Wednesday 26 February 2014

Recommended Gluck recordings

A week or so ago, I was asked if I might give some recommendations concerning recordings of Gluck. So as not unduly to repeat myself, here in this earlier posting are some of my reasons for pressing his cause so strongly, not just in his tercentenary but in any year.

Orfeo et Euridice remains, of course, Gluck’s most celebrated work, even if for many of us, Iphigénie en Tauride is the greatest of all his ‘reform operas’. Even those thinking them entirely ignorant of the composer’s œuvre are likely to know ‘Che faro senza Euridice,’ perhaps via Kathleen Ferrier, or Dame Janet Baker, and the Dance of the Blessed Spirits, even though it does not actually belong to Gluck’s original version at all. The question of versions is somewhat vexed. We are probably best off simply to celebrate the options open to us and not to become too concerned with choosing one over the other. For the ‘pure’ 1762 version – if not quite so ‘pure’ as many think it, Gluck even here recycling some earlier music – Riccardo Muti, ever the purist, with Agnes Baltsa in the title role and the Philharmonia would be my recommendation. When it comes to the 1774 revision for Paris, Orphée et Eurydice, with a tenor in the title role, then the style, elegance, and yet also depth of feeling offered by Léopold Simoneau and Suzanne Danco, have never been surpassed, probably not equalled; the great Hans Rosbaud conducts. (Incidentally, if you do not know his recording of Rameau’s Platée, you should. It is not all Webern in Rosbaud-land.) If, however, you would like a composite version, in which to a considerable extent the best of both worlds is achieved, Raymond Leppard with Dame Janet, post-Glyndebourne, should be your first port of call. It may be ‘wrong’, but, should you hanker after a deeper male voice in an ‘inauthentic’ version, then Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s typical intelligent reading with Karl Richter (and Gundula Janowitz!) will fit the bill. Finally, sui generis, as an ‘historic’ recording, whose depth of tragic feeling has never been approached and most likely will never be again, there is Wilhelm Furtwängler from La Scala. Overlook the wretched choral singing if you can, and revelations will be yours.

Iphigénie en Tauride is, as I said, probably the greatest of Gluck’s dramas. There is certainly nothing in his œuvre to match the astonishing opening sequence, moving from minuet (Le calme) to tempest, plunging us into the action as surely as Wagner in Die Walküre. Muti’s incandescent reading, this time from La Scala, has no peers. Carol Vaness, Gösta Winbergh, and Thomas Allen are amongst the excellent cast.

Another conductor who has shown great commitment to the Gluck cause is Sir John Eliot Gardiner. His Lyon recording of Iphigénie en Aulide, its cast headed by Lynne Dawson, Anne Sofie von Otter, and José van Dam has many virtues, though Gardiner, it must be admitted, sometimes drives too hard. Gluck’s German language-version, Iphigenie in Aulis is very well-served by Karl Böhm’s Salzburg recording. What a cast! Christa Ludwig, Inge Borkh, Walter Berry, Otto Edelmann…  Wagner’s 1847 revision needs to be heard by Gluckians and Wagnerians alike. Kurt Eichhorn’s Munich recording (Fischer-Dieskau, Moffo, et al.) should be snapped up without hesitation.

Alceste is, of course, the work to which Gluck’s (actually his librettist, Calzabigi’s) celebrated Preface, one of the most important documents in the history of opera, was penned. The French and Italian versions are so different as pretty much to constitute separate works. In French, Janet Baker’s Covent Garden farewell, under the baton of Charles Mackerras, demands to be heard. So too, however, does Jessye Norman’s towering account of the title role, with excellent – in truth, far richer-toned – Munich forces under Serge Baudo. Siegmund Nimsgern, Nicolai Gedda, and Kurt Rydl are amongst the other cast members. For the rare Italian version, a great soprano of an earlier generation calls to us: no less than Kirsten Flagstad, conducted by Geraint Jones.

Lothar Zagrosek conducted a Gluck cycle in Berlin not so long ago. In a better world, we should all have heard it, or at least heard of it. His recording of Paride ed Elena, with Ileana Cotrubas and Franco Bonisolli remains an estimable account.

The above recommendations have all been of Gluck’s ‘reform operas’, certainly his most important achievement. However, there are many riches to be discovered elsewhere, if only someone would perform them. As a single example of orchestral, though highly dramatic, music, the ballet, Don Juan (a far from negligible influence upon Mozart) may be heard in a typically musical account from Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Lamberto Gardelli’s charming recording of the one-act Le Cinesi will offer an enchanting introduction to the ‘pre-reform’ Gluck.

Monday 24 February 2014

Walker/LSO/Harding - Huw Watkins and Mahler, 23 February 2014

Barbican Hall

Huw Watkins – Flute Concerto (world premiere)
Mahler – Symphony no.1 in D major

Adam Walker (flute)
London Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor) 

Adam Walker had already premiered one of Huw Watkins’s works, the Capriccio for flute and piano, in 2010. Upon Walker’s award of a Fellowship from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, and consequent funding for a commission, both from the Trust and from individual patrons, Walker approached Watkins to write a concerto, whose premiere we were now to hear. According to Schott’s website, the concerto is ‘built around Walker’s playing,’ the composer having noted ‘especially Walker’s “amazing sound and control of his instrument”, which he constantly had in mind during the composition process”.’ Insofar as I could tell from a first hearing and without a score, there seemed to be no doubt not only of Walker’s technical facility but also of his musical commitment, ably supported by the London Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding. Phrasing and variegated tone suggested a repertoire work Walker had been playing for years rather than a first performance. Watkins could hardly have hoped for superior advocacy.

Cast in the traditional three movements, Allegro molto, Andante, and Allegro molto, his concerto is also thoroughly traditional in terms of their character: they seem not only to function as recognisable quasi-symphonic first movement, slow movement and rondo finale, but also to possess ‘character’ tallying with their placing. The germination of the first movement’s material from a flickering cell – if a cell may be admitted to flicker! – is clear throughout, Walker’s finely-spun flute line permitting the listener to trace his or her way without difficulty. It is perhaps easy to overlook the technical problems in ensuring an instrument such as the flute makes itself heard against a sizeable orchestra, but this never seemed to be a problem for composer or musicians. There is certainly real craft at work here. The slow movement continues, as indeed does the dance-like finale, to make its way in a recognisably tonal idiom. Sonority and command of the orchestra seemed to have much in common with the music of a composer such as Julian Anderson, though in the context of this particular concert, it was interesting to note, especially during the slow movement, moments at which new vistas appeared to open up, perhaps not so breathtakingly as in Mahler’s case, but offering an interesting correspondence, whether merely fortuitous or no. Doubtless this concerto will prove a valuable addition to the flute repertoire.

Mahler’s First Symphony followed the interval, and received for the most part an estimable performance from Harding and the LSO: unquestionably a relief following Valery Gergiev’s dubious dabblings with Mahler’s music. The first movement was perhaps marginally less successful. Whilst Harding’s disinclination to drive the music was greatly appreciated, there were occasions when tension sagged a little, though certainly not in its thrilling conclusion. There was beauty, though, in the sounds of the Nature with which the music comes to initial life, the LSO’s technical ability second to none, string harmonics holding none of the fears they still do for some orchestras. Harding’s orchestral layout, violins split left and right, was much appreciated in this movement and elsewhere for enabling Mahler’s counterpoint fully to register. The second movement was taken relatively ‘straight’, as indeed was the symphony as a whole, but emerged no worse for that: there is nothing worse than underlining every ‘point’, as if Mahler cannot be trusted to speak for himself. Much the same could be said of the funeral march, its eeriness emerging from the material rather than being imposed upon it. Contrasts were undeniable, but never excessive, in a movement whose performance was possessed of considerable cumulative power. The halting journey to redemption, or whatever the apparent triumph of the finale may be, was convincingly traced. If the awkward corners of this and the first movement were not entirely concealed, that is more testament to Mahler’s relative immaturity than to any shortcoming in performance; it takes a Kubelík or a Boulez truly to have one forget the problems, and there is something indeed to be said for a reading that places such trust in what remains a staggeringly original first symphony. Not that Harding was in any sense staid: the final peroration blazed with theatricality, horns and trombones standing to attention. Claudio Abbado, to whose memory this concert was dedicated, would surely have admired the continuing work of his ‘little genius’. Harding’s heartfelt, eloquent tribute in the programme matched that on the podium. A black mark is awarded, though, for the programme’s description of the work as the ‘Titan’, the Jean Paul-inspired epithet inappropriate to the work in its final version as heard here.  

Saturday 22 February 2014

London Sinfonietta - Messiaen, 21 February 2014

Hall One, Kings Place

 Préludes: ‘La Colombe’ and ‘Plainte calme’
Thème et Variations
Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)
Alexandra Wood (violin)
Oliver Coates (cello)
John Constable (piano)

I had not realised that Kings Place’s current ‘Chamber Classics Unwrapped’ series had found its repertoire by virtue of a public vote. Still more surprising was the fact that such a poll had resulted in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time coming in at number eleven. But then, I suppose that those likely to participate in such an exercise are probably not members of the Katherine Jenkins fan club. At any rate, it was a welcome opportunity to hear this extraordinary work, here given a degree of context in being prefaced by a little more Messiaen.

Two of the piano Préludes received rather wooden performances by John Constable – surprisingly so, given his record as pianist in the London Sinfonietta. ‘La Colombe’ never really took flight; as with ‘Plainte calme’, one heard the notes, and had a sense of how they might otherwise be despatched, but little more. Debussy’s influence nevertheless shone through, though how could it not? At any rate, the great leap forward to his mature style would be indicated in retrospect. The Thème et Variations fared somewhat better, gaining freedom as the performance progressed, though Alexandra Wood’s violin was not always in tune with the piano. We were reminded, though, quite how much Messiaen owed to Franck, not only in his organ works. And ultimately, a sense of the ecstatic, later to be more fully, theologically developed, was achieved.

Ensemble was undoubtedly strengthened by the arrival of Mark can de Wiel and Oliver Coates for the Quartet. Although the music does not ever really sound ‘like’ Schoenberg, I could not help but be put in mind from time to time of the ever-versatile Pierrot ensemble, here of course minus the flute, but given the varying combinations nestling itself in the musical subconscious. From the opening ‘Liturgie de cristal’ one is here in unmistakeable Messiaen territory, both in terms of eschatology and musical process – though for him, and indeed for us, they are one and the same. Coates’s cello and Constable’s piano offered reassuring irregular regularity of pulse, above which the birds could – and did – sing. Pitch repeated and rhythm rotated, showing once again how much ‘total serialism’ owed to the composer who, in a very strong sense, was its founding father. So was the scene set for the Angel’s announcement of the End of Time, angelic power and what might just have been the sweetness – ‘blue-orange’ –  of the Beatific Vision juxtaposed so as somehow to make sense of each other. Van de Wiel’s ‘Abîme des oiseaux’ was a tour de force, but far more than that: musical sense was ever present, likewise the birds’ heavenly opposition to the abyss.

Following the ‘Intermède’, almost charming in a more conventionally Gallic sense, and yet reminding us, through thematic recollection, of its pivotal role, the Word appeared in the beginning of ‘Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus’. Rearranged though it may be from an earlier work for six (!) ondes Martenots for the 1937 Paris Exposition, its ecstatic manner, Coates’s cello reverent and possessed of seemingly endless reserves of bow, shone through. Time shaded almost into eternity, ‘infiniment lent, extatique’. The ensuing ‘Danse de la fureur’ reinstated the primacy of rhythm as the apocalyptic seven trumpets were evoked. All players ensured once again that crucial irregular regularity, without which the music would have degenerated into nonsense. The climax duly struck terror into our hearts. With the ‘Fouillis d-arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce  la fin du Temps,’ there was achieved a proper sense of summation of what had gone before, and yet hearing, perhaps even sighting, of something new through the tangle of rainbows. With the closing ‘Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus,’ Wood and Constable beautifully, movingly, brought Messiaen’s earlier organ Diptyque into what seemed in retrospect as though it should always have been its home. Paradise, just maybe, was gimpsed through the Word made flesh.


Turandot, Royal Opera, 20 February 2014

Images: Tristram Kenton/ROH

Emperor (Alasdair Elliott),
Turandot (Iréne Theorin)
Royal Opera House

Mandarin – Ashley Riches
Liù – Ailyn Pérez
Timur – Matthew Rose
Calaf – Alfred Kim
Ping – Grant Doyle
Pang – David Butt Philip
Pong – Luis Gomes
Turandot – Iréne Theorin
Emperor Altoum – Alasdair Elliott
Soprano soli – Marianne Cotterill, 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 and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Nicola Luisotti (conductor)


This was in almost every respect an excellent performance – which therefore exacerbates the problem lying at the heart, or whatever it is that lies in its place, of the work itself. The prize may be fiercely contested, and I should hesitate to award first place to any one contender, but is there a more brazenly offensive opera to modern sensibilities than Turandot? Its racism and misogyny are far from unique, though they are experienced here in a form so extreme that even the dullest of listeners could hardly fail to notice them. The particular offensiveness goes far beyond that, however. Michael Tanner, writing in The Spectator upon this production’s previous outing of the season, went so far as to describe it as ‘an irredeemable work, a terrible end to a career that had included three indisputable masterpieces and three less evident ones, counting Il Trittico as one.’ The real problem is the plot itself. Again to quote Tanner,  only summarizing what happens yet in reality twisting the knife by having the plot speak for itself, ‘once Liù has killed herself because she can’t stand any more pain, Calaf forgets about her, and about his frail old father Timur who just disappears, and turns all his attention on Turandot.’ It is repellent, and it is well-nigh impossible to imagine someone possessed of a smidgeon of humanity feeling otherwise.

And yet, its repellent quality fascinates, on account of Puccini’s manipulative genius. There is nothing beneath the surface, but what a surface! What Tanner rightly condemns as a ‘void’ draws one in to its nothingness and achieves if not nihilistic intent then certainly representation and experience of the work’s nihilistic essence. It is not entirely different from much Strauss in that respect, though the sadism is Puccini’s own: how he revels once again in the torture as much as the vile sacrifice itself! A ‘successful’ performance is therefore a problematical concept indeed. Should the work simply be portrayed for what it is? Or should it be confronted, questioned, in some sense ‘dealt with’?

Pang (David Butt Philip), Ping (Grant Doyle), and Pong (Luis Gomes)

The Royal Opera opted for the former, at least in terms of the umpteenth revival of Andrei Serban’s production, first seen in 1984. Andrew Sinclair’s revival direction seemed tighter than it had in September of last year, though I think that may have been in large part a matter of greater musical – in particular, orchestral – dynamism, sharpening the cruel edges of the work. Yes, there is something of an effort – which again, came across more strongly than last time around – to present the performance with the idea of ‘staging’ to the forefront. It comes perilously close to being lost, however, by the exuberant success of  the execution, not least Kate Flatt’s choreography. ‘About staging’ turns into ‘mere staging’. Likewise the Orientalism of Sally Jacobs’s designs. Surely by 2014, we need to inject a measure of irony, or indeed violence. I had a nasty feeling that many of those in the audience wildly applauding had not so much as registered the attendant problems: an urgent need for any responsible new production.

The orchestra was on magnificent form throughout. Nicola Luisotti not only revelled in the score’s phantasmagorical harmonies and sonorities but also imparted a startling symphonic continuity not only to each act but to the work as a whole. Puccini’s surface and that void beneath could hardly have been more brilliantly – in more than one sense – evoked. This Puccini, quite rightly, sounded more than ever a brother of Strauss, not least in his twin descent from Wagner’s invention and disavowal of Wagner’s moral intent. Such made the echoes and/or presentiments of Schoenberg – not only the avant-gardism of Pierrot lunaire, but also the wondrous late Romanticism of Gurrelieder – sound all the more painful, given the strenuous moralism of the Austrian composer, as fervent an admirer of Puccini as Puccini was of him. Luisotti had done for the most part a decent job with Don Giovanni, but he was clearly more in his element here. If only the staging had questioned the work as the fine musical performance necessarily did.


Liù (Ailyn Peréz)
Iréne Theorin did what she had to do in the truly repugnant title role. Steel and sheer vocal strength were allied to a subtler-than-usual command of dynamic contrast. Alfred Kim might have offered more in terms of subtlety, especially during that aria, which sounded too much like an aria, however much responsibility Puccini must also bear for that. But otherwise, his was a formidable, untiring performance. Liù once again fared very well in indeed in terms of casting, Ailyn Pérez offering a moving portrayal – again, may Puccini’s manipulations be cursed! – in which musical and dramatic imperatives were as one. There are greater opportunities for vocal shading, and of course for sympathy, than with the Princess; Perez undoubtedly took them all. Matthew Rose made for a noble Timur, whilst the unbearably irritating trio of Ping, Pong, and Pang received uncommonly excellent performances, again as laudable in stage as in musical terms, from Grant Doyle, David Butt Philip, and Luis Gomes. Renato Balsadonna’s chorus and extra chorus showed themselves the orchestra’s equals in excellence.

Wagner feared that excellent performances of Tristan would be his ruin; audiences would not be able to take them. In a very different sense, one might say the same of this ‘irredeemable’ work; at least unless a director has the courage more directly to confront its horrors.


Saturday 15 February 2014

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 14 February 2014

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Leporello – Alex Esposito
Donna Anna – Malin Byström
Don Giovanni – Mariusz Kwiecień
Commendatore – Alexander Tsyambalyuk
Don Ottavio – Antonio Poli
Donna Elvira – Véronique Gens
Zerlina – Elizabeth Watts
Masetto – Dawid Kimberg

Kasper Holten (director)
Es Devlin (set designs)
Luke Halls (video)
Anja Vang Kragh (costumes)
Bruon Poet (lighting)
Sine Fabricis (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Nicola Luisotti (conductor)

When, a fortnight ago, this production of Don Giovanni opened at the Royal Opera House, it seemed to have created uproar. Whilst I should have liked to go without hearing anything about it, that seemed well-nigh impossible in this case. From some of the comments, one would have thought that the love-child of Frank Castorf and Hans Neuenfels had been delivered – not that I should necessarily have minded that at all. I can only assume that half the audience must have been made up of a UKIP convention, having somehow found time to rest its collective eyes from perusing the latest pensées of Jan Moir and Melanie Phillips. What I saw was not only a thoughtful, intelligent, coherent staging, but actually if anything rather a ‘traditional’ one.

The premise of Kasper Holten’s production is interesting, yet hardly ‘difficult’. Don Giovanni is not merely imagining his story, but in a sense writing it. Though not identical, there is perhaps some kinship here with Holten’s Copenhagen Ring, in which Brünnhilde discovers ‘her’ story. In any case, the idea is not thrust in one’s face, and one could probably leave it to one side, should one wish. Was it, then, the projections which so offended? It is difficult to understand how or why. Aside from inscribing the names of some of Giovanni’s conquests upon the walls, they simply offer an elegant solution to the problem of shifting scenes. Doubtless this might have been accomplished through multiple scene changes, but the sense of an unchanging framework – Giovanni’s ego? – transformed according to circumstance, whim, and narrative would thereby have been lost. Perhaps most dramatically – in a true rather than sensationalist sense – this was accomplished through the creation of a labyrinth, not at all inappropriate to Mozart’s second-act music, straining as it is towards the Second Viennese School, Berg in particular. (Doubtless UKIP would not like that, but then it would probably be happier with the collected works of Eric Coates – or perhaps Dame Vera Lynn.) The great sextet works splendidly, characters compartmentalised, confused, attempting yet failing to make their ways out, agency of their own undermined by the central character’s control – but is it control? – of the narrative. The shift of the action to the nineteenth century might worry some, I suppose, but it is hardly Calixto Bieito – his still the best staging I have seen in the theatre of this work – and  added a layer of reminiscence to the conception of narrative, itself perhaps reminiscent of Holten’s Onegin as well as his Ring. These, I hesitate, are my readings; they may well not have been the director’s, but that openness to reading seems to me in itself a virtue of the staging.

I have one major reservation, concerning the ending. Not the Stone Guest Scene and its aftermath as such: they are well handled, leaving Giovanni on stage alone to cope with the existential devastation of his own creation, that issue of ‘creation’, be it of the self, of others, of narrative, an important point throughout. The ‘moral’ is sung from the pit, whilst he breaks down, Hell being the ‘written’ voices in his head. In this context, I can understand why Holten might have considered cutting the first part of the scena ultima; it indeed makes some sense in terms of his concept. It should probably, however, have been reconsidered. Contrary to the nonsense one spectacularly uninformed journalist – I wrote to him to point this out, but he did not dignify me with a response – was spouting, there is absolutely no precedent for this in Mozart’s own practice, such as we know it. For it was not the case that the scene was omitted entirely. (That may have happened in Vienna in 1788; we simply do not know.) Nor did the performance adopt the possibility of a cut within the scene, running from ‘Ah! certo è l’ombra che m’incontrò!’ to ‘Resti dunque quel birbon’, there being four ‘new’ bars, marked Andante, to facilitate that transition. Rather it sounded as if, in recorded music terms, we had simply skipped a track. In a production that often shows itself alert to the score as well as to the text, this was a pity – but a revival will offer occasion to reconsider. There is also the matter of the typical dreadful conflation of Vienna and Prague versions earlier on: regrettable, certainly, but sadly typical of most stagings. It really is time for directors and, still more conductors, to stand up to singers, audiences, whoever else might be longing for extra arias, however heart-rendingly beautiful, and say no; the drama must come first.

I had also been led by many to believe that something outlandish was to be offered by Nicola Luisotti. Now this was not Barenboim or Muti, let alone Klemperer or Furtwängler. But it was for the most part a well conducted, stylish performance. There were occasions when tension sagged, sadly more than a little during the oddly fire-less – and I do not mean to invoke the unlamented Francesca Zambello here! – Stone Guest Scene. But there was a sense of a greater whole, tempi were mostly sensible, and there was the most part a welcome degree of flexibility. Mozart’s music was certainly not harried. The strings played sweetly, the woodwind players often magically euphonious. Even when Luisotti took decisions from which I might have dissented, for instance, in reducing the strings for ‘Ah, fuggi, il traditor!’ there was discernible reason for his choice, likewise for his adding harpsichord to the mix here. It was clearly an attempt to highlight the kinship with Handel, even if some of us think that is better left to speak for itself.

As for the much-exaggerated continuo madness: well, I should prefer a modern piano to a fortepiano, but I can see no particular harm in offering fortepiano and harpsichord. They offered not only variety but also difference of response to situation, and if Luisotti’s fortepiano playing sometimes drew attention to itself a little too much, I have heard far worse. A strange switching between major and minor – yes, I suppose one could say that it is characteristic of the work as a whole – did little for the end of one recitative, and its deployment there seemed oddly arbitrary, but again, I have heard worse.

Mariusz Kwiecień shone in the title role: masculine, effortlessly seductive – it was, after all, his character’s imagination running riot – and unabashedly sexy. It would have been difficult, most likely impossible, for anyone to resist his call. Certainly his womenfolk did not, could not, and that was as much a matter of detailed attention to the libretto as to the musical line, operatic alchemy properly in evidence. Alex Esposito proved an alert, quicksilver Leporello. Malin Byström’s Donna Anna, clearly loving every minute of her seduction, could be somewhat wayward vocally; at its best, however, it was a powerful assumption, which placed the role and its emotional confusion firmly in the Romantic camp of ETA Hoffmann. Véronique Gens seemed to be having something of an off-day as Donna Elvira, one of her recitatives problematical in terms of intonation, though ‘Mi tradì’ itself recovered nicely. Elizabeth Watts was a perky, strong-minded Zerlina, full of her own seductive gifts, as was shown in her interaction with Dawid Kimberg’s contrastingly bluff Masetto. Antonio Poli displayed a sweet-toned tenor as Don Ottavio, though his intonation wandered a little at times. The Commendatore, as sung by Alexander Tsymbalyuk, made his mark well, whilst remaining integrated into the production’s dramatic framework. Choral singing was excellent throughout.

Sadly, the biggest problem lay with the audience. If UKIP moral outrage were less in evidence, boorish behaviour certainly remained. The bar is low, I admit, but this must have been one of the worst-behaved audiences I have yet encountered in the house. Coughing levels suggested a tuberculosis epidemic. Those I could see all around me made no effort to stifle their outbursts; I shall be fortunate indeed if I have not succumbed myself by this evening. Their chattering was, if anything, worse still, likewise the sweet-wrapper opening, and the strange, quite un-erotic groping I was compelled to witness in front of me. But the nadir came when the Catalogue Aria had to pause for a minute whist a gang of morons applauded in the middle.  Luisotti should, admittedly, have pressed ahead, but the fault was not really his. How difficult is it to understand that the first rule of attending a performance, and indeed of social interaction in general, should be to show consideration for others? This is not a matter of some mysterious ‘concert etiquette’, as contrarians would have it; it is what any decent human being would do, whether on a train, in a bus queue, or at the opera. Perhaps we need to move to a Stasi-like system in which behaviour is monitored and miscreants are barred from the premises…

Friday 14 February 2014

King Priam, English Touring Opera, 13 February 2014

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

King Priam – Roderick Earle
Hecuba – Laure Meloy
Hector – Grant Doyle
Andromache – Camilla Roberts
Paris – Nicholas Sharratt
Helen – Niamh Kelly
Hermes – Adrian Dwyer
Achilles – Charne Rochford
Patroclus – Piotr Lempa
Old Man – Andrew Slater
Nurse – Clarissa Meek
Young Guard – Adam Tunnicliffe
Paris (boy) – Thomas Delgado-Little
Hunters – Stuart Haycock, Johnny Herford, Henry Manning

James Conway (director)
Anna Fleischle (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)

Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Chorus of English Touring Opera
Michael Rosewell (conductor)
Sir Michael Tippett’s music has suffered a fate typical, though by no means always the case, for composers following their deaths. However, there are signs that a period of relative neglect, despite the continued advocacy of musicians such as the late Sir Colin Davis, might now be giving way to a reassessment. For instance, the Wigmore Hall has been putting on a Tippett retrospective, laudable for far more than its courage in breaking away from the annual anniversary grind. I speak from a position of considerable ignorance myself, the only other Tippett opera I have seen in the theatre being The Midsummer Marriage (Royal Opera, 2005); my concert and recorded music exposure has not been particularly great either. I am delighted to report, though, that the ever-valiant English Touring Opera’s new staging of King Priam proved a triumphant success, making me keen to hear more, despite having been somewhat nonplussed by what I experienced as the blandness of The Midsummer Marriage, not to mention its problematical dramaturgy. (It seems more often than not to be audiences’ favourite Tippett opera, but I doubt that it will ever be mine.)

King Priam is perhaps, above all, an opera of great ambition, often fulfilled. The interiority of much of the dramatic conflict in some senses recalls A Child of Our Time, but whereas it proves, for some of us, near fatal in that oratorio, here, at least for the most part, it offers an alternative standpoint from which to consider the workings of fate and politics. Interestingly, director, James Conway views the material very differently, remarking in his programme note, ‘It has been commented that Priam is not an opera about war, but about choice. I am not so sure that this says what is needful. … Choice, it seems to me right now, is not a theme, any more than Fate is a theme. War and beauty are themes.’ Beauty, yes, I thought – but less so war, even in Conway’s own production. Perhaps that simply goes to show that staging and work alike offer the possibility for different understandings, irrespective to an extent of ‘intention’.

Certainly Tippett’s score, in Iain Farrington’s excellent reduced orchestration, came across with visceral power and beauty alike, for which great credit must go both to ETO’s orchestra and Michael Rosewell’s wise direction. There were a few occasions when ensemble faltered, but they were quickly rectified and frankly of marginal importance. More than once, I was put in mind of some of Henze’s roughly contemporary writing, for instance in Der Prinz von Homburg, though I suspect the similarity in timbres may arise more from shared Stravinskian roots as ‘influence’ in either direction. And yet, whilst some music might occasionally put one in mind of other composers, the dramatic use to which it is put seemed to me very much Tippett’s own – and certainly did in what seemed to me an estimably idiomatic performance. I was heartened after the event to read David Clarke’s New Grove article upon the composer, which said much the same thing with specific reference to Priam’s encounter with his second son, Paris, whom he had ordered slain as a baby and does not yet recognise:

The instantaneous – almost cinematic – shift of subject from Priam to Paris in the first bar of the example is articulated by the division of orchestral forces and the abrupt switch of pitch collections. Yet while the vertical conflation of tonic, dominant and subdominant triads of E-flat in the initial, defining sonority of Paris’s music could be seen as a further Stravinskian touch, the disposition behind it – to intensify the expressive potential of tonal resources rather than interpose an ironizing distance – is entirely Tippett’s.

Moreover, the clearly Brechtian reworking – Oliver Soden’s valuable note makes reference to Tippett’s recent encounter with the work of the Berliner Ensemble – s of the Iliad is again unmistakeably personal, and, one senses, a definite inspiration to Conway’s staging. In that connection, it is worth mentioning the sense of kinship I noted with Alexander Goehr’s Promised End, given its premiere by ETO (again with Conway directing). Anna Fleischle’s designs and Guy Hoare’s lighting assisted greatly not only with the screwing up of dramatic tension but also the differentiation of place between Troy and the Greek camp. A real sense was conveyed of Tippett’s mediation between Homer and the present. And the final scene brought a splendid reminiscence of – and indeed, Brechtian distancing from – Boris Godunov, again whether ‘intentional’ or otherwise.

Roderick Earle’s portrayal of the title role played no mean part in accomplishing that, of course. Dignified, touching, and with considerable power, this drew one in further and further as time went on: Tippett vanquishing Brecht, as it were. Nicholas Sharratt was likewise splendid as ‘playboy’ (Priam’s own term) Paris, narcissistic vainglory and compelling attraction two sides of the same coin. Thomas Delgado-Little did a truly excellent job as Paris’s younger self: one of the most self-assured and dramatically convincing performances I have seen from a boy treble. Grant Doyle offered a properly masculine foil as Hector: here, at least, I could sense what Conway said about war. Charne Rochford’s Achilles seemed strained (miscast?) earlier on, intonation wavering considerably, but improved greatly, the scene between him and Priam moving and fatally – in more than one sense – menacing. Laure Meloy and Camilla Roberts both gave sterling performances, as Hecuba and Andromache respectively, whilst Niamh Kelly succeeded to an excellent degree in portraying the strange, chilling emptiness of Helen. (The kiss between her and Priam certainly unsettled in the best way.) All other members of the cast impressed in one way or another. Perhaps especially notable were Adrian Dwyer’s properly mercurial (sorry!) Hermes, Andrew Slater’s stentorian Old Guard, Clarissa Week’s knowingly wise Nurse, and Adam Tunnicliffe’s earnest, finely-sung Young Guard. As in all the best company performances, the whole was greater, considerably greater, than the sum of the parts.

I was delighted to see Kasper Holten in the audience and trust that this will have made him consider the possibilities on the main stage as well as in the Linbury for Tippett and other post-war composers, be they British or not. As I wrote a little while ago, when sharing clips from a BBC documentary about the Hamburg premiere of Alexander Goehr’s Arden Must Die, made in those dim-and-distant days, inconceivable to most of us, when BBC television cared about such things: ‘Rolf Liebermann's words are especially instructive. As Hamburg Intendant, he felt it artistically necessary to commision an opera from Goehr; the composer's nationality was supremely irrelevant to him. Covent Garden, kindly take note! Liebermann commissioned no fewer than twenty-six operas during his Hamburg tenure; others include Henze's Der Prinz von Homburg and Penderecki's The Devils. Opera and art in general must never consign themselves to the museum. That way they will succeed only in signing their death warrants.’ We need to hear Henze, Goehr, Birtwistle, Zimmermann, Stockhausen, Dallapiccola, Nono, Lachenmann, Peter Maxwell Davies, Messiaen, Sciarrino, Pascal Dusapin, et al., et al.: the list is almost endless, and it is endless before we even begin to consider the fates of Gluck, Rameau, Haydn, Weber, and so many other composers from earlier eras; what we certainly do not need are any more Verdi, Donizetti, or Massenet, to name but three current, bizarre obsessions of the Royal Opera and many other companies. Three cheers, then, to ETO for both its enterprise and achievement!

ETO’ s current season also includes Paul Bunyan and The Magic Flute. Not every work will be performed in every venue, but the company will perform between now and the end of May in London, Truro, Poole, Wolverhampton, Snape, Cheltenham, Leicester, Sheffield, York, Canterbury, Norwich Crawley, Coventry, Exeter, Durham, Perth, and Cambridge. To read more about ETO and forthcoming performances, please click here.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Oper Leipzig new season, 2014-15

Oper Leipzig has announced its 2014/15 season. There are no fewer than six new opera stagings: the first, Gounod’s Faust, which opens in October; Non Rota’s Aladino e la lampada magica, in German translation, continuing the company’s commitment to children’s opera; Madama Butterfly; Gordon Getty’s The Canterville Ghost; I pagliacci; and, perhaps most eagerly awaited, the third instalment of the new Leipzig Ring, as it reaches Siegfried. Ulf Schirmer conducts, and Rosamund Gilmore directs. The cast includes Christian Franz, Dan Karlström, John Lundgren, and Elisabet Strid. First night will be 12 April; it will also appear in the Wagner-Festtage 2015 (22-31 May), which will additionally take in Parsifal, Das Liebesverbot, the ballet Ein Liebestraum, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre,  a semi-staged Tannhäuser, and a symposium. In addition to those Wagner revivals, repertoire performances will range wide: Die Zauberflöte (both a children’s version and the ‘real thing’), Nabucco, Die Frau ohne Schatten (premiered this season), Tosca, Don Pasquale, The Rake’s Progress, Rigoletto, La traviata, Hänsel und Gretel, La bohème, and  Manon Lescaut. As usual, the Gewandhaus Orchestra plays for all performances. A full list of ballet performances is also available; the three premieres are a new Rachmaninov ballet (on the second and third piano concertos), Othello, and West Side Story.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Oliva/Schröder/Hewitt - Bach, 8 February 2014

Wigmore Hall

Flute Sonata in A major, BWV 1032
Partita no.4 in D major, BWV 828
Violin Sonata no.6 in G major, BWV 1019
Musical Offering, BWV 1079: excerpts

Andrea Oliva (flute)
Julia Schröder (violin)
Angela Hewitt (piano)

There was much to enjoy in this concert, and not only the rarity value of hearing Bach’s chamber music with the piano rather than the harpsichord. There were, however, two distinct disadvantages too – at least for me, though doubtless others will have felt differently. First, Angela Hewitt’s Fazioli piano; one’s ears become accustomed after a while, but I continue to find its brightness of tone both a little wearing and, in certain music, somewhat inappropriate. Second was Julia Schröder’s ‘period’-style playing. It was certainly not without vibrato, but was often – though by no means always – pinched of tone and rather scratchy. Perhaps the oddest thing was its variability, veering between styles for no evident reason.

Flautist Andrea Oliva, by contrast, showed himself possessed of a mellifluous tone and a true gift for unforced, telling articulation and phrasing. It certainly consoled after the Technicolor brightness of Hewitt’s introduction to the first movement of the Flute Sonata, BWV 1032. Oliva proved admirably flexible, too, though Hewitt at times, both here and elsewhere, seemed oddly unresponsive, as if intent on doing her ‘own thing’. Nevertheless, there was considerable chiaroscuro from the flute to enjoy, and also, as the movement went on, from the piano. An unhurried slow movement displayed a fine sense of contrapuntal ‘involvement’, also apparent in the clarity and direction of the finale. There was elegance, but strength too.

Hewitt had the stage to herself for the D major Partita, BWV 828. A grand, declamatory opening seemed more suited to her instrument, though darker hues at times would still have been welcome. The ‘French’ style was, however, readily apparent, and the fugal section of this first movement benefited from splendid evenness of tone. There were, however, a few seemingly arbitrary cases of agogic mannerism. Again, the piano tone sometimes seemed overly bright in the Allemande and Courante, but there could be no complaints over the time taken, nor over the clarity and subtlety of voicing. Intricacy was shown to be no mere decoration. The Air received a bright, perky reading, similarly the concluding Gigue, possessed of a strength born of security in both rhythm and harmony.

The Sonata for Violin and Keyboard, BWV 1019, was played in lively fashion, rhythmically alert, if sometimes marred by a mismatch of tone between Schröder and Hewitt. That became more of a problem in the ensuing ‘Largo’: not entirely chilly but rather oddly mixed. The solo piano ‘Allegro’ displayed a rare moment of technical fallibility for Hewitt; the piano part is admittedly tricky. Otherwise, it received a sophisticated but not-too-sophisticated performance. Hewitt’s dignified dynamic tread in the ‘Adagio’ offered a relative darkness of sonority rarely heard hitherto; Schröder’s pinched tone was rather more difficult to take. The finale proved lively and more evenly matched.

Hewitt had the stage to herself again for the two ricercars, in three and six parts, from the Musical Offering. Again, the instrument’s tone proved something of a barrier to me, especially earlier on, but there was splendid cumulative build-up in the celebrated six-part movement, which interestingly sounded far more modernist (even straining towards Webern) than its predecessor. The Trio Sonata had good balance, and the violin tone, if not rich, was at least richer. Tempi were convincing, well founded upon Hewitt’s rock-solid continuo. Oliva again proved himself a beguiling and highly sensitive musician. The emergence of the Royal Theme in all parts during the ‘Andante’ showed wit as well as compositional ingenuity, and the finale benefited from estimable dramatic thrust. This is music we hear far too infrequently.  

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Paul Lewis - Bach-Busoni, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mussorgsky, 4 February 2014

Royal Festival Hall

Bach-Busoni – Chorale Prelude: ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland,’ BWV 659
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.13 in E-flat major, op.27 no.1
Bach-Busoni – Chorale Prelude: ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,’ BWV 639
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.27 no.2
Liszt – Schaflos, Frage, und Antwort, S 203; Unstern! sinistre, disaster, S 208; RW – Venezia, S 201
Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition


This was the first time I had heard Paul Lewis as a recitalist, as opposed to concerto soloist or ‘accompanist’. Rather to my surprise, it was the second half of Liszt and Mussorgsky that proved most compelling, indeed magnificently so, though that is not to say that there was not much also to enjoy in the first half.

Busoni’s piano transcription of the Chorale Prelude, Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659, opened with an excellent sense of onward tread. However, I found the right-hand voicing of the chorale a little harsh of tone, at least at times. Still, this was a performance of requisite dignity. Beethoven’s E-flat major sonata, op.27 no.1, followed. The opening was beautifully understated, unassuming, and yet generative. Lewis evinced a clear delight in both the simplicity and power of Beethoven’s inspiration, Haydn an obvious kindred spirit. Concision and experimentalism were equally apparent in this first movement, which sounded, quite rightly, not as a fantasia, but quasi una fantasia. The scherzo somewhat lacked fire, though relative understatement (again) had its virtues too. Swift, unsentimental, yet full of tone, the Adagio con espressione seemed conceived less in itself than as a transition to the finale. Occasionally, I wished that it might have yielded a little more, but the iron discipline on offer in both of those two movements attested to a definite conception, that of Beethoven more as ‘Classicist’ than ‘Romantic’, however much those labels may be ours rather than his. Crucially, though, there was a sense of sublimation at the return to material from the slow movement, and indeed in the final coda.

The second Bach-Busoni Chorale Prelude, ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,’ was beautifully sung, again founded upon sure harmonic understanding. Lewis offered a fine command of line. And somehow, the final cadence surprised. The first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata benefited from similarly astute voicing, kinship revealed rather than insisted upon. It was taken at a relatively, but not absurdly, swift pace, and was again admirably unsentimental, though nevertheless alert to ‘Romantic’ intimations, both Chopin and Liszt coming to mind on occasion. The wondrous inspiration of that Neapolitan moment shone without exaggeration. The opening of the second moment was well nigh obliterated by audience coughing: a pity, since it proved to be a delightful, deeply musical account in which Lewis permitted the harmony to do the talking and resisted the all-too-common temptation to rush. Slight agogic touches worked veritable magic. So far, so excellent then. Alas, the finale proved something of a disappointment, opening in somewhat brutal fashion, and making its way with too little of a sense of release. Ultimately what was missing here was either the white, modernistic heat of a Pollini or the equally yet differently humanistic metaphysics of a Barenboim. As so often today, a Beethoven performance lacked the final degree of burning conviction, of meaning.

About the second half I really had no reservations whatsoever. A pianist who performs late Liszt with such conviction and understanding is a true artist. Schlaflos, Frage, und Antwort was schlaflos (sleepless) indeed: nagging repetitions, strange pauses, agitation, loneliness, an ambiguous, ambivalent attempt to transcend. Unstern! sounded in many respects likewise, yet deeper still: an oracle from someone who should be heard, yet who knew that he would not be, let alone that he would be understood. It was the darkest moment of Cassandra-like depression. And yet, in and through its enigmas, perhaps there did emerge something akin to hope; or perhaps not. Liszt’s deceptively straightforward cords seemed to look back to the vanished world of his B minor Sonata – and vanished we knew that world to be. RW – Venezia sounded, if anything, still more ambiguous, as much of Nono’s as Wagner’s Venice. Throughout, there was here an emotional commitment I never quite discovered in Lewis’s Beethoven, however perceptive it may have been.

The opening Promenade of Pictures at an Exhibition emerged from Liszt’s aged depression, without a break. It thus sounded almost as an affirmation, albeit one that necessarily would then question in its questing. ‘Gnomus’ again emerged from within, sounding properly sinister and indeed remarkably violent. This was a performance of great strength and acuity. The following Promenade then displayed a good impression of, well, promenading, leading into a subtly shaded rendition of ‘Il vecchio castello’, after which the next Promenade stopped short, that we might regard the ‘Tuileries’ games: affectionate and yet not without childish obstinacy. ‘Bydlo’ proved vividly evocative, effortfully seeing off the masterly yet ultimately pointless challenge of Ravel’s orchestration. There was far greater struggle and, yes, humanity here. Fantasy and whimsy of a somewhat Debussyan bent emerged in the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle were sharply differentiated, though united in their war on bronchial terror. A bustling ‘Limoges’ was fiercer, with greater edge, than Ravel’s version; this is a Russian painting, after all. ‘Catacombae’ displayed a Lisztian grandeur – and hopelessness. There was a true sense of Hartmann haunting at the moment of ‘Cum mortuis in lingua mortua, assured by Lewis’s absolute technical control. Darkness returned with a vengeance for a ride with ‘Baba-Yaga’ that yet evinced considerable chiaroscuro. Pealing of bells at ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ evoked Liszt as well as Boris. Oddly, far greater spirit emerged through Mussorgsky’s materialism than it had in the case of Beethoven. After a suitably thunderous ovation, we were treated as an encore to a rapt account of the fourth of Liszt’s Five Piano Pieces, S 192.


Sunday 2 February 2014

Ending Don Giovanni

Kasper Holten’s new Royal Opera production of Don Giovanni has caused quite a stir. I cannot comment, since I have not seen it, and shall not do so until 14th. However, one feature I have gleaned from reports – and I should stress that this is second-hand – relates to the ending. Apparently, the opening of the final scene is cut, so that we only hear the final ‘moral’. A journalist claimed earlier today that Mozart had done the same in 1788. Quite how he knew is unclear. It is clearly a sign that investigative journalism is anything but dead, since I am unaware of any Mozart scholar being party to the details of what precisely was performed at those Vienna performances. In fact, of course, we do not know – and that is in many ways more interesting. Mozart may have omitted the final scene completely, or he may not. The 1788 Vienna libretto does not include it, though a Vienna score (not an autograph) does. Moreover, there was also the possibility of a cut within the scena ultima, running from ‘Ah! certo è l’ombra che m’incontrò!’ to ‘Resti dunque quel birbon’; there are four ‘new’ bars, marked Andante, to facilitate that transition. It does not sound as though that is what happened at Covent Garden; even if it were, the intriguing reality remains that we do not know what Mozart (and Da Ponte) did in Vienna, so why claim otherwise? As Julian Rushton points out in his Cambridge Opera Handbook to the work, it may well be the case that different ways of ending the opera were tried out.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing so now, though it seems to me that one ought to have good reason. Another ‘version’ about which we know frustratingly, yet intriguingly, little comes from 1850: Wagner’s lost Zurich revision. He describes it as a Bearbeitung in a letter from early that year to Theodor Uhlig, and speaks of having 'carefully nuanced' (sorgfältig nüancirt) the orchestra, made a new translation, and various other changes, which, without a score, it is not always easy fully to understand. That is, of course, if we take what he has to say not only at face value - there is no particular reason we should not - but also as his final thoughts on a work he would conduct eight months later. In any case, Wagner ends that particularly discussion with the playful, 'Nun genug von dieser Flickarbeit!' ('Now, enough of this patchwork maintenance!') There are extant, tantalisingly, a fragment, discovered in the late 1990s, comprising nine bars of off-stage trumpet cues, also dialogue cues and another fragment of just two bars held by the University of Leipzig. Chris Walton, one of the few to have considered this material, speculates that Wagner’s  revisions were less radical than might have been implied, perhaps exaggerated as part of a marketing ploy. At present, however, we might with equal justification speculate otherwise. We simply do not know. Perhaps, however, one day an imaginative and/or foolhardy composer might even dare to enter the mediated realm of reimagining Wagner’s reimagining – aided by a sympathetic director and cast.

For it is, of course, true that, for all our latter day reverence for the musico-dramatic work concept, Don Giovanni has experienced a chequered history in that respect. Indeed, more often than not conductors and/or directors even today will opt for a conflation of Mozart’s versions for Prague and Vienna: largely, one fears, a matter of bowing to singers’ – and audiences’ – demands for extra arias rather than out of genuine dramatic conviction. It is, of course, a hard pill to swallow, to lose one of Donna Elvira’s arias and one of Don Ottavio’s; the Vienna duet between Zerlina and Leporello is generally considered no great loss. However, there has yet to be mounted a dramatic, as opposed to pragmatic, justification for offering the now commonplace succession of arias in the second act. (I might, for instance, hazard a possible explanation, as Devil’s Advocate, in the guise of heightening the elements of opera seria display, striking a blow against Wagnerian notions of dramatic cohesion and continuity, but that case remains to be made.)

More extreme measures, however, were taken in the more distant past. Berlioz, writing of an 1834 Paris staging, was moved to lament:

It is a pity that it was considered necessary to take various dances, extended, lopped off, reordered, and orchestrated according to the method which seems to me so inimical to musical sense and the interests of art, from other works of Mozart, and insert them into Don Giovanni; without these additions the absolutely pure style of this sublime score, boldly breaking the public habits of the last eight or ten years, might have completed this important revolution.

Moreover, a reference to the Stone Guest scene, ‘the trombones, which have been silent for some time,’ suggests that, in contravention of the score, they had been heard earlier – though, given Mozart’s reorchestrations of Handel, dismay might be misplaced.

There persisted, furthermore, the Romantic tradition of omitting the final scene – which, as we have seen, may or may not have some warrant in Mozart’s practice in 1788. For the Mozart year of 1906, Mahler in Vienna not only altered some of the orchestration, made cuts both of complete arias and ensembles and also within certain numbers, and interpolated the finale to Mozart’s Divertimento in B-flat major, KV 287/271h. In a practice that was already being questioned, he and his director, Alfred Roller – the latter, of course, also a crucial figure in the history of Wagner staging – concluded with Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell. Whereas to many modern audiences, and certainly to me, the final sextet introduces a note of bracing, almost Brechtian alienation, framing the action in a sense that both harks back to more ancient traditions as well as looking forwards beyond Romanticism, there was for Mahler and Roller nothing more to say at this point, notwithstanding the oddness of what therefore became the final cadence. However, as Henry-Louis de La Grange notes, even in that fin-de-siècle context, many other recent productions of Don Giovanni had included it, notably that given by Ernst von Possart in Munich. (Possart was the actor for whom Strauss wrote his 1897 melodrama, Enoch Arden.)

The ‘tradition’ seemed to have died out; Furtwängler, whom, amongst post-war conductors, some might have suspected of harbouring such tendencies, certainly did not continue it. (Much to his credit, I am tempted to say.) And then, Claus Guth staged the work as part of a Da Ponte trilogy for the Salzburg Festival, Don Giovanni first seen in 2008 – a little more than a century after Mahler, and thus almost as distant from him as he was from Mozart – and revived in 2010. (Note the transition from speaking of Mahler’s or Furtwängler’s Don Giovanni to the director’s.) The premise, as revealed in a brief programme discussion, was that:

Mozart tried to deal with all of our lives in the three hours he had for this opera. But what if he managed to compress everything that moves and occupies us into this framework? We must die. What do we do with our lifetime? Do we conform and subordinate ourselves, do we break out, do we try to fit in or break loose, cut our ties?

Interesting enough so far, but the problem was that Guth’s realisation failed to live up to the promise. What it boiled down to on stage seemed closer to a reality television programme: how would someone with three hours left to live decide to spend those three hours? By taking drugs and trying – unsuccessfully – to have sex with a good few women in a forest, all with the help of a slightly subordinate friend. I say ‘slightly subordinate’, since it was not at all clear what the social relationship between the protagonists might be. Blithely casting aside distinctions of order was one thing, but like many directors, Guth did not provide an adequate substitute.

The familiar conflation of the score was employed, barring the Leporello and Zerlina duet. (It seems had been included in 2008, then cut in 2010, when I saw the production.) I found myself quite unprepared for the absence of the final scene, not having been made aware beforehand. Yes, expectations were confounded, which can sometimes be a good thing in itself, and yes, of course there was the Romantic-Mahlerian tradition to which to appeal. In context, however, the feeling of straightforward incompletion was jarring rather than fruitful. It was difficult to avoid the suspicion that Guth had simply misunderstood the nature of the sextet. Its alienation effect might have rendered both work and production more interesting; without it, we veered dangerously close to melodrama, especially odd given the general tone of the production. The problem was not the decision as such as its placing and indeed the director’s reasoning. Guth claimed that Mozart was ‘bowing to convention’, yet throughout the work Mozart had come close to destroying any such concept; the finale could be understood to be still more radical in this context, inevitably to us suggesting Stravinsky and beyond: the neo-Classicism of The Rake’s Progress or at least Neue Sachlichkeit.

Oliver Knussen understands this very well in his fantasy opera (1984-5, revised 1999), Higglety Pigglety Pop! Both Higglety and Don Giovanni end 'outside' their dramas, in bright if tarnished D major – and the Mother Goose World Theatre surely pays tribute to Stravinsky’s work too. The repetitions of Higglety’s closing-scene gala performance, no mere convention but the time-honoured tradition of a play within a play, unsettle as they should. What do they mean? When will they stop? That is a more radical reimagining than simply not knowing how to conclude.

Tellingly, Mozart’s score in performance begged for completion. It did not chillingly come to a halt, after Wozzeck; it seemed rather simply to stop, awkwardly. Although it was interesting, then, to hear an accidental revival of this venerable ‘version’, in practice, however, the inappropriate context served principally to confirm discrediting of the tradition. Here was an instructive case of a director who seemed to have too little knowledge of, or indeed interest in, the score; ‘respect’ for the work would have expanded rather than lessened performative options.

Let us see then, what happens at the Royal Opera House…