Saturday 30 June 2018

In the Locked Room/The Lighthouse, Royal College of Music, 27 June 2018

Britten Theatre

Susan Wheeler – Lauren Joyanne Morris
Ella Foley – Beth Moxon
Stephen Foley – Thomas Erlank
Ben Pascoe – Theodor Platt

Sandy, Officer 1 – Richard Pinkstone
Blazes, Officer 2 – James Atkinson
Arthur, Voices of the Cards, Officer 3 – Timothy Edlin

Stephen Unwin (director)
Hannah Wolfe (designs)
Ralph Stokeld (lighting)

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

It was, on paper and not only on paper, an excellent idea to pair Huw Watkins’s 2012 chamber opera, In the Locked Room, with Peter Maxwell Davies’s classic drama, The Lighthouse. In both works, it is – or should be – far from clear where the boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘imagination’ might lie, indeed whether such boundaries might justly be said to exist or at least to have meaning. Where does delusion take over? Are we deluding ourselves to think that it has not been in the ascendant all along? Is there any scope, as Hans Sachs might advise us, to manipulate the dark forces of Schopenhauerian Wahn? In many respects, this Royal College of Music double-bill worked well; I was certainly left thinking about what the works had in common and what they did not. I am not entirely convinced, though, that Stephen Unwin’s staging of the former and indeed David Harsent’s libretto always made as strong a case as they might have done.

Two friends who had known Thomas Hardy’s original short story beforehand felt more dissatisfied than I did. Whether I should have felt differently had I too known the ‘original’, I am not sure. I am, to quote an accessory to war crimes, ‘intensely relaxed’ about adaptations taking on whatever new form is wished, so long as it works on its own terms. Nevertheless, from having read the story since, I could not help but think that something had been lost in ambiguity, whether by Harsent, Unwin, or, I suspect, by both. The updating works well. A joyless marriage, kept in place by banker, Stephen Foley’s money and, doubtless, by inertia, even by social pressure, comes across well. In a programme note, Unwin speaks of ‘the lonely yearnings of the housekeeper, Susan’; I found her somewhat under-written, though, and indeed had thought her a mysteriously reappearing estate agent. (My fault in the latter case, no doubt.)

What I missed, and what is perhaps only really suggested by Watkins’s score, is a suggestion that the poet-lodger, Ben Pascoe, for whom Ella falls might or might not be in her imagination; realism ruled too strongly on stage. (Hardy called his tale The Imaginative Woman, which, sexism aside, surely points to a more interesting reading.) There is a splendid addition to that in Stephen’s talk about derivatives: surely the most lethal imaginary world of our time. That perhaps made him the most interesting character, especially when played with so strong a combination of toxic masculinity (Hannah Wolfe’s designs surely helped too) and implicit, yet only implicit, doubt as by Thomas Erlank. Otherwise, however, it is in the ghostly musical imaginings that seem to take their linguistic leave as much from the later world of Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice as from the more obvious Britten opera, that that realm seems capable of musico-dramatic expression. A fascination with patterns, too, however, seems fruitfully suggested, in the end once more reminding us of that Turn of the Screw precedent. I am certainly not saying that what is heard musically must be recreated on stage, or indeed match the words. A little too often, though, I found the score, as it were, visually drowned out.

Such perhaps only became truly apparent in retrospect, following the second half’s powerfully integrated performance and production of The Lighthouse. Here, claustrophobia and terror grabbed us by the neck and never let go; yet so too did the suggestive and still surprising (however much one ‘knows’) turns of the dramatic screw. This, it seems to me, is an opera whose stature grows with every hearing, and London has been fortunate in recent years with possibilities. Richard Pinkstone, James Atkinson, and Timothy Edlin brought sharply characterised readings to their characters, yet their interaction proved just as impressive. So too was the playing of the RCM Opera Orchestra under Michael Rosewell: insidious purveyors and blenders of reality and imagination, complementing and immeasurably enhancing Unwin’s resourceful staging (not least Ralph Stokeld’s lighting, atmospheric and blinding by turn). Peter Maxwell Davies’s cunning use and abuse of parody set boundaries and dissolved them in oracular pronouncement. This was truly an apocalyptic pit of bestial expressionism. Every minute, even every second, was made to count: repetition never just repetition, development always called into question. Whether the Beast were ‘real’, whatever that might mean, proved both the question and quite beside the point. Tremendous stuff, then, as always: fully the equal of what we should have any right to expect from London’s larger houses.

Thursday 28 June 2018

Cooper - Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Haydn, 26 June 2018

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven: Eleven Bagatelles, op.119
Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19
Haydn: Piano Sonata in C major, Hob.XVI:50
Beethoven: Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op.120

Imogen Cooper (piano)

Any programme including the Diabelli Variations will offer an extraordinary challenge for pianist and audience alike; so too, after all, would a programme in which Beethoven’s op.120 was the only work on the programme. With a first half of works by Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Haydn – a programme of which, I hasten to add, I wholeheartedly approve – the difficulties but also the opportunities multiply. Whilst not everything here in Imogen Cooper’s recital proved equally convincing, there was certainly more than enough to enjoy and to make one think.

First came the op.119 Bagatelles, the opening G minor piece notable for its nobility of utterance, with more than a glance back to Mozart’s use of that key. E-flat major warmth – again, perhaps not entirely without reference to Mozart or indeed to Haydn – offered welcome, illuminating contrast and association. Cooper phrased beautifully, shading tellingly yet without pedantry. Beethoven’s counterpoint sounded unusually Bach-like, refreshingly so. As the set progressed, we heard intimations of Schumann, Chopin, even, I fancied in the seventh piece with its strange inner-part trills, of Janáček; we felt musically as well as technically – if that makes any sense – the need to cross hands; above all, we experienced Beethoven’s need to develop, even when there is barely time to do so. Sublime melodic simplicity left us in no doubt as to the composer, likewise the strangeness and difficulty of late Beethoven (irrespective of the precise dating of individual pieces). A heavy-handedness that went beyond mere vigour, boisterousness, or resolve (no.6: ‘Risoluto’) occasionally detracted – yet only occasionally.

Further illumination was had from placing Schoenberg’s aphoristic op.19 Little Piano Pieces after those Beethoven ‘trifles’ (anything but, of course). There were again a few occasions when heavy-handedness slightly hampered proceedings, not least in the free-floating of these wisps from another planet. That should not, however, be exaggerated. The will-o’-the-wisp quality to the first in particular was well captured, as were the twin requirements of voice-leading and characterisation. The obstinacy of the second’s major-third figure gained very much from juxtaposition with Beethoven’s not entirely dissimilar games. The sixth spoke as much of Schoenberg’s orchestral experiments – the all-too-little-known, posthumous Three Pieces for Chamber Orchestra, yes, but also the preceding op.16 Orchestral Pieces – as of Mahlerian funeral bells. Harmonies suggested timbre, but timbres we could not quite year, yet fancied we did, also in turn suggested harmonies.

Haydn’s C major Piano Sonata, Hob.XVI:50 was taken attacca: an obvious ploy, perhaps, but a fruitful one nevertheless. The quirkiness – please forgive the cliché – of its opening emerged with still greater freshness from the still strange harmonic world of ‘freely atonal’ Schoenberg. A sonata form thus formed itself, almost as if from a lower-case representation of chaos. Cooper’s tempo was judicious, permitting of necessary subdivision without garbling. I found the musical argument utterly absorbing. Beethovenian connections suggested themselves, but the individuality of Haydn’s imagination and intellect were undimmed, not least in a development that is surely like no other. The Adagio sounded with almost Schoenbergian complexity, with Mozartian echoes equally apparent, indeed related. It always sang – as is crucial to the music of both. The finale, however, I found somewhat bewildering. Lack of clarity seemed a deliberate interpretative decision, but I could not understand why.

And so to the Diabelli Variations. Cooper certainly conveyed a necessary sense of, and incitement to, intellectual struggle, likewise the variety of response – to put it mildly – in Beethoven’s treatment of the ‘cobbler’s path’ of a theme. Her way with his humour was excellent: straight-faced, even mock straight-laced, speaking in earnest so that Beethoven could make his point. The second variation could then, for instance, sound all the more disconcerting una corda following the march rhythms of the first. Tenderness of melodic line made connections with, or perhaps better developed from, what we had heard in the opening Bagatelles. Schumann again came to mind. So even did Schoenberg, when tonality – dialectically – came to sound most under strain the more it was insisted upon. The variety of insistence was, of course, very much a thing in itself; such was certainly the case in performance. And yet, there was, particularly in the middle variations, sometimes a sense of having lost our way. Perhaps that was just me, but I was not sure, even after the event, where I was being taken or why. Thrill of discovery is an absolute necessity, but some variations began to sound a little arbitrary. It was, at any rate, a considerable relief to reach the C minor Adagio ma non troppo of the twenty-second variation. Was, however, Beethoven’s ‘ma non troppo’ heeded? The fugue sounded properly uncompromising, although it was perhaps also a little lacking in chiaroscuro to begin with. Perhaps, though, that had been the point, for light and shade were soon to be heard and indeed felt in abundance. Cooper will doubtless have more to say about this work in the future; this, however, was more than just a start.

Monday 25 June 2018

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Grange Festival, 24 June 2018

(sung in English, as The Abduction from the Seraglio)

The Grange, Northington

Images: The Grange Festival 2018/Simon Annand
Osmin (Jonathan Lemalu) and Blonde (Daisy Brown)

Pasha Selim – Alexander Andreou
Konstanze – Kiandra Howarth
Blonde – Daisy Brown
Belmonte – Ed Lyon
Pedrillo – Paul Curievici
Osmin – Jonathan Lemalu

John Copley (director)
Tim Reed (designs)
Kevin Treacy (lighting)

Grange Festival Chorus (chorus master: Tom Primrose)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Jean-Luc Tingaud (conductor)

Belmonte (Ed Lyon) and Konstanze (Kiandra Howarth)

Pedrillo (Paul Curievici)
Those for whom opera is primarily a matter of fine singing will have had a treat in this Entführung. In that sense, so did I. The Grange Festival had assembled a cast to grace any stage, a cast that more than lived up to expectations on this, the first night. Kiandra Howarth sang as fine a Konstanze as I have heard, Christine Schäfer included, coloratura clear and meaningful, line finely spun. Humanity breathed into her character was Mozart’s – yet hers too. Daisy Brown’s spirited Blonde offered virtues similar yet far from idential; there was no difficulty in distinguishing the two soprano roles, style and delivery complementary yet distinctive. Much the same might be said of the two tenors, Ed Lyon and Paul Curievici. Lyon’s dignified, yet heartfelt Belmonte and Curievici’s quicksilver Pedrillo offered complementary nobilities, alert to distinctions of social order whilst also suggesting that they – we too – should not be bound by them. And so, in the case of duets and ensembles, indeed of questions and responses, the vocal ingredients were prepared, ready to blend, yet also to retain their individual flavours: which they did. Jonathan Lemalu’s Osmin offered similar virtues from ‘outside’ the charmed European circle, as it were: more contrast, than complement. All handled dialogue well – even it if suffered, as still more did the rest, from a ‘translation’ into English, often very loose indeed, by David Parry: a translation apparently more concerned to draw attention to itself with ‘amusing’ rhymes than to permit the drama to unfold.

Alas, there was little to cheer in the rest. The strange decision to translate – there were English titles – was one thing; more seriously, John Copley’s new (?!) production seemed stuck in a misremembered 1950s. An Entführung, sorry Abduction, for Brexit? There was certainly little in the way of diversity amongst the audience. More bizarrely, it registered not a jot that this is an Orientalist opera concerned with a purported clash between European and Ottoman civilisations; such was neither portrayed nor deconstructed. Nor, however, was anything put in place of that admittedly problematical clash. We saw neither an exploration of what human ‘love’ might or might not mean, as in Stefan Herheim’s exhilarating total reinvention of the work – minus the Pasha – for Salzburg or Calixto Bieito’s Berlin staging, nor any sense of the dark sadomasochism (‘Martern aller Arten…’) both directors and others have explored. I am not sure I could imagine anything less erotic if I tried – and I certainly do not intend to try.

Pasha Selim (Alexander Andreou)

It was as if this were just a terribly unfunny comedy chosen for an end-of-term school play: nothing to scare away the parents, yet nothing to attract them either. The æsthetic, such as it was, seemed very much ‘school play’ – unironically so. It was not so much that Copley had no concept, nor a question of ‘traditionalism’ or otherwise; it was about a fruitless search for drama ending in watching some people in vaguely ‘exotic’ costumes walk around a stage. Even David McVicar’s determinedly anodyne production for Glyndebourne seemed deep by comparison. One at least had the sense that McVicar might, for the sake of ‘entertainment’, have been knowingly evading the issues rather than remaining blissfully unaware of them. This might have been directed by Andrea Leadsom, although not #asamother.

Jean-Luc Tingaud’s conducting proved no more revealing. Mostly hard-driven, with occasional arbitrary slowing (presumably for ‘expression’), it again had one wondering what the fuss might all be about when it came to the operas of Mozart. (My companion, a highly experienced and reflective opera-goer, commented that, had this been her first encounter, it would most likely also have been her last.) On the occasions that the woodwind of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra managed to break a little free, they sounded delectable. Again, however, the drama remained entirely vocal.

Sunday 24 June 2018

City of London Choir/Davan Wetton - Elgar, Holst, Thalben-Ball, and Duruflé, 21 June 2018

St Giles-without-Cripplegate

Elgar: Psalm 29, ‘Give unto the Lord’, op.74
Holst: Nunc Dimittis
George Thalben-Ball: Elegy
Elgar: Psalm 48, ‘Great is the Lord’, op.67
Duruflé: Requiem, op.9

Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano)
John Lee (baritone)
Mark Williams (organ)
Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
City of London Choir
Hilary Davan Wetton (conductor)

The City of London Festival has been missed since its demise was announced in 2016, One concert in particular will remain with me forever: the last time I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct: Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts in St Paul’s Cathedral. There were many smaller events, though, many of them free, most of them dotted around various of the City’s churches. Let us welcome, then, a new festival, Summer Music in City Churches, which seeks to recapture some of that essence and opportunity. In its opening year, a hundred years since the end of the Great War, it has decided to focus on ‘different aspects of … [that] era, and some later responses to war and peace’. This, the opening concert, was entitled ‘Storm and Refuge’; it offered in its first half works by English composers, followed by a later French requiem.

Far be it from me to speak in nationalist terms, but Elgar’s was certainly the finest of the music on offer here. (‘For balance’: the worst would also be English.) The City of London Choir under Hilary Davan Wetton seemed very much at home in two of his psalm settings for chorus and organ, as did organist Mark Williams. The first, Give unto the Lord, benefited from a performance both vigorous and variegated, its tricky corners unfailingly well navigated – occasional early issues of synchronisation notwithstanding. One could hear echoes of the composer’s great oratorios here, yet there was no doubting the singularity of his response to this particular text. Williams’s organ registration choices were apt, indeed telling, perhaps especially his use of reeds. Written in 1914 for St Paul’s, it was succeeded at the end of the first half by Great is the Lord, from two years earlier (Westminster Abbey). Again emphatically through-composed, Elgar’s response to the words proved clear, vivid, even joyous – both in work and performance. These settings are not easy to perform; they are very much worth the effort.

In between came two lesser works. Holst’s 1915 Nunc dimittis (Westminster Cathedral) is a curious piece. It opens intriguingly, in a very different – arguably more ‘modern’, even modernist – tonal language, before lapsing into something a little too close to English Renaissance pastiche. There are worse models than Byrd, of course, but it is difficult to understand how the whole might cohere. It received a full, rich-toned a cappella performance, though, very much in the tradition of Richard Terry’s celebrated Westminster Cathedral choir. As for Sir George Thalben-Ball’s Elegy, the less said the better. It doubtless worked in its plodding way as an organ improvisation; those wireless listeners reported to have called the BBC to ask him to write it down probably needed to get out more. The piece was played very well, though.

Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem probably works best in its version for organ and choir. The composer’s orchestral writing lacks interest and tends to distract rather than elucidate. From the opening of the Introit, what struck me here was how plainchant came more strongly still to the fore. There was a strong sense of building towards the light that will shine upon the souls of the dead, not unlike Fauré (an obvious comparison, yet surely not irrelevant). Climaxes in the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ were especially well handled: ‘beautiful’ in a conventional sense, but this is hardly a work of avant-gardism. Quiet unease was nevertheless present too. Marta Fontanals-Simmons’s solo in the Pie Jesu (joined by solo cello) was, especially at the opening, sometimes painfully out of tune and weirdly ‘operatic’ in the vulgar sense: a pity. Chorister John Lee did a better, more self-effacing job with his solos, here and in Elgar. Cross-rhythms really told in the ‘Agnus Dei’, preparing the way for quiet consolation and certainty in the return of the ‘Requiem’ music in the following ‘Lux aeterna’. It was good to hear a ‘Libera me’ that did not drag, as it can, leading to an equally well shaped final ‘In paradisum’. If the setting is always more likely to appeal to conservative choral scholars than to a wider musical public, it will doubtless retain a place on the fringes of the repertoire for that reason – and not unreasonably so, when well performed as here.

Saturday 23 June 2018

Esfahani - Bach, 19 June 2018

Wigmore Hall

Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Nine Little Preludes, BWV 924-932
Toccata in E minor, BWV 914
Toccata in D minor, BWV 913
Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother, BWV 992
Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Five Little Preludes, BWV 939-943
English Suite no.6 in D minor, BWV 911

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

Mahan Esfahani opened my ears – and mind – not only to Bach on the harpsichord, but to the instrument itself. With this Wigmore Hall recital, he continued to do so. It was certainly not that I had ever thought Bach that ‘must’ be performed on the piano; that would be as absurd as saying that it must be performed on any other instrument(s). (Not that that prevents many from making such an absurd claim.) However, with a few exceptions, such as recordings from Wanda Landowska and Ralph Kirkpatrick, I had heard few interesting performances: performances that treated the music in anything more than naïve archaeological fashion. If you are neither able nor willing to hear the Schoenberg in Bach, just as much as the Bach in Schoenberg, then you might as well give up. If only the sectarian ayatollahs of ‘authenticity’ would – or indeed those who present an image founded upon silly hairstyles and other carefully manufactured ‘quirks’. Esfahani, however, with his insistence on the harpsichord as a living instrument, at home in Xenakis as Bach, in Ligeti as Byrd, shows us not that the choice of instrument is irrelevant; of course it is not. Esfahani shows us, as he did once again here, that he is a musician worthy of the supreme challenges with which Bach confronts him – and us.

Nine Little Preludes from the Clavier-Büchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann Bach made for a wonderful overture: not unlike, perhaps, a selection from Boulez’s Notations, for another instrument (about which I shall now shut up). There was a sense less of a conspectus, of a summa – this is not the 48 – but of new paths opening up: not least in the ninth, left incomplete in work and performance, the break theatrical in the best sense, a curtain-raiser rather than something applied from outside. Esfahani played these little pieces as a set, tonal progression again emerging from within: a sign of freedom, not a straitjacket. This is not the age of the Classical sonata, but of the suite (all or mostly ‘in’ a single key): progression means something different here. It means something nevertheless, and holds implications both historical and musical.

Landowska’s style and indeed that of Willem Mengelberg came to mind in the E minor Toccata. I say ‘style’, but really I mean ‘spirit’ – not that one can or should dissociate style and idea, as Schoenberg would warn us. This, I felt, was a performance I should like to have given, if only I had the technical and indeed musical facility to do so. Esfahani revelled in the young Bach’s music, never trying to turn it into older Bach; why should he? Percussive moments seemed almost to suggest Scarlatti; indeed, there was more than a little of the Mediterranean, or rather a German’s longing for the Mediterranean, to the performance. Perhaps I am sentimentalising, or applying my own preoccupations to what I heard. This was a performance open to personalisation, though – in the best sense. And Bach sounded, quite rightly, at least as radical as Ligeti. A bravura performance of the D minor Toccata followed. Following a slightly improvisatory opening, it teased and charmed; the performance compelled the music to speak, not unlike a recitativo accompagnato. This was Bach as generative as Beethoven or Brahms, albeit in somewhat different ways. It was anything but austere, the dialectic between freedom and organisation as spellbinding as it would be in any later composer, Schoenberg included.

Registration choices truly rang the changes – musical changes, no mere ‘effects’ – in a performance of the Capriccio on the Departure of his Most Beloved Brother that permitted of many standpoints or, perhaps better, ways in. Roots in earlier music came to life: living traditions in themselves. Chromaticism grew out of simple, diatonic beginnings. Something Italianate or at least ‘southern’ – Scarlatti again a kinsman? – sang in the exultation of homecoming. But it was Bach, and only Bach, who spoke, sang, and told of the glory of God in the fugue. Old ‘debates’ about programme music refuse to die, at least in the popular imagination; surely such music and performances ought to kill them off forever. It is never either/or.

Five further Preludes, BWV 939-43, opened the second half, Esfahani beginning very much in medias res. They sounded – regardless of questions concerned their ‘authenticity’ – as jewels in a Webern-like suite. Whoever wrote them, their quality spoke for itself; as, at least in performance, did their diversity in unity.

A Prelude in every sense opened the Sixth English Suite. We heard, experienced a youthful, exhilirating representation of chaos: something I fancied both Landowska and Alfred Cortot would have appreciated. The Allemande and Courante seemed almost to function as secular(ish) – not that the distinction between sacred and secular is remotely meaningful for Bach, or indeed at all – versicle and response. Redemption seemed almost at hand, if not through our own works. The intrinsic grandeur of the Sarabande and its Double was released in a fashion that seemed haunted by an earlier ‘Englishness’: Purcell, perhaps, or Lawes. My expectations were confounded – in a good way – in the Gavottes, taken at quite a lick and all the better for it. Interplay between hands told a story just as it would in Liszt or Webern. The Gigue danced in, not despite, its almost Bergian density. And then, a surprise: a Fantasy in C minor, written apparently when Bach was only fifteen years old. I was delighted to make its acquaintance. As ever with Bach, it looked backward and forward, those long, profound glances in mutual service. That, surely, should be how we strive to understand his music too; such was certainly the case here.

Monday 18 June 2018

‘Germans at Westminster Abbey’ – Gowers: Bach, Wagner, Liszt, and Strauss, 17 June 2018

Westminster Abbey

Bach-Schoenberg, arr. Gowers: Prelude in E-flat major, BWV 552
Wagner, arr. Edwin Lamare: Tannhäuser: ‘Lied an den Abendstern’
Liszt, arr. Louis Falk: Liebesträume, no.3, S 541
Strauss, arr. Gowers: Feuersnot: ‘Zwischenspiel/Liebesszene’

Richard Gowers (organ)

Theodor Adorno’s challenge to ‘authenticke’ colonisation of Bach’s music, a furious denunciation of the 1950 bicentenary reconstructionism he rightly saw mirroring that of the Federal Republic of Germany, remains in many respects unanswerable. Alas, as with so many things, being unanswerable does not necessarily translate into worldly acceptance. (‘Take back control’, anyone?) Bach still needs defending from his Liebhaber (devotees); or rather they need offending. Anyone with an ear and a mind knows the truth of this claim from another of Adorno’s essays, Tradition: ‘The difference between what is past and what is present … is not absolute. One can only understand Schoenberg if one understands Bach; one can only understand Bach if one understands Schoenberg.’ Alas, the musical world, like the world at large, is not always in the hands of those with ears and minds. In a modernist age, we need modernist Bach – which can take all manner of forms, certainly not to be restricted a priori. It is literalism that kills. Adorno thus commended Schoenberg’s Bach orchestrations along with Webern’s orchestration of the six-part Ricercare from the Musical Offering and Fritz Stiedry’s realization of the Art of Fugue as paragons of fidelity through infidelity to Bach’s music. The music was rethought rather than consigned to the researches of ‘philologists with no compositional ability,’ who would merely apportion the parts between individual instruments or groups of instruments. Modernist Bach takes its cue from Bach’s music, in that the ‘contradiction between music and sound-material,’ especially that between the Baroque organ and the ‘infinitely articulated structure,’ is acted upon, developed, brought into the open rather than falsely reconciled. In the final sentence of his Bach essay, Adorno put it like this: modernist ‘composition … calls his music by name in producing it anew’.

How wonderful, then, to hear a further turn of the dialectical screw in the opening piece of this recital from Richard Gowers on the organ of Westminster Abbey. Having studied Schoenberg’s orchestration of Bach’s St Anne Prelude and Fugue, Gowers attempted – with great success – to return, with interest, some of those fruitful contradictions to the organ. That ‘wondrous machine’ and its operator not only made music – sometimes easier said than done – but offered a stance that was critical, in the best sense, towards both Bach and Schoenberg, and indeed towards so many of our present occupations. A myriad of registration changes – fifty different sound combinations, I am told – worked in furtherance of that, but so did the organist’s structural command in a more conventional sense.

The Liszt and Wagner arrangements that followed were more conventional, I suppose: arrangements rather than transcriptions, should that distinction mean anything at all. (I am not entirely sure that it does, definition always ultimately failing.) Nevertheless, they were nicely shaped, with registration that was ‘appropriate’ in a nineteenth-century sense, without ever merely sounding conventional. Wolfram’s song certainly had one look to the heavens, almost as if one might hear the star of which he told us. Liszt’s Liebesträume initially sounded, I thought, slightly unsuited to its new habitat – not unlike some of Liszt’s ‘own’ organ transcriptions of his piano works. (I use inverted commas, since it is often far from clear how much he did and how much someone else did. His relationship with the instrument remains, however, not only fascinating but fruitful.) Filigree writing worked better than it had any right to; whether this were the doing of the arranger, the organist, or bother, I am not sure. Both, I suspect. And finally, Gowers’s own organ transcription (or arrangement?) from Strauss’s Feuersnot offered a rare treat indeed. For such a master of orchestration – the only composer who would have dared update Berlioz’s treatise, let alone succeeded in doing so – to translate so beautifully, even magnificently, into very different washes of sound in so very different an acoustic was quite a thing indeed. Bach’s is not the only music we honour in producing it anew.

La bohème, Royal Opera, 16 June 2018

Royal Opera House

Musetta (Danielle de Niese) at Café Momus
Images: Catherine Ashmore/ROH 2018

Marcello – Etienne Dupuis
Rodolfo – Matthew Polenzani
Colline – Fernando Radó
Schaunard – Duncan Rock
Benoît – Jeremy White
Mimì – Maria Agresta
Parpignol – Andrew Macnair
Musetta – Danielle de Niese
Alcindoro – Wyn Pencarreg
Customs Officer – John Morrissey
Sergeant – Thomas Barnard

Richard Jones (director)
Julia Burbach (revival director)
Stewart Laing (director)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Sarah Fahie, Danielle Urbas (movement)

Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Tiffin’s Children’s Chorus
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Nicola Luisotti (conductor)

Schaunard (Duncan Rock), Colline (Fernanrdo Radó), Marcello (Etienne Dupuis), Rodolfo (Matthew Polenzani)

Poor Puccini. He suffers more than any other composer I know from being treated as a box-office draw. (Dmitri Tcherniakov notwithstanding, Carmen is perhaps not so dissimilar; yet, given its status as the sole Bizet opera worth staging – Lord preserve us from the tedium of another Pearl Fishers – the situation remains different.) The requirement, however, for making at least four of his operas so unfailing a draw seems to be to prevent anything but the most ‘traditional’ of stagings from seeing the light of day. I have no idea what Claus Guth’s recent Bohème was like, but thank goodness the Paris Opéra showed itself willing to do something different with the work. Stefan Herheim’s superlative, death-haunted production for Oslo remains hors concours. Otherwise, ‘major houses’ remain not so much unwilling to experiment as adamantly opposed.

I wondered, then, what Richard Jones might make of the same opera. My sense, whilst away, was that reception of its first outing had not generally been favourable. A sign of hope, perhaps? Alas not. I have never been less moved, even when I maintained a frostier stance towards Puccini than I do now, by a performance of La bohème. Indeed, given that I was not so much as slightly moved even once, such would have been impossible. That cannot have been entirely the production’s fault, but it bore greater responsibility than anything else. Now a Brechtian, post-dramatic Bohème might be a fascinating prospect indeed: imagine what Achim Freyer (when on form) or Frank Castorf might do with, or to, the work. I know that Peter Konwitschny has staged it too, although I have yet, alas, to catch up with that production. Try as I might, though, I could find no edge, no critique. This seems merely cynical – and merely cynical in just about the worst way.

The first act is stark, or at least its design is. A basic roof frame is a little more suggestive of a garret than often one sees, although the fact that one sees no sleeping quarters is, within a realistic framework, perhaps a little odd. (I shall return to that.) There is not much more to it, yet often there is not: other than everyone shivering. I presume the slightly repellent hair – is it meant to look dirty or just nasty? – of the students is intended to convey poverty or slovenliness, or both, but am not sure. Snow falls throughout, though, in a seemingly sentimental fashion, as if to appease those who wanted ‘traditional’ atmosphere. Perhaps they are being sent up, but I am afraid I found little sign of that. Even if they were, should they be?

A seemingly obscene amount of money is then expended on designs for the second act: as if to say, ‘you thought you had the germs of an austere concept, so I’ll show you’. Lavish shopping arcades – nineteenth-century Paris, I suppose, yet hardly suggestive of Walter Benjamin – whirl around for a little while centre-stage, then are banished, so that the action can take place. It is all very chocolate-box musical comedy, yet seemingly not with irony. (And even if it is, why?) Café Momus is more Michelin-starred restaurant than a place for Bohemian encounters. There is little attempt, so far as I can ascertain, to suggest either that the characters are genuinely poor, or that they are privileged boys playing at being poor. It all just seems ill-thought-through. There is worse, though. Musetta, robbed of the elegance her music suggests, is merely a drunk, who climbs on the table and, with difficulty, delivers herself of her underwear to throw around. Perhaps there is a plausible non-misogynist reading of what we saw; if so, it passed me by. Snow continues to fall.

As indeed, it does in the second half: straightforward to a degree. (John Copley surely accomplished that better – and with far more of a sense of what the opera is, or at least might be, about.) Everything happens more or less as it ‘should’, yet with a casualness to the direction that makes one wonder why anyone bothered. The only real oddity is that, when Mimì arrives, and a bed has to be found for her, it is merely linen or a blanket, or something. Again, one might think that intended to convey poverty: have they really been living like that all that time? It does not seem like it, though, and such an idea does not seem to cohere with anything else. Perhaps because there is not anything much else with which to cohere. The work ends: unloved and yet also uncriticised. It would take a better production than this, however ‘traditional’, to manage either.

Nicola Luisotti’s conducting did not help, either – although oddly, it often seemed rather in keeping with Jones’s vision (or lack thereof). Much, especially in the outer acts, was marmoreal; much more almost – yet not quite – brutal. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House played well enough, yet nothing like what once it could. (To think, this was once Bernard Haitink’s orchestra – and before that Colin Davis’s.) Luisotti, who impressed greatly in Il trittico in 2016, seemed at times so impatient as to be wishing to be elsewhere – I sympathised – and, when he did permit something loosely known as ‘emotion’, to be doing so less out of conviction than from duty: colouring-book Puccini. Structural grip was not lacking, yet it was mere external, imposed ‘structure’ rather than formal dynamism, content possessing but a tenuous relationship to the receptacle into which it had been squeezed. Even the Wagnerisms – a little hint of Tristan there, a Meistersinger-ish moment there – sounded incidental, certainly not generative. Puccini as modernist: forget it. As for Luisotti’s reprehensible slowing down so as actually to invite multiple instances of philistine applause within an act…

Musetta and Mimì (Maria Agresta)

The cast did a decent enough job but there was nothing to get too excited about in that respect either. How much was the responsibility of director and conductor was, in this case, difficult to tell; yet there must be something a little awry when the most memorable vocal performances come from an excellent Colline and Schaunard  (Fernando Radó and Duncan Rock). Both seemed far more alert to the drama of words and music than either Jones or Luisotti. Maria Agresta sang the part of Mimì nicely enough; I am not sure I have anything more to say about that. Danielle de Niese certainly gave a sincere, committed performance; she always has done in any role in which I have seen her. Leaving aside Jones’s perverse portrayal of her in the second act, though, sincerity was not enough to mask thinness of voice. Matthew Polenzani proved an ardent enough Rodolfo, Etienne Dupuis likewise as Marcello, but their hearts did not seem – perhaps understandably – really to be in it. For there was little heart on display at all here; nor was there anything dramatically on hand, alas, to replace it.

Friday 15 June 2018

Mamzer Bastard (world premiere), Royal Opera, 14 June 2018

Hackney Empire Theatre

Younger Yoel - Edward Hyde
Yoel – Collin Shay
Stranger – Steven Page
Esther – Gundula Hintz
Menashe – Robert Burt
David – Netanel Hershtik

Jay Scheib (director)
Madeleine Boyd (designs)
D.M. Wood (lighting)
Paulina Jurzec (video)
Yair Elazar Glotman (sound design)

Aurora Orchestra
Jessica Cottis (conductor)

Paulina Jurzec (cinematographer), Collin Shay (Yoel), Steven Page (Stranger)
Images: Stephen Cummiskey (C) ROH

Let me begin, like an undergraduate unsure what to say at the beginning of an essay: there were many reasons to admire the first performance of Na’ama Zisser’s opera, Mamzer Bastard, a co-commission from the Royal Opera and the Guildhall. Even though the journey is now a bit of a pain for me, it is always a joy to visit the Hackney Empire, infinitely preferable to the other of Frank Matcham’s London theatres that is sometimes used for opera. The quality is often very high, the location seemingly inciting visiting companies to their best; I am not sure I have ever seen a better Marriage of Figaro than that from the Royal Academy a couple of years ago. Not only bringing opera to Hackney but also taking it out of the West End is a very good thing; it genuinely seemed to have attracted a new, highly appreciative audience, half of which offered a standing ovation (something even Bernard Haitink receives less often in London than he does). The idea of an opera set in the Hasidic Jewish community was enticing too. I had no idea what to expect from any part of it, which always adds to the anticipation. Moreover, performances from all concerned were excellent, the Aurora Orchestra under Jessica Cottis perhaps the greatest stars of all. One had little doubt that one was hearing what one was supposed to hear. Gundula Hintz shone, too, as the mother, Esther: clearly both moved and capable of moving.

Esther (Gundula Hintz), Menashe (Robert Burt)

Then, alas, comes the matter of the opera itself: so tedious that I genuinely feared – hoped? – I might fall asleep. I suspect something could have been made of some of the material (if not necessarily the musical material), given a few years’ hard work, rethinking, and experience. Director Jay Scheib wrote in the programme of the libretto, by Samantha Newton and Rachel C. Zisser, having been ‘written in the form of a screenplay. Transitions took the form of jump cuts,’ and so on. Would that it had come across with any such focus or direction. It jumps around with much confusion: not dramatic confusion, more ‘let’s say a bit about the Holocaust here … let’s stop for a while and have a “meaningful” pause,’ etc., etc.

The lack of focus in the libretto is redolent more of an initial pub sketch of ideas for an opera than anything more thought out. It is not fragmentary; it is certainly not challenging; it is barely a drama. Sub- (very sub-)Katie Mitchell filming – sometimes with an awkward time-lag – did little to help, and perhaps a little to hinder. In Scheib’s words, ‘Cameras have afforded us access to a dynamic vocabulary normally reserved for the visual world of the cinema.’ Quite apart from the ignorance and arrogance of the claim – have you seen any German theatre recently, even ventured so far as the Royal Court? – little is revealed other than occasional, clichéd flashes of blinding light: appearing, aptly enough, long after lightning is supposed to have struck.

Much, though not all, of the music stands on the verge of embarrassing: swathes of vague electronic noise, sound effects, interspersed with cantorial and other trivial melodies, the marriage of word and text in the latter quickly heading for the divorce courts. (As for the former, it is good, perhaps, to learn that the Church of England holds no monopoly on banal liturgical music.) Attempts to define what is and is not opera are most likely bound to fail. That said, surely the idea that it should in some way or other be more than a play with music, that its music itself should be dramatic, seems a reasonable assumption. There are, at the close, a few signs of such a dawning realisation on Na’ama Zisser’s part. Some simple musical figures start to add up to something a little more than themselves, musically and dramatically. For me, however, it was all too late. As I said, a period of revision would have been in order; such progress might then have been read back into what had gone before, far too much of which came across as something akin to a school project: fine for those involved and their proud parents, but for the wider world? Would you want your sixteen-year-old essays on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything published and distributed?

‘Eine Oper ist ein absurdes Ding,’ Strauss’s Capriccio Count tells his sister. In many ways, yes, although not always. It nevertheless takes a great deal of effort and experience to be properly absurd. The artifice in both Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos tell a story, moreover, quite different from that which a superficial reading of their synopses might suggest. Mozart was different, Apollo et Hyacinthus a superior work to half of those in the benighted working ‘repertoire’ of many opera houses. Perhaps if one is not Mozart, one might wait at least a little longer before testing the operatic waters. It has worked – magnificently – for George Benjamin. And yes, this doubtless rests on a view of works, masterpieces, the rest, considered hopelessly outmoded by some. I am not, however, even claiming that a work should necessarily be forever. (Let us leave posterity for another time, as it were.) However, if a work is not for now, or at least not yet ready, then someone ought to have asked questions more searching than the self-congratulatory discussion published in the programme.