Thursday 28 February 2019

Trio Zimmermann - Schoenberg and Bach, 23 February 2019

Wigmore Hall

Schoenberg: String Trio, op.45
Bach (arr. Trio Zimmermann): Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Antoine Tamestit (viola)
Christian Poltéra (cello)

Schoenberg’s String Trio is well-nigh universally considered not only one of the composer’s greatest works but one of the finest of the genre (a notoriously difficult combination of instruments). So it sounded here in this outstanding performance from the Trio Zimmermann. Febrile, disjunct, and yet finding ultimate unity in that state, it unavoidably brings – and here brought – late Beethoven to mind; this is music that, in Michael Cherlin’s words, ‘is full of abrupt and striking changes of texture and affect as musical ideas are broken off, interrupted by other ideas that are themselves interrupted’. It proved hyper- in almost every respect: almost too much to listen to, yet so commanding of one’s attention that one can do no other. Strange, unheimlich ghosts of old Vienna danced before us, ghosts in anything other than a machine. Schoenberg’s Lisztian form of several-movements-in-one, familiar also from Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, achieved both further compression and further relief in a performance that made every phrase, indeed every note count. The difficulty of the medium as such never really registered; rather, this was a challenging, all-absorbing musical drama. And drama it was above all, reminding me of words Schoenberg spoke concerning this Fourth String Quartet, yet of relevance here too: ‘I said this time I must compose like Mozart does it, without looking at all whether I see relations or not, juxtaposing ideas. … The characteristic for Mozart is this interruption, I would not be sure to contend that this is a higher or a more primitive technique [than Beethoven]. It is difficult to evaluate this aesthetically. I think it derived from his dramatic technique.’ Here, it surely derived from Schoenberg’s too.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations have received a number of transcriptions and arrangements. Some have opted for supposedly Baroque forces and formations – which almost seemed hinted at in Trio Zimmermann’s performance of the opening ‘Aria’, less so elsewhere. Others have taken advantage of ‘modern’ possibilities, ranging from one of the earliest in 1883, by Josef Rheinberger (revised by Reger), for two pianos, to the 1938 orchestral version by Polish dodecaphonist Józef Koffler. More recent contributions have included two for string trio, from Dmitry Sitkovetsky (1984) and Federico Sarudiansky (2010). Sitkovetsky’s version came at a time of peak ‘authenticity’, when certain voices would frown upon any such reimagination. Following his 2009 revision, he recalled: ‘When I first wrote my transcription of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations for string trio, in 1984, it was both a labour of love and an obsession with the 1981 Glenn Gould recording. […] Generally, at that time, transcriptions were out of fashion and I recall that my own colleagues and managers were sceptical about such an audacious idea. Since then, my transcriptions have been played all over the world and moreover they have opened the floodgates of new interpretive possibilities for the piece, which have included solo harp, wind instruments of all kinds, saxophone quartets, Renaissance viols and even a fascinating concoction of Uri Caine, among many others.’ First having played Sitkovetsky’s edition, the players of the Trio Zimmermann subsequently decided to join this merry throng, offering an alternative to Sitkovetsky, in a version ‘which is as much as possible neither an arrangement nor a transcription, but basically an unveiling of Bach’s score and its genius’.

I am not entirely sure I follow that meaning, but there was certainly much to relish in the performance. Following that curiously – I assume deliberately – ‘white’ Aria, something more Classical emerged: doubtless as much a matter of the ‘Classical’ instruments as performance, yet a matter of that too, I think. Warmly expressive, highly variegated, never lapsing into too-easy Romanticism, this was throughout a performance in which procedures were clear – one could almost see, Schoenberg-like, inversions in an imaginary score, as well as hear them – yet also placed within a familiar, if never hackneyed schema of musical history: viols occasionally behind it, especially in the minor mode, the (once-)central Austro-German tradition in front. Endless invention was experienced, yet so was the contemplative emotion of Bach’s Passions. Canonical variations maintained the integrity of their own progression, yet also played a crucial role in punctuating their companions. There was sadness to Wanda Landowska’s ‘black pearl’ (no.25) without becoming overwrought; perhaps it might even have been ‘blacker’ at times. Whatever the truth of that, there was a splendid sense of release to be felt in its successor, no.26, treated to richer, not necessarily more Romantic, tone, as if Purcell were being recomposed before our ears. Bach moved towards conclusion in very different ways, ever closer, yet ever reinventive, the restatement of the Aria unquestionably an arrival rather than a mere return.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Kulman/Skelton/BBC SO/Oramo - Mozart, Larcher, and Mahler, 22 February 2019

Barbican Hall

Mozart: Symphony no.35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’
Thomas Larcher: Nocturne – Insomnia
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

A strange concert, this, in which the Barbican Hall proved Mahler’s enemy in particular. In a half-reasonable world, London would have a decent orchestral concert hall; let us hope that plans to give the London Symphony Orchestra a new home will come to something sooner rather than later. The LSO sounds transformed when heard elsewhere – even at the more than problematical Royal Albert Hall for the Proms. Other orchestras, even when, like the BBC Symphony Orchestra, they play at the Barbican with some regularity, often experience greater difficulties. Woodwind playing in particular here sounded distinctly odd, even crude, at least from where I was seated; the sound could not remotely have corresponded to how the musicians were ‘really’ playing. A new hall cannot come soon enough.

The two pieces in the first half suffered less. Mozart’s Haffner Symphony had an excellent start, the first movement cultivated, warm, nicely phrased, and directed – if occasionally a little fussy. Its tonal and motivic drama registered with strength and meaning, having one marvel at the composer’s concision. The Andante had many similar virtues, yet ultimately Sakari Oramo’s vision had one missing both warmth and charm. It was very much on the fast side: not necessarily a problem in itself, had it yielded more. This was Mozart progressing efficiently rather than having us enter a garden of delights. If the minuet and trio were at times also a little plain, their direction was clear. The finale, alas, was driven so mercilessly as to lose much of its humanity. It can be taken as fleet as you like, but speed should never be an end in itself, still less a cause for hardening. If only the three succeeding movements had been at the same level as the first.

Thomas Larcher’s ensemble piece, Nocturne-Insomnia, was written in 2007-8 and revised in 2017. Its two parts correspond audibly and meaningfully to the two words of the title, so much so as to offer something not so very different from a post-romantic tone poem. We heard a keen ear for harmony and how to make broadly tonal harmonies sound once again new(ish). What one might have expected to sound commonplace here sounded hard-won, the first part strangely reminiscent of a Bruckner Adagio. The music wound down, as it had, in retrospect, wound up, leading us far from what we had been led to expect, insomnia upon us. Even the coda of apparent sleep at the close, high string harmonics and accordion, sounded provisional, ready to be disrupted.

Larcher’s piece received, for me at least, the most compelling performance, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde only intermittently convincing, let alone moving, until the great final movement. The ferocity of the opening took me by surprise, although it was probably more a matter of the congested Barbican acoustic than anything else. Stuart Skelton had no difficulty making himself heard in this ‘Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, although his performance here and elsewhere was not without effort. (I suspect he may not have been well.) There was, rightly, bitter anger to be heard at times, for instance when he told us of the ‘wild-gespenstische Gestalt’ amongst the graves. At any rate, his diction was excellent, set against admirable orchestral clarity from the BBC SO and Oramo. The orchestra sounded as if framing a finely-etched painting in ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’. Set against the fine burgundy pinot noir of Elisabeth Kulman’s mezzo, all that lacked was a sense of the orchestral moments of painting coming to life, of movement rather than a frieze. It is autumn, after all, not winter. The third movement, ‘Von der Jugend’, would have benefited from greater charm, however ironic, though its chinoiserie was piquant enough. By now, alas, Skelton seemed all too audibly to be struggling.

Oramo’s stiffness of gear change in ‘Von der Schönheit’ sounded strange, as did the blatant vulgarity of the brass sound (again, perhaps partly the fault of the acoustic). It all sounded a little too close to Shostakovich. The more overtly inward moments of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’ fared better, the rest oddly unsettled. Nevertheless, the darkness of the opening to ‘Der Abschied’ sounded a necessary note of fatal certainty, at first a sharper-etched successor to the fourth movement of the Third Symphony, before proceeding along its own, very different path. The brook, ‘der Bach’, suggested a now unattainable Beethovenian pastorale: our glance back towards something no longer possible. If balances were often less than ideal, there remained something plausible to the alienation that even that elicited. At last, I realised what had truly been missing (as well as a better hall): a sense that this was symphony as much as song cycle. It was too late for that really to be put right, but the close, from that long orchestral interlude onwards, vouchsafed a taste of that richer alternative.

Tuesday 26 February 2019

The Monstrous Child, Royal Opera, 21 February 2019 (world premiere)

Linbury Theatre

Hel (Marta Fontanals-Simmons)
Images: Stephen Cummiskey/ROH 2019

Hel – Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Angrboda – Rosie Aldridge
Loki – Tom Randle
Modgud – Lucy Schaufer
Baldr – Dan Shelvey
Odin – Graeme Broadbent
Nanna, Thora – Elizabeth Karani
Actors and Puppeteers – Laura Caldow, Stuart Angell

Timothy Sheader (director)
Paul Wills (designs)
Howard Hudson (lighting)
Ian William Galloway (video)
Josie Daxter (movement)

Sound Intermedia (sound design)
Aurora Orchestra
Jessica Cottis (conductor)

The Royal Opera House’s choice of work for the first new production in the splendidly redesigned Linbury Theatre – not unreasonably, it seems to have lost ‘Studio’ from its name – is, perhaps, a declaration of intent; it may certainly be received as such. Not only is it a new work; it is billed specifically as ‘our first opera for teenage audiences’. Following somewhat in the line of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Coraline – last year’s premiere for children – Gavin Higgins’s The Wondrous Child, to another libretto by a children’s author, this time Francesca Simons, seems to me to have a good chance of prospering not only in that specific role, but also more generally. It is certainly a successful first opera – from the Linbury, from Higgins, from Simons, and indeed from the production team and performers, without which any single effort would likely come to naught. Opera, we were reminded, is above all a company effort – which should, of course, include the audience too. Let us hope, then, that plenty of teenagers were among those who were able to secure tickets before the run sold out; and/or that further tickets will be released, as often happens in practice.

Baldr (Dan Shelvey)

Many – though perhaps not so many of us on the first night – will doubtless come to the opera through Simons’s book ‘of the same name’, as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore might have had it. Not that there is anything of ‘Little Miss Britten’ here; for not only is the plot drawn from Norse mythology, from the myth of Hel, goddess of the dead; the libretto is distinctly on the Anglo-Saxon and perhaps even the Norse roots of the English language. Had his English been better, Wagner might have lauded the lack of Latinism. The immediacy, not to mention the ‘earthiness’ of some of the vocabulary make particular sense in a primaeval realm – and will surely appeal to teenagers of all ages in the audience too. To a certain extent, staging and score work with that, performances perhaps still more so; they also recall (to us), however, consciously or otherwise, that we are no more Anglo-Saxons than we are Norse gods. The false immediacy of which Wagner could occasionally – very occasionally – prove guilty in theoretical, though never dramatic, writing stands always in need of puncturing in our modern condition. That is not a value judgement, simply an observation.

Simons knows that as well as Higgins, as well as by director, Timothy Sheader and his team. And so, we are reminded by the puppetry in the first half of the staging, actors and singers lightly detached – this is not The Mask of Orpheus, nor does it try to be! – from their characters in some cases, as well as by Hel’s narration of that first part, the later character recounting the deeds of the child-puppet her, that even in – particularly in – a drama dealing with (supposedly) eternal gods, time plays a mediating role. Again, Wagner of all musical dramatists could have told us that – and does. Higgins offers much in the way of readily associative and memorable leitmotifs in his score, as well as plenty of ‘atmosphere’ and ‘action’, after a fashion that would surely make sense to teenagers – and others – accustomed to the ways of film scores, without ever sounding ‘like’ film music. Video and electronic sound help us shift between locations, for instance from the gods realm in the skies to the place of Hel’s banishment, from which she will bring about the end of the gods’ rule.

Angrboda (Rosie Aldridge)

Leaving aside the (understandable) exaggeration about what opera ‘is’, for it can be any number of things, one knows what Simons means when she writes in the programme: ‘It took me a while to understand how different writing a libretto is to writing a novel. Opera is much more direct: people say what they think – repeatedly. Opera is so heightened, it really is the perfect way to express the emotion and epic sweep of myths about gods and giants, love and hate, as well as a young girl’s journey towards creating her own life.’ To my mind – and increasingly on reflection – Simons and Higgins achieve this with great success here. Pacing is different too; the analogy Simons draws with a picture book – ‘the words need to allow space for the illustrations’ – is interesting. Again, one senses a true collaboration: between librettist and composer, of course, but also with the production team and performers.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons gave a fine performance as Hel: half human, half corpse. Never sentimental – she does not want mere pity – she involved us in her plight, her hopes, her decision through sheer force and variety of vocal personality. Rosie Aldridge and Tom Randle impressed and (not a little) repelled as her parents: those who cursed her and ultimately the world by bringing her into it. Lucy Schaufer proved typically compassionate as the giantess Modgud, keeper of the bridge to Niflheim and the dead. Odin, king of the gods, received a sharply observed performance from Graeme Broadbent, taking us plausibly from hauteur to downfall. Dan Shelvey’s Baldr, as carefree and compassionate in tone as the lovelorn Hel thought him, offered a performance both delightful and moving. The Aurora Orchestra and Jessica Cottis could hardly have offered surer advocacy in the pit.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Trifonov/LSO/Rattle - Rameau, Ravel, Poulenc, and Jolas, 17 February 2019

Barbican Hall

Rameau: Les Indes galantes: Suite
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Betsy Jolas: A Little Summer Suite
Poulenc: Les Biches: Suite
Ravel: La Valse

Daniil Trifonov (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

An evening of French delights from Simon Rattle and the LSO? Certainly, even if some – not necessarily those one might have expected – delighted more than others. First among not-quite-equals stood the earliest and latest works: a dance suite from Rameau’s Les Indes galantes and a parallel Little Summer Suite, composed in 2015 by Betsy Jolas for Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.

One silly, at least borderline offensive, newspaper ‘article’ and a host of tedious imitators notwithstanding, Betsy Jolas and her music have not recently been ‘discovered’. Her music deserves to be better known, more frequently performed; that, however, is a different matter entirely. The best response to such nonsense is to do what Rattle and the LSO did here: perform it – and perform it with such excellence. Seven vividly etched miniatures abound with echoes and correspondences, but does not all music when one is acquainting oneself with it? A few Messiaenesque harmonies, even the odd marriage of rhythm and instrumentation recalling Boulez’s Notations, speak not of overt ‘influence’ but perhaps of kinship – and what kinship. The scoring is much sparer than that for the latter. Although the orchestral forces are relatively large – certainly not so large as Boulez’s – the writing is more often ensemble-like. Four of the movements echo – consciously, I presume – Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. ‘Strolling’ movements – ‘Strolling away’, ‘Strolling about’, ‘Strolling under’, and finally, ‘Strolling home’ – they offer continuity and connection; a dark, menacing, almost nineteenth-century Russian bass suggests that honoured predecessor, before taking in Ligetian ‘Knocks and clocks’, responsorial (to that) ‘Shakes and quakes’ and similarly post-liturgical ‘Chants and cheers’, suspended, it seems, in musical mid-air. Succinct, witty, with a nonchalant sign-off suggestive, as noted in Jeremy Thurlow’s booklet note, of Debussy’s Jeux, one was left wanting more, yet admiring of the taste and judgement that had the music end when it did.

The very opening of Jolas’s suite had, at least in context, intriguingly echoed the chains of Rameau’s opening ‘Air pour les esclaves africains’. If Rameau’s (relative) battery of percussion veered in danger of the wearisome, taken out of dramatic context (for a review of a Munich performance of the entire work, click here), the relief of such enlightened Baroque music-making was eminently worth the slight wait. Each of the five movements danced with colour, grace, and a refreshing lack of doctrinaire ‘authenticity’. String vibrato was withdrawn at the opening of the ‘Air pour l’adoration du soleil’, but with good reason, that anticipation prefiguring sunrises in Haydn (both The Creation and The Seasons). The most celebrated number, the ‘Air pour les sauvages’, proceeded with splendid swing. It may be problematic to our postcolonial minds, yet it is far from unprogressive by Enlightenment standards. The closing Chaconne stood, rightly, worlds away from our one-sided notions of the dance, too influenced by Bach and his Romantic successors. The world of Les Indes Galantes, not unlike the Tiepolo frescoes for the stairwell of Würzburg’s Balthasar Neumann Residenz, present a Eurocentric world, to be sure, but one that attempts to embrace, even in small way to elevate, other cultures as surely as did Montesquieu and Voltaire. Trumpets and drums rejoiced, without effacing a tenderness that spoke both to Rameau’s age and our own. For all Rattle’s evident, longstanding belief in ‘period’ performance practice, this did not sound so very distant from the Rameau of forebears such as Raymond Leppard and Jean-François Paillard – and was all the better for such kinship.

Daniil Trifonov joined the orchestra, post-Rameau, for Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. He appeared transfixed at the opening. Whose spell? Ravel’s or his own? It was unclear, as was much of the rest of his performance. There were delights aplenty in such pellucid pianism, but much of the first movement was indulgent, lacking line and, on occasion, connection with Rattle’s – and the LSO’s – able accompaniment. Harp-led washes of sound were duly gorgeous, likewise woodwind solos seemingly harking back to the Rameau we had just heard, but Trifonov appeared oblivious, pursuing instead, so it seemed, his own rêveries. The slow movement nevertheless proved bewitching. Here, Trifonov’s exquisite modulation of dynamics, silken touch, and above all, endlessly long-breathed phrasing were quite the match for Ravel’s not entirely un-self-regarding writing. There was here a chamber intimacy, pent up with emotion that never quite dared speak its name that revealed darker undercurrents than I can hitherto recall: a tragic Tombeau de Rameau composed before our ears. If only the first movement and an often oddly-balanced – at least from my seat – finale had matched such extraordinary music-making. Still, Trifonov’s closing exuberance reaped its own rewards – even if he again occasionally parted company from the orchestra. What I believe to have been his own transcription from Rachmaninov’s cantata, The Bells, made for a richly exploratory encore.

Poulenc’s Les biches, here given in suite form, has its admirers. Love much of Poulenc’s music though I do, I cannot help but find much of this ballet music somewhat thin gruel. At any rate, it is very much a period piece. Rattle and the LSO did what they could to point up Stravinskian correspondences, the opening of the ‘Andantino’ very much a case in point, likewise the Pulcinella-like writing of the ‘Final’. (If only the latter benefited from Stravinsky’s – and Pergolesi (attrib.)’s – concision. At its best, for instance in the opening ‘Rondeau’, there was a charming air of an imaginary vieille France: not Rameau’s, but why should it be? Ravel’s La Valse proved a similarly mixed bag: not, of course, as work, but as performance. Rattle certainly captured the dark strangeness of the opening, likewise a later, hallucinogenic nausea to the strings. I was less convinced, though, by the driven, almost vulgar quality to climaxes and other passages. A militaristic subtext? Perhaps; this, however, sounded close to Shostakovich. An odd performance, discontinuities to the fore, was played as well as one would expect; it certainly had me think.

Monday 11 February 2019

Bavouzet - Haydn, Schumann, Boulez, Ravel, and Prokofiev, 10 Feburary 2019

Wigmore Hall

Haydn: Piano Sonata in E-flat major no.49, Hob. XVI/49
Schumann: Piano Sonata no.3 in F minor, op.14
Boulez: Twelve Notations
Ravel: Jeux d’eau; Miroirs: ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ and ‘Alborada del gracioso’
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor, op.28

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Any half-decent performance including works by Haydn and Boulez will prove a success. This Wigmore Hall recital from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet was no exception and was rather more than half-decent. If I am unsure that I discerned a guiding thread in the programming, the ear and mind in any case always make their own connections; mine certainly did so here.

Haydn’s late-ish (1790) E-flat major Sonata, Hob. XVI/49 (not to be confused with that of four years later) retained some of the composer’s early quirkiness under Bavouzet’s hands: not in a self-conscious way, but seemingly through letting notes, phrases, paragraphs speak for themselves. (That may be an illusion, but more often than not, it is a necessary illusion.) A fastish yet flexible tempo for the first movement probably helped in that respect; this was a living, breathing performance, not Haydn as a classical or classicising monument. The first repeat – Bavouzet took both – was anything but a mere ‘repeat’; reinvented in the light of experience, the music sounded closer to a first development. The counterpoint of the development proper spoke clearly, beautifully of Haydn’s recent interest in Bach – until, of course, the writing changed. Whatever the discontinuities, they were, as in Beethoven (and Bavouzet’s Beethoven) predicated on and communicated with a sense of underlying continuity. One experienced rather than simply heard – or knew – different elements of construction, above all motivic. A grand, passionate, not un-Beethovenian Adagio e cantabile followed: Romantic without anachronism, close to Beethoven because Beethoven stands so close to Haydn. Bavouzet showed himself equally alert to the vocalism of the right hand part and to what ensures that this is unquestionably keyboard music. The third and final movement was boldly sculpted, anticipations of Schubert relished without exaggeration. Again, whatever the illusions and delusions of the claim, the sense was of Haydn’s score speaking for itself – quite without pedantry, very much in the moment.

There was, by contrast, rightly an element of Romantic classicism to Bavouzet’s Schumann sonata (mostly given in its 1853 revision, but with a few elements retained from the first, 1836 edition). The sound – not just the Yamaha’s sonority, but harmony, attack, everything that combines in our eyes and ears – was indefinably Schumann’s from the outset: a very different world from Haydn’s, even if not so distant chronologically. How much changed so quickly during this time! The first movement, as elsewhere, showed no want of flexibility, but structure sounded more given – a nineteenth-century ‘received’ sonata form – than created. Such was the challenge of writing in such forms after Beethoven – or, for that matter, Haydn. Technical virtuosity required was of a different order too, not that that was any problem for Bavouzet. In the scherzo, rhythms were nicely sprung, vehicles of harmonic motion that rightly placed us somewhere between Mendelssohn and Brahms. This may not present Schumann at his most fantastical, but there was still a keen element of that quality: winning and highly convincing, in a work often thought problematical. The third movement variations flowed like a wayward, yet ultimately directed river, their transformations surprising yet never arbitrary. Of all four movements, the finale stands most clearly in the line of the original publication title (in three-movement form), ‘Concert sans orchestre’. It certainly sounded so here; indeed, one might have been forgiven for suspecting three hands at work, two for orchestra, another – or should that be another two? – for solo instrument. Once more, virtuosity unleashed a flow of unmistakeably Romantic poetry.

After the interval came Notations, treated to a spoken introduction by the pianist, who had worked with Boulez both on this work and others. (I recall hearing him give three of these twelve-by-twelve jewels as an encore to the three final Beethoven sonatas, shortly after Boulez’s death in January 2016.) An impression of thinking and rethinking, of taking no mere ‘tradition’ for granted – very much, be it noted, in Boulez’s own line, or day I say, tradition – was once again present. The first piece was full of contrast, yet perhaps warmer than expected; the second and other toccata-like pieces dazzled with all the éclat one could imagine – and then some. Bavouzet clearly relished Boulez’s craftsmanship and pent-up, post-expressionist emotion alike. For there was inwardness too, as in the third and fifth pieces; in the former, I even cast an aural glance back to the Bachian counterpoint of the Haydn first movement, heard as if through a Debussyan gauze. Number play was vividly communicated; so too was a highly-developed – even at this age – sense of instrumental theatre, especially at the close.

Three pieces by Ravel followed. The opening figures of Jeux d’eaux seemed to emerge, even if they did not, from Boulez. Voicing was exquisite yet purposeful – never a mere diversion in itself – both here and in the two pieces from Miroirs. ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ sounded related to the former piece, yet whereas in that, we were the beholders of a static scene, the water glistening according to the sun, now one sensed movement – of that boat – upon the waters. Post-Lisztian virtuosity effected a volatility subtler than that required for Gaspard de la nuit, yet no less for that. ‘Alborada del gracioso’ was taken quite without indulgence, its hauteur suggestive of the lands south of the Basque country, whatever the provenance of composer and pianist. It was precise, yes, but meaning lay in that precision and in its unspoken connections and connotations.

Integrative and disintegrative qualities were held in equal account in the closing performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata. In context, it sounded as if risen from the ashes of the music heard earlier in the evening as much as from Liszt and Scriabin, though their presence was also undeniable. Diabolicism suggested the Fiery Angel to come. Side-slipping melodies rose from the material when least expected, yet with an inevitability in retrospect that brooked no dissent to their often surprisingly ‘white’, diatonic twists and turns. Virtuosity was again a necessity as starting point, but only as that. Here was to be experienced a stream of consciousness in the proper, modernist sense, inexplicably (as yet) coherent.

Sunday 10 February 2019

Katya Kabanova, Royal Opera, 9 February 2019

Royal Opera House
Tichon (Andrew Staples) and Katya (Amanda Majewski)
Images: Clive Barda/ROH

Katěrina Kabanova – Amanda Majeski
Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanicha – Susan Bickley
Varvara – Emily Edmonds
Boris Grigorjevič – Pavel Černoch
Váňa Kudrjáš – Andrew Tortise
Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov – Andrew Staples
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj – Clive Bayley
Kuligin – Dominic Sedgwick
Glaša – Sarah Pring
Fekluša – Dervla Ramsay
Woman – Amy Catt
Passer-by – Luke Price

Richard Jones (director)
Antony McDonald (designs)
Lucy Carter (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Janáček is surely the perfect, or at least a perfect, composer with whom to introduce someone to opera. Starting with From the House of the Dead or The Adventures of Mr Brouček might be a little odd, if hardly disastrous. However, Jenůfa, The Makropulos Case, The Cunning Little Vixen, and Katya Kabanova all boast compelling, readily comprehensible stories, strong characters (especially female ones), and textbook demonstrations of what might be accomplished by musical drama, even in something that might superficially seem close to a sung play (in itself no bad thing for a beginner). Last but not least, they are not a second too long, showing unerring mastery concerning what need be depicted, even lingered over, and what may be assumed or suggested, without the slightest chance of having anyone wonder ‘when will this be over?’ Loving them, one might wish that they were longer, but one also knows that they should not be. For devotees of late-nineteenth-century literature, Jenůfa and Katya would seem the most obvious choices. (Not that Wozzeck would do any harm: it gripped this sometime schoolboy for life…!) Setting, narrative, and character stand in well-nigh perfect relation to one another: familiar, yet fresh.

Kabanicha (Susan Bickley) and Katya

Why, then, have London houses seemed so reluctant recently to stage these operas? Xenophobic audiences, bizarrely lacking in curiosity? Most likely, alas; we live, after all, in the age of ‘Brexit’. Whatever the reason, we have all the more reason to cheer the Royal Opera’s commitment, following years of silence, to staging a number of Janácek’s works. Last year’s From the House of the Dead, in a striking, duly provocative staging by Krzysztof Warlikowski, was unquestionably a highlight of the London musical year. (If, later in the year, Munich’s offering from Frank Castorf went further, all the better for us. How fortunate we were to have both.) Richard Jones’s new Katya is not at that level: a ‘safer’ choice, no doubt; nor is it so well conducted. Nevertheless, a cast as strong dramatically as vocally brought out the best in work and production alike.

Varvara (Emily Edmonds)

Without really getting in the way, Jones’s staging is mildly puzzling: a mix of good ideas, oddly undeveloped ideas, and all-purpose Richard Jones, almost as if it were an early sketch rather than a finished production. We begin and end with a portrait of a girl, Katya presumably, and there is something intriguingly doll-like to her appearance onstage, even to some of her gestures. Three men from the community – beyond that, it is barely a community – leer through the windows at her. It is sketchy, though: neither subtle nor thought through. The 1970s Eastern bloc setting is fine, if hardly original, but not much is done with it. Nor is it clear why abstraction is occasionally the order of the day: budget limitations seem more plausible as an explanation than dramatic motivation. Auditorium strobe lighting for the storm that opens the third act is an odd touch: neither in keeping with what has preceded and what will follow it, nor productively in contrast. A degree of stylisation on stage works much better, cinematic ‘still’ moments suggestive of contrasting chaos and a moment of fateful decision. That particular aspect of the setting, too, is excellent – a wonderfully ‘real’ bus shelter, which again has much to offer in metaphorical suggestion. More along such Brechtian lines might work well; all too soon, however, it is gone.

Boris (Pavel Černoch) and Katya

Sadly, Katya’s talk – song – of sin is left to fend for itself. It still moves, of course, but would have done so far more in a production that deigned to notice it. For, despite the ‘updating’ – the slightly retro term seems apt here – socio-cultural context is barely present, at least as anything more than backdrop. It is perfectly possible, I am sure, to present a Katya Kabanova with something to replace the theology, just as it would be with Don Giovanni. Whether it is a good idea remains an open question, for here, as so often with Mozart’s deeply Catholic opera, the issue is simply ignored – or, worse, is not even noticed. Likewise, Kabanicha’s terrible words of thanks at the close could hardly fail to register; they could – should – nonetheless readily register far more strongly, set in social and theological context; or, alternatively, in its provocatively avowed absence. As Schoenberg once noted, it is only the middle road that fails to lead to Rome.

That such crucial moments did register was the cast’s achievement (as well as Janáček’s!) Amanda Majeski’s Katya was a towering performance: fearful, compassionate, human, with as impressive and moving an emotional as a dynamic range. Pavel Černoch fully lived up to the expectations I had from his Munich Makropulos Case (as Albert Gregor), his romantic ardour as genuine as his courage was but flickering, a properly compromised portrayal. Andrew Staples drew out the still more compromised, indeed downright cowardly nature of his not-even-rival, Tichon. Susan Bickley rescued her Kabanicha from mere caricature, hinting at a constraining force of social propriety that might – just might – explain or at least contextualise a little of her monstrous, constructively murderous behaviour. Clive Bayley’s Dikoj offered a quality cameo as Dikoj. If only the sado-masochism in his relationship with Bickley’s Kabanicha hinted at here had been taken further by Jones, there might have been illumination such as that gleaned from Christoph Marthaler’s production for Paris. Emily Edmonds and Andrew Tortise gave lively performances as Varvara and Váňa respectively, the latter’s second-act song winning in its diegetic naïveté.

Edward Gardner’s conducting had its moments. They tended, though, to be moments – at least until the third act, undeniably possessed of great narrative thrust. The intricate, complex relationship between continuity and discontinuity in Janáček’s score is not at all easy to bring off. Mark Wigglesworth did so magnificently at ENO nine years ago. Here, whatever its warmth, there was something soft-focused to too much of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s playing. Rhythmic bite was not quite what it might have been, nor were underlying harmonic motion and tension. If the achievement of that final act could have been read back into the first two, something more taut and stark in its tragedy could well have resulted. In a way, then, it complemented Jones’s staging. Vocally, however, this was the real thing.

Monday 4 February 2019

Rusalka, Opéra national de Paris, 29 January 2019

Opéra Bastille

Prince (Klaus Florian Vogt), Foreign Princess (Karita Mattila), Rusalka (Camilla Nylund)
Images: Guergana Damianova /Opéra national de Paris

Prince – Klaus Florian Vogt
Foreign Princess – Karita Mattila
Rusalka – Camilla Nylund
Vodník – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Ježibaba – Michelle DeYoung
Huntsman’s Voice – Danylo Matviienko
Kitchen Boy – Jeanne Ireland
Nymphs – Andreea Soare, Emanuela Pascu, Élodie Méchain
Gamekeeper – Tomasz Kumiega

Robert Carsen (director, lighting)
Michael Levine (designs)
Peter van Praet (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreography)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Alessandro di Stefano)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)

And so, the third and final opera from my long weekend in Paris: Dvořák’s Rusalka. Whilst the first two, Il primo omicidio (an oratorio, albeit staged) and Les Troyens, garnered their principal interest from their respective productions and, in the latter case, singing too, Rusalka, once over a problematical first act, offered largely musical riches and little enlightenment from the director. To be fair, Robert Carsen’s production is old, dating from 2002. Age, however, does not really seem to be the problem. It does not look tired; indeed, it looks ‘stylish’, ‘beautiful’, etc., fresh too, so that it might have been premiered today; it just does not seem to have anything particular to say.


It is not exactly ‘traditional’, although it is difficult to imagine ‘traditionalists’ minding it, their ideology and practice often proving not quite so consonant as they imagine. Indeed, so long as ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ designs are present, they are unlikely to notice a Konzept one way or another. Credit where credit is due: Michael Levine’s designs and the lighting from Praet and Carsen himself are splendidly realised. If you like large, ultra-minimalist hotel bedrooms, furnished in exquisite silk and satin – or fabric that resembles them from afar – you may be happy. (I should happily stay in one, but that is a different matter.) There is a coup de theatre, a literally blinding flash of fire, at the moment of fateful transformation; it promises a great deal, yet alas, that is that. What instead we have is an oh-so-elegant paddling pool as the setting for the first act; in the second, the bed that has been suspended in the air find itself in that hotel room, reflected in a mirror image. Ježibaba install herself in that bed, newly suspended in mid-air for the third, with the return of water perhaps – if we are to be charitable – also suggesting a visual dissolution of themes; that scene is followed by a return to the hotel room, after which presumably the Prince and Rusalka will die – or perhaps not. Is that a directorial twist, a feminist criticism? Perhaps, although it does not seem to be presented as such. It seems more a matter of simply not listening to either words or music, without actively attempting to criticise them.  

There are likewise mild, ‘stylish’ confusions in the second act. What to make of that mirror image (until someone neglected to replicate a gesture, presumably by accident rather than on purpose)? I assume it was intended as a play on the bifurcation of human and spirit world, yet the placing of different characters, the Foreign Princess and Rusalka dressed identically, seems merely arbitrary in that respect. Is the lack of sense the point? It could be might be; again it does not seem to be. Much of this could readily contribute to something more interesting; it is a genuine pity that it does not, remaining more at the level of opera as a ‘luxury product’ that barely registers as drama. If, for instance, at ENO, you favoured Carsen’s similarly ‘beautiful’ Midsummmer Night’s Dream, with a not dissimilar bed centre-stage, to Christopher Alden’s gripping piece of theatre with the same work, this will certainly be for you. By contrast, Barrie Kosky’s brilliant production for Berlin’s Komische Oper truly penetrates to the dramatic heart, in more than one way, of the work.

Nymphs (Andreea Soare, Emanuela Pascu, Élodie Méchain), Rusalka

As a framework for fine musical and indeed stage performances, the production nevertheless worked well. Susanna Mälkki started fitfully, rendering the first act somewhat puzzling. However, in the second and third acts, she came increasingly into her own, drawing a variety of tone and phrasing, not to mention formal dynamism, seemingly unimagined by Philippe Jordan the previous night in Les Troyens. For her, the third act was undoubtedly the climax, motivic development truly working itself out horizontally and vertically in ways that Brahms and Schoenberg would surely have admired.

Foreign Princess and Prince

Mälkki’s two compatriots onstage proved outstanding throughout, Camilla Nylund offering an unfailingly differentiated performance equally attentive to the needs of words and music. Nothing was taken for granted; everything sounded – and looked – fresh. Karita Mattila announced undefinable, unmistakeable star quality as soon as she strode on stage as the Foreign Princess. One was left in little doubt whose musical wiles would win out, at least in the here and now. It was interesting to hear voices one ‘knew’ from Wagner, moreover, in this music, not at all inappropriately. Michelle DeYoung proved a formidable Ježibaba in every way. Thomas Johannes Mayer and Klaus Florian Vogt are known quantities. The former impressed once again, rather as a Wanderer on location; whether one ‘likes’ the latter is largely a matter of taste, though I shall admit to feeling that that once ethereal – if highly controversial – Lohengrin voice wears somewhat thin nowadays. All other parts were taken with great musical and dramatic skill, the three nymphs, Andreea Soare, Emanuela Pascu, Élodie Méchain, worthy of especial mention.