Wednesday 30 January 2019

Il primo omicidio, Opéra national de Paris, 26 January 2019

Palais Garnier

Images: Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

Caino  Kristina Hammarström, Hippolyte Chapuis
Abele  Olivia Vermeulen, Rémi Courtel
Adamo  Thomas Walker, Armand Dumonteil
Eva  Birgitte Christensen, Alma Perrin
Voice of God  Benno Schachtner, Riccard Carducci
Voice of Lucifer Robert Gleadow, Léo Chatel

Romeo Castellucci (director, designs)
Silvia Costa (artistic collaboration)
Piersandra Di Matteo, Christian Longchamp (dramaturgy)

B’Rock Orchestra
René Jacobs (conductor)

The Paris Opéra celebrates its 350th anniversary this year. Its archives preserve its founding document, the twelve-year privilege or monopoly granted by Louis XIV, ‘par la Grâce de Dieu, Roy de France et de Navarre,’ to the poet Pierre Perrin, to found anywhere in France, with whichever business partners he might choose, academies of opera. This Privilège accordé au Sieur Perrin pour l'établissement d'une Académie d'Opéra en Musique et en Vers François’ was renewed up until the Revolution for Perrin’s successors, Perrin himself having been imprisoned just three years later and compelled to cede his privilege to Lully. The curtain at the much later Palais Garnier, as luxurious as anything one might imagine from St-Germain-en-Laye, or indeed Versailles thereafter, reminded us of that founding year: 1669. It is perhaps a fiction in some ways, since the first performance would not be given until 1671, but then such is the way with myths of creation.

Which brings us to our very own myth of Creation – or rather its aftermath: arguably the aftermath of its aftermath, following the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. We come, then in Christian genealogy, to the first murder, Il primo omicidio; or, to give it an ‘or’ perhaps more crucial than we find say, in the full titles of Figaro or Tannhäuser, Il primo omicidio, ovvero Caino. Every time we start, or start again, we qualify. Myths and their accretions are like that, whatever their deceptive simplicity. Such, at least, was one of many thoughts provoked by Romeo Castellucci’s staging of Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1707 Venetian oratorio, which, if not dating back quite to Perrin or indeed to Lully, stands considerably closer to them than to us – not entirely not unlike Cain and Abel to us as opposed to Creation itself.

Design tends to be an especially crucial element of Castellucci’s theatre: that is, not only of the expression of an idea, but perhaps as an idea or instead of an idea in itself. This staging is a typically painterly, or at least visual, creation, especially in the First Part; there is something of the installation to it, not at all inappropriately, given that an oratorio is not ‘supposed’ (‘sacred’ music’s forbidden fruit?) to be staged in any case. As in Castellucci’s Moses und Aron, which inaugurated Stéphane Lissner’s intendancy in Paris, and which surely acts as something – Biblical chronology here fruitfully entangled – of a progenitor to the present staging, much of the initial action, such as it is, is viewed through gauze or at least the effect thereof. This is pre-history, after all, or rather myth. Is that not often how we strain, or indeed even indulge? The remoteness has temptations as well as snares of its own; are temptations and snares not the same thing? Were they not for Eve – and for Cain?

The visual drama of blood sacrifice, again as in Moses, to whom some credit writing of the Pentateuch, may again be thought of as painterly, or at least akin to painting. An altarpiece suspended, upside down, reminds us where we are heading as well as where we are. Use of colour and fluid may well be familiar from other Castellucci stagings, but it is not straightforwardly to be reduced to a tic, even though our word ‘aesthetic’ contains the charge. Coincidence does not equate to genealogy: in a Christian or post-Christian tradition, the two can hardly stand further apart. Perhaps I failed to appreciate that in Castellucci’s Tannhäuser, which in general left me unimpressed; if the opportunity presents itself to give it another go, I shall try to take it.

Representation in the Second Part seems less distant; we see more clearly in the run up to Cain’s murder of his brother. However, then, or rather just before, an interesting doubling occurs. Each of the ‘characters’, including the ‘Voices’ of God and Lucifer, acquires a further visual representation from a child actor. We retain clarity but we see double without hearing double. What does that mean? The question is open; it can probably mean whatever you want it to mean – or not. For me, however, there are two principal points, one relating to the issue of representation itself – as in Moses, of course, but also as in the genre of oratorio, always hedging on the edge of representation and in this particular performance actually submitting or, if you prefer, acquiring visual liberation.

I shall return to that, but first, perhaps less or at least differently conceptual, is the dramatic role of children. This is a foundational myth, albeit with catches. Eve here acts very much as mother: a mother who essentially loses both of her children. She becomes, here explicitly in traditional Marian ultramarine, a forerunner of that other Mother of Sorrows. She is also, of course, mother to the human race. We witness the multiplication of Adam’s seed – but her progeny too. In some traditions, the date of the Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March, is also given to Adam’s Fall. We are also reminded, in one of those catches, that the population of the Earth takes place via neither Cain nor Abel. Such is Cain’s punishment: he is punished to live, as Antonio Ottoboni’s libretto makes repeatedly clear. Is that not our traditional tragic (which is to say, Greek rather than Hebrew) insight: Silenus’s it would be best not to have been born at all, and then better to die than to live? Christianity’s dialectic between Jewish and Hellenic traditions continues.

There is an historical, metatheatrical element to this too, which connects the issue of lineage to that of representation. Scarlatti wrote two operatic tragedies, Il Mitridate Eupatore and Il trionfo della libertà, in that same year, 1707, for Venetian theatres. (We seem not to know where Il primo omicidio was first performed, save for it being in Venice.) We know that Il primo omicidio was performed again, three years later, in 1710, at the Palazzo della Cancelleria, for the Venetian-born Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, nephew of Pope Alexander VIII and son of Scarlatti’s librettist and employer (as maestro di cappella), Antonio. Such keeping it in the family is intrinsic to our Christian genealogy too. In some cases, interestingly, the children’s gestures here proved more ‘operatic’, as conventionally understood, than those of the singers. Was oratorio once again leading to, even giving birth to, opera, however fraught the chronology? (If one wants fraught chronologies and genealogies, there are worse examples than the story that had begun in 4004 BC.) Oratorio a non orando, as eighteenth-century religious conservatives used to say? Was a performance, let alone a staging, of allegedly prayerful music so called because no one prayed? Interesting, difficult questions were raised concerning the objectification of children too, especially within the dominant patriarchal construct of ‘the family’.

Without wishing to denigrate the considerable virtues of Scarlatti’s score, it perhaps serves most clearly as a setting of Ottoboni’s libretto. That is surely what we heard and indeed saw on this occasion. We shall not get very far if we wish to hear it as if it were Wagner, or Mozart for that matter – by which I mean to refer to aesthetic and dramatic content rather than the restricting, deadening idea of ‘period style’, as foreign a concept to Scarlatti and Ottoboni as might be imagined. It would be dishonest to claim that there were no such restrictions to the present performance. If René Jacobs’s tempi were in general unobjectionable, the instrumentalists of the B’Rock Orchestra too often seemed encouraged to shy away from the operatic opening-up we witnessed on stage. The strings were not, mercifully, entirely without vibrato, but a little more Venetian and/or Roman colour would not have gone amiss. Likewise with the estimable vocal performances, which sometimes one wished might take a little cue from the enthusiasm of the doubling child actors. That said, there were no disappointments and there was much to savour, not least from the maternal sincerity of Birgitte Christensen’s Eva, the haunting innocence of Olivia Vermuelen’s Abele, and the otherworldly purity of Benno Schachtner’s countertenor as the Voice of God.

Jacobs reminds us in a programme interview that we had to wait centuries to hear Monteverdi’s Vespers once again. The comparison seems extravagant; I do not know Scarlatti’s other oratorios, so perhaps they do reach so exalted a level; if so, we should hear them as soon as possible. For me, this oratorio comes nowhere near. But it is of interest; it is worth hearing, worth thinking about. The conductor, moreover, is right to act as chief advocate for the defence. With a work such as this, that is what he is there for. Jacobs led a perfectly reasonable account, not least given the straitjacket of ‘period’ instruments and, more broadly, approaches. Imagine, though, what might have been revealed, had such extravagance of advocacy been lent also to the performance itself. Creation and its aftermath will always stand in need of recreation.

Monday 21 January 2019

SoundState Festival – Fraser/Ensemble Modern/Kaziboni - Gedizlioğlu, Abbasi, Grütter, Fure, Žuraj, and Saunders, 19 January 2019

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Zeynep Gedizlioğlu: Kesik (2010, UK premiere)
Anahita Abbasi: Situation II/Dialoge (2016, UK premiere)
Martin Grütter: Die Häutung des Himmels (2016, UK premiere)
Ashley Fure: Feed Forward (2016, UK premiere)
Vito Žuraj: Runaround (2014, UK premiere)

Rebecca Saunders: Fury II (2009, UK premiere)
Saunders: a visible trace (2006)
Saunders: SKIN (2015-16)

Paul Cannon (double bass)
Juliet Fraser (soprano)
Ensemble Modern
Vimbayi Kaziboni (conductor)

Musical performance comes in many varieties, many of which I love. I should be lying if I claimed not greatly to look forward to evenings with the likes of Maurizio Pollini or Daniel Barenboim, or my annual visit to Salzburg. There is nothing, however, quite like being confronted with new music: either brand new, in which case only the performers and perhaps the odd rehearsal observer will have heard it, or verging upon it, as for instance in the first of these two concerts in the Southbank Centre’s new SoundState Festival, which, as its publicity puts it, ‘bringing together an unrivalled concentration of global creativity, … celebrates the artists,’ or at least some of them, ‘who are defining what it means to make new music in the 21st century’. It is good for the ears and the mind: I have nothing on which to go other than what I hear there and then. It is crucial for the future of music. And it is far more exciting than any run-of-the-mill subscription concert, with an equally run-of-the-mill audience. A severe spot or two of bronchial activism is likely to prove the most surprising thing in the latter case. Here, who knows what might happen?

The two concerts I heard were both given by the Ensemble Modern and conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni. Performances, insofar as I could tell, were just as excellent as one would have expected from such players. The first concert offered five works by young composers, chosen by the ensemble as musicians they admired, the second three works by Rebecca Saunders, one of my most admired living composers, who just two days previously had been awarded the 2019 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, the first woman composer to have received the prize and only the second woman at all (the first having been Anne-Sophie Mutter). That, of course, tells its own tale, so it was heartening to hear one concert in which three of the five composers featured were women and another in which the sole composer was Saunders. Such is again another advantage of much, if not yet quite enough, that happens in the world of new music.

Zeynep Gedizlioğlu’s Kesik, or ‘Cut’, opened the first concert. Its opening wind éclat promised much, repeated yet never quite: different outcomes, different potentialities. ‘Lacerating’ was another word that came to mind – not only, I think, on account of the work’s title. Part way through, the oboe cut in, with a microtonal melody line more or less unbroken, that spoke perhaps of the ‘oriental’ or ‘orientalism’, or was that my orientalist projection? There was little or nothing in the way of repose until that oboe line ceased, followed by a thwack of the bass drum.

Two United Kingdom premieres of Anahita Abbasi works within a couple of days of each other: first it had been her Intertwined Distances for harpsichord and electronics, courtesy of Mahan Esfahani; now we heard her ensemble piece, Situation II/Dialoge. A sense of landscape was strong, at least to my ears and imagination: wind, or something like it, something like its effects, rustling through bunches of leaves shaken by two of the players; sounds from inside the piano; cello and double bass working together in crude (from the standpoint of a Mozart orchestra) sounds heard in more or less contrary motion. Sounds that were (relatively) more expected emerged out of that eery calm before a storm, without the storm ever truly materialising. Unisons were achieved rather than a given, quickly lost, prior to a return to the aural world of the opening, chimes fading away a niente.

Martin Grütter’s Die Häutung des Himmels (‘The Skinning of the Heavens’), scored for seven instruments (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, trombone, double bass, and distant percussion), came next. The distance of the percussion, behind and above evoked the celestial or at least skyward dimension – like many languages, French does not distinguish between ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’ as English does – of a distant world whose goings on (aural in this case) shaped, even determined those back down on earth, or onstage. A sense of musical drama was strong: almost a scena without words. Teeming wind lines, jazzy (yes, I know, but the cliché seems to work here) bass pizzicato-led riffs: quickly changing moods, like products of the weather or warring gods – are they perhaps the same? – processed before our ears. It felt – and I am doubtless romanticising here, as is my wont – as if a new Alpine Symphony were less being presented then already reimagined, reinterpreted, redramatised.

Ashley Fure’s Feed Forward was the only one work I found over-extended, but that may well have been my misunderstanding: I should happily re-listen in order better to find my feet, should the chance arise. There was, at any rate, some initial overlap or affinity with sounds in Grütter’s piece: happenstance, maybe, or good programming? Structure was quite different, as was the overall sound world, accordion sounding surprisingly unearthly in context. A sense (deliberate, I think!) of tiring, of gesture wearing thin, seemed integral to the work and its course.

The first concert came to an end with Vito Žuraj’s Runaround, for brass quartet (two trumpets, trombone, and horn) and ensemble. This was, I think, the second time I had encountered Žuraj’s music, the first having been at the Salzburg Festival in 2013. (Salzburg and new music, you see, are anything but antithetical, whatever false dichotomy I drew at the opening.) Žuraj, it seems, is a tennis enthusiast, many of his pieces (French Open, Changeover, etc.) finding inspiration in some aspect of the game. In this case, it was table tennis: a game in a hotel room with brass players from the Ensemble Modern. There was certainly a sense of everything to play for, aleatoric elements apparently being present. Another thing that struck me was the fineness of ear: even when using extended techniques, there was always a sense of working with rather than against the instruments and their possibilities. Spirits of jazz bands past hovered in fond parody, prior to a whirling, intermittently waltzing vortex that for me faintly echoed – not necessarily a matter of ‘influence’ – Ravel’s La Valse.

Comparison with Saunders would be futile: an established, if woefully underrated (especially in this country) composer spoke for herself, or rather her works spoke for themselves. First to be heard was Fury II, for double bass and ensemble, here with Paul Cannon as soloist. He seemed to me very much first among equals, though, for at heart this is as much an ensemble piece (piano, accordion, bass clarinet, cello, double bass, two percussionists) as anything else. The dark, low rumbling from various instruments played on their affinity: any might have emerged as the ‘soloist’ – or none. Indeed, other instruments seemed often almost to speak as if they were double basses. Saunders’s finely honed, post-Webern writing once again revealed the importance of every note, timbre, combination, and so forth. There was drama – drum thwacks and all – but with the tightest of focus, no ‘mere’ effect. Highly wrought, pent up in the best sense, this was a work of undeniable mastery both as written and in performance.

 a visible trace again offered much affinity and elision between instrumental lines that yet remained clear: for instance, opening transformation of viola into trombone. Intensity of string playing (and writing) was striking indeed, an agent ultimately of distillation that was not quite spare. This is not parsimonious writing, any more than Webern’s is. There is fragility, even lack, yet neither is accidental. As in Italo Calvino’s inspiring words, ‘The word,’ or perhaps the note, ‘connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.’ Slow, yet ever-changing (not to preclude frenzy within), this is a piece whose timbral and other relationships never cease to fascinate in their unfolding, in their paths, in the traces they leave and mark out. As one instrument falls silent, another has (almost) imperceptibly already begun.

Juliet Fraser’s soprano performance proved the crowning joy of the evening and of SKIN, a work catalysed by lines from Beckett: ‘… this is the room’s essence/not being/now look closer/mere dust/dust is the skin of a room/history is a skin’. Interrelationships again came to the fore, perceived as if through a skin-like membrane. What was the sound of, say, a string instrument and what suggested it? Breath and its possibilities seemed to permeate the membrane of perception, of consciousness. The eloquence of every differentiation in stages from speaking to not-speaking, from speech to song, created and deconstructed words and music before our ears. Words could speak, but so could instruments; likewise with song. How meaningful was the distinction at all? Was it not the all-embracing drama of something not so very distant from what we should once have called a cantata the thing, the non-staged play, the drama of notes and their performance? It is a large-scale work, yet every note counted: just as much as in its two predecessors. A cry of ‘Sk – in’ at the close reminded us of the work’s origin, course, and destination. End: or, as Beckett might have put it, ‘fin’.

Saturday 19 January 2019

Esfahani - Rasmussen, Berio, Srnka, Cage, and Abbasi, 17 January 2019

Milton Court Concert Hall

Sunleif Rasmussen: Quadroforone no.1 (2018, world premiere)
Berio: Rounds (1965)
Miroslav Srnka: Triggering (2018)
Cage: HPSCHD (1967-9): 'Solo VII'
Anahita Abbasi: Intertwined Distances (2018, UK premiere)

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Electronic Music Department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (electronic realisation)

Images: Mark Allan/Barbican

Now this is what I call a harpsichord recital programme. We have all the time in the world to hear more Bach, Rameau, Byrd, et al., and shall very happily do so. But what could be more important than to establish and, just as important, to strengthen the instrument’s standing as an instrument of the present? This, moreover, was what I should call a harpsichord recital performance too. In such a situation, one can all too readily take virtuosity and musicianship for granted, concentrating, as is only natural, on the music ‘itself’. It may be unnatural, but it is also unfair, for nothing does new music a greater service, alas, than well-meaning yet incompetent performance. Such were the circumstances in which Pierre Boulez founded the Domaine musical. Let us steer clear of the cul-de-sac of ‘discipleship’ and say that Boulez has many successors. Mahan Esfahani certainly took his place among them in this Milton Court recital.

Sunleif Rasmussen’s Quadroforone no.1, a Barbican commission, received its world premiere. It is intended to be the first – as the numbering may have implied – in a series of four pieces that will set a live instrument against recorded, transformed sounds of itself. Ironically, or perhaps not, my first impression, prior to hearing any electronic transformation, was the unadulterated sound of Esfahani’s instrument: very much a modern instrument, in a grand line we might trace back at least to Wanda Landowska. What struck me throughout the twenty minutes or so of the performance was above all a sense of material turning around, not just in the spatial realisation, although that must have played a part, and of never quite repeating: a spiral, then, at least to this confirmed, even obsessive Hegelian. Electronics conveyed a sense, almost old-fashioned, of a round: interesting, and perhaps noteworthy, that that rather than ‘canon’ was the word that first came to mind. Confrontation and integration alike between solo instrument and electronic at times suggested a reinvention before our ears of a Baroque concerto. Then came a slower section, apparently, according to the programme, entitled ‘Nocturne’, in which a duet between hands, between manuals, co-existed, indeed interacted, with duetting between soloist and electronics. There was a sense of unwinding: again circular, spiralling, but downwards. Gathering pace once again, upwards (even when not in pitch), the music arrived at a final section, seemingly going nowhere but going nowhere interestingly. Harmonies and hierarchies of hearing continued to reproduce themselves, albeit with ever greater difficulty, until – nothing.

Luciano Berio’s classic Rounds followed, our early music for the evening. Square notes and round notes, turning the page around, upside down too: it emerged in contrast very much as a successor to, and/or precursor of, Rasmussen’s piece. The delicacy of playing and writing, silence included, registration changes telling, offered a keen sense of the ludic. But if procedures were audible – rightly, helpfully audible – they were never the music ‘itself’, any more than in Berg. Wit of work and performance alike proved fleeting in the best sense.

Miroslav Srnka’s Triggering appears to be relatively scant in its notation. (I am judging simply from Esfahani’s typically engaging, informative spoken introduction, since I have seen the scores for none of these pieces, save the Berio – and that many years ago.) About 85 per cent, we were told, of the instruction to the performer is in pitch classes alone: time or better times, central to the composer’s conception, may in his words, be ‘political, social, private, metaphorical, sporting, humorous, existential, climatic’. In this piece, he attempts ‘to construct all these different times – the instants and the betweentimes – until the mechanism of playing dissolves and the times change in nature.’ That ‘instant’ lies between the pressing of the key and the plectrum plucking the string: very much, then harpsichord music. Electronics come later – in the guise of e-bows attached to the strings of a second harpsichord – but even in the first of the eight short movements or sections, ‘Digital Wounds’, the digital binary being one of either plucking or not plucking, the low pitches speak in a fashion that does not sound entirely un-electronic; or so, at least it sounded in performance and listening. Esfahani’s extraordinary virtuosity, first over two manuals, and even over two harpsichords, was very much part of the theatre, but this was a theatre of musical drama, no ‘happening’. Major scales in ‘Major Rain’ again played with our notions of what was predictable: a connection, surely, with Rasmussen’s piece. We more or less ‘knew’ what would happen, but never quite: how extended would it be? In which direction would the ‘rain’ fall? What would the note values be? In sum, this seemed a highly visual work, in an almost programmatic sense, albeit for a digital, video age. Electronics came to evoke the unearthly, ‘historical’ world of the glass armonica, until work and performance alike subsided into silence – and, as the lights went down, darkness too.

John Cage’s ‘Solo VII’ from the installation, HPSCHD, is still more scantily notated – or rather not notated at all. His instruction is simply: ‘Practice and/or perform any composition(s) by Mozart. Amplitude and registration free.’ Esfahani chose the D minor Fantasia, KV 397/385g, and via an I Ching website, divined the parameters for questions he had previously defined. At which bar to start practising? Bar 57. At which point after the electronics had started, should he start practising (in multiples of ten seconds)? 110 seconds in. At what point should he stop practising? 2 minutes. And at which point after that, should he start to perform (in, if I recall correctly, multiples of thirty seconds)? 90 seconds. All the while, the electronic realisation by the Guildhall School’s Electronic Music Department, with its own questions and divinations, albeit founded upon the original, if you like ‘period’ electronics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, ran its course: an absolute, set duration. There was wit, for instance when Esfahani pencilled something in (a fingering?) whilst practising, but it was also deadly serious: as surely Cage must be. It never came across as a joke, as whimsy. I was led to reflect on ways of listening, of being able to listen, of not listening too. A wonderfully free performance of the Mozart Fantasia unfolded, insofar as one could hear, far freer in tempo than I should ever have dared imagine, let alone convincingly despatched. Was that the point? The very question seemed beside the point; so too, perhaps, did any point.

Finally, we came to the United Kingdom premiere of Anahita Abbasi’s Intertwined Distances, a commission from Esfahani himself. Here, the quadrophonic electronics are taken from an improvisation (if I remember correctly!) Esfahani gave as part of a recital in San Diego. The composer plays with conceptions of distance, writing: ‘According to Merriam-Webster, distance is a separation in time, an extent of advance from a beginning; and in mathematics it refers to the degree or amount of separation between two points, lines, surfaces, or objects.’ How do they intertwine, then? How did they intertwine in time? Figures sounded generative and (almost) repetitive, sometimes simultaneously, yet (again) never quite predictably. A quasi-Ligetian swarm arose as the work gathered pace– probably more my seeking for ways to describe than an ultimately meaningful comparison – out of which electronic sounds emerged, whatever the truth of the material’s actual origins. Distance and dialogue, dialogue in distance: such seemed to be the crux of performance and listening as activity. There was, without doubt, an extraordinarily inventive musical imagination at work, but it was never merely invention: it was a sonic and instrumental drama that seemed somehow to summarise, to extend, and quite properly to question many of the tendencies we had heard so far. This was, then, a programme and performance of harpsichord music for the here and now.

Monday 14 January 2019

The Queen of Spades, Royal Opera, 13 January 2019

Royal Opera House

Tchaikovsky (Vladimir Stoyanov)
Images: ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Herman – Aleksandrs Antonenko
Count Tomsky, Zlatogor – John Lundgren
Prince Yeletsky, Tchaikovsky – Vladimir Stoyanov
The Countess – Felicity Palmer
Lisa – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Pauline, Milovzor – Anna Goryachova
Chekalinsky – Alexander Kravets
Surin – Tigran Martirossian
Chaplitsky – Konu Kim
Narumov – Michael Mofidian
Governess – Louise Winter
Master of Ceremonies – Harry Nicoll
Masha – Renata Skarelyte
Prilepa – Jacquelyn Stucker

Stefan Herheim (director)
Philipp Fürhofer (designs)
Bernd Purkrabek (lighting)
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturgy)

Members of the Tiffin Children’s Chorus and Tiffin Boys’ Choir
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding) and Extra Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

London has not done badly in recent years by The Queen of Spades, both ENO and Opera Holland Park having offered productions, the latter considerably more successful than the former. (A less recent yet hardly distant visit from Opera North is also better forgotten.) In addition – fresher in and more germane to my own thoughts – Salzburg presented a fine new staging, typically misunderstood by most, from Hans Neuenfels last summer. Covent Garden, however, has not seen the opera since 2002, so it was about time. Stefan Herheim’s much lauded production, first seen in Amsterdam in 2016, may now be seen courtesy of the Dutch National Opera’s co-producer, the Royal Opera.

Countess (Felicity Palmer)

I go back a good few years with Herheim’s work. My first encounter quite bowled me over: his Entführung aus dem Serail for Salzburg in 2006, preserved on DVD in the Festival’s box of the complete Mozart operas. If I were bowled over then, growing acquaintance with his Bayreuth Parsifal over three different years of that festival (click here for my final encounter, in 2012) proved something beyond bowling over; indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that it marked a turning-point in my understanding of opera as a critical, recreative genre. Not for nothing did a picture from the production feature on the cover of my book, After Wagner, which devoted a chapter to that production and another half-chapter to discussion of Herheim’s Berlin Lohengrin. Since then, the director’s work has continued to occupy my thoughts both in my formal academic and less academic writing; Herheim’s Meistersinger is, for instance, discussed in a chapter on modernist operatic culture I wrote for a recent book, edited by Björn Heile and Charles Wilson, on modernism in music. Why mention that? Partly to situate myself – we all do that, nowadays, do we not, both when staging and watching opera? – but also to situate the doubts I began to have, not entirely dissimilar to those I initially entertained concerning Herheim’s Glyndebourne Pelléas this summer.

Herman (Aleksandrs Antonenko)

Whilst neither of these productions struck me at the time as representing Herheim at his very best, certainly not at his most groundbreaking – perhaps my problem and mine alone – I have nevertheless continued to think, to deconstruct, and perhaps more important, to piece together, but also how one needed to see and, crucially as ever with Herheim, to hear the entirety of the production, not simply to rely upon what one thought before the interval. Much came together by the close, whether onstage or in one’s mind; indeed, one was prompted to ask whether the two were, if not one and the same, at least inseparable even from the analytical standpoint. Just as with more overtly confrontational theatre work, for instance from such different directors as Peter Konwitschny and Calixto Bieito, this is not theatre for the mere spectator. Herheim’s theatricality in a more conventional sense sometimes leads others to think his theatre conventional, even crowd-pleasing. Perhaps in some senses it is, or can be. That, however, is not its point. Like Wagner, or indeed Tchaikovsky, his work continues to have much to tell those angry and unreceptive from what we might tentatively term the musicodramatic ‘left’ and ‘right’ – without collapsing into centrist quicksand. There is something synthetic, in interesting and not always expected senses, to this art – as indeed there surely is to much opera ‘itself’, whatever that might mean.

Identity is a complex thing. How do we identify with the voices or voices on stage, back stage, in the pit, even in the audience (beyond yesterday’s highly aggravating coughing, chattering, air conducting and the rest, and perhaps even including those irritant voices)? A staple, not without reason, of Tchaikovsky criticism has been discussion of the relationship, even identity, between the composer and his operatic characters. Gerald Abraham, for instance, claimed that ‘some opera composers, notably Tchaikovsky, have been able to identify themselves only with characters that are essentially or partially self-projections’. Herheim’s concept takes this as its starting-point. Titles inform us initially of the composer’s death and the story behind it, namely Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and nineteenth-century society’s retribution for that ‘deviance’. The curtain opens and we see a desperate, pathetic Tchaikovsky seeking love from an officer he had paid only to gratify. The contempt with which he is treated sparks a flurry of writing and self-poisoning by cholera. Delirium ensues, the writing – or is it the performance? – continues, drawing upon the woman in the painting above and Tchaikovsky’s own ill-fated marriage: are the two women, indeed the three once Liza appears on stage, to be identified? It draws also upon the composer and that guardsman. The former seems to become – although are we ever entirely sure? – Prince Yeletsky, but also a host of tormenting chorus members. Who after all, torments a repressed gay man more than his interior daemons? The latter seems to become Herman, a thrill-seeker with a death wish of his own. Whose wish fulfilment is whose? And what to make of the surrealist vision immediately before the interval, when, following a (largely unsuccessful) attempt to have the audience rise to sing the Tsarist national anthem, Herman or the soldier appears in mocking travesty as Catherine herself, the ultimate, albeit surrealist queen scorning our sordid, all-too-real queen. Who, then, we might ask, is the Queen of Spades herself?

Yeletsky, who does not appear in Pushkin, is perhaps the most appropriate candidate for identity with the composer; more important, he is perhaps the most intriguing. Who is he? What is he for? Or what might we make him be, and be for? When Herman curses the prince’s luck, can we believe in this as anything more than Tchaikovsky’s fantasy? Probably, but it requires theatre – a production team and performers who communicate as well as think – to do so. Tchaikovsky-Yeletsky plays with our expectations. Who is he now? Who was he then? Frantically, he not so much writes as plays at writing, at conducting, at ‘tickling the ivories’. For the hammy gestures are those unmistakeably – at least as the drama continues – of a biopic composer. It might be Ken Russell; it might be someone else; it might be us air-conducting at home or, as yesterday, all around me in the theatre. As dramaturge Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach notes in the programme, Tchaikovsky’s autograph is ‘sketched out in a nervous, volatile, rushed script with innumerable changes and cuts. It offers compelling testimony of the feverish élan that seized Tchaikovsky in his execution of this story.’ Is this helpless, hapless caricature not precisely what one’s delirious state – who is ‘one’? – might viciously summon up in performing, in watching, in listening to Tchaikovsky’s romanticisation of the Pushkin story Dostoevsky proclaimed ‘the pinnacle of the art of the fantastic’? Ambiguous angels speak of and with such and other fantasies.

Lisa (Eva-Maria Westbroek)

Time plays tricks with us, or does it? Are we in the eighteenth or the nineteenth century, or is the setting as well as the drama – whatever this might mean – more a dream, a fantasy, than anything else? (Is there anything else?) The same set, more or less, manages through brilliant tricks of lighting (Bernd Purkrabek) to furnish both a dark, oppressive late-nineteenth-century library and a fantastical recreation of a Mozartian world that never was: like the score, like the action. And like the music box which, before a note of the score has been heard, mocks the composer at the guardsman’s behest with an endlessly repeating opening line, later to be subsumed into score and plot, of ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’. Birds achieve their freedom, their invention, the composer’s humiliation, in the pastoral divertissement. But has not the man who would so insistently conduct (direct?) proceedings, who scatters those very nineteenth-century album leaves across the stage to anyone who would read from them, created this torment, this gilded cage, this wedding in which he participates and which he haunts?

Contrast between public and private is of course key to the work. Here, if not heard with the knowing confidence with which it had been communicated by Mariss Jansons and the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg, we still heard enough of that from Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House to relate score and action, libretto and staging, those and many other relationships in ways both suggested by the onstage delirium and our own. In what might well be understood as Tchaikovsky’s closest journey towards surrealism – itself a form of hyper-realism? – our critical faculties needed to be sharp, to permit themselves to be sharpened, not least since they needed to turn upon themselves, to lacerate what we might most unthinkingly or even thoughtfully treasure. Who killed whom ultimately, when the chorus continued to play at taking the fateful drink? What did it mean to play roles, and how much did we as ‘spectators’ engage? For it was those attending the theatre, the ‘entertainment’, who surely condemned Tchaikovsky, Herman, Lisa, even opera itself once again to death.

Pappano, as is his wont, tended to stop and start, to rush certain passages, if not so distractingly as in Wagner. The sound he summoned from the orchestra was, at its best, very much a ‘Tchaikovsky sound’ such as we fancy we know and love, to match the image of the ‘tormented composer’ we know and murderously love. Choral singing was excellent, often outstanding, testament to the results William Spaulding is achieving in his (relatively) new role as chorus director. Aleksandrs Antonenko and Eva-Maria Westbroek left much to be desired vocally in the first act, tuning awry beyond the limits of the merely feverish. They improved, however, the palpable honesty of the latter’s portrayal of Lisa working its own magic. Antonenko surely needs to work on his acting – especially in a production such as this: no match for the extraordinary Brandon Jovanovich in Salzburg last year. Vladimir Stoyanov, tireless in the acting role as Tchaikovsky, showed that he could sing beautifully too as Yeletsky. Felicity Palmer predictably – yet no less creditably for that – offered a spellbinding star turn as the Countess. Smaller roles tended to be very well sung, even if at times, the ensemble lacked an ideal sense of company and coherence. Perhaps that will come as the run progresses. Theatre, after all, is often about theatre; it certainly is here. Let it, let us, do with identity what we will  and vice versa.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Mutter/Vengerov/Argerich/Oxford PO/Papadopoulos - Bach, Schumann, and Beethoven, 12 January 2019

Barbican Hall

Bach: Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.55, ‘Eroica’

Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov (violins)
Martha Argerich (piano)
Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra
Marios Papadopoulos (conductor)

A curious concert this: three star soloists, any one of whom would likely prove a highpoint of most orchestras’ seasons; an excellent yet, to many, unknown orchestra; and, sadly, a conductor who proved at best mediocre. Quite how the Oxford Philharmonic and Marios Papadopoulos had been able to enlist the services of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov, and Martha Argerich (!) for the orchestra’s twentieth-anniversary concert, I have no idea. Even if I could not help but wish that I had left at the interval, it had been an unusual, or rather unique, opportunity to hear all three.

Bach’s Double Violin Concerto was performed without conductor, violins and violas standing. The orchestra instantly revealed a cultivated string sound, matched and indeed led by Mutter and Vengerov. The first movement was taken quickly indeed: too fast, I am afraid, with much of Bach’s music simply skated over. Solo ornamentation was not unduly distracting, but largely unnecessary. Still, compared to what one often hears today in Bach, there was nothing especially perverse. The central Largo ma non tanto was again on the fast side, but perhaps not entirely unreasonably so. Mutter’s tone proved more Romantic, although Vengerov’s rich, viola-like tone on the G string offered its own allure and pleasure. It was a musical, if not especially profound performance. (We shall always have the Oistrakhs.) Much the same might be said of the finale, again very quick, but with better reason than the first movement. Mutter showed a naturalness in her phrasing I have not heard from her in years.

Argerich, however, seemed far more in tune with Schumann and his demands. A full, Romantic orchestra, large by today’s standards and all the better for it, joined her in an emphatic opening paving the way for poetic flights of fancy from piano and woodwind soloists alike. The problems, such as they were, lay with Papadopoulos, who drove the orchestra mercilessly, quite unmusically, and unquestionably at odds both with its playing and with that of the soloist; that is, until, he suddenly his direction started meandering. Insofar as Argerich regained (infinitely flexible) control, there was much to enjoy. Her direction of what became essentially chamber music was as much to be savoured as her solo playing; a knowing, confiding nod to the principal cello would have been heard, even had it not been seen. Innigkeit and fire, dialectically related yet apparently spontaneous, reminded us once again what we miss, given her withdrawal from the solo platform. So too did the cadenza, despatched with a well-nigh Brahmsian integrity and vehemence, yet fresh as ever. If only, here and elsewhere, she had been partnered by a musician with a superior sense of harmony, of form, of tempo: a Barenboim, for instance. The Intermezzo benefited greatly from being essentially led by Argerich: these were her dreams, her phantoms. The finale’s opening bars proved surprisingly martial, yet not unreasonably so. Would that the same might have been said later on of hard-driven orchestral tutti, blaring brass much in need of reining in.

There was little faulting the orchestra in the Eroica Symphony. Admirable heft, variegation, unanimity of ensemble, and much more were all on display. Not to have the first movement taken at currently fashionable breakneck speed proved a relief in itself. Alas, neither here nor in any of the symphony’s movements did Papadopoulos convey so much as a hint of structure becoming dynamic form. The harmonic motion on which the symphony’s progress is founded passed for nothing, so too did much phrasing, especially during the slow movement. One phrase just followed another, one paragraph another. What did it add up to? What did it mean? Very little, so far as I could discern. The Funeral March and finale seemed interminable: not on account of having been taken particularly slowly, but from a lack of formal logic and impetus. Merely pleasant Beethoven barely registers as Beethoven at all: given the excellence of the orchestral playing as such, a great pity. As for the tedious, allegedly ‘humorous’ encore, the less said the better.