Thursday 31 July 2014

Bayreuth Festival (3) - Siegfried, 30 July 2014

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Mime – Burkhard Ulrich
The Wanderer – Wolfgang Koch
Alberich – Oleg Bryjak
Fafner – Sorin Coliban
Erda – Nadine Weissmann
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Woodbird – Mirella Hagen

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksander Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Casper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Alas, it seems my tempered enthusiasm, amongst all the frustrations, as experienced in Das Rheingold was very much a case of having jumped the gun. Following a dramatically inert Walküre, this Siegfried hits a new low. Either Frank Castorf is failing catastrophically in what he is trying to do, or what he is trying to do is quite simply inadmissible – or, most likely, I fear, both.

However much incoherence might be trumpeted as an æsthetic principle, that does not make it appropriate to the Ring. Wagner’s intellectual method is rarely if ever Socratic, but it is exploratory, learning from previous ‘answers’ to questions he has asked – the questioning always being the most important thing – and attempting to ask further questions in response to the answers he has found wanting. Ideas overlap, even come into conflict. What his method is not is arbitrary. ‘So what?’ you might ask; ‘why should Castorf, or anyone else, be constrained by Wagner?’ Well, he need not necessarily be, although frankly there is enough in Wagner to keep most of us occupied for several lifetimes. But it does not follow from that that just anything goes. By all means question, criticise, even reject Wagner, but might it not be more fruitful to engage with him in the first instance? And yes, that certainly includes engaging with the music: not as ‘absolute music’, to employ that most ideological of terms as coined – pejoratively – by Wagner himself, but as drama. Castorf’s apparent total lack of interest in the score may be his greatest weakness of all. Whereas Stefan Herheim has said that when words and music come into conflict, he will listen to the music, Castorf seems to have no interest in either. I thought even in Das Rheingold that he would have been far better off offering his own version of the Ring, doubtless cut and interspersed with other material, somewhere other than Bayreuth, perhaps at his own Volksbühne in Berlin. Castorf’s presumable resentment at not being able to rearrange the text manifests itself most often in a disengagement which commits the cardinal sin of being less provocative than straightforwardly boring.

For this staging of Siegfried – or of whatever it is that Castorf has decided to stage – the revolving set alternates between a state-socialist version of Mount Rushmore, its heroes Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao a study in decreasing facial hair, and a place claiming to be Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, though certainly not a depiction of any reality I have witnessed there. Considered simply as set designs, Aleksander Denić’s work is stunning; to have what is pretty much a station entrance with surrounding shops created so convincingly is quite an achievement. (I hardly dare imagine the cost!) But Castorf’s direction rarely if ever engages with the locations, let alone with the work. Too often they seem merely to be backdrops, just as the score is reduced to the level of an inappropriate – and, one suspects, for Castorf, a tiresome – soundtrack.


Mime lives or at least works in a trailer van at the foot of the mountain, and that is where the first act unfolds. Our friend the actor – previously the barman in Das Rheingold, with a good few filmic appearances in Die Walküre – is the bear Siegfried has tethered, except he does not seem to be a bear, since he manages to work as handyman too. (It has now come to my attention that this man, who has a great deal to do, and may well prove the only discernible thread running through this Ring, is Castorf’s assistant, Patric Seibert, which may or may not prove ‘significant’.) Siegfried does not re-forge Notung, since he is holding it in his hand already, but occasionally he bangs on something he does not forge. He will not in any case use it to kill Fafner, who dies in a blaze of deafening machine-gun fire, once again a sign of disrespect for the score. In the second and third acts, it is difficult to discern any particular reasons why some of the scenes take place beneath the heroes of ‘actually existing socialism’ some in Alexanderplatz, some, still more confusingly, in both. A tendency already present in Die Walküre for the drama to descend into a parody of Doctor Who, the same characters – albeit in this case, rather more thinly drawn – reappearing in different locations yet carrying on just as before, becomes even more pronounced in Siegfried. ‘The lack of a coherent location is the point,’ someone will doubtless say; if so, it is not a very good point, to put it mildly, since nothing further is done with it. And that is the problem with so much of what we see, that nothing is developed or even related to anything else. Fifteen hours are too long a time simply to reiterate a nihilistic point that anything and everything is arbitrary.

Meanwhile in Alexanderplatz, we witness Siegfried with the Woodbird, her flamboyant get-up more redolent of a Rio de Janeiro carnival. First of all, he fumbles around in a dustbin as a substitute for sharpening his reeds. (The oboe contributions here, whilst superlative in a purely technical sense, are not what Wagner wrote; the idea seems to be that he has some sort of accordion/mouth-organ instead, albeit still played by the oboe.) Later on, at the end of the act, he engages in full sexual congress with the bird, thereby making his ‘discovery’ of Brünnhilde in the third act more or less meaningless. I assume he is being portrayed as a liar, but frankly had long given up caring. Indeed, at the ‘Das ist kein Mann’ moment, so poor is the lighting – a recurring and rather surprising problem here – that, from where I was seated in the Festspielhaus, I could not see Brünnhilde at all. ‘No, it is not a man,’ I thought, since ‘there is nothing there at all.’ There was, but anyway…

In the meantime, we have endured Erda as a sex worker, first of all spending a great deal of time on film with some other women choosing her lipstick, then sharing an Alexanderplatz café meal (waiter: Seibert) with Wotan, for whom we have a charming video close-up of his eating spaghetti. Having thrown a glass of wine over him, she returns and proceeds to maul him, resulting in a filmed blow-job whilst the waiter returns with the bill. (He later showers his staff with banknotes; the Wanderer tips well, it would seem.) That, apparently, is what the peripeteia of the Ring, Wotan’s rejection of Fate, one of the most extraordinarily profound scenes in all world-drama, amounts to chez Castorf. This is not alienating in the sort of post-Brechtian way it seems to think it is; it is, I repeat, just boring. A great deal of other irrelevant business appears on film. What had been an interesting, truly promising device in Rheingold has now descended to the self-indulgent level of a Bill Viola and his tedious ‘Tristan project’. The only relief, albeit somewhat banal, is some rather conventional footage of a horse in a forest: Grane, I presume, though perhaps that would make too much sense. The ending – in which crocodiles wander around Alexanderplatz, Brünnhilde sticking a table umbrella into one of their mouths, a woman (the Woodbird shorn of her wings, I think) climbing inside another, only to climb back out, briefly renew proceedings with Siegfried, only to be pushed aside by Brünnhilde – is something for which I have yet to develop appropriate vocabulary.


Kirill Petrenko repeated his good work from Die Walküre, a great improvement upon his peremptory, straitjacketed Rheingold. This is not the well-nigh all-encompassing Wagner of a Barenboim – though in a sense, how could it be, with Castorf plying his wares on stage? There was a good sense of line and, again, a still finer sense of dynamic contrast. With the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra on excellent form – such depth in the string tone, such piquancy in the woodwind, such power that yet proves infinitely yielding in the brass – this might well be a Ring worth hearing on the radio.


At least, that is, if one can put up with a cast which yet again falls considerably short of what Bayreuth ought to be able to engage. The only member of this evening’s cast who could reasonably be considered world-class was Burkhard Ulrich’s Mime. If he resorted on stage to frequent imitation of Heinz Zednik, then that was doubtless a consequence of the lack of Personenregie. Vocally and verbally, he put Lance Ryan’s shouted Siegfried to shame. One could put up with a bit of vocal roughness, were there discernible interest in the words, but, whatever Ryan’s skill in navigating the crevasses of Mount Rushmore, there was little to detain the ear here.  Catherine Foster’s likeable Brünnhilde remained a positive point, though again, this was hardly Nina Stemme – and, again, Foster seemed overly reliant upon the prompter. Wolfgang Koch’s Wanderer was, within Castorf’s constraints, well-acted and well-enough sung, but tended towards the merely petulant, with none of the wisdom (and darkness of tone) that the role really requires. Oleg Bryjak was booed – bafflingly – as Alberich; he was certainly in the top half of the cast, if nothing out of the ordinary. Sorin Caliban made for a decent enough Fafner, if again nothing memorable. Nadine Weissmann’s Erda was tremulous and – even in vocal terms – lacking in dignity. Mirella Hagen’s Woodbird was straightforwardly inadequate. If this were a cast in a middle-ranking regional house, one would probably think more highly of it. But this is Bayreuth, and deserves better.


Tuesday 29 July 2014

Bayreuth Festival (2) - Die Walküre, 28 July 2014

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Siegmund – Johan Botha
Hunding – Kwangchul Youn
Wotan – Wolfgang Koch
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Fricka, Waltraute – Claudia Mahnke
Gerhilde – Allison Oakes
Ortlinde – Dara Hobbs
Schwertleite – Nadine Weissmann
Helmwige – Christiane Kohl
Siegrune – Julia Rutigliano
Grimgerde – Okka van der Damerau
Roßweiße – Aleksandra Petersamer

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksander Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Casper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

If Frank Castorf’s Rheingold proves somewhat frustrating in its alternation between genuine dramatic power and what seemed to be boredom on the director’s part, frustration here in Die Walküre tilts more strongly in the direction of the latter. It is eventually revealed that we are in Azerbaijan, oil exploration rearing its head more overtly: Baku, 1942, for some reason, or not. So far, in its reversion from a later-twentieth century Rheingold, so ‘post-dramatic’, perhaps. Wagner plays with time, of course, especially through his web of motifs; he even, like the Bible, has two creation myths, that of Alberich in the first scene of Das Rheingold, that of Wotan as recounted by the Norns in Götterdämmerung. Narrations provide us with new information, new standpoints, but there is nevertheless always a coherent narrative, however incomplete it may be. In Wagner, that is. In Castorf, incoherence seems deliberately to be the thing. That might be interesting, but the problem is more that relatively little is done with it. A decidedly sporadic engagement with Wagner results in something which, ironically, comes more and more to resemble an old-fashioned approach of ‘park and bark’.

Too much of what we see proves to be just a setting, against which the singers essentially sing their parts. Aleksander Denić ingenious set, Hunding’s farm house transforming into an oil well, and film clips showing anything and everything from a woman eating cake to an issue of Pravda, a man on the telephone (it later seems that he might be Wotan, but our unreliable narration kicks in again, not unfruitfully) to a reappearance for the Rheingold barman, now in Azerbaijani oil man guise, are too often little more than scenery. I can only assume that Wotan’s delivery of his second-act monologue is purposely stationary, even un-directed: attempted deconstruction, perhaps, of the plethora of action in Castorf’s Rheingold, a reinstatement, presumably contemptuous, of ‘opera’ as he perceives it, but certainly not as Wagner did. Certainly Fricka’s mad behaviour is the most conventionally ‘operatic’ I have ever seen and could hardly contrast more strongly with Wotan’s subsequent standing and (mostly) delivering. Much the same happens in the greater part of the third act, once the other Valkyries, some with horned helmets, have departed the scene. It frankly becomes boring, the impression having been given, rightly or wrongly, that often the singers have been left to fend for themselves.

Castorf seemingly has little interest in the Lenz of the Volsungs’ love, Siegmund’s heroic rejection of Valhalla, or the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and in much else besides, without succeeding in putting anything in their place. Romanticism, or something akin to it, is presumably part of the problem – but that should surely prove a spur to criticism rather than an aid to indifference. It seems less a matter of failing to explore or to deconstruct Wagner’s ideas than of never having bothered to consider them in the first place. Narrative incoherence is clearly part of the point, but, even with the film, it does not carry enough weight to compensate for what is lost. And there is a very thin line between incoherence as an æsthetic principle and incoherence by default.

Kirill Petrenko’s conducting had improved considerably. After a largely one-dimensional Rheingold, there was far greater ebb and flow here. If tempi remained on the fast side, the music was nevertheless allowed to breathe, which was just as well, given how much it had to fend for itself. There was far greater variegation, woodwind lines in particular gaining new life, and impressive dynamic range: none of Pierre Monteux’s ‘indifference of mezzo forte’. Climaxes could have been more shattering, but they were generally well placed and well approached. It is difficult to know how differently Petrenko would approach the work in another production, but I wonder how much a laudable desire to unite music and Wagner’s ‘gesture’ had initially led to subordination of the former, only for Castorf’s apparent dramatic abdication in Die Walküre to be met with a greater role for Petrenko here. Perhaps Siegfried and Götterdämmerung will provide further hints.

Wolfgang Koch’s Wotan is too baritonal truly to plumb the dramatic depths, but his Act III anger was devastating to hear (if not to see). After a disastrous start, her Hojotohos out of sync with the orchestra, Catherine Foster recovered with considerable credit as Brünnhilde. Her diction is not always as clear as it might be; indeed, there were, unless my ears deceived me, a few lapses with regard to the poem itself. But she is a likeable singer, who draws one in, has one sympathise. Anja Kampe had some rough moments, especially earlier on, but offered a performance of true dramatic fire; she, it seemed, was really the only one who could provide the direction Castorf apparently declined. At her best, she was mesmerising, even shattering. In Johan Botha,  it was a joy to have someone who can sing the role of Siegmund with such ease. His swordsmanship, however, was embarrassing, his acting skills remaining at best rudimentary. Kwangchul Youn’s Hunding was powerfully, menacingly sung, his attention to words as well as music an object lesson, not least to the director. Claudia Mahnke’s ‘operatic’ Fricka was rather hit and miss, just as in Das Rheingold. The Valkyries were a generally impressive bunch, with more of Wagner’s poem audible and comprehensible than is generally the case.  

Monday 28 July 2014

Bayreuth Festival (1) - Das Rheingold, 27 July 2014

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Wotan – Wolfgang Koch
Donner – Markus Eiche
Froh – Lothar Odinius
Loge – Norbert Einst
Fricka – Claudia Mahnke
Freia – Elisabeth Strid
Erda – Nathalie Weissmann
Alberich – Oleg Bryjak
Mime – Burkhard Ulrich
Fasolt – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Fafner – Sorin Coliban
Woglinde – Mirella Hagen
Wellgunde – Julia Rutigliano
Flosshilde – Okka von der Damerau

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksander Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Casper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

So this is it: Frank Castorf’s notorious Ring. There are various caveats: what I see may well not be the same as what audiences saw last year; this is only Das Rheingold, with the rest to come. However, whilst there is a good deal about which to be frustrated, not least the lengthy passages in which Castorf appears to lose interest, or at least I lost interest in him, and whilst it would e difficult to acclaim his attentiveness to, or even his interest in, Wagner’s music, this proved of considerably greater stage interest than some other recent staged Rings. Guy Cassiers’s production for Berlin (and La Scala) may have been blessed with a superior cast and a far superior conductor, but its lack of any ideas whatsoever made it an inferior production when considered only as such. Stephen Wadsworth’s Seattle Ring was similarly inert in stage terms. Ironically, Daniel Barenboim’s Proms performances have proved not only the most satisfactory of recent years, but perhaps of my entire Ring-going experience, with the possible exception – again, ironically – of previous minimally-staged performances at the Royal Albert Hall from the Royal Opera under Bernard Haitink.

Anyway, back to Castorf. This Rheingold has ideas of considerable promised and moments of real dramatic power. The Texan setting of the ‘Golden Motel’ on Route 66 is undeniably not one for those who want their Vorabend to develop in an elevated setting; just as undeniable is the loss, common to many stagings, of anything that might make clan Wotan something akin to gods in the first place. Ernst Bloch may have said that these were gods without being gods, but that is far from the whole of Wagner’s story. Listen to the score – as Castorf seemingly never does – and you will hear noble inspiration in Wotan’s dream of Valhalla. Wagner’s Feuerbachian understanding of religious inversion, which underpins not only Wotan’s sacerdotal fortress but also, by ‘true socialist’ extension, Alberich’s conversion of gold into capital and his construction of Nibelheim, is disregarded, again as so often, in favour of something cruder, more one-sided, far less interesting.

If we can take the debased setting, however, and perhaps even wearily concede its validity in our appalling late-capitalist plight, we shall find, alongside the irritations and provocations, more to engage us.  The use of film, far too often a trendy addition which adds little or nothing to an opera staging, here stands at the very heart of the dramatic representation. A screen at the top of the motel relays events elsewhere, some of which we can see on stage very well already, some of which we can see with difficulty, some of which we should otherwise not be able to see at all. They may be in the ground-floor bar, run by an initially hapless but perhaps ultimately successful, extra, who comes in for abuse from Alberich, Wotan, and others, but has us wondering whether he will prove a survivor in the longer run. They may be in the sleazy motel room above, in which we first see Wotan dream of power, in bed with Fricka and then with Freia. (The latter seems to me perfectly justifiable; after all, is not the very point of the gods’ relationship with the alleged goddess of ‘love’ that they use and abuse her for the promised immortality of her apples. For apples here, we should probably read stereotypical ‘female assets’ from American trash culture.) The faded quality of the film, its distorted colours in particular, have us wondering – or at least they did me – whether what we are seeing is ‘real’ at all. Katie Mitchell-style filming might be taking place, sometimes overtly with a cameraman, sometimes covertly as befits our surveillance culture, but discrepancies seem to creep in, whether by design or by our own unreliable narration. The world of webcams and ‘reality television’ is never far away: discomfortingly, we participate whilst we disdain. Perhaps this is after all a neo-Feuerbachian inversion for our time. The dialectics are certainly unremittingly negative, as befits a post-Adornian world. And indeed the moment of greatest dramatic power for me was the truly shocking covering of Freia with gold bars, the motel bed stripped to its frame as, clad in trashy, eye-catching PVC, she found herself submerged by the stolen hoard. In many respects, it was the most literally-minded scene of all, and perhaps drew some of its power from (more or less) trusting Wagner for once, but filming and voyeurism made it sickening beyond any depiction I can recall previously having seen.

What truly frustrates, then, is that Castorf fails to live up elsewhere to that promise. I could not help but have the sense that he would have been better off presenting a Ring, cut as he would do so with other theatre, somewhere other than the Bayreuth Festival, which could hardly have been expected to acceded to his requests for reworking the text. (Nor do I think it should have done, which perhaps marks me down as being of the reactionary camp, but so be it.) The third scene in particular drags – and certainly not on account of Kirill Petrenko’s tempi, which were uniformly, excessively fast. Here I sensed Castorf’s impatience with Wagner’s narrative. It is an odd thing not to find Alberich and Nibelheim of dramatic interest; too often, though, they seem awkwardly tacked on to the rest of the drama. There are smaller irritations too, for instance, irrelevant, noisy interruptions, such  as Alberich kicking a beach ball around during the Rhinemaidens’ hymn to the gold. (Their antics around the motel paddling pool, filmed for ‘cultural consumption’ otherwise work well on the whole.) The appearance of a rainbow flag for the entry to Valhalla obfuscates. Presumably a ‘joke’ alluding to Froh’s rainbow, it adds nothing since it is not developed. Is that what the gods’ going up in the world – or in Heaven – really amounts to: the motel turning gay-friendly? In the absence of any other allusions to homosexuality, it just seems silly. What appears to be the drug-induced stupor of the bar guests, seemingly aroused by whatever Donner’s summoning of thunder translates into here, is more suggestive, whether intentionally or otherwise. Political and religious power does not only stupefy, but stupefy it nevertheless does.

Rarely does there seem to be any synergy between what we see on stage and what we hear in the pit. Petrenko was – to my ears, bafflingly – acclaimed louder than anyone else by the Bayreuth audience. His account was not bad; it was certainly preferable to the aimless incoherence we in London have had to suffer time and time again from Antonio Pappano. Line and, above all, drive were maintained almost ruthlessly. But it was a musical account almost as one-dimensional, though not in the same way, as Castorf’s stage direction. Indeed, I am not sure I have heard a less variegated Wagner performance. Furtwängler – or Barenboim – this certainly was not. At times, it sounded more akin to Toscanini conducting Mendelssohn. Fashionable obsessive concern with Wagner’s early-Romantic roots hardened into something very much of our time, a refusal or even inability to yield; Wagner was held captive by something approaching turbo-charged automation. The orchestra itself sounded more than usually ‘covered’ by the covered pit. Was Petrenko struggling as much with the acoustic as with anything else?

There was a fine trio of Rhinemaidens, which augured well, though such augury was not entirely to be trusted. Wolfgang Koch’s Wotan grew in stature as the evening went on. Whether by design, I was not entirely sure, and there were some early moments that were straightforwardly rough, but there was enough here to hold promise for later on – especially if Castorf allows the god to be more than a mere gangster. Oleg Bryjak’s Alberich had his moments, but had a tendency to rely upon caricature that shaded into crudity; when he permitted himself – or was permitted – to concentrate upon singing, there was a voice to be reckoned with. Though Mime’s role in Das Rheingold is not so great, Burkhard Ulrich nevertheless managed to outshine his ‘superiors’ in an attentive portrayal (at least in verbal and musical terms!) As Fasolt and Fafner, Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Soran Coliban increasingly impressed too. It was a nice touch to have a Fasolt who was actually for once a credible prospect of attraction for Freia, whether or no she felt the same way. The brothers proved increasingly differentiated in character through verbal and musical means at least as much as through staging. Claudia Mahnke’s Fricka was initially shrill, unalluring in the wrong way, but improved considerably. Elisabeth Strid’s Freia, whatever one thought of Castorf’s stage portrayal, offered something that went far beyond the merely tawdry. Nadine Weissmann’s Erda – her fur-coated, Dallas-style appearance presumably indicating a ‘classiness’ as elevated as Castorf is willing to countenance – proved welcome in vocal contrast, though Petrenko’s hurrying did her no favours. Markus Eiche’s Donner and Lothar Odinius’s Froh followed the general pattern of really coming into their vocal own in the final scene. Norbert Einst’s Loge likewise followed suit, though again, I think that was as much a matter of the production as anything else. It is difficult, however, to believe that, taken as a whole, this is the level of singing upon which Bayreuth should be able to call; a standard at least approaching Barenboim’s Proms Ring should surely be the norm here. On, then, to Die Walküre: with trepidation but also with interest…

Sunday 27 July 2014

Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, 25 July 2014

Moses (John Tomlinson) and the Israelites
Images: Bill Cooper

Royal Opera House

Moses – Sir John Tomlinson
Aron – Rainer Trost
A Young Maiden, First Naked Virgin – Elizabeth Atherton
A Youth – Alexander Sprague
Another Man, An Ephraimite – Daniel Grice
A Priest – Richard Wiegold
First Elder – Julian Boyce
Second Elder – Laurence Cole
Third Elder – Alastair Moore
Sick Woman, Fourth Naked Virgin – Rebecca Alonwy-Jones
Naked Youth – Edmond Choo
Second Naked Virgin – Fiona Harrison
Third Naked Virgin – Louise Ratcliffe
Chorus of six solo voices – Fiona Harrison, Amanda Baldwin, Sian Meinir, Peter Wilman, Alastair Moore, Laurence Cole

Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito (directors)
Jörg Behr (revival director)
Anna Viebrock (original designs)
Tim Mitchell (lighting)

Chorus and Extra Chorus of Welsh National Opera (chorus master: Stephen Harris)
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Lothar Koenigs (conductor)


Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is – and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece – the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! – then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.

All of that would be more or less in vain, were the results not to attain the excellence Schoenberg demands. They were, in pretty much every respect, any of the doubtless inevitable shortcomings being of relatively minor importance. This was probably the finest work I have yet heard from Lothar Koenigs – to whose partnership with David Pountney we clearly owe many thanks.  There can be no faking the necessary depth of musical understanding in this score, any more than there can be in Wagner or Brahms (or, indeed, anything that matters). Koenigs’s textual clarity and clarity of purpose not only enabled the drama to develop; they were in good part the Wagnerian embodiment, even representation, of the musical drama – not the least here of Schoenberg’s dialectics. There were occasional slips by the WNO Orchestra, but in no sense did they detract from a wholehearted contribution, which might have suggested that the work had been in its repertoire for years. (Recent Wagner, Berg, and indeed Henze will have done no harm, but even so…)


Perhaps the most exceptional work of all – though opera is, or at least should be, one of the supreme elevations of collaboration over miserable, bourgeois ‘competition’ – came from the WNO Chorus. In an interview to accompany Pierre Boulez’s second recording of Moses, Schoenberg’s great – alongside the very different Michael Gielen, his greatest? – interpreter and critic remarked:  ‘People always say that it’s not an opera but an oratorio, which Schoenberg later turned into an opera. That interested me, because I disagree with it. The chorus, for example, is the most important character in the opera. It’s like a chameleon, speaking for or against, sometimes even internally divided or emphatic in its support of one particular party; it is angry, it is docile, it comments on the action.’ Musically and dramatically – indeed, quite rightly there seemed little distinction to be made – the chorus succeeded in fulfilling Boulez’s and Schoenberg’s expectations. Whether en masse, soloistically, or at various stages of in between, whether singing, speaking or at various stages of in between, Schoenberg’s highly charged and often ravishingly beautiful choral writing – I was often set thinking of his psalm settings – were faithfully, viscerally communicated. And of course, communication, both its necessity and its impossibility, is very much the thing in this of all operas; or rather, it is one of the things, all of them, like the score itself derived entirely from a single row, proceeding from the necessity and impossibility of representing the Almighty Himself. If indeed that is who He is, for at least at times, an element of doubt should and did set in, with respect to whether Moses is on the wrong track all together. This is and was a drama, not a tract.

I had my moments of doubt concerning the production too. Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, as revived – very well, insofar as I could tell – by Jörg Behr present the entirety of the action in a single, courtroom venue. Law  is of course a concern of the drama in several respects, the law-giving properties of the twelve-note method involved in a complicated, dramatically generative relationship with Mosaic law and the law of Creation itself. Moreover, as Aron points out to Moses, the Tables of the Law are ‘images also, just part of the whole idea’. That said, the idea or ideas of law do not seem to be especially emphasised, and – without wishing for some entirely impractical as well as undesirable Cecil B. de Mille Biblical ‘epic’ presentation, which would make only too clear the truth of Adorno's charge that grand opera prepared the way for popular cinema – it is difficult to feel, at least at first, that there is not an element of dramatic constriction in the monothematic scenic realisation. (I am not entirely sure what was meant by the description of having been ‘based on an original design by Anna Viebrock’, given that no further design work was credited.)

(Aron) Rainer Trost

And yet, so long as one is prepared to do some thinking – and anyone who is not should not be allowed anywhere near this opera – it is perfectly possible to glean a great deal; what appears to be constriction was in some sense also mental liberation, which again is one of the crucial dialectics at work in the drama itself, concerned as it and indeed all modern philosophy are with the Kantian antinomy between freedom and determinism. Not only can the courtroom – if indeed that is what it was – readily convert itself, sometimes with a little scenic rearrangement but above all through the engagement of our minds, into a venue for political and/or religious activity or, through Aron’s manipulative-representational skills, into a cinema, upon which the crowd can watch the orgy, as we watch the crowd. We, the receptive and creative audience – at least, that is what we should be – have to employ our minds to represent what the Israelites were seeing, and thus to engage in that very necessity and impossibility of representation of which Moses and Aron spoke and sang.  That is not to say, of course, that we should never see what goes on; Reto Nickler’s excellent Vienna production (available on DVD, under the inspired musical direction of Daniele Gatti, with the Vienna orchestra playing this music as only it can) shows what can be done with modern communicative messages of advertising and pornography. But what first seems as though it may simply be a cowardly – or even financially necessary – abdication of responsibility is revealed to be something much more interesting and, at some level, even provocatively Schoenbergian.

John Tomlinson’s assumption of the title role was predictably imposing. There was a good deal of what Gary Tomlinson has called the ‘Michelangesque terribilità’ of Schoenberg’s flawed hero, though I could not help but feel that the melodrama was overdone in the final scene. Still, the tragic grandeur, very much in the line of Wotan,  of Tomlinson’s Moses was unquestionable. Although he seemed to have tired a little in the first half of the second act, Rainer Trost’s Aron proved a fine foil. I am not sure I have heard so clear a contrast between Sprechstimme and sinuous twelve-note bel canto (with a good deal of Siegfried  et al. thrown in). Spatial matters played their role in the first act; placing on stage heightened the unbridgeable contrast between the two characters competing on unequal yet still justified terms. (One should never fall into the trap of saying that Moses is right and Aron is wrong; Schoenberg tilts the scales but remains some way from upending them, and there are certainly occasions when Moses is shown to be unambiguously, even unimaginatively in the wrong.)

Were I to proceed to hymn musico-dramatic excellence in the smaller roles, I should probably find myself simply repeating the cast list. However, I shall, in the spirit of the work, attempt the impossible, and single out Richard Wiegold’s stentorian Priest, the exemplarily alert contributions of Daniel Grice and Alexander Sprague, and the – literally – unearthly beauty summoned up by the chorus of six solo voices: Fiona Harrison, Amanda Baldwin, Sian Meinir, Peter Wilman, Alastair Moore, and Laurence Cole.  For a work that struggles, like Aquinas, with a theological via negative, there was a great deal to be positive and thankful about. Three cheers to WNO!

To read more about Moses und Aron, please click here.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Munich Opera Festival (4) - Volle/Deutsch: Winterreise, 21 July 2014

Prinzregententheater, Munich

Michael Volle (baritone)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

One of the glories of the Munich Opera Festival is its series of Lieder recitals: not those curious concerts one hears of elsewhere, in which ‘star’ singers sing miscellaneous operatic arias, accompanied by pick-up-bands who occasionally throw in an overture or two, but serious song recitals. Londoners are, of course, spoiled when it comes to such matters, with the Wigmore Hall unquestionably supreme in the world as a song and chamber venue, but a festival in which Jonas Kaufmann and Michael Volle offer recitals, the latter a late replacement for an indisposed René Pape, has nothing to fear from comparisons. Pape’s promised programme had intrigued: whoever would have thought of his luxurious, ever-so-German bass in Roger Quilter? (Mussorgsky and Schumann were more like it.) Nevertheless, it was not remotely a disappointment to be faced with the prospect of a Winterreise from Volle and Helmut Deutsch; nor was it a disappointment in reality.

Having recently heard Kaufmann, with the same pianist, at the Royal Opera House, comparisons were always likely to suggest themselves, however much one strained to take the performance on its own terms. In the abstract, I tend to think that my preference is for a tenor in this cycle, but, as when one hears great recorded baritone performances from the past, the question never presented itself. Occasionally, my ear reminded me that it was not hearing the ‘right’ key, but even when it did so, I was not remotely troubled by the reminder. For, if there is no ‘ideal’ performance of this work in the singular, there are surely a good few ‘ideals’, and Volle comes as close to anyone in the plural. His is not a performance imbued with existential Angst from the outset; this is not the expressionism of, say, a Matthias Goerne. Indeed, ‘Gute Nacht’ sounded convincingly as a continuation if not from the end of Die schöne Müllerin – for the story there ends all too clearly – then from the world in which much of the earlier cycle takes place. There was plenty of scope then, for development, for a different turn to be taken, but what that turn might be was not yet inevitable. We might know that hopes would be frustrated, but we could sense, whether from Volle’s even-handed attention to words, to music, to their alchemy, or from Deutsch’s equal yet different dramatic precision in the piano part. Indeed, at times it seemed, intriguingly and convincingly, that Schubert’s musical forms and figurations, be they quasi-‘autonomous’ or clearly derived from the words, were as much a driving force as Wilhelm Müller’s poem itself, Schubert’s still under-explored closeness to Wagner made manifest.

Although I have not yet heard Volle as Wotan, there was something of the god’s Walküre monologues to our hero’s self-laceration, one in which, even at the extremity of, say, ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, this remained song, and Romantic song at that. Part and parcel of that characterisation, and certainly in no way opposed to it, was Deutsch’s pinpointing of the stabbing piano part: never can it have sounded closer to that arch-late-Romantic, Anton Webern, than here. What the most crucial turning-point(s) will be in this most chilling of descents will always be a matter of debate, whether in terms of performance or one’s own reception. Here, I could not help but think that it was this moment of ‘last hope’, still more than the signpost of ‘Der Wegweiser’ in which the moment of no turning back came. That there were several candidates, not competing but furthering the claims of each other, spoke very well of a narrative experience that held one spellbound throughout. The final extremes of no room at the Wirtshaus, the hallucinatory shining of three winter suns, and that terrifying, inevitable numbness of a finely observed, quite un-hysterical ‘Der Leiermann’ took us where we had to go, and in a sense, like the ‘hero’, we welcomed it as necessary catharsis. This was a less operatic Winterreise than Kaufmann’s. (Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with operatic influence, for every great artist will bring something different from his strengths and experience.) If anything, I think it touched me even more deeply, with an Innigkeit that seemed to find its source in the very heart of German Romanticism. For this seemed to be less ‘Volle’s Winterreise’ than Winterreise, pure and simple, however illusory that idea(l) might be.

Munich Opera Festival (3) - L'Orfeo, 20 July 2014

Images: © Wilfried Hösl
Prinzregententheater, Munich

Orfeo – Christian Gerhaher
Euridice – Anna Virovlansky
Messenger, Proserpina – Anna Bonatibus
Caronte – Andrea Mastroni
Hope, La Musica – Angela Brower
Plutone – Andrew Harris
Apollo – Mauro Peter
Shepherd I, Spirit I – Mathias Vidal
Shepherd II, Spirit III, Echo – Jeroen de Vaal
Shepherd III – Gabriel Jublin
Shepherd IV, Spirit II Thomas Faulkner
Nymph – Lucy Knight

David Bösch (director)
Patrick Bannwart (set designs)
Falko Herold (costumes, videos)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Daniel Menne, Rainer Karlitschek (dramaturgy)

Zürcher Sing-Akademie (chorus master: Tim Brown)
Members of the Bavarian State Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)


Orfeo (Christian Gerhaher) and Euridice
(Anna Virovlavsky) returning to him
Monteverdi’s Orfeo may take after Jacopo Peri’s Euridice but there is a gulf in terms of quality between the two works. Renaissance opera though Orfeo may be – it really is very different from Ulisse or Poppea – it stands head and shoulders above any preceding essay in the genre, so much as to mark a ‘qualitative leap’ in the history of music. (Monteverdi’s dramatic madrigals are, without question, equally worthy of respect and connected in some respects of style, but they remain something of a different matter.) I knew all that, of course; ‘everyone’ does. However, I think it took this excellent Munich performance not only to make me realise quite how true it is, but truly to feel the greatness of Orfeo as dramma per musica. Perhaps that is not so surprising; it was, after all, my first Orfeo in the theatre – and what a wonderful theatre Munich’s Prinzregententheater is! But it could not have happened without such committed performances, and a largely convincing staging. Even Ivor Bolton, a conductor for whom I have rarely felt any enthusiasm, seemed at his best, certainly far more at ease than in later music, be that later Monteverdi or Handel, let alone Classical or Romantic music.


After two somewhat depressingly routine evenings of Mozart, this new production premiere certainly reinvigorated the Munich Opera Festival. I wondered at first whether David Bösch’s production would prove irritating. However, the flower-power setting of the first act does not get in the way thereafter and a band of musicians is, after all, far from entirely inappropriate to a telling of the Orphic myth. (Who, in any case, has a decided ‘idea’ of archaic Thrace, and on what could it conceivably be founded, even if it were appropriate for a twenty-first-century performance of an early-seventeenth-century opera?) There is an excellent sense of nuptial delight before the trials to come, in which music – on which more below – and production seem very much to be at one. As the plot thickens and darkens, so in any case does the staging. The story is told well; it is perfectly clear who everyone is, and what the characters’ relationship to each other would be. The underworld is properly like the underworld, Charon’s (or Caronte’s) gruesome throng transforming the tone, whilst there is humour without undue exaggeration in the domestic yet divine relationship between Proserpina and Plutone. A post-catastrophic setting for the final act is just the ticket, though some may cavil at Apollo’s decidedly mortal appearance as something akin to a war veteran.


The Messenger (Anna Bonatibus) arrives
If Bolton occasionally let the dance music run away with itself, it was a failing of the right kind, both bowing to and leading a properly infectious account of festivities. Otherwise, I really have nothing to grumble about at all with respect to his direction. Monteverdi’s extraordinary scoring – nowhere is the difference between Orfeo and the ‘Baroque’ operas clearer than here – does a great deal of the work of course, but the delineation of place, character, and mood were instantiated with great dramatic flair. A large continuo group offered a ravishing variety of sound, and, just as important, guided not only the harmony but also everything that unfolded above. What a treat to hear the regal organ of Hades; what a delight to hear the celebratory percussion! The Zürcher Sing-Akademie sometimes sounded oddly churchy: was that a matter of having had an English choral conductor, Tim Brown, train them? The sound was beautiful, but seemed more akin to Choral Evensong than to court at Mantua – or Munich. At other times, however, a more properly madrigalian instinct kicked in, and their musicality was beyond reproach.


Christian Gerhaher made for a magnificent Orfeo. Without in any sense abandoning the beauty of tone and verbal attentiveness that characterise his Lieder performances, he managed yet to seem perfectly at home in this quite different repertoire. Stylistically, he was spot on: neither too heavy with vibrato nor parsimonious in a largely-discredited old ‘Early Musicke’ sense. Perhaps most telling, however, was the realisation that it was in many cases the very virtues of his performances in later repertoire that made this also an outstanding performance; after all, if ever musical performance required equal attention to words and music it is in Monteverdi and Wolf. (And if you ever harboured a desire to see Gerhaher in the somewhat unlikely guise of ageing pop-star, first a little reluctant, then throwing physical caution to the wind, this may well be your only chance!) Anna Bonitatibus made a huge impression as Proserpina, ‘operatic’ in the best sense: opening a new era for the fledgling form. Her Messenger also tugged at the heartstrings, sentiment never tipping over into mere sentimentality. Angela Brower’s Hope (Speranza) and Music were distinguished in a similar fashion. Andrea Mastroni and Andrew Harris  cultivated distinct roles as Caronte and Plutone, whilst Anna Virovlansky’s immensely likeable Euridice had one wishing to hear more. Mauro Peter's Apollo offered on a smaller scale the textual and musical virtues of Gerhaher's Orfeo. All of the smaller roles were well taken. Here was casting in depth and in style: a credit both to the singers listed above and to the Bavarian State Opera.

Monteverdi, then, lived in the present, as he always magnificently does, putting to shame many of his Baroque successors. It would, however, be a shame to forget some of the other versions of this extraordinary work. How about an outing somewhere not only for Orff’s Orfeo – the first Munich performance in 1929, in the Cuvilliés-Theater, was given in one of his versions too – but for Berio’s too…?

Munich Opera Festival (2) - La clemenza di Tito, 19 July 2014

Images: © Wilfried Hösl
Sesto (Tara Erraught) and
Vitellia (Kristine Opolais)
Nationaltheater, Munich

Tito – Toby Spence
Vitellia – Kristïne Opolais
Sesto – Tara Erraught
Servilia – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Annio – Anna Stéphany
Publio – Tareq Nazmi

Jan Bosse (director)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Ingo Bracke (lighting)
Bibi Abel (video)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Ádám Fischer (conductor)



It had been a while since I had seen La clemenza di Tito in the theatre, though I spend a good deal of time on it when teaching. Alas, there was little to cheer about here, save for some of the singing. Ádám Fischer’s listless conducting only had me long for Sir Colin Davis, in the pit for the sole convincing musical performance I have heard ‘live’; Jan Bosse’s stage direction had me longing for just about anything else.

Fischer, first: his role was puzzling. If anything, I’d have expected someone from at least the quasi-authenticist wing to harry the score. And that is what the Overture sounded like: grand neo-Classicism reduced to something impatiently knocking on the door of small-scale Rossini (without the gloss or the bubbles). Thereafter, however, Fischer tended to maul the score, rarely letting it settle at one tempo or another. Not that there is anything wrong with tempo variations; far from it. But Fischer seemed unable to find a general pulse for an aria, let alone for any greater structural unit. The great public scenes were scaled down: surely this calls for a reasonable-size chorus.  Perhaps worst of all was the lugubrious pacing of many of the secco recitatives: in this of all Mozart’s works, we really do not need to dwell on them, since they are many, they are not his work, and they are sometimes frankly unsatisfactory in terms of where they tonally lead us. For some reason I could never establish, they were mostly given with harpsichord, but a few with fortepiano. The Bavarian State Orchestra played well enough, considering, but as with Dan Ettinger’s dreadful Figaro two nights earlier, it was difficult to shy away from the conclusion that the orchestra would have been better off without a conductor. Certainly in this case, it would have been better off without the more interventionist aspects of Fischer’s decidedly peculiar interpretation.

Tito (Toby Spence) and chorus members
Bosse’s staging? Ultimately, as a friend wearily remarked to me during the interval, it reflects the seeming inability of a large number of opera directors to take opera seria seriously, as it were, let alone to take this extraordinary late example of the form for what it is. Caterina Mazzolà’s often drastic revision of Metastasio was acknowledged neither for what it had become, nor for what it had been, and certainly not for what Mozart transformed it into. It is difficult to discern any understanding of the classical conception of opera seria as spoken theatre with additional music having come into conflict, whether in work and reception, with later-eighteenth-century æsthetics, which had ascribed greater importance to music – unless, that is, it be nodded to by having the excellent solo clarinettist sit on the edge of the pit to be looked at by Sesto and then later by Vitellia. It is equally difficult to discern any sense of the political, of this coronation opera as, in words I have used for an article elsewhere, ‘a compulsory class in a school for ruler and ruled’.  It is just all a bit silly, with various people wandering around in ludicrously exaggerated visions of eighteenth-century dress, the size of Vitellia’s dress especially ridiculous. Wigs look as though I have been taken from an LSD-user’s vision of Amadeus. The trouser roles offer a bit of gender confusion, in that the characters’ dress seems as much female as male. And that is it: none of those ‘ideas’ is really developed, let alone related to the work. The only other feature I can recall worthy of comment is the general change from black to white between acts and the banal apparent conclusion that the characters find themselves through the burning of the Capitol. Of revolution, of counter-revolution, of Enlightened absolutism, of aristocratic revanchism: there is nothing. What on earth the dramaturge was offering for his fee I cannot imagine. And of Mozart: well, there is, if anything, still less.

Toby Spence had his good moments, more in the second act than the first, but had some strikingly unsteady moments too. He certainly was not helped by the direction, which seemed limited to having him wander around uncertainly in a sheet. I felt rather conflicted about Kristïne Opolais. There was no doubting the committed nature of her performance as Vitellia, but the nature of the application was not always necessarily appropriate. In the first act, she sometimes sounded as though she would have been happier singing Puccini, forsaking Mozart’s line for generalised ‘operatic’ sounds and gestures that have little or no place in his world. The second act was much better, though, ‘Non più di fiori’ an undoubted highlight, in which even Fischer got his act together to lead a strikingly successful transition into the finale. (It was a rare, much appreciated example of an ill-behaved audience not being permitted indiscriminately to applaud.) Tara Erraught and Anna Stéphany were more or less beyond reproach as Sesto and Annio, clean of line and clear of dramatic purpose – at least insofar as the production permitted. Both would grace the Mozart ensembles of any house. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, the Susanna in that earlier Figaro, impressed once again as Servilia; if anything, the role – and form – seemed to suit her better still. Tareq Nazmi’s Publio, again not helped by a production which seemed to have the character down as simply a bit of a weirdo, could have been more cleanly sung. And there we have it: an opera seria performance as if from the bad old days, when the drama was seen as secondary to the singers, when the music was barely understood for what it is. Not for the first time, I longed for Gérard Mortier and the Herrmanns.