Wednesday 29 August 2018

Salzburg Festival (6) - BPO/Petrenko: Strauss and Beethoven, 26 August 2018

Grosses Festspielhaus

Strauss: Don Juan, op.20
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, op.24
Beethoven: Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

In my final Salzburg concert this year – I reviewed all performances I heard, bar a thought-provoking Salome and a best-forgotten Magic Flute – I went to hear old friends from my time in Berlin, together with their new friend and music director, Kirill Petrenko. They were to give two programmes, one very much of their traditional repertoire, the second ranging wider. I heard the first: two Strauss poems and a Beethoven symphony.

Don Juan makes for a splendid if perilous curtain-raiser: no fear of perils being anything other than expertly navigated here. There was a brash, confident swagger to the opening; here is not the place for modesty. Already, though, I noticed a difference from many of the performances I had heard the orchestra give with Simon Rattle (if not necessarily always with visiting conductors): here was a bass line from which the harmony and indeed the entirety of the work’s material seemed to grow. There was ‘feminine’ opposition – a loaded, dated, even offensive term, I know, but apposite to the work’s conception and terms of reference – in the material to come, coming together in a magical Straussian phantasmagoria of sound. Petrenko’s way with Strauss is less self-conscious than, say, that of Christian Thielemann, but he is no less adept at ‘playing’ the orchestra as if it were his instrument when required. He was commendably unafraid to show the work’s hard edges as well as its exquisite tenderness. And what wind soloists were heard, Albrecht Meyer on oboe first among equals. Strauss is often at his deepest, of course, when the cracks in the façade are perceived, however briefly; so too was he, so too was the performance, here. Moments or split-seconds of irresolution made all the difference. Does the close offer the greatest of all youthful sunsets? It certainly seemed to do so on this occasion, followed by the strange materialist gravitas of a Straussian death.

Tod und Verklärung took us back to the moments before death, to the uncertainty of a fading heartbeat. Its gravitas nevertheless seemed to pick up where Don Juan had left off. Once again, the excellence of soloists (Meyer, Emmanuel Pahud, Daishin Kashimoto, et al.) might almost have been taken for granted, yet should not have been. The struggle was different, of course, and so it sounded. Petrenko has never been one to offer identikit solutions – he is far too thoughtful and dedicated a musician for that – and certainly did not do so here. Verklärung, whatever that can mean to a thoroughgoing materialist, was certainly unthinkable in the world of the previous symphonic poem. There was to be heard an intangible kinship with Elgar and his Dream of Gerontius; no wonder Strauss admired it so. It is here that Strauss goes deeper than in any symphonic poem before Metamorphosen, or at least such was the impression gained here, without any need artificially to apply ‘gravity’ (as Strauss perhaps felt the need to with John the Baptist). There was honesty here as well as virtuosic mastery; there was, above all, harmony.

The orchestra returned after the interval significantly smaller. Strauss calls for instruments that Beethoven does not, of course, so there was no great surprise there. However, I wondered slightly about the strings. I had not counted them before, but think they were reduced; at any rate, they were in number. Not so many strings, then, as sometimes one might (hope to) hear, yet interestingly and tellingly, a stronger bass line than often one might fear. Petrenko judged the introduction to the first movement very well; I am tempted to say that it sounded just as I imagine it in my head, yet I am not sure I could conjure up quite such expectancy. Beethovenian concision in the movement as a whole was never in doubt: not, however, through rushing – which actually achieves the opposite – but through playing as outstanding in its execution as in its design. The jolt of the development’s onset was real, but again no silly stunt; it was played, not applied. Rhythm naturally played its part, yet never as something independent of the rest of the material. The recapitulation continued to develop, the coda all the better for its lack of exaggeration, a microcosm of the movement as a whole.

The Allegretto grew out of the first movement and was indeed taken without a pause. It offered release and intensification in a processional of great mystery, beauty, and cumulative power. Petrenko also knew when not to conduct: again no affectation, but a sign of confidence in his outstanding musicians and what is already clearly a partnership of strength. Thank goodness there was none of Rattle’s weird moulding of phrases here, nor the fashionable yet often perverse ‘rethinking’ of later Claudio Abbado, let alone the manicure of Herbert von Karajan (at his worst). This had little in common with Wilhelm Furtwängler, save for its integrity – which is surely what matters. It may not have overwhelmed, but it was fresh, coherent, and comprehending.

Giving the bronchial brigade a pause for self-expression was probably a wise move prior to the Scherzo. Its provisional wing would doubtless have made its presence heard in any case. This and the finale were similarly taken without a break. I found them less impressive – yet only less impressive, for there was nothing ‘wrong’ with them. Perhaps a greater contrast in material would have helped the scherzo as well as the relationship between scherzo and trio. They were well balanced, though, and clearly heard as one. The finale was fast indeed, yet never unduly driven. A little greater flexibility might again have been welcome, but there was no doubting Petrenko’s understanding. Daniel Barenboim conducts this music as no one else alive; there is no shame in coming, at least at present, a little behind our truest heir to Furtwängler and Klemperer. This, we should recall, is only the beginning; the best is most likely yet to come.

Salzburg Festival (5) – The Queen of Spades, 25 August 2018

Grosses Festspielhaus

Vladislav Sulimsky (Count Tomski / Plutus), Stanislav Trofimov (Surin), Alexander Kravetz (Chekalinsky), Igor Golovatenko (Prince Yeletsky), Gleb Peryazev (Narumov), Pavel Petrov (Chaplitski), Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann)
© Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz

Hermann – Brandon Jovanovich
Count Tomsky, Plutus – Vladislav Sulimsky
Prince Yeletsky – Igor Golovatenko
The Countess – Hanna Schwarz
Lisa – Evgenia Muraveva
Pauline, Daphnis – Oksana Volkova
Chekalinsky – Alexander Kravets
Surin – Stanislav Trofimov
Chaplitsky – Pavel Petrov
Narumov – Gleb Peryazev
Governess – Margarita Nekrasova
Master of Ceremonies – Oleg Zalytskiy
Masha – Vasilisa Berzhanskaya
Chloë, Prilepa – Yulia Suleimanova
Sheep – Imola Kacso, Márton Gláser, Joan Aguila Cuevas

Hans Neuenfels (director)
Christian Schmidt (set designs)
Reinhard von der Thannen (costumes)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Nicolas Humbert, Martin Otter (video)
Teresa Rotemberg (choreography)
Yvonne Gebauer (dramaturgy)

Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Choir (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberfer)
Angelika Prokopp Summer Academy (stage music)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

The Queen of Spades is a curious work. I do not mean that in a negative sense; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with curiosity and often much right with it. How we consider the opera will doubtless – and rightly – remain a matter of debate. There is rarely ‘one way’: how boring it would be, if there were. Or, as Schoenberg once put it, only the middle road does not lead to Rome. What, however, seems to me crucial is to remember what one would have thought a very obvious point, namely that this is an opera. It is not a musical ‘version’, or ‘translation’, or anything else, of Pushkin. Of course it has roots in Pushkin’s story, just as Elektra does in Sophocles; it is, however, a free-standing piece of work, in which music plays the most important role of all.

Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann), Alexander Kravets (Chekalinsky), Stanislav Trofimov (Surin)
© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

In his New Grove article on the opera, Richard Taruskin writes, in characteristically combative style: ‘For these deeds the Tchaikovsky brothers have been castigated many times over by guardians of literature, second-guessed by a Soviet production team under Meyerhold (their attempted “repushkinization” of the opera was shown at the Leningrad Malïy Theatre in 1935), and rebuked by puritanical but unimaginative critics who cannot hear the music to which the cannily adulterated libretto gave rise. What critics have been slow to recognize is precisely what the composer meant when he wrote with such uncharacteristic confidence about his originality: Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera is the first and possibly the greatest masterpiece of musical surrealism.’ My only real cavil lies with the ‘but’; whoever heard of an imaginative puritan? Otherwise, although one may or may not agree with every word, therein lies the basis of an understanding.

Hans Neuenfels differs from Taruskin in a number of ways. He is also doing something different: mounting a production, not writing an essay or encyclopædia article. He is quite clear, though, as we learn both from an interview in the programme booklet and, more important, from the staging itself, that the ‘great achievement’ of Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, ‘was to turn the material into an opera libretto. This means that he augmented the story, adapting the narrative in a way that gives rise to a musical setting.’ A contrast between public and private is not particular to this opera, nor is a concentration on development by – or even juxtaposition of – scenes; one might say that Eugene Onegin does the same, more successfully and/or conventionally, according to taste. But a sense of listening to the music, of drawing us in to listen to it too, is strongly apparent both in the designs, from longstanding Neuenfels collaborators, Christian Schmidt and Reinhard von der Thannen, and in the action they frame, interpret, even incite.

Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann)
© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

Place is crucial. The Countess’s room is surprisingly spare, brilliant in its whiteness, most likely not at all as one had expected. Why? It is certainly elegant, part of a visual style to which we might have become accustomed through stagings such as Neuenfels’s celebrated Bayreuth Lohengrin. There is surely an element of kinship there; after all, there is an experimental basis to the action of both works, both productions: failed, tragic experiments in both cases, although that failure seems questioned by Neuenfels too. Perhaps there is something in that, but I think the point is more specific. As Neuenfels explains, ‘This is connected with the climax of the opera, when it reaches a point of maximum clarity. It’s the clearest scene and at the same time it’s blank. Although it appears to be the vaguest scene, it’s the most realistic one. It also has the palpable consequences. Things will be decided there.’ So it seemed – and, equally important, so it sounded.

Evgenia Muraveva (Lisa)
© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

It would be difficult, perhaps even in the wrong sense absurd(ist), to rid oneself entirely of Fate here. It is surely, however, a good thing to interrogate or at least to examine, rather than meekly to accept so amorphous and, frankly, unhelpful a concept. When the Countess’s face reappears on huge video screen above the action in the final scene, when she winks – knowingly, of course, but to what end? Is her ‘role’ meaningful or a red herring? – we are free, within limits, to make what we want of it. Hermann’s decision, perhaps even society’s decision, has been made. That is as much a beginning as a close. Her lust for the young stranger in her room was clear; maybe he actually gave her there what he wanted. We continue to think – as she continues to appear. Is she, however, noticed any more? Was she ever? Hermann’s dismissal of Lisa, cruel, heart-rending (from her standpoint) is very much in that line. We need not commend it; it would be odd to do so, although there is perhaps something almost of Crime and Punishment to the ‘act’. There is no denying, however, his purpose, born out of an extreme loneliness, alienation, and disaffection. The blackness of much of the space on stage, within which stark, sharp costumed action takes place renders that visually clear: a visual clarity born within libretto, music, and performance. When Lisa, clad in white, finally crosses the threshold to join her silhouette, it is both her tragedy and Hermann’s dismissal of her. This scarlet Nutcracker-prince will once again enact his own tragedy.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

The other side to that, at least an other side to that, is in the Imperial Russia of the story. Mixing periods, stitching them together is too often a recipe for an ‘anything goes’ post-modernism unworthy of the name: nowhere more so than in middle-of-the-road, would-be fashionable opera stagings. Here, however, the stylised – nothing is real? everything is surreal/hyper-real…? – evocations of a late-nineteenth century looking back to the eighteenth (Mozart and Catherine the Great) and forward to our own time prove tight and yet also allusive and elusive enough for the question never to arise. Details stick, point one in the right direction, without detracting from the wide open space, musical as much as scenic, of the broader ‘picture’. Take the unforgettable image, during the Mozartian pastiche of a pastoral wedding entertainment, of sheep flunkeys knitting their own wool: societal cannibalism of a degenerate aristocracy, or rather, more tellingly still, of its immediate underlings. It is, after all, neither Yeletsky nor Tomsky who ‘loses’; it is Hermann. Or is it? Time, the one thing he does not have here, will tell. Or the arrival of Catherine the Great: a brittle, black madonna: manipulated or manipulative? Why choose? Her crowd of followers, bowing and scraping, is also her crowd of creators. Just as it has been of the river: men and women in boaters and swimwear transformed into the Neva itself. Scenery, like Fate, is constructed in dialectical materialism. So too is the ‘drama’ itself.

© Salzburger Festspiele / Monika Rittershaus

Or is it? In one sense, presuming one assents to those broadly Marxist terms, yes, of course. It would be meaningless to claim that it were not, even if it were ‘mere’ ideology. That applies to the music as much as the libretto, the performance as much as the staging. Yet, for all but the most vulgar of Marxists – and surely even for them – there is relative autonomy too. There is grit to the oyster. This is, we remember, an opera; it is neither Pushkin nor a treatise. The blazing, yet far from soft-edged Romanticism – a problematic word, I know, yet let us leave that on one side for now – we heard from Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic added its own level of complexity, or perhaps better, laid the foundation for most of that which came on top. Public and private, Fate and autonomy, cynicism and love: these and so much else found their roots in the bubbling cauldron of Tchaikovsky’s score in its own mediated nineteenth-to-twenty-first-century presentation and reinvention. Dynamic and tempo contrasts took us further to the edge than anything merely seen – and rightly so. This is, we remembered once again, an opera.

 Brandon Jovanovich (Hermann),
Hanna Schwarz (Countess)
© Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz

Which brings us, last yet anything but least, to the singers, above all to the towering performance of Brandon Jovanovich as Hermann. His clarity and strength of purpose, portraying yet never fatally (as opposed to fatefully!) partaking in doubt, offered an object lesson in tortured heroism and anti-heroism. One both believed in him and did not, rooted for him and did not: everything, it seemed, that the Tchaikovskys asked of him. Evgenia Muraveva’s Lisa, sweetly, intelligently sung, with collegiate agency such as to mark her out yet not to overpower, was equally well-judged: no easy thing in such circumstances. Hanna Schwarz truly captured the essence, an essence at least, of the Countess, nowhere more so than in the hushed, nostalgic intimacy, finely balanced between ‘she still has it’ and ‘soon she might not’ of the Grétry air, ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’.  Igor Golovatenko and Vladislav Sulimsky made the most of their role as Yeletsky and Tomsky respectively: again contributing to, furthering the drama, vocally excelling, without a hint of grandstanding. The same might be said of the rest of a tightly-knit cast and of the chorus, from whom more often than not one might have taken dictation. They had clearly been well prepared by Ernst Raffelsberger, well directed by Neuenfels and his team, but granted agency too, individually and en masse. Is that not what opera in general and this opera in particular should be? It is certainly, I think, what we in the audience too should be aiming for too. In that, as in much else, work, performances, and production should be accounted a great success.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Salzburg Festival (4) – Levit/VPO/Welser-Möst: Henze and Wagner, 25 August 2018

Grosses Festspielhaus

Henze: Tristan: Preludes for piano, tape, and orchestra
Wagner: Götterdämmerung: Dawn, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Death, and Funeral Music, Conclusion

Igor Levit (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)

© Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

Wagner: however much we try, we cannot escape. Do we even want to? Not really; nor have we ever. Where would Stravinsky have been without Wagner and, to a lesser extent, Beethoven to blame? Where would Henze have been ? He liked to proclaim his independence from, sometimes even revulsion towards, Wagner and Schoenberg; it was not necessarily disingenuous. The ‘ghost of old Klingsor’ (Debussy in a letter to Ernest Chausson) always won, though. In Tristan, such rebellion was not really an issue – which, in some ways, paradoxically and/or dialectically, enabled Henze to resist direct ‘influence’ and its anxiety more strongly.

Certainly hints of the Tristan Prelude were soon to be heard here from the Vienna Philharmonic’s woodwind; not, however, before Igor Levit had sounded notes from the post-Wagnerian future, that of Schoenberg. Not to be reduced to Schoenberg’s op.11, of course, yet certainly within its orbit. (There is a work we really need to hear from this pianist!) Woodwind response, cool but not cold, participated in yet also placed itself in opposition to the extraordinary long line Levit spun throughout. There was no doubting his confidence in the notes, which helped, I think, many in the audience to share in that confidence, to begin their own exploration of this work. Franz Welser-Möst’s brief spoken introduction, most welcome, had done no harm either. The invasion of an beautifully balanced, resounding A minor chord by the metaphysical penumbra of taped music (presumably that remade in 1990 by Henze and Roderick Watkins, in response to technological development) initiated quite different moods and textures, generative in possibility. Bach, Mahler, Berg, ballet as well as opera: there were many ghosts at this feast, often in (il)licit relation.

The use of Brahms’s First Symphony is the most celebrated, most obvious, of other quotations in Henze’s collage. As Brahms himself might have said, were they pointed out, ‘any ass can see that’. What follows, though? Over what do they hang? And what, if anything, might they mean? Stephen Downes, in Hans Werner Henze: Tristan (1973) (which I reviewed here for Music and Letters), rightly criticised Peter Petersen’s claim that Brahms served Henze as a merely negative, anti-erotic, anti-Wagnerian dramatic ‘character’. Welser-Möst seemed both to understand and to communicate that. These are not crude oppositions; nor did they sound so here. Both he and Levit showed that clear textures need not entail loss of dramatic power or heft; indeed, the latter’s grand manner (where required) has surely set new standards in this work, perhaps in Henze’s piano writing more generally. There was, moreover, meaning in the clusters and chords we heard. It might not be meaning we (or at least I) can put into words; that is hardly the point. Just as in Tristan und Isolde, however, it is there: vertically and horizontally. The child’s heartbeat, that inescapable moment of loss, of memory spoke both truer and yet more enigmatically than I have heard.

Wagner ‘bleeding chunks’ rarely prove a happy experience. Nor did they here, whatever the excellence of the VPO’s playing. Welser-Möst seemed aware of the problems. It was difficult to imagine that this was quite how he would have played the music in the opera house, Götterdämmerung’s ‘Dawn’ opening more slowly than it would likely have done had we just heard from the Norns, yet gathering pace relatively quickly. A boisterous, full-bodied account of ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’, with just a hint or two in harmony and timbre of the Gibichung decay to come, led into his death and funeral rites: noble, not without brutality, especially from the brass. It was somewhat misleading to have the final section described as ‘Schlussszene’; what we hard began just a few bars before Brünnhilde’s ‘Fliegt heim, ihr Raben!’ No matter. Incisive string playing summoned up rather steely flames, if you can imagine such a thing. We missed the vocal line, but could readily fill it in mentally. It was impressive in its way, and the final motif (often misleadingly named ‘redemption through love’) sounded glorious from the Vienna strings. Was I moved, though? Alas not.

Salzburg Festival (3) - The Bassarids, 23 August 2018


 Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Agave / Venus), Károly Szemerédy (Captain / Adonis), Vera-Lotte Böcker (Autonoe / Proserpine), Nikolai Schukoff (Tiresias / Calliope)
Images: © Salzburger Festspiele / Bernd Uhlig

Dionysus – Sean Panikkar
Pentheus – Russell Braun
Cadmus – Willard White
Tiresias, Calliope – Nikolai Schukoff
Captain, Adonis – Károly Szemerédy
Agave, Venus – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Autonoe, Proserpine – Vera-Lotte Böcker
Beroe – Anna Maria Dur
Dancers – Rosalba Guerrero Torres, Hector Buenfil Palacio, Flavie Haour, Katharina Platz, Javier Salcedo Hernandez

Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Małgorzata Sczczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Denis Guéguin (video)
Claude Bardouil (choreography)
Christian Longchamp (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Huw Rhys James)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Kent Nagano (conductor)

The Bassarids returns to Salzburg, where it was born, now more than half a century ago, in 1966, only this time in Auden and Kallman’s original English. (That premiere had to wait until two years later, in Santa Fe.) What a thrill it proved to hear those opening orchestral cries once again from the Vienna Philharmonic, swiftly followed by its equally fine chorus: ‘Pentheus is now our Lord!’ Kent Nagano succeeded admirably, moreover, in balancing the claims of reason and abandon. How one does that may remain a matter of debate – I should not have minded a little more of the latter, especially during the ‘Hunt of the Menads’ – but, drawing upon his experience of having conducted the work (in German) in Munich ten years ago, Nagano made his own case, revealing oft-hidden, if not quite unsuspected Stravinskian neo-Classical tendencies: very much in the line of the contest – all too often misunderstood as synthesis – between Stravinsky and Schoenberg in Henze’s preceding Prince of Homburg.
Russell Braun (Pentheus), Sean Panikkar (Dionysus)

The return was, doubtless aptly, not quite a return: restoration, rather than renewal, should never be the aim. The premiere production, conducted by Christoph Dohnányi, had been seen and heard next door to the Felsenreitschule, in Karajan’s Grosses Festspielhaus. It was near enough, though, to claim lineage – so important a concept for the authority and authoritarianism, as well as attempted, pretended liberation therefrom, in this work, be it ‘dramatic’ or ‘aesthetic’. (Is there, should there, be a distinction?) This was the work, above all, that made Henze’s name in the mainstream – and had him fear what he had become, had him urgently question his ‘world success’. (What did that mean, he asked in an interview many years later? To be a Leonard Bernstein? No, thank goodness. And now the latter’s centenary has peaked, perhaps we can return to considering him a great conductor and a negligible composer.)

Only two years later, Henze would proclaim, with all the natural theatricality that had stood him in such good stead here: ‘Unnecessary are new museums, opera houses, and world premieres. Necessary, to set about the realisation of dreams. Necessary, to abolish the dominion of men over men.’ There was, however, and still is a great deal of revolution in The Bassarids. As with Wagner, as with Stravinsky, as with any number of other artists, we should be wary of taking Henze’s self-assessment on trust. He had his reasons, many of them good, for reacting and indeed for presenting himself as he did. Excessive cynicism is (by definition) unnecessary. Nevertheless, a fine production from Krzysztof Warlikowski – we might well consider it almost a companion piece to recent operatic work of his on Die Gezeichneten (Munich) and From the House of the Dead (London), as well as to his justly celebrated Iphig­­énie en Tauride (Paris) – reminds us not only why many consider this the composer’s single finest stage work, but how in some senses it may be seen pre-emptively to criticise as well as necessitate his most overtly ‘politically engaged’ works of the decade to come.


The opening takes us back to Euripides, to Dionysus before the palace at Thebes, outlining the reasons for his visit. (Some of that material is also present in the introductory ‘Mythological Background’ section to my Schott score, at least implied to be part of the penumbra to the ‘work’.) Dionysus speaks, amplified, very much as a god from beyond. We see a mysterious hooded figure, whom we presume to him – he is subsequently confirmed as such – who may or may not actually be speaking these words. His mission, however, is clear – at least from his side of the family, argument, and palace walls. He will avenge himself and his mother, Semele, upon their remaining earthly family and, as we guess and soon will learn, upon the society, politics, and cultural practices of the city over which it rules. When we see the royal family, its old guard first, Pentheus only later, its classic modern authoritarian-fascism is clear. Warlikowski’s frequent collaborator, Małgorzata Sczczęśniak accomplishes much with male military uniforms and female ‘look’. Cadmus in a wheelchair veers just the right side of cliché, which seems just about right: he is, after all, a retired dictator, and he would wear dark glasses; more to the point, perhaps, our thoughts concerning such matters are more often than not clichés, in need of a little revision – or revolution.

Cadmus (Willard White)

But is it this revolution? Is it indeed possible to revise or to overthrow what needs to be revised or overthrown, whether in or out of the opera house? Dionysus’s conquest is one we all want. None of us wants Pentheus’s authoritarianism: as much, surely, Theodor Adorno’s ‘authoritarian personality’ and Herbert Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional man’ as previously existing fascism. Indeed, ussell Braun’s performance proved well judged: a tricky and thankless task. That, perhaps, is why we find Cadmus, here in a richly sympathetic performance from Willard White (the best I have heard from him in some time), more sympathetic than perhaps we ought. We are most likely to sympathise, indeed to empathise, with the women – note, as dramaturge Christian Longchamp advises us, ‘couples are absent. Cadmus, Agave, Antonoe and Pentheus live alone, as do the prophet Tiresias and the wet-nurse Beroe’ – who lead us if not on then towards Dionysus’s merry, intoxicating, catastrophic dance, towards Semele, ‘at one free, dominating and castrating’. Nikolai Schukoff, a mesmerising Dionysus in Munich, returned as a Tiresias both manipulator and manipulated, blind and yet seeing, in an equally brilliant, disconcerting performance here.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Agave), Vera-Lotte Böcker (Beroe)

As the Pasolini-echoing (120 Days of Sodom) narrative unfolds, as bourgeois, patriarchal repression comes under assault, none of us would wish it otherwise – certainly not the figures of the court who sado-masochistically enact the Calliope Intermezzo (here included, although sometimes cut with the composer’s approval), and certainly not Pentheus’s own mother, Agave, whose personal tragedy will be revealed as glorification of the hunt-revolt that has killed her son. Think not only of the price, which is obvious (heart-rendingly so as we observe, share in the recognition of Tanja Ariane Baumgartner), but the gain? Dionysus has moved on. He is as much our unconscious desire, certainly so in so superlative performance as that of Sean Panikkar, as god. Or is that not what a god is anyway? Might not Pentheus have told us that? For whilst we were won over – we were, were we not? – by Panikkar’s mystery, his lyrical yet also heroic tenor, the vulnerability and indeed the mental instability implied by his involuntary shaking, we persuade ourselves that we knew all along there was something unhealthy to the cult of Semele, show tomb we always see before us, venerated by many who should have known better.

Beroe and Agave

We always knew better, did we not? We never really backed the Nazis, the fascists, the misogynists, the homophobes, the… And yet, on the other hand, we had already foreseen the objections. We actually rather liked those ‘new museums, opera houses, and world premieres’ all along.  The ‘realisation of dreams’: no, that was someone else, not us. Until Dionysus returns and we, the crowd, the sheep, continue the revolutionary dance we had always wanted. ‘Perché siamo tutti in pericolo.’ Or, to quote Helmut Lachenmann, in his far from conciliatory open letter to Henze (who had, in fairness to Lachenmann, proved far more hostile to him):

… that outbreak of the muzzled subject into a new emotional immediacy will be untrue, and degenerate into self-deception, wherever the fat and comfortable composer, perhaps slightly scarred structurally and therefore the more likely to complain, sets up house once again in the old junk-room of available emotions.

… Those who believe that expressive spontaneity, and innocent drawing from the venerable reservoir of affect, make that struggle of the fractured subject with itself superfluous, and spare it an engagement with the traditional concepts of material, have disabled their own voice. They are gladly allowed to sit in the lap of a society which encourages those who support its repressive game.

Did Henze, or at least his material, know that all along – in their way, just as much as Lachenmann? Wolfgang Rihm, admired by both, might tell us; did he not, after all, write a Nietzschean opera entitled Dionysos, also premiered at Salzburg? Or is that, like other third ways, just to prolong the agony? Are such ready equations between the aesthetic and the political part of the problem, the solution, or both?

Sunday 26 August 2018

Salzburg Festival (2) – L’incoronazione di Poppea, 22 August 2018

Haus für Mozart

Poppea (Sonya Yoncheva), Nerone (Kate Lindsey)
Images © Salzburger Festspiele / Maarten Vanden Abeele

Poppea – Sonya Yoncheva
Nerone – Kate Lindsey
Ottavia – Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Ottone – Carlo Vistoli
Seneca – Renato Dolcini
Virtú, Drusilla – Ana Quintans
Nutrice, First Friend of Seneca – Marcel Beekman
Arnalta – Dominique Voisse
Amore, Calletto – Lea Desandre
Fortuna, Damigella – Tamara Banjesevic
Pallade, Venere – Claire Debono
Lucano, First Soldier, Tribune, Second Friend of Seenca – Alessandro Fisher
Liberto, Second Soldier, Tribune – David Webb
Littore, First Consul, Third Friend of Seneca – Padraic Rowan
Mercurio, Second Consul – Virgile Ancely

Solo Dancer – Sarah Lutz (Needcompany)
Chroreographic collaboration – Paul Blackman (Juxtapoz)

Jan Lauwers (director, designs, choreography)
Lemm&Barkey (costumes)
Ken Hioco (lighting)
Elke Janssens (dramaturgy)

Bodhi Project and Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance
Les Arts Florissants
William Christie (musical direction)

Solo dancer (Sarah Lutz), Lucano (Alessandro Fisher), Dancer (Sam Huczkowski), Nerone (Kate Lindsey)

Jan Lauwers’s first opera production may be accounted a significant success: alive to theatre, its possibilities and impossibilities, its illusions and delusions. I heard a good few objections – nothing wrong with that in itself, of course – which, sadly and revealingly, seemed to boil down to that perennial bugbear of ‘too much going on’. By definition, ‘too much’ of something will be a bad thing – although sometimes, perhaps, bad things are required. Few of the characters in L’incoronazione di Poppea, even Seneca a somewhat compromised and therefore all the more credible exception, evince scruples in that or any other respect. Sometimes we, sometimes they too, need to ask why, or at least seem to need to do so. It does not, then, seem entirely unreasonable, nor out of keeping with the spirit of this extraordinary work, to attempt something similar. It is, at any rate, likely to prove more enlightening than simply complaining that ‘too much is going on’. ‘Have you ever seen a Frank Castorf production?’ I was tempted to ask.

In a programme note, Lauwers pertinently mentions Shakespeare, who never fails to come to my mind when contemplating the last two operas of Monteverdi: ‘Shakespeare too employed a form of timeless anti-psychology in his work. Just as the English bard offers no explanation at all of why Lady Macbeth is so “bad”, the protagonists in L’incoronazione di Poppea are also simply “bad”.’ There is much to object to in the claim itself – not least the disregard for an audience that would have known very well what historically would become of Nero and his newly crowned empress – yet it does well not only to point us to Shakespeare, but also to provide a way into what seems to me perhaps the fundamental claim, or way of making a claim, of both production and work. For, as Iain Fenlon points out in his excellent note, the Accademia deli Incogniti, whose members included Monteverdi’s librettist, Francesco Busenello, held that the ‘public world, the world of politics, was principally about the exercise of power. … under these circumstances, the prime obligation of the citizen was that of self-preservation’. Crucially, their published writings, ‘often fiercely sceptical in tone,’ were often ‘designed to illustrate both the incompatibility of words and deeds, and the impossibility of explaining human actions in terms of a single norm or principle’. There are obvious conflicts and materials for conflicts here, such as can make for excellent drama – and here do.

It is here that the dancers really come in – and indeed the instrumentalists. (At least if we are starting where we have started; as ever in opera, had we started somewhere else, we should have taken a different path.) Like staging itself, sometimes they mirror the action, but more often they offer related, alternative paths: a ‘why’, a ‘what if…’, whether for particular singers to whom they might implicitly or explicitly be paired, or for the company as a whole. Not for nothing is this a performance founded on the director’s own Need[for]company. They complete the company too, providing tableaux vivants that may or may not be static, perhaps most memorably of all during the hours of Poppea’s sleep.  Like a Renaissance painting’ has been a phrase much mocked recently, the reasons too obvious once again to rehearse; here, however, as with Shakespeare, the enlistment of, say, Caravaggio seems real and enriching. As some of the opera may (or may not) be from the ‘workshop of Monteverdi’, production, performance, reception too likewise partake – surely always they will – in other workshops.

Ottone (Carlo Vistoli), Poppea, Arnalta (Dominique Visse), Ensemble

Much of that seems particularly well suited to the world of imperial Rome and its court. Access is always a question in such situations – and so it is here. Access for whom and with whom? We have contemporary versions: a filmed, even ‘reality television’ transition from the Prologue has us observe, participate in the orgiastic goings on. Throughout history, what has been more pornographic, in any number of senses, than the desire not only to watch but also to write such ‘stories’? Is that not part of what Poppea is? All the while, even whilst we are caught up in its detail, in enjoyment thereof, we, like the selected dancer-in-rotation as focal wheel of fate (Fortuna), know how things will turn out – even if we have forgotten. That is certainly not the least of things that we, like our real or imaginary original Venetian audiences, bring to the dramatic table. Observation and understanding of court life, ours or ‘theirs’, will always be partial: that is part of the puzzle, the game.

Ana Quintans (Drusilla), Ensemble

So too is the score, such as it is, here more foundation – yet what a foundation! – than script for a musical performance. So too, also, are the musicians. There are many ways to perform Monteverdi; anyone who tells you otherwise is either disingenuous or uncomprehending. This way, however, worked uncommonly well: both ‘in itself’ and, more importantly, for this particular staging and concept. To quote Lauwers again, ‘the first thing he,’ that is William Christie, ‘said to me was that there wo[uld]n’t be an orchestra, but a group of soloists, and that he did not wish to adopt a focal position as conductor’. An outstanding group of soloists, then, founded upon a rich in hue continuo group, grounded upon that all important bass line, was essentially conducted – insofar as the term has meaning here – by the singers, by their action and its scenic-vocal instantiation. In Christie’s own words, ‘The roles are reversed.’

Poppea and Ottone

Whatever the ‘priority’, and its surely the collaboration that matters more, the singers proved excellent indeed in exploration of the endless subtleties of Monteverdi’s recitar cantando. Sonya Yoncheva’s Poppea was such that one could hardly imagine it otherwise – that despite the wealth of alternatives suggested by dance and gesture. Her seductive, knowing yet unknowing character was keenly matched with the darker Nerone of Kate Lindsey, their blend as erotic as, more erotic than, anyone would have a right to imagine. Stéphanie d’Oustrac perhaps exaggerated – for my taste, anyway – the rhythmic freedom of her final ‘number’, but hers was an intelligent portrayal, which reminded us that, in many ways, this character is just as bad as those who have wronged her. (Might she not too have been Lady Macbeth?) Carlo Vistoli’s Ottone hit just the right note: erotically ‘pure’ of tone, providing quite a different form of allure, yet one just as potent. He too, whilst engaging our sympathy, questioned whether he should have done. Ana Quintans’s rich-yet clear-toned Drusilla did so effortlessly – at least seemingly so – even if, again, she perhaps should not have done. Renato Dolcini offered an unusually youthful Seneca, thought-provokingly so. If I found the crudity of tone of Dominique Visse’s (excessively?) high camp Arnalta something of a fly in the ointment, there are not un-Shakespearen arguments to say that such is all part of life’s rich tapestry. Otherwise, company was truly the thing; I should end up merely rewriting the cast list were I not to stop here. For stopping here is just what L’incoronazione di Poppea does; we were beguiled, enthralled, yet never sated. Like Nerone, Poppea, their world.

Thursday 23 August 2018

Salzburg Festival (1) – Boesch/Martineau: Schubert, Mahler, and Krenek, 20 August 2018

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Schubert: Der Wanderer, D 649; Der Wanderer an den Mond, D 870; An den Mond, SD 259
Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Krenek: Reisebuch aus den österrichischen Alpen, op.62

Florian Boesch (baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

There are many ways to wander, not least with one foot in the soil of German Romanticism. Many of us will think of the paintings of Friedrich – now, alas, almost too well known – and of Wotan in Siegfried. Need there be such metaphysical implications? Perhaps, perhaps not; it would be difficult to avoid them completely in a Liederabend. That is not to say, however, that they might not be played with, questioned, even satirised. As Florian Boesch admits, in a booklet interview, it is not easy to know how to programme Ernst Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österrichischen Alpen. Schubert and Mahler here offered complementary, even dialectical standpoints from which to approach Krenek’s song-cycle.

The three opening Schubert songs were well chosen, even their titles making the connection clear: Der Wanderer, Der Wanderer an den Mond, and An den Mond. Boesch’s crystal clear diction, never an end in itself but a crucial guide to meaning, was apparent from the start. The different register chosen for the moon’s encouragement – ‘Folge true dem alten Gliese, wähler keine Heimat nicht’, or should that be discouragement? – made its point without exaggeration. Likewise the quiet ecstasy of ‘schein’, of appearance, of reflection, on ‘Seh’ ich mild im Widerscheine’ told us all we needed to know. Both Boesch and Malcolm Martineau, perhaps a little reticent in these songs, used the form of Schubert’s second and third songs to chart a wandering of their own: similar yet different throughout their stanzas. Already, it was clear that this was to be a performance of a very ‘Austrian’ baritone, at times tenor-like, in the line of Wolfgang Holzmair, although certainly not merely to be identified with him.

Martineau turned far more interventionist – as, indeed, did Boesch – in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. Fair enough: there is no un-mediated Mahler, certainly not here. Sometimes, though, less is more, or at least it can be. I could not help but find the very heavy piano accents in ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ a little much, perhaps also Boesch’s underlining of words. His heavy sarcasm in the following ‘Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld’ ensured that what may sometimes be lost was not. At what price, though? Expressionistic anger, Wozzeck-like, made a powerful case for such an approach in ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’, although intonation sometimes went a little awry. Uneasy repose, in a very slow ‘Die zweu blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ suggested a dark dreamworld indeed, responding perhaps to the Schubert of Winterreise, not least in the frozen quality to Martineau’s piano part.

Krenek’s cycle thus emerged, both as work and performance, as some sort of mediated response to those two extremes (extremes which, of course, retained something of each other within). The expectancy of the opening ‘Motiv’, together with its slightly doubting harmonies, nicely pointed by Martineau, set the scene – without, quite rightly, our yet knowing how it and its action would develop. As James Parsons put it in his 2010 Austrian Studies article on the work, Krenek is, to an extent at least, ‘reversing the associative connotations of the Lied as a medium suited to withdrawing from the cares of the world, and, in place of that, taking up the genre as the means by which to actively work through life’s larger concerns’. Which may, of course, as we heard here, entail dealing with issues of withdrawal; indeed, it almost certainly will. To follow such a song with ‘Verkehr’, a song playing with pictorialism and Neue Sachlichkeit just as it plays with the mountain railway that is its ostensible subject, takes us further – and so it did here, Boesch’s irony less exaggerated and in many ways more telling than in Mahler. Is ‘scenery’ lighter? Perhaps, as in the following ‘Kloster in den Alpen’, but there are echoes here of Romanticism; consciously or otherwise, Boesch and Martineau seemed to point – or at least I heard them doing so – to Schumann’s Im Rhein. Or is that a pointless diversion? ‘Abends dann beim Wein im Klosterkeller magst du nachdenken, was für ein sinnlos Leben du fuhrst.’ Schubert is the more obvious model, of course, and, I think, the more obvious focus of rebellion. In ‘Traurige Stunde’, we were asked to participate in an act of false or at least fallible remembrance, even before the explicit act thereof in ‘Unser Wein (Dem Andenken Franz Schuberts)’.

For memory is a strange thing. Its ambivalence and ambiguity had been prepared in the preceding ‘Regentag’, not least by further suggestion of musical ‘autonomy’ in the piano part. More than once such thoughts came to mind, unsettling and yet expanding ideas of what this music, these words, their alchemy (or not) might be ‘about’. A journey was underfoot, towards dodecaphony, through quasi-Schoenbergian procedures in ‘Auf und ab’, itself questioned by the grandeur of external display in the succeeding ‘Albenbewohner (Folkloristisches Potpourri)’. The post-expressionism of ‘Gewitter’, again not entirely unlike the Schoenberg of the 1920s, although certainly never to be confused with him, told us how gloriously untrue that song’s final major chord must be. If there were a decision (‘Entscheidung’), it seemed to relate to reinforcement of those ambiguities, ambivalences, autonomies. We citizens of nowhere, we rootless cosmopolitans know no home; we no longer want one. Or do we?