Thursday 30 May 2013

Philharmonia/Salonen - Debussy, Varèse, Stravinsky: Centenary Performance of The Rite of Spring

Royal Festival Hall

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Varèse – Amériques
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) 

Another week, another anniversary. Ubiquitous though it may be, and though it might, like Mahler’s symphonies in this if in little else, benefit from fewer, better performances, The Rite of Spring surely deserves mention in its centenary. One can argue about whether it, or Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, premiered the previous year, had the greater ‘influence’; that will largely come down to what one decides to mean by that notoriously slippery term. But since that legendary premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the Rite has passed not simply through the vessel of its creator, as Stravinsky famously put it, but into our collective consciousness. That has not always been a good thing; too many of today’s performances treat it as a mere orchestral showpiece, reduce it to the level of slightly spicier Rimsky-Korsakov. Boulez’s analysis, available in his Relevés d’apprenti (‘Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship’), should be required reading for anyone tempted to proceed down that path. Certainly anyone having heard Boulez conduct the work is unlikely ever to forget the experience. (I am fortunate to have done so twice.) So, a hundred years on, performing the Rite brings its own challenges, not least, how does one make it shock anew?

Clever programming helps – but all too often that can fall down unless performances match it not only in quality but in conception. Fortunately, Esa-Pekka Salonen hit or rather engendered the jackpot in both respects. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is as good a candidate as any for the first piece of twentieth-century music. Its composer would famously give a two-piano performance of The Rite, with its composer, and minus its final ‘Sacrifical Dance’, in 1912. More importantly here, Salonen imparted a marriage of warmth and coolness that presaged a similar dialectical confrontation in the second half. The performance, conducted but not micromanaged, was wondrously flexible, especially when it came to Samuel Coles’s delicious flute arabesques. The Philharmonia strings were on far better form than they had been for last week’s Wagner anniversary concert: rich, even glamorous in their sheen, though not too much, and only when truly given their head. And the climax may well have been the most erotic I have heard, positively Tristan-like (think of the opening of the second act) in its pulsations. Except, of course, Wagner’s metaphysics are gone, replaced not with Strauss’s Nietzschean materialism but with Debussy’s far more radical indeterminacy. Boulez, a master conductor of The Rite, not to mention one of the greatest composers of the later twentieth century, stood not so very far away. Likewise Mallarmé – and his union with Boulez in Pli selon pli.

Varèse was present at that first Rite performance in Paris, prior to his emigration. Amériques was his first large-scale work following his arrival, though here it was given in the reduced, 1927 scoring. (The orchestra is still huge!) Its opening alto flute solo necessarily brought back memories of Debussy’s Prélude, though the specific instrument, here splendidly played by Rowland Sutherland, with equally necessity brought to mind Boulez, also a master conductor of Varèse, and Le Marteau sans maître. A New World cityscape it may be, at least at some level, but Amériques under Salonen also gave us presentiments of the primæval stirrings of The Rite. He was equally deft at imparting dramatic form and inevitability to a work which, in lesser hands, can all too easily sound sprawling. Lest that sound dry, I can assure you that this was also a riot to put to shame those dubious events at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées., a riot that took upon itself many forms of wildness. And what a tremendous conclusion! Salonen visibly willed the orchestra to a still higher decibel count, its noise finally managing to drown out the coughing couple – it is, apparently, still more fun with a partner – seated behind me

Such was the power of that performance of Amériques that I worried Salonen’s Rite might pale somewhat. Quite the contrary: this proved a performance to match one I thought I should never hear approached, from Boulez and the LSO. The challenges were new, of course; that first bassoonist never had to vie with an accursed mobile telephone, but I doubt that he could possibly have matched Amy Harman in richness of tone or precision, initiating duly weird – in the very best sense – responses from her orchestral colleagues. Salonen’s sense of flow here at the opening was similar to that in Prélude à l’après-midi; consciously or otherwise, links were being forged. Ghosts of Petrushka began to dance on acid. Yet something older and newer was getting under way – and it truly felt, in mind and body alike, as though it were a celebration, a rite. All those pointless showpiece performances were forgotten; this was the real thing. Presentiments of later Stravinsky, for instance the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, were offered – but in a sense they were not, for whereas that later masterwork is frozen, almost objet-like, here it was part of a gigantic, world-changing thaw.  There were a few slips here and there, but they mattered little or nothing, unless one were missing the point to Beckmesser-like proportions.

This, then, was a performance that combined, indeed brought into fruitful conflict, various opposing forces – just like the work itself, and its plot. It was viscerally exciting and musically satisfying; it was as sardonic as Stravinsky’s own performances, yet benefited from far greater orchestral weight and, dare I say, theatrical imagination. In that sense, it did what seem people claim to hear in Gergiev’s performances, though I have found them mostly an incoherent mess. And those dancing reminiscences of Petrushka kept coming. Tension was maintained until the sudden close of the first part. Then we found ourselves in territory similar and yet quite changed. It soon became clear what had changed; the fate, quite inescapable, of the chosen one had been ordained. Now we could only sit it out, fearful and yet complicit, indeed relishing it; for it felt that we were involved, dramatically, almost as if in a Wagner drama. (We have not even really begun to relate the tale of Stravinsky’s debts to his supposed antithesis.) Alluring sweetness, not in the least cloying, characterised rich violas. Controlled delirium marked the evocation of the ancestors. I could list many such wonderful features of the Philharmonia’s outstanding performance. However, the crucial thing was not just that they added up to more than the sum of their parts, but that Stravinsky’s miraculous score was communicated and experienced as a searing drama. Just as drums hammered blood-lust and carnage into our immediate consciousness – a word to which my thoughts keep returning – so was the final nail hammered into Stravinsky’s absurd claim that music could not express anything other than itself. The Rite was experienced as vividly as the Symphonie fantastique, yet penetrated far deeper into our collective consciousness, the consciousness of our so-called ‘civilisation’, shown to be anything but. It emerged as a work of 2013, not 1913.

Tuesday 28 May 2013

Van Bloss/London Octave - Handel, Mozart, and Bach, 27 May 2013

St Martin in the Fields

Handel – Solomon: ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.13 in C major, KV 415
Bach – Piano Concerto no.7 in G minor, BWV 1058
Mozart – Adagio and Fugue in C minor, KV 546
Mozart – Serenade in G minor, KV 525, ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’

Nick van Bloss (piano)
London Octave
Andrew Watkinson (director)
The LSO’s free Berlioz concert in Trafalgar Square coincided awkwardly with the first half of this concert at St Martin in the Fields; one’s heart went out to the performers. In the circumstances, a desire to rush through The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba was not entirely unforgivable; once one’s ears adjusted to the very quick tempo, there was cultivated playing to be heard from the members of London Octave, twelve-strong, despite the name. Intonation was more of a problem during parts of Mozart’s neglected C major Piano Concerto, KV 415. (It doubtless suffers from comparisons with two brothers in the same key.) Fortunately, Nick van Bloss offered compensation with the piano part. True majesty was imparted to the first movement, despite the lack of trumpets and drums (and woodwind). A more yielding approach announced itself during each movement’s cadenza. The slow movement in particular offered ample evidence of the pianist’s skill in spinning a line; as long as it lasted, it was sung, with not a hint of the choppiness that bedevils so much contemporary Mozart performance. A fine balance, moreover, was struck between the ‘hunting’ high spirits – never, of course, unalloyed in Mozart – and the minor mode Adagio material in the finale. Whilst it would hardly be plausible to claim that the other orchestral instruments were not missed, they were missed less than one might have expected.

Van Bloss was on better form still in Bach’s G minor Piano Concerto; the orchestra too seemed more at ease, with few tuning problems this time around. This was, especially so far as the piano was concerned, a muscular performance, eager to communicate Bach’s harmonic rhythm, and very successful in doing so. One hears the music very differently from the original violin version (up a semitone), not least because of the piano’s left-hand part, which here helped greatly in generating and sustaining impetus in performance. The slow movement benefited from judicious application of left-hand octaves, Busoni’s example followed in the best spirit. Onward tread was not impaired but rather incited by the gravitas engendered. The joy of the dance was fully experienced in the finale, though without any of that hard-driven quality so fashionable in so-called ‘authentic’ performances.

Mozart’s great C minor Adagio and Fugue offered an apt pendant, speaking as it does of Mozart’s absorption in the contrapuntal example of Bach and Handel – and in the chromaticism of the former. It is certainly one of those works in which Mozart stands mid-way between Bach and Schoenberg, and that is for the most part how it felt here, though there were again certain aggravations in terms of tuning, especially during the fugue. Eine kleine Nachtmusik certainly seemed to appeal to elements of a somewhat restless audience, and much of the playing could be enjoyed, though it takes a more inspired rendition – most likely with a conductor – to elevate this all-too-familiar music to the stature it deserves. Still, with the exception of a fast minuet – surely too fast for ‘Allegretto’ – tempi were judiciously chosen, and the music progressed without fussy interruption.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert - Bullock/Philharmonia/Davis, 22 May 2013

Royal Festival Hall

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act One
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act One and ‘Liebestod’
Die Walküre: Act Three

Isolde, Brünnhilde – Susan Bullock
Sieglinde – Giselle Allen
Wotan – James Rutherford
Helmwige – Katherine Broderick
Gerhilde – Mariya Krywaniuk
Siegrune – Magdalen Ashman
Grimgerde – Antonia Sotgiu
Ortlinde – Elaine McKrill
Waltraute – Jennifer Johnston
Rossweisse – Maria Jones
Schwertleite – Miriam Sharrad

David Edwards (director)
David Holmes (lighting)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis (director)

London’s two principal opera companies have offered a baffling near-silence as their response to Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary. With ENO, once home to Reginald Goodall, one may delete the ‘near’; the Royal Opera has opted for a single production, in November, of Parsifal, whose casting does not exactly lift the spirits. There is certainly nothing anywhere near the composer’s birthday itself. The BBC Proms have valiantly stepped into the gap, offering concert performances of the Ring (Barenboim), Tristan und Isolde (Bychkov), Parsifal (Elder) and Tannhäuser (Runnicles). Those concerts, however, will not take place until July and August. For 22 May, London’s offering was a Philharmonia concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Doubtless there was stiff competition for Wagner conductors on the day, and Chirstian Thielemann was otherwise occupied in Bayreuth, but it was difficult not to feel that someone with greater Wagerian credentials might at least have been a possibility. Bernard Haitink, for instance? Most of us would readily have swapped the aforementioned Parsifal to hear the Royal Opera’s erstwhile music director once again in Wagner.

Was I being unfair? The proof of the aural pudding would, as always, be in the hearing. Sadly, the Prelude to the first act of Die Meistersinger not its ‘Overture’, as the programme insert had it – received an account, which, if undoubtedly preferable to the straightforward incomprehension Antonio Pappano had shown conducting the entire opera at Covent Garden, proved no more than Kapellmeister-ish. Timings as such tell one nothing, but it felt rushed, often more martial than celebratory. There was certainly no sense of midsummer blaze or indeed embers. The Philharmonia strings, though many in number, sometimes tended towards wiriness. Detail was either skated or fussed over. Though there was more fire towards the close, it was really too late by then. It doubtless had not helped that, earlier in the day, I had listened to Furtwängler conducting the same music in 1931, but even taking that into account, it was an undistinguished performance.

Rather to my surprise, the Tristan excerpts worked better. I remain sceptical, to put it mildly, about the wisdom of pairing the first act Prelude and the so-called ‘Liebestod’  (Liszt’s wretched description of Isolde’s Transfiguration). Though I am well aware of the distinguished precedents – even Furtwängler and Boulez have followed the practice – to my ears it jars. That said, both conductor and orchestra were on better form. Not only was their a fuller string sound but Davis now seemed to understand, certainly to communicate, that something was at stake. He struck a good balance between forward impulse and a more analytical approach to the score. Though certainly not plumbing any Furtwänglerian metaphysical depths, it was a satisfying enough musical experience. Susan Bullock, joining for the ‘Liebestod’, held her line well enough. At some times, she shaded sensitively; at others, she proved rather squally. The Philharmonia, however, offered beautifully shimmering and pulsating support. Whoever interposed immediately with a boorish ‘Bravo!’ should be condemned to listen to Verdi for the rest of Wagner’s anniversary year.

The second half was devoted to the third act of Die Walküre. It is not the Wagner act I should have chosen in such circumstances; surely the first act of the same drama works better on its own. But we had what we had, and presumably part of the idea was to offer the popular, if generally misunderstood, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Davis for the most part proved a competent guide, though there were some arbitrary-sounding slowings, though he offered few if any revelations. Whilst the Philharmonia played well enough, it sounded during the ‘Magic Fire Music’ as if someone had suddenly turned on a light-switch, such was the vividness of colour hitherto lacking. (That is not simply a matter of Wagner’s wondrous scoring at the end.) There is not much to say about David Edwards’s ‘semi-staging’, save that very good use was made of a very limited space, the direction being largely a matter of having singers come on, go off, and engage with each other. That they all did well, with the exception of James Rutherford’s Wotan. An excellent touch at the end was to have Brünnhilde go up behind the stage, to the organ, to be put to sleep. Handing her a very old-fashioned helmet at that point seemed odd: neither an obvious post-modern touch nor in keeping with the neutral dress otherwise on offer. Bullock had her moments, less audibly strained than she had been recently at Covent Garden. She made a good deal of Wagner’s text, though there were moments of relative vocal weakness. One cannot really judge a Sieglinde on the basis of the third act, but Giselle Allen offered an account more hochdramtisch than lyrical; ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ sounded rushed, but that may have been Davis’s account. At any rate, what should be ecstatic was more matter-of-fact. The Valkyries were a good bunch, a couple of them somewhat weak, but others excellent indeed; Jennifer Johnston’s Waltraute particularly stood out. Rutherford’s Wotan, however, was a disappointment. Apparently glued to the score, and none too certain with it, there was no sign whatsoever of him having internalised the role; his performance was more akin to a first rehearsal for a minor oratorio. Tone production was often rather woolly too.

Had one been coming anew to Wagner, doubtless much would have impressed, and there may well have been some in the audience who were. (There were, as one might have expected, some decidedly peculiar people in the audience. A man seated next to me insisted on filming the first half and hour or so of the Walküre act, my glares having no effect, the ushers either not noticing or not caring. When finally he put his camera away, he replaced it with a skull-capped walking-stick.) London’s anniversary contribution remained, however, surprisingly low-key. The rest of the Wagner 200 celebrations promise much more, as do the Proms.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Wagner's 57th birthday, 22 May 1870: Huldigungsmarsch

Once more, as related by Cosima:

During the night decorated the stairs and the vestibule, but I note by my mood that I am no longer up to festive occasions, and now, even before the day begins, here I sit, writing this and weeping. God grant my children joy today; whoever has suffered much loses the capacity to laugh. On festive days in particular one realises how sad life is! The unremarked pssing of days without unspoken fears is surely the best thing for sore hearts. God bless all whom I love, and give me rest soon! - The pleasure R. felt soon swept my melancholy mood away. At 8 o'clock I positioned the children with wreaths of roses: Loldi and Eva at the front door; farther down in the bower, beneath a laurel, Boni; at the bottom of the steps, beside the bust loaded down with flowers, myself and Fidi; at the end of the tableau Loulou. The music (Huldigungsmarsch) began at 8:30, the 45 soldiers grouped under the fir tree, at the conclusion R. emerged sobbing from the house and thanked the conductor; he was deeply moved, making me almost regret having arranged this little ceremony. Afterward the children recited poems to him, we breakfasted in gay spirits and then went off to rest. In the afternoon the birds were to be released and some fireworks lit, but a huge storm came up and we ended the day quietly. Many letters and telegrams (King, Richter, Standhartner, etc.), a fine poem from Hans Herrig (The Three Norns), a nice letter from Prof. Nietzsche. A telegram from my father ('Forever with you, on bright as on gloomy days') pleased and moved me greatly.


Wagner's 59th birthday, 22 May 1872

According to Cosima's Diary:

Birthday! I wish R. many happy returns very simply this time, for he is preparing the great treat himself. Daniela recites to him a little poem written by Clemens, the children present him with a Bible; Fidi very pretty in the blouse embroidered by Countess Bassenheim. Everything in good order, but rain and rain, not a single ray of subshine in the offing! - R. relates that in a dream he saw Fidi with his face full of wounds. What can this mean? - We drive to the meeting place, Feustel's house, rain, rain, but despite it all in good spirits. Arrival of the King's telegram, which is to be enclosed in the capsule with other things. R. then goes to the festival site, where, in spite of the rain, countless people - including women - had gathered, and lays the foundation stone. The speeches, however, are made in the oepra house. In Feustel's house I give Herr Julius Lang (who in a letter from Vienna had told me that he had sent Prince Bismarck a telegram about the concert in Vienna) a piece of my mind concerning his compromising activities with regard to our affaris during the past 10 years. I did it in fear and trembling, but I did it, so as from now on to be rid of such an individual. - Dinner at the Fantaisie with Standhartner, who, like everybody else, praised the behaviour of the children, particularly of Fidi, during the ceremony. At 5 o'clock the performance, beginning with the Kaisermarsch. The 9th Symphony was quite magnificent, everyone feeling himself freed from the burden of mortal existence; at the conclusion sublime words from R. on what this celebration means to him! - Then to the banquet. Before the concert a Frau von Meyendorff, just arrived from Weimar, handed over a letter from my father - the letter very nice, but the woman, unfortunately, very unpleasant. Her manner is cold and disapproving. - At the banquet R. proposes the first toast to the King, then to Bayreuth; we leave at about half past nine. Niemann and Betz had left earlier out of wouned vanity. I sit with Frau von Schl., and attempt to converse with Frau von Meyendorff; because of her obstinacy the conversation takes place in French. R. enters during it and is vexed with the ugly tone introduced; an angry mood on his part, sorrow on mine. In the end he returns to the banquet, I stay behind with Marie Schl., Marie Dönhoff, and Count Hohenthal, Home at 12 o'clock. (Count Krockow gives R. a leopard which he shot in Africa.)

Happy Birthday, Richard!

Many, myself included, have expended large numbers of words; I have no doubt that we shall continue to do so. However, the ultimate riddle remains encapulated not just in that chord, but in this work. Nietzsche rightly said he would only touch it with gloves. Wagner himself worried in writing to Mathilde Wesendonck that only poor performaces would save him, and us: 'Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ This may only be the Prelude to the first act, but it remains a rare instance of a 'perfectly good' perfomance, with all that entails:

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Norman Tebbit, Wagnerian? Or, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Love versus Inheritance

For the (dubious) benefit of overseas readers, who may until now have been living in blissful ignorance of Lord Tebbit of Chingford, his reappearance on the British political stage might prove, short of Margaret Thatcher’s resurrection, the ultimate in ‘80s retro. Notorious for stances that threatened to make the Prime Minister herself resemble a woolly-minded liberal – his advice to the unemployed was that they should follow his father’s lead, getting on their bikes to find some work, and he suggested a ‘cricket test’ for immigrants, to assess their loyalty on the basis of which team they supported – he seems more recently to have become obsessed with homosexuality, to the extent that a friend of mine suggested he should consider seeking asylum in Iran or Saudi Arabia. (The idea of him as the Abu Qatada of Teheran is not entirely without its amusing side.) He certainly has longstanding form, having written to The Daily Telegraph in 1998, perturbed that gay men might do each quasi-Freemasonic ‘favours’, were they to be permitted to attain political office. His latest intervention, an interview with The Big Issue reported today (click here) has as its context a failed bid by the extreme Right of the Conservative Party to derail legislation to enable gay marriage; Tebbit now finds himself exercised by the possibility of a lesbian queen who might have an artificially inseminated heir. Other interesting light is cast upon his subconscious by his concern that gay marriage might lead to his marrying his son in order to avoid inheritance tax. (If I were Tebbit Jr, I should probably now be in the departures lounge, nervously consulting my wristwatch.)

On the eve of Wagner’s 200th birthday, I wondered initially whether this story might draw a few threads together. Might we out Tebbit as a Wagnerian? Had he simply been listening to too much of Die Walküre (see the clip below for Siegmund and Sieglinde, brother and sister, declaring their love for each other, the curtain falling just in time to spare too many Chingford blushes.)

But alas, not. I reminded myself that in the world of Tebbit, the issue is about inheritance. He does not seem so much as to consider the possibility that some of those gay couples might wish to marry out of love. One might claim Wagnerian influence in that respect too; Wagner was at best ambivalent concerning marriage, arguing rightly, in Proudhonian fashion, that it was little more than an instantiation of bourgeois property relations, and having his Jesus of Nazareth stand as a liberator of mankind – and womankind – from all such constraints to human flourishing. Inheritance – ‘the world’s inheritance’ of the Ring and the Ring’s ring – is equally deadly. Yet in Die Walküre, Wagner straightforwardly offers us a portrayal of two human beings who fall in love, unconcerned with society’s judgement upon them, unconcerned even by the discovery that they are brother and sister. Their love, of the moment, refusing to be set in stone either by the runes of Wotan’s spear of law or Fricka’s dead hand of custom, defies bourgeois marriage, yet not after the fashion of Norman Tebbit’s Thatcherite reduction of all to financial and contractual concerns; quite the opposite. Now it may well be, as Wagner's intellectual development tends to suggest, that the hopes placed by many in love are illusory, that we should do better to attend to Schopenhauer than to Feuerbach, and that marriage may certainly not prove to be the best way forward for anyone of any sexual orientation; Brünnhilde belief that she is married, cruelly symbolised by the ring itself, does her and Siegfried no good at all. But Wagner points to renunciation; he certainly does not suggest that we retreat to a world of loveless marriages, such as those of Sieglinde to Hunding, or others conducted purely for reasons of inheritance. Wagner’s relevance? (Wagners Aktualität, as an essay by Adorno has it.) It has never been stronger.

Konwitschny conducts the Overture to Die Feen

As everyone must know by now, Wagner will be 200 tomorrow. I posted a few thoughts a couple of days ago concerning his continuing, inescapable impotance from a standpoint of composition and stage direction. Most of my 2013 Wagner experiences have yet to come, but so far I have no doubt as to that which has made the greatest impression on me: Oper Leipzig's tremendous advocacy for Die Feen. I urge anyone for whom it might be the slightest possibility to consider a visit. It is by any standards a wonderful opera, both in its own right and on account of the uncanny presentiments it offers not only for every single one of Wagner's subsequent stage works, but also for works such as Gurrelieder and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Moreover, it benefits both from an intelligent production and fine musical performances. (The only case in which the Chelsea Opera Group's concert performance a little over a month earlier was preferable was Elisabeth Meister's stunning Lora, though it also had a good cast overall.) If any operatic staging this year, other than Stefan Herheim's forthcoming Salzburg Meistersinger - and I think I can say this before having seen a minute of it - demands wider circulation on DVD, it must be this. In the meantime, the late Wolfgang Sawallisch's recording, from the 1983 Munich season in which he, at the Bavarian State Opera, conducted all of Wagner's dramas, remains the only truly recommenable recorded performance; I provide a link below. Here, howver, is a taste of the twenty-year-old composer's first completed opera, its Overture performed by the same orchestra in 1952, conducted by Franz Konwitschny (yes, father of Peter), who imparts just the right balance between roots in Weber, Marschner, and others (Beethoven and Mozart being more evident elsewhere in the score), and a forward-looking dramatic imperative which belongs unmistakeably to Leipzig's greatest son:

Sunday 19 May 2013

On entering the week of Wagner's 200th anniversary

Anniversaries are strange creatures; more often than not, they now seem to make us moan. (Did anyone not become sick and tired of the dual Mahler anniversary years 2010-11? Most notably, anyone who actually had a real interest in Mahler?) Until relatively recently, my unconsidered response to this year’s Wagner bicentenary was – well, not much of a response at all. Indifference, not total, but relative, reigned. Yes, it has had me thinking about certain things, often more about 1813 than 2013, and it certainly has had me working on certain things, from a visit to the splendid Wagner World Wide conference in South Carolina onwards.  Yet to a certain extent every year is a Wagner year, and not just for me. London does not do especially well for Wagner performances, though at the same time they are far from non-existent. (The responses or lack thereof, by the two main opera companies here have, however, been baffling: a single production, yet to come, from the Royal Opera, and nothing whatsoever from ENO.) More to the point, however, not only the arts but so many of the ways in which we might and perhaps should consider our lives remain very much in Wagner’s shadow.

Yes, there have been anti-Wagnerians – Stravinsky is perhaps the most obvious example, though one should always take his alleged æsthetics with a large grain of salt – but their often militant anti-Wagnerism pays at least as much testimony to Wagner’s influence as more evident discipleship. The seriousness of Wagner’s vision for music, for the theatre, for art, for humanity remains as inspiring as ever – and as artistically productive. Stockhausen’s Licht, still to be staged as a cycle, is only the most gargantuan of modernist engagements, which of course began long before Wagner’s death, Liszt as so often standing as a pioneer (as well, of course, as a powerful influence upon Wagner). When opera, following the Second World War, seemed to have reached something of an impasse, much of the avant-garde for no particular reason having decided it was no longer ‘viable’, it was Wagner’s example that pointed the way forward. Boulez, initially suspicious of Wagner’s mythologising, came  through his work with Wieland Wagner to be one of the composer’s foremost modern advocates and freely admitted that his own compositions from the 1970s onwards would have been quite different were it not for his immersion in conducting Wagner’s dramas. (A great sadness is that he never conducted Die Meistersinger, one of the three operas he most wished to conduct but never had the opportunity to do so, the others being Don Giovanni and Boris Godunov. And Tristan never really had the attention it deserved from him, being confined to a collaboration with Wieland in Japan.)

Nono, a composer who from a relatively early year did write for the stage – and all of his works are in one sense or another highly dramatic – was asked, in a 1961 interview, ‘Who were the musicians that most influenced you during your earliest years?’ He named but one, Wagner. Operas such as Intolleranza 1960 and Al gran sole carico d’amore may certainly, in their political concerns and in their determination to explore the boundaries of theatre and of musical drama, the composer’s relationship with the audience included, may and should be considered very much, though certainly not exclusively, in a Wagnerian tradition. Just as with Wagner, Nono always believed in the necessity of a ‘provocation’ for an artwork, ‘The genesis of any of my works,’ he wrote, ‘is always to be found in a human “provocation”: an event, an experience, a test in our lives, which provokes my instinct and my consciousness, as man and musician, to bear witness.’ Moreover, that witness was best served in a fashion both verging upon the traditional, its roots in the Schiller-Marx-Wagner idea of art as the paradigm of labour, but also technological, an interest in new technical possibilities very much both of its post-war age and also with warrant in Marx. As Adorno observed, no composer of the nineteenth century had been so preoccupied with new technology as Wagner; there can be little doubt that, had he been born a century later, a state of affairs which would in itself have made the musical world of the twentieth century very different, he would enthusiastically have explored the world of electronics, without ever abandoning more immediate human expression. Just like Nono, in other words.

Henze, another determined musical dramatist from that generation, was determined to escape from Wagner. Whereas Nono dedicated Intolleranza to Schoenberg, Henze’s Prinz von Homburg, more or less contemporary, was dedicated to, Stravinsky, and another anti-Wagner was summoned up in explication by the composer. 'Every bar,’ he claimed, ‘reveals Verdi’s influence as a music dramatist.’ Nonsense, of course, for the desire to escape to the Mediterranean south was German through and through – think of Goethe, or indeed Wagner himself – and the Nietzschean dialectic – actually Wagnerian in origin – between Apollo and Dionysus would inform not just this, but many of Henze’s works, none more so than The Bassarids, for which Auden primed Henze by insisting that he attend a Vienna performance of Götterdämmerung. This is all thoroughly Germanic, not Italian at all, ‘sentimental’ rather than ‘naïve’ in Schiller’s sense, but post-Wagner, that is the lot of all art, it would seem. (By that, I do not mean to imply the transformation may be solely attributed to Wagner, but he is both highly emblematic and extremely influential in that respect; for instance, no one could be less ‘naïve’ an artist than Stravinsky.) Take Henze’s autobiographical recollection of that visit to the Vienna State Opera, when Karajan gave him use of his box: ‘I was perfectly capable of judging the wider significance of Wagner’s music: as any fool can tell you, it is a summation of all Romantic experience … But I simply cannot abide this silly and self-regarding emotionalism, behind which it is impossible not to detect a neo-German mentality and ideology. There is the sense of an imperialist threat, of something militantly nationalistic, something disagreeably heterosexual and Aryan in all these rampant horn calls, this pseudo-Germanic Stabreim, these incessant chords of a seventh and all the insecure heroes and villains that people Wagner’s librettos.’ Those are not the words of someone who has put Wagner behind him, and whether explicitly, as in his own Tristan, or more implicitly, the ghost of Wagner, the ghost of the Romantic and modernist past – and future? – would continue to haunt Henze.

Moreover, in the world of operatic staging, Wagner has perhaps loomed larger than any other composer in terms of the sometimes furious debates that have raged. That is doubtless partly to be attributed to Wagner’s own work as something akin to a modern director. In an interesting and, in the best sense, provocative essay, Keith Warner has recently pointed out that Wagner ‘almost single-handedly invented, certainly in opera,’ the role of director, ‘almost certainly provoked into action by the work of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen [George II] and his celebrated acting troupe’s artistic director, Ludwig Chronegk,’ whose production of Kleist’s Der Hermannsschlacht he had seen in 1875, the year before the first Bayreuth Ring, ‘which Wagner chose to direct rather than conduct’. It is no coincidence that one of the most interesting – and musical – directors at work today, Stefan Herheim, has made his name above all through his Wagner stagings. Herheim’s Parsifal is now the stuff of legend; his Lohengrin, which, sadly, received far less exposure, stood very much in that line, engaging critically with work and reception, and offering possibilities of redemption for both, as well as for us.

In that, Herheim and others are doing very much what Wagner himself did – smashing the complacency of the present and of naïve, highly ideological constructions of a past that never was. They do this not for the sake of it, but so that a world in which Wagner, Beethoven, Shakespeare et al. may continue, despite every incursion of the modern ‘culture industry’, to flourish, to provoke, to nourish. For, as Carl Dahlhaus once observed, ‘It is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts – so that “resolutions” are ruled out – that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’ It is for precisely the same reason that we perform rather than re-enact, that we study as well as perform, that we think rather than wallow, that history enlivens rather than deadens. History, musical or otherwise, is something we write as well as make, something we think, we imagine, we perform, as well as learn; it lives on the stage as much as in the archives. Let us remember that as we commemorate the one musical dramatist who does not pale when standing alongside Mozart; then we shall have an anniversary not just worth celebrating, but an anniversary that will celebrate itself.


Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 18 May 2013

Glyndebourne Opera House
Music-Master – Sir Thomas Allen
Major-Domo – William Relton
Lackey – Frederick Long
Officer – Stuart Jackson
Composer – Kate Lindsey
Tenor. Bacchus – Sergey Skorokhodov
Wigmaker – Michael Wallace
Zerbinetta – Laura Claycomb
Prima Donna, Ariadne – Soile Isokoski
Dancing Master – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Pianist – Gary Matthewman
Naiad – Ana Maria Labin
Dryad – Adriana Di Paola
Echo – Gabriela Iştoc
Harlequin – Dmitri Vargin
Scaramuccio – James Kryshak
Truffaldino – Torben Jürgens
Brighella – Andrew Stenson

Katharina Thoma (director)
Julia Müer (set designs)
Irina Bartels (costumes)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Lucy Burge (movement)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

Katharina Thoma’s Glyndebourne debut had been heavily publicised. Sad to say, not only does her production of Ariadne auf Naxos fail to live up to any expectations that might have been engendered; it fails dismally to live up to Strauss and Hofmannsthal, indeed even so much as to engage with them. Audience members would apparently erupt into uproarious laughter when someone, anyone, so much as walked onstage seemed delighted, but there was more sign of the artwork we know, love, and desperately wished to have interrogated in the miserably paraphrased surtitles – is it that difficult to offer a reasonable translation? – than on the Glyndebourne stage, at least during the Opera proper.

The 1940s seem almost to be de rigueur for a certain breed of opera directors at the moment; this staging follows in the dubious footsteps of David McVicar’s not entirely dissimilar Médéefor ENO. A pandering desire to ‘entertain’ – ironically here, given the concerns of the Prologue, though the irony seems entirely accidental – replaces genuine dramatic, or indeed almost any other variety of, engagement. And yet, of course, Zerbinetta does not appeal to the lowest common denominator; that she both amuses and touches is owed to an expected level of Kultur on the part of the audience. Insofar as what she offers is ‘low’ culture, and that is a considerable ‘insofar’, that only has meaning in terms of contrast with its ‘high’, seria antipode – or cousin. Here, we simply have her reduced to a ‘mad’ person, straitjacketed in a wartime hospital, who, tedious ‘joke’ of tedious ‘jokes’, sings some of her high notes whilst having an orgasm induced by a visitor. I am not sure what is more offensive: the transformation of mental illness, presumably a product of wartime, into fodder for laughter, the refusal so much as to listen to the text (and no, the orgasm does not betoken serious study of the score), or the fact that so many seemed to respond so positively to Carry on Ariadne. Naiad, Dryad, and Echo are nurses, whose every shaking of a sheet elicited helpless guffaws from that vocal section of the audience.

A still greater indignity suffered by the work comes at the end when Ariadne, reuinited with her fighter pilot Theseus, has him land himself on top of her behind a curtain. It was difficult to decide whether such prudishness were preferable to a more full-frontal vision; either path would simply have been embarrassing in context – or rather, weirdly out of context. Hoffmansthal’s concern with transformative myth receives not so much as a nod, but then nor does the transformative power of Strauss’s music. Goodness knows what the Composer has been doing, wandering around the Opera, not unreasonably lost; to start with I thought he was a doctor, then a patient, but he really seemed to be there to give the false impression that what we see is somehow connected with the Prologue.

For that is the greatest problem of all with this staging, bafflingly so, since one would have thought that, whatever Konzept or none, it would have been pretty straightforward to get right. Much of the Prologue is presented reasonably enough: no particular insight is gained, but it does not jar especially with what we are seeing and hearing. (Many audience members appeared to be doing neither, instead reading the shoddy titles and responding accordingly, that is when they were not simply chattering to each other. Stony glances had no effect whatsoever upon them.) The setting is said to evoke the Glyndebourne of the period, that is of the arbitrarily selected early 1940s, though I am not sure one would have known that without being told. But things happen pretty much as they should; rather in the sense of an ultra-conservative staging, one gleans little but has ‘the story told’. (Christof Loy, as his wilful, equally un-engaging Salzburg Frau ohne Schatten shows, is not necessarily the most sympathetic director of Strauss, yet he engages with the Royal Opera House in a considerably more revealing version of the site-specific approach in his staging of Ariadne.) Then suddenly, at the close of the Oper, the melodrama of an air attack bursts upon the scene. Some people, apparently, ‘just loved’ the ensuing fire: an effect quite without cause, slightly to misquote Wagner on Meyerbeer. For the rest of us, it seemed more akin to a desperate attempt to ‘do’ something with or to the work, given that for some, unspecified reason, the richness of Strauss and Hofmannsthal was not nearly enough for Katharina Thoma.

But far worse is to come, for any idea of the Opera as a staging suggested in the Prologue appears to have been thrown out of the window. There really is no connection between the two sections of the work. Instead one has the house transformed into a wartime hospital, in which for some reason Ariadne awaits the return of her aforementioned fighter pilot. The very essence of the work, not just its delicious satirising of responses to ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, but its metatheatrical probing of opera as a performative art, has simply been passed over. Thoma comments in a programme interview, ‘But sometimes when I leave the theatre and see the news, and there are catastrophes, think, what have I been worrying about? There are more important matters in the world.’ Unfortunately, the æstheticism of the work and its creators is not so much undercut as rejected in favour of uninvolving incoherence.

Musical performances were better, though I suspect – and hope – they will improve as the run proceeds. Vladimir Jurowski had the excellent LPO on a tight leash: often too tight, harrying the score rather than giving it time to speak. Strauss of all composers does not need to be sentimentalised, but, despite certain kinship or rather pre-emption, this is not Stravinskian neo-Classicism. A half-way house, akin to Busoni, would be perfectly justifiable, intriguing even; however, for much of the time one desperately wanted to ask the conductor just to calm down a little, perhaps more than a little. The Opera fared somewhat better than the Prologue in that respect, though its musical course did not come across, as it should, as if in a single, long breath. Strauss may be an ambivalent Wagnerian here, but a Wagnerian he remains, especially in that requirement for understanding and communication of the melos.

Although the voice is not what it was, Thomas Allen still imparted to the Music Master a theatrical authority so evidently lacking in the stage direction; Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke provided an effective foil as Dancing Master, though he was perhaps inclined to overact. Of the principal characters, Laura Claycomb’s Zerbinetta was by some distance the most successful. Notwithstanding an unfortunate passage of extremely stray intonation during her big aria, she otherwise managed her coloratura very well, and acted the part in as lively and sympathetic fashion as the staging would permit. Soile Isokoski’s Ariadne improved as the Opera progressed, her music before ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ having suffered from severe inability to sustain, let alone, to float a Straussian phrase. Yet, though matters improved in that respect, hers was not an involving portrayal. (Much of the fault may of course have been the director’s, but not all of it.) Sergey Skorokhodov experienced technical difficulties as Bacchus – one can readily forgive some of them, given Strauss’s cruel writing – but also managed on occasion to display greater mettle; his is certainly a performance I can imagine becoming more impressive on subsequent evenings. Kate Lindsey, though she threw herself commendably into the role of the Composer on stage, disappointed vocally; the voice lacked any of the richness, even vocal variegation, one longs for in the role, however unfair it may be to hark back to Irmgard Seefried. Smaller roles were generally well taken, offering a properly ‘Glyndebourne’ sense of theatrical company; Dmitri Vargin (Harlequin) is a singer whose future we might be well advised to watch.

Yet, despite the wonderful surroundings and some more than creditable music-making, the evening was sorely let down by Thoma’s staging. It offers neither ‘fidelity’, whatever that slippery concept might mean, nor the courage to try something new and to pursue its conclusions; the incoherence is its ultimate problem. Where the work presents a myriad of possibilities, the production closes them down, without offering anything satisfying in their stead. And if that makes me of the Composer’s party, so be it. Ultimately, we all know that, though Strauss plays his games of masks at least as cleverly here as anywhere else, the moment when they drop, when we hear his voice, is the Composer’s ‘Musik ist eine heilige Kunst...’. All of us, it would seem, except Thoma.

Friday 17 May 2013

Dido and Aeneas/The Lighthouse, Royal Academy Opera, 16 May 2013

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Dido – Sarah Shorter
Belinda – Sónia Grané
Second Woman – Helen Bailey
Sorceress – Rozanna Madylus
First Witch – Tereza Gevorgyan
Second Witch – Irina Loskova
Spirit – Rosalind Coad
Aeneas – Samuel Pantcheff
Sailor – Ross Scanlon

Sandy, Officer 1 – Iain Milne
Blazes, Officer 2 – Samuel Queen
Arthur. Officer 3, Voice of the Cards – Andri Björn Róbertsson

John Ramster (director)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Patrick Doyle (costumes)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Iain Ledingham, Lionel Friend (conductors)

Samuel Queen (Blazes), Andri Björn Róbertsson (Arthur) and Iain Milne (Sandy).
Pictures © Royal Academy of Music, May 2013

Not the most obvious of pairings, perhaps: Dido and Aeneas and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. One can certainly find connections if one tries, as director John Ramster valiantly did in his director’s note, especially with respect to the role of Fate. And of course one can make connections between most things if so inclined, when placed together. This, however, seemed more like an evening of two halves.

The performance of The Lighthouse was spectacularly good, at least a match for the recent English Touring Opera production, and arguably still more theatrically gripping. (How fortunate we are to have had two stagings in close succession!) There was not a great deal in the way of scenery; much was done with Jake Wiltshire’s brilliant – at some points, literally so – lighting, by turns suggestive of the lighthouse itself, the red eyes of the Beast, and much more. Ramster and his colleagues engendered a terrifying sense of claustrophobia and whatever horror – production, like opera, leaves matters tantalisingly unclear – it is that actually takes place. The sheer hell of being cooped up together, the promise of release having clearly been frustrated more than once, is conveyed viscerally, more by the characters’ interaction than anything external, and thus all the more powerful for it.

For that, of course, the three singers should claim a great deal of credit. Andri Björn Róbertsson struck Calvinistic terror into the heart as the hypocritical fundamentalist, Sandy. From the moment of saying grace, his sonorous deep bass, combined with charismatic stage presence, had one thinking of a perverted (anti-)Christ figure. His physical excitement during Blazes’ song, offered attempted release in more than one sense. Samuel Queen and Iain Milne presented a nicely ambiguous Blazes and Sandy, quite as impressive as actors as singers. Lionel Friend’s direction of the Royal Academy Sinfonia was quite beyond reproach; after a lacklustre showing in the first half (about which, more below), the orchestra sounded rejuvenated: precise, sardonic, and at times overpowering. The knife-edge balance between fatalism and human agency on stage was replicated, indeed engendered, in the pit. Quite outstanding!

What a difference a conductor makes, for Iain Ledingham’s direction of the same orchestra in Dido and Aeneas had been disappointing. Adopting that strange practice of having modern strings simply eschew vibrato, as if that somehow were enough to qualify as an ‘authentic’ performance, whatever that might be, Ledingham set the tone for what was to follow in the Overture: listless, hard-driven, and with sonority redolent of a school orchestra. (It was certainly not in any sense the players’ fault, as The Lighthouse demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.) If only Friend had conducted both. Vocal performances were less impressive too, or rather they were in the title roles. After a shaky start, Sarah Shorter recovered well, but was so let down by Ledingham’s conducting that it was difficult to reach any proper judgement. Samuel Pantcheff sounded out of sorts as Aeneas; maybe he was under the weather. Not for the first time, though, Sónia Grané shone, this time as a mellifluous Belinda. Rozanna Madylus made for a nicely malign Sorceress, ably supported by weirdly snarling witches, Tereza Gevorgyan and Irina Loskova. Ross Scanlon almost threatened to steal the show as a wickedly camp Sailor.

Ramster’s staging of Purcell’s masterpiece presented a similar meeting between camp and stylisation, perhaps strongest in the choreographed dances. Maybe that match was an expression of his ideas concerning Fate; it would make a good deal of ‘Baroque’ sense on paper. However, I could not help but agree with my companion’s observation when, slightly ruing her inability to watch a Eurovision semi-final, she said that it was actually all to be seen here. Certainly the strange portrayal of the underwear-flashing witches did not seem so very distant from what one might have imagined unfolding in Malmö at the same time. Despite some fine offstage choral singing, I felt strangely unmoved by what should be one of the most tragic of all operatic final scenes. (‘Tristan und Isolde in a pint-pot’, was Raymond Leppard’s wonderful description of the opera.) No matter: it would have been worth travelling a long way for a performance such as we heard of The Lighthouse.

Sunday 12 May 2013

'My favourite album'

Evan Tucker is running a series on his wonderful blog. (Any of you who do not know it already should remedy that straight away). It occurred to me that some readers might be interested in my contribution, for which please click here; for Evan's own contribution, click here.

Wozzeck, English National Opera, 11 May 2013

The Coliseum

(sung in English)

Wozzeck – Leigh Melrose
Marie – Sara Jakubiak
Captain – Tom Randle
Doctor – James Morris
Drum Major – Bryan Register
Andres – Adrian Dwyer
Margret – Claire Presland
First Apprentice – Andrew Greenan
Second Apprentice – James Cleverton
Madman – Peter van Hulle
Marie’s Child – Harry Polden

Carrie Cracknell (director)
Ann Yee (choreography)
Tom Scutt (set designs)
Oliver Townsend, Naomi Wilkinson (costumes)
Jon Clarke (lighting)

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

If a production, and I include musical as well as staging elements here, has one more strongly confirmed in one’s judgement that Wozzeck is not only the greatest opera of the twentieth century but one of the greatest from any century, then it has accomplished its principal goal admirably. The first night of ENO’s new production unquestionably achieved that, reminding one yet again how paltry most operas, whenever they were written, seem when placed anywhere near Berg’s shattering drama. Tears certainly came to this reviewer’s eyes more than once during the third act, only to be superseded by a numb sense of utter horror at the child’s future prospects, or rather lack thereof, in the final scene as music and drama so chillingly came to their celebrated halt: no conclusion, simply the most abject desolation.

Carrie Cracknell’s contemporary – to us – production may not encompass everything suggested by Berg’s work, but most sensible people would agree that a single interpretation need not; it is perfectly possible to concentrate upon certain ideas, and to leave others for another time. There may be losses entailed in that course of action – for me, the Doctor’s experiments sat somewhat oddly, some might even say nonsensically, with the rest of the action – but there will be gains too. We are in a barracks town, suffering from disorder both social and, in Wozzeck’s own case, post-traumatic. The wretched vision – is it only his? Or is it real? – of a coffin draped in the Union flag, its pallbearers, and a soldier in action hammers home the point (some might say a little too heavily, but I was won over). The squalor of Marie’s council flat tells its own tale, as does the centrality, somehow greater than one generally senses, of the tavern to this town’s horrible, hopeless life. Though not a barracks town, and Aldershot or somewhere might have been a better example, something about the portrayal suggested a certain, perhaps rather dated, view of a northern city such as Hull.

The odd thing about Wozzeck, set against such a backdrop, is that he seems less ill, more philosopher. There is of course an element of that in the opera in any case, but it is brought out more strongly here. Madness gives way to ‘Hamlet in Hull’, who eventually resolves, with a greater degree of calculation than one might expect, to kill Marie and then himself; we seem more to be in the realm of EastEnders perhaps, as Marie’s flat floods – there is no lake as such – and turns partly red. One also senses more strongly than usual that this is one level the story of a crime, explicable yes, but still a murder, one that led, of course, to a celebrated trial. (The city museum in Leipzig to this day has a fascinating section of its permanent exhibition on the original case as well as Büchner and Berg.) Violence hits home too, whether that of Wozzeck’s crime, that of the Drum-Major’s vile abuse of him, or that simply endemic to society both particular and general.  

Designs are properly ghastly, enhancing claustrophobia and the town’s desolate tackiness. The former quality hits home all the more strongly given the excellent decision to have all locations present on stage at once, sometimes used and/or lit, sometimes not; there is no escape from what becomes very much a community drama in the most negative sense.  There is perhaps a sense that this was conceived more as a piece of spoken theatre, or at least closer to that tradition than might in principle be ideal, but on those terms, it works very well, Richard Stokes’s exemplary translation contributing powerfully to the drama, without drawing undue attention to itself.

I was fascinated by Edward Gardner’s conducting of the score. Gardner’s method is certainly not what I have become accustomed to, nor what I am ultimately likely to favour, but the well-nigh neo-Classical bent imparted to Berg’s closed forms brought revelations of its own. Rarely if ever can the inner workings, the ‘constructed’ quality, of Berg’s score have been lain so bare. The ENO Orchestra, a very few, quite forgivable, slips aside, followed his direction admirably indeed. There was certainly hyper-Romantic, expressionistic loss, especially earlier on, yet the final Interlude retained most of its horrifying impact; at last, it seemed, there was opportunity properly to cut loose. As an additional standpoint, quite distinct from those offered by great interpreters such as Abbado, Boulez, Böhm, and Barenboim, this musical narrative of mechanisation briefly wrenched into human subjectivity, if only in death, had me thinking in various ways not only about the score but about the drama as a whole.

Leigh Melrose made a wonderfully human hero, as starkly opposed to such mechanisation as to the barbarity of his social conditions. The aforementioned ‘Hamlet’ quality of philosophising and indecision was at least as much his accomplishment as the production’s, not quite so ‘intellectual’ as Fischer-Dieskau’s controversial portrayal, but complex in a different and not entirely unrelated fashon. Marie is a very difficult role to bring off convincingly; ideally, one needs to be Waltraud Meier, but what to do if one is not? Too much of the whore and not enough of the angel, or the other way around? Sara Jakubiak managed the tricky balance very well, soaring moments of radiance pitted against the grime of quotidian existence. Tom Randle was, as usual, excellent beyond the call of duty as the Captain, he and James Morris as the Doctor offering exemplary clarity of line and diction, as well as fully inhabiting their flawed characters. (We should, of course, remember that their flaws are in large part also to be attributed to the viciousness of society; Wozzeck and Marie are not the only victims.) Bryan Register’s thuggish Drum Major horrified in the best sense, whilst Adrian Dwyer and Clare Presland offered finely-etched portrayals of the ‘other’, surviving couple, Andres (perhaps his wheelchair proved a cliché too far?) and Margret. Presland’s crazed, dramatically truthful moment in the tavern limelight proved a powerful moment in its own right, presaging Wozzeck’s deeds yet also offering an alternative. Peter van Hulle offered another example of truth in madness, the hallowed tradition of the Fool cast in new light. Harry Polden – how one felt for him, cowed under Marie’s kitchen table as she entertained the Drum Major in her off-stage bedroom! – and the other children had us shiver, shudder, turn in righteous anger against the wickedness of a society, our society, which we know will perpetrate the same horrors upon them. Who cares? Certainly not our political class; yet do we? Truly? Wir arme Leut’...   

Friday 10 May 2013

Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein

I wish I could begin to understand the hysterical cries from people who, though not having seen a staging of an opera or indeed of anything else, consider it so offensive that they demand - in this case, successfully - that it be withdrawn. Like them, I am in no position to offer any sort of criticism of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein's production of Tannhäuser; I have not seen it and now it looks as though I never shall. What little information has come my way from reports is insufficent to enable any of us meaningfully to engage with the staging, though what I have heard concerning the director's Konzept strikes me as far from intrinsically absurd. I spend a silly amount of my time and energy fighting lazy, ignorant connections being posted between Wagner and National Socialism, but to inform a staging of one of his dramas with themes drawn from later - for that matter, contemporary or earlier - German history - does not seem to me questionable or even controversial.

Of course the Third Reich and the Holocaust are, rightly, sensitive topics. Yet, bizarrely, there often seems to be far greater controversy when they are interrogated than when - sickly, to my mind - they are treated as material for mere 'entertainment'. There was often particularly shrill criticism of a fascinating staging I saw at the Edinburgh Festival from the Cologne Opera of Strauss's Capriccio; I found it especially thought-provoking, but doubtless it enraged those only wished to see 'pretty' frocks, rather than to ask about the compromises Strauss and German culture engaged with, let alone to interrograte themselves. Again, I do not know into which category - interrogative, entertainment, or perhaps some other - Burkhard C Korminski's production fell, thoigh so far as I can discern from reports, there appears at least to be an element of the former. It may well have turned out to be needlessly 'controversial', unmusical, or all manner of other bad things; only those who have seen and thought about it are in any position to know, and they of course may have their minds clouded too. Nevertheless much of the public laps up with quasi-pornographic relish endless documentaries, films, popular histories about the Third Reich and Hitler in particular as if there were no tomorrow. Moreover, arrogantly uninformed productions - 'I could have approached The Damnation of Faust by reading a great deal about Berlioz but I avoided that' -such as Terry Gilliam's Damnation of Faust treat the Third Reich as little more than fodder for theatrical spectacle and are lauded for it. I thought Gilliam's production truly dreadful, indeed offensive, but it never occurred to me to agitate for the English National Opera to shut it down; nor, so far as I am aware, did it occur to anyone else to do so. Likewise, the exit of Elisabeth into a gas chamber in Sebastian Baumgartner's Bayreuth Tannhäuser struck me and many others as offensive, largely on account of its gratuity; it seemed quite unmotivated in what was in any case a highly arbitrary, indeed quite incoherent, production. People have every justification, every right, to discuss any staging, though it helps of course if one has actually seen it, but to seek to silence those with opposing standpoints?

So what was different on this occasion? That genuinely puzzles me. Part of the answer may lie, not in the circumstances of this production, but in an increasingly noisy, though, it would seem, for the most part numerically insignificant, faction amongst opera audiences and, still more, amongst people who - yes, I have to plead guilty here! - spend too much time talking about opera and music on the Internet. Their enemy is something they call either Regietheater or, still worse, 'Eurotrash'. (The latter seems to be originally an American term, though it is no longer confined to the other side of the Atlantic, and exhibits a curious, some might say imperialist. claim to 'ownership', or at least to 'protection', of an artistic phenomenon from another culture.) Lazy phrases such as 'the composer's intentions' - some peddlers seem even to be unaware that Wagner was highly unusual in writing his own poems, and that the librettist might actually deserve some consideration - or Werktreue are angrily chanted with all the self-reinforcing fervour of a self-selecting single-issue lobby, or even a quasi-religious sect. Drama goes for little, or nothing, in this world; instead, its heralds not only desire but demand a series of set and costume designs that monumentalise the worst taste of the 1950s. There were wonderful productions during the 1950s, so far as we can tell, just as there have been terrible productions, 'traditional' and 'radical', during the early twenty-first century. Yet the success of a production goes far beyond its designs; one can tell very little from a photograph or two, which is all most protestors have had to go on, and indeed one may be entirely misled by a decontextualised image.

I may be entirely wrong about this, and hope that I am, but it seems that the present debacle has more to do with an opportunistic attempt to berate a German theatre - German opera houses tend, for various reasons, to be more open to experiment than their British, let alone American, counterparts -through exploitation of the very historical phenomena about which the protestors claim to protest. It may not have been consciously designed as such, for fanatical fervour tends not to operate in that way; 'the cause', however incoherent, becomes internalised. One of the functions, indeed imperatives, of great art is to try to liberate us from such a Nietzschean 'herd mentality'. Yet uninformed insistence that 'unwholesome', 'degenerate', art must be eradicated, in order to 'protect' that which is 'good' and 'true': have we not heard such claims somewhere before?