Monday 29 April 2019

Lortie - Liszt, 28 April 2019

Wigmore Hall

Années de pèlerinage, première année: ‘Suisse’, S 160
Années de pèlerinage, deuxième année: ‘Italie’, S 161
Années de pèlerinage, troisième année, S 163

On 27 April, Louis Lortie celebrated his sixtieth birthday. I can only presume the celebrations were not unduly arduous, since he played all three books of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage – omitting only the ‘Venezia e Napoli’ supplement to the second book – the following evening at the Wigmore Hall. If the best parties are a gift from the host to those invited, then this must surely rank amongst them. Some of these pieces one hears with reasonable frequency in the concert hall, although even the best-known come nowhere near over-familiarity: this is Liszt, not Chopin. Some one rarely hears at all: there were certainly some I, a keen Lisztian, was hearing for the first time in concert. But to hear them all together proved decidedly more than the sum of its parts. It was an extraordinary feat, yes, but more than that, it was a welcome tribute; more than that too, it was an opportunity to hear the composer’s development, transformation, and ongoing truthfulness to his inner self over a period of almost half a century.

The chronology is complex, and here is not the place to go into detail, but many of the pieces in the first, ‘Swiss’ book, published in 1855, have their roots in pieces written in the second half of the 1830s, later published as the 1842 Album d’un voyageur. The Romantic idea of the wayfarer thus becomes inscribed in the chronology and, implicitly at least, in the hearing and rehearing, performance and re-performance under way before a note has even been played. At any rate, the opening ‘Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’ left one in no doubt concerning its Schillerian genesis, its declamatory opening – so often with Liszt, as with Berlioz and Wagner, musical lines strain to speak, as if recitative without words – preparing the way to yield, yet also announcing the instrument itself (here a bright-toned Fazioli) as equal progenitor to music both general and specific. Very much a curtain-raiser, it ended open-endedly, ushering us ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’. Perhaps Lortie might have yielded more there, but there was something fascinating in hearing the ‘sigh of the waves and the cadence of the oars’ (Marie d’Agoult, quoted in Kenneth Hamilton’s programme note) founded upon a rock-solid basso continuo. Poetic musico-historical licence? As often with Liszt: yes and no. The ensuing ‘Pastorale’ echoed Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Sonata as much as the Swiss countryside, placing both strands in magical dialogue, leading us ‘Au bord d’une source’, in which Lortie showed himself unafraid to use plenty of pedal for atmosphere, creating a wash of fioriture such as to send puritans – whatever Liszt may have been, he was certainly not that – dashing for cover. The ‘Orage’ that followed would surely have left them cowed: splendidly grandiloquent in a virtuosity that, for composer and pianist alike, never came near ‘mere’ virtuosity.

If melodic lines had spoken in ‘Guillaume Tell’, they sang, as if lines from Eugene Onegin or some other such Romantic opera, in ‘Vallée d’Obermann’. As the melody passed between the hands, gorgeous harmonies – never ‘merely’ gorgeous – spoke and sang of nobility and idealism as much as Nature and sensual experience. Seraphic passion, melting belligerence: opposites attracted and confused in typically Romantic fashion. This may have fallen more than midway through the book; it nonetheless felt like its heart. And so, the ‘Eglogue’ sounded as if a reinvention of the ‘Pastorale’ – until, that is, like the book as a whole, it very much went on its own way. ‘Le mal du pays’ came as a necessary corrective, the world’s darkness to the fore, its strange harmonies duly unsettling. Finally, the ringing of ‘Les cloches de Genève’ proceeded both with otherworldly purity and ‘impressionist’ presentiment. Corrosive – or potentially corrosive – sounds in the bass proved enigmatic rather than Mephistophelian, which is probably as it should be. They were, in any case, rare. Liszt’s citation here of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, ‘I live not in myself, but I become a portion of that around me’, sounded apt as ever.

‘Sposalizio’ took us immediately to the opening of a new volume, illuminated by no less than Raphael. Debussy’s First Arabesque seemed already to have been written and surpassed, confronted by the more strenuous humanism of Michelangelo in ‘Il penseroso’. The ‘Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa’, heavy-handed in its jauntiness, I have never been able to warm to, but surely I miss its point. The three Petrarch Sonnets, however, I have long adored – and did so here. No.47 came as blissful, Romantic relief: metrical freedom, melody, harmony, voice-leading as one in a vision of expectancy and ardour. No.104 complemented, contrasted, deepened, the music breathing ‘as if’ sung, rather than slavishly imitating; a piano is a piano, just as a pianist is a pianist. No.123 brought together and extended, dreamlike in the best sense, rhetoric at the service of musical poetry. There was much incentive to abandon hope as we entered the final number of the Italian Book, ‘Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata’, in a duly Catholic performance of deeply Catholic music. However fancifully, one could imagine Liszt sitting down at the piano to quasi-improvise this response to his reading of Dante. That fantasia quality is surely of the essence here, in a way it is not in the more ‘worked-out’ B minor Sonata; this is an album-leaf or set of album-leaves, however superior, and so it sounded here, in hallucinatory, self-transforming flow. It thrilled, but thrilled with substance: there is nothing ‘mere’ to this music.

The tolling of the ‘Angelus’ opened the third book: ‘Rome’ in all but name, as Hamilton notes, albeit with the strange exception of the funeral march for Mexico’s Emperor Maximilian. Here there was unquestionably a sense of time having passed: not quite the third act of Parsifal, but perhaps – again with Rome in mind – of Tannhäuser. Again, there was a sense, illusory or otherwise, of remembrance, of reinventing the worlds of the second book in particular: even the Salvator Rosa piece. (Yes, I had been wrong.) Again, there was nothing ‘mere’ to this act of remembrance, as Liszt took us on neue Bahnen (as Schumann had once foretold of Brahms). Or so we think. Is there anything new under the sun? Again, the answer came: yes and no. The exultancy achieved was, aptly, both genuine and a little tired. And how Liszt’s harmonies represented, in his celebrated phrase, the hurling of a ‘lance into the boundless realms of the future’.

Two threnodies followed, both responses to the idea – and doubtless the ‘reality’ – of ‘Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este’. There was no denying the lateness here, but there was nothing generic either to music or performance; instead, we drew connections, noted and felt affinities, in a setting that afforded chiaroscuro whilst yet approaching twilight. The wonder one can feel in harmonic progression registered as strongly as ever – and more unnervingly. Here, especially in the second piece, was the melancholy of the (not quite) swansong. From cypresses to water, for ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’: the waters sparkled, whilst never quite effacing – why should they? – what had preceded them. Glitter surrounded a line as clear as anything in the first and second books, Liszt both the same and transformed. ‘Sunt lacrymae rerum’ offered further reminiscence, remembrance – whether that of Aeneas or something more personal to Liszt, to us – and incomplete, transformative synthesis. The ‘Marche funèbre’ likewise proved an idea familiar yet rethought, reimagined, reinterpreted, at least bordering on the realm of the ‘omnitonal’ the young Liszt had taken from the theorist, François-Joseph Fétis. But it is with the Eucharistic exhortation, ‘Sursum corda’ that the collection ends. There was darkness to the call, but there was likewise release from that darkness. Lortie relished this final piece in all its strangeness – strange, that is, so long as we listened. It could only have made sense coming as it did at the close; make sense of a sort, though, it did.

Wednesday 24 April 2019

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 21 April 2019

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Images: Bernd Uhlig (from the first performances, in 2015)

Hans Sachs – Wolfgang Koch
Veit Pogner – Matti Salminen
Eva – Julia Kleiter
Walther von Stolzing – Burkhard Fritz
David – Siyabonga Maqungo
Magdalene – Katharina Kammerloher
Kunz Vogelgesang – Graham Clark
Konrad Nachtigall – Adam Kutny
Sixtus Beckmesser – Martin Gantner
Fritz Kothner – Jürgen Limm
Balthasar Zorn – Siegfried Jerusalem
Ulrich Eisslinger – Reiner Goldberg
Augustin Moser – Florian Hoffmann
Hermann Ortel – Arttu Kataja
Hans Schwarz – Franz Mazura
Hans Foltz – Olaf Bär
Night Watchman – Erik Rosenius

Andrea Moses (director)
Jan Pappelbaum (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

‘Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding,’ sings Strauss’s Marschallin: a truth that seems to grow truer with our – at least with my – every advancing year. More prosaically, and more specifically, we might also say that openings and re-openings, constructions and reconstructions, creations and recreations, unifications and reunifications are strange things: rarely what they seem, and rarely what the fashionable, the non-critical presume them to be. Such ideas lie at the heart of Die Meistersinger: at its heart, concerned with the ongoing creation and performance of a song, within a society that has both placed such endeavour at its heart and also done its utmost to thwart the same. Perhaps all societies, at least all bourgeois societies – what could be more bürgerlich than this early modernity created and recreated by the nineteenth century? – are like that. As Schiller and Marx, Wagner too, insisted, left to his own devices, man – woman too? – will create as an artist; as all three lamented, that ‘natural’ state of affairs rarely, if ever, pertains. At best, a higher, mediated state of unity might be achieved; but how?

Such thoughts came very much to mind watching, for the first time, Andrea Moses’ 2015 production of the work. Not because it really engages with them: alas, this is a sorry piece of theatre, considered as staging. Nonetheless, the work and its traditions enabled, at least in retrospect, some manner of critique. The gravest charge against the production is its tedium, the second its hapless incoherence. (The two are not unrelated.) It seems to suggest ideas, yet they never seem grounded, never connected; its amateurism, in the worst sense, suggests what the Masters might think of Walther before he sings a note (and many of them do once he has). For the action plays out mostly as if this were the most hidebound of traditionalist stagings, albeit without either that sixteenth-century (or even nineteenth-century) ‘original’ context or a new one to put in its place. The first act takes place in something resembling a concert hall – there are apprentice ushers, or something like that, in black tie – or perhaps a corporate event, Masters’ names displayed as if sponsors. Nothing, however, makes much sense, since there is no apparent effort to explain, to criticise, to create, to recreate, and so forth. Or is it a sportsground sponsors’ lounge, competition here being the thing? Perhaps, for the second act takes place in what seems to be the backstage of a stadium. For some reason – or none – the inhabitants of Nuremberg are now in punk garb. That seems implicitly to be the reason, though surely not the intention, for their descending into a riot, in which football flags are waved. Beckmesser has meanwhile, bafflingly, squeezed himself into sixteenth-century costume. Everyone else has otherwise wandered around aimlessly, save for Walther and Eva who wrap themselves in an ever-present German flag. An Orthodox Jew walks across stage during the turmoil, untouched by and seemingly oblivious to it. I have no idea either…

The first part of the third act moves to a library: fair enough in itself, as setting for Sachs’s world chronicle, although there is no sense of how it relates to anything that has gone before, still less of who these people might be and why they might act as they do. The Festwiese scene attempts, I think, to tie things together, but not only is it too late, the message it appears to project is glib and disturbing, as well as ultimately incoherent. For the production’s origins now come more clearly to the fore. It had originally been intended that this Meistersinger should reopen the renovated eighteenth-century house on Unter den Linden. Work having fallen behind – or new work having been necessitated – that was delayed until 2017, Daniel Barenboim and the outgoing Intendant, Jürgen Flimm, then presenting a staged version of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’. Both ‘reopenings’, anticipated and actual – even the latter was a little false, the theatre soon closing again until December – were scheduled for Germany’s new national day, the Tag der Deutschen Einheit, which explicitly celebrates the anniversary of reunification in 1990. The first performance, it seems, took place in two parts: the first two acts on the day itself, the third the following day (the equivalent to Wagner’s Johannistag morning-after to Polterabend, I suppose).

With that in mind, one can perhaps see the celebrations by the Spree, our Pegnitz substitute, as trying, Sachs-like, to bring peace, even unity, to the revelry and violence of the night before. Alas, it is all terribly confused. Is the ‘night before’ the troubled German, past and the ‘morning after’ the here and now? If so, that makes little sense in terms of the premiere chronology; it also makes no sense of the settings, all ‘present’, if little related. The backdrop of the absurdly ‘restored’ old Berliner Schloss – ironically, a mere Potemkin façade, – suggests, however, that we are intended to reflect in such a way. Those who might have preferred a restored GDR Palast der Republik or something new will have had very different thoughts, uneasy at this banal, Disneyfied celebration of capital’s victory over socialism. (I saw the ‘new-old’ façade for the first time fully risen, whilst walking to the performance: a dispiriting sight indeed.) Seemingly as an afterthought, a few Kaiserreich flags are flown and, captured by Sachs, cast into the river. Given that the palace was the Hohenzollerns’, ‘modern’ rejection of that flag seems disingenuous. Most bewildering, though, is the appearance of two Arab ‘sheikhs’ with bodyguard. Our Master ‘sponsors’, their logos again proudly displayed, act with great solicitude to them, explaining events – would that they had to us – and caring for their needs. Have they funded the ‘event’? And if so, what might that mean? They notably leave the stage before the close, excluded or excluding themselves from the final celebration, replete with German flag. A celebration of corporate, ‘moderate’ nationalism, then, from which financially enabling non-Germans must absent themselves? Try as I might, I cannot come up with an inoffensive explanation – even should that prove to be mere cluelessness.

Faced with such irritating nonsense, I found it difficult to concentrate on the musical performances in themselves, though much was clearly admirable. Barenboim’s command of the outstanding Staatskapelle Berlin continues greatly to impress, flexibility, clarity, delight in the score’s Mozartian, conversational qualities, and a thorough grounding in Wagner’s harmonic plan unquestionably apparent. His idea of presenting an array of old Masters – some may recall a similar concept at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival to mark Brian McMaster’s farewell – was engaging. It was a delightful thing indeed to encounter and re-encounter so many great names from the past, such as Siegfried Jerusalem, Graham Clark, and Olaf Bär, all the way to Franz Mazura, due to celebrate his ninety-fifth birthday the following day. Matti Salminen’s Pogner fell into that category too, occasional instability a price well-worth paying for sheer likeability. Wolfgang Koch gave a typically thoughtful, musicianly performance as Sachs, interacting nicely with Martin Gantner’s Beckmesser, Julia Kleiter’s sprightly, sometimes radiant Eva understandably torn. Burkhard Fritz’s Walther had his moments – though they were not always happy; he kept going, though, which is something. Siyabonga Maqungo’s David and Katharina Kammerloher’s Magdalene both impressed in lively, detailed assumptions, making as much as could reasonably be expected from a difficult situation.

If, ultimately, many of these performances seemed more observed than felt, that may well have been the fault of the production – and my inability to rise above it. There will be other creations and recreations, though, other attempts to construct and reconstruct the past, present, and future. This production’s predecessor from Harry Kupfer still lingers in the mind; let us hope the next in line will prove worthier.

Monday 22 April 2019

La bohème and Poro, Komische Oper, 19 and 20 April 2019

Komische Oper

Image: Iko Freese/

Mimì – Heather Engebretson
Musetta – Hera Hyesang Park
Rodolfo – Jonathan Tetleman
Marcello – Huw Montague Rendall
Schaunard – Michael Borth
Colline – Samuli Taskinen
Alcindoro – Carsten Sabrowski
Parpignol – Emil Ławecki
Merchant – Mathias Spenke
Customs Sergeant – Jan-Frank Süße
Customs Guard – Tim Dietrich

Barrie Kosky (director)
Rufus Didwiszus (set designs)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Simon Berger (dramaturgy)
Alessandro Carletti (lighting)

Poros – Dominik Köninger
Mahamaya – Ruzan Mantashyan
Sir Alexander – Eric Jurenas
Nimbavati – Idunnu Münch
Gandharta – Philipp Meierhöfer
Timagenes – João Fernandes

Harry Kupfer (director)
Hans Schavernoch (set designs)
Yan Tax (costumes)
Simon Berger (dramaturgy)
Jürgen Hoffmann (lighting)
Thomas Reimer (video)

Children’s Chorus (chorus director: Dagmar Fiebach) and Chorus (chorus director: David Cavelius) of the Komische Oper, Berlin 
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Jordan de Souza and Jörg Halubeck (conductors).

Image: Monika Rittershaus

I do not usually review opera productions together like this, even when they might be thought to have something more obviously in common than stagings of Puccini (La bohème) and Handel (Poro; in German, Poros). On this occasion, however, it occurred to me that it might be interesting, even illuminating, to compare recently opened new productions by the Komische Oper’s present Intendant, Barrie Kosky, and one of his most celebrated predecessors, Harry Kupfer. Whether that should prove to be the case will, as always, be for the reader to decide.

An obvious comparison, or rather contrast, lies in the works and the language in which they were given. La bohème could hardly be more central to the opera repertory; finely crafted, greatly moving work though it may be, one might think it appeared on our stages a little too often. Poro, on the other hand, is one of Handel’s lesser-known works: not entirely without reason, I have to say. Puccini’s opera certainly benefited from being given in Italian, original language productions having been one of Kosky’s most welcome innovations during his tenure. Puccini in German is, for many of us, no more alluring a prospect than Puccini in English. Poro(s), however, was given, at Kupfer’s request, in German translation, harking back to his time as an assistant director at the Halle Handel Festival – which was the basis of his choice of work. It has its moments, perhaps especially in the third act, but whilst the arias are rarely unattractive, many of them could happily be transferred from one ‘character’ – does anyone really care about these people? – to another without loss. I suspect that some, at least, of the interest in this opera lies in Metastasio’s Italian – not knowing the original, I can only speculate – and that its translation not only into German, but into a somewhat prosaic contemporary German, detracts from the poetic worth and meaning. There is no need to be fundamentalist about such matters, but this seemed more an exercise in nostalgia than a real dramatic choice.

Image: Monika Rittershaus

That impression was heightened, I regret to say, by Kupfer’s production. No one would deny his place in operatic history. Moreover, recent stagings, if hardly showing him at his very best, have had much to offer. This, however, really does nothing other than move the action, such as it is, from the India of Alexander the Great’s time to that of the British Raj’s establishment. Orientalist scenic backdrops and costumes show no critical distance. Alexander’s demotion to ‘Sir Alexander’, officer of the English Crown, betokens nothing more than a change of uniform. A Union flag unfurled at the end has a little more ironic edge, given the more than usually absurd device of the lieto fine, but a brief, unmotivated shift to cricket whites earlier on at least verged on the embarrassment. Given the thinness – let us be kind – of musical characterisation here, a strong hand from the director is really needed for a critical, modern audience. What we saw here might, with the possible yet by no means certain exception of the updating, have been seen fifty or sixty years ago. Any play with the potentially fascinating disjuncture between antiquity, and two stages in British imperial history (the 1730s and the 1850s) was, so far as I could discern, entirely absent. Maybe it would have been better off staged in English…

Image: Iko Freese/

Kosky, by contrast, proved more able to draw compelling drama from his work, whilst still working essentially within a framework of what we might call ‘fidelity’ to it. The story is told clearly, bar a somewhat confusing excision of Benoît, the students’ landlord, his part sung instead by Colline (in character as Colline, unless I misunderstood). But the age old dramatic conflict between private and public comes very much to life visually and viscerally, as do questions of what we see, what we remember – and how. Photography, aptly enough for the age, lies at the heart; or, perhaps better, enables us to understand what we think of, rightly or wrongly, as the heart. The first and fourth scenes take place in Rodolfo’s studio – cramped like the garret it should be and so rarely is – and that is how Mimì comes to life: an image, invested with whatever it is he and we see in her. Not that she lacks agency, but we are left in little doubt as to the maleness of this Parisian gaze. The city, moreover, comes to life – or recedes into our memory – through faded, yet atmospheric daguerreotypes. Debussy’s claim to Manuel de Falla, cited in a programme interview with conductor, Jordan de Souza, that no one had represented Paris so well musically as Puccini, seemed very much to the fore here: past, present, even future brought together in dramatic unity that yet permitted for disjuncture, for play, for deception. The fleshpots were there too, memorably in the rotating orgy of the second act and beyond the stage for the third, but their (near-)presence was an integral part of the drama of the city, of these individuals, of their interaction, not in any sense a source of titillation. There was something painterly and indeed photographic in a dramatic sense – unlike the ‘jungle’ backdrop and statue of Poro.

De Souza was an unquestionable asset to the drama too. Rarely if ever have I heard this opera so well conducted. Often, with profit, one hears certain aspects of Puccini highlighted: Puccini the Wagnerian, Puccini the modernist, Puccini the colourist, Puccini the melodist, and so on. Here, however much of an illusion this may be – and, more important, however great the art that conceals art – it seemed that we heard not only those and other facets to the composer’s artistry held in balance and in dramatic contest, but that one heard this Bohème, this particular set of performances and production, in such balance. I can say no fairer than that. By contrast, Jörg Halubeck heightened rather than lessened the sense of the formulaic in Poro. There was rarely anything to which to object, but nor was there anything about which to enthuse. A few more strings, more warmly played, would not have gone amiss; that, it seemed, was to be attributed to Halubeck’s ‘period’ puritanism rather than to any such inclination on the players’ behalf.

If solo singing came across more strongly, with greater personality, in La bohème, that would perhaps be to be expected. There was nonetheless nothing to disappoint in Poro, even if in most cases, I suspected a more invigorating conductor (and director) might have helped. Soprano, Ruzan Mantashyan and mezzo, Idunnu Münch were for me the pick of the bunch, nicely contrasted and yet complementary. If only Handel (or rather Metastasio) had been more inclined to duets and ensembles; or, indeed, to choruses, in which one of Handel’s greatest strengths surely lies. (That is surely not the least reason for the general superiority of his oratorios.) The young cast for La bohème had wonderful chemistry as well as personality, Jonathan Tetelman and Huw Montague Rendall touching in kindred spirit and individuality as Rodolfo and Marcello. One could believe in both, feel with them, in a way never possible in the Handel opera. (And yes, I know that is not really the point.) Heather Engebretson’s Mimì duly lit up the room, personification, as it were, of the candle that insisted on self-extinction, whilst Hera Hyesang Park balanced with great expertise and sympathy the competing demands of Musetta’s personality. In short, the whole was greater than the sum of its considerable parts, whereas in Poro, both ultimately fell short. That said, both performances met with enthusiastic reception from the audience. There is doubtless room for both; there were unquestionably audiences for both too.

Sunday 21 April 2019

Rienzi, Deutsche Oper, 18 April 2019

Deutsche Oper

RIENZI, DER LETZE DER TRIBUNEN von Richard Wagner, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Premiere am 24. Januar 2010, copyright: Bettina Stöß

Rienzi – Torsten Kerl
Irene – Elisabeth Teige
Steffano Colonna – Andrew Harris
Adriano – Annika Schlicht
Paolo Orsini – Dong-Hwan Lee
Cardinal Orvieto – Derek Welton
Baroncelli – Clemens Bieber
Cecco del Vecchio – Stephen Bronk
Rienzi double – Gernot Frischling

Philipp Stölzl (director, set designs)
Mara Kurotschka (assistant director)
Ulrike Siegrist (set designs)
Kathi Maurer, Ursula Kudrna (costumes)
Lorenzo Nencini (revival director)
fettFilm (video)

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus director: Jeremy Bines)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Evan Rogister (conductor)

At last, an opportunity for me to see Rienzi, the only Wagner opera I had yet to see in the theatre. A long-held ambition fulfilled, then? Yes, just about. Alas, that was about it, though. There were two major, frankly insurmountable problems: first, the miserable conducting of Evan Rogister; second, the butchered version employed, so extreme as to render what we heard musically and dramatically nonsensical. Rarely in the theatre and never in the Deutsche Oper have I heard such a sustained display of incompetence in the pit as Rogister’s. The number of times the Overture came close – or more than close – to falling apart did not bode well. Singers, solo and chorus, often proved alarmingly out of sync with the orchestra; there was, moreover, no sign of the conductor so much as noticing, let alone putting things right. Occasionally, the music came into focus; it was bound to eventually, I suppose, though never for long. Interpretation? Forget it. It was hardly surprising that, for long stretches, this great Wagner orchestra seemed to have given up. Was this in fact Covent Garden’s dread Daniel Oren working under a pseudonym? A dark thought indeed. One to avoid with equal vigour, I fear.

However, even a Daniel Barenboim – if only he would consider one day conducting Wagner’s Cinderella – would have struggled with the version of the score handed to him. The composer struggled with its unintentional length, of course. His witness in Mein Leben is instructive and entertaining. Quite what it would mean to present a ‘complete’ Rienzi is unclear; the closest we may come is the version conducted by Edward Downes for a BBC radio recording, and even that falls short according to some understandings. Whilst there is something to be said for glorying in its length, for rendering its problems a virtue, that is unlikely to be an option any time soon. Cuts are, in principle, not the end of the world – and may, for many, prove the opera’s redemption. This, however, was something else, not only in the savagery of its cuts but in there seemingly arbitrary nature, as if someone had attempted to present a ‘children’s version’, but had not really tried, and had succeeded only in cutting it down to whatever the specified size had been. The number and nature of non sequiturs, musical just as much as dramatic, straightforwardly defied comprehension.

Of the work’s roots in Meyerbeerian grand opéra, there was well-nigh nothing remaining in structure, and merely the odd procession (usually truncated) as meaningless evidential detail. It is difficult to imagine someone making anything of the nobles’ role, let alone identity, nor indeed of anyone else’s. Of the seeds of what was to come, often overlooked, the little that remained ironically resembled, apparently more by accident than design, Wagner’s notorious demolition of Meyerbeer in Opera and Drama: an ‘outrageously coloured, historico-romantic, devilish-religious, sanctimonious-lascivious, risqué-sacred, saucy-mysterious, sentimental-swindling, dramatic farrago’, albeit hacked away at a bargain-basement cut-price quite at odds with anything might could have imparted meaning to the experience. Poetic justice? Perhaps, but to what end?

That the work’s promise – more than promise, as any of us who knows it will attest – nonetheless shone through is testimony not only to intrinsic merit, but also to some fine singing and, to a lesser extent, to Philipp Stölzl’s 2010 production. The latter is doubtless one-sided. In other circumstances, I might have been more inclined to complain about its too-ready association of Rienzi with fascism and, in the case of the Overture, with Hitler himself. The vision, in more than one sense, is at least memorable there: a Rienzi body-double looking out over the Alps from Berchtesgaden, listening to the music, conducting along, and resolving to rule the world. Use of video – great credit should go here to fettFILM – is unnervingly effective, permitting Rienzi as silent film speaker to address the masses, to turn them, even as we see and hear something else. A fascist design aesthetic in dress, colour, and architecture heightens the unsubtle line; at least, though, it is a line. In any case, is subtlety really what we are looking for in Rienzi? The chorus in particular might nonetheless have been better directed. Stölzl’s trademark tableaux vivants are one thing; they work more meaningfully in his Deutsche Oper Parsifal, I think, even though that came later. Too often, though, one had the impression poor chorus members were merely being left to fend for themselves.

In the title role, Torsten Kerl had his moments, although too often he proved vocally stretched. There could be no faulting his enthusiasm, though, nor his skills as a film propagandist. (His Overture body double, Gernot Frischling, deserves credit too.) Annika Schlicht, however, in the Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient role of Adriano, proved the star of the show: clear as a bell, bright and subtle as a speaking clarinet, and very much a breeches mezzo on stage. (Schröder-Devrient seems to have struggled to learn the part: there were clearly no such difficulties here.) I hope to hear – and see – more from her. Insofar as the cuts permitted, Elisabeth Teige also impressed as Irene, as did those assuming what were now less smaller than miniscule roles. Rienzi, though, deserved so much better. On the positive side, I stand all the more determined to see a production and to hear a performance – preferably in tandem – that in some sense do justice to this singular work. And if someone would kindly return the manuscript from Russia, that would be nice too.

Saturday 20 April 2019

Platée, Semperoper Dresden, 16 April 2019


Images: Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah
Platée (Philippe Talbot), La Folie (Inga Kalna)

Platée – Philippe Talbot
Cithéron, Satyr – Giorgio Caoduro
Jupiter – Andreas Wolf
Junon – Ute Selbig
Mercure, Thespis – Mark Milhofer
Momus – Sebastian Wartig
Thalie, Clarine – Iulia Maria Dan
La Folie – Inga Klana
Amour – Tania Lorenzo
Two Menads – Katharina Flade, Hyunduk Na

Rolando Villazón (director)
Harald Tor (set designs)
Susanne Hubrich (costumes)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreography)
Davy Cunningham (lighting)
Kai Weßler (dramaturgy)

Sächsische Staatsopernchor Dresden (chorus director: Cornelius Volke)
Säschsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Paul Agnew (conductor)

I did not ever think I should live to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden play Rameau, let alone with such verve and sensitivity, such vigour and style as here. Outside France, occasions are still relatively rare to see Rameau’s operas staged: far rarer than they should be for the pre-eminent opera composer of his age. In the present climate, to hear them performed on modern instruments – let alone on modern instruments that are not attempting, pointlessly, to sound as if they were ancient ones – is a further, well-nigh insurmountable challenge. Bravo, then, not only to Dresden’s Semperoper for staging Platée, but for presenting it with such conviction, under Paul Agnew, himself by now something of a veteran both in the title role and as conductor. Agnew’s direction proved not the least virtue of this evening, his tempi judicious both in themselves and in relation to one another, a keen ear applied to balances within the orchestra and between orchestra and stage. Rameau’s woodwind solos in particular shone with all the ravishing beauty one might have hoped for from these players. Warm yet incisive strings combined with expert continuo (Gerd Amelung on harpsichord, Simon Kalbhenn on cello) and, just as important, a fine cast and duly provocative production to have one think as well as feel. This was the fourth performance in the run since the premiere earlier this month: it seemed by now to have all the advantages of having ‘bedded in’, without retreat into the over-familiarity (and under-rehearsal) of ‘repertoire’.

Rolando Villazón’s production surprised me. Initially it seemed needlessly over the top, in danger of collapsing into ‘punk Baroque’ cliché, but it soon became apparent that a keen, playful mind was at work, playing with the strange, ornate parodies of this singular ballet bouffon (or should that be comédie lyrique)? The Prologue takes place, with apparent incongruity, in a bar full of characters who either are schoolchildren or, more likely, dressed as such. (Or is it a drunken schoolroom? There may be no difference.) This is, after all, the morning after the night before – something surely not lost on the first audience at the Dauphin’s Versailles marriage festivities in 1745. (The 1749 version was given here.) What ‘should’ be a Greek vineyard is – more or less – but with the additional insight, criticism, call it what you will, that the gang of Thespis, Momus, Amour, and Thalia are themselves acting as obstreperous teenagers. Their creation of the drama to be set before us for their and our amusement has little empathy, will mock gods and mortals alike, yet ultimately will serve the higher, comedic end of reconciling Jupiter and Junon.

And so, the events at the foot of Mount Cithaeron unfold, keenly aware of the highly unusual form this satire is to take. Who are its objects? In a sense, everyone: perhaps including Rameau, the great lyric tragedian, himself. And nothing is off bounds, sexually or otherwise. Some members of the audience seemed more than a little discomfited by Mercure’s use of an obvious bodily orifice for storage purposes, but that was surely the point. Here one should be invited, even compelled, to reconsider what might be taken for granted, not only about this opera, but about opera more generally. Mark Milhofer’s twin assumption of Mercure and Thespis was certainly not the least of the quicksilver joys and thrills of the evening. But it was Philippe Talbot’s Platée, of course, who stood – and sang – centre-stage, gloriously repulsive in what must surely be one of Rameau’s higher haute-contre parts, originally taken by Pierre de Jélyotte. Talbot captured the swamp-nymph en travestie’s absurdity – we feel less uncomfortable, perhaps, given the Italian device of drag, highly unusual for French opera – in a keenly observed performance whose every detail contributed to the greater whole.

Jupiter (Andreas Wolf) and Platée

Another delightful incongruity was provided by Inga Kalna’s Folie, her apparition again very much a star apparition from another world (Italian opera, once again, but something beyond that in the particular scheme at work here). Her coloratura thrilled yet also warned. Why should we listen to her, apart from wanting to do so? Perhaps that was enough. Other highlights included the performances of a darkly menacing, yet not-too-menacing, Giorgio Caoduro (Cithéron), a properly narcissistic Jupiter (Andreas Wolf), and a rich-toned Iulia Maria Dan (Thalie, Clarine). But the company and the controlled riot in performance it wrought were the thing. Opera, of whatever genre, is a curious thing. This Platée not only knew that; it played with that, rejoiced in it, and asked us what we thought of it, and why. Its strangely ‘un-operatic’ interjections, verbal and musical, were both relished and reconciled, its conventions likewise. The more one listened, the more one watched, the more – and the less – one ‘understood’. Dance and song, voice and instruments, even comedy and tragedy: can they, should they, be separated? Such, after all, may be one of the ultimate lessons learned in and after the drunken schoolroom and/or children’s bar of the Prologue.