Friday 22 December 2017

Frang/BPO/Fischer - Bartók and Mendelssohn, 21 December 2017


Bartók: Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz 100
Bartók: Violin Concerto no.1, Sz 36
Mendelssohn: Selection from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opp.21 and 61: Overture and nos 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13

Vilde Frang (violin)
Mari Eriksmoen (soprano)
Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano)
Ladies of the Philharmonia Chor Wien (chorus master: Walter Zeh)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Iván Fischer (conductor)


What struck me initially during the first of the two movements of Bartók’s 1933 version for orchestra of his Hungarian Peasant Songs was the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. Many have commented, whether since the departure of Claudio Abbado, since that of Herbert von Karajan, even since the death of Wilhelm Furtwängler, on how the orchestra has lost ‘its’ sound. Depending on one’s standpoint, there is either a great deal of truth in that or there is none; or perhaps there is a third way too. Certainly the orchestral sound has not remained the same, but has that of any orchestra? Here, I heard – perhaps this has come from hearing the orchestra often over the past year, in the Philharmonie – what I might characterise as a ‘modern Berlin sound’, both in character, rich, deep, and yet translucent, and yet, almost paradoxically, if one is talking about ‘a sound’, adaptable, according not only to the music, but also to the conductor. Am I saying anything at all there? I am not sure, but I decided to mention it, since the thought struck me with some force.

The performance of that opening work sounded very much, well, as the opening to a concert, almost as if it were the aural opening of a storybook, which in a sense it was. Fantastical (at times) orchestration made the original material sound new, just as a Bach orchestration might, and yet, the ‘original’ was still there, just as with Bach. Moreover, one could hear where the later Bartók came from, too; affinities even with the Concerto for Orchestra presented themselves. If I occasionally found Iván Fischer a little laboured, keen to underline, less keen to suggest how the dances of the second movement might hang together, there was no denying the straightforward excellence of the Berlin Philharmonic’s playing – which, I think, Karajan and Abbado, perhaps even Furtwängler, as well, of course, as Simon Rattle, would happily have recognised. And the final dance was unmistakeably a climax.

Vilde Frang joined the orchestra for Bartók’s First Violin Concerto. Her initially haunting solo line truly drew one in to listen. Odd though this may be sound, I barely noticed to start with that other violinists, then other instrumentalists had joined her, such was the unanimity of purpose, almost as if the musicians were part of a giant orchestral keyboard. (I thought, then, of Boulez’s sur Incises, and of his work with this orchestra.) Chamber music thus blossomed into orchestral music, in a truly extraordinary way: all the time, so it seemed, led by the golden thread of a solo line, even when it had fallen silent. The second movement offered a vigorous response, very much in the manner, if not quite the style, of the later Bartók. Fast vibrato from Frang proved no obstacle to the surest of intonation, for her violin playing proved just as commanding as her broader musicianship. Musical connections with Prokofiev, even Szymanowski, suggested themselves, without this singular piece ever sounding quite ‘like’ anything other than itself.

I presume the programming of music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was intended as a joke, given the date of the winter solstice. At any rate, it brightened the darkness of a Berlin winter. It is perhaps peculiarly difficult to speak of Mendelssohn’s music without resort to cliché. Words for the Overture – that perfect miracle, from a seventeen-year-old – present themselves all too readily, whether in work or performance: aetheral, gossamer, and so on. Those words certainly came to my mind more or less immediately, along with the recollection that Mendelssohn, so wisely, had once remarked that the problem with music was that it was more, not less, precise than words. Perhaps I should give up here, then, but I had better say something more. The aetheral strangeness of those opening chords actually put me in mind a little of Mahler: the chorale in the first movement of the Sixth Symphony, to be precise; the gossamer lightness of the Berlin strings’ response proved a true delight. And if Fischer, to begin with, sounded unduly Toscanini-like, harrying the score somewhat, he soon settled down. He understood – as many, surprisingly do not – that the end of the development here is, as often with Mendelssohn, a point of exhaustion, even if he somewhat overdid that exhaustion. It was, moreover, a joy to hear a full string section (fourteen first violins, down to six double basses) in this music. And who would not melt upon hearing those strings, or indeed Emmanuel Pahud’s flute in the recapitulation?

The Scherzo was as lithe as it had been under Abbado, and at least as full of woodland character (those clichés again, I know). This might sound banal, and perhaps it is, but I was moved to marvel, which I do perhaps less often than I should, at quite what a modern symphony orchestra can accomplish, and in particular at what this modern symphony orchestra can. I was taken a little by surprise at the German in ‘Ye spotted snakes’ or rather, ‘Bunte Schlangen, zweigezüngt!’ Schlegel’s celebrated translation has its own enchantments, though, as of course does Mendelssohn’s score. If I might have preferred a little more warmth initially from soprano, Mari Eriksomoen, that was certainly forthcoming from Kitty Whately and members of the Philahrmonia Chor Wien, who stood up from within the orchestra. And any reservation was more a matter of personal taste, or lack thereof, than anything else; these were fine vocal performances. Fischer let the music run away with him occasionally, but recovered well enough. Wordless drama characterised the Intermezzo, again bringing those Mendelssohnian thoughts concerning the ‘definiteness’ of music to mind. Delectable horns and woodwind came very much to the fore in the Nocturne, just as they must. Fischer’s way with it was slightly on the sectional side, but I should not exaggerate. There was, moreover, great passion to be heard from the strings. A resplendent and, yes, moving Wedding March prepared the way for the mysterious, quirky, Mahlerian foreshadowing of the Marcia funèbre. The final movement bound together various gossamer threads admirably. My only regret was that we had not had more of the music, and indeed the play itself. And there was ambiguity to those fairies too, especially in the delivery of their final line: 'Trefft ihn in der Dämmerung!’


Tuesday 19 December 2017

Members of the BPO - Takemitsu, Strauss, Prokofiev, and Bruch, 18 December 2017

Pierre Boulez Saal

Takemitsu: Le son calligraphié I-III
Strauss: Metamorphosen, in version for string septet by Rudolf Leopold
Prokofiev Sonata for Two Violins in C major, op.56
Bruch: Octet in B-flat major, op. posth.

Daishin Kashimoto, Noah Bendix-Balgley, Luiz Felipe Coelho, Christophe Horak (violins)
Amihai Grosz, Naoko Shimizu (violas)
Ludwig Quandt, Bruno Delepelaire (cellos)
Matthew McDonald (double bass)

It is doubtless in the nature of such varied programmes, in which the emphasis seems to lie upon variety in itself rather than on a unifying theme, that some works will appeal to any one listener more than others. In that respect, I should count myself fortunate that only – doubtless predictably – Max Bruch’s musically anonymous late string octet that failed to intrigue me. (If, as a Bruch fanatic, should such a thing exist, you prefer: I failed to be intrigued by it.) The date of composition, although it apparently is based upon earlier materials, beggars belief: 1920. It is not so much that it was written eight years after Pierrot lunaire, as that it sounds rather like a talented, yet uninspired attempt to imitate the young, and I mean very young, Mendelssohn. Not that the eight players – all of those listed above, save for Matthew McDonald on double bass – in any sense failed it. Quite the contrary: I cannot imagine it receiving a more committed, enlightened performance, determined to make the most of its craftsmanship, without attempting to turn it into something it is not. The spirit and cultivation of the playing were, from the opening of the first of its three movements, undeniable: far more thrilling than the material itself. It was surely to that, quite rightly, that the audience so warmly responded. There were darker moments (relatively speaking) too, especially in the central Adagio-Andante con molto di moto. And if even these players could not quite convince one that the generic character and/or form of a finale were transformed into something more than that, they did their very best. No one should begrudge such pieces an occasional outing – and who knows? Maybe others heard something in the piece I did not.

Written for the same forces, Tōru Takemitsu’s three early Son calligraphié works (1958-60), proved more fascinating, at least to me. If their miniature status and their spare directness of utterance perhaps inevitably brought to mind Webern and – from the future – Kurtág, the harmonic language, especially in so warm, yet never over-egged a performance proved more suggestive of Berg. It might seem contradictory, and perhaps it is, to speak of spare directness and then to mention languor, but there seemed to be plenty of space, however considered, for that too, timbres often suggestive of a more Gallic sensibility. The wholeness of the players’ conception, combined with attention to (Japanese?) ‘calligraphic’ detail, might have had one think these pieces repertoire works. There seemed to me, at least on a first hearing, no good reason why they should not be.

Strauss’s Metamorphosen is, unquestionably, although not necessarily in this form, the version for string septet by Rudolf Leopold, made following rediscovery of Strauss’s short score and first performed in 1994. The players turned around so as to face in the opposite direction for this, following in the footsteps of many musicians, Daniel Barenboim included, eager to play the hall, even its audience, as a living instrument rather than a mere space for performance. Not for nothing is the Pierre Boulez Saal’s motto ‘music for the thinking ear’. Seven strings will never sound the same as twenty-three. Nor should they attempt to; for, if that were the aim, why not use twenty-three? Here there is, almost by definition, a greater sense of chamber music, but it was a greater sense in performance too, the players seemingly relishing the opportunity to play with the difference, although never to be different merely for the sake of it. What I noticed earlier on was an apparently slower tempo than often one hears. (I say apparently, since it sounded to be as much a matter of holding back harmonically, and have no idea whether it was in terms of accursed metronome beats.) Such was not how it was to be all along, though, for lighter, even relatively brighter passages seemed to gain momentum, both in terms of tempo and harmonic rhythm. (Are the two in fact distinct?) This was a Metamorphosen which, perhaps unusually, had more of late Strauss’s typical Mozartian sonata form balance and dynamism, vis-à-vis dark Wagnerism. It was not, however, a case of one against the other, but of dramatic conflict. Likewise, the balance and generative conflict between harmony and counterpoint sounded almost as if born of a Mozart quintet, rendering transitional passages – yes, I know the whole work is essentially transitional… – especially interesting. The cultivated gravity of return led to a soft-spoken sense of approaching yet never reaching suspension. And yes, the Eroica moment spoke as eloquently as ever, in its new yet old setting: a metaphor perhaps for the performance as a whole.

Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins, played by concertmasters Daishin Kashimoto and Noah Bendix-Balgley, fared wonderfully well, in a performance as dramatic, even aspirantly balletic, as it was razor-sharp of intonation. The bitter-sweet post-Romantic intertwining and separation of instruments in the first movement proved a masterclass, performative as well as compositional, in two-part writing. Bartókian fury, soon transmuted into something else, which in turn was soon transformed, and so on, characterised a powerfully yet never pedantically developmental second movement. Sweetly, songfully enigmatic, the simple, side-slipping pleasures of the third movement delighted. What I thought of as the sincere tricksterism of the finale did so too, in its very different way. It offered both a sense of uniting the work’s strands and yet also questioning them. Strauss was far from the only composer of this period to don compositional mask upon mask.

Sunday 17 December 2017

BPO/Thielemann - Beethoven, Missa solemnis, 14 December 2017


Mass in D major, op.123 (Missa solemnis)

Luba Orgonášová (soprano)
Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano)
Daniel Behle (tenor)
Franz-Josef Selig (bass)

Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Philipp Ahmann)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

There are musical works at which, in awe, one strain’s one’s aural neck – and then there is the Missa solemnis (no need, just like the Ninth Symphony, to say whose). It has its detractors; so does Fidelio. However, their accusations, in both cases, seem founded on gross misunderstandings of what Beethoven was doing. Ultimately, they perhaps even add to the works’ stature: almost unquestionably so, I think, in the case of the Missa solemnis. Its extreme difficulty is both the point and not the point. As with all late Beethoven, indeed pretty much all Beethoven, dialectics ensure that difficulty and simplicity, rupture and wholeness, so on and so forth, are not just banally ‘connected’, but inconceivable, conceptually let alone performatively, with one another.

Performance: there’s the rub, or perhaps the greatest rub. I have noticed that, with many honourable exceptions, it is singers who are most likely to condemn those works of Beethoven that include voices. (It is surely an error to name them ‘vocal works’, a mistake that gets close to the heart of the matter.) If you want concessions, to your personal taste, to your ease of performance or listening, concessions to anything really: Beethoven could hardly be less your man. It is not ‘about you’, as the modern slogan has it. And yes, I know very well that I am drawing upon, thinking and writing within, the Romantic myth of Beethoven, of the towering, glowering genius. Such knowledge, whether we like it or no, is the essence of our modern and/or post-modern predicament. Guess what, though? The myth happens to be true. The enigmatic quality and the extreme difficulty are integral to the work; in the complexity of its attempted, impossible mediation between subject and object, they are, just as in Hegel (well, more or less ‘just as’), doing the work of Geist (Spirit), of God, of history, of whatever we want to call it, or It. Calling the Missa solemnis a ‘concert work’ is at best misleading, despite its actual – as opposed to envisaged – performance history. It is not only a sacred work, but a resanctification of, through serious reckoning with, the Mass itself – and not only its text. Reactionaries will not like that, but so what? Nor does Geist.

Performance, however, is not, as it were, the only rub. The business of aesthetics, of reflection upon art, almost immediately, even immanently, arises with this work. Such is modernity – and is this not most likely Beethoven’s most modern work of all? I have long entertained the fantasy – and who knows: sometimes fantasies are realised – that the Missa solemnis in particular and perhaps Beethoven in general would be my retirement job. (Let us leave aside the sad reflection that retirement itself will doubtless remain a mere fantasy for those of us betrayed and destroyed by the ‘Brexit’ generation.) I certainly do not feel remotely prepared to tackle it yet. In that respect, I both take heart and become ever more fearful from Furtwängler’s decision no longer to perform it. Like Beethoven himself – and surely we ought to afford his view a little respect, Wellington’s Victory notwithstanding – Furtwängler thought it Beethoven’s single greatest work, yet considered its challenges too great for him or indeed anyone else ever to be able to realise. And if Furtwängler, surely the greatest recorded Beethovenian of all, thought so…

Furtwängler’s view has overwhelmingly, tragically, been proved correct. I cannot, of course, claim to know all recorded performances of the Missa solemnis, let alone all other performances. Of the recordings as such (as opposed to performances that have survived on recording) only Klemperer’s 1966 version for me really confronts its challenges head on and emerges with credit. (One can hardly say ‘surmounts’ them; no one surmounts Beethoven’s challenges, or if (s)he does, that is perhaps the most lamentable fate of all.) And, perhaps perversely, although I should like to think in some sense dialectically – well I would, wouldn’t I? – I had, before this performance from Christian Thielemann and Berlin forces, attended only one performance in the concert hall. True, they do not necessarily come along so very often, but nor are they so rare as that might imply. I had not wanted to risk a mediocre, let alone a poor, performance: bad enough in symphonic Beethoven – what is more soul-destroying than thinking ‘pointless’ and-or ‘meaningless’ to a performance of the Fifth Symphony? – but somehow even worse here, for it might end up sounding like what its detractors think it does. I had chosen my single performance well: Colin Davis, shortly before his death, and with mortality seemingly, even at the time, hanging over Beethoven’s grand reckoning not only with the Mass but with God Himself. It was a performance I shall never forget – and again, like Klemperer, that is part of the problem for whatever comes after. It may, it would seem, also be (re)listened to on YouTube, but I have never felt the desire to try – and doubtless to fail – to repeat an unrepeatable experience. (Indeed, although I have offered a link to the review, I do not yet even wish to re-read it.) And the thoughts it gave rise to, seemingly spanning the entirety of musical and theological history, or doubtless I flatter myself…

Apologies for having spent so long, relatively speaking, concerning my own thoughts, or attempts at thoughts, about the work rather than the performance. (Believe me, I could have gone on for much, much longer; I almost thought myself retired.) They seemed necessary, though, not even merely advisable, to explain how I heard Thielemann’s performance – or perhaps, to those who gained far more from it, how I did not hear it. Or perhaps I too was avoiding a confrontation. It seems somehow almost unforgivably banal to move to saying ‘it had much to admire, yet…’. And yet, that is what I must do; for, despite many very real virtues, the sheer excellence of all performing forces the greatest among them, I was left almost entirely cold. Was that another turn, as it were, of the Adornian dialectical screw? I thought I had truly grasped the work, however fleetingly, and then had not? Maybe a little, but not really, I think.

Thielemann clearly knew the work, or the notes, and what he wanted from it, or them. He was conducting from memory. Moreover, he clearly knew exactly how to get what he wanted from those uniformly excellent performers. Any criticisms I shall make are in no sense criticisms of them. One might have thought that a musician who, not unaggressively, positions himself as a standard bearer of the great German tradition would have been in a good position to communicate the mysteries of this work. There is, of course, no single tradition, though. And whilst I have in the past admired Thielemann’s Beethoven greatly – his recordings with the Philharmonia, for instance – his more recent Beethoven, still more so his Wagner, seems to have been filtered through a materialist conception that might work for Strauss, and often does work for him, magnificently, but which cannot really cope with the meaning(s) of works by Beethoven and Wagner. We can certainly applaud the need not to say the same thing over and over again, or indeed merely to imitate the past; but that does not mean that an alternative, simply by virtue of being an alternative, has any of the answers.

The full, warm sound of the Berlin Philharmonic at the opening of the Kyrie augured well: not entirely unlike Thielemann’s Philharmonia Beethoven; perhaps also with a certain kinship to the Klang of Leonard Bernstein’s Concertgebouw recording; not much at all in common with the sound of any of Herbert von Karajan’s intriguing multiple attempts at reckoning with the work (see, for instance, here and here), although perhaps at another level – deeper or shallower? perhaps both? – not so distant conceptually from Karajan’s approach. Militant authenticists would not have liked it, but who cares? And the bounds of the movement – perhaps the only one that has recognisable bounds – were well chosen; I was put in mind of an observation from Joseph Kerman to the effect that this was the only part of Beethoven’s setting that had no hyperbole. (I cannot recall his precise words, and do not have them here with me to check, so I hope that I shall be forgiven for distortion, misattribution, or even downright invention!) Moreover, whilst, from observing Thielemann, one might have feared an overly moulded performance, it did not – at least not here – sound like one. And if one had a problem with what it looked like, one could also, as with Bernstein, close one’s eyes. (Even Karajan did not, of course, do that for works with chorus when conducting them.) There was, moreover, a fine sense of a ‘natural’ – however constructed that might have been – tread to the movement’s progress. Beethoven, quite rightly, was not to be hurried; nor was he to be static. Individual soloists versus the ‘mass’ of the chorus sounded in balance, and dramatically rather than banally so. It did not ‘sound like’ Haydn, but perhaps still belonged in a similar conception to his. Beethoven as (sort of) Haydn? That is hardly unreasonable, especially here.

The rest of the Mass does not, of course, and rarely if ever did Thielemann seem quite to know – not that I think he was not trying – to portray, to dramatise that. The breakneck speed of the opening of the Gloria was surely an attempt, far from unreasonable, to do that – but what does reason, at least Enlightenment reason, have to do with this work? Superlative playing from the orchestra and superlative singing from the chorus impressed, as did the extraordinary clarity of what one heard: bassoons beneath the chorus, for instance. It ‘worked’, I think, but something was missing. The beating Larghetto heart of the movement arguably did not, Thielemann seemingly struggling to establish a basic pulse, although the woodwind solos predictably ravished in a materialist fashion. Even once the pulse had settled, though, it all sounded a little too glamorous. There was, though, a welcome sense of decision to follow: there can be no argument with either Beethoven or Whoever Stands Above Him; or alternatively, there can, but it will fail. Such good work, very sadly, was largely undone by a preposterously indulgent Luftpause before ‘in glora Dei Patris’. What might work – might – in Thielemann’s Meistersinger ‘Wach auf!’ does not work here; it came across as mere egotism. Just because you can do something, it does not follow that you should. Following that, perhaps not inappropriately in situ, came weirdly operatic ‘Amens’. Beethoven as Verdi? No thank you.

Still more is at stake in Beethoven’s Credo, both statement of and struggle to believe. Here, alas, there was far too little sense of struggle. Tension was built up admirably in the first section, very controlled, even controlling, but that is not to be disdained; we hardly want a free-for-all. It was, again, mightily impressive. ‘Et incarnatus est’ brought Palestrina, increasingly adorned, to the stage, not unlike an aural representation of a Gothic church, decorated by Rococo successors. Egotism once again, however, brought a bizarrely prolonged silence between the ‘Crucifixus’ and ‘Et resurrexit’ sections. Perhaps this is unfair, but it was almost as if Thielemann wanted to dare the audience not to fidget, or even to applaud. What followed was highly theatrical – one may argue about whether it should be, but it is not an outrageous conception – without ever conveying any real sense of theological, or other, meaning. Neutrality as opposed to neutralising tendencies doing batter with subjectivity in the material and its development? Beethoven as sewing pattern? Again, no thank you.

That tendency to draw out ‘preparations’ – not in a liturgical sense – was again to be heard in the Sanctus as we approached the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ section. Alas, it sounded more like a trick of the trade than a reading or communication of the text. There was no gainsaying, though, the outstanding level of execution. Warmly cultivated playing from concertmaster, Daniel Stabrawa – I wish violinists would not stand as if concerto soloists for this – was greatly to be admired, but did this feel in context as if it represented, even embodied, the descent of the Holy Ghost? Oddly, the music of the ‘Benedictus’ section sounded closer than I could recall hearing before to Die Zauberflöte. Beethoven as Mozart? Well, we can argue about that.

Darkness, even if again of a somewhat materialist conception, rightly haunted the opening of the Agnus Dei. Franz-Josef Selig’s solo seemed to speak with something close to perfection of both that darkness and the humanity that might emerge de profundis. A comparison with Sarastro would be indicative, but only if it involved contrast too: there is nothing of a noble yet flawed character to the music here. (The flaws obviously, I hope, refer to Sarastro, not to Mozart!) Once more, although Thielemann often looked as if he were about to pull the music around, he did not do so unduly; indeed, the sternness with which he conducted the Berlin strings was greatly to be admired in terms of potential meaning as well as executive accomplishment. There was no doubt that we were all, worthless sinners, to be on our knees here. The longed for unambiguous major chord, when it came, was treated to what I thought of as ‘fleeting length’: not indulgent, now, but provocative in a better, productive sense. What never quite materialised, though, was the cosmic scale to the later sounds of this movement. It was as if we had returned to the world of the Kyrie; even the terror of war sounded as if heard a little too much from afar, or even as a near-visual, ‘beautiful’ representation.

I was not overwhelmed, then, either by this microcosm, or by Thielemann’s Missa cosmogony. I do not doubt, and certainly do not mean to call into question, that he had considered what he was doing. Perhaps it was just not for me. I am not sure, though, that it was for Beethoven – whatever we mean by that – either. Still, it made me think, if more afterwards than at the time. I was led to think even about what it meant not to have been made to think. And then I returned to Adorno, and with the unquestionable egotism of a mere fallen human being, to something I had written in my first book (on Wagner’s Ring), towards its close:
Adorno was quite justified to claim that serious consideration of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – perhaps the most enduringly enigmatic musical work yet written – could only result in its Brechtian alienation, in rupturing ‘the aura of unfocused veneration protectively surrounding it’. One of the greatest problems with respect to the Ring is that such rupture has become well-nigh impossible. To be aware of this is only a beginning, but better than nothing. We should remain grateful that the enigma of the Ring pales besides that of Beethoven’s work. If we could understand why Beethoven set the Mass, we should, Adorno claimed, understand the Missa Solemnis. Understanding why Wagner wrote the Ring and beginning to understand the work itself suddenly seem less forbidding prospects.

Until, then, (impossible) retirement…

Friday 15 December 2017

Hänsel und Gretel, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 11 December 2017

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Gretel (Elsa Dreisig) and Hänsel (Katrin Wundsam)
Images: Monika Rittershaus

Peter – Arttu Kataja
Gertrud – Marina Prudenskaya
Hänsel – Katrin Wundsam
Gretel – Elsa Dreisig
Witch – Jürgen Sacher
Sandman – Corinna Scheurle
Dew Fairy – Sarah Aristidou

Achim Freyer (director, designs, lighting)
Geertje Boeden (assistant director)
Petra Weikert (assistant designer)
Sebastian Alphons (lighting)
Jakob Klaffs, Hugo Reis (video)
Elena Garcia Fernandez, Larissa Wieczorek (dramaturgy)

Children’s Chorus of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (chorus master: Vincenz Weissenburger)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Sebastian Weigle (conductor)

The first performance of Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera, Hänsel und Gretel, on the night before Christmas Eve, 1893, in Weimar, was conducted by Richard Strauss. The work’s second staging, in Hamburg, in September of the following year, was conducted by Gustav Mahler. It reached Berlin, this very house, then home to the Royal Court rather than the State Opera, the following month, and has belonged to the world ever since. Alas, that very popularity and a strange, seemingly related, insistence on presenting a tale of child abuse with sugar coating have tended to lead to the opera’s underestimation, or at least to insipid presentation, even non-interpretation. What, after all, is a fairy tale, if it is not an invitation to interpretation, for children, for adults, for all? For those to whom the Brothers Grim(m) were something a little more interesting than Eric and Donald Trump Jr, this would be mind-numbingly obvious; alas, audiences being what they often are…

Hänsel, The Witch (Jürgen Sacher), and Gretel

Achim Freyer does not penetrate so deep as LiamSteel in his Royal College of Music staging; when I saw that, I more or less instantly realised it was the production for which I had been waiting much of my adult life. (Yes, as I never tire of pointing out, much of the best London opera takes place in our conservatoires.) But nor does he try to; his concerns are different. He is certainly not pandering to reactionary ‘tastes’, in the manner of Adrian Noble in his Vienna Disneyfication. Where Freyer excels, as, at his best, he always does, is in the creation of a world, both childlike and perhaps not. I say ‘perhaps’, since who is to say what is ‘childlike’ and what is not, or indeed what its opposite might be. Is that, again, not part of the essence of fairy tales? Clowns are present, of course; there is that undeniable element of Freyer house style, but why not? It does not look, like sometimes his staging have, as merely more of the same, or one size fits all; nor does it feel like it. The sense of theatre is keen, not without framing, for instance when the wondrous flick of the lighting switch opens the metaphorical story book at the opening, yet without ever seeming pleased with itself, or too clever-clever. Children, of whatever age, do not like that; often they are right not to do so. We never see the ‘real’ Hänsel and Gretel, or rather the ‘real’ singers, not really, for their masks cover their faces several times over. But what is ‘real’? And what is ‘real’ here? Perhaps the plot interests Freyer less: a pity, I think, but he has other concerns. And the dream-like sense of proceedings, if only in retrospect, acquires a more darkly, yet also brightly, sense of the political and its possibilities, with a final unveiling of the sign ‘REVOLUTIO’. Unfinished business, or a joke? Dreamers or anti-dreamers, from Novalis to Brecht, may – or may not – have their say. Life with Freyer, life in many fairy tales, is a circus; yet think of what a circus, that theatre of cruelty, of the absurd, of society and anti-society, involves, suggests, incites.

If only the musical side of things had lived up to those possibilities. Sebastian Weigle’s conducting was, alas, throughout Kapellmeister-ish in the negative sense. ‘Light’, as if attempting a demonstration that Mendelssohn were not worth listening to, almost entirely without Wagnerisms, let alone the kinship with Strauss Christian Thielemann in that Vienna performance had imparted, rightly or wrongly to the score, the greater sin of Weigle’s reading was listlessness. I do not think I have ever heard the first act drag so; nor have I heard the music sound less magical. Weigle is certainly no Strauss or Mahler. It would be a hard task indeed to have the Staatskapelle Berlin sound bad in this music, and it did not; but this great orchestra was sadly undersold throughout, achieving a few moments of wonder despite, not on account of, its conductor.

It was not a vintage night for singing either, although Elsa Dreisig sparkled as Gretel. Katrin Wundsam sometimes sounded rather harsh as Hänsel. Marina Prudenskaja and Arttu Kataja sang well enough as their parents, likewise Jürgen Sacher as the Witch, but perhaps needed something more in the way of inspirational musical leadership – I shall never forget Colin Davis in 2008 – to lift their performances to something more memorable. There was hope, though, that in a subsequent revival, not only better conducted, but perhaps more engaged with the possibilities hinted at by Freyer, something more than the sum of the parts might emerge. That hope is, after all, the fuel on which opera houses, especially houses now reborn such as this, should burn.

Wednesday 13 December 2017

L'incoronazione di Poppea, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 10 December 2017

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Images: Bernd Uhlig
Nerone (Max Emanuel Cencic), Poppea (Anna Prohaska)

Fortuna – Niels Domdey
Fortuna, Damigella – Narine Yeghiyan
Virtù – Artina Kapreljan
Amore, Valletto – Lucia Cirillo
Amore – Noah Schurz
Nerone – Max Emanuel Cencic
Ottavia – Katharina Kammerloher
Poppea – Anna Prohaska
Ottone – Xavier Sabata
Seneca – Franz-Josef Selig
Drusilla – Evelin Novak
Liberto, Lucano – Gyula Orendt
First Soldier, Lucano – Linard Vrielink
Second Soldier – Florian Hoffmann
Tribune – David Oštrek
Nutrice – Jochen Kowalski
Arnalta – Mark Milhofer

Eva-Maria Höckmayr (director)
Jens Kilian (set designs)
Julia Rösler (costumes)
Olaf Freese, Irene Selka (lighting)
Mark Schachtsiek, Roman Reeger (dramaturgy)

Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin
Diego Fasolis (conductor)

The Staatsoper Unter den Linden is now reopen for good. That re-reopening, as it were, has taken place with two new productions of two favourite works of mine: Hänsel und Gretel (which I shall also review shortly) and L’incoronazione di Poppea. I wish I could offer a wholehearted welcome to this production of Poppea, not least as my final instalment in rather a wonderful Monteverdi year, the highlight of which was surely an RIAS Kammerchor Vespers, conducted by Justin Doyle (see also interview here). Eva-Maria Höckmayr’s production offers, alas, little in itself, almost a non-production, whilst the musical performances were somewhat mixed.

Let us start, however, with the good news, which was very good news indeed. In what I believe was her first role in a Monteverdi opera – madrigal performances and much other early music notwithstanding – Anna Prohaska truly shone in the title role. She can certainly act, and did, called on, like much of the cast, to be onstage for an almost absurd proportion of the evening. There was, then, no doubting her stage presence; but nor was there any doubting her vocal presence. Never forced, ever audible, increasingly imbued with darker, richer tones than I recall when first hearing her, without any sacrifice to clarity and cleanness of line and words, Prohaska surely offered a performance that would have made anyone wish to hear her again, whether in Monteverdi, Nono, or somewhere in between. Her Poppea, moreover, was no one-dimensional schemer, no mere sex-kitten, although she certainly offered plenty in the way of allure and manipulation; this was a woman reclaiming a woman’s role, certainly not apologetic, yet unwilling simply to have as a male projection – be that Monteverdi’s, Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s, ours – might have her act.

Seneca (Franz-Josef Selig), Nerone

Her leading men, as it were, also offered intelligent, multi-dimensional performances. Max Emanuel Cencic’s Nerone was occasionally a little on the squawky side, yet only occasionally. Otherwise he judiciously, even provocatively, balanced the character’s vanity and sexual allure, for if Poppea is to be more than merely a male projection, then surely the other characters, male and female, need to come more into their own. Ottone is, more often than not, a thankless role – almost a Don Ottavio for the seventeenth century. Xavier Sabata, though, gave him depth and greater ambition and nastiness of his own than one often encounters – without that diminishing his helplessness in the arms of Fate. Jochen Kowalski, who has had a long, distinguished career not only as a countertenor, but as a countertenor in Berlin, tended, alas, to suggest that that career should probably draw to a close. Perhaps it was just an off-night, but here he was barely capable of singing countertenor at all, proving more successful when giving up that good fight to sing instead as tenor. He still had stage presence; for the most part, that was all.

Rather to my surprise, Katharina Kammerloher’s Ottavia proved variable, less sure – or indeed beautiful – of line than most performances I have heard from her. Franz-Josef Selig, as ever, offered a thoughtful performance as Seneca, alert to the character’s irritating side – not only as seen through the eyes, or heard through the ears, of Nerone and Poppea. Evelin Novak’s Drusilla impressed too, as did Mark Milhofer’s deliciously camp – yet crucially, eminently musical – Arnalta. Gyula Orendt rose above his announced ailment to give notable performances, which doubtless could have been finer still, as Liberto and Lucano. Most of the smaller roles were well taken, often by members of the company. Quite why children were engaged to double the gods in the Prologue I have no idea; moreover, whilst it is certainly a tall order to ask children to sing Monteverdi at all, let alone on stage, the audience probably deserves to hear voices that are vaguely capable of remaining in tune.

Poppea, Ottone (Xavier Sabata),
Amore (Lucia Cirollo)

Diego Fasolis made heavy, unvaried weather of the score. Many current ‘Early Music’ clichés were present, including the irritating addition of ‘colourful’ percussion. It was a relatively large band for Monteverdi in all: nothing wrong with that in principle, but it did have me wonder why we were hearing period instruments. I do not think I have heard a more dully conducted account, closer to a failed attempt to copy Nikolaus Harnoncourt than to something livelier, whether at the ‘period’ or – one can but hope – the Leppard end of the spectrum. Might it not, moreover, have been an occasion to look to a composer’s realisation of the score, say Krenek’s or Dallapiccola’s, or to commission a new one? The Staatskapelle Berlin would certainly have been a vocal sight for sore ears, much of what we heard resembling – although it certainly is not – acres of dullish recitative. Why, moreover, in this version credited to Fasolis and Andrea Marchiol, did we hear material interpolated from elsewhere, such as L’Orfeo? It was hardly ‘authentic’, in any sense, offering little more than a longer evening. Poppea is not a short opera; here it felt far longer than it should.

As for Hockmayr’s production, I struggled for the most part to find one, beyond a cursory nod to a threadbare metatheatricality that has degenerated into mere fashion. From Jens Kilian, a single, undeniably impressive golden set, with intriguing geometrical possibilities – circular and otherwise – promises much, as does Julia Rösler’s ‘punkish Renaissance-Baroque’ costumes, Nerone and Poppea perhaps more, yet not entirely, contemporary (to us). I had the sneaking impression, though, however erroneous, that the singers had largely been left by Hockmayr to get on with it. There is, at least for me, no obvious concept, other than the characters being all as bad as each other: hardly original, and actually rather dull. Yes, they all have their flaws; neither Ottone nor Ottavia is a paragon. There is surely room for greater differentiation, though, differentiation which need not lead to moral judgement. And so, in the final scene, Poppea’s sudden trauma at her elevation, unforgettably portrayed by Prohaska, seems to come out of nowhere. Likewise the frankly silly twist that has Nerone wander off with Lucano. Yes, of course the two are close, and will remain so, sexually and otherwise: the orgy has shown us that. But surely to have Nerone already opt so obviously for another rather than to remain omnivorous seems little more than an unprepared cop out. Perhaps Hockmayr had thought this all out and either it did not come across very clearly, or I was missing something. Perhaps.

Puccini's Toaster, The Old Maid and the Thief and Cabaret Songs, 22 November 2017

Apologies for the lack of a proper review. I have been very busy, both with work and other matters, and never found the time to write one. I wanted, though, to mention this excellent evening at the Tangoloft in Wedding (Berlin). Caroline Staunton directed Gian Carlo Menotti's Old Maid and the Thief intelligently and resourcefully, with a neat metatheatrical framing to deal with the work's frankly problematical treatment of gender. The cast proved excellent, musically and dramatically, as did Rebecca Lang's score reduction (quite a miracle!) and musical direction. It was a wonderful treat, moreover, to have an array of cabaret songs after the interval. For me, the highlight was Reuben Walker's Eisler, but that was as much a matter of the material itself as the performance, for all singers shone, as did the outstanding pianism of Kunal Lahiry. At this remove, I am loath to say more than that, lest my memory play tricks, but strongly recommend following the fortunes of this enterprising company. I am sure it will not be the last time I report back from one of their performances.