Saturday 28 July 2018

Munich Opera Festival (1) - Götterdammerung, 27 July 2018

Nationaltheater, Munich

Gutrune (Anna Gabler, Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme)
Images: © Wilfried Hösl

Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Gunther – Markus Eiche
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
Alberich – John Lundgren
Brünnhilde – Nina Stemme
Gutrune, Third Norn – Anna Gabler
Waltraute, First Norn – Okka von der Damerau
Woglinde – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Wellgunde – Rachael Wilson
Flosshilde, Second Norn – Jennifer Johnston

Andreas Kriegenburg (director)
Georgine Balk (revival director)
Harald B. Thor (set designs)
Andrea Schraad (costumes)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Zenta Haerter (choreography)
Marton Tiedtke, Olaf A. Schmitt (dramaturgy)

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

What I am about to write must be taken with the proviso that I have not seen, this year or any other, the rest of Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich Ring. Friends tell me that would have made little difference, yet I cannot know for certain. It is also an odd thing, perhaps, to start as well as to end with Götterdämmerung, although that oddness may well be overstated. Wagner’s initial intention was, after all, to write a single drama on the death of Siegfried; after a certain point in the formulation of the Ring project, much of what had been written as Siegfrieds Tod remained as Götterdämmerung. Might one even be able to recapture something of that initial intent, relying on the narrations here as they might originally have been conceived? Perhaps – and it is surely no more absurd intrinsically to watch – and to listen to – one of the Ring dramas than it is to one part of the Oresteia. On the other hand, a Götterdämmerung conceived as a one-off – whether in simple terms or as part of a series such as that presented some time ago by Stuttgart, each by a different director, glorying in rather than apologising for disjuncture and incoherence – will perhaps be a different thing from this. Anyway, we have what we have, and I can only speak of what I have seen and heard.

In that respect, I am afraid, this Götterdämmerung proved sorely disappointing – especially, although not only, as staging. Indeed, the apparent vacuity of the staging combined with what seemed a distinctly repertoire approach – yes, I know there will always be constraints upon what a theatre can manage – combined to leave me resolutely unmoved throughout. This did not seem in any sense to be some sort of post-Brechtian strategy, a parallel to where parts at least of Frank Castorf’s now legendary Bayreuth Ring started out – if not, necessarily, always to where they ended up. I distinctly had the impression that what acting we saw had come from a largely excellent cast. Is that at least an implicit criticism of the revival direction? Not necessarily. I know nothing of how what few rehearsals I suspect there were had been organised. I could not help but think, though, that once again Wagner’s wholesale rejection – theoretical and, crucially, practical too – of the ideology and practices of ‘normal’ theatres had once again been vindicated. This, after all, is the final day of a Bühnenfestspiel. At one point, he even wrote of post-revolutionary performances in a temporary theatre on the banks of the Rhine, after which it and the score would be burnt. Did he mean that? At the time, he probably did, just as we mean all sorts of things at the time we might not actually do in practice. Nevertheless, his rejection of everyday practice points us to an important truth concerning his works. As Pierre Boulez, whilst at work on the Ring at Bayreuth, put it: ‘Opera houses are often rather like cafés where, if you sit near enough to the counter, you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!”’ What was needed, Boulez noted approvingly, ‘was an entirely new musical and theatrical structure, and it was this that he [Wagner] gradually created’. Bayreuth, quite rightly, remains the model; Bayreuth, quite wrongly, remains ignored by the rest of the world.

Such unhelpfulness out of the way, what did we have? Details of Kriegenburg’s staging seem to borrow heavily – let us say, pay homage to – from other productions. The multi-level, modern-office-look set is not entirely unlike that for Jürgen Flimm’s (justly forgotten) Bayreuth staging. Brünnhilde arrives at the Gibichung Court with a paper bag over her head, although it is sooner shed than in Richard Jones’s old Covent Garden Ring. I shall not list them all, but they come across here, without much in the way of conceptual apparatus, more as clichés than anything else. Are they ironised, then? Not so far as I could tell.  I liked Siegfried’s making his way through a baffling – to him – crowd of consumers, as he entered into the ‘real world’, images from advertising and all. Alas, the idea did not really seem to lead anywhere.

A euro figure (
€) is present; perhaps it has been before. First, somewhat bafflingly, it is there as a rocking horse for Gutrune; again, perhaps there is a backstory to that. Then, it seems to do service – not a bad idea, this – as an unclosed ring-like arena for some of the action, although it is not quite clear to me why it does at some times and not at others. Presumably this is the euro as money rather than as emblematic hate-figure for the ‘euroscepticism’ bedevilling Europe in general and my benighted country in particular. (That said, I once had the misfortune to be seated in front of Michael Gove and ‘advisor’, whose job appeared to be to hold Gove’s jacket, at Bayreuth; so who knows?) There also seems to be a sense of Gutrune as particular victim, an intriguing sense, although again it is only intermittently maintained. Doubtless her behaviour earlier on, drunk, hungover, posing for selfies with the vassals, might be ascribed to her exploitation by the male society; here, however, it comes perilously close to being repeated on stage rather than criticised. That she is left on stage at the end, encircled by a group of actors who occasionally come on to ‘represent’ things – the Rhine during Siegfried’s journey, for instance – is clearly supposed to be significant. I could come up with various suggestions why that might be so; I am not at all convinced, however, that any of them would have anything to do with the somewhat confused and confusing action here.

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke), Hagen (Hans-Peter König), Gutrune

Kirill Petrenko led a far from negligible account of the score, which, a few too many orchestral fluffs aside – it nearly always happens in Götterdämmerung, for perfectly obvious reasons – proved alert to the Wagnerian melos. It certainly marked an advance upon the often hesitant work I heard from him in the Ring at Bayreuth. However, ultimately, it often seemed – to me – observed rather than participatory, especially during the Prologue and First Act. The emotional and intellectual involvement I so admired in, for instance, his performances of Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger here in Munich was not so evident. Perhaps some at least of that dissatisfaction, however, was a matter of the production failing to involve one emotionally at all. The Munich audience certainly seemed more appreciative than I, so perhaps I was just not in the right frame of mind.

Waltraute (Okka von der Damerau), Brünnhilde

Much the same might be said of the singing. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde redeemed itself – as well, perhaps, as the world – in the third act, recovering some of that sovereign command we know, admire, even love, although even here I could not help but reflect how surer her performance at the 2013 Proms under Daniel Barenboim had been. There is nothing wrong with using the prompter; that is what (s)he is there for, as Strauss’s Capriccio M. Taupe might remind us. Stemme’s – and not only Stemme’s – persistent resort thereto, however, especially when words were still sometimes confused, was far from ideal during the first and second acts. Stefan Vinke ploughed through the role of Siegfried, often heroically, sometimes with a little too grit in the voice, yet with nothing too much to worry about. It was not a subtle portrayal, but then, what would a subtle Siegfried be?

Hagen and Gunther (Markus Eiche)

Some might have found Hans-Peter König a little too kindly of voice as Hagen; I rather liked the somewhat avuncular persona, with a hint of concealment. Again, there was no doubting his ability to sing the role. Markus Eiche and Anna Gabler were occasionally a little small of voice and, in Eiche’s case, presence as his half-siblings, but there remained much to admire: Gabler’s whole-hearted embrace of that reimagined role, for one thing. Okka von der Damerau made for a wonderfully committed, concerned Waltraute: as so often, the highlight of the first act. John Lundgren’s darkly insidious Alberich left one wanting more, much more. The Rhinemaidens and Norns were, without exception, excellent. I especially loved the contrasting colours – Jennifer Johnson’s contralto-like mezzo in particular – and blend from the latter in the opening scene. If there are downsides to repertory systems, casting from depth as here can prove a distinct advantage. Choral singing was of the highest standard too.

Brünnhilde, Gunther, and the vassals

If only the production, insofar as I could tell, had had more to say and more to bring these disparate elements together. Without the modern look, it might often as well have been Robert Lepage or Otto Schenk.

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (4), The Fiery Angel, 15 July 2018

Grand Théâtre de Provence

Renata – Aušrine Stundytė
Ruprecht – Scott Hendricks
Sorceress, Mother Superior – Agnieszka Rehlis
Mephistopheles, Agrippa of Nettesheim – Andreï Popov
Faust, Heinrich, Inquisitor – Krzysztof Bączyk
Jakob Glock, Doctor – Pavlo Tolstoy
Mathias Wissmann, Host, Porter – Łukasz Goliński
Hostess – Bernadetta Grabas
First Young Woman – Bożena Bujnicka
Second Young Woman – Maria Stasiak

Mariusz Treliński (director)
Boris Kudlička (set designs)
Kaspar Glarner (costumes)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Bartek Macias (video)
Tomasz Jan Wygoda (movement)
Małgorƶata Sikorska-Misƶcƶuk (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Polish National Opera (chorus master: Miroslaw Janowski)
Orchestre de Paris
Kazushi Ono (conductor)

Images: Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2018 © Pascal Victor / artcompress

The footballing World Cup final made it unusually challenging to walk between the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume and the Grand Théâtre de Provence in time for my last Aix performance this year. Various thoroughfares were blocked as crowds gathered to watch the proceedings on screens across the city. Still, tired, overheated, and at times deafened by the noise of car horns, my friend and I made it, the journey definitely worth the struggle for this Fiery Angel. Mariusz Treliński did what he seems to do best: a ‘modernised’ yet essentially straightforward production, Boris Kudlička’s often spectacular set designs, Kaspar Glarner’s costumes, and Felice Ross’s lighting very much an integral part of that. Generally excellent vocal and stage performances offered much to enjoy and to provoke too.

Probably Prokofiev’s greatest opera, The Fiery Angel is, almost incredibly, based on a true story, that of Nina Petrovskaya, as told in Valery Bryusov’s Symbolist roman à clef. And yet, on the other hand, one might say it would have to be, for who on earth could invent so bizarre and seemingly incoherent a tale of demonic possession? Bryusov, again, one might say, for the tale is also invention, purporting to be a translation of a sixteenth-century manuscript, glorying in the excessive title, The Fiery Angel; or, a True Story in which is related of the Devil, not once but often appearing in the Image of a Spirit of Light to a Maiden and seducing her to Various and Many Sinful Deeds, of Ungodly Practices of Magic, Alchemy, Astrology, the Cabalistical Sciences and Necromancy, of the Trial of the Said Maiden under the Presidency of His Eminence the Archbishop of Trier, as well as of Encounters and Discourses with the Knight and thrice Doctor Agrippa of Nettesheim, and with Doctor Faustus, composed by an Eyewitness (translation, Richard Taruskin). Treliński captures that dichotomy well in some ways, less well in others. Perhaps, however, that will be the fate of any attempt to manage this unmanageable work, all the more so when it assumes operatic form.


His method is very much to emphasise realism until he can do no other, and to explain away or, perhaps better, account for some of the most surreal aspects, again until he can really do no other. Renata, then, is a very sad case already: a product of disadvantage of abuse, whose hallucinations, like those of many in the society around here, seem very much to be the product of narcotic substances. The charlatanry of the incomprehensible – to me, anyway – figure of Agrippa of Nettesheim is clear; or is it? How much are his multiple appearances, both to Renata and to the well-meaning if lustful Ruprecht, entirely the doing of a trip induced by their dealer, Jakob Glock? That we cannot entirely make sense of what is going on seems to me all to the good. Hallucinatory (we think) appearances of characters on all three levels of the set are far too much for any of us to take in at one setting: they are frighteningly real and yet at the same time clearly not at all real. Or some of them are, and some of them are not; we never really know. Yet is this perhaps not what might have been going on all along in the ‘original manuscript’? There is an oddly prevalent modern belief that drugs, their use and abuse, are somehow something new. Extreme, erotic ‘religious’ experiences and such causes, are anything but new, however. One only has to think of the visions of saints – who so very often had also been the basest of sinners. And so, the updating to a tawdry, flashy modern world of design hotels, sex shops, and gurus, is both true and untrue to the work – which, I think, is probably how it should be. One may make something of the knock-down Vegas walk-on parts or not, just as one might or might not in ‘real’ or ‘hallucinogenic’ life (or death).


Doublings are put, as if in Lulu, to excellent dramatic and not merely practical use. (If one wants ‘practical’, one might be better off opting for another opera.) Jakob Glock is also the Doctor; we think, perhaps, they are narcotic accomplices. Perhaps indeed they are, for are we quite sure that one is not an ‘actor’ – whatever that might mean in this context – and one is not? Mephistopheles and Agrippa of Nettesheim are one and the same – perhaps. Quite what we are to make of the scene in which Mephistopheles and Faust appear is in any case anyone’s guess.  Perhaps most tellingly, Heinrich, the object of Renata’s fixation is also not only Faust but the final act’s Inquisitor. There is something not only of the charlatan but, chillingly, the blind Jimmy Savile (!) to him too. Not for nothing do further visions – Renata’s, presumably, but who knows? – hark back to childhood, to gymnastic exercises, to an army of little Renatas in preparation for – well, preparation presumably for this. The notorious concluding convent orgy both does and does not happen. Is it all in her imagination, and is she now in hospital? Those expecting the acrobatic experiences of David Freeman’s celebrated Mariinsky production will be disappointed, which seems in part to be the point, but perhaps also intrigued, even moved to reflect. We do not always see and experience what we want to, however potent the drug, the magic, the God.

Prokofiev places Renata very much at the centre of the work: too much, some have said. Taruskin refers to ‘one of the reasons for the opera’s continued neglect’ beingf its unusual fixation on a single very difficult – and dramatically static – role,’ a state of affairs Prokofiev may well have rectified had he proceeded with his intended 1930 revision. I am less convinced that it is a problem, although lessening – I should not go so far as to say removal – of the novel’s autobiographical focus on Ruprecht certainly has its consequences. Whatever one thinks about the undoubted domination of the opera by the soprano in the abstract, it was surely vindicated in performance by the magnificent Aušrine Stundytė: obsessive, hysterical, and alarming, yes, but also vulnerable, human, and above all capable of expending an extraordinary range of colour, emotion, and dynamic contrast. Scott Hendricks’s Ruprecht had its moments, but he seemed less comfortable in the role. (Not that comfort is really the thing, here, I suppose.) ‘Weak’ roles are a difficult thing, of course; ask any Don Ottavio. However, I could not help think that he might have projected his own dilemma more strongly in musical terms. His Russian also seemed to me – this was confirmed by a friend who actually knew! – often quite indistinct. Otherwise, the host of bizarre characters came and went, starring as and when they could, almost all of them making strong impressions in their weird and wonderful ways. Andreï Popov, Pavlo Tolstoy, and Bernadetta Grabas, were perhaps first among equals here, but in such an ensemble piece, in such an ensemble performance, the whole proved considerably greater than the sum of its parts.

The other slight disappointment lay in Kazushi Ono’s direction of the Orchestre de Paris, especially earlier on. This was a fluent enough reading, which achievement deserves praise in itself, but a lack of bite in the first two acts in particular was often noticeable. Perhaps it was a reluctance to overpower the singers: surely a misguided reluctance in an opera such as this, in which so much is a manic struggle that may or may not ultimately make sense. The Polish National Opera Chorus sang splendidly, however, full of heft and far from without subtlety – except, of course, where subtlety is the last thing one wants to see or hear. Which, in this work…


Monday 23 July 2018

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (3), Adámek, Seven Stones, 15 July 2018

Théâtre du Jeu de Paume

Maid/Storyteller I – Anne-Emmanuelle Davy
Landlady/Storyteller II – Shigeko Hata
Stone Collector – Nicolas Simeha
Stone Collector’s Wife – Landy Andriamboavonjy 

Éric Oberdorff (director, choreography)
Éric Soyer (set designs, lighting)
Clémence Pernoud (costumes)

Ondřej Adámek, Léo Warynski (conductors)
Images:  Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2018 © Vincent Pontet


It was quite a thing to see this performance – not quite the premiere, but part of its first run – of a new opera the day after an Ariadne auf Naxos that had playfully yet meaningfully concluded on the question of what the future of opera might be. From the standpoint of the present, many futures are possible, or at least would seem to be. Any Hegelian will tell you that the owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk; any good Marxist – that qualification cuts out quite a few – well remind you of Marx’s refusal to ‘write recipes for the cook books of the future’. From the standpoint of today’s relatively pluralist aesthetic climate, an almost infinite number of futures and many presents are possible too. Such is all well and good up to a point, although reluctance to judge is not always what it seems; it can readily become a rejection of aesthetic and/or moral value in favour of the weird, terrifying god of The Market. ‘Kommt ein neuer Gott gegangen, hingegeben war ich stumm,’ as Zerbinetta might have put it. Happily, this new work from Ondřej Adamek, actually born of a 2012 Aix workshop which had him ask the very question ‘What is an opera?’, proves very much of the present, rooted in yet impressively independent of the past, and very much full of potential for a future which may or may not come to pass. As for the latter, who knows and who cares? If we knew, we should be doing it now – and it would no longer be the future. And so on…


Seven Stones is composed to a libretto by the Icelandic author, Sjón, whose previous collaborations with musicians have embraced a wide range of music(s), from Björk to opera. It has traces of the old sagas and the occasional explicit reference, both theatrical and metatheatrical, whilst coming close to what Wagner anti-historically claimed in Opera and Drama of myth, namely that it is true for all times. (I think we may say in response that it both is and is not, or at least can be and cannot be.) Music and story commence and recommence – recall the dual creation myths of the Bible, of the Ring, etc. – when, having taken up his place in the pit and begun to conduct the chorus, the conductor turns to the audience and tells us ‘I was hit on the head by a stone’. (The opera is in English.) Soloists and chorus initiate a discussion concerning people who have been similarly hit on the head, after which the conductor, as if by magic (perhaps it is), finds himself on his own in the dark, initiating the story in which, as stone collector, he is the central character (and also observer).


The combination of self-consciousness and myth is interesting, informing as it does the work not only of composer and librettist, but of a third participant in that workshop, director Éric Oberdorff too. Likewise soloists and chorus seem so strongly part of the work at every level – whether true or not – that it seems difficult to imagine them without it. Contrary to popular perception, Wagner rarely used that dread word Gesamtkunstwerk – indeed, almost everything ‘everyone’ knows about Wagner is, quite simply, wrong – but if the idea has any meaning left at all, perhaps it might lie in such intense and productive collaboration, a welcome festival alternative, even rebuke, to the everyday life of repertoire theatres. If I do not single out the various artists, it is not because they are not worthy of mention, but because they are equally so and seemed very much to be creating and re-creating themselves as much as roles.


And so, the Collector tours history, his life, various spaces – in other words, various histories and myths – within a framework that works convincingly indeed as a whole. From the café U Babelsteinů and its introduction of Adámek’s invented instruments – played by the incredibly versatile singers of accentus/axe21 – to a tango-led bar in Buenos Aires, from a nursery-rhyme lunar eclipse (pierre lunaire!) to the tale of Christ’s stoning re-enacted at the café in a parody of the Baroque cantata, we hear, experience, and perhaps re-experience a number of stone tales, leading to the tragic closing realisation that, having been away for seven years on his mineralogical tour, re-encountered his wife and seen her embracing another man, the Collector has killed his own son. What he saw had simply been her acting as mother, nothing more; but it is too late. He picks up a small stone ‘from my kidneys, you are the song that I sing when winter refuses me shelter,’ and falls dead.


Adámek’s music makes fascinating reference to many styles without merely speaking in them. It plays with notions of music theatre and seems to extend (sometimes in the manner of simplification or at least clarification) methods of modernist word-setting by composers such as Nono and Stockhausen. Perhaps, though, those were just my frame of reference rather than something intrinsic. Homophonic or contrapuntal, ‘spoken’ or sung, a cappella or instrumental – for instance, a wonderful processional of rough music – yet often as part of a continuum rather than in binary opposition, music, tale, and music-as-tale are neither predictable nor arbitrary. That at least is how it seemed to me on a first encounter. Far from outstaying its welcome, it is finely judged in its proportions, at about eighty minutes (I think!) neither too short nor too long. Just like Janáček, one might say, albeit slightly shorter. Seven Stones may or may not point to a future of opera, but it is a work I think the future as well as the present will deserve to hear.

Friday 20 July 2018

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (2), Ariadne auf Naxos, 14 July 2018

Théâtre de l’Archevêché

Images: Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2018 © Pascal Victor / artcompress
Music Master – Josef Wagner
Major-Domo – Maik Solbach
Lackey – Sava Vemić
Officer – Petter Moen
Composer – Angela Brower
Tenor, Bacchus – Eric Cutler
Wig-Maker – Jean-Gabriel Saint Martin
Zerbinetta – Sabine Devieilhe
Prima Donna, Ariadne – Lise Davidsen
Dancing Master – Rupert Charlesworth
Naiad – Beate Mordal
Dryad – Andrea Hill
Echo – Elena Galistkaya
Harlequin – Huw Montague Rendall
Truffaldino – David Shipley
Scaramuccio – Emilio Pons
Brighella – Jonathan Abernethy
The Richest Man in Vienna – Paul Herwig
His Wife – Julia Wieninger
Katie Mitchell (director)
Chloe Lamford (set designs)
Sarah Blenkinsop (costumes)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Martin Crimp (dramaturgy, including additional dialogue, translated by Ulrike Syha)
Joseph W Alford (movement)

Orchestre de Paris
Marc Albrecht (conductor)

Ariadne auf Naxos is in many ways the ultimate opera about opera. (Or should that be Moses und Aron?) Many, perhaps most, operas would seem to be ‘about’ Orpheus and his art in some way or another. (In a shameless plug, I should add that such is the subject, or at least the starting-point, for a chapter on operatic culture I have written for the soon-to-be-published – i.e., proofs already checked – Routledge Research Companion to Musical Modernism, edited by Björn Heile and Charles Wilson.) It would be far from absurd to claim that an artwork can fail to be ‘about’ its art form, its genre, itself in one sense or another; or would it? Always we seem to be brought back to those oppositions, those dialectics, that haunt, arguably determine Western history and culture, whether we like it or not. Yet Ariadne seems to take it all in, the ‘business’ as and the ‘art’, the artists and the characters, the metanarrative and the narrative, ultimately also the transformation that may or may not transcend – Hofmannsthal and/or Strauss? – as well as the manifold absurdities and frustrations at which one can only laugh, except that is, when one can only cry.

Productions can approach such a work – in practice, with the possible exception of Elektra, almost any work! – in any number of ways. There is nothing wrong with emphasising one strand, one particular reading: single-mindedness has its place, just as much for, say, a Hans Neuenfels as for a Furtwängler or a Klemperer. (The idea of a Klemperer Ariadne in particular intrigues, not least on the basis of his Pulcinella Suite, but I digress – and I have no Music Master to restrain me or indeed to inflict cuts, justified or otherwise.) Ranking is a game for politicians and accountants – although donors perhaps have their place in this world too – but I am not sure that I have seen a production that has kept so many balls in the air at the same time, investigated their nature, and added a few of its own, as Katie Mitchell’s for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.

The Prologue comes across as relatively conventional: not in the sense of wanting ‘pretty’ frocks and so on, but it sets the scene, as perhaps it should, ready for the transformations to come. It is full of life, full of character; there is probably, as doubles would be the case in watching any ‘making of’ documentary, more than one can take in in a single viewing, yet by the same token there is no sense of overload. It is not ‘busy’ for the sake of it, as often seems to be a temptation – perhaps a valid one – here. One enjoys the splendidly camp yet undeniably successful and talented Dancing Master of Rupert Charlesworth: watch him rehearse his dancers and you will see that he knows his stuff as well as owning the room. One sees that room transformed into a stage and an audience – with, rightly, a flexible curtain of a barrier in between. Lights taken down and replaced suggest something afoot: a distinction being made between reception room and desert island. We are not yet sure, however.

Perhaps most important of all, we see and feel – this is a musical thing too, of course, but also in Mitchell’s staging – the emergence of Zerbinetta as a real person, as a human being, to an extent uncommon, perhaps even unparalleled, in my experience. The tenderness of Sabine Devieilhe’s performance is something; she can do the coloratura fireworks too, as we shall learn. So too, however, is the direction: her placing with (and not with) other characters at particular times, her reactions to them, leading up to a moment quite justified and yet also shocking: the furious slap she gives the Composer after his/her (self-)righteous words at the close. Has (s)he not listened to a word Zerbinetta has said? Most likely not; for even in a world such as Mitchell’s, in which gender is fluid, indeed performed, there is no doubting that masculinity rules the roost. Molière after all wrote Le bourgeois gentilhomme, after all, thus in a sense initiating or at least provoking this particular drama. In connection with that, it is perhaps worth noting that Marc Albrecht seemed particular attuned to the connections – and implicitly the contrasts – with Strauss’s incidental music too. His, overall, was a wise and splendid reading, never seeking attention for itself, yet fully aware of when the orchestra should soar – above all at the close. If an orchestra is unlikely ever to sound at its best outdoors, the Orchestre de Paris, a few scrappy string moments aside, offered warmth, clarity, and chamber-music responsiveness throughout. Albrecht’s gentle yet authoritative guidance nevertheless remained an absolute necessity.

Back, however, to the stage. (How difficult it is even to write about keeping all those balls in the air!) Already, in that Prologue, Mitchell and her team have slightly prised open the work (and its ‘work-concept’). The dialogue has not been quite as one remembered it, perhaps, although we all know how memories can play tricks. In ‘reality’, Martin Crimp has added some lines to fit what we see, some others have gone, and the surtitles seem to offer a further level of commentary and critique: never too much, but enough to have one wonder. Without returning to the 1912 version, with or without Molière – what a missed opportunity that was in Salzburg in 2012! – elements return or rather are rethought and transformed. The Richest Man in Vienna is there, in a dress, as his wife, who literally wears the trousers. They not only offer interjections, new yet rooted in memories of 1912, at least to begin with; they are offered opportunity to learn, to be transformed. Indeed, they interact with the ‘cast’ almost at will. It is, alas, not clear what, if anything, they have learned; audiences and patrons can be like that. Perhaps, though, it is too soon to tell, for which of us has not on occasion learned more from a performance than might initially have seemed to be the case? The final words, appropriately enough, are given to M. Jourdain’s successor: the experiment has been interesting, but it is unlikely to show the way to the future of opera. That, we may retort, and probably do, is at least as much up to us as up to you, however much you may throw your cash around.

Such is the metatheatricality. Perhaps the real truths of Mitchell’s, Hofmannsthal’s, and Strauss’s opera(s), however, lie in what is too often overlooked: what this Ariadne, partly the Composer’s, partly all manner of others’, does as an opera. Angela Brower’s Composer, beautifully, intelligently sung, has not left the stage; (s)he conducts, at times, although it is unclear whether anyone knows or cares. The Opera concerns, above all, Ariadne on Naxos. Lise Davidsen’s Ariadne proved one of the finest I have heard, possessed of an almost infinite dynamic range, subtly inflected, and endless reserves of breath for the longest of Straussian lines. I do not think I have seen – and this was surely Mitchell’s doing too – her suffer so greatly. The sheer misery of her condition shone through, long before it was revealed that she had been left with child, to be delivered and claimed by a rather nasty – should he not be just that? – Bacchus (Eric Cutler, who again can certainly sing the role). The taunts of Zerbinetta’s troupe – perhaps not intentional, yet no less hurtful for that – sting particularly in such a setting. Indeed, their erotic table-dancing, preening, and squabbling, stage realising words and music in properly post-Wagnerian fashion, seems rightly both beside the point and absolutely of it. When Bacchus offers Ariadne the choice of life or death, we have no idea what she will choose, nor for whom. Right up until the end, we fear she might use the revolver that is one of his ‘gifts’. Will she shoot herself, her child, him, someone else, the entire assembled company? In the end, she does not. A child has been born; so too has an opera. Perhaps, whatever our host may think and demand, the future or a future of opera has been too. We shall see and/or hear – or not.

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (1), ‘L’Alto à l’honneur’ – Loeffler, Bray, Liszt, Kodály, and Brahms, 13 July 2018

Conservatoire Darius Milhaud

Charles Martin Loeffler: Quatre poèmes, op.5
Charlotte Bray: In Black Light (world premiere)
Liszt: Romance oubliée, S 132
Kodály: Adagio for viola and piano
Brahms: Zwei Gesänge, op.91

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Andrea Hill (soprano)
Edwige Herchenroder (piano)

An oddly patchy concert, this: alongside the most unidiomatic professional Liszt performance I can recall and only intermittently successful Brahms, we heard a highly convincing world premiere and fine performances of two other works hitherto unknown to me: one indeed written by a composer of whom I had not previously heard. That composer was Charles Martin Loeffler, one of the works his Quatre poèmes, op.5 of 1893. Or should that have been Karl Martin Loeffler? So consumed with hatred, it seems, had the young Karl been for Germany that, even following his emigration to the USA, he would claim to have been born not Prussian but Alsatian and changed his name accordingly. Quatre poèmes was doubtless chosen because it would involve all three musicians performing in this concert, but it seemed to me on a single hearing fully to justify inclusion on merit. One heard, aptly enough, what seemed to be a largely yet not exclusively German sense of harmony with a more French taste in verse, melody, and sometimes texture too. The first song, a setting of Baudelaire’s La Cloche fêlée, seemed to mediate both as work and performance between Duparc and Brahms, Tabea Zimmermann’s viola-playing – Loeffler was an early enthusiast for the viola d’amore – becoming more Romantically ardent as the piece demanded or suggested. It offered development in a more conventionally instrumental sense, yet seemed also to have something of a Franco-Flemish (Franck, perhaps soon Debussy too) taste for the cyclical. It certainly convinced, moreover, as a response to the poem. The Verlaine ‘Dansons la gigue’ was gypsy-like – at least in a nineteenth-century sense – whilst also seemingly responding to Carmen in its more reflective moments. Verlaine was the poet for the remaining two pieces too. An atmosphere of general sadness, relieved somewhat by finely spun piano arabesques from Edwige Herchenrode, characterised ‘Le Son du cor s’afflige vers les bois’. The vocal line in the closing ‘Sérénade’, and Andrea Hill’s delivery of it, hinted at la vieille France, but this was no pastiche, instead a dramatic evocation of another time, ‘mandoline’ and all. I even fancied there were suggestions of the darker Ravel: presentiments, though, given the date. Fascinating: I shall be keen to hear more Loeffler.

I have always been keen to hear more Charlotte Bray too. The world premiere of In Black Light, for solo viola, furthered that keenness. It struck me as having some aspects of variational form – developing variation if you will, but also something more ‘traditional’ than that – within an overarching framework that has something of what would once have called a tone poem to it. Rhythms and intervals help generate style and idea. Following a grave opening of (relative) pitch extremes, a broad canvas emerges, upon which composer and performer alike offer a commanding variety of musical strokes: one section ‘jagged and fiery’ (Bray), another ‘a kind of broken waltz’, another ‘a mysterious pizzicato miniature’, and so on: related yet contrasting. The rhythmic profile is certainly sharp – and was certainly sharp in Zimmermann’s commanding performance, clearly highly attuned to the work’s contours and expressive requirements. The opening theme’s return did indeed sound, to quote the composer again, ‘urgently present and expressively charged’.

Liszt’s Romance oubliée has always seemed to me – perhaps unsurprisingly – superior in its piano solo version. That, however, is no reason to shun any of its others, especially when ‘actual’ Liszt chamber music is so thin on the ground, the composer’s tendency being, not unlike Wagner’s, to write chamber music within works for larger forces. The opening solo line certainly suits the viola, yet this proved for violist and pianist alike a strangely constricted performance, tentative to the point of incoherence. Kodály’s Adagio, first written for violin, then arranged for viola, proved much more Zimmermann and Herchenroder’s thing. Its darkly Romantic opening sounded almost Elgarian – at least to this Englishman. Zimmermann spun a rich, yet far from indulgent line, which enabled the material to develop in far from predictable fashion. If her pianist seemed very much the ‘accompanist’, she performed well in that role. As she did in the two closing Brahms songs; to begin with, indeed, we might have been about to hear a newly discovered sonata for viola and piano. Taken as a whole, though, those performances might have been more attuned to the songs’ form. Lack of direction, even meandering, married to a reticent way with the words (Rückert’s) from Hill sometimes made for heavy Brahmsian weather. If only they had been performed as if written by Loeffler.

Thursday 5 July 2018

OAE/Schiff - Haydn, 4 July 2018

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Symphony no.94 in G major, ‘Surprise’
Piano Concerto no.11 in D major, Hob.XVIII/11
Harmoniemesse in B-flat major, Hob.XXII:14

Charlotte Beament (soprano)
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Nick Pritchard (tenor)
Dingle Yandell (bass)

Choir of the Enlightenment
Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment
András Schiff (fortepiano, conductor)

Many of the ingredients for a memorable concert were there, or so they initially seemed to be. Alas, ultimately what we learned more clearly than anything else was that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s new Principal Artist, András Schiff, is no conductor. It is not clear that he is much of a pianist any more either. The latter surprised me: not because my recent encounters with him in the concert hall had been positive, far from it, but because various friends had thought highly of his recent turn to the fortepiano. (He has long played older instruments as well as the modern piano, but seems to be doing so rather more at the moment.) When one of them lent me a CD of Schiff playing Schubert on a period instrument, I shared some of that enthusiasm. The deathly seriousness of his recent piano playing, often not helped by bizarre programming more suited to recording of box sets than to the concert hall, seemed to be gone. Schiff seemed liberated by the possibilities, rather than restricted by the shortcomings, of the older instrument. Whether that were due to recording trickery, or whether this concert were an off-day, I do not know. However, I could not help but think that the other musicians would often have made a better show of things without him (and with another soloist). 

Each of the three works on the evening’s programme opened with great promise, the introduction to the Surprise Symphony’s first movement dark with potentiality. (The Creation’s ‘Representation of Chaos’ was not itself an act of creatio ex nihilo; it is inconceivable without Haydn’s symphonic introductions.) That came from the players, though, Schiff’s conducting either ineffectual or restrictively four-square. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly to those more closely acquainted with the period-instrument scene, the willingness of the OAE’s players truly to play out, rather than to condescend to Haydn, had them sound closer to performances by the likes of Eugen Jochum or Colin Davis than to many more recent ones. Alas, however, the lack of formal dynamism and even control of the players soon made for a wearing experience. The Andante was on the fast side, yet far from unreasonably so. Otherwise it was business as usual: the more Sturm und Drang passages sounded magnificent in their way – they would have done still more so with a larger band – yet unduly regimented. The scherzo had Schwung, for which one could overlook a few too many intonational lapses. Soon, it became a bit too same-y, though: where was the development? Such was still more the case for its trio and for a merely hectic finale.

If the D major Piano Concerto opened with somewhat mannered string articulation, such is often the way now. I have heard far worse – whether from modern or period instruments. Quite why Schiff sometimes played continuo and sometimes did not is anyone’s guess. He certainly made things far worse as soloist, his phrasing often barely worthy of the word. Balance between the hands was sometimes straightforwardly odd; there is, of course, a greater difference between registers on such an instrument, but even so. His cadenza, based upon the Symphony’s Andante was thought hilarious by some, but they had reacted similarly the first time around too. In the slow movement, Schiff struggled to form a cantabile phrase at all, let alone to shape it meaningfully. The OAE was much better, needless to say. Episodes in the finale were weirdly unconnected; I was quite shocked how little harmonic understanding was on show here. Surely Schiff used to be better than that? The audience loved it, though, and was rewarded with an encore of the entire movement.

The introduction to the ‘Kyrie’ of the Harmoniemesse, surely one of Haydn’s very grandest, indeed awe-inspiring passages, sang with all the promise, perhaps even more, of that to the Symphony. Even here, though Schiff’s phrasing was often pedantic; the less he did, the better. Grainy woodwind reminded us why this mass has the nickname it does. Vocal quartet and choir alike offered consummately professional singing, often rather more than that: beautiful, if not especially mitteleuropäisch in style. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with an ‘English’ performance of Haydn: better that than unconvincing ventriloquism.

The ‘Gloria’ began, as many of the movements – I know we should not really call them that, but never mind – did, at a surprisingly slow tempo. I have nothing against that, quite the contrary, but much of it was a bit of a trudge. Charlotte Beament’s bell-like soprano was attractive here and throughout. The ‘Gratias’ section sounded too fast: more likely in relation to what had gone before than intrinsically. Indeed, proportional tempi were notable only by their absence. That said, nothing here can really mask the vigour and rigour of Haydn’s thematic working out; if that is not ‘symphonic’, then I do not know what out. Moreover, nothing did mask it. A four-square conclusion was less than overflowing with joy.

There was an old-fashioned Handelian sturdiness to the opening of the ‘Credo’: far from out of place, necessarily, in Haydn’s evocation of the Church as Rock of St Peter. Without greater forward impetus, though, such an approach will sound merely staid, as it did here. If you are going to adopt a Klemperer-like tempo – what it might have been to have heard him conduct this mass! – then it may help actually to be Klemperer, or at least more of a conductor than Schiff. Gorgeous woodwind in the central section, ‘Et incarnatus…’, was alas, supplanted, by increasingly wayward solo noises from ‘Ex resurrexit’ onwards. That would have mattered less, had there been more in the way of formal and/or theological insight from Schiff. Alas, it was by now clear that such would not be forthcoming.

The ‘Sanctus’ was spacious and less static, Schiff’s slow tempo notwithstanding. It too, however, was blighted by too much dodgy woodwind playing. Perhaps the players were tiring; it certainly sounded like it. It was no bad thing in the circumstances to have a swift ‘Benedictus’, although it verged perhaps on the silly. Nicely imploring invocations of the Lamb of God, as much orchestral as choral, gave way to bizarrely heavy, joyless cries of ‘Dona nobis pacem’. A pity.