)
Jory Vinikour (harpsichord)
Günther Albers (piano)
Christoper Brandt (guitar)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

Images: Salzburg Festival/Ruth Walz
If some of the decisions concerning opera at this year’s Salzburg Festival may have raised eyebrows – the Magic Flute eschewing the Vienna Philharmonic for the astringent sounds of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Concentus musicus Wien, programming of both Carmen and La bohème – then this staging of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten offered redemption. A towering masterpiece of twentieth-century opera, its demands have so far ensured that performances have proved infrequent, to put it mildly. A festival such as Salzburg’s is just the place to begin to put that right. This first night would have granted every member of the audience ample justification to return home and to agitate for a staging as soon as possible. A proviso, of course, must be that such a work is performed well, for a poor or even mediocre performance does no one any favours; Salzburg’s production passed the test of excellence with flying colours.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was on form as wonderful as that for La bohème a couple of nights previously, a rebuke to those who would question its versatility. It would be folly, of course, to doubt the VPO’s recalcitrance in certain situations; this orchestra, rightly or wrongly, needs a conductor it respects. Then, just as it has performed challenging modernist music with enormous success for conductors such as Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez, it will play Zimmermann as if to the manner born. One might have thought Zimmermann as regular a guest at the Vienna State Opera as Mozart. Clearly the Viennese trust Ingo Metzmacher and enjoy playing for him; he certainly had the measure of Zimmermann’s score, much as one could imagine the work’s first conductor, Michael Gielen, having done. Rarely, if ever, though, could such depth as well as precision have been heard from the orchestra, here joined by a number of other fine musicians, placed on either side of the Felsenreitschule’s pit.

Marie (Laura Aikin), Desportes (Daniel Brenna), Wesener (Alfred Muff)

It is no exaggeration, moreover, to say that there was not a single weak link in the cast; this was a true company effort, a state of affairs all the more extraordinary given the size of that cast. Laura Aikin’s Marie showed herself as true a successor to Berg’s Marie as Zimmermann’s opera is to Wozzeck. Aikin’s was an astounding performance, marrying precision and intensity to the nth degree, never sentimentalising – though perhaps there is not time to do such a thing – and thereby rendering the plight of the poor girl who becomes the ‘soldiers’ whore’ (Soldatenmensch) all the more chillingly plausible. Gabriela Beňačková was, quite rightly, acclaimed with enormous warmth as the Countess de la Roche. It is not just that hers is such a sympathetic character, seeking to understand Marie and to take her in, but that Beňačková, radiant of voice, treated and expressed the character’s situation with every bit as great humanity as one would expect in Mozart or Janáček. Alfred Muff’s Wesener, Marie’s father, was a conflicted soul, drawing one in and yet counselling against all-too-easy empathy. Tomasz Konieczny’s Stolzius was a tragic, lovelorn, and yet determined, figure, affording a fine contrast with Daniel Brenna’s Desportes, whom he would poison to avenge Marie’s fate. Brenna managed to render credible both the initial charms to which Marie fell victim and increasingly the repellent nature of the character and his class once he and it had had their fill. Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke made a typically memorable high-tenor impression as Pirzel, Boaz Daniel similarly impressing in philosophical debate as the army chaplain. But as characters came and went, interacted with each other, with memories of each other, their scenes unfolding or flashing past sequentially or simultaneously, the cast was so much more than even the sum of its very fine parts.

Captain Mary (Morgan Moody), Reinhard Mayr (Obrist,
Count of Spannheim), Ensemble
Alvis Hermanis’s production proved both faithful and unfaithful, productively so. Some may well have regretted the loss of film, but if film may be employed to clarify staging, I see no reason why staging should not be employed to attain similar ends to film. Perhaps there were elements in the production that simplified the almost diabolically – in a good sense – complex action of Zimmermann’s opera, but there was still a great deal with which to be taxing one’s mind, eyes, and ears. The stage constantly reinvented itself, and yet constantly remained the same. Some action took place behind windows through which we observed observers observing. Who were the voyeurs, the soldiers masturbating as they watched Marie, or us watching them? The use to which the Felsenreitschule itself was put was highly inventive, the building coming into its own through lighting (Gleb Filshtinsky) and increasing encroachments of the stage action. Marie’s – or rather Katharina Dröscher’s – tight-rope walking above the stage may not have been the most subtle of metaphors, but it enthralled, highwire ‘spectacle’ in the best sense. Indeed, so taken in was I that I initially thought it was Aikin, and that somehow she would walk the tightrope and sing – a tightrope of its own. Equally inventive use was made of straw, absolving us of the necessity to watch every act, whilst enticing us and yet reminding us of the eighteenth-century setting. Costumes, by the way, were almost impeccably ‘traditional’, and there were real horses as well as a stone Felsenreitschule horse's head to be provocatively ridden, not that ‘traditionalists’ would be likely to have much interest in a work such as this, preferring the vulgarity of opera as ‘beautiful’ entertainment.  

Katharina Dröscher
The truest compliment I can pay to this fine production is to say that, emotionally drained though I was by the end, I had no other desire than to see it again, to experience more of what, musically and scenically, I had doubtless missed from a single performance. Quotations, most celebratedly of all, the chorale, ‘Ich bin’s, ich sollte büßen,’ from the St Matthew Passion, inevitably haunted, questioned, brought into shattering perspective the entirety of the German musico-dramatic tradition that arguably had begun with Bach. Yet this was no exercise in nostalgia: it was raw, contemporary music drama (just, of course, as Bach’s works are, or would be, were  they performed as something more than a pseudo-archaeological exercise). The ‘excessive demands’ (Metzmacher) placed upon the singers in the third toccata, with which the fourth and final act opens, remained long in the minds ear, the most extreme complexity and simultaneity of all, here performed live rather than recorded, as has often been the case, at the composer’s recommendation. Emphasis was lain throughout upon live performance rather than recording or other electronic elements: not the only solution to the score’s difficulties, but on this evidence, a more than plausible, quite convincing, path to follow – assuming the requisite technical excellence. What perhaps lingered longest in the memory, indeed still does, was the final dying away into nothingness, Marie’s destruction at the hands of a brutal, militarised society finally put beyond doubt. For all the complexity of the work, Metzmacher’s words provide a simple, yet all-encompassing conclusion: ‘Marie lies destroyed on the ground. The father [who has failed to recognise in this beggar his own daughter] walks slowly away. One instrument after the other stops playing. The light is extinguished.’

Salzburg Festival (7) - Pollini: Beethoven, 19 August 2012

Grosses Festspielhaus

Piano Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Maurizio Pollini’s series of five Royal Festival Hall recitals, spanning music from Bach to Stockhausen, was not only a highlight of the music year for 2011; it must rank as a highlight of the century so far. If that sounds like hyperbole, then I may as well go a little further. Once into his stride, after a slightly glassy-sounding first movement to op.109, he at least matched, perhaps at times even surpassed, the identical programme he gave in London – though the latter had the signal advantage of being performed without an interval, unlike this Salzburg performance.

If Pollini’s tone in the first movement of the E major sonata took a little time to warm, there was intriguing compensation in its inscrutability. It invited, perhaps, but in a modernistic sense that posed questions and certainly offered no easy answers. The second movement truly shocked, coming close but never quite attaining dissolution. This again was Beethoven as Boulez might understand him, indeed arguably Beethoven going beyond even the latter’s Second Sonata. The finale offered nothing so banal as mere contrast, but in the dignity, the noble simplicity of its song, a dialectical negation, whose musical proliferation, not least in the extraordinary cantilena, peered at least as far into the world of developing variation and serialism as Boulez and Stockhausen. The wonders of Beethovenian variation form and sheer sublimity of those trills were rendered yet more unworldly – and yet utterly human – by the unerring rightness, both in work and performance, of the syncopation. One felt almost that the work was being composed anew, which in a sense it was, the unbroken line of Pollini’s performance testament to the most profound analytical and dramatic understanding. The conclusion brooked no response.

The opening to op.110 exhibited none of the slight distancing of that to its predecessor. Here Pollini seemed immediately at ease, almost as if this were an encore. The sublimity – sorry to repeat myself, but no other word will do – was indubitable, but there was nothing precious to the performance, the turn to the minor mode passionate, if perhaps a more mediated passion than one might encounter in earlier Beethoven. One could only marvel at the extraordinary concision, all the more so given that the performance never felt in the slightest rushed. (That, of course, is the key; impetuosity leads to garbling, not to succinctness.) Greater flexibility than Pollini might once have allowed himself was to be heard in the second movement. At one point, I even wondered whether it might prove too much of a good thing, but that was my own faint-heartedness, since the pianist knew precisely what he was doing and drew everything together with a perfection that never chilled, permitting the music’s sheer strangeness fully to register. I am not sure that I have ever heard the rare world of piano arioso, poised between song and recitative, so beautifully represented and yet so probingly interrogated as in the opening to the third movement. Vocal flowering appeared to go beyond what any mere voice might accomplish – save in the St Matthew Passion. The fugue may have opened in Bachian fashion, but it was soon very much of the nineteenth century at least, harmonic necessity assuming the lead. This was at least as much a trial as serenity, the dialectic between the two proceeding in a tonal arena that could only make sense – and then only just – in the age of the sonata.

The opening chords of op.111 were presented, indeed lived, with almost Lisztian vehemence, though it was immediately clear that this was very different music. Other ghosts of the musical future made fleeting appearances, the rumbling trills clearly prescient of Schubert’s own final piano sonata. And yet the titanic struggle, whilst obviously not something on which Beethoven holds a monopoly, could only truly have been his, the dialectical relationship between violent gesture and, again, noble simplicity rendered utterly personal. Again this was perhaps more fluid than would once have been the case with Pollini: this was very much ‘late’ or, better, ‘recent’ style. Anyone who doubts that this is music every bit as difficult as anything in Boulez or Stockhausen would have been silenced by this performance, Beethoven’s youthful fury aufgehoben (both negated and preserved). Sublimity and (deceptive) simplicity shone through the first statement of that ineffably sad theme to the second movement – despite appalling disruption from some elements in the audience. Already here, and still more in the first variation, was a revelation of near-Mozartian smiling through tears, the Classical tension between tonic major and minor receiving in this sonata a near-definitive exploration. The second variation suggested triumph of the indomitable human spirit – and I make no apology for the Romantic descriptions, to which Pollini’s and any genuine modernism stand anything but opposed. Proliferation was again the key to understanding the variations’ progress – far more than the unfortunate English-language programme note. (How could anyone really think of anything so banal as Scott Joplin here?!) And yet, I must immediately contradict myself, for there can never be a single key to understanding so complex a work and performance. The complexity – emotional as much as anything else – of what is allegedly the most straightforward of all tonalities proved another aid to understanding, similarly the contest and perhaps reconciliation between human and divine.

One might have expected Pollini to have left things there; after all, what could possibly follow op.11?. Bach, perhaps? There was, however, an alternative: encore performances, by turns rapt and vehement, of two late Bagatelles, op.126, nos 3 and 4. An audience which had coughed, shuffled, talked, rummaged in handbags, even, during the first encore, taken a photograph, may not have deserved these performances, but Beethoven did.

Salzburg Festival (6) - La bohème, 18 August 2012

Grosses Festspielhaus

Rodolfo – Piotr Beczala
Mimi – Anna Netrebko
Marcello – Massimo Cavalletti
Musetta – Nino Machaidze
Schaunard – Alessio Arduini
Colline - Carlo Colombara
Benoît – David Fersini
Alcindoro – Peter Kálmán
Parpignol – Paul Schweinester
Parpignol (Artist) – Steven Forster
Customs Sergeant – Liviu Gheorghe Burz
Customs Officer – Michael Wilder
Hawker – Martin Müller

Damiano Michieletto (director)
Paolo Fantin (set designs)
Carla Teti (costumes)
Martin Gebhardt (lighting)
Kathrin Brunner (dramaturgy)
Nikos Lagousakos (choreographical assistance) 

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

Images: Salzburg Festival/Silvia Lelli

It is difficult to speak with excessive enthusiasm of the programming of a Salzburg Festival that included both Carmen and La bohème, though it would subsequently be redeemed in part by a staging of Die Soldaten. That said, La bohème proved more successful in almost every way than the relatively disappointing Carmen seen earlier in the week.

Above all, this was a triumph – perhaps predictable, but none the less worth of mention for that – for Daniele Gatti and the Vienna Philharmonic. This was the first time during this year’s Festival in which I had heard the VPO on top form – though it would not be the last. The comparison may be odious but it made me realise quite what had been missing in the Welsh National Opera performance I had heard in June. Wagnerisms abound, of course, but it takes a great conductor truly to relish them like this and to transmute them into something quite personal to Puccini. Harmony and orchestration are really what is most interesting about the composer’s work, however naggingly memorable some of his melodies might be. Gatti presided over an orchestral performance comparable to his Salzburg Elektra a couple of years ago, the sheer depth of tone resounding throughout the Grosses Festspielhaus as impressive as the shimmering, translucent beauties of Puccini’s more modernistic passages. Pacing was irreproachable, permitting the story and, most important, the score to unfold as they would, rather than imposing an irrelevant external framework upon them; unity was thereby enhanced rather than detracted from.

Mimi (Anna Netrebko)
The cast was first-rate too. Piotr Beczala has often sounded too Italianate, indeed too Puccini-like, in much of the repertoire in which I have heard him; this is clearly where he is most at home. The odd moment at which I thought less might have been more aside, there was nothing for which to reproach him here and much to laud. If ultimately Rodolfo is hardly the most interesting of roles, Beczala did what he could with it, dynamic range and shading especially noteworthy. Likewise, unsurprisingly, for Anna Netrebko’s Mimi, a star turn if ever there were one. Netrebko truly inhabited the role, both more generally and with particular reference to Damiano Michieletto’s production too. Many of the more celebrated opera singers in this repertoire might have disdained a production that failed vulgarly to flatter them ; Netrebko relished the contemporary setting and the emphasis upon Mimi as disadvantaged. Her voice was in excellent repair, soaring gloriously above the equally glorious orchestra. I had not come across Nino Machaidze before, but her sexy, intelligent Musetta made me hope that I shall do so again soon. Massimo Cavalletti’s Marcello put not a foot wrong; nor indeed did any member of the ‘supporting’ cast. Choral singing was of the highest standard throughout – an often overlooked aspect, crucial to a successful performance of this opera.
Rodolfo (Piotr Beczala) and Mimi

In a sense, there was nothing especially radical about Michieletto’s production, though given what most houses present for La bohème, one could say that even the very fact of moving the action to the twenty-first century shows a thirst for adventure. (In this of all operas, there is surely an imperative, albeit incessantly flouted, to rid a staging of every last ounce of sentimentality.) Costumes alone, designed with flair by Carla Teti, would doubtless have had self-appointed ‘traditionalists’ spluttering: a good in itself, though hardly enough. Designs were splendid: spectacular in a good rather than vulgar-Zeffirelli sense. The Paris street and metro map that unfolded from time to time was really rather fun. Act Three’s sense of an urban, frozen wasteland, replete with obligatory burger van, was chilling, in more than one sense.  Yet the production had subtler virtues too, foremost amongst which should be accounted the space it permitted one to question the work and assumptions one might hold about it. Whilst I cannot (yet?) bring myself quite to accept the metatheatrical claims made for the opera by some, however much more interesting they might make it, there was to be discovered here, even if this were not the director’s intention, an indictment of the selfishness of youth. Where Michieletto spoke of celebration, it was equally possible, and indeed in my case more so, to recognise from experience the shallow posing and disingenuousness of student-style declarations of love, purpose, and principle. Mimi became a more interesting victim, or perhaps better, the circumstances that brought about her fate became sharpened, without turning the opera into something that it was not. I wonder how this will be received in Shanghai, with whose Grand Theatre this is a co-production.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Salzburg Festival (5) - Capuçon/Mozarteum/Bolton, 18 August 2012


Mozart – Divertimento in F major, KV 247, ‘First Lodron Night Music’
Mozart – Violin Concerto no.4 in D major, KV 218
Mozart – Rondo for violin and orchestra in B-flat major, KV 269
Haydn – Symphony no.103 in E-flat major, ‘Drum Roll’

Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)

An attractive enough programme, this, even if it looked a little as if it had been thrown together rather than considered conceptually. The Mozarteum Orchestra for the most part played very well, less hampered than one might have expected by the use of natural brass (though there were exceptions). Likewise Renaud Capuçon was on splendid form. One could have had worse than Ivor Bolton – for instance, most of his ‘authenticke’ confreres – but it was difficult to find anything that would not have been better done by a good number of other conductors, or indeed by none.

Playing the First Lodron Night Music one-to-a-part is a perfectly justifiable decision, though arguably a little perverse when one has an orchestra to hand. Whether, played in this matter, it benefits from having a conductor is another matter. Often the players seemed to be managing perfectly well without Bolton, whose sub-Bernstein flailing around appeared out of all proportion to discernible results. After a slightly worrying start, the solo strings showed themselves sensible with respect to vibrato; it would only really be when Capuçon  joined them that one realised what one had been missing. (I am not at all sure, however, why the programme claimed that the divertimento would be prefaced by the March, KV 248;  I find it difficult to believe that I somehow missed it in performance.)  Speeds were generally unexceptionable: one should give Bolton credit for that in an age when the general practice is anything but. The exception to the unexceptionable was the second minuet, taken at absurdly breackneck speed, almost overshooting the scherzo level. The two slow movements were nicely differentiated between Andante grazioso and Adagio, even if both might in other hands profitably have been taken a little more slowly. Harmonic motion, however, was conveyed far more successfully by the players when listening to each other than when observing Bolton’s direction. His conception seemed to be entirely sectional; indeed, it proceeded for the most part phrase to phrase.

Capuçon’s tone was as bright as his phrasing was sensitive. (And I certainly do not mean that as a backhanded compliment.) To all intents and purposes these seemed to be his readings, and were all the better for it, Bolton actually proving quite a supportive accompanist. Occasionally, I might have longed for a little more in the way of darkness, though especially during the slow movement of the fourth violin concerto, that was not absent. Cleanness of tone was never clinical; it was simply an indication that the soloist was able to play the notes – rarer than one might expect. That direction lacking in parts of the divertimento was certainly present here. Moreover, Capuçon’s singing tone imparted more of a sense of the serenade than had generally been afforded earlier. What a joy it was to hear the Rondeau played at a sensible tempo – it is marked Andante grazioso – thereby permitting passagework to sound brilliant without being garbled. Following the interval, the B-flat Rondo, KV 269, offered a lively, equally lovable pendant.  Capuçon has mastered that necessary quality of making Mozart performance sound like the easiest thing in the world when, as anyone who has ever attempted it knows, it is actually the most difficult. Rhythmic and harmonic understanding were as one, even – arguably, especially – during the cadenzas.

Haydn’s ‘Drum Roll’ Symphony would doubtless have been mauled far more by more exhibitionistic ‘period’ practitioners. (Though if the best one can say is ‘not very good’, as opposed to charlatan, the situation is far from rosy.) It is, by the same token, not difficult to imagine more absurd, attention-seeking interpretations of the drum roll itself, but again that is not in itself a commendation. Once again, the score, the first movement in particular, proceeded in sectional fashion. How I longed for the harmonic understanding Daniel Barenboim recently showed in his Proms Beethoven cycle. The slow movement, though taken fast, was acceptable enough, save for the perverse rasping noise inflicted by ‘period’ brass at high volume. There was still little sense, however, of how the movement might be considered as a whole, nor indeed of the sophistication of Haydn’s variation form. Somehow the minuet contrived both to be taken one-to-a-bar and yet also to sound sluggish; again, harmony is, or should be the key, here. The finale simply galloped along. Haydn is so very much more interesting than this strange quasi-reversion to ‘Papa Haydn’-type suggested. At least we can return to Jochum, Davis, et al. ...

Salzburg Festival (4) - Carmen, 17 August 2012

Grosses Festspielhaus

Moralés – Andrè Schuen
Micaëla – Genia Kühmeier
Don José – Jonas Kaufmann
Zuniga – Christian van Horn
Carmen – Magdalena Kožená
Frasquita – Christina Landshamer
Mercédès – Rachel Frenkel
Lillas Pastia – Barbara Spitz
Escamillo – Kostas Smoriginas
Le Dancaïre – Simone del Savio
Le Remendado – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt

Aletta Colllins (director, choreography)
Miriam Buether (set designs)
Gabrielle Dalton (costumes)
Andreas Fuchs (lighting)
Peter Blaha (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chours (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger) Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)


Image: Salzburg Festival/Lugi Caputo
It is a little difficult to know what to say about this Carmen, reprised from the 2012 Salzburg Easter Festival. There was much that was admirable. There were no weak performances, though it is arguable that the title role might have been more appropriately cast. The production did its job perfectly serviceably. We had the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, and it played well, if some way from unforgettably. Yet expectations, especially with such a cast, were only intermittently fulfilled.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the conductor, Sir Simon Rattle. Rattle has long shown great strength in French repertoire: Debussy, Ravel, and Messiaen come to mind, likewise his interest in Rameau, though I have yet to hear the latter. Whilst Carmen might not be the most obvious opera for him to conduct, it seems less strange in that context, especially when one considers Rattle’s recent and imminent broadening of his operatic interests. (Manon Lescaut will, so far as I am aware, mark his first foray into nineteenth-century Italian opera.) I am speculating, but can only assume that Rattle’s intention – leaving aside the occasional tendency to linger excessively, less on show here than in some of his recent, unbearable symphonic odysseys – was to restore to the work the intimacy that arguably should be its birthright, originating in the Opéra-Comique rather than the grand Paris Opéra. Certainly there was a great deal that was subdued, but that is not quite the same as intimacy. And the problem remained that this performance was taking place in the Grosses Festspielhaus, not in a small theatre. What above all I missed was a greater orchestral bite, incisiveness far too often lacking. Rattle seemed as though he would have been far more comfortable conducting Pelléas; in the audience, I could not help but wish that Daniel Barenboim, at present in Salzburg to perform a Schubert piano cycle, had been in the pit.

Rattle’s approach seemed to inform the vocal performances too, even that of Jonas Kaufmann. There is no doubting the excellence of Kaufmann in this – and so much other – repertoire, of course, but a little more abandon might not have gone amiss. He sang beautifully, and would doubtless have put most others to shame; however, memories of his Don José at Covent Garden were certainly not effaced. Magdalena Kožená sang well too, yet it was difficult to feel that this was really her role, either vocally or visually. Again, she sounded as if she would have been happier in Debussy. Mediterranean passion, let alone gypsy seduction, is not her thing; she might have been better advised not to attempt the castanets. Kostas Smoriginas was suffering from some variety of indisposition – chattering from a neighbour prevented me from hearing what, though a pre-performance announcement was made – so it is probably unfair to judge his Escamillo. From what I heard, he sang intelligently, but the lower range was a little obscured, and I have seen greater swagger. That may, of course, have been related to his physical condition. Andrè Schuen offered an attractively voiced Moralés and Christian van Horn an impressive Zuniga. The star of the show for me, Kaufmann notwithstanding, was Genia Kuhmeier as Micäela. Her beauty of tone and evident sincerity truly took the breath away; there seemed moreover, more genuine interaction between her and Kaufmann than between him and his Carmen. Choral singing, the children included, was excellent throughout.

Aletta Collins offered a vaguely updated, yet generally traditional production, with a little added dance, as one might expect from a choreographer. The dancers, too many to name individually, all performed highly creditably, though one might have expected Collins to offer them a little more to do, or at least for what they had to do to be a little more interesting, especially in this opera. Otherwise, Seville looked pretty much as one might expect. It was only in the final scene that I realised there had been any updating, apparently to the 1950s or thereabouts. Nothing, so far as I could discern, was made of this chronological shift; there were no Franco references, nor indeed any obvious indication of a directorial concept. The production served its purpose and was not embarrassing as Francesca Zambello’s ‘let’s drag on a donkey’ crowd-pleaser had been. Yet it was difficult not to wish for a little more in terms of insight.

All in all, then, I was put in mind of the dread word ‘lauwarm’ (lukewarm), which sometimes precedes unappetising potato salads on German menus. This was not quite what Nietzsche had in mind when, pitting Bizet against Wagner, he declared, ‘il faut méditerranéiser la musique’. And yet it was not entirely divorced from what he seems to have had in mind either. I can imagine that the performance might come across better in a smaller venue, more redolent of the Opéra-Comique, or indeed on the just-issued EMI CD set, yet, despite Zambello’s resolutely unchallenging production for the Royal Opera, those fancying Kaufmann in Carmen might be better off with the DVD.