Monday 30 May 2016

Tiberghien - Bartók and Kurtág, 24 May 2016

Wigmore Hall

Bartók – Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs
Eight Improvisations of Hungarian Peasant Songs, op.20

Bartók – Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík
Kurtág – Pieces from Játékok, interspersed with:
Bartok – Sonatina; Pieces from Mikrokosmos, vol.5
Bartók – Six Romanian Folk Dances

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

Six months ago, at the end of Pierre Boulez’s ninetieth-anniversary year and thus shortly before his death, Cédric Tiberghien gave a Wigmore Hall recital in which he interwove works by Boulez and Bartók. Alas, I was unable to attend, but this recital, in which he did something similar with Kurtág, made up for some of that disappointment.

I say ‘interwove’, but the first half was devoted entirely to Bartók. For so fine a pianist, and so fine a composer of music involving the piano, there is not so much solo piano music as one might expect; or rather, there is not much larger-scale piano music. Even the Sonata, heard here as conclusion to the first half, is relatively brief. Before that, we heard two sets of short pieces. First came the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, which Bartók groups into four sections – so not entirely unlike a sonata, with a broad – too broad? – understanding of the term. Tiberghien’s opening, with the first of the ‘Four Old Tunes’, was bold, his generous use of the sustaining pedal providing its own atmospheric justification. Following that mini-‘overture’, we heard Debussyan echoes turned to Lisztian ends, a keen sense of form exhibiting itself throughout. The Scherzo, no.5, once again showed post-Debussyan awareness, whilst retaining very much its own character. The ‘Ballad’, a theme and variations, was exploratory in a way that made it sound close to the (contemporaneous) Wooden Prince, whilst also looking forward to the Piano Concertos. Variation form inevitably brought echoes of Beethoven too. The ‘Old Dance Tunes’ certainly danced, and danced with great individuality. (Think of Mozart’s exquisite sets of dances, which only sound the same to those who are not listening.) Liszt was never far away; when is he in Bartók?

The Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs arguably offer more of Bartók ‘himself’, but I am not sure the distinction is an especially illuminating one. Music is music; it is good or bad, or perhaps something in between. This is good, as was Tiberghien’s performance. The first number bore a nostalgia born of still greater mastery, wonderfully conjured up by the pianist with great depth of tone (and, I think, of soul). Mood swings were skilfully integrated in the ‘Molto capriccioso’; here, and not here, I wondered whether there might be something of Bartók answering the aphoristic Schoenberg of the op.19 Six Little Piano Pieces. Schoenberg again came to mind in the penultimate piece, ‘Sostenuto, rubato’, Tiberghien luxuriating in its foreshortened or threatened languor, whilst maintaining a sense of urgency. The ‘sound’ is, of course, nothing like Schoenberg, but perhaps there is something of a commonality of spirit. Bartók’s closing ‘Allegro’ was properly climactic, Tiberghien striking a fine balance between deliberation, disjuncture, and rhythmic propulsion.

The Sonata undoubtedly showed the composer of the first two Piano Concertos at work. Tiberghien brought the world of the 1920s very much to the fore; rhythmic comparisons with Stravinsky more than once suggested themselves. In some senses, this is more ‘abstract’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ music, but one can make too much of such oppositions. Integration is more the thing, as it was here in performance too. ‘Sostenuto’ was the word that came to mind before I checked Bartók’s marking for the second movement: ‘Sostenuto e pesante’. Disruptions thereby sounded all the more telling when they came. Build-up to climaxes that were perhaps never quite climactic was unerringly shaped. Kinship and yet also difference from the earlier ‘folk’ music was apparent in the finale. Likewise Bartók’s internationalism that yet incorporates elements of the ‘national’. Perhaps that is another way of saying the same thing. With an almost Schoenbergian wealth of information and Mozartian melodic profusion, this made for a thrilling conclusion.

Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík opened the second half. Charming, unquestionably beautiful, they were definitely ‘earlier’ than that we had heard before. There then followed two of the several pieces extracted from Kurtág’s Játékok. Musical procedure was very much to the fore, Webern-like, in the ‘Hommage à Bartók’. Sonority there and in ‘All’ongherese – Hommage à Gösta Neuwirth 60’ was forever startling, in all manner of ways, Tiberghien’s advocacy as focused as one could wish for. ‘Bagpipes’ could be seen as well as heard in Bartók’s Sonatina, likewise the bears of the ‘Bear Dance’. Tiberghien offered a warm yet pristine performance, sounding retrospectively as an intensification of Kurtág’s post-Webern explorations. Petrushka sounded in the finale, even before I had noticed the cunning follow-up of Kurtág’s ‘Hommage à Ferenc farkas (3) – (evocation of Petrushka)’. In the next three Kurtág pieces, we heard him out-Weberning Webern (‘five-finger play – chromatic exercise), doing just what the title suggested (‘Pen drawing, Valediction to erszébet Scháar), and going still further with the out-Weberning Webern (‘Russian Dance’).

Tiberghien then interspersed selections from Mikrokosmos with further selections from Játékok. The first Bartók six (122-127) suggested the falsity of another opposition: this time between technical and ‘musical’ requirements. Likewise the coherence of apparent irregularity. Humour shone through in Kurtág’s ‘La Fille aux cheveux de lin – enragée’, all the more so for being played with all the seriousness of Bartók’s post-Debussyan essays. Radical contrast, whether in simplicity (‘A flower for Márta’) or something akin to miniature Boulez (‘Face to face (János Demény in memoriam)’), ensued.

Bartok’s nos 128-33 seemed very much to set the scene for the next selection from Játékok, which also drew again on that Debussyan inheritance, in an utterly novel way (so it sounded here, anyway). ‘Process’ and ‘music’ were again shown to be as one in Bartók’s nos 134-39, ravishingly performed as part of a particularly fine-woven tapestry. The final three pieces by Kurtág seemed very much to come as fulfilment of so many of the tendencies heard earlier: fine programming and performance. At times almost de profundis, and yet also with what one might call a bearable lightness of being, Tiberghien resolved so much – and yet also left so much open – in ‘The very last conversation with Lászo Dörnyei’. Bartók’s Six Romanian Folk Dances could then sound as almost a written-in encore. If I have taken until now to mention Tiberghien’s fineness of touch, that is probably because it never drew attention to itself.


Saturday 28 May 2016

Oedipe, Royal Opera, 23 May 2016

Images: ROH/Clive Barda

Royal Opera House

Theban High Priest – Nicolas Courjal
Shepherd – Alan Oke
Theban Woman – Lauren Fagan
Créon – Samuel Youn
Laïos – Hubert Francis
Jocaste – Sarah Connolly
Tirésias – John Tomlinson
Oedipe – Johan Reuter
Phorbas – In Sung Sim
Mérope – Claudia Huckle
Watchman – Stefan Kocan
Sphinx – Marie-Nicole Lemieux
Antigone – Sophie Bevan
Thésée – Samuel Dale Johnson

Àlex Ollé (La Fura dels baus) and Valentina Carrasco (directors)
Alfons Flores (set designs)
Lluc Castells (costumes)
Peter van Praet (lighting)


After the opening night of the first ever staging of George Enescu’s Oedipe in this country, I can say without the slightest hesitation that this will prove the most important event of the Royal Opera’s season. How, after all, could it not? I probably should be more cautious, given that it was my first hearing of the work, but it sounded very much as if it were the composer’s masterpiece to me. Indeed, my initial reaction was much akin to my hearing works – perhaps not entirely dissimilar, but not especially similar either – such as Szymanowski’s King Roger and Busoni’s Doktor Faust for the first time. Whilst others become enraged or, occasionally, enraptured by what Katie Mitchell might have done to a piece of drivel by Donizetti, a work surely quite undeserving of her talents as a director, the rest of us owe the Royal Opera and all concerned with this production a heartfelt vote of thanks. I should eagerly go again, if only I could make any of the dates work; I urge you, if you have not yet seen and heard the production and can, not to hesitate.

Sphinx (Marie-Nicole Lemieux) and Oedipe

First and foremost is the work itself. To my shame, I know little of Enescu’s music; he is one of those composers I have long been intending to ‘get around to’, but until now, have not really done so. He is known at least equally well as a conductor, violinist, and perhaps even as teacher, but unlike, say, Furtwängler, whose compositions are interesting yet hardly essential, Enescu was first and foremost a composer. One might actually draw another comparison with Busoni: unquestionably one of the greatest pianists of all time, yet with music (unforgivably ignored in this 150th anniversary year) that will remain a still greater testament.

Jocaste (Sarah Connolly) and Oedipe (Johan Reuter)

The compositional language and structure intrigue. One might, I suppose, call the latter traditional; it is certainly not experimental. This is a four-act opera with ‘conventional’ yet highly powerful, well-crafted narrative (let us not forget Edmond Fleg’s libretto here), which stands in something of a Wagnerian tradition, but is certainly not overwhelmed by it. Likewise the vocal writing, which owes something to Wagner, or perhaps better to (post-)Wagnerism, but no more than Strauss does, and probably less. As Jim Samson puts it in his excellent programme note (the ROH programme is of particularly high quality on this occasion): ‘On the surface, Enescu’s vocal writing appears similar to the kind of quasi-recitative characteristic of many post-Wagnerian operas, but on closer inspection it reveals its motivic credentials as a characteristic component of the closely unified thematic substance. The composer himself referred to a “single flow of ideas”.’ So did it unquestionably sound in this outstanding performance – yes, there was no difficulty in ascertaining that upon a single hearing – from Leo Hussain. Not only did Hussain draw out playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House of a quality of which we know it capable, but which has not always been heard recently, save for under a small number of visiting conductors such as Semyon Bychkov; his pacing and palpable understanding of the way the music and the musical drama work would have had one believe he stood at the helm of a work central to the repertory. Clearly it should be, but opera houses, alas, too often know better.

In the musical language, one hears strong French elements too: Debussyan and Ravelian elements (I even thought of Vaughan Williams at times), or at least parallels, albeit within a more Germanically-structured framework. Enescu’s use of voices within the orchestra almost as if they were vocal and not just orchestral commentary is striking, as his handling of choral forces. Samson again captures the former tellingly, speaking of an idiom ‘caught somewhere between Mahler’s fragmentation and Debussy’s variegation of the late-Romantic orchestra’. Not a note seems to be wasted, moreover; in this retelling of Sophocles, which involves a good deal of material implied or spoken of in the original tragedies, yet never seen on stage, the use of music not only to serve drama but as drama inevitably has one, once more, thinking of Wagner.


So too does the staging. If characterisation of the particular flavours and styles of each act, within an overarching framework is achieved with great musical success, Hussain’s conducting is complemented by a typically imaginative production from La Fura dels baus. The initial coup de théâtre haunts one’s experience throughout the performance, and indeed thereafter, the finely detailed, hieratic stage curtain melting, during the Prelude, into the ‘real thing’. A tableau vivant is what we see and static, tableau-like music – quite unlike that of Stravinsky’s inimitable ‘opera-oratorio’, which in any case yet lay in the future – was what we heard too. Interaction and support were indeed the hallmarks of production and performance throughout. The dialogue between certain archaisms – not really musical, but perhaps hinted at by the music, oboe and harps bringing to my mind Birtwistle’s later evocations of Greek antiquity – are always convincing, yet never entirely predictable. I am not entirely sure, or indeed at all sure, why the Sphinx lived within an apparently crashed aeroplane, but that offered nevertheless senses of wonder and of surprise, as well as of revelation. After all, the story is propelled by things and people not being quite what they seem to be (as well, of course, as having been condemned by Fate to do precisely what they have been ordained to do). Oedipus, in Enescu’s conception, is more Everyman than unapproachable hero; in that, he is ‘modern’ and so do we see him here. Likewise his fickle people and the treacherous army-man, Créon. It is, however, less heavy-worn conceptual communication than a fine sense of narrative theatre which, above all, animates what we see, Jocaste’s emergence, every inch the film star, from the city of Thebes is a case in point.

Covent Garden assembled an impressive cast too, considerably more than the far from inconsiderable sum of its parts. Johan Reuter’s assumption of the title role again had one believe this was a central, heroic, repertory performance. Each part of the hero’s life, from the beginning of the second act – the first celebrates his birth and quickly follows celebration with the desperate expulsion of this son to Laïos to Jocaste – to the end of the fourth has one experience an Oedipe both different and yet familiar. A lifetime was convincingly, powerfully portrayed, with fine command both of musical style and of verbal response. Sarah Connolly certainly exhibited those qualities in her Jocaste, with acting to match; her voice, however, sounded thinner than I can recall. It did not really detract from the performance, but I should like also to hear a richer voice in the role. John Tomlinson did his usual thing, and did it, as usual, very well, in the role of Tirésias. There was no gender-bending here, but the honesty and integrity of the poor, blind prophet shone through, in a role that generally fitted well the singer’s present range. Samuel Youn made for a suitably nasty, civilised Créon: what an unsympathetic character he is, and yet how necessary to the drama! I was less convinced than many seemed to be by Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Sphinx; I heard her words less often than was ideal, although the timbre of the voice seemed well-suited to the role. From the rest of an excellent line-up, Nicolas Courjal’s authoritative High Priest, Sophie Bevan’s beautifully sung and beautiful-of-heart Antigone, and Samuel Dale Johnson’s calmly commanding Thésée stood out to me.
Tirésias (John Tomlinson)

Choral singing was, save for those hieratic scenes, of a very high quality, for which temporary chorus master, Genevieve Ellis deserves great credit. Sadly, the visually arresting quality of the tableau did not transfer so well into vocal terms; a friend suggested to me at the interval that the chorus members could not hear each other very well. Still, the scenes on the ground, as it were, benefited greatly from artists who could act as well as sing. Collaboration with La Fura dels baus seems definitely to have inspired them. As an audience-member, it certainly inspired me. This, I should repeat, is an important achievement indeed, not to be missed.

Thursday 26 May 2016

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bavarian State Opera, 22 May 2016

Walther (Jonas Kaufmann) centre stage, with the Chorus, the Mastersingers, and Eva (Sara Jakubiak) looking down adoringly from her platform
Images: © Bayerische Staatsoper/Wilfried Hösl

Nationaltheater, Munich

Hans Sachs – Wolfgang Koch
Veit Pogner – Christof Fischesser
Kunz Vogelgsang – Kevin Conners
Konrad Nachtigall – Christian Rieger
Sixtus Beckmesser – Markus Eiche
Fritz Kothner – Eike Wilm Schulte
Balthasar Zorn – Ulrich Reß
Ulrich Eißlinger – Stefan Heibach
Augustin Moser – Thorsten Scharnke
Hermann Ortel – Friedemann Röhlig
Hans Schwarz – Peter Lobert
Hans Foltz – Christoph Stephinger
Walther von Stolzing – Jonas Kaufmann
David – Benjamin Bruns
Eva – Sara Jakubiak
Magdalene – Okka von der Damerau
Night Watchman – Tareq Nazmi

David Bösch (director)
Patrick Bannwart (set designs)
Meentje Nielsen (costumes)
Falko Herold (video)

Michael Bauer (lighting)
Rainer Karlitschek (dramaturgy)

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months). Glyndebourne would come only four days later; my principal point of – inevitable – comparison would therefore be with Stefan Herheim’s staging, first seen in Salzburg, but later (this March) in Paris. Herheim’s production is, unsurprisingly, one for the ages. I have no doubt that it will reveal more upon every subsequent encounter. It comes, perhaps, closer to Wagner’s reconciliations. However, any good Adornian – is there such a thing? Are we not, necessarily, all at best bad Adornians? – will warn you of the dangers of such positive Hegelianisms. David Bösch’s staging gradually reveals itself to be quite the necessary negative indictment, with respect above all to two particular (related) aspects of the work: violence and gender. If less all-encompassing than Herheim’s staging – what is not? – then it lays claim to be the first Meistersinger production in my experience to address the work from a feminist standpoint. It also arguably offers the most intriguing treatment – I shall not say ‘solution’, for surely there is none – to the ‘Beckmesser problem’. Katharina Wagner’s notorious Bayreuth staging might have given it a run for its money, had only the competence of her craft matched the provocative thinking of her dramaturge, Robert Sollich. Above all, though, this proved to be great musical drama: everyone committed to something far greater than the sum of its parts, and that includes ‘parts’ such as Jonas Kaufmann and Kirill Petrenko.

Walther arriving in Nuremberg

Let us start, however, with Bösch’s staging, with excellent designs by Patrick Bannwart and Meentje Nielsen. We are in the 1950s. What could be more apt? And no, I am not being sarcastic. This is a work concerned with reconstruction, set in a city which, more than most, has had to be concerned with reconstruction. Wagner, I suppose I should reiterate for the nth time, was in no sense concerned to present a historical Nuremberg; the ever-present – well, nearly – spirit of Bach makes that abundantly clear. And did not the 1950s see ‘New Bayreuth’, in particularly Wieland Wagner’s Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg? As John Deathridge once acidly commented,  when Wieland spoke of “the clearing away of old lumber” (Entrümpelung), … [he produced] stage pictures bereft of their “reactionary” ethos — and, as sceptics were prone to add, most of their content as well.’ Indeed, and if many in the audience had more to hide even than Wieland, he had his own reasons too. The relationship between provincialism and the dreadful reconstructionalism of the 1950s is complicated yet undeniable. Lest we forget, 1955 was the year in which the West German Army was (re)founded, denying its origins in what had gone before; this was also the period of increasingly prevalent terraced dynamics and sewing-machine geometries of Bach performances by minor German chamber orchestras, performances that would soon metamorphose into ‘authenticke’ claims, deluded and cynically deluding, to ‘restore’ Baroque practice. ‘They say Bach, [but] mean Telemann,’ as Adorno unforgettably put it. Wagner meant – and means Bach, and vice versa. There is nastiness as well as homeliness in provincialism; Bösch draws out the former, in a useful corrective to the norm.
David (Benjamin Bruns) and Walther

What might seem a nostalgia for the period and its ‘popular culture’ – similarly in Bösch’s Munich L’Orfeo – is revealed to be far more complicated than that. For one thing, what does ‘popular culture’ mean? Such is a problem at the heart of the opera, at the heart of relationships between the Masters and the populace, and Sachs’s suggestion of testing the rules. And such has arguably become still more so given the rise of what some of us are old-fashioned enough still to regard with, the Frankfurt School, as the Culture Industry. If resistance is to come, it will be more likely to come from Helmut Lachenmann than from the world of commercial music, successfully masquerading as ‘of the people’. And so, when microphones and various other paraphernalia of the recording industry – ‘Classical’ in the deadly marketing-speak of that world, then as well as now – are put in place, we sense, amongst many other things, an act of domination such has been inflicted upon works by Bach, now more or less unperformable, and upon every other aspect of our ‘administered’ world and lives. Although the Personenregie of Bösch’s staging is always detailed, interesting, telling, it is only – as in the work itself – towards the end of the third act, in the Singschule, that things come closer into conceptual focus. It is, as always in the bourgeois state, with violence that that is accomplished. David has already, most intriguingly, seemed a nastier, vainer, and yes, more interesting character than usual, with the strong implication that his penchant for small-scale violent behaviour is owed in part not only to his provincialism but also to his inability truly to create. Walther has tried to defend David when the apprentices, at the beginning of the scene, attacked him, but he will have none of it; outsiders are not to be welcomed, perhaps not even for Magdalene’s sake. Will David prove a second Beckmesser? We shall see; it is, at least at this stage, the first Beckmesser who provides the shock – literally.

The electric shocks administered to Walther, forcibly restrained in his chair, by the Marker are the work of what Gudrun Esslin would soon call the Auschwitz generation; and as Ennslin went on, there is of course no arguing with them. That, despite, or perhaps because, of Beckmesser’s – and Pogner’s – relative attractiveness (relative to how we usually see them, and indeed to the definitely older-school Kothner). Who, after all, has not occasionally found something of attraction in the discipline of fascism, especially when (s)he has been emboldened by readily available bottles of Meisterbräu? Guilds had never been as stable as nostalgia suggested; that is surely part of Wagner’s meaning here. But Bösch brings already-existing divisions to the foreground. Some Masters look – costumes crucial here – and act with greater modernity, or at least in greater fashion than others. If the Guild is keeping things together – and such, of course, was the crux of nineteenth-century Romantic and Hegelian defences in the face of liberal attacks upon them – then it is not clear whether it will succeed for much longer. ‘Reconstruction’ tends to incite – as any Stolzing, Ensslin, or Lachenmann would tell you.

Beckmesser (Markus Eiche) and Hans Sachs
(Wolfgang Koch)

Sachs’s van – ‘Sachs’ says the neon, definitely not of Fifth Avenue – captures our attention at the beginning of the second act. There is no doubt that the mise-en-scene is of a grimmer 1950s: doubtless necessary in some ways given the cost of war, but this is not a suburb of joy. It is not the Munich we see in the second Heimat; nor is it the Nuremberg the tourist will see. But it is there. Beckmesser’s virtuosity comes to the fore. He is not a fraud, although he may be unimaginative; he has craft, even if he does not have art; he is, moreover, certainly not a mere figure of fun. His piccolo guitar to Walther’s full-size version invites a number of reflections. Yet his song works, in its way: perhaps of another age, another age that most likely never was, but such is reconstruction. Eva seems even more girlish than usual, almost Barbie-like; I asked myself whether we should ever see a feminist production that would address the monstrous nature of her treatment. The violence of the Prügel-Fuge’s staging eclipses any I have seen. Too often, we forget that there is real violence involved. (Perhaps Wagner did so too; if so, he stands as much in need of correction as anyone else.) Here, David’s deeds with baseball bat mark him out as every inch the neo-fascist; Pegida would welcome him with open arms. We then begin to wonder: what will the guild become in the hands of his generation. Is Sachs the last hope, rather than the harbinger? Likewise, how will Walther turn out? For ever Tariq Ali, think how many Blairs, or would-be-Blairs there have been. At the close, the Night Watchman (in modern policeman’s garb) is dealt with by the remaining small gang of young townsfolk. They take him back to his car and send him on his way, but it is made clear that he has no choice; this is their manor. Crossing themselves beforehand, they have mimicked the (deliberately?) incongruous procession at the opening; they know how to use traditional forms when it serves their purpose. The final punishment beating takes place as the curtain – and one of the thugs’ baseball bats – falls.

Beckmesser dragged to his beating

‘Sachs’ has lost its first and almost its second ‘s’ when we catch up, the morning after the night before. Make of that what you will. Walther has spent his night in the van. Beckmesser, when he hobbles back, is suicidal – quite understandably. It is discovery of the poem that turns his mood (just enough) around. Sachs is not the only one so to suffer, although Beckmesser would never have the imagination, nor the understanding, to come up with the Wahn monologue. Still, the ubiquity of Wahn is more than usually, atmospherically present. Yes, as Michael Tanner has pointed out, the work is about ‘coping’; and coping is difficult in a world such as this, which is one reason why we indulge in deluded and deluding reconstruction in the first place. Walther is too young, too callow really to understand; he and Eva are unable to keep their hands off each other, on top of the van, as Sachs confronts a further bout of depression. The violence of Wolfgang Koch’s – and the Bavarian State Orchestra’s – outburst here, the former occasionally edging towards Sprechgesang, even towards Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, was especially telling, and complemented, extended the production memorably, indeed frighteningly. But Walther eventually appreciates his selfishness, and comes down to help: a touching moment, especially in light of such darkness all around.

Let us leave the staging as some would doubtless like the work to be left, before the Festwiese. Unlike them, those who misunderstand the Quintet and do not appreciate that its moment of ‘beauty’ is quite deliberately foreshortened, we shall return, but I should rather deal with Bösch’s final scene at the end. (Think of this, perhaps, as a rupture to the account of the staging, just as Peter Konwitschny once ruptured the aura of this allegedly problematical scene, in order, controversially, to put it mildly, to deal with the allegations, most of them unfounded.)

I have never heard the work conducted better ‘live’ than by Kirill Petrenko. I was less convinced by his Bayreuth Ring performances than many were; perhaps I did not hear him at his best. This, however, was Wagner conducting – in a work in which I have heard even Daniel Barenboim and Daniele Gatti struggle to reach their highest standards – to speak of in the same breath as that of Bernard Haitink (my first). Petrenko’s command of the Wagnerian melos, assisted by, indeed expressed in, the outstanding playing of the Bavarian State Orchestra, was outstanding at every level. There was no doubting the overall structure, but that structure was formed by the needs of the moment, by the Schoenbergian working-out of the material, rather than imposed, Alfred Lorenz-like, upon it. This was not a David; this was a young Sachs. He could, indeed, hold back or press on when the singer seemed to be suggesting it, playing the orchestra like his own piano, albeit without the slightest hint of shallow virtuosity, for this was no Beckmesser either. But it would not jar; indeed, performance and work seemed to form one another, which, in this of all works, is surely the point. The orchestra had nothing to fear from the most exalted of comparisons; rather, those with whom it might have been compared, should fear them. Likewise the chorus, whether in terms of vocal heft and colour, of clarity of line, or of stage movement. The dialectic between individual and society (and changing conceptions thereof) was brought vividly to life here and elsewhere.

I took a little while to settle down to Koch’s Hans Sachs. That is partly personal, I think; to my ears – and indeed to my eyes – he somehow seems more to be an Alberich. That I found disconcerting, but it was my problem, really. There was no doubting the intelligence of his portrayal, and in the third act, my reservations evaporated. Here, there seemed to be a perfect marriage of Wort and Ton, of Oper and Drama. (And yes, I know that is not quite what Wagner meant in the latter case, but it is considerably closer than it might initially seem.) He took us through Sachs’s struggles, and took us through some more. There was no false reconciliation of ‘mere’ geniality, although manipulation of Wahn might prescribe it, successfully or otherwise, if as a palliative rather than as a cure.

Kaufmann’s Walther avoided the drawback of his first performance in the role (I think), in concert at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival. There, it was an astonishing performance, in which Kaufmann tired a little towards the end. Here, he was perhaps less golden of vocal tone, more baritonal, but that is an observation rather than an æsthetic judgement. There was no problem whatsoever with his pacing. And my goodness, he could act! The puppyish enthusiasm of the first acts, the inspiration Walther drew from Eva, whilst showing off to her, not unlike a tennis player at Wimbledon with his girlfriend in the crowd, the mixture of enforced, societal chivalry and the arousal of deeper, or at least more primal, urges: those and many more acutely observed moments denied the manufactured boundary between ‘musical performance’ and ‘acting’. If we are to talk of ‘Wagner’s intentions’, let it be in that manner.

Benjamin Bruns had a difficult time of it. This, after all, was anything but the typical David, but Bruns had us believe in the ‘new’ – or should that be ‘restored’ – character, his impotent (often, at least) rage as chilling as the ‘purely’ vocal delivery was thoughtful and indeed often beautiful. Sara Jakubiak really took to the demands of her role (on which more below). Visually and vocally striking, this was an Eva both at home in and estranged from her Nuremberg. Okka von der Damerau’s Magdalene brought a deeper, luxuriant vocal colour to the stage, again with clear ‘dramatic’ as well as vocal commitment. Tareq Nazmi’s Night Watchman was deep and dark of tone: just what the doctor has always ordered.

Pogner (Christof Fischesser) and
Kothner (Eike Wilm Schulte)

Of the other Masters, Christof Fischesser was definitely first among equals: handsomely, even suavely sung, a Pogner of ambition in which he was likely to succeed, rather than someone entering his twilight years. Kothner was played movingly by Eike Wilm Schulte, with the relative stiffness of his delivery, particularly striking in the first act, a move to distinguish this ‘old-school’ Master from the next generation(s). Markus Eiche’s Beckmesser was of the first class: more plausible a suitor than most, intelligently, often beautifully, sung, with a fine marriage of dignity and, increasingly, desperation.


Back, then, to the Festwiese. Who owns the guild, or at least its products? A corporation, albeit in the modern rather than the archaic sense: Pognervision. Privilege, be it of class, of gender, of other varieties, is always likely to emerge victorious. The early televisual variety show we see might seem ‘popular’ but it is deeply – and indeed shallowly – manipulative. (Admittedly, Bösch has nothing on ‘real life’, in this country at least, Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt appointing his friend, the creator of Big Brother, Peter Bazalgette, to chair the Arts Council, etc.) Falko Herold’s video work provides ‘titles’ for each Master (‘individual’ or styled to be corporate?) as he enters the scene, just ‘like on the television’. There is, of course, something for all the family – within strict limits. David and his camp dancers suggest what the real view of ‘deviance’ is: perhaps it will be tolerated as a harmless joke, but as for any serious attack on patriarchy… David is not in on the joke, anyway, and his humiliated by them: again, a proto-Beckmesser. When forced (‘peer pressure’ is like that) to drink too many shots, to prove his ‘real’ masculinity, he falls paralytic, unable to perform his functions (doubtless in any sense).

Magdalene (Okka von der Damerau), Beckmesser, and Eva, as the town clerk would claim his unwilling 'prize'

The cruelty meted out to Beckmesser will be even worse - although we should remember, and we are minded, that he too would essentially buy Eva, our bartered bride, and he makes clear his desire to possess her, even against her will, so is no 'victim' at all in that very important sense. Bedecked in gaudy ‘variety’ gold, in which he is clearly anything but comfortable, Beckmesser has been set up to fail. ‘Entertainment’ is the name of the game, and we are reminded of the cruelty of a work in which the comedy, in the common sense at least, is within, is of characters laughing at another; it is comedy, then, at which we should feel uncomfortable, and we do. Eva, who has learned a great deal during the course of the work, is increasingly disgusted by what she sees. Kothner is ‘marketed’ as celebrating his fiftieth year in office; even a ‘tribute’, indeed perhaps especially a tribute, must bear the ‘ratings’ in mind. (The relative stiffness of his delivery in the first act, via-à-vis that of Pogner and Beckmesser, thus falls into greater relief.) When Eva thinks that Sachs has fallen in with her father’s sell-off – for surely this ‘show’, with related ‘philanthropy’, is as much for business as anything else – she cannot bear to look at him any more. Whilst the crowd, manipulated by the ‘event’, sings his praises, she not only turns away; from her balcony, she haplessly throws the contents of her glass in his direction. No one notices; on stage, that is, for we do.

Sachs on stage, receiving the crowd's acclamation, before Eva (above with Pogner) turns her back in disgust

Yet Sachs is wiser than most, as we have always known. He realises that all has gone awry at the moment when most – whether on stage or in the typical audience – think it has been resolved. Has Walther joined the guild? It is not clear (deliberately so, I presume). In a more fundamental sense, however, Sachs is deeply troubled rather than triumphant. Beckmesser returns. Out of desperation, he tries to shoot dead the presumed author of his misfortunes, but falls before being able to carry out his punishment. The idea, we presume, was to let the poison, or whatever it was, do its work following the shooting. That may or may not be metaphorical. Of course, it does not work out as intended. It never did for Beckmesser; it never does for reconstruction. Well, not unless you are Wagner – or Herheim, and then you acknowledge that it is not what most people think it is. And even then…


Tuesday 24 May 2016

The Makropulos Case, Bavarian State Opera, 21 May 2016

Image: Bayerische Staatsoper, © Wilfried Hösl

Nationaltheater, Munich

Emilia Marty – Angela Denoke
Dr Kolenatý – Gustáv Beláček
Vítek – Kevin Conners
Krista – Rachael Wilson
Albert Gregor – Pavel Černoch
Jaroslav Prus – John Lundgren
Janek – Aleš Briscein
Hauk-Šendorf – Reiner Goldberg
Chambermaid – Deniz Uzun

Stage Technician – Peter Lobert
Cleaning Lady – Heike Grötzinger

Arpád Schilling (director)
Márton Ágh (designs)
Tamás Bányai (lighting)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Tomáš Hanus (conductor)

Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions. The Makropulos Case perhaps falls somewhere in between, although surely closer to the more ‘conventional’ trio, an unusual story notwithstanding. At any rate, no Janáček opera outstays its welcome. Every one is musically and dramatically interesting, without – save, arguably, in the case of From the House of the Dead – being ‘difficult’ (a silly concept, anyway, but let us leave that on one side). There are strong, central female characters in most (again, not in his final opera, but...) And yet…

What, then, is the problem? Is it simply that the works are in Czech? Is there still resistance to following titles, from those of us who do not have the language? Perhaps, although how many in the audience actually have an understanding, let alone a good one, of other, more typically-used languages? Translation is, perhaps even more than usual, a bad idea, since the music depends so much on Czech speech rhythms. One can tell that, even when one does not know the language. I mention that here, since a great virtue of this particular performance was the ability to follow the words (with German titles). The sounds are important, but it is not just a matter of sound. In conjunction with the orchestra, this made sense, even for those of us having to rely upon our memories and upon the titles.

First and foremost to be thanked for that excellent, indeed crucial, outcome must be conductor Tomáš Hanus. His direction of the equally (at least!) excellent Bavarian State Orchestra left us in no doubt that not only did the conductor know where he was taking us, and how to do so, but that just the right balance was struck between the demands of the moment, of the intricate relationships between words and music, between vocal line and orchestra, between melodic and harmonic impulses, were being observed and, above all, dramatically communicated. The golden sound of the orchestra – again, perhaps, like the Czech Philharmonic in a recent concert performance of Jenůfa, more Bohemian than Moravian, but none the worse for that – was no mere backdrop, but a musico-dramatic cauldron from which words emerged and in whose self-transforming broth they acquired their meaning and impulse. The disjunctures were not sold short either; they held their dramatic ground, without being fetishised.

Angela Denoke had also played E.M. – or whatever we wish to call her – in the Salzburg Festival performance I heard in 2011. Dramatically, Denoke’s performance here in Munich was at least as fine as in Salzburg; she remains an excellent singing actress. Vocally, however, it was, if anything, superior, with few of the occasional flaws of five years ago. The virtues of the orchestral performance were also her virtues. So indeed were they of the rest of the cast. Brno-born tenor, Pavel Černoch offered an Albert Gregor of what seemed to me (again with the caveat that I am not a Czech-speaker) of vocal beauty and verbal acuity in equal measure, his stage presence just as impressive. His first-act dialogue with Emilia Marty proved one of the musical and dramatic highlights of the performance. Gustáv Beláček and Kevin Conners impressed with their difficult legal performative briefs. John Lundgren’s darkly ambitious Jaroslav Prus and Rachael Wilson’s bright-toned Krista were similarly noteworthy. Aleš Briscein’s Janek furthered the excellent impressions given in that concert Jenůfa, his crestfallen withdrawal from the Marty game a study in musico-dramatic observation and communication. And how wonderful to welcome back Reiner Goldberg to the stage as Hauk-Šendorf: so much more than a mere ‘character’ appearance. Character and artist similarly rolled back the years: a moving moment indeed, not least given the opera in question.

I have left Arpád Schilling’s production until last, because I do not have much to say about it, I am afraid. The principal impression is made by Márton Ágh’s stylish designs, both sets – for instance, a visually arresting pile of chairs – and costumes, Černoch’s Gregor thereby enabled to look very much as he sounded. Of a concept, let alone a Konzept, beyond that, I struggled to discern anything very much. This, then, is stage direction of the kind operatic reactionaries claim to like: non-interventionist and pretty, if a little too modern in its style for them. The work could (sort of) speak for itself, I suppose, but that is hardly the point. Christoph Marthaler delved deeper in Salzburg.


Wednesday 18 May 2016

Ophelias Zimmer, Royal Court, 17 May 2016

Jerwood Theatre, Downstairs, Royal Court

Cast: Iris Becher, Ulrich Hoppe, Jenny König, Glyn Pritchard, Renato Schuch

Katie Mitchell (director)
Chloe Lamford (designs)
Alice Birch (text)
Fabiana Piccioli (lighting)
Max Pappenheim (sound design)
Nils Haarmann (dramaturgy)
Lily McLeisch (associate director)

I do not usually write here about visits to the spoken theatre, or the cinema – not necessarily because I have nothing to say, but more so as to have some occasions for a ‘night off’. However, in this case, not only did the Royal Court kindly give me a press ticket; the identity of the director, Katie Mitchell, had me think it might be interesting to write something from the standpoint of one who has seen quite a few of her operatic stagings too.

There has recently been quite a furore about Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden (as well as Cleansed at the National Theatre). Not having seen the production, I cannot comment, although the hysteria aroused before people had seen it led me to suspect that this was another instance of Against Modern Opera Productions-style philistinism. (The Royal Opera did not, admittedly, help, by essentially issuing an apology to those delicate souls who might be offended. Frankly, if they were not, art would not be doing its job.) Mitchell’s operatic work has, in my experience, been mixed. Idomeneo for ENO was not for me a success, to put it mildly. However, Le Vin herbé in Berlin worked very well, bringing an oratorio to life that maintained its distance from opera whilst also releasing some of its ‘operatic’ quality. There was much to be said in favour of her Salzburg Al gran sole carico d’amore (even though I preferred Peter Konwitschny’s staging, which I saw that same year, 2009). However, it was perhaps After Dido, for ENO, a theatre-piece taking Dido and Aeneas as its starting-point, which most struck me, and has continued to do so.

That experience is perhaps also most relevant for Ophelias Zimmer. Not that this is necessarily entirely Mitchell’s show. She is credited as director; the text is by Alice Birch. We need not worry ourselves about who did precisely what; collaboration is surely the point. And here, this collaboration between the Royal Court and the Schaubühne is very impressive indeed. It had me thinking about all manner of metatheatrical questions; indeed, it still has. It is a ‘new work exploring Ophelia, freed from Hamlet’. Is she, though? It is certainly a work in which her Zimmer, her room, features strongly: not just as setting, not just as constraint and restraint, but also as part-metaphor, part-instantiation, part-various-other-things, for Ophelia’s drowning. Split into five parts – the first four relatively lengthy and feeling so, the final, the moment of death, brief, each preceded by an explanation, written and spoken, of the stage of drowning – it is a work that places Ophelia centre-stage. Not that she wishes to be; not, still more, that we have wished her to be. We might earnestly applaud that she now is, but how many of her reactions are, at best, still conditioned by the novelty of the experience? Do we actually long for Hamlet, especially when presented with such mesmerising physicality as by Renato Schuch? He is outside most of the time, looking in, trying to break in; do we not actually feel relieved when, finally, he breaks in? That may or may not be a metaphor; it is certainly an event. He terrorises her, of course, just as he has been all along, sending her cassettes on which he has recorded his thoughts, his desires (not least with respect to her ‘little wet cunt’). Narcissistic as ever: we nod, of course, applaud ourselves on restoring some balance, on adopting a radical new standpoint. But the violence of the moment in which he possesses the stage, gyrates to his music, repeatedly pushes her into her place: have we not ourselves wanted that whilst congratulating ourselves on our insipid liberalism?

Such is one of the questions that occurred to me repeatedly, and has continued to do so. Likewise the usual metatheatrical questions. Max Pappenheim’s sound designs – are they Hamlet’s, or Ophelia’s father’s, from the glass box? Are they ‘in’ Ophelia’s head? – in some respects dominate, but as much in their manufacture, and their ownership, as in their substance, whatever that might be. Is drowning the actual deed? Eventually, water begins to fill the stage. However, Ophelia has been drowning before that? Is that a metaphor? Or is the theatre-piece a metaphor for drowning? If we decline the either/or, what are we left with, or what might we yet create? Ophelia retains, regains some agency; she decides what to play on Hamlet’s tapes, what to rewind, what to repeat. Or does she? Can she actually any more prevent herself from listening to repeated, angry cries of ‘Fick dich! Fick dich! (Fuck you! Fuck you!)’ any more than she can prevent herself from following the dictates of this ‘new work’? Might she actually have been better off as she was? What are we (what is the theatre-piece) doing to her? And why, even her, particularly here, does she speak so little? Has anything changed at all? She meets her end, after all, through dubious medical treatment semi-forcibly administered to her, eventually having to end her life, just as she always has done.

This, then, is dialectical theatre, or at least can be understood, experienced as such. It is undoubtedly feminist theatre. In many respects, it is, I think, intensely psychoanalytical theatre; it certainly has us interrogate ourselves and our reactions. Was this what Mitchell intended, even accomplished, in that recent Lucia? I have no idea. However, I have no doubt that many opera-goers would have resisted such a theatrical impulse even more strongly than some of those seated behind me, who noisily walked out, disgusted at the ‘bad language’, did on this occasion. I could not help but think that part of this work might have had its roots in Nono’s flawed feminism as well as the ‘straight theatre’ of (The) Waves. Or that such might, at least, in Nono’s dramaturgical terms, have been a ‘provocation’, just as Hamlet undoubtedly had been. You, I am sure, would have different questions haunting you, were you to attend; it is highly recommended, if you can, that you do. That unusual turn - for me - to the second person is as self-conscious as it sounds. And that, of course, is as self-conscious a gloss as it sounds. Ophelia is still dead.

Madama Butterfly, English National Opera, 16 May 2016


(sung in English, as Madam Butterfly)

Cio-Cio San – Rena Harms
Suzuki – Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
Kate Pinkerton – Samantha Price
Pinkerton – David Butt Philip
Sharpless – George van Bergen
Goro – Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Prince Yamadori – Matthew Durkan
The Bonze – Mark Richardson
Yakuside – Philip Daggett
Imperial Commissioner – Paul Napier-Burrows
Official Registrar – Roger Begley
Mother –Natalie Herman
Cousin – Morag Boyle
Aunt – Judith Douglas
Sorrow – Laura Caldow, Tom Espiner, Irena Stratieva

Anthony Minghella (director)
Carolyn Choa (associate director, choreography, revived by Anita Griffin)
Sarah Tipple (revival director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Han Feng (costumes)
Peter Mumford (lighting, revived by Ian Jackson-French)
Blind Summit Theatre: Mark Down, Nick Barnes (puppetry)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Richard Armstrong (conductor)

This was my second viewing of the late Anthony Minghella’s much-revived production of Madam Butterfly. As on the first occasion, Sarah Tipple was the excellent (insofar as I could tell) revival director. I cannot claim knowledge of bunraku (Japanese puppet-theatre) beyond the little I have read, but the contribution of Blind Summit Theatre seemed to me as impressive as before, both in itself and with respect to the intriguing interaction between the realism of the work and the æsthetic artificiality of the puppetry. Arnold Toynbee, quoted in the programme, wrote of an Osaka puppet show in 1929: ‘I duly found, as I had been assured beforehand I should find, it possible to entertain the illusion that the puppets were animated by an autonomous life of their own, although the human artists manipulating them were in full view of the spectators.’ So did I, on this occasion. ‘An artistic effect which, in the West,’ Toynbee went on, ‘would have been produced by the artifice of keeping the manipulators out of sight, was produced in Japan by their artistry in keeping themselves out of mind notwithstanding their visibility.’ Again, such was my experience, likewise with Toynbee’s claim that the puppeteers succeeded ‘in subjectively effacing their objectively visible living human forms’.

The greatest problem of all with the work remains, though. Is its Orientalism more or less offensive than that of Turandot? Probably less, but more to the point, it is different.  Minghella’s production – and here, that is even more than usual, a shorthand, for the designs and choreography, as well as the puppetry, are surely just as important – offers, as I wrote last time, ‘a convincing blend of abstraction, stylisation, and moments through which more conventional, if highly disturbing, emotion, may flow like blood – or like the scarlet, silken banners unfurled by actors and dancers’. The brazen, colourful Orientalism of Hang Feng’s costumes might fool some, but surely not many; it accuses us, ensures that we acknowledge our complicity. Its relationship toward the relative abstraction of Michael Levine’s set designs is interesting; both aspects interrogate the other in a far more dialectical production than lazy glancing at production stills – or lazy slouching in the comfort of one’s seat – might suggest.

More problematical, I think, is the work’s objectification of its heroine. Clearly we are not supposed to sympathise with Turandot, or Turandot (even if we are cynically manipulated to sympathise with Liù, and then revolted by her treatment – both onstage and by Puccini). Equally clearly, we are supposed to sympathise with Cio-Cio San. Yet her objectification as a young, a very young, Japanese woman (or should we say girl?) is at best problematical. My inclination would be to bring the element of imperialistic sex tourism to the fore, but there are other routes, and that taken by Minghella is fruitful, not least in its apparent disinclination to take sides. Indeed, in that respect one might say he is acting more strongly against Puccini than a simple indictment would. Similarly, nightfall and moonlight – or rather, star light – at the end of the first act perform, or at least may be understood to perform, a similar role: drawing us in to Puccini’s manipulations but, at the same time, so clearly a construction of beauty – puppets an element, but only one such element, of that – that we are enabled, I should say encouraged, to interrogate those manipulations. More Straussian than Strauss? Perhaps; at any rate, the effect was not entirely dissimilar.

If one can progress beyond those problems, or at least prevent them from overwhelming everything else, the composer’s magic might work all too well. Here, it did not, but for rather the wrong reason. Rena Harms’s anonymous, small-voiced Cio-Cio San rarely convinced. Diction was a problem – so, of course, was the use of English in the first place, but let us leave that on one side – but there were difficulties too with stage presence and indeed with a convincing assumption on the terms of this particular staging. Too often, the voice sounded stretched, or worse. The orchestra and indeed other characters can supply some of what is missing, but they cannot – and could not – supply it all. Richard Armstrong’s conducting, moreover, whilst admirable in its lack of sentimentality, arguably went too far in the opposite direction. Too often, the orchestra sounded merely cold and brash; what we heard was neither ‘Romantic’ nor modernistic. That said, kinship with Götterdämmerung at the beginning of the third act registered more strongly than I recall. Orchestrally, this was a performance that improved significantly over the evening; maybe it will over the (lengthy) run too.

Elsewhere on stage there was much to enjoy. David Butt Philip’s Pinkerton was ambiguous. He seemed trapped by circumstance, by a degree of genuine enthusiasm for his tragic ‘project’. This was a rabbit trapped in the headlights, even if the headlights were of his own – as well as imperialism’s – making. Words and vocal line, moreover, were so clear that one could have taken dictation. George van Bergen’s Sharpless was also a fine musico-dramatic portrayal; again, the conflicts within the character were intelligently, even movingly, represented to us. Stephanie Windsor Lewis’s Suzuki was sympathetic throughout, especially during the third act. Most of the ‘smaller’ roles, not least the wheedling Goro of Alun Rhys-Jenkins, were cast from strength too, which makes it all the more surprising that such an error was made in the casting of so thin-voiced a Butterfly. Not for the first time – and I do not mean this in a nationalistic sense – one was left wondering why an American singer had been miscast by ENO, when there would surely have been many English, or other, singers well capable of taking on the role.