Saturday 28 September 2013

Goerne/Haefliger: Wolf and Liszt, 27 September 2013

Wigmore Hall

Wolf – Neue Liebe
Peregrina I & II
Liszt – Blume und Duft
Wolf – An die Geliebte
Liszt – Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Vergiftet sind meine Lieder
Laßt much ruhen
Ich möchte hingehn
Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen
Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’
Wolf – Harfenspieler I, II, & III
Liszt – Der du von Himmel bist
Wolf – Byron-Lieder

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Andreas Haefliger (piano)
A wonderful recital, both in terms of programming and performance! No dubious attempts at ‘light relief’, but an exploration of German song that ranged beyond familiar ‘favourites’ without compromising upon quality. Matthias Goerne was in his element here, well supported – and rather more than supported – by Andreas Haefliger.

It was, of course, Haefliger who had the opening word, the introductory harmonies of Neue Liebe, as so often with Wolf, clearly in a line of descent from Wagner and Liszt, without being reducible to those influences, chords from the sepulchre, beautifully voiced, reminiscent from afar of Liszt’s ‘Il penseroso’ from the Italian Années de pèlerinage. The following Peregrina songs, again Mörike settings, offered an interesting case study of how songs that are famously focused upon text can yet emerge as less word-dominated than one might have expected, a consequence both of a fine pianist and a truly collaborative singer. Peregrina II almost sounded at times as if shading into melodrama (in the proper sense), yet somehow melodrama with an exquisite vocal line, Goerne’s crescendo and diminuendo on the last two lines a perfect example of synergy between words and music. The sole Liszt song in the first half, Blume und Duft, emerged as properly Tristan-esque, and for once – an exaggeration, I know, though a pardonable exaggeration – it may have been a matter of Wagnerian influence upon Liszt rather than the other way round, this Hebbel setting having been written in 1860, just after Tristan. In this performance, it was not just the harmony, tonality verging at times upon the suspended, but the vocal line and delivery that shaded into such dangerous territory. I could not help but think what a splendid Kurwenal Goerne would be likely to make in the future – until I consulted his programme biography, to discover that he has already sung the role.

Wolf and Mörike returned in the guise of An die Geliebte, whose poetic and musico-dramatic contours were finely drawn by both artists. The quiet ecstasy with which the song concluded could hardly have been bettered. Nachtgruß would soon offer a similar but different form of magic, that of the night, which, in Goerne’s hands, or rather through his voice, left us spellbound. The three Michelangelo-Lieder showed once again a composer in the wake of Wagner and Liszt, nevertheless unmistakeably himself. ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’ almost made Wotan’s Walküre monologue seem like a jeu d’esprit: profound in the best sense, like Goerne’s baritone itself. The final ‘Fühlt meine Seele’ offered again a sensibility that was definitely post-Lisztian, post-Tristan, and yet crucially remained very much of the Lied rather than the opera house or indeed the ‘star’ recital.

Liszt remains overlooked, even condescended to, by many who should know better. How people can talk such rubbish about him if they were to hear songs such as these, in performances such as these, I really do not know; perhaps we simply have to accept that the problem lies not with the composer and continue without the not-so-cultured despisers. Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam offered an immediate audition for the Romantic Liszt, especially in the piano: such characteristic figures and harmonies, the Années de pèlerinage again brought to mind, and such flexibility of delivery from both performers. Goerne’s strength of tone in Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, also a Heine setting, and his identification with the text were second to none. Ardour with an undertow of sadness marked the impeccable musical flow of Laßt much ruhen, but it was the relatively early (c. 1845) Georg Herwegh setting, Ich möchte hingehn that seemed to mark the very heart of the recital – or at least a twin heart, with the Michelangelo settings. Tristan-suffused, albeit this time very much avant la lettre, Liszt’s writing and sensibility seem all the more telling, given that it would be Herwegh who would introduce Wagner in his Zurich exile to the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Here, we were led into the world of a somewhat, though only somewhat, more German complement to Liszt’s own Petrarch sonnet settings. Haefliger’s shading and phrasing proved just as impressive as that of his colleague. Wotan again came to mind in the late (1880) Des Tagess laute Stimmen schweigen, Goerne’s audibility and communication at pianissimo, indeed later at ppp, quite breathtaking. The ghostly expressionism of the final kiss ‘Dann kusst euch still und mild die Nacht’ was judged to unexaggerated perfection.

Haefliger relished, likewise without unnecessary underlining, the proto-Parsifal progressions of Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’, before we returned to Wolf, whilst remaining with Goethe, for the three Harfenspieler: the piano’s assumption of the harpist’s role delightful in the first, the syncopation of the second especially unsettling. Remaining with Goethe a little longer, Liszt’s Der du von dem Himmel bist offered something akin to a depressive Liebestraum. Wolf’s two Byron settings from 1896 followed, ‘Keine gleicht von allen Schönen’ sinuous, weighty, and undeniably heartfelt. Morgenstimmung proved the recital’s crowning glory: quite the climax in every respect, both unifying and true culmination.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Fidelio, English National Opera, 25 September 2013


Florestan – Stuart Skelton
Leonore – Emma Bell
Rocco – James Creswell
Marzelline – Sarah Tynan
Jaquino – Adrian Dwyer
Don Pizarro – Philip Horst
Don Fernando – Roland Wood
First Prisoner – Anton Rich
Second Prisoner – Ronald Nairne

Calixto Bieito (director)
Rebecca Ringst (set designs)
Tim Mitchell (lighting)
Ingo Krügler (costumes)

Chorus and Additional Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

More than two centuries on, Fidelio may well remain the most misunderstood opera of all. Irrelevant and downright stupid criticisms continue to be made of it, those voicing them apparently blind to what one would have thought the blindingly obvious truth that it not only represents, but instantiates the bourgeois idea of freedom at its most inspiring, apparently deaf to the symphonism of this most symphonic of operas, that idea of freedom explicitly expressed through the structural dialectics of Beethoven’s score. What a relief, then, for ENO’s new Fidelio, a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, where it has already been seen, to be staged both as an expression and a deconstruction of that idea. Such problem as there were lay with Edward Gardner’s Harnoncourt-lite conducting, but Calixto Bieito’s imaginative, probing production offered one of those rare evenings in which a staging could more or less redeem a disappointing conductor. For that, of course, an often excellent cast should also share the credit.

Recent performances of Fidelio have tended to make a point of messing around with the work: re-ordering, new dialogue, and so forth. I have never quite understood why; the libretto is no literary masterpiece, but that is hardly the point, for it serves Beethoven’s purpose. Bieito – I assume this to be his doing – also makes changes; this was probably the first occasion on which I found the choices worth making, not as a blueprint for other performances, but simply as a valid performing choice in this particular context. Alarm bells would normally ring were a performance to open with the third Leonore Overture; even Daniel Barenboim, in a magnificent Proms concert performance, failed to convince that such was a wise move, the overture tending to overshadow, almost to render the opera unnecessary. Yet, following a blinding light and our first reading from Borges, the appearance of the pitiless, intermittently neon-lit labyrinth, a fine piece of design by Rebecca Ringst, not only sets up our expectations – the hopelessness of blind alleys and imprisonment for all concerned – but, in tandem with the overture in which Beethoven essentially presents a symphonic poem, both heightens and deconstructs those expectations. As an audience, also imprisoned in our different ways, we will the prisoners to escape, we begin to ask ourselves how we too might escape, and, perhaps most importantly of all, we already begin to appreciate that this will be a far tougher battle than Beethoven might ever have conceived. That the drama has in a sense been played out before a note has been sung and we have progressed not an inch is, or ought to provoke sober reflection. (The ridiculous booing form small sections of the audience, doubtless fresh, as a Twitter friend suggested, from the UKIP party conference, suggested, sadly if all too predictably, as another Twitter friend commented, that those most in need of the production’s message would never trouble themselves to heed it. At least, however, we can take a small degree of comfort from their discomfort.)

As ever, with Bieito, the craft of stage direction is exemplary; what we see is what he intends us to see. (Yes, this ought to be a given, yet all too often it is anything but.) I could not help but wonder whether survival of dialogue, not necessary all of it, might have aided understanding of who the characters were, but of course, as stated previously, the characters, such as they are, are really not the point in this of all operas. Borges and, on one occasion, Cormac McCarthy (as I learned from the programme) do sterling work instead: allowing us to think for ourselves, to make correspondences, rather than necessarily have our vision restricted to Guantánamo Bay, or wherever it might be (perfectly valid though that realistic approach may be). It is a pity that David Pountney’s translation veers all over the place: sometimes offering attention-seeking rhymes, sometimes curiously Victorian formulations, sometimes more present-day demotic. Yet even though it sounds in serious need of editorial attention, or better still rejection in favour of the German Beethoven set, there are phrases that stick with one, phrases that interact with the staging, to have us think. ‘Crimes against humanity’, a sadly everyday phrase in many respects: how could a London audience not think of a war criminal still very much amongst us such as Tony Blair? Bieito’s relative abstraction – unusual for him, and highly telling – permits the space for reflection, whilst listening to the progress of Beethoven’s drama.

It is that sureness of musical touch that perhaps permits ‘liberties’, which, when recounted in the abstract, might for some sound too much. Leonore III already used, we hear – this a real coup de théâtre in visual and musical terms – at the once ‘traditional’ juncture, music from, or perhaps beckoning us to, heaven, a Heiliger Dankgesang whose numinous qualities, for which, many thanks to the excellent Heath Quartet, suspended in cages from the ceiling, transcend the drama, question it, and are in turn questioned by it. Bieito undercuts all-too-easy expectations by introducing a sense of distancing already between Leonore and Florestan. And the caged musicians: are they a Stockhausen-like flight of fancy? Are they angels of Beethovenian mercy? Are they too imprisoned, sheltered from ‘reality’, whatever that might be? Are they, as the minority audience reaction would suggest, fated to be ignored, whatever the truth – so Beethovenian a word – of what they might attempt to express? We must think for ourselves, and tragically, an administered world, to borrow Adorno’s formulation, wishes to block them out, as sure as its gaolers wish us to think of opera as nothing more than entertainment.

Entirely unprepared as I was for that challenge to the musical work, provocative in the best sense, it made as full as conceivable an impact upon me. Likewise Bieito’s trump card in the final scene. Don Fernando makes his appearance as a stereotypical eighteenth-century ‘operatic’ character in a box above the stage. His increasingly bizarre and unpredictable behaviour, not to mention outrageous feyness, have us realise, both there and when he comes down to the stage, that rescue is not all that it is cracked up to be. Indeed, though we are told that it has happened – many of the prisoners are handed placards, personally signed, to signal their alleged liberation – we wonder whether that is just a trick, perhaps an ‘operatic’ trick. There is no doubting Beethoven’s sincerity, his greatness; that endures. But we also know that the administered world endures. The labyrinth does not retreat; it is simply, as New Labour would have had it, ‘rebranded’. Political action, whether individual or en masse, is both absolutely necessary and quite hopeless. Fate, or rather the forces of late-capitalist production, will find another way to trick us, in the manner of Don Fernando; his apparently ‘arbitrary’ shooting of Florestan, not slain but wounded, a truly shocking moment. And the return of blinding light has us appreciate anew the perils both of the cyclical and of all-too-easy identification of forces such as ‘light’ with progress.

The contrast between Beethovenian optimism, the sheer goodness of the score, and its staged deconstruction would of course have been greater still, had it not been for Gardner’s listless conducting. Often simply too fast – the main body of the overture but a single, albeit extreme example – the problem went beyond that; like Harnoncourt, the conductor seemed to have little or no ear for harmonic rhythm. Numbers did not extend beyond themselves; nor did that seem in itself a deconstructive strategy, more a matter of reductive domestification by default. To a certain extent, a grander canvas revealed itself during the second act, but structural concerns still went for very little. There is no one ‘correct’ way to conduct Fidelio: consider the success of such entirely different approaches as those of Furtwängler and Klemperer, or latterly, Barenboim and Colin Davis; but that does not mean that anything goes. We had, as I said, to rely upon the staging to accomplish double the work; almost miraculously, it accomplished something not so very short of that.

The singers’ accomplishment was also not to be disregarded. Stuart Skelton offered the finest Florestan I have heard since Jonas Kaufmann: powerful yet vulnerable, clearly committed to the ideas of both Beethoven and Bieito. If only he had not been harried by Gardner’s seeming desire to catch an earlier train home. Emma Bell was an impressive Leonore, her ‘Abscheulicher’ almost beyond reproach, though certain coloratura later on was skated over. More importantly, though, her identification not only with the role but with that all-important idea of freedom, shone through. Sarah Tynan proved an uncommonly excellent Marzelline, cleanly sung, vivacious, and equally committed in dramatic terms. Though Jaquino is a smaller role, Adrian Dwyer offered similar virtues when called upon. James Creswell was a likeable yet properly tortured Rocco. The only vocal disappointment was Philip Horst’s often lightweight Pizarro.  Choral singing was of a high standard throughout: a credit both to the singers and to Aidan Oliver as chorus master.

Anyone, then, who cares about opera as drama, who believes that it is something more than expensive entertainment, needs to see – and to hear – Bieito’s Fidelio. Reactions will differ, but those willing to be challenged will find themselves properly inspired and unsettled.   


Book review: Mozart's Ghosts, by Mark Everist

The original published version of my Times Higher Education review of Mark Everist's Mozart's Ghosts: Haunting the Halls of Musical Culture may be found by clicking here. The text is reproduced below.

Mozart’s Ghosts: Haunting the Halls of Musical Culture
By Mark Everist

At the heart of Mark Everist’s new book lies the not unreasonable claim that our “modern reverence” for Mozart’s music is founded upon its earlier reception, that reception being a more complicated matter than an artist composing and the audience or critic straightforwardly receiving. As Everist notes, it is far easier to track stagings of Mozart’s operas at major European houses than it is performances of even his large-scale instrumental music, especially before the mid-twentieth century. Publishing records, however, including arrangements, are more amenable to study, likewise literary and other dramatic treatments.

Footnotes and bibliography render abundantly clear the thoroughness of Everist’s research. His field may verge upon the infinite, and coverage cannot but be selective, but the cases presented are tellingly indicative of more than themselves. We look at the treatment of Mozart in Gaston Leroux’s novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra and in silent film treatments thereof. Gounod’s Faust remains the central “opera” of the Opéra, yet Mozart’s phantom persists, not least in the guise of references to his Requiem, celebrated as an unfinished, final work – always a draw to a Romantically-, indeed sensationally-inclined audience. We consider Offenbach’s fascinating adaptation of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor as L’Impresario to legitimise his theatre as a place of serious musical endeavour. Nineteenth-century keyboard arrangements of Don Giovanni, severely criticised both at the time and thereafter, both by familiar figures and composers none of us is likely ever to have heard of, transform Mozart into a purveyor, or at least a facilitator, of popular dance tunes. (He wrote a considerable amount of “real” dance music for Vienna, an exquisite Cinderella of his output that, since the death of Willi Boskovsky, awaits the return of Prince Charming. That, however, is another story.) Everist is, in proper post-modernist style, scrupulous not to judge; I could not help wishing for some æsthetic judgement to be brought to pass upon the striking observation that, in this genre of dance music, “almost any melody of Mozart could be reworked in almost any meter, style, or dance genre”. At what point does Mozart himself fall silent, or at least find himself more or less drowned out, or am I merely succumbing to antediluvian prejudices concerning the “musical work”?

Perhaps the strangest case is that of Mozart’s so-called ‘Twelfth Mass’, published posthumously in 1819 by Vincent Novello, and very shortly after considered spurious in German-speaking lands, always the core of Mozart reception. The Anglophone world, however, treated this work very differently. Not only did performance persist; the piece “took on a significance for Mozart reception out of all proportion to the position it ought [a rare judgement, almost malgré lui] to have held.” Republication continued, for instance by Novello in 1850, in a set of “Three Favourite Masses”, alongside undoubtedly authentic works by Haydn and Beethoven,. ‘The triumphant strains of the Twelfth Mass rolled forth’ (neither my words, nor Everist’s, but the author’s) in Jack London’s 1910 novel, Burning Daylight. It even, designed to designate middlebrow musical taste, has an epiphany in Ulysses: “the Gloria in that [mass] being to his [Bloom’s] mind the acme of first-class music as such, literally knocking everything into a cocked hat”. That is perhaps not so difficult when competition is comprised of confused recollections of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Saverio Mercadante, yet that is part of the point; Joyce’s ambiguity almost has one believe he knew the game was up, though, barring the emergence of new evidence, it seems unlikely. In addition to offering a partial history of a swindle and some explanations as to why so many were taken in by a work probably composed by one Wenzel Müller some years after Mozart’s death, Everist informs us that the mass – much, I admit, to my surprise – continues to be performed. Perhaps most bizarre in a truly bizarre tale is the use of its “Gloria” to celebrate the opening of a new airport terminal in Guernsey in 2004, though Chester-Novello’s continued provision of parts for hire, with nary a word concerning provenance, should elicit eyebrow-raising en masse.

There is much, much more in this fascinating tale of musical spectres. That Everist’s aversion to Mozartian hagiography – “the Mozart effect” – is very much of our time offers no reason to cavil; instead it provokes us to questioning that he should and, I suspect, would applaud. 


Wednesday 25 September 2013

Markus Hinterhäuser takes over at the Salzburg Festival from October 2016

Sorry this is a cut-and-paste job from a press release, without editing let lone comment, but I am off out (to Fidelio at ENO: Calixto Bieito's return to London), and thought this information might be of interest to readers sooner rather than later:

Markus Hinterhäuser appointed Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival starting on October 1, 2016


President Rabl-Stadler’s contract renewed for another three years till 2017


(25 Sept. 2013, Press Office Salzburg Festival) Starting on October 1, 2016, Markus Hinterhäuser will be the Salzburg Festival’s Artistic Director; his contract runs for five years, until September 30, 2021. The contract of Festival President Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler has been extended for another three years (from October 1, 2014 to October 1, 2017). These decisions were made by the Salzburg Festival’s Supervisory Board today, Wednesday, September 25. Its meeting was chaired by Section Director Mag. Andrea Ecker of the Federal Ministry of Education, Art and Culture.


The current Artistic Director, Alexander Pereira, will take up a position at La Scala in Milan after the 2014 season. During the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Sven-Eric Bechtolf and President Rabl-Stadler will join forces at the helm of the Festival, taking over responsibility for the overall artistic planning from October 1, 2014.


Long-term perspective and double competency


The Supervisory Board decided unanimously that Markus Hinterhäuser was the best-qualified candidate for the position of Artistic Director of the Salzburg Festival, starting on October 1, 2016. As Ecker declared, the decisive reasons were the special connection that Hinterhäuser enjoys with Salzburg, ensuring a long-term perspective, as well as his double competency and authority as an internationally acclaimed artist and experienced arts and culture manager with a high capacity for innovation. Furthermore, the artistic concept presented by Hinterhäuser was convincing, guaranteeing a high-quality programmatic orientation of the Festival. “We are happy that he has accepted the appointment; he is an excellent choice for Salzburg, and the Festival can look forward to a positive future,” the Supervisory Board’s chairperson is convinced.


There were ten applications for the position of Festival President. The evaluation of these applications definitely showed the incumbent, Dr. Helga Rabl-Stadler, as the best-qualified among the applicants, Mag. Ecker continued.


A beautiful and moving moment


“This is a very beautiful and moving moment for me,” Hinterhäuser commented upon his appointment: “It is a great and important mission for me, because I am very attached to the Festival and my life has been influenced profoundly by Salzburg and the Festival.” Asked about the Festival’s future development, the designated Artistic Director declared that one thing he could say for certain was that there would be fewer events, since the limit of feasibility had been reached internally and externally. A profound analysis of the Festival’s expansion during the past two years will form the basis for future decisions.


Regarding the conceptual pillars of his tenure as Artistic Director, starting in the autumn of 2016, Hinterhäuser explained that on the one hand, he considers the profound exploration of Mozart’s oeuvre very important. This, however, also demands the courage to blaze new trails. Further development and concentration of the Ouverture spirituelle, leading up to and preparing the season’s first opera production, as well as a stronger integration of the drama department in terms of content and dramaturgy, are further issues. “My handwriting is known in Salzburg, and I will not change it fundamentally,” said Hinterhäuser.


Energy and enjoyment of the Festival


Festival President Rabl-Stadler spoke of a historic situation at the Festival, since the coming years will be marked by the work of three Artistic Directors. “This situation is definitely challenging. However, I am looking forward to supporting the three Artistic Directors in realising what they consider necessary. I have the necessary energy and enjoyment of the Festival,” said Rabl-Stadler.


A stable artistic path of high quality


“We want a long-term perspective and a stable artistic path of high quality into the future,” Landeshauptmann Dr. Wilfried Haslauer, a member of the Supervisory Board, stated, emphasising that both sides – the Supervisory Board and the designated Artistic Director – are interested in a long-term partnership. Haslauer said that for him, the limits of the Festival’s growth have been reached. Quality must be the most important criterion, finding a reasonable measure for developments, and the economic conditions must be add up, the Landeshauptmann sketched out the path forward.


Markus Hinterhäuser: a short biography


Markus Hinterhäuser was born in 1959 in La Spezia, Italy. He studied piano at the Music Academy in Vienna, at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and at various master courses. As a pianist, Marks Hinterhäuser has performed at the world’s most important concert halls and at internationally renowned festivals. As a co-founder of Zeitfluss, a series of events taking place from 1993 to 2001 at the Salzburg Festival, and as Artistic Director of the project Zeit-Zone at the Wiener Festwochen, he won international acclaim as a cultural manager. Beginning in October 2006, Hinterhäuser was responsible for the Salzburg Festival’s concert programme. From October 1, 2010 to October 1, 2011 he was its Interim Artistic Director. Until July 1, 2016 Hinterhäuser will remain Artistic Director of the Wiener Festwochen.

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Elektra, Royal Opera, 23 September 2013

Image: Clive Barda
Ägisth (John Daszak) and Elektra (Christine Goerke)
Royal Opera House

First Maid – Anna Burford
Second Maid – Catherine Carby
Third Maid – Elizabeth Sikora
Fourth Maid – Elizabeth Woollett
Fifth Maid – Jennifer Check
Overseer – Elaine McKrill
Elektra – Christine Goerke
Chrysothemis – Adrianne Pieczonka
Klytämnestra – Michaela Schuster
Confidante – Louise Armit
Trainbearer – Marianne Cotterill
Young Servant – Doug Jones
Old Servant – Jeremy White
Orest – Iain Paterson
Orest’s Companion – John Cunningham
Ägisth – John Daszak

Charles Edwards (director, set designs, lighting)
Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes)
Leah Hausman (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

Charles Edwards’s production of Elektra, first seen in 2003, and revived in 2008, now returns to Covent Garden under the baton of Andris Nelsons. There remains much to admire in the staging, though I found myself entertaining a little more in the way of doubt than I had on previous occasions. My impression was that it had become gorier, and it may well have done, though by the same token, it may have been that I was now more attentive to what it had in common with, rather than what distinguished it from, David McVicar’s Royal Opera Salome. (McVicar was present in the audience.) Violence had always been present, not least in the shocking torture of the Fifth Maid, her twitching and indeed at one point revivified corpse, long present on stage to remind us, lest we forget. Playing with time, the ‘present’ of Strauss and Hofmannsthal meshed with ancient Mycenae, or rather with an idea thereof, remains a strength. A sense of the archaeological is offered by Agamemnon’s bust, and the shadow it casts: at one point as towering as the motif associated with the murdered king. Perhaps that sense might have been stronger; there are moments when the relationship seems unclear and a stronger impression of recreating a past that never was might assist. But it is quite possible that that is the point; we are after all in the world of dreams, of psychoanalysis. A splendid touch in that respect is Elektra’s desk. One might read its role in various ways; I could not help but think of a more or less explicit consultation, not only when Klytämnestra comes to her in need of interpretation, but also in the scene with Ägisth. Piercing the darkness with the fierce ray of her desk lamp heightens that impression, Elektra’s lighting his way viewed from a new standpoint, both literally and more figuratively. A particularly troubling sense of familial sickness – I realise that in this opera, that is something of an understatement – is offered by the relationship of Elektra and Orest. It appears that there is something rather more than sibling affection between them, though that is not laboured. It certainly seems confused, as it would be: fleetingly maternal, fleetingly paternal, at one point apparently sexual. Or maybe it is that Edwards’s staging allows the audience the space to offer its own interpretation; whatever the ‘intention’, the result is provocative in the best sense. My present taste may lie more with relative abstraction; that, however, is no reason to dismiss other approaches.

‘Ob ich nicht höre? ob ich die Musik nicht höre?’ Elektra asks, commencing the last and most delirious of her monologues: ‘Do I not hear it? Do I not hear the music?’ She maintains that it comes from inside her, though we, in a sense, know that at best to be a partial truth; Strauss’s orchestra has shown itself true to Wagner’s Opera and Drama – for Strauss, the ‘book of all books’ on opera – conception of the orchestra as the modern Attic chorus. Far too often, however, we find ourselves lamenting the tone-deafness of stage directors, wishing to ask them, in the nicest possible way, or perhaps not, whether they do not hear it, do they not hear the music? Therein perhaps lies the greatest strength of Edwards’s staging, aided by Leah Hausman’s movement, in that it clearly hears Strauss’s music. It is not enslaved, but rather liberated by it. There are instances where movement is clearly tied to the score, others when it is more a case of heightening of tension on stage relating to the orchestra as much as to the libretto. Lighting – Edwards’s own – is as attentive and revealing as movement.

And what music, it is, of course, in what must surely be Strauss’s greatest opera. (It may not be our favourite, but that is a different matter.) Nelsons was often impressive, at his best offering an object lesson in transition: Wagner’s ‘most subtle art’, as it should be in Strauss too. The recognition scene was but one exemplary instance. Not only was dramatic process tightly and meaningfully controlled, with an aptly unsettling sense of release that was not at all release when Elektra’s slinky ‘Orest! Orest! Es rührt sich niemand’ stole upon us; Strauss’s phantasmagorical cauldron of orchestral colour here and in many other cases had been stirred so as to provide just the right sense of dream-world and nausea for us to receive what was unfolding. Indeed, there were numerous instances in which I heard the score sound closer to the Strauss of earlier tone poems than I can recall; it is doubtless no coincidence that Nelsons has been exploring that orchestral repertoire in some depth of late. Other transitions were handled with less security; the second scene, for instance, seemed to follow on abruptly from the first, indeed from a prolonged caesura rather than musico-dramatic inevitability. There may well, however, be good reason to believe that the flow will become still more impressive as the run of performances continues. Likewise, if Nelsons’s ear for colour seemed somewhat to desert him at the very close, that may well be rectified, and may have been more a matter of orchestral exhaustion than anything else. The orchestra itself was on good rather than great form, but it was only when one made comparisons, as inevitable as they are odious, with one’s aural memory – always a dangerous, deceptive game – thinking, for instance, of Karl Böhm’s magnificent Staatskapelle Dresden, or of Daniele Gatti’s astounding Salzburg Festival account, the Vienna Philharmonic at the very top of its form, that discrepancy became apparent.

Christine Goerke’s assumption of the title role may  be accounted a resounding triumph. There was dramatic commitment, to be sure, but also vocal security and clarity that are far from a foregone conclusion in this treacherous role. If there were moments of strain, I either did not notice, or have forgotten them; this was very much a sung rather than screamed Elektra. Adrianne Pieczonka gave the finest performance I have heard from her as Chrysothemis, her voice more focused and with considerably greater bloom than I recall from, for instance, her Salzburg Marschallin. (Perhaps this role is a better fit vocally for her, or maybe her time has more fully come.) Michaela Schuster threw herself wholeheartedly into a splendidly malevolent portrayal of Klytämnestra, with John Daszak as her husband finely managing the tricky balancing act between portrayal of a weak, contemptible character and convincing assumption of the role. Iain Paterson offered a typically musicianly, quietly chilling Orest. Smaller parts were all well taken, the individual lines and timbres of the five maids impressively apparent.

At the end, then, I felt duly bludgeoned, as that least affirmative of C major chords dealt the final blow. There is no redemption: a concept that Strauss never understood, as witnessed by his bemusement over Mahler’s desire for that most Wagnerian of goals. Here, however, as is not always the case with the composer, thoroughgoing, post-Nietzschean materialism and dramatic truth go hand in hand. Adorno’s attack upon Strauss’s concluding music seemed to me more wrongheaded than ever: testament, surely, to a staging and performance worthy of Elektra.

Friday 20 September 2013

Turandot, Royal Opera, 19 September 2013

Royal Opera House

Mandarin – Michel de Souza
Liù – Eri Nakamura
Timur – Raymond Aceto
Calaf – Marco Berti
Ping – Dionysos Sourbis
Pang – David Butt Philip
Pong – Doug Jones
Turandot – Lise Lindstrom
Emperor Altoum – Alasdair Elliott
Soprano Solo I – Marianne Cotterill
Soprano Solo II – Anne Osborne

Andrei Serban (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)
Sally Jacobs (designs)
F. Mitchell Dana (lighting)
Kate Flatt (choreography)
Tatiana Novaes Coelho (choreologist)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Henrik Nánási (conductor)

The thawing of the Princess Turandot is somewhat more abrupt than mine, but I think it is fair to say that I am rather more favourably inclined towards Puccini than once I was. (Not that I was ever entirely hostile.) This was, however, the first time I had had, or rather had taken, the opportunity to see Turandot in the theatre. In such circumstances, it is more likely than not that there will be something to enjoy, and here there was, but it would be difficult to claim that pleasures – if that be the right word for this nastiest of operas – extended beyond the musical.

It was a pity that there had not been something theatrically to occupy one’s mind, however small; I could not help but think that, had this been one’s first encounter with Puccini, or indeed with opera at all, one might well have been so bemused by the ludicrous nature of what one saw, that that would have been the end of that. A friend, who I had not realised was also present at this performance, informed me that he had left after the first interval, longing for some Regietheater; one does not have to be Frank Castorf to understand why. I spent much of the first act vainly hoping for a sign of irony. Maybe it looked different thirty years ago, or was looked at differently. But even if Sally Jacobs’s designs – understatedly described by the Royal Opera as ‘colourful’ – are somehow left on one side, even if one somehow erases one’s mind of anything relating to Edward Said, let alone to subsequent orientalist theory, even if one overcomes the strange feeling that what one sees has more in common with a decidedly politically-incorrect Russian book of fairy-tales than with anything meaningfully ‘Chinese’, the rest of the direction, whether this be Serban’s or Andrew Sinclair’s doing, lies so far beyond the merely ‘dated’ that it seems older than the opera itself.  ‘Older’, that is, not in the sense of evoking something ancient, but because one wonders how much more restoration the sets and costumes can take before they simply collapse. Otto Schenk seems almost avant-garde by comparison. The dance routines threaten to make Puccini’s score sound like a model of multicultural sensitivity. As for the weird procession at the end...

My fear, however, would be not so much that this is a dinosaur that has managed to evade extinction that must come any day soon, but rather that it is being presented as a sop to a decidedly non-critical audience, who might find Wagner’s accusation against Meyerbeer of ‘effect without cause’ less challenging than bothersome. Visible – and audible – sitting back in seats for ‘Nessun dorma’  tended, sadly, to support that view. Once again Boulez’s ‘solution’ to the problem of opera houses sprang to mind.

The orchestra, however, was on good – good, rather than excellent, but nevertheless good – form.  Henrik Nánási’s conducting was strong in some respects: the extraordinary radicalism, at least for a composer of Italian opera, of Puccini’s harmony and orchestration shone through. Nánási was willing to linger, without losing track of where the musical drama was heading. There was often, though, a lack of sharpness, which would have lifted the performance and offered something more keenly responsive to the viciousness of the work. That is not, of course, to say that one wishes for something hard-driven or soulless, however much one might wonder whether that might be precisely what Turandot deserves, but there were times when this veered towards the listless. Choral singing was excellent throughout, yet another credit to the Royal Opera Chorus and Renato Balsadonna.

Much of the solo singing was to be admired too. Save for slight unsteadiness – quite pardonable, given the cruelty of this entry – upon her first phrase or two, Lise Lindstrom proved more or less beyond reproach as the ice princess. I use the cliché, since the final melting was a masterclass in how to present what I hesitate to call development of character, so shall settle for Puccini’s manipulative genius, breathtaking here even by his standards. The cold strength of much of the performance finally revealed a beating heart: too late, of course, for Liù, or indeed for any semblance of humanity within the work as a whole. Eri Nakamura gave the best performance I have heard from her as the slave girl, often exquisitely shaded; again, try as one might, it was more or less impossible not to be moved, even as one knew one was being shamelessly manipulated. (Strauss almost seems to have a conscience in such matters when compared with Puccini.) Marco Berti’s voice is of the type considered almost de rigeur for Calaf. There is, to be fair, considerable dynamic shading, yet I could not help but wish for something a little less rigid, whether in vocal or stage terms, though the latter may of course have been someone else’s fault. One would have to search far and wide for a more irritating and indeed offensive trio than the ghastly Ping, Pong, and Pang, but Dionysos Sourbis, David Butt Philip, and Doug Jones did what they could to bring their words to life. (Their stage business I cannot really bring myself to describe.) Alasdair Elliott certainly sounded like an elderly emperor, though was perhaps a little too much on the frail side. Still, the audience appeared to love the melodramatic – I fear that is far too weak a word – descent of his throne from the ceiling.

Alfano’s wretched ending was employed, though I suppose Berio and Serban might have made for odd bedfellows. If, however, there was little to be gleaned from the staging beyond avid connoisseurship of shameless kitsch, the performance arguably did its job in reminding one quite how wondrously repellent this opera is. One may, arguably should, disapprove, but it certainly holds the attention more than the last opera I had seen staged at Covent Garden: Britten’s deathly Gloriana. There are different ways to lie, as Michael Tanner’s perspicacious review of this Turandot would have it, beyond redemption; better, surely, for the problem to lie with morality than competence. To conclude, a plea that will doubtless fall upon deaf ears: next time might we not have a Turandot that proffers both  musical and ethical redemption? Busoni would be our man.

Thursday 19 September 2013

The Internet is a funny place...

... just in case any of you had not noticed. Not that that is in any way news to me, but the past few hours have highlighted the oddness. Upon returning home last night, I tried to log into Twitter, to be informed that my account had been suspended. I had not been e-mailed to that effect; nor was I given any explanation why. The Twitter page I eventually found informed me that I must fill in a form, read various guidelines, and generally be a good boy in the future. I filled in the form, though it was difficult to know what to say about past misdemeanours and future good behaviour, since I had no idea what I was held to have done in the first place. Shortly after, I received an automated e-mail reply, which essentially told me that I had to write all of that again, in a reply to the reply. That I did, and waited, and waited...

In the meantime, a bizarre comment appeared on my blog (click here, and look for the first posting from 'Seine Frau').  It was bizarre not merely in formulation but because the words it attributed to me were nowhere to be found on that review, nor indeed anywhere on my blog. (They were actually used, in a very particular context, in a Twitter exchange; there, if anywhere, would clearly have been the place to refer to them.) Since I began the blog, the only cases of disallowing comments have been when they were actually spam; there have been occasions when I found myself sorely tempted, yet I have still - just - allowed them. I let it through, then, and even allowed it the dubious courtesy of a response, whereupon another posting swiftly arrived. At that point, given its irrelevance to the subject of Bampton Classical Opera's La finta semplice, I thought it best to say that subsequent postings would not be permitted. Cue a tirade of abusive and indeed pornographic attempts to post, which were refused, but which I still had to read. (Spam filters, if they work at all, seem to need a little time to get going.) Given the pretty clear identity in terms of 'voice' and concerns between 'Seine Frau' and a strange person with various other sobriquets, 'Genevieve Castle Room' being one of them, and the knowledge that this person in the guise of @CMadruscht followed me on Twitter, I wondered whether there were any connection between the two strange Internet occurrences. (It seems that there was not, but who knows?) This person had been pestering me - and many others - for years, through social media and sometimes, still more creepily, directly via e-mail. Weird questions concerning opera,  especially Pelléas et Mélisande, would appear without context, sometimes more than once but from a different e-mail address. The following is a single example, not in any sense threatening, but certainly weird:

Hello Mark,
Is it just me or is this one of the silliest articles on opera?
Read here:
Mind you that was published in the Wall Street Journal, not some glossy pop magazine.
The Unrepentant Pelleastrian

Anyway, that strange, latterly foul-mouthed person has now been blocked, both on the blog and on Twitter, to which I should now return.

Nothing had changed with regard to the suspension this morning, but I received a few messages via other means from friends whom I was following. Many of them raised awareness, even to the wonderfully touching extent of launching a #FreeBoulezian hashtag. I was unable to reply to any of them, but their support was greatly appreciated. OperaCreep e-mailed me and wrote about the situation on his blog. Just before he made his posting, I received the following reply from Twitter (name of the employee deleted):


Twitter has automated systems that find and remove multiple automated spam accounts in bulk. Unfortunately, it looks like your account got caught up in one of these spam groups by mistake.

I've restored your account; sorry for the inconvenience.

Please note that it may take an hour or so for your follower and following numbers to return to normal.


Such things happen, I suppose, and no lasting harm has been done; indeed, it was gratifying to learn - with the exception of one person who sourly commented, 'Can do without him TBH' - that so many kind people valued my contributions. However, I cannot help but think that, at the very least, I should have been notified and permitted to inform the site that I was not guilty of that of which I was accused. (Doubtless it is all there in the small print none of us ever reads, but that is not really the point. I know some people will say that it is, but we shall have to agree to differ on that.)

I had started to wonder whether I should simply withdraw from social media for a while, especially since it brought up bitter memories of some libellous blogger of whom I had never heard but who, a few years ago, accused me of anti-Semitism. His deranged blog or rather blogs - he claims that one is his, and the other belongs to his non-existent partner -  appears to target various writers, artists, musicians, and others from time to time, making groundless and without question defamatory claims. I shall not link to it, since I do not wish to grant him any more visitors than is necessary. After my initial discussion with lawyer friends, who advised me that yes, I could sue, but I was better just to ignore him, my only concern was that someone searching for me online might find the claim that I was an anti-Semite. I simply had to hope that such a person would find other things first, and also judge the blogger by the rest of his lunatic postings. (Again, to give further details would simply reward him, which I have no intention of doing.)

Anyway, I have now more or less put that out of my mind and am back in the virtual world. For the moment. Thank you once again for all those who offered help and support; I cannot necessarily reply to you all individually, lest Twitter suspend me again for incessant messages, but I should like you to know how much your efforts have been appreciated.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

La finta semplice, Bampton Classical Opera, 17 September 2013

 St John’s, Smith Square

(performed in English, as Pride and Pretence)

Rosina – Aoife O’Sullivan
Don Cassandro – Nicholas Merryweather
Don Polidoro – Robert Anthony Gardiner
Giacinta – Caryl Hughes
Ninetta – Nathalie Chalkley
Fracasso – Adam Tunnicliffe
Simone – Gavan Ring

Jeremy Gray (director)

Andrew Griffiths (conductor)
Bampton Classical Opera’s annual visit to St John’s Smith Square this year offered La finta semplice, the twelve-year-old Mozart’s three-act opera buffa to a Goldoni libretto as modified by Marco Coltellini. Coltellini had settled in Vienna in the early 1760s, having been appointed as Metastasio’s successor as court poet. Libretti included that for Tommaso Traetta’s 1763 Ifigenia in Tauride, in some ways a precursor of Gluck’s reform operas, incorporating as it did many elements of French tragédie lyrique into the typically more Italianate Viennese opera. Indeed, Gluck would set Coltellini’s Telemaco in 1765, and Salieri his Armida in 1771.

La finta semplice, composed in 1768, came between those two works. Though rehearsed in Vienna in 1768, it was not performed, seemingly the victim of Leopold Mozart’s failure to gain a contract, Mozart’s father having acted upon Joseph II’s suggestion – Joseph was now Holy Roman Emperor, and Co-regent of the Habsburg lands with Maria Theresa, though she still very much wore the imperial trousers – that Mozart might write a work for performance by the court opera. Intrigues that would not have been out of place in Amadeus thwarted the expected performance, and the Mozarts abruptly returned to Salzburg, where La finta semplice would be performed the following year at the Archbishop’s Palace, probably on 1 May. We can be reasonably sure that that performance, employing local musicians including Michael Haydn’s wife, Magdalena Lipp, as Rosina, was the only one during Mozart’s lifetime.

Though occasionally staged since, it remains a rarity. My only previous theatrical encounter with it having been during the heavenly anniversary year of 2006, when Salzburg staged all of Mozart’s operas, though this particular opera received an anything-but-heavenly staging, recitatives being ditched in favour of a gameshow format, in which a squeaky-voiced woman clad in a bright yellow jumpsuit shouted directorial inanities. Michael Hofstetter’s conducting of the Camerata Salzburg was not much better, abrasively harrying an orchestra that bore all too readily the wounds of its Norringtonian passion. (Though I have proved unable to bring myself to return to it, the production is available on DVD, lest the reader think it a figment of my fevered imagination.)

It was, then, with eagerness that I travelled to Westminster for a second chance, sad perhaps that the opera was being offered in translation, yet grateful that it was to be performed at all. The ‘new English translation’ by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray was one of those translations more akin to a new ‘version’: not a problem if it works and proves a thoroughgoing recreation, but in this case tended more towards the merely silly. Words and sometimes whole couplets seemed chosen more on account of the opportunity for an attention-seeking rhyme, such as ‘boozing’ and ‘snoozing’, than because they were dramatically fitting, let alone faithful. Nevertheless, when making a mental comparison with the jumpsuit gameshow ‘version’, one could breathe a sigh or two of relief. Gray’s staging, insofar as one could tell, given its transporting from Bampton to Westminster, offered manic – sometimes a little too manic – action against a vaguely surrealistic backdrop. In that, it was doubtless consistent with the conception apparent from the translation of kinship to farce, though I am not sure that it thereby displayed any real appreciation of Goldoni’s buffa form, Coltellini’s revisions, or indeed Mozart’s music. Partly for that reason, I shall not delve more deeply into the plot; synopses are readily available, and in the circumstances, the musical performance became more evidently the thing.

Certain overheated moments apart, though, it did not particular harm either. Andrew Griffiths was able as conductor to show a far keener appreciation of the score, pacing it well, offering both contrast and, especially during the second and third acts, a proper sense, even at this stage in Mozart’s career, of dramatic development. Griffiths yielded where appropriate, without succumbing in any sense to the mannerisms that so bedevil present performances of eighteenth-century repertoire. If there were occasions when one missed the sound of a full orchestra, the CHROMA ensemble offered for the most part finely honed, sensitive playing: stylish without affectation. Charlotte Forrest deserves special mention as the excellent harpsichord continuo player. A young cast offered an ensemble that was definitely more than the sum of its parts, not that they were negligible. If in many cases some numbers proved more strongly sung than others, there was a high level not only of promise but accomplishment.   Aoife O’Sullivan’s account of Rosina, the baroness, was perhaps the high point, its musical sensitivity matching that of the players. But a general sense of commitment and exuberance went a long way.

Sunday 15 September 2013

American Lulu, The Opera Group, 14 September 2013

Young Vic Theatre

Lulu – Angel Blue
Clarence – Robert Winslade Anderson
Dr Bloom – Donald Maxwell
Jimmy – Jonathan Stoughton
Eleanor – Jacqui Dankworth
Photographer, Young Man – Paul Curievici
Athlete – Simon Wilding
Professor, Banker, Police Commissioner – Paul Reeves

John Fulljames (director)
Magda Willi (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)
Finn Ross (video)
Carolyn Downing (sound)

London Sinfonietta
Gerry Cornelius (conductor)

Images: Bregenzer Festspiele/Anja Köhler and Bregenzer Festspiele/Karl Forster
In the foreground: Jacqui Dankworth (Eleanor) and Angel Blue (Lulu); Simon Wilding (athlete) in background

I was a little taken aback by the reaction I received upon mentioning that I was looking forward to seeing American Lulu. One friend, perfectly reasonably, said that he had not taken to it when he had seen it in Berlin; I wish I had had the chance to press him more on why. However, he did suggest that the staging – presumably at the Komische Oper premiere – may have been a considerable part of the problem. Others, though, seemed to recoil at the very idea. Who did Olga Neuwirth think she was, adapting Berg’s opera into her own? For once, I almost felt myself the voice of reason, then stopped short when I recalled that to have been the title of an especially nasty right-wing newspaper column. At any rate, I had no a priori objection to what sounded as though it were simply the continuation of practices that dated back as long as any conception of the musical work, and indeed beyond. I have always preferred the Second Viennese School arrangements of Johann Strauss to the ‘originals’; Mozart’s Handel reworkings, whether in terms of arrangement or more thoroughgoing recomposition have long fascinated me; and as for Bach, whether his rewriting of other music, sometimes his own, sometimes that of others, or the multitude of rewritings, in whatever form, offered by composers from Mozart to George Benjamin... They vary wildly in quality, of course, and that seemed to me the only point; the question was not whether Neuwirth had any ‘right’ to adapt Berg’s opera, but whether it worked.

I think it did, or at least much of it did. I cede to no one in my love for Lulu – save, perhaps to one of Neuwirth’s teachers, Luigi Nono, who described  it as one of the two greatest operas of the twentieth century, the other being Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand. I know Berg’s score – and Friedrich Cerha’s completion – pretty well, and found myself not annoyed, but fascinated by the interplay between Berg and Neuwirth. In a work that lasts about half the time of the original, Neuwirth adapts, including reorchestration, the first two acts, and writes her own third act, both text and music. (English translations, concerning which, I found some more convincing than others, were provided by Richard Stokes and Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon in the first two acts, and Kerkhoff-Saxon alone in the third.) One might miss the gorgeous post-Romantic labyrinthine depth of Berg, but to hear his music refracted as it was, pointed in a different direction by a new(-ish) story held its own interest – just as, say, Berio’s work on composers as different as Boccherini, Purcell, and Schubert has. (If only he had lived to complete his realisation of L’incoronazione di Poppea...) And so, with Berg’s – admittedly, selectively employed – jazz-influenced scoring in mind, Neuwirth’s reorchestration and composition alike make their move to New Orleans via a wind-dominated ensemble, Berg’s voluptuous strings put in their place and perhaps now heard through Brecht-Weill. (No one, I hasten to add, is saying that Berg is ‘improved upon’; that is not the point.) I was less sure about the introduction of more popular music ‘proper’, especially Eleanor’s blues music, into the score; its inclusion, presumably intentionally so, seemed oddly uncritical, as if, in a curious inversion or at least evasion of Adorno, Berg’s opera requires subjection to criticism but that of an allegedly purer popular culture does not. And yet, as I shall come to describe, there is a dialectical twist that would at least partially assist in that regard. The new version of the film music – what a relief it was actually to see a film, practically the only moment in present-day staging of opera where film seems to be eschewed – is brought to us, like the ‘jazz band’ music  via a recording of a Wonder Morton organ: evocative, contemporaneous, and yet also, rightly for a new work, somewhat oblique in its relationship to the ‘original’.

The third act of Lulu, which Neuwirth, wrongly to my mind yet perhaps nevertheless fruitfully, regards as ‘unsatisfactory’ – ‘after great trials and tribulations, two women are simply slaughtered by a serial killer; and that is that’ – becomes instead ‘an unresolved murder case’, but more to the point here, offers her own music, clearly flowing from that of Berg, still more from that of Berg-Neuwirth, and yet which quite properly takes on a life of its own: a twenty-first-century reimagination of post-expresssionist music. There are vocal leaps; there is vocal seduction; there is a hard-edged, yet sinuous quality, in line with Berg’s own. I should need to hear it again to say much more; yet, to answer the earlier question, for the most part, and bearing in mind my cavil concerning the blues music in particular, I think it worked.

I deliberately started with the music but ought to say something briefly about the new setting.  Instead of the Prologue, we start at the end, in 1970s New York, when Clarence (Schigolch) asks Lulu why, when she is now so wealthy, she is no more satisfied, prompting her to look back at her life, beginning in 1950s New Orleans. A photographer with whom she is living is soon supplanted by Dr Bloom, purchaser of the pictures; Lulu dances in Bloom’s club, music written for her by his son, Jimmy. (I do not need in laboured fashion to point out who is who with respect to Berg; it is perfectly clear, though some of Berg’s intricate parallelism falls by the wayside as Neuwirth’s drama takes on a different trajectory.) Initially I found the substitution of Eleanor, a singer, for Geschwitz, something of a disappointment. The ‘otherness’ – if I am honest, banality – of her music, however well sung by Jacqui Dankworth, seemed too obvious, too lacking in integrative or indeed disintegrative power. However, and I hope this was not merely a product of my fevered imagination, there is criticism, if not so much of her music, then of the hippyish psycho-babble in which her reproaches – she is by the third act a successful singer, though still hurt by Lulu’s prior rejection – are couched. She too, it seems, is capable of exploitative behaviour. As indeed are we all, and some of it, like Neuwirth’s, may even be construed positively. We should not fall for bogus notions of the ‘jargon of authenticity’. Meanwhile, all the while, the drama is punctuated by reminders of the Civil Rights Movement: words from Dr King, and sounds, in Eleanor’s final song, of ‘We shall overcome’.  It is certainly not subtle, and it is perhaps all too easy to say ‘that is the point,’ but its contribution was nevertheless greater than to make us appreciate more fully the balancing-act between existential and social – far too often tilted in favour of the former – in Berg’s opera. (Should we consider American Lulu in reference to Berg’s work, or as a work in itself? That depends, of course, on who ‘we’ are. Either we know the original or we do not, but a question that permits neither of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as a ‘straight’ answer is a good question for Neuwirth to be asking audiences, steeped in the self-righteous delusions of Werktreue.)

This was a co-production by The Opera Group, the Young Vic, Scottish Opera, and the Bregenz Festival, in association with the London Sinfonietta. The latter was on excellent form throughout, splendidly guided, insofar as one could tell from an initial hearing, by Gerry Cornelius. I was certainly as gripped by the orchestral performance as by the puzzles and challenges of Neuwirth’s work itself. John Fulljames makes a great deal from relatively little on the small stage of the Young Vic. Video was used sparingly but to great effect, Finn Ross’s work employing characters from the stage greatly appreciated, as mentioned above. The uncomfortable voyeurism of having Lulu change on stage, taking her clothes from a wardrobe and almost defying us not to watch, has one’s mind working, as it should, in different directions: self-interrogation, heightened by the (Brechtian?) presence onstage behind a see-through curtain of the orchestra. Construction of reality, perception of what may or may not be epic, is not simply our own task, but it is so at least in part, as in Lulu’s mind.

Angel Blue offered a charismatic assumption of the title role. It is of course far shorter than Berg’s, but has different challenges, the slipping between speech, parlando, and glorious, if all-too-brief (deliberately so?), passages in which the voice may truly soar a case of ongoing reinvention. Her stage presence, just as in ENO’s recent Bohème, was scintillating. In this opera, more than Berg’s, the other cast members are lesser beings, but there was much to enjoy from their various contributions. Paul Curievici, for instance, furthered the strong impression he recently made in The Importance of Being Earnest, and Donald Maxwell continued to hold the stage even at what must be approaching the twilight of his career.

Emma Woodvine, credited as ‘dialect coach’ seemed to have done a good job. I still wonder about the practice, though, of having assumed accents, be they from the South or elsewhere. It seems curiously selective; for instance, when we have a performance of Carmen, whether in French or in translation, we do not usually hear the dialogue – or, for that matter, the vocal lines – delivered in the tones of Seville. Better, I think, to let actors, including singing actors, act than to have them turn impressionists. (That runs both ways, of course; those complaining, as sometimes they do, about American or other accents in English dialogue should probably find better things to do with their time.) No matter; it is a minor point, indeed more of a question. And a great strength of this evening was the questioning that it provoked.