Wednesday 27 March 2019

De Villiers/LMP/Ludford-Thomas - Brahms, Schumann, and Mozart, 22 March 2019

Royal Festival Hall

Brahms: Schicksalslied, op.54
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, op.54
Mozart: Mass in C minor, KV 427/417a

Nico de Villiers (piano)
Elin Manahan Thomas, Helen Meyerhoff (sopranos)
Peter Davoren (tenor)
Philip Tebb (bass)

Hackney Singers
Lewisham Choral Society
London Mozart Players
Dan Ludford-Thomas (conductor)

A strange concert, this, in that, although chorally conceived, it proved strongest in the performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto: not so much a comment on the choral singing as on the conducting of Dan Ludford-Thomas. That might seem odd, given that he proved himself very much a choral rather than an orchestral conductor, but the concerto came off best precisely because control of its direction was for the most part in the more than capable hands of pianist, Nico de Villiers. There was no doubt whatsoever that he was the real thing, offering playing both pellucid and, where required, weighty (making me keen to hear his Brahms). Insofar as he was able to lead the London Mozart Players, he did, with all the give and take of chamber music. The shaping of the first-movement cadenza offered a conspectus of that movement, even the work, as a whole. A lovely blend of ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’ was similarly achieved in the Intermezzo, also benefiting from fine cello playing (though a few more cellos and indeed strings more generally would have been welcome). Finely sprung rhythms characterised a finale both buoyant and directed, the LMP on noticeably better form throughout the concerto than in the choral works by Brahms and Mozart that surrounded it.

First of those was Brahms’s Schicksalslied, or ‘Song of Destiny’. Again, one would ideally have had a larger orchestra, not least given the presence of two very large choruses, the Hackney Singers and Lewisham Choral Society, but there were doubtless financial reasons for that. Ludford-Thomas certainly handled those gigantic, Gurrelieder-like choral forces well here. They offered a pleasing sound and excellent diction, clearly well trained, with convincing dynamic contrasts. The final stanza proved hard driven, though, and the orchestra was largely left to fend for itself – sometimes with more convincing results than others.

The second half of the concert was given over to Mozart’s Mass in C minor. The ‘Kyrie’ offered a largely promising start. Swift, if not unreasonably so, and well balanced – again, given the mismatch in size between choruses and orchestras – it once again offered fine choral singing, and a nice change to hear so many voices in Mozart. Alas, soprano, Elin Manahan Thomas proved parted here and elsewhere, also contributing decidedly peculiar Latin pronunciation and ornamentation. If there was nothing especially insightful to Ludford-Thomas’s conducting of the ‘Gloria’, it enabled the chorus, which was a good part of the point of such a concert. Helen Meyerhoff, in its ‘Laudamus’ section proved a more convincing soloist, a bizarrely fast tempo notwithstanding. Subsequent sections sounded more like rushes to the bus stop than moments of Rococo wonder and suffered from poor blend between soloists. By the time we reached the ‘Qui tollis’, choral intonation left a good deal to be desired. However, the teenor, Peter Davoren had some good moments.

Maybe the novelty of such large choral forces had simply worn off, or maybe they were growing tired: either way, the ‘Credo’ seemed more affected by roughness around the edges than had been the case earlier. The ‘Et incarnatus est’, which should be one of the most wondrous movements in all Mozart’s sacred music, suffered from uneven singing, plain strings, and serious disjuncture in pitch between the two; only the woodwind redeemed it. A plain ‘Sanctus’, lumbering ‘Osanna’ and perfunctory ‘Benedictus’ made for dispiriting listening.

Sunday 24 March 2019

Iolanta and L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Royal Academy of Music, 18 March 2019

Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Images: Robert Workman

Iolanta – Samantha Quillish
Brigitta – Emilie Cavallo
Laura – Yuki Akimoto
Marta – Leila Zanette
Vaudémont – Shengzhi Ren
Alméric – Joseph Buckmaster
Robert – Sung Kyu Choi
Ibn-Hakia – Darwin Leonard Prakash
Bertrand – Niall Anderson
King René – Thomas Bennett

L’enfant – Olivia Warburton
La princesse, La chauve-souris – Alexandra Oomens
Le feu, Le rossignol – Lina Dambrauskaitė
La théière, Le rainette, Le petit vieillard – Ryan Williams
Maman – Tabitha Reyonolds
La tasse chinoise, La libellulue – Hannah Poulsom
La bergère, Une pastourelle, La chouette – Aimée Fisk
La chatte, L’écureuil – Gabrielė Kupšytė
L’horloge comtoise, Le chat – James Geidt
Le fauteuil, L’arbre – Will Pate

Oliver Platt (director)
Alison Cummins (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Emma Brunton (movement and puppetry)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus and Sinfonia
Gareth Hancock (conductor)

Tchaikovsky’s one-act Iolanta seems to have gained in popularity recently. London, at any rate, has two different productions this year: this, at the Royal Academy of Music, and at Holland Park this summer. As ever, the question with a one-act opera is what, if anything, to pair it with. (That hardly applies with Salome or Elektra, though couplings have been known, but it will generally do so with shorter works.) Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges is a popular choice, and rightly so, from the one-act stable. Without much – although not without any – in the way of overt connection being made, the two operas complemented each other nicely, both proving excellent showcases for their young singers, both proving substantially more than that too.

Oliver Platt, one of our most accomplished young directors – last year, I saw two (!) fine productions of Così fan tutte (here and here) – once again offers us stagings both intelligent and involving. Like their hero(ine)s, they take their own paths, yet where those paths intersect, the results are thoughtful and intriguing. Iolanta seems to me greatly misunderstood – or at least too often mostly understood in a way that limits rather than sets it free. The subtext seems obvious – a blind girl, kept safe by her father, eventually freed from her imprisonment by a stranger – and yet, too often ignored. Here, it certainly is not, a greenhouse, a place of hothouse care and incarceration, placed firmly on stage, its flourishing yet stifled plants both inspiring and warning, could Iolanta but see them. Likewise the surgical gloves of her companions, weirdly static in aestheticised presentiment of Maeterlinck and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. But when, finally she can see, finally she can become – in the eyes of men, in the eyes of society more generally – a ‘woman’, Iolanta turns suddenly away from the sun’s blinding rays, from adulthood. It is too late: orchestra and chorus have rejoiced, she gives out a cry of anguish, but no one cares – other, perhaps than us, in the audience. Now she is on her own, awakened, seeing; or rather, captive once again, this time without the alleged protection and solace of childhood.

The boy in L’Enfant et les sortilèges – a trouser role, naturally, in this most elegantly queer of operas – is on his own too; or is he? This is certainly an opera very much about childhood, an irredeemably adult idea, rather than a children’s opera. And so there is, or should be, always something enticing and yet disturbing about that penetration of an imagined child’s lair, here very much centred upon the imaginings of his bedroom. Here, the constructivism of our imagination, that of the work’s creators, most likely that of the ‘child’ too, is put centre stage. We see, lightly worn, the workings: puppetry, other short-trouser children, books, fabrics, a tent from his – our? – own life, creating a world that is, yes, imagined, but also equally his, Ravel’s, Colette’s, our own. It is never predictable, always with an element of the dream, of the unconscious, yet one can hazard a guess where it has come from, at least in retrospect. We are all psychoanalysts now, are we not? And when the Princess emerges, from the tent in the garden – here, as in Iolanta, a place of magical enticement, which may or may not be quite what it seems – she is dressed as Iolanta was. Will the boy do to her what the earlier princess’s prince charming was set to do to her? Most probably: not, however, quite yet, for childhood, whatever that might be, and its enchantments, its gifts, still reign. Light and dark take a related, yet different path. At least, we believe so…

These are not in any way easy operas for students, however accomplished, to perform. The young musicians of the Royal Academy acquitted themselves very well indeed. Without repeating the cast list, I should like to mention a handful of singers who stood out for me. All, however, performed creditably, whether individually or as a company. Samantha Quillish’s Iolanta was heartfelt, moving, possessed both of heft and subtlety: everything, at least, anyone could reasonably have asked. Shengzhi Ren’s Vaudémont proved honest, ardent, again moving: just what the Tchaikovsky brothers wanted, allowing us, should we wish, to question their assumptions whilst affording them the dignity of being taken seriously. Thomas Bennett’s King René grew in strength and compassion as the evening progressed, whilst Sung Kyu Choi’s Robert offered quite a taste of what might have been, had characters’ choices been different. Olivia Warburton’s Child (L’Enfant) impressed in every possible way: her French, her demeanour, her elegance of line. This was a character, both ‘real’ and constructed, in whom one could believe, ably supported and abetted by a near faultless cast.

It was perhaps inevitable that the orchestra, conducted by Gareth Hancock, would sometimes fall a little short. Orchestras twice its size will find these tough nuts to crack, let alone together. There was much to savour, though, and if I sometimes missed the flexibility of the finest Tchaikovsky performances, that was hardly the point here. Hancock supported his singers with skill and care, permitting them, like those flowers in the greenhouse and the garden, to bloom as they would. As to what happens next, we shall see – and hear.

Thursday 21 March 2019

LSO/Hannigan - Ligeti, Haydn. Berg, and Gershwin, 17 March 2019

Barbican Hall

Ligeti: Concert Românesc
Haydn: Symphony no.86 in D major
Berg: Lulu Suite
Gershwin, arr. Barbara Hannigan and Bill Elliott: Girl Crazy: Suite

London Symphony Orchestra
Barbara Hannigan (soprano, conductor)

I first heard Barbara Hannigan in 2008. She was singing songs by Berg and Webern with Pierre Boulez and immediately made a great impression. Since then, she has been one of those artists I should make an extra effort to hear; not once have I been even slightly disappointed. Hannigan is, of course, most widely known as a singer, but she has been building a parallel, or rather complementary, career as a conductor in the meantime too. I heard her conduct the Britten Sinfonia in 2013, in works by Mozart, Stravinsky, and Haydn, for some of which she sang too – and once again proved enthusiastic. This concert, her LSO debut, offered a worthy successor in that line, now performing works by Ligeti, Haydn again, Berg, and Gershwin.

Ligeti’s Concert Românesc is one of those pieces we hear more than we probably ought: not in the sense that there is anything wrong with them, but rather that they seem to offer an early, unrepresentative piece by a composer who might otherwise be ignored. Webern’s Passacaglia or even Im Sommerwind would be obvious examples, even Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Hannigan is certainly not one to neglect Ligeti; one of her most celebrated performances, not least on YouTube, is of his Mysteries of the Macabre (also with the LSO). I could not help, however, but feel that this was a performance-in-progress – although it may simply have been a matter of nerves, of having come first in the programme. Even when it lacked ‘traditional’ incisiveness, as in the first section, there were gains, though, not least a sense of how close the music might sound to early Bartók, even to Strauss. Bartókian ‘night music’ of a later vintage certainly sang forth in the third section, even if the final ‘Presto’ came off somewhat hard-driven. In any case, there was much to relish from the solo work of LSO principals.

Haydn’s Symphony no.86 furthered Hanningan’s growing reputation in Haydn’s music: always a fine indicator of other strengths. The first movement’s introduction offered a grandeur and expectation that Colin Davis (thinking of the LSO) would surely have appreciated, with none of the irritations that, alas, often accompany Simon Rattle’s way with this composer. If its principal tempo were on the fast side, it was not unreasonably so. The music largely spoke here ‘for itself’, however much of an illusion that may be, the development especially well handled, the final coda a joy. Constructivism and lyricism were kept in a fruitful, generative relationship throughout in the second movement, founded, as it must be, in harmony and harmonic movement. This is music to rival Schoenberg in complexity – something most ‘period’ voices, alas, seem entirely to ignore. So too is the minuet – as soon as one listens, which Hannigan ensured that we did. Its trio relaxed harmonically and offered in tandem a winning sense of relative metrical freedom. Delightful, then, as was the finale, one of my very favourites: heard as if Leonard Bernstein had returned, albeit with greater dynamic variegation. It was as witty as it was thrilling, as convincing vertically as horizontally. More please!

Hannigan’s way with Berg’s Lulu-Suite was surprising. It took me a while to get used to, and there were unquestionably aspects of the music that went a little uncared for. That said, to hear it performed with such attention to the multifarious melodic strands – heard, I suspect, very much from a singer’s standpoint – was fascinating. So too was the relative lightness, almost Mendelssohnian, with which the first movement ‘Rondo’ was despatched. The big moments certainly told, but they were not everything. I am not sure I should always want to hear the music like this – indeed, I am sure that I should not – but to hear the classic Romantic/modernist dichotomy not so much evaded as avoided brought plenty of its own interest. Transparency is necessary no matter what the interpretative standpoint, of course; here, Hannigan and the LSO excelled. One might have taken dictation, vocal and verbal, from Hannigan’s sung contribution to the ‘Lied der Lulu’, which was ‘concert-acted’ too. Coloratura held no fear for her, but crucially, it was employed dramatically, just as in Mozart. If there were a few rough orchestral edges to the fourth movement, it is difficult to imagine them having bothered anyone but pedants. The final ‘Adagio’ emerged properly de profundis, as eloquent as if its lines were being sung. Hannigan’s melisma on ‘Engel’ truly told. Quite a performance, then, in so many ways.

The Gershwin suite with which the concert concluded proved equally fascinating – and perhaps still more thrilling. Conceived by Hannigan with the express purpose of accompanying the Lulu-Suite, its ingenious orchestration for identical forces was commissioned from Bill Elliott. As a Bergian, at times Mahlerian, soundworld unfolded, it did not jar. Quite the contrary: t drew one in, not only harmonically but also motivically, to the material of the three songs, ‘But not for me’, ‘Embraceable you’, and ‘I got rhythm’. Then, of course, there was Hannigan’s own star quality as a singer: different, perhaps, from the stars one often associates with this music, but in no sense less bright. It was sung as carefully as Berg had been, without ever sounding ‘careful’. The orchestra joined in with some vocal harmony too, but this was in every sense Hannigan’s show, ‘I got rhythm’ straightforwardly sensational.

Monday 18 March 2019

Heath Quartet - Haydn, Ligeti, and Beethoven, 16 March 2019

Wigmore Hall

Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op.20 no.4
Ligeti: String Quartet no.2
Beethoven: String Quartet in E-flat major, op.127

Oliver Heath, Sara Wolstenholme (violins)
Gary Pomeroy (viola)
Christopher Murray (cello)

To the Wigmore Hall for a highly rewarding programme of Haydn, Ligeti, and Beethoven from the excellent Heath Quartet: all standing, save the cellist. Whilst it would be banal in the extreme to attribute such alert, illuminating performances to the lack of seating, it doubtless did no harm. Who knows? At any rate, those of us who were sedentary doubtless found ourselves on the edge of our seats, such was the electricity of the music-making we heard.

Haydn always seems to be on the cusp; most great composers do when considered historically. (A good few lesser composers too, come to think of it.) He is surely nowhere more so, however, than in his op.20 quartets, of which he heard the fourth, in D major. ‘Baroque’ and ‘Classical’ are little more than labels, really, often highly misleading labels at that, but perhaps that cusp had said something to tell us – at least until the sudden eruptions of the first movement, which, if not quite Beethovenian, were not exactly un-Beethovenian either. Cultivated tone, conversation, and keen dramatic sense conspired to make play with a thoroughly dialectical relationship between material and its performance. And so, it continued, throughout the development and recapitulation, not least between counterpoint and harmony. Relative – only relative, for this was no no-vibrato freak-show – astringency of tone in the slow movement proved highly apt for the numerous suspensions and general Affekt. The variations’ unfolding proved unquestionably Haydnesque, quite different from, say, that of Mozart or Beethoven – without ever feeling the need to trumpet individuality or, God help us, ‘quirkiness’. There was much fun, both ‘rustic’ and ‘intellectual’, to be had in the ‘Menuet alla zingarese’, with respect to metre and its relationship to harmony. The trio properly relaxed, going its own way: not less but differently challenging. The Heaths’ finale captured the essence of Haydn’s marking (‘Presto e scherzando’) and, beyond it, a sheer brilliance that seemed to extend from the minuet and trio rather than merely contrast with it. It had all the hallmarks of one of Haydn’s free-wheeling symphonic finales, whilst retaining the individual and conversational voices of his quartet writing. Best of all, it put a smile on my face.

Ligeti’s Second Quartet (1968) opened with an éclat from which, it seemed, both all and nothing derived: testament to a decidedly un-, even anti-Haydn-and-Beethoven, denial of motivic development in a ‘conventional’ sense. Scurrying sounds, eruptions, a primacy of texture, and much else besides pointed to kinship instead with a work such as Ramifications, also heard in a Wigmore Hall concert earlier this month (albeit onlocation at the Roundhouse). And that was only in the first few bars! As with George Benjamin and the Ensemble Modern in that concert, the Heath Quartet made us listen – as, of course, did Ligeti. Indeed, it was the composer’s sheer invention, rather than any particular manifestion thereof, that proved most suggestive of kinship with the Classical masters who were his companions on the programme. The second movement, ‘Sostenuto, molto calmo’, sang in and through the uncertainity of an overarching drama that was underway, yet nowhere near resolution, be it on a micro- or macro-level. Technique, both in work and performance, truly proved the liberator of the imagination – just as in Haydn.

The central, third movement, ‘Come un meccanismo di precisione’, certainly spoke of its marking, a multiplicity of ghosts making themselves felt in this machine or mechanism – or should it have been machines in this uncanny, ghostly world? Clocks ticked and malfunctioned, if only figuratively, yet for that reason perhaps all the more tellingly, for they struck as if heartbeats: heartbeats, perhaps, of insanity. Truly pivotal, then, prefacing a wonderful sense of fourth movement play between apparent unanimity and harmony. But was it play? Everything felt both strongly purposive and called into question. The final movement brought delicacy and apparent continuity, at least at first. Yet again, the more one listened, the more one doubted, Ligeti’s notes both binding together and dissolving their very material: ever changing and yet ever similar. It was a finale, yes, just as much as Haydn’s had been, but one was left in no doubt that a finale by now meant something quite different.

The opening of Beethoven’s op.127 Quartet offered so much in the way of E-flat resonance (in more than one sense). The so-called Emperor Concerto, Mozart in all manner of guises: such were the ghosts briefly summoned, prior to a decidedly late, different path on which Beethoven and his interpreters led us: exploratory, yet in the surest of hands. It may be a cliché – what is not, when writing of this music? – but the Heaths truly imparted a sense, however illusory, of the music being composed on the spot: nothing taken for granted, everything ‘new’. Once again, the first movement from its outset made us listen to, indeed participate in, a drama of dialectics, and a specifically tonal drama in this case, a drama of E-flat major. Motivic method reasserted itself in the wake of Ligeti: no mere reversion, perhaps even a progression. Concision, however, was not the least of the qualities held in common, at least in context.

How does one speak of a late Beethoven slow movement? Maybe one should not even try. This, at any rate, unfolded with a rapt sublimity – another cliché, I know – that was anything but generic, bathed, it seemed, in the glow of the Missa solemnis. And how we were compelled to listen to Beethoven’s harmony! In a concert offering us startling original third movements, Beethoven’s scherzo had nothing to fear. Tension and relaxation proved both co-dependent and perfectly judged. Metrical dislocations may have recalled Haydn, but they were very much the composer’s, the work’s, the performance’s own. Modernist and neoclassical impulses were held and encouraged in dialogue for the finale. By what? By many things, but not least a gruff humour that spoke of a humanity it is difficult not to think of as ‘Beethovenian’. Such, once again, proved just the right note for a finale, moreover for this finale.

Saturday 16 March 2019

Die Zauberflöte, English National Opera, 14 March 2019


Images: © Donald Cooper

Tamino – Rupert Charlesworth
Three Ladies – Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Katie Stevenson
Papageno – Thomas Oliemans
Queen of the Night – Julia Bauer
Monostatos – Daniel Norman
Pamina – Lucy Crowe
Three Spirits – Guillermo Fernandez-Aguaya Martin, Richard Wolfson, Nao Fukui
Speaker – Jonathan Lemalu
Sarastro – Brindley Sherratt
First Priest, First Armoured Man – David Webb
Second Priest, Second Armoured Man – David Ireland
Papagena – Rowan Pierce

Simon McBurney (director)
Josie Daxter (associate director, movement)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Jean Kalman, Mike Gunning (lighting)
Finn Ross (video)
Gareth Fry, Matthieu Maurice (sound design)

English National Opera Chorus (chorus master: James Henshaw)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Ben Gernon (conductor)

Tamino (Rupert Charlesworth) and Pamina (Lucy Crowe)

When Simon McBurney’s Magic Flute was first staged by ENO, it needed, I think it fair to say, some further work. That it seemed to have received at the time of its first revival, although there was certainly room for more. (Is there not always?) Here, upon its second revival, I could not help but think that there had been something of a reversion, or at least that a general aggressive silliness to the audience made it feel so. Is it really quite so side-splittingly hilarious for someone to write ‘The Magic Flute’ on a board, or for someone to take a photograph? (Worse still, is it really necessary to applaud within a number? A conductor should at least stamp upon such practices, rather than indulge them by pausing.) The most obviously ‘Complicité’ elements of the action, or better its framing, are still handled very well: in general lightly worn, the metatheatricality of sound effects, paper birds, and other ‘workings’ has meaning, wit, and if not quite poignancy, at least permits thoughts of that order. 

A balance is, of course, very difficult to strike in a work with so many competing demands. tendencies, sources, strands of reception; some might argue that it is better not even to try, instead concentrating on one or two. Perhaps. Something more all-embracing is, I think, required or at least desirable. This production certainly attempts that – and sometimes succeeds. It is certainly preferable to its predecessor (Nicholas Hytner), which did not even seem to try. What I missed on this occasion was a greater integration between different strands. A wartime setting seems hinted at, perhaps more than that. (Or is it just a fondness for combat fatigues?) Likewise a somewhat sinister bureaucracy for Sarastro’s brotherhood. (‘Of course’, you might reply, not without reason.) Alas, the logic, the mystery, the magic that might bind these to the rest of what is going on, do not seem to be there; either that, or – perfectly possible, this – I missed them. Inclusion of the Queen of the Night at the close is now such a cliché that it barely registers: nothing wrong with it in itself, but why? Again, it seems unmotivated. The work’s cosmos is unusually varied – not least because, written for a non-court-theatre, and as a Singspiel, it offered librettist and composer far greater freedom than they would ever have been granted for an opera seria or indeed an opera buffa. Making sense of that cosmos and its communicating through words, gesture, and music are key to a success in performance only intermittently realised here.

Papageno (Thomas Oliemans) and
Papagena (Rowan Pierce)

Stephen Jeffreys’s translation sometimes departs considerably from Schikaneder, yet offers welcome relief from the preening self-regard of usual suspects. The translation ‘Queen of Night’ – reproduced in the programme – is a bit odd: not incorrect, yet a departure from universal usage to ends unclear. More seriously, why are the Armoured Men (Geharnischter) listed in the programme as ‘Armed Men’, not at all the same thing? Do such things matter? Yes, especially for a company that prides itself on presenting works in English – and, for once, presented a good case for doing so, the cast’s diction proving uncommonly fine.

For the evening’s true rewards were to be found in the singing – and stage performances more generally. Rupert Charlesworth proved an excellent Tamino, beauty of vocal line allied to unmistakeable sincerity of purpose. It would have been a strange audience member indeed who did not root for him and Lucy Crowe’s equally touching, finely sung Pamina. Julia Bauer’s Queen of (the) Night came as close as many, closer than most, to fulfilling Mozart’s absurd demands. Thomas Oliemans’s Papageno proved a worthy successor to Schikaneder himself, alert to the role’s competing demands without ever alerting us to their difficulty. Brindley Sherratt’s considered – never too considered – Sarastro, Daniel Norman’s lively Monastatos, a fine trio of Ladies and pair of Priests/Armoured Men attested to a casting in depth that has not always been in evidence in recent years at the Coliseum, but which proved very welcome indeed.

Three Ladies (Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Katie Stevenson) and Tamino

Ben Gernon’s conducting had much to be said for it: a few rushed passages notwithstanding, generally sane and varied tempi; command and coordination of the orchestra in the pit and the singers on stage; and undoubted knowledge of the score. What it lacked, at least for me, was any sense of magic, of awe. Partly, that seemed owed to a determination to keep the orchestra down, strings in particular. So much magic and meaning are to be found not on stage, in the pit, that much, alas, was lost. Moreover, as with the production, a sense of greater structure, of the construction of a musico-dramatic world, often proved elusive. How does it make sense for Papageno and the Queen of the Night to feature in the same work, indeed to interact meaningfully? How, moreover, does it make sense for a neo-Bachian chorale prelude and the Papageno-Papagena duet not only to coexist, but to form part of a coherent, meaningfully dramatic whole? The answer may be magical as much as logical; it may not be reducible to words. Karl Böhm and Colin Davis knew how to accomplish this. So have directors such as Achim Freyer and David McVicar, both surely close to their best here. This is where the order’s ultimate wisdom lies, its secrets vouchsafed to and by a band of initiates whom we should treasure. We continue, it seems, to search for an interpretative Tamino and Pamina to join them.

Sunday 10 March 2019

Idomeneo, English Touring Opera, 8 March 2019

Hackney Empire Theatre

Images: © Richard Hubert Smith

Ilia – Galina Averina
Idamante – Catherine Carby
Idomeneo – Christopher Turner
Arbace, High Priest of Neptune – John-Colyn Gyeantey
Elettra – Paula Sides
Voice of the Oracle of Neptune – Ed Hawkins

James Conway (director)
Frankie Bradshaw (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)

Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Jonathan Peter Kenny (conductor)

The greatest miracle in operatic history? On balance, I tend to think so. The distinction of Idomeneo’s forebears, be they operas of Mozart, Gluck, or anyone else, ‘reformist’ or otherwise, is too readily overlooked. Nevertheless, the leap from La finta giardiniera to Idomeneo remains a challenge to explain – or, better, a mystery at which to marvel, in which to rejoice. I remember, as an undergraduate, once noting an examination question with a quotation something along the lines of ‘It is impossible to explain the quantum leap Wagner took from Rienzi to Der fliegende Holländer,’ followed by the injunction, ‘Nevertheless, make the attempt.’ Something similar might be said here, and Wagner is surely the only comparable case; I wonder, though whether Idomeneo might not offer a miracle still greater.

Idamante (Catherine Carby), Chorus, Ilia (Galina Averiana)

Speaking of miracles, English Touring Opera does not come so very far off with a production and performance that, considered as a whole, mark the finest I have seen. We do not live in a golden age of Mozart stagings, nor do we live in a golden age of Mozart conducting; most likely, such golden ages never existed in the first place. There are exceptions, though, just as there most likely always have been. Idomeneo nonetheless seems to have proved particularly unlucky – or perhaps I have been particularly unlucky with it. If Jonathan Peter Kenny’s direction of the keen ETO Chorus and Orchestra occasionally seemed to err a little on the bright and bubbly side – this is, after all, a work as much in the tradition of tragédie lyrique as anything else, and one Mozart wished, in the case of subsequent revision to take further in that direction – then there remained, once past the strangely perfunctory opening bars, much to admire. Admirably flexible, there was enough in Kenny’s conducting to convey the dramatic power and dazzling originality of Mozart’s intimations of so much nineteenth-century practice: orchestral colour (yes, with roots in Gluck, even Rameau, yet peering forward to Weber, Berlioz, and beyond), and both a shorter- and longer-term harmonic strategy, the latter married to Wagnerian dissolution of formal boundaries and consequent alternative, often sonata-led constructivism, that at the very least rival Don Giovanni. Slight roughness around the edges was a price well worth paying for such musico-dramatic commitment.

Elettra (Paula Sides)

Much of that came, of course, from the singers, more than a match for any other cast I have heard in the theatre. Christopher Turner’s Idomeneo was certainly the best I have heard: vulnerable, thoughtful, utterly secure of line, and possessed of all the necessary vocal firepower, wisely deployed. Galina Averina and Catherine Carby made for a beautifully matched, yet also contrasted, Ilia and Idamante, moral examples through struggle, without a hint of didacticism. Paula Saides’s Elettra proved little short of sensational, an object lesson in the combination of line, colour, and dramatic involvement to create in time something so much greater than the sum of its parts. John Colyn-Gyeantey combined the thankless role of Arbace with the slight role of the High Priest. A little confusingly, the roles were elided rather than simply sung by the same artist, but that was not his fault. Coloratura was, throughout the cast, deployed not only with accuracy but with meaning; much the same might be said of ornamentation.

Idomeneo (Christopher Turner)

James Conway offered a typically resourceful production: not only, of course, for the Hackney Empire, but for a host of theatres up and down the country, many of them in towns that will otherwise see and hear no opera all year. He proceeded from trusting the work, from seemingly – however much of a theatrical illusion this may be – permitting it to speak for itself. Costumes, lighting, facial expressions, especially from the chorus of Trojans and Greeks, hinted at the political backdrop, without reducing the work to the all-too-easy, if understandably appealing conception of a ‘wartime drama’. A Mediterranean, even Cretan setting was likewise apparent, without dominating or overwhelming. This was above all a drama of sacrifice, in the line of Antoine Danchet’s original Idomenée at least as much as the Abbé Varesco’s revision (much transformed by an often frustrated Mozart). Lest that all sound a touch too werktreu, an excellent twist, drawn out of the drama rather than imposed upon it, was brought to us in Elettra’s final attempt to hold Ilia hostage, perhaps even to slaughter her.

The only real disappointment one might have entertained lay in the considerable cuts visited upon the score. If I could live with them, I suspect anyone of good will would also have been able to do so. Richard Strauss, after all, conducted far more drastic surgery, especially to the recitative, eliminating the harpsichord entirely – alongside, of course, acts of wholesale recomposition. Might I have preferred to hear a more ‘complete’ version, leaving aside for the moment the lack of what we – or Mozart – might consider a definitive text? (Many would consider the Munich ‘original’ preferable to the single Vienna performance; I should broadly, not without qualification, agree.) Of course. That, however, is quite beside the point. Within all manner of unavoidable constraints, not least the needs of touring, it would have to have been this, something like it, or nothing at all.

Idamante and Idomeneo

That ‘this’ emerged superior to any other Idomeneo I have experienced in the theatre thus says all the more, given its regrettable – in a utopian sense – constraints. Magnificent, musically and dramatically, though the ballet music may be, we could hardly expect the company to stage that too. Martin Kušej’s 2014 Covent Garden production, sadly let down by atrocious conducting and a still more atrocious Idamante, offered a one-off solution of no dance whatsoever, a provocative frieze of shell-shocked regime change; such, however, is hardly a negative coup de théâtre gladly to suffer repetition. There is often much to be said for straightforwardness; there is pretty much everything to be said for conviction. This production and these performances offered both – and more.

Saturday 9 March 2019

Wiget/Ensemble Modern/Benjamin - Boulez, Messiaen, Ustvolskaya, Ligeti, and Benjamin, 6 March 2019

Roundhouse, Camden

Boulez: Initiale
Messiaen: Sept haïkai
Ustvolskaya: Composition no.2, ‘Dies irae’
Ligeti: Ramifications
Benjamin: Palimpsests

Ueli Wiget (piano)
Ensemble Modern
George Benjamin (conductor)

Pierre Boulez’s Initiale was chosen to inaugurate Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal almost two years ago to the day. If not quite inaugurating the Roundhouse, home to what seem to have been some of Boulez’s most memorable concerts during his time with the BBC, it nonetheless offered a fitting fanfare to the Wigmore Hall’s new series of new music concerts there. George Benjamin and the Ensemble Modern had given splendid performances ‘at home’ on Wigmore Street the previous night. Here the ensemble was in full orchestral form, at least for three of the five pieces, though none is conventionally scored by late-Romantic standards. Initiale, in any case, is for brass septet. I had imagined, foolishly, that the instruments might, in homage to Gabrieli et al., have been placed around us. The hall is on the large side for that, whatever might have worked in Berlin. In both this and Messiaen’s Sept haïkai, my ears took a while to adjust to the acoustic, but there was nevertheless much to be gleaned in this miniature masterclass in typically Boulezian proliferation. It left one wanting more – which, in a way, we received – from Boulez’s teacher.

Messaien seems to have become strangely unfashionable at the moment; perhaps he awaits ‘rediscovery’. He unquestionably deserves it. Boulez had conducted the 1963 premiere, with Yvonne Loriod at the piano. I had a few doubts, especially to start with, concerning this performance, but again I think the need to adjust to the acoustic may have been the real enemy here. Ueli Wiget certainly relished the virtuosity of the piano part, especially in the extraordinary cadenza-like passages, their roots very much in nineteenth-century pianism, quite transformed here by the unmistakeable voice and imagination of this most singular of composers. Benjamin had the measure – in more than one sense – of the music’s varying metrical demands, quite rightly making light of them, art concealing art. Birds sang, chimes sounded, vistas were made manifest before our eyes and ears, synaesthetic or otherwise.

Perhaps the greatest surprise on the programme was Galina Ustvolskaya’s Composition no.2, ‘Dies irae’, for eight double basses, percussion (a huge wooden block), and piano. The word ‘uncompromising’ is all too readily reached for, both generally and specifically, but is almost impossible to avoid here. I was surprised both by Benjamin’s inclusion of the work and indeed by the power with which it struck me, neither he nor I necessarily being the most obvious audience for this music. Its starkness, its unswerving faith, its economy of means provided many points of comparison and contrast with Messiaen’s music. Neither is music with which one argues; or, if one does, one will come off the worse. Performances, nicely lodged between ritual and drama – I even thought briefly, however incongruously, of Parsifal – likewise brooked no dissent. For me, this perhaps proved the revelation, a decidedly un-Boulezian revelation, of the programme.

Whereas I had thought Ustvolskaya’s piece might have been the one to stand out oddly from the rest of the programme, it was actually Ligeti’s Ramifications I had more trouble placing in context with the others. Perhaps it was chosen simply as a work Boulez had performed here in those earlier Roundhouse concerts. It hardly mattered, in any case. Whether it were my ears or the playing that had now properly adjusted, or both, I do not know; what I do know is that Ligeti’s masterwork registered with great clarity and drama. Benjamin and his players, as well as the score ‘itself’, drew one in, compelled one to listen – to listen in ways one could never have imagined, even if one had actually approached them before. The differences in tuning between string groups proved so richly expressive that one never so much as noticed the lack of metre in a conventional sense. (Perhaps that was the definite contrast with the works preceding?) Swarming string plainsong – its reimagination, at any rate, if only by me – reinvented tradition before our ears.

Benjamin’s own Palimpsests was written for Boulez and the LSO – who, if memory serves correctly, had vividly relished the challenges. (How could they not?) Both movements – ‘Palimpsest I’ and ‘Palimpsest II’, the first originally performed as a stand-alone work – recreate not only vertically but horizontally the drama of rediscovery, of rereading a succession of manuscript texts. So, at least, it sounded here, in splendidly committed performances. A brass interjection here, a seraphic flight of fancy there played with ideas of what was and what might have been: all part of a whole that yet depended upon the call of the moment. Some, at least, of the roots of Written on Skin sounded uncommonly apparent: emotionally as well as intellectually, whatever the fallacy of the dichotomy. Was such writing and rewriting not, after all, one of the points both of programme and performance?