Sunday 31 July 2016

Prom 21: Leleux/Aurora/Collon - Rihm, Strauss, and Mozart, 31 July 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Rihm – Gejagte Form
Strauss – Oboe Concerto in D major
Mozart – Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551

François Leleux (oboe)
Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor)

Tom Service presents Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra deconstructing Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 ‘Jupiter’ at the BBC Proms
Image: Chris Christodoulou/BBC Proms

The Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon opened this afternoon concert with the Proms premiere of the 2002 revision of Wolfgang Rihm’s 1995-6 work, Gejagte Form (the original version having been performed by the London Sinfonietta under Markus Stenz in 1998). Rihm’s ‘hunted’ form seems to suggest – and certainly did in performance – a search for form, to suggest a state of form, as it were, ever forming. Such an idea could hardly be more indicative of the composer’s deep roots in German Romanticism. Here the Aurora players, more ensemble than orchestra, proved sure guides – or, better, discoverers. The virtuosic, well-nigh diabolical violin soloists at the beginning (Alexandra Wood and Jamie Campbell) offered us expressionistic fiddling, seemingly both in contradiction with each other but also co-dependent; such, after all, is part of the difficulty of co-dependency. Already, with the double bass entry that followed, we seemed to catch an aural glimpse of that formal quarry; it soon escaped us again, returning briefly, yet differently, with the same instrument’s pizzicato. And so, the hunt was well under way, Messiaenic, jagged woodwind chords and, eventually, brass instruments too joining the throng.  Rhythmic frenzy seemed almost, yet not quite, ever-present; its absence seemed almost always to imply prior presence. Moments of stasis were rare; they too seemed, with thrilling drama, defined by their difference. Percussion perhaps hinted at Henze’s ‘Ride of the Mænads’ from The Bassarids. Rihm’s music revealed itself as a successor perhaps to the Schoenberg of the First Chamber Symphony, even to Stockhausen’s Kontrapunkte, perhaps more surprisingly still, in its near-balletic drama, to The Rite of Spring.

Following a brief yet eloquent discussion between oboist, François Leleux, and Tom Service, we heard Strauss’s Concerto, surely the greatest for the instrument. The opening cello motif proved properly generative; so, in its very different way, did Leleux’s long-breathed opening solo. Orchestra (very much of the chamber variety) and soloist together suggested a post-Mozartian aria. Leleux offered a stunning variety of colour and articulation throughout, without the slightest impediment to the longer line; one sensed, rightly or wrongly, that this was very much his vision of the work. Collon proved equally flexible, an estimable accompanist. Hushed playing truly drew one in, even in a less than ideal acoustic. The transition to the slow movement was well handled: not quite imperceptible, which is just as it should be, for change as well as continuity should register. Leleux’s oboe cantilena ravished, the best efforts of an army of bronchial activists notwithstanding. There was, moreover, considerable depth to the orchestral playing, not least from the wonderful Harmoniemusik – with all the musico-historical resonance that word brings to us, and did to Strauss. The oboe sang, so it seemed, as a messenger of hope, emerging from an orchestral voice of sadness. The finale caught the right note of reflective jubilance, with more than the occasional hint of the composer’s operatic œuvre: Capriccio, Daphne, Arabella, perhaps even Ariadne. This was a lovely performance indeed.

For the second half, we turned to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. It was introduced by Service, Collon, and the players; or rather, the finale was, breaking it down ably, in a thoroughly admirable example of exploratory educational work. ‘Analysis for all,’ one might say. More unusual still was the decision to play it from memory. Clearly that cannot be done with every orchestral performance, but there was undoubted energy, excitement too, to be gained from the experience. There could, moreover, be no gainsaying the excellence of the playing, although I was less enthusiastic about Collon’s conception of the work, or at least about aspects thereof. Symphonic understanding of it as a whole, as opposed to a suite, often proved elusive, at least to my ears. I also could not help but miss larger forces in this preposterously large, ill-shaped hall, but we had (strings what we had.  

Agogic mannerism marred Collon’s presentation of the opening (similarly when repeated, and in the recapitulation) of the first movement; Harnoncourt et al. have much to answer for. Balance was often odd, brass (rasping trumpets, although modern horns were used) too often overwhelming the strings. The second subject fared better, sounding and feeling more ‘naturally’ breathed. There was a strong sense of dialectical conflict to the development section, but much less, sadly, seemed to be at stake in both exposition and recapitulation. The slow movement was strong on rhetorical contrast, rendering it full of character, full of life: all to the good, but sometimes achieved at the expense of the longer line. It was taken pretty swiftly for an Andante, but worked well at that pace. Minor-mode sections sounded duly dark; this was for me the most impressive movement in the performance. I did not take at all to the one-to-a-bar approach, however fashionable it has become, to which the Minuet was subjected. Robbed of its grandeur, it sounded both breathless and pompous, although that extraordinary woodwind chromaticism still sounded sinuous enough. The Trio was less impulsive and all the better for it. Alas, the finale, so ably discussed beforehand, proved hard-driven indeed in performance. (Just because one can play something so fast does not mean one must!) At least as harmful was the return of such brass-heavy orchestral balance. It was the quieter passages that proved more telling, not least a suspenseful approach to the coda. Brilliant though the playing was, and undeniably impressive though it was to have played it from memory, a more smiling, less hectic view of the work from the conductor would have been welcome.

Saturday 30 July 2016

Prom 19 - LSO/Haitink: Mahler, 29 July 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.3

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Tiffin Boys’ Choir (chorus master: James Day)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Bernard Haitink has what is absolutely necessary, yet more often than not lacking, to conduct a Mahler symphony, indeed to conduct any symphony worthy of the name: the ability to hear it in a single span and to communicate in performance that ability. That is not, of course, in itself enough to ensure a successful, let alone a great, performance, but its absence will be fatal. He showed that again here, and how – with a London Symphony Orchestra on outstanding form. Haitink did not seem to offer a particular point of view on the work, but nor did he conduct with anonymity: something that could, on occasion, prove a problem in this music, during his later years, for Claudio Abbado – or at least a problem for me. Rather, one had a sense, even though one knew it to be unfounded, even nonsensical, that this was somehow the music ‘itself’ we were hearing.

Haitink opened the first movement briskly, but the opening phrase’s subsiding both told of possibilities ahead in this movement and beyond (the prefigurement of the fourth movement’s ‘O Mensch’ as clear, as telling, as I can recall). There was no doubt that this was a march: how could there be with the LSO drummers on such magnificent form? But there was far more to the LSO’s performance than military might: this was Mahler with great warmth and unanimity of attack. It was post-Wagnerian Mahler, with equal emphasis on the ‘post-’ and the ‘Wagner’. The huge orchestra notwithstanding, Mahler’s ability to conjure up a miraculous array of chamber ensembles – always, be it noted, directed by Haitink – never ceased to amaze. When those phantasmagorical flutes began their chorale-like passage – and, again, when it returned – Haitink held the tempo back slightly, hinting perhaps that summer marching in might not all be good; it might even be bad, although undoubtedly irresistible, as leader Carmine Lauri’s sinuous solo suggested. The gravity of the trombones seemed to reach back across the centuries, past Mozart’s Requiem, to ancient (relatively speaking) Habsburg equale.  Tempi shifted with infinite subtlety; this was no ‘look at me, the conductor’ Mahler, for Haitink wanted us to look at Mahler. Marching onward, the woodwind in particular seemed almost to threaten metamorphosis into the deathly marionettes of the Sixth Symphony; equally crucial, though, that metamorphosis never happened. For this was marching that could be enjoyed too, almost as if we were paying a decidedly non-Marschallin like visit to the Prater. But then, there came disintegration: it was not just, or even principally shattering; it was perhaps closer to Mendelssohnian exhaustion. Attempts at rejuvenation or resuscitation were thereby rendered all the more ambiguous. The loudest offstage percussion I can recall (up in the Gallery, I think) heralded the recapitulation: it was as before, yet utterly transformed. And how the differences in the material were now revealed – or, so it seemed, revealed themselves! The end, when it came, was not lingered over; whatever Haitink may be, he is no sentimentalist. There was, indeed, a touch of Haydn to it.

A graceful oboe solo (Oliver Stankiewicz) and gracious second violins’ response set the tone for the second movement. Except soon it became clear that it had not; it was not long before unease set in, from within the music, nothing appliqué. Indeed, there was as much unease in ‘beauty’, whatever that might be, as in dissonant corrosion thereof. Thematic profusion seemed almost to rival Mozart – and this music is perhaps still more difficult to hold together. (So many conductors, often praised to the rafters, fail here.) Haitink’s rubato was expertly judged: again there was nothing self-regarding to it, but rather it always made a musical point; so did his ritenuti. He revealed to us all manner of connections, intra- and extra-musical, whether intentionally or otherwise. Not the least of them was the sweetness, inviting yet not without malignance, of Alt-Wien, that malignance ever more present towards the close.

We heard, almost stepped into, a city dweller’s countryside in the third movement: its nightmares as well as its dreams. This was, it seemed, Mahler exploring the terrain of Hänsel und Gretel, only with more overt nastiness. Internal coherence was just as striking: at times, we seemed close to Webern’s Bach. Until, that is, we could not be more distant from it. Cross-rhythms were as disconcerting as those of Brahms, whatever the gulf that might otherwise separate the two composers (in both of whose music Haitink has long excelled). The trumpet’s presentiments of the posthorn solos have never registered so strikingly to me. And how wondrous that sounded, from afar, in Nicholas Betts’s flugelhorn rendition. Again, there was more than a hint of modernist Mendelssohn. Above all, though, it moved: with dignity, with nobility, rather than pleading for us, Bernstein-like, to shed tears.  Instrumental scurrying also had something of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to it: Mendelssohn and Shakespeare. With that ‘Nocturne’ in mind, it seemed especially fitting that the French horns as well as the posthorn should have us hold our collective breath once again. We flitted around a weird liminal zone, combining Webern and Mendelssohn; on reflection, is that not often what Mahler is? A hint of balletic Tchaikovsky was swiftly banished by parodic ‘triumph’. And then, everything, or so it seemed, was to be heard that had gone before: together and eternally separate, alienated.

Sarah Connolly brought equal sincerity and subtlety to her vocal part in ‘O Mensch!’ Indeed the different colourings of the first statement of those words and her repetition of them spoke volumes; likewise the ensuing ‘Gib acht!’ The orchestral backdrop, if one can call it that, sounded again close to Webern in its shifting colours. Haitink’s strength of symphonic purpose was, however, quite different in nature (which is not, of course, to imply that Webern has not strength of purpose!) I have heard more contralto-like performances, but there was no denying the excellence of Connolly’s blend of Wort and Ton, nor the strength of the emotional response provoked. Indeed, perhaps not coincidentally, given her recent performances of the role, there was something Brangäne-like to her warnings, the deepness of Nietzschean midnight already in danger of disruption.

The boys’ calls of ‘Bimm bamm’ – I have heard dull people decry this wondrous moment as ‘silly’, when nothing could stand further from the truth –came as a fifth-movement, quite heavenly wake-up call from such Tristan-esque reverie. Connolly, intriguingly, continued to warn; it was certainly not only Haitink who understood how the two movements are connected. The women’s chorus and the LSO stood somewhere in between: mediators, perhaps even sainted mediators.

Quiet, infinite warmth marked the hymnal intensity of the LSO strings at the opening of the finale. I thought of – and felt – Communion. ‘What God tells me’, indeed! There was an almost Nono-like imperative to listen, as the strings spoke to us not just corporately, not just sectionally (what viola playing!) but, so one fancied, from individual desks and individual positions at those desks too. Fragility and strength were partners as the movement gathered pace, as something or Something revealed itself or Itself. There was, moreover, a well-nigh Beethovenian benevolence of spirit, albeit more vulnerable, to be experienced, perhaps even a little neurosis aufgehoben. And how Haitink guided the unfolding of that long line of unendliche Melodie; how he and his players communicated that echt-Romantic Innigkeit, so close to Schumann and yet alienated from him as modernity must be! For there was a Lied-like simplicity to what we heard and felt. This is difficult music, but its difficulty is accessible to anyone with a heart – and a mind. Unlike, alas, the idiot who disrupted the silence-that-never-was by shouting ‘Yeahhhhhhhhh!’ How can people be quite so inconsiderate? Still, that was an irritation rather than a catastrophe; the performance, both then and in recollection, rose far, far above it.

Munich Opera Festival (4) - Lefilliâtre/Heumann/Jacobs, Music from the Court of Louis XIV, 25 July 2016

Klosterkirche St Anna im Lehel, Munich

Etienne Moulinié – Si mes soupirs sont indiscrets; Bien que l’Amour; O che gioia
Charles Hurel – Prélude
Nicolas Hotman – Allemande
Pierre Corneille – Psyché: ‘A peine je vous vois’
Michel Lambert – Ombre de mon amant; Vos mépris chaque jour
Sieur de Sainte-Colombe – Les Couplets
Sébastien le Camus – Laissez durer la nuit; Ah! Fuyons ce dangereux séjour; Amour, cruel Amour
Michel Lambert – Rochers, vous êtes sourds
Robert de Visée – Prélude; La Mascarade: Rondeau; Chaconne
Jean de La Fontaine – Fables, Livre XII, 14: ‘L’Amour et la Folie’
Charpentier – Profitez du printemps; Celle qui fait tout mon tourment; Au bord d’une fontaine; Sans frayeur dans de bois
Marin Marais – Pièces de viole, 3ème livre: Prélude and Grand ballet
Couperin – Zéphire, modère en ces lieux

Claire Lefilliâtre (soprano)
Friederike Heumann (viola da gamba)
Fred Jacobs (theorbo)

Klosterkirche St Anna, 1727-33

In many respects, this second ‘Festspiel-Barockkonzert’  made for an intriguing pendant to the previous night’s premiere of Les Indes galantes. All of the music was earlier than Rameau’s opéra-ballet, some of that in the first half – the programme was broadly but not pedantically chronological – considerably earlier. Music from the court of Louis XIV covers, after all, a good number of years, the king having reigned between 1643 and 1715. The works by Marais and Couperin at the close were probably the latest, both dated 1711, four years before Louis's death. Rather to my surprise, although not without exception, it was the first half that proved more compelling as a performance to me. Perhaps that was partly a matter of having tired a little; although this repertory certainly interests me, I can lay no claim to great expertise. One has to listen intently to appreciate its subtleties and its variety, just as one does with, say, the music of Luigi Nono. Maybe, then, I am – perhaps unusually - more accustomed to listening to Nono.

For there was certainly variety in the programming, within its chronological and courtly framework. Its French title – ‘Au bord d’une fontaine – Airs et Brunettes’ – alluded nicely not only to one of the Charpentier works and implicitly to Versailles itself, but also to the celebrated 1721 collection of songs arranged for flute by Jacques Hotteterre, ‘Airs et brunettes a deux et trois dessus pour les flutes traversieres tirez des meilleurs autheurs, anciens et modernes, ensembles les airs de Mrs. Lambert, Lully, De Bousset, &c les plus convenables a la flute traversiere seule, ornez d'agremens par Mr. Hotteterre Ie Romain et recueillis par M. ++++.’ And so, rather than arrangements, we heard ‘originals’, mostly vocal, with Claire Lefilliâtre as soprano, but with instrumental interludes, from viola de gamba (Friederike Heumann), theorbo (Fred Jacobs), and the two instruments in concert. We also heard a couple of recitations, Lefilliâtre reading from Corneille and La Fontaine. 

What I think I missed most of all, especially during the second half, was something more outgoing in Lefilliâtre’s vocal performances. Now there is much to be gained from intimacy, which I valued greatly in the vocal music of Etienne Moulinié and Michel Lambert in particular, and not all of this music, indeed not much of it, is ‘operatic’, whether in a seventeenth- or a more modern sense. By the same token, however, there were times when, despite trying to listen as I could, I missed a greater sense of variation both within and between pieces.

The Italianate style of some of the first-half performances – more than once, I thought of Cavalli – initially surprised me, until I reflected on Cavalli’s own Ercole armante, commissioned by Mazarin for the 1662 wedding of Louis to Marie-Thérèse. As the harpsichordist Luke Green reminded me afterwards, the roots go back further, however: to the influence of Marie de Medici. Such tendencies are not absent, of course, even in Charpentier and Couperin; not only did I miss them being brought to the vocal foreground more strongly, however; I missed much of what made those composers different, more modern. Their music looks forward to Rameau as well as back to the earlier years of Louis’s reign. A further oddity was the inconsistency in Lefilliâtre’s ‘historical’ pronunciation, whether in the declamatory Corneille or the vocal items. I have no particularly strong feelings either way about the practice as such, whether in my own language or another, but it was unclear to me why some word endings should be pronounced and others not. Details matter in most music, but they certainly do here. Diction and intonation could sometimes be a little wayward too.

There was, though, a moving sincerity to Lefilliâtre’s performances at their best – enhanced for me by the warmth of the church acoustic, although others . Tales of love and death – are they not often one and the same? – drew one in. So too, very much, did not only the ‘accompaniments’ but the instrumental items. Heumann’s gamba playing proved her not only mistress of her instrument but above all a deeply sensitive musician, responding to it just as a fine pianist would to Chopin. The pieces from Marais’s Pièces de viole sounded not only as justly acclaimed summits of this still little-known (at least beyond certain circles) repertory, but as instrumental music fully fit to hold its own with more celebrated successors. Likewise Jacobs’s theorbo playing, pulse always clear, and for that reason capable of meaningful rather than arbitrary modification. I do not think I had heard the music of Robert de Visée before; it emerged in Jacobs’s hands as something clearly worthy of further exploration. And that, whatever certain reservations regarding vocal performances, is surely the point.  

Friday 29 July 2016

Munich Opera Festival (3) - Les Indes galantes, 24 July 2016

Images © Wilfried Hösl
Elsa Benoit (Emilie) and Dancers of the Eastman Company

Hébé, Zima – Lisette Oropesa
Bellone – Goran Jurić
L’Amour/Zaïre – Ana Quintans
Osman, Ali – Tareq Nazmi
Emilie – Elsa Benoit
Valère, Tacmas – Cyril Auvity
Huascar, Alvar – François Lis
Phani, Fatime – Anna Prohaska
Carlos, Damon – Mathias Vidal
Adario – John Moore
Dancers – Navala ‘Niku’ Chaudhari, Kazutomi ‘Tzuki’ Kozuki, Jason Kittelberger, Denis ‘Kouné’ Kuhnert, Elias Lazaridis, Nicola Leahey, Shintaro Oue, James Vu Anh Pham, Acacia Schachte, Patrick Williams ‘Twoface’ Seebacher’, Jennifer White, Ema Yuasa

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (director, choreography)
Anna Viebbrock (sets)
Greta Goiris (costumes)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Antonio Cuenca Ruiz, Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)
Jason Kittelberger (choreographic assistance)

Balthasar-Neumann-Chor, Freiburg (chorus master: Detlef Bratschke)
Munich Festival Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)

Hébé/Zima (Lisette Oropesa), Damon (Mathias Vidal), Kinderstatisterie

Baroque opera has long been an important part of the Bavarian State Opera’s programming. And beyond the company itself, Munich’s tradition stretches back many years indeed: Kubelík’s Handel with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, for instance. Yet, whilst there has been much Handel, Monteverdi, Cavalli, et al., in recent years, the French Baroque in general and Rameau’s music in particular seem to have been a closed book – as so often in the world outside France. Let us leave aside for the moment debates concerning whether ‘Baroque’ should be a suitable designation, merely noting that Rameau’s music seems to have provoked the word’s first artistic usage. An anonymous letter to the Mercure de France, occasioned by the 1733 Paris premiere of the composer’s first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, printed in the Mercure de France, dismissed the opera’s novelty as ‘du barocque’; its melody was incoherent, its harmony unduly dissonant, and its metre chaotic.


That was certainly not how Rameau sounded on this occasion, quite the contrary. Indeed, I should not have minded a little more truculence – if not incoherence! – from Ivor Bolton’s conducting. Its fluency was admirable, but I could not help notice – and, at times, become a little tired by – a tendency remarked upon by a friend beforehand: namely the conductor’s penchant for turning everything into a dance. There is much dance music, of course, in this opéra-ballet, but that is not to say that everything must be. I know that many ‘authenticke’ musicians will argue to the contrary, even, God help us, in Gluck and Mozart, but the declamatory French of Rameau’s recitatives – here, admirably, indeed often thrillingly, supported by a continuo group involving Luke Green (harpsichord), Fred Jacobs and Michael Fremiuth (theorbo), and Werner Matzke (cello) – is not necessarily to be confined to them. The ravishing airs, duets, and above all, ensembles, would have benefited, at least to my ears, from greater – dare I say, quoting the writer to the Mercure de France, more ‘chaotic’? – variation.


That said, and that said perhaps at too great a length, there was otherwise much to relish from the Munich Festival Orchestra. Even I did not find myself missing modern instruments. (This is, I learned afterwards, the Dresden Festival Orchestra on location.) Indeed, the woodwind in particular very much offered their own, splendidly Gallic justification. Moreover, strings (twelve violins, five violas, seven cellos, two bass viols, one violone) were certainly not parsimonious with their vibrato, quite from it; this was an enlightened as well as an Enlightened performance from all concerned. Rameau’s love of orchestral sound, its implications for Gluck and, via him, for Mozart too (think of Idomeneo!) was vividly and, above all, dramatically, communicated.


Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s direction, choreography included, treads a judicious line between various competing elements. If I were a little surprised that Munich chose this Rameau work as its first – for me, a tragédie lyrique, such as Hippolyte, would have been a more obviously compelling choice – then the voguish (for the 1730s, that is!) amalgam of opera and ballet offered opportunities to ravish other of the senses too. Cherkaoui’s dancers never disappointed, their movements – do these people have no bones in their bodies? – not merely responsive to the music, to the drama, but intensifying its possibilities, above all visual-dramatic tension at points of decision. If one wished to visualise a Rameau flute line, for instance, one could have done far worse than watch the movement on stage.

Without pressing his point too far, Cherkaoui probes what might hold this prologue and four entrées – as in Rameau’s definitive version – together. Opening in a classroom, the teacher, Hébé, leading her children in conjugation of French verbs, the unified drama takes them – and us – on a tour of different civilisations, and shows them, not the war personified by Bellone, often to have as much to teach us as we have to teach them. That is not to say that Rameau’s work, still less Louis Fuzelier’s libretto, can or should be understood in twenty-first century terms; however, its ambiguity, its insistence upon asking ‘who actually is the barbarian here?’ reminds us that we – and, looking at the world around us, how could we doubt this? – have no monopoly on multicultural virtue.

Phani (Anna Prohaska), Huescar (François Lis)

Yet there are differences too. The homosexual love denied by the Incan Huescar (here in European clerical carb) in Cherbaouki’s funeral-turned-wedding setting for the second entrée also finds its fulfilment; L’Amour, for us today, does not discriminate, heterosexual and homosexual love are, ultimately, after a struggle, equally valued. Moreover, for an English visitor, more than unusually embarrassed by his nationality at the moment, Munich’s ecumenism offered hope that Europe and indeed the world beyond it will survive. National flags, favoured by Bellone and a visiting American President, are not banished, but there is a vision of something greater to be glimpsed, in the European flags – and, indeed, in the exquisite blue and yellow of many of the children’s outfits. (The Kinderstaterie of the Bavarian State Opera were well trained and delightful in their roles.) And so, the young men who forsake Hébé and Europe for the ‘Indies’ (an all-purpose, ‘exotic’ Orientalism or Occidentalism!), learn through experience that conflict is not the way to prosper; the realisation of the peace-pipe ceremony at the close strikingly fulfils the work’s strikingly internationalist sentiment, dancers and vocalists as one.

Adario (John Moore), Dancers

The singing was, without exception, wonderful. Words were as clear as Rameau’s lines, whether in solo, duet, ensemble, or choral numbers. The Balthasar-Neumann Chor was certainly not the least impressive aspect of the performance. Lisette Oropesa and Ana Quintans set the scene splendidly in the Prologue, Hébé and L’Amour carefully differentiated, with Goran Jurić a strikingly successful general-in-drag. Tareq Nazmi’s sensitive bass offered wisdom and humanity; Cherbaouki’s skilful comparison between the roles of Osman and Ali was given sympathetic life, as were other such doublings of roles (more than mere doublings). Mathias Vidal and Anna Prohaska shone likewise as Carlos/Damon and Phani/Fatime. Both imparted depth in lightness, and lightness in depth, as graceful on stage as of voice. Cyril Auvity’s unerringly stylish tenor, François Lis’s deep yet never bluff bass, and Elsa Benoit’s sparkling yet variegated soprano offered other highlights; so too did the highly attractive chiaroscuro of John Moore’s baritone. Above all, there was a true sense of collaboration, rendering the performance as well as the work substantially more than the sum of its parts. As we once hoped – and perhaps may one day hope again – for a Europe too often divided, indeed torn apart, by Bellone…


Thursday 28 July 2016

Munich Opera Festival (2) - Don Giovanni, 23 July 2016

Nationaltheater, Munich

Don Giovanni – Erwin Schrott
Commendatore – Ain Anger
Donna Anna – Albina Shagimuratova
Don Ottavio – Pavol Breslik
Donna Elvira – Dorothea Röschmann
Leporello – Alex Esposito
Zerlina – Eri Nakamura
Masetto – Brandon Cedel
Old Man – Ekkehard Bartsch

Stephan Kimmig (director)
Katja Haß (set designs)
Anja Rabes (costumes)
Benjamin Krieg (video)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Miron Hakenbeck (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Stellario Fagone)
Bavarian State Orchestra
James Gaffigan (conductor)

All told, this was probably the best Don Giovanni I have seen and heard. Judging opera performances – perhaps we should not be ‘judging’ at all, but let us leave that on one side – is a difficult task: there are so many variables, at least as many as in a play and a concert combined, but then there is the issue of that ‘combination’ too. At any rate, whilst not every aspect might have been the ‘very best ever’ – how could it be? – all was of a very high standard, and much was truly outstanding. I even began to think that the wretched ‘traditional’ Prague-Vienna composite version might for once be welcome; it was not, yet, given the distinction of the performances, the dramatic loss was less grievous than on almost any other occasion I have experienced.

If Daniel Barenboim’s Furtwänglerian reading in Berlin in 2007 remains the best conducted of my life, there was nothing whatsoever to complain about in James Gaffigan’s direction of the score. It was certainly a far more impressive performance than a Vienna Figaro last year, which led me to wonder how much was to be ascribed to other factors, not least the truly dreadful production; perhaps, on the other hand, Don Giovanni is just more Gaffigan’s piece. The depth and variegation of the orchestral sound was second, if not quite to none, than only to Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin. This was far and away the best Mozart playing I have heard in Munich. Even if the alla breve opening to the Overture were not taken as I might have preferred, and certain rather rasping brass concerned me at the opening, I find it difficult to recall anything much to complain about after that; nor do I have any reason to wish to try. Tempi were varied, well thought out, and above all considered in relation to one another. Terror and balm were equal partners: on that night in Munich, we certainly needed them to be.

This was, I think, Stephan Kimmig’s first opera staging, first seen in 2009. I shall happily be corrected, but I am not aware of anything since. If so, that is a great pity, for the intelligence of which I have heard tell in his ‘straight’ theatre productions – alas, I have yet to see any of them – is certainly manifest here. There are, above all, two things without which an opera staging cannot survive: a strong sense of theatre and a strong sense of intellectual and dramatic coherence. Equally desirable is, of course, at least something of an ear for music, and coordination between pit, voices, and stage action seemed to me splendidly realised too.

A perennial lament of mine concerning Don Giovanni productions concerns refusal or inability to understand it as a thoroughly religious work. Here, there is certainly some sense of sin; its relationship to atheistic heroism is, just as it should be, complex. And the reappearance of the Commendatore and (excellent) chorus at the end, some, including the Stone Guest himself, in clerical garb, reminded us, without pushing the matter, that authority is at least partly religious here. There are other forms of authority too – Don Ottavio’s ever-mysterious reference to the authorities perhaps intrigues us more than it should, or perhaps not – and they are also represented: military berets, business suits, and so forth. A libertine offends far more than the Church; and of course, the Church as an institution has always been many things in addition to Christian (to put it politely).

Katja Haß’s set designs powerfully, searchingly evoke the liminality of Da Ponte’s, still more Mozart’s Seville. The drama is not merely historical, although it certainly contains important historical elements. But above all, there is a labyrinth – one I am tempted to think of as looking forward to operas by Berg, even Birtwistle, perhaps even the opera that Boulez never wrote – in which all manner of masquerading may take place. Social slippage and dissolution – above all the chameleon-like abilities of the (anti-)hero – need such possibilities, which are present here, in abundance, in a setting that both respects traditional dramatic unities and renders them properly open to development. A warehouse, containers revolving, opening and closing, changing and remaining the same, provides the frame. Yet we are never quite sure what will be revealed, languages of graffiti transforming, never quite cohering, Leporello’s catalogue – and, more to the point, its implications – foreseen, shadowed, recalled. There is butchery – literally – to be seen in the carcasses from which the Commendatore emerges. There is glitzy – too glitzy – glamour in the show Giovanni puts on to dazzle the peasantfolk; but it does its trick, coloured hair and all.

And there is an Old Man, observer and participant, sometimes there, sometimes not. Everyman? The nobleman, had he outstayed his welcome, not accepted the invitation? He is clearly disdained, even humiliated (what a contrast, we are made to think, almost despite ourselves, between his naked body and the raunchy coupling – or more – around him). That is, when he is seen at all: and that is, quite rightly, as much an indictment of the audience as of the characters onstage. Part of what we are told, it seems, is that this is a drama of the young, who have no need of the elderly. Not for nothing, or so I thought, did Alex Esposito’s Leporello exaggerate his caricatured sung response to Giovanni’s elderly women.

It is, then, an open staging: suggestive rather than overtly didactic. In a drama overflowing with ideas, that is no bad thing at all. Coherence is, whatever I might have implied above, always relative; the truest of consistency will often if not always come close to the dead hand of the Commendatore. For this was a staging that had me question my initial assumptions: again, something close to a necessity for intelligent theatre. (I assume that the bovine reactions from a few in the stalls were indicative of a desire for anything but.)

If religion lies at the heart of the opera, too little acknowledged, perhaps at least a little too little here too, then so does sex. Sorry, ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’, but there you have it; this really is not an opera for you, but then what is? Don Giovanni and Don Giovanni ooze – well, almost anything and everything you want and do not want them to. They certainly did here, which is in good part testament to this superlative cast. Erwin Schrott’s Giovanni may be a known quantity – I have certainly raved about it before, more than once – but it was no less welcome and no less impressive for that. ‘Acting’ and singing were as one. He held the stage as strongly as I have ever seen – which means very strongly indeed – and his powers of seduction were as strong as I have ever seen – which means, as I said… His partnership with Esposito’s Leporello was both unique and yet typical of the dynamically drawn relationships between so many of the characters on stage. Leporello was clearly admiring, even envious of his master; their changing, yet not quite, of clothes and identities was almost endlessly absorbing its erotic, yet disconcerting charge. Esposito brought as wide a range of expressive means to his delivery of the text as any Leporello, Schrott included, I remember. Their farewell was truly shocking, Giovanni picking up his quivering servant from the floor, kissing him for several spellbinding seconds, then wiping his mouth clean on his sleeve and spitting contemptuously on the floor. It was time finally to accept the Commendatore’s invitation, issued with grave, deep musicality by the flawless Ain Anger.

I had seen Pavol Breslik as Don Ottavio before. There could have been no doubting the distinction of his performance in Berlin, under Barenboim, although neither artist was helped by the non-production of Peter Mussbach. Here, however, Breslik presented, in collaboration with the production, perhaps the most fascinating Ottavio I have seen – and no, that is not intended as faint praise. This was a smouldering counterpart to Giovanni, unable to keep his hands off Donna Anna, and frankly all over her during her second-act aria. Their pill-popping – he supplied the pills – opened up all manner of possibilities, not least given the frank sexuality of their, and particularly his, reactions. The beauty of Breslik’s tone, silken-smooth in his arias, added an almost Così fan tutte-like agony to the violent proceedings. In Albina Shagimuratova, we heard a Donna Anna of the old school: big-boned, yet infinitely subtle, her coloratura a thing of wonder. Combined with the uncertainty of her character’s development – again, most intriguingly so – this was again a performance both physically to savour and intellectually to relish.

So too was that the case with Dorothea Röschmann’s Donna Elvira. Her portrayal – Kimmig’s portrayal – would certainly not have pleased, at least initially, those for whom this is in large part a misogynistic work. (It seems to me that they misunderstand some, at least, of what is going on, but that is an argument for another time, and I am only too well aware that it is not necessarily a claim that I, as a man, should be advancing anything other than tentatively.) Downtrodden, yet beautifully sung, in the first act, she nevertheless came into her defiant own in the second, above all through the most traditionally operatic of means: sheer vocal splendour. What a ‘Mi tradì’ that was!

Eri Nakamura gave the finest performance I have heard from her as Zerlina, seemingly far more at home in Mozart than when I heard her at Covent Garden. This was a Zerlina who both knew and did not know what she was doing – as a character, of course, not as a performance. And finally, Brandon Cedel’s portrait in wounded, affronted, unconscious yet responsive masculinity proved quite a revelation: I do not think any Masetto has made me think so much about his role in the drama. Nor can I think, offhand, of any Masetto so dangerously attractive – again, like Ottavio, in some sense an aspirant Giovanni, but one still more incapable of being so. Morally, of course, that is to the character’s credit – but in this most ambiguous of operas, and in this most fruitfully ambiguous of productions, one was never quite sure.  

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Director Tom Cairns and Thomas Adès interviewed before tomorrow's world premiere of The Exterminating Angel

Photo: SF/Anne Zeuner

(Interview and synopsis below: courtesy of Salzburg Festival. I shall be reviewing the final performance in the run on 8 August. Following the 28 July premiere, there will also be performances on 1 and 5 August.)
Thomas Adès, when did you first encounter Buñuel’s film El ángel exterminador, and how long have you been playing with the idea of using it as the basis for an opera?

Thomas Adès: The idea goes back at least fifteen years, to a time before I began to compose The Tempest. I saw the film when I was thirteen or fourteen, when I think there was a Buñuel season on the BBC. My mother is a historian of art, especially Surrealist art, with Dalì and Buñuel particularly being part of her work, and so I encountered these things early on. I was strongly attracted to Buñuel’s films. Possibly at that age I didn’t like El ángel exterminador – shot in black and white and rather dry – as much as the more colourful, more ‘Pythonesque’ ones, like Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie or Le Fantôme de la liberté (still probably my favourite), but the film stayed with me to the point of obsession. When these ideas to write an opera come to me, it’s not so much a conscious thing – the process is more like a seed that gets dispersed in the wind and either lands where it can grow or doesn’t; a sort of germination process.

But at some point you must have said to yourself: this film could make a good opera. Where does its potential for this lie? What makes it so suited to being translated into the medium of music or musical theatre?

Thomas Adès: In a way, El ángel exterminador is an operatic story in a very pure form, because every opera is about getting out of a particular situation. But in Buñuel’s film, whatever the mechanism is that gets us from A to B, it’s switched off: the guests know that they should go home – they have children who are waiting for them, things to do, etc. – but they don’t go. Even when they are starving and in despair, they’re incapable of doing so, although the doors are open. When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C – as it were from one room into another room into another, eventually arriving at a destination. Every piece of music is looking for an exit, and the fun thing in this opera is that the characters are looking for an exit the whole time but keep coming back into the same room, though right at the end they do find it, at least temporarily.

The film is very musical in another way, too, because there’s an underground river of meaning which is not exactly what the people are saying. This river links the spoken lines and runs through the entire situation, but only occasionally surfaces. So the film has an unspoken subtext all the way through.

Tom Cairns: As is the case with all Buñuel’s later films, El ángel exterminador does not have a film score. The silences between the spoken lines, scenes and situations lend themselves perfectly for music. Silence is a wonderful thing, obviously, but music can perhaps convey this underground river even better.

Did your work on The Exterminating Angel begin with musical ideas – also as far as the overall structure of the work is concerned – or did you initially devote yourself solely to the libretto?

Thomas Adès: The first steps are always very mysterious. At first one is dealing with individual notes, or two notes. It’s rather like watching an embryo develop, the difference being that you might understand the DNA of this tiny cell later on and see how it relates to everything else. Rather the larger structure eventually develops from trying to link these cells together. My image of music as a natural process, as a living, growing organism, is a fairly precise analogy of an opera and the way in which it is created. It wouldn’t be truthful to start at the beginning by sketching this enormous shape, especially for a piece like this where the movements of this underground river are so complicated from line to line. Tom Cairns and I worked for years on the libretto, and it went through at least six different drafts before a note of music was written. You need to have a strong sense of the overall architecture in order to find the specific character of the music.

Tom Cairns: We’ve been working on the libretto since 2009. It was about deciding at the outset what the opera could be as an entity in itself. We agreed fairly quickly on what we could do to reshape the film and turn it into this particular art form. The libretto went back and forth several times, and in fact it ended up becoming much closer to the film than I’d imagined. In order to get the piece into a shape that was feasible on stage, we had to amalgamate a few characters – the seventeen guests of the Nobiles in the film become twelve in the opera. Since sung words take more time than spoken words, some of the text had to be reduced. Other original scenes were added.

Thomas Adès: Once I started writing the music, this in turn inevitably demanded numerous changes.

While you were working on the libretto, were you already considering where you would make use of the specific possibilities that musical theatre offers – particularly ensembles? For example, did you plan right from the beginning to make an ‘Enchanted’ ensemble out of the scene where the guests are being introduced to one another?

Thomas Adès: No, these decisions were taken as I was composing, for example, when I noticed that a line spoken by one person is actually a communal utterance. In the case of the guests being introduced to one another I suddenly saw an opportunity given by the Spanish word ‘encantado’: for an English-speaking person it is of course slightly odd to say ‘enchanted’, but thanks to its double meaning – ‘pleased to meet you’ and ‘spellbound’ – the word underlines that the figures are under a sort of spell and that the story has something of a fairytale.

Tom Cairns: Later, towards the end of Act Two, we refer to it again, when the Doctor passionately cries out: ‘We are not “enchanted”. This is not a magician’s house!’ He’s desperate to bring the mysterious situation under control and pull it back into his medical-rational approach to life. He is desperate at that point and in the most dreadful emotional state because he can’t control the situation. Scientific analysis is useless.

Thomas Adès, you have made various passages in the libretto into small solo scenes or mini-arias that show the figures – their character or emotions – in a different light from the film. During their captivity in the drawing room the guests are transformed from elegant, cultured people into something close to barbarians. While Buñuel depicts this process from a distanced, almost documentary perspective, it’s especially in these solo passages that you take us up close to the characters, sometimes in a very moving way. For example, we encounter the rather decadent Silvia de Ávila in Act Three cradling a sheep’s cadaver in her arms while she sings a ‘Berceuse macabre’, believing she is rocking her little son Yoli to sleep.

Thomas Adès: I think music demands these moments in opera – moments where things don’t proceed in ‘real time’, but where the action stops and the music comments on the emotional meaning of what is happening. In order to give some of the characters these static moments we’ve also made use of poems by Buñuel from the late 1920s, that is, from his very early, Surrealist phase.

Buñuel puts the people into a situation where their personalities as they are when they first encounter one another eventually break down or turn into something else. Buñuel plays with this façade. In the opera, the music supports the private personality behind the façade on the one hand (and lets us feel empathy with the characters), but on the other it also supports the other force which is pulling them into a kind of shared nothingness. Music can be powerfully levelling, because it tends to want to resolve everyone into the same place. The whole process is heightened in the opera. The music is a sort of destiny the characters are subject to. Sometimes it feels as if the music is responsible for keeping them in the room, and in the end it’s the music which releases them.

Often the music knows more than the people. When for example the guests arrive at the mansion and then – a physical impossibility – arrive again through the same door, we hear the same music but in altered form: it contains more sinister undertones, conveying a slight sense of things not happening quite at the right time or in the right order. When the guests have walked into the house the music occurs again in the orchestra, and this time you can sense that they are leaving reality behind, perhaps even that reality itself dissolves behind them.

Is the phenomenon of disintegration that the guests experience outwardly and inwardly reflected in your score?

Thomas Adès: When you think of something becoming a ruin or disintegrating, it is important that you can read its structure up to the last minute to a certain extent. The ‘double’ arrival of the guests and the dinner go by quite quickly, but in the rest of the opera I go over small moments of the music from these scenes and dig deeper and deeper into the musical material. Towards the end, when the guests are handing round scraps of meat around the burning cello, the music from the start reappears in a more complete form – Tom had the brilliant notion of letting the guests become a little like they were before and let them say things like ‘I prefer my meat à point.’

Tom Cairns: They’re suddenly at a dinner party, just like the old days – and ultimately they are reassuring themselves with this interaction…

Thomas Adès: …something I find very moving.

The music that you associate with the world of elegant social ritual, here and at the beginning of the opera, is the Viennese waltz, often coupled with lush chromatic harmonies.

Thomas Adès: What interests me about the waltz is the seductiveness of this music. I often feel that the waltzes by Johann Strauss are saying: ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside.’ So in the context of our opera the waltz becomes very dangerous… When panic breaks out among the guests in Act Two, I have layered motifs derived and distorted from various Strauss waltzes over one another in a Fugue of Panic, transforming them into a kind of whirlpool.

Against that you have Leticia, whose music is mostly from another world. Her music takes over at the end and releases the guests from their strange captivity.

This takes us back to the irrational basic situation of the plot: the inability to leave the drawing room although there are no visible obstacles. In a brief text written by Buñuel to precede the film when El ángel exterminador was first shown in Paris he stated that ‘perhaps the best explanation’ for the film was that ‘rationally there is none’, but conceded that the film was open to multiple interpretations.

Tom Cairns: I’ve come to think very much like Buñuel, which I suppose is inevitable. I don’t feel the need to rationalize the situation. It feels almost normal to me that the guests can’t get out. I now don’t see it as irrational.

Thomas Adès: For me, the question is actually: Why can anyone ever leave a room?

Why is it Leticia who realizes how or rather that she and the others can leave the room?

Thomas Adès: The fact is that the servants, by some kind of instinct, know before everyone else that they have to leave the house. The host and some of the guests are aristocrats, but there are many hints that Leticia originates from a world closer to that of the staff – not least her higher sensitivity to what is happening to them.

Tom Cairns: Leticia is somehow aware of the situation long before the other guests. That’s possibly why she hurls the ashtray through the window in Act One – a first instinctive attempt to let air in from outside as she feels a strange atmosphere encroach on the room.

Thomas Adès: There is the idea that the humbler their origin, the more understanding a character will have of the power of the exterminating angel. This may be why Eduardo and his fiancée Beatriz – who don’t appear to be particularly privileged – choose to taken their own lives rather than become victims of the exterminating angel.

But who or what is the exterminating angel of the title? The film was originally going to be called something else and wasn’t renamed until during or after the shooting. Buñuel later said that he had sensed a ‘subterranean connection’ between the title El ángel exterminador and the content of his film.

Thomas Adès: In a way, the exterminating angel is an absence – an absence of will, of purpose, of action. Why do we ever do anything? The film poses this question in a very pure form, and the answer is: because otherwise we would be at the end, with death and extermination. You could say that extermination is what we’re fleeing from when we leave a room, when we do anything at all. In a way, the opera throws me back on how miraculous it is that we can and must act, indeed that we are alive at all. (In fact I find conducting it is surprisingly exhilarating – I’m starting to think of it as ‘The Exhilarating Angel’.) In this story the force that makes us act has been turned off, like a switch. The people no longer know why they should go home; they have forgotten what they are. The Doctor with his scientific, rational conception of the world tries in vain to control the phenomenon by giving it a pathological label – a Buñuel joke, diagnosing it as ‘aboulia’. On the one hand Buñuel conveys the impression that the force stopping the guests from leaving lies within themselves, but on the other, with this title, he takes the step of saying: let’s pretend that there is such a supernatural, destructive force, a mythical figure which makes it impossible to act. For me, once the exterminating angel has taken possession of the guests, the only possible outcome is the complete breakdown of society and the imposition of martial law – and ultimately the end of the world.

In the interlude after Act One you convey this dimension of the events in the drawing room in a very disturbing way. The music recalls the unsettling concluding sequence of Buñuel’s film, where demonstrators or revolutionaries are gunned down by the police.

Thomas Adès: Yes, it’s the first hint of that in the opera. Incidentally, Buñuel was obsessed by the drums of Calanda – his home town, where during Holy Week they would drum for three days and three nights – and I had thought for years about putting them in the opera, until I suddenly realized that the very judgemental interlude after Act One has the same rhythmic structure as the – unusually long – drumming rhythm in Calanda. So the drums naturally went in, which immediately brought the military quality I was looking for.

The exterminating angel also makes its presence felt in the opera with a very special sound…

Thomas Adès: It’s the first time I’ve ever used an electronic instrument in a piece: for me, the Ondes Martenot has the same relationship with the acoustic instruments of the orchestra as the exterminated world without life has with the world that does have life, without the exterminating angel. The Ondes Martenot becomes a symbol, the voice of this exterminating angel in the sense that the instrument is heard whenever a figure says something that contributes to the situation of immobility. Sometimes the Ondes Martenot almost forces things, for example, when the people outside are trying to make the little boy Yoli go into the house: the Ondes Martenot intervenes and it’s as though it frightens him into running away.

The Ondes Martenot has a beautiful, delicious sound. One has to bear in mind that although the exterminating angel is a terrifying, destructive force – an absence, a negative – it also possesses something very attractive and alluring. So the Ondes Martenot is like the sirens of Greek mythology, saying: ‘Stay!’

The bells with which the piece starts and which also sound at the end function as a sort of herald for the exterminating angel. You could say that bells are a kind of music which stays in the same moment all the time. Buñuel often used bells in his films, and especially here in Salzburg I’m struck increasingly by their extraordinary nature: they’ve been ringing for centuries, rang long before we were here and will ring long after we’ve gone. Bells are a form of eternity appearing in the river of time, an expression of the unchanging. They are saying: here is this moment again, and again, and again, and it is still the same, and so are you.

Let us return to the person who frees the guests from their state of paralysis: in the opera Leticia is given an even more central role than she has in the film. You’ve made her the prima donna of the opera performance the guests have been attending, whereas in Buñuel’s film the singer is a different figure, and after the dinner, in the drawing room, the guests plead with Leticia in vain to sing for them. Not until the end of the opera, when Leticia entreats the others to repeat their utterances and actions of the first evening, does she actually sing, and it’s as if her aria releases the guests from the room.

Thomas Adès: There is an idea that is present in the film but very easy to miss as it is not underlined by Buñuel – the character of Leticia, the ‘Valkyrie’, who almost never speaks, does not say ‘I want to go home’ at the crucial moment at the end of the first evening, as though she has forgotten her line; and it is almost as though this condemns them all to be trapped. I saw an opportunity to link this to the operatic soprano character whom we fused with Leticia, and have the missed line actually be a whole aria.

Where did you take the words for this aria from?

Thomas Adès: I have amplified a Jewish aspect here that is referred to only glancingly in the film – in an anti-Semitic line spoken by Raúl when the ashtray flies through the window (and which we have removed): ‘Some Jew passing by.’ The text of Leticia’s aria at the end of the opera is taken from an early twelfth-century Zionide of Yehuda Halevi, who wrote of his longing for Jerusalem in Spain. In the original it says ‘Zion, do you ask of my peace, who longs for yours?’, so I changed this to ‘My home, do you ask of my peace…’. Perhaps Leticia may have experienced this larger dimension of homesickness and exile. The return to Jerusalem is the ultimate image of returning. Buñuel also was very much an exile, which made him a figure of legendary power within Spain. There are also elements in Halevi’s text that link to the Surrealist imagery in El angel exterminador: the scattered sheep, the idea of eagles’ wings, the idea of ‘the chosen’.

There’s also a subtext of Jewish exile in the figure of Blanca, who is a musician as well, and like Leticia does not belong to the aristocracy. Her aria is based on the children’s poem ‘Over the Sea’ by Chaim Bialik, the father of modern Hebrew literature, with a very similar subject to Halevi’s Zionide. And the variations that Blanca performs on the piano in Act One are of course not really by Paradisi but my own variations on the Ladino song ‘Lavaba la blanca niña’, which has an unassuageable harmonic structure very typical of Jewish music of longing and bereavement.

And Leonora, with her obsession with the Kabbalah, completes our trio of ‘witches’.

Long stretches of the music of Act Three have an obsessive and dissonant, if you like irrational, quality. Leticia’s aria comes as a release, also in musical terms. It’s striking that it contains not a single half-tone or tritone, intervals that have occurred very frequently up to this point.

Thomas Adès: Actually, there are no dissonances in Leticia’s aria at all, at least not if you look at it from the perspective of a time so far back that it’s long before the rules of our traditional harmonics were established. I wanted this aria to have something of the quality of music from the twelfth or thirteenth century, because it can sound as strange to us as music that is very dissonant.

Music has a tendency to arrange itself either in terms of patterns or cycles. On a tiny scale, in a single bar, as well as on the huge scale of an entire opera there is always the possibility to decide not to be part of a pattern. This is part of my musical make-up, and I think it’s very much part of the action in The Exterminating Angel. We have figures trapped within cycles of thought and others who, like Leticia, fight against the cycles and patterns. To arrive at a real musical resolution, the patterns and cycles have to be subdued, recombined by the composer’s hand to produce a new doorway, if you like. And that’s exactly what Leticia does at the end, but of course then her aria just becomes another dominant waiting for resolution… (laughs)

At the end of the opera, the bells – which you described as staying in the same moment all the time – ring, here in combination with a repetitive musical form that constantly returns to the beginning, one which you’ve used several times in your works: the chaconne. To a line from the text of the Requiem the chorus repeatedly sings the same seven bars that it has already sung in the large ensemble before Leticia effects their release – the scene in which the guests take the decision to kill Nobile, their host, as a sacrifice, and which has a lot in common with the ‘delirious’ second dream sequence in the film.

Thomas Adès: Obviously, depending on how it’s written, a chaconne can have the quality of constantly not going through a door. When the chorus begins to sing that line from the Requiem off-stage, I want to convey the feeling that it’s been singing it forever and that it will go on forever after. That’s why this music returns at the end of the opera in a heightened form. With this chaconne – as opposed to the chaconne in The Tempest – my idea was that it never ends; that it just goes round in a spiral, down and down. My opera starts without a clear beginning – the bells one hears could just be the bells from outside (especially here in Salzburg) following one into the auditorium – and it has no real end. The score does not end with a double bar.

Buñuel’s film also has an open ending; it’s in the nature of the story. The final scene of the opera, however, differs from the film in several respects.

Tom Cairns: The final scene of the film takes place in the cathedral. The idea is that the guests have returned to the bourgeois or aristocratic world they had left – they’re back in their elegant clothes, they’re duly humbled, and of course they have to give thanks for their release – and then everything starts again from the beginning. For me, personally, this repetition is the least important part of the end. It’s the bigger issue that really matters: that there is no escape. We felt that this could be delivered within the context of our piece just as well without relocating the last scene, perhaps even more effectively. Ultimately we – that is, the audience in an opera house – are not that far removed from the people we’re watching on stage in The Exterminating Angel, very close in some cases; so why not ‘release’ the guests straight into the theatre, into the auditorium? At that moment they become other characters in a wider dramatis personae which now includes the members of the audience.

Thomas Adès: The feeling that the door is open but we don’t go through it is with us all the time.

Interview by Christian Arseni


Act One

At the mansion of Edmundo and Lucía de Nobile guests are expected for dinner, but strange things are happening. The butler, Julio, fails to stop Lucas the footman from running away, and the maids Meni and Camilla also attempt to leave. The Nobiles arrive after attending a performance at the opera. Among their guests are the evening’s prima donna, Leticia Maynar, and the conductor, Alberto Roc, with his wife Blanca, a famous pianist. Meni and Camila finally escape along with some other servants when the guests go into the dining room.

At dinner, Nobile toasts Leticia, whom brother and sister Silvia and Francisco de Ávila jokingly call ‘the Valkyrie’. Lucía announces a first course of Maltese Ragout, which the waiter spills spectacularly on the floor. Not everyone finds this funny, least of all the elderly Señor Russell. Lucía decides to postpone her other ‘entertainments’, and a performing bear and a number of lambs are removed to the garden. The rest of the servants flee the house despite Lucía’s protestations. Only Julio remains behind.

In the drawing room Blanca performs a piece on the piano. A young engaged couple, Eduardo and Beatriz, dance, and Leonora flirts with her physician, Doctor Conde. When he declines to dance, she kisses him instead. The Doctor confides in Raúl Yebenes that Leonora is gravely ill and does not have long to live. Blanca’s performance ends to general acclaim and compliments. The guests encourage Leticia to sing, but Señor Roc protests that she has performed enough for the evening.

A number of guests prepare to depart, while Roc falls asleep. In the cloakroom Lucía gives her secret lover, Colonel Álvaro Gómez, a fleeting kiss. The guests become lethargic and distracted – although it is now very late, none of them attempt to leave. Nobile is confused but behaves graciously, offering beds to anyone who wishes to stay. Señor Russell and the Colonel are horrified as some guests remove their tailcoats, but eventually they lie down like everyone else to sleep either on sofas or the floor. Eduardo and Beatriz retreat to a private corner to spend their first night together.

Act Two

The guests wake the following morning. Silvia announces that she slept very badly. The Doctor examines Russell: the old man is dying. Julio is supposed to prepare breakfast but reports that no supplies have arrived at the house. When Lucía tries to take some of the ladies to her bedroom to freshen up, they do not make it past the threshold of the dining room. Blanca is worried about her children, but even she and her husband are unable to make the decision to leave. Silvia finds the unusual situation amusing, particularly as she knows her son is in good hands with his private tutor, Padre Sansón. A further attempt by the guests to leave fails when Julio approaches with coffee and the leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner. Leticia entreats the butler not to enter the drawing room, but in vain. Blanca is desperate, while Raúl sees no reason to over-dramatize the situation. Francisco complains he cannot possibly stir his coffee with a teaspoon. When sent to procure coffee spoons, Julio also seems to have become a prisoner in the drawing room.

Evening approaches. Russell’s condition has worsened: he has fallen into a coma and needs urgent medical attention. Panic spreads among the guests: there is nothing more to drink, the outside world seems to have forgotten about them – and why did the servants leave the mansion the night before for no obvious reason? The Doctor pleads for calm, although even he seems to be losing his composure. Raúl becomes aggressive and holds Nobile responsible for the situation. Francisco is at the end of his tether and resists all attempts at pacification. Russell suddenly and unexpectedly regains consciousness, expressing his relief that he will not live to experience the ‘extermination’. Beatriz is troubled by the thought of dying amidst all these people, rather than alone with Eduardo. Blanca, Silvia and Leticia share a strange experience in the walk-in cabinet, which has been repurposed as a toilet.

During the night Russell dies. The Doctor and the Colonel haul his corpse into the cabinet, witnessed by Eduardo and Beatriz.

Act Three

Police guarding the mansion drive back a crowd of people who try to come to the aid of those imprisoned inside. Although some people break through the police ranks, nobody is able to enter the house.

In the drawing room Julio and Raúl burst a water pipe and the guests rush desperately to quench their thirst. Tormented with hunger, everyone’s behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. Blanca combs only one side of her hair, driving Francisco to hysterical desperation. When Francisco is unable to find the pills for his stomach ulcer, he immediately presumes that someone has hidden the box. Raúl goads Francisco about his relationship with his sister and triggers a volley of insults between the two men. Nobile tries to keep the peace, but this merely earns him recriminations. Leonora, who is in great pain, expresses her longing for the assistance of the Doctor and the Virgin Mary. Francisco is nauseated by Blanca’s smell and once again loses his nerves.

In her delirium Leonora sees a disembodied hand wandering around the drawing room. Trying to stop it, she stabs Blanca’s hand with a dagger. In the walk-in cabinet, Eduardo and Beatriz decide to die together. Señor Roc appears to molest Leticia, but Raúl accuses the Colonel instead. Nobile is injured during the ensuing scuffle. The lambs from the garden wander into the drawing room and the roaring of the bear terrifies the guests.

The army has quarantined the mansion. Padre Sansón appears with Silvia’s son, Yoli, and the people demand that the boy be sent inside. Despite encouragement from the crowd, Yoli is unable to get into the house.

The guests have slaughtered the lambs and cook them on a makeshift fire. Leonora recalls a premonition she had on the evening of the opera performance and attempts a magic ritual with Blanca and Leticia. It fails and she claims that innocent blood is needed. The bodies of Eduardo and Beatriz are discovered in the walk-in cabinet. During the course of yet another quarrel, Raúl hurls Francisco’s box of pills over the threshold of the drawing room. Silvia no longer takes any interest; cradling the cadaver of one of the lambs in her arms, she thinks she is rocking Yoli to sleep.

The bear appears across the threshold. Gradually the idea takes hold among the guests that a sacrifice is needed to secure their liberation: Nobile must be killed. The Doctor and the Colonel try in vain to make the others reconsider. Nobile declares that he will sacrifice himself of his own free will, but Leticia interrupts him. She says she has realized that at this moment each one of them is in exactly the same place as when their strange captivity began. With her encouragement the others hesitantly repeat the actions and dialogues from that moment. When Leticia is then asked to sing once again, this time she actually does so. Together they approach the threshold – and they are able to cross it. The guests and the crowd outside the mansion encounter one another. Their freedom will not last long.