Sunday 22 December 2019

Opera tally for 2019

Wagner 9
Mozart 5
Handel, Puccini 4
Janáček 3
Berlioz, Henze, Strauss, Tchaikovsky 2
Benjamin, Berg, Birtwistle, Blow, Britten, Cherubini, Chaya Czernowin, Dvořak, Gavin Higgins, Dani Howard, Korngold, Mussorgsky, Otto Nicolai, Offenbach, Olga Neuwirth, Rameau, Prokofiev, Purcell, Saint-Saëns, Alessandro Scarlatti, Zemlinsky 

A visit to Bayreuth is odds-on to provide a Wagner victory in this annual tally; so it was in 2019. (No such visit being planned in 2020, perhaps someone else will have a chance.) Mozart is likewise a hardy perennial here; I certainly have no desire to bring that state of affairs to a close. This is the first time, however, that Handel has made the top three (or four). Also worth noting is the equal balance of three apiece for contemporary male and female composers. Long may that continue!

Concerts and a complete tally will follow in the New Year, so as not to jinx a further couple of concerts planned.

Barenboim - Beethoven, 20 December 2019

Pierre Boulez Saal

Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor, op.2 no.1
Piano Sonata no.2 in A major, op.2 no.2
Piano Sonata no.3 in C major, op.2 no.3
Piano Sonata no.4 in E-flat major, op.7

Daniel Barenboim is no stranger to the Beethoven piano sonatas, nor indeed to performing all thirty-two in a series. (Why do we call them ‘cycles’? It makes no more sense to me than the non-laundry-usage ‘Ring cycle’, but anyway…) This is, however, the first time he will have performed them in chronological order. Alas, I shall be unable to attend all of the eight concerts, but shall report back as and when possible.

First up, naturally, were the three opus 2 sonatas. To say that the F minor, no.1, takes its leave from Mozart’s C minor Sonata, KV 457 – ironically, Beethoven’s minor key par excellence – is only to state the obvious. Barenboim, however, not only brought out that kinship most strikingly in its opening figure; he also dramatised the first-movement exposition’s trajectory—arguably the movement’s, even sonata’s as a whole—in moving away from that starting-point, via late Haydn, to become more Beethovenian, as we understand the term. Romantic flexibility, founded on harmony, grew as we reached the point of return, upon which we fully appreciated how much had changed—and would continue to change. The closing bars, rightly, owed much once more to Mozart, without ever being reduced to origins.

Beethoven’s early slow movements offer a stern, very particular test for musicians. How to communicate that long line, that hearing in a single breath, while paying due attention to what may be ornate figuration but is certainly not ornament, and alongside that dialectic, to convey a simple sublimity and sublime simplicity quite different in nature, if not necessarily degree, from any music that has passed before? Perhaps needless to say, Barenboim passed that test triumphantly, his triumph lying in a reconciliation between private and public, starry skies and fathomless depths, we all know to be necessary, yet is rarer to hear in practice than we might hope. Beethoven, helps, of course, but one must show oneself ready to listen to and understand him; Barenboim most certainly did. The Innigkeit of the minuet seemed already to look forward to Schumann, alternating in another typical dialectic with proud obstinacy. A euphonious trio wished to be Mozart, so it seemed, yet also knew that it was already too late. Backward neoclassical glances to Mozart also characterised the finale, balanced, however, by an unnerving, well-nigh Chopinesque manic intensity such as was heard at the opening. To ask which won out would be to miss the point, and Barenboim knew it.

The first movement of the A major Sonata mixed Haydnesque wit with a gruff vigour and exultancy that could be no one else’s other than Beethoven’s. Also present were a particular style and idea of virtuosity that looked forward to the piano concertos, not least in the role played in motivic development and, beyond it, sonata form itself. Barenboim surveyed the extraordinary—truly extraordinary—emotional canvas of the slow movement with both a lifetime’s understanding and what might be thought, however erroneously, a young man’s urgent need to bear witness. He made no attempt to smooth over the shocks, nor to lessen crossed-hand yearning for resolution, all of which and more always played their part in Beethoven’s greater dramatic plan. A scampering scherzo nevertheless lacked nothing in the motivic engine of insistency. Its trio combined ardour, intimacy, and ultimate grandeur. Affectionate and boisterous, a puppy-like fourth movement proved every inch a finale in character and structural role.

The opening bars of the C major Sonata laid out with admirable clarity a conspectus, harmonic and motivic, for the movement to follow. Invited in, how could one fail to accept? The maturity of the development section proved especially striking: it is there in the score, of course, but it still needs to be brought out in performance. It might almost have been a symphony, but for the instrument (a considerable ‘but’, in theory and practice). The strange Adagio proved plainspoken in the best sense: honest, unarguable, disdaining anything remotely redolent of vanity. It eschewed the merely ‘popular’ in favour of the human. Controlled caprice, testing the limits of how far music might stray from the tonal centre, characterised the scherzo. The trio drew on hints already given in the scherzo—and less ran than sang with them. The finale sang too, of and almost from a paradise Mozart had known. It asked whether Beethoven, let alone the twenty-first century, might briefly know that paradise again and left tantalisingly open that possibility; until furious reaction came, that is, reaction that was necessarily still related to what had gone before. Wonder lay in liminal passages as much as in those extremes and in the magical thread with which Beethoven and his interpreter bound all together.

A first-movement exposition of immediacy, potentiality, grandeur, and—especially in the second group—incommensurable dignity announced that the op.7 Sonata in E-flat would be of a different nature again. How far Beethoven and we had come already! The development did what it should, developing all those and more, deepening and yet becoming still more direct as required. Syncopations truly told, nowhere more so than in the second development of the recapitulation. Again, the slow movement’s breadth of canvas struck one immediately. Much was related to what we had heard in each of its three predecessors, yet with palpably greater mastery and, yes, sublimity. It went somewhere, so it seemed, that no one previously, not even Beethoven, had so much as dreamed of. The third movement was sung as a good-natured riddle that held within itself its own solution, so long as one listened. That in turn necessitated a trio reaction of passion as yet unspoken. The finale is a movement of surpassing loveliness; so it sounded here. Surpassing moral worth too; so Barenboim revealed here. Its leisurely progress was justly loved, yet never too much, bringing forth as it must a necessary, vehement, dialectical reaction. It sounded as the most human of music in the most human of performances, both immediate and mediated.

Friday 20 December 2019

Semele, Komische Oper, 18 December 2019

Jupiter – Stuart Jackson
Juno – Ezgi Kutlu
Cadmus – Philipp Meierhöfer
Semele – Sydney Mancasola
Ino – Karolina Gumos
Athamas – Terry Wey
Iris – Georgina Melville
Somnus, Priest – Evan Hughes

Barrie Kosky (director)
David Merz (Spielleitung)
Natacha Le Guen de Kerneizon (set designs)
Carla Teti (costumes)
Johanna Wall (dramaturgy)
Alessandro Carletti (lighting)

Chorus of the Komische Oper Berlin (chorus director: David Cavelius)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin
Konrad Junghänel (conductor)

Oh, terror and astonishment!
Nature to each allots his proper sphere,
But that forsaken we like meteors err:
Toss'd through the void, by some rude shock we're broke,
And all our boasted fire is lost in smoke.

William Congreve’s libretto—to my mind, perhaps the finest Handel set—makes clear what is at stake in Semele. So too, working along strikingly similar lines, does Barrie Kosky’s production. That one comes to appreciate the achievement of both, in collaboration, of course, with one of Handel’s finest dramatic scores and a highly talented cast, when all has drawn or is drawing to a close is surely just as it should be. The owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk; here, though, it is a dusk and, possibly, a dawn formed by Semele’s ashes, more of a prequel than one might initially have expected—certainly than I expected—to Henze’s The Bassarids, also staged here at the Komische Oper Berlin in an excellent production by Kosky. Kosky had taken over the production when the originally scheduled director, Laura Scozzi, had fallen ill. Presumably many of the designs were already in place, but they are put to good use. Speculating over who did what is fruitless; either one knows or one does not, and ultimately, even if one knows, so what? What I saw certainly sense to me, minus the occasional irritant that is more concerned with style than anything substantial.

To return to the cited chorus text, however, also returns us to the beginning—and thus to the overall set design that frames the action as a whole. We are invited into an eighteenth-century building, some of the room’s detail clearly apparent, other aspects left for us and for the drama to fill in. An ash heap, reminiscent perhaps of a mound in Kosky’s Castor et Pollux signals, at least in retrospect, where the action is heading, yet also, more importantly, represents the traumatic intrusion of the gods into the world of men and women. That tragedy of a genuine love between Jupiter and Semele, as opposed to the comedy of Semele’s vanity and comeuppance, of a love that is essentially fated never to be, lies at the heart of the production. Adopting the time-honoured procedure—somewhat Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe—of entering, in this case, being dragged through a fireplace portal to an alternative world, Semele briefly attains happiness, as notably does Jupiter, albeit in something destined not to last. The cosmic Toryism—think of Pope’s Essay on Man—that decrees all shall now their place in a well-ordered universe will not permit such a transgression for long.

Nor, of course, will its guardian Juno, here less a wronged woman, though at some level remaining that, but a woman with agency, desires, and power, all of which she will use in self-defence and attack. So do she and Iris, in a highly erotic scene, bring Somnus into play. Sacerdotal purple for her dress nonetheless makes clear her status, as does the same colour for Jupiter’s socks, which betray his true nature even when he has otherwise taken human form. And so, when tricked into demanding Jupiter assume his true, thunderbolt nature, Semele seals her fate, becoming ash, as we see had all along been foretold. She sits above the fireplace, her status reassumed, a ghost—as too, ironically, are Jupiter and Juno—at the wedding of Ino and Athamas, with the proviso, signalled by Congreve and the priestly chorus, that Bacchus will ultimately ‘crown the joys of love’. Or will he? As we know, things never turn out quite as they should—and the tragedy of The Bassarids awaits.

Sydney Mancasola shone in the title role, the whole performance building up to a bravura performance of her final air, ‘No, no, I’ll take no less/Than all in full excess!’ That full excess, alas, was to be truly hers, but was also seen and heard to characterise an exuberant performance from beginning to end. Stuart Jackson, whom I heard only seven years ago at the Royal Academy of Music in Haydn’s La vera constanza, is now rightly treading larger stages. Here he treated to us a finely, often poignantly sung and acted performance of Jupiter, who truly met his match in Ezgi Kutlu’s fiery Juno. What a joy it was to hear a mezzo here in the line of Marilyn Horne. Karolina Gumos and Terry Wey offered a well matched, nicely contrasted Ino and Athamas, while Evan Hughes’s darkly alluring Somnus justly threatened to steal the show in his scene with Juno and Georgina Melville’s spirited, stylish Iris. Choral singing—and acting—was first-rate throughout, Kosky and his singers fully rising to the task of Handel’s ‘objective’ commentary that yet involves itself, in the line of ancient predecessors. Though I could not help but wish that Konrad Junghänel had permitted greater warmth from the strings, his tempi and general direction proved well variegated, supportive of singers without being reduced to mere accompaniment; and, just as important, strongly suggestive of the panoply of character, emotion, and action on display here. It was clear that all had collaborated to render this, once again, a company achievement from the Komische Oper that was significantly greater than the sum of its considerable parts.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Garanča/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Schumann, Elgar, and Debussy, 16 December 2019

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Schumann: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.97, ‘Rhenish’
Elgar: Sea Pictures, op.37
Debussy: La Mer

Elina Garanča (mezzo-soprano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Three composers in whose music Daniel Barenboim has long excelled, with the Staatskapelle Berlin on outstanding form: what could go wrong? Nothing, I am delighted to report. This proved a wonderful concert, opening with the finest live performance I have been privileged to hear of a Schumann symphony, in this case the ‘Rhenish’. Eschewing fashionable notions of small orchestras—if you cannot achieve requisite balance with a symphony orchestra, you probably should not be conducting one at all—Barenboim offered a full-sized Staatskapelle, from eight double basses to sixteen first violins. It sounded magnificent: dark and golden, blazing and intimate as required. Attention to finest detail did not preclude voicing of longer line; nor did forward drive hamper infinite flexibility. The first movement developed with a purpose born in Beethoven: throughout, not only in that section conventionally known as the development. It headed, convincingly, unanswerably, to and from a point of Mendelssohnian exhaustion, the difference being that that point here comes significantly later than the onset of the recapitulation. In a nutshell, Romantic style and idea and their formal realisation in time were as one.

The second movement brought a similar, yet different, combination of warmth of familiarity and freshness of rediscovery: like a sunlit riverside walk along a favourite path, once the skies have cleared. A contrapuntal bed, on which further melodies were lovingly sung and shaped, afforded great joy. The movement’s climax, looking forward already to La mer, felt like a great tidal wave. Its subsiding and Barenboim’s expert handling of that subsiding were, however, every bit as important. As Romantically beautiful, and all the more innig, the central movement proved truly the heart of symphony and performance: led, so it seemed, from the very heart of the Staatskapelle, its dark-hued violas. Trombones in the fourth movement were as tender as they were sacerdotal, as solemn as they were luminous, setting the scene for this great ‘Cologne Cathedral’ processional. Barenboim and his orchestra captured to a tee the necessity of sentiment without sentimentality: somewhere between Beethoven and Mahler. Ultimately, we were awestruck. Thereafter we could depart in peace, cheered and edified by a final movement that took a different route from earlier, one that was yet equally fresh, equally invigorating: Rhenish balm, then, for a bruised soul.

Elgar’s Sea Pictures, with Elina Garanča as soloist, followed the interval. How to rid one’s memory of Janet Baker? Is that even possible? Garanča faced an unenviable task, but life goes on. She took a little while, I think—maybe I was the one taking a little while—to settle in. These are not easy English words to sing, set as they are, even for a native speaker. There was, however, even during the first song, something winningly, intriguingly instrumental to her tone: not that she did not pay attention to the words, far from it, but that there was an emphasis more on line. One could readily overlook the odd mispronunciation, such as ‘vile’ for ‘veil’, especially once communication of syntax and scansion improved. I loved, for instance, the truly Elgarian pride, hinting at wounds beneath the surface, of ‘The new sight, the new wondrous sight!’ in ‘Sabbath morning at sea’. Likewise the nobility—inevitable, if hackneyed, word in this context—of ‘Where corals lie’, enigmatic, intimate, and inviting; and also of ‘The Swimmer’, Garanča truly riding the waves in response to the heady, not un-malevolent steam built up by Barenboim and the orchestra, her cries of ‘love’ achingly tender. Throughout, one could not have wished for more skilful, understanding orchestral playing and overall direction. One felt the proximity to Wagner and, less so yet still present, Strauss: the latter, for instance, in the final chord of ‘Sea slumber song’. Barenboim’s pointing of instrumental entries could hardly have been bettered, even by the likes of Barbirolli. And dare I say it, the orchestra sounded more variegated, as well as more darkly dramatic, than any English orchestra I have heard in this music. Wagner, rightly, was the abiding musical presence—that is, after Elgar himself.

Something similar might be said of La mer, only substituting Debussy for Elgar. ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ took us from a dawn with all the ambiguity of Allemonde, and still greater orchestral mastery. The path taken was as finely detailed as it was sure in retrospect, as sea-deep as it was translucent of surface. Even the ‘vagueness’ was not vague. It was difficult not to conclude that Pierre Boulez would have nodded his head approvingly. The glorious climax was truly something aurally to behold. ‘Jeux de vagues’ proved more forward-looking: looking forward, indeed, to the composer’s own Jeux. There was melody in the myriad of colours, so perfectly balanced, that we heard; and vice versa. Ultimately, quite rightly, nothing could be pinned down, for these were waves and their games. ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ seemed to unite varying tendencies and take them first: these are, after all, ‘symphonic sketches’. We heard at its opening a deeply complex, well-nigh Boulezian malevolence—harking back in a sense to Elgar’s, yet very much looking forward to the later twentieth century and even to the twenty-first. The mystery of Debussy’s combination of clear and shimmering, brazen and submerged, was rendered immanent. What does it mean? Why ask? It was—and is. And how!

Monday 16 December 2019

Dohr/MCO/Roth - Haydn, Martinů, and Ligeti, 15 December 2019

Kammermusiksaal, Berlin

Haydn: Symphony no.22 in E-flat major, ‘The Philosopher’
Martinů: Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani
Ligeti: Hamburg Concerto, for horn and chamber orchestra
Haydn: Symphony no.103 in E-flat major, ‘Drum-Roll’

Holger Groschopp (piano)
Stefan Dohr (horn)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

If anything can offer light in dark, dark times, it is music: not only music, but music such as this, performed such as this. Goodness knows if, let alone when, an Englishman such as I will be able to live in Berlin again once this stay comes to an end. As things stand, it feels that the lamps are going out all over the world, if less in this part of continental Europe than elsewhere. Shall we see them lit again in our lifetime? Who knows? Amidst such gloomy, frankly despairing thoughts, this concert from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth proved just the tonic, even if it rendered all the more glaring the gulf between the cosmopolitan civilisation of Haydn and the way so much of the world has turned.

What could be more singular than Haydn’s Symphony no.22? Has any other symphony in recorded history had the scoring of strings, two French horns, and two cor anglais (if one prefers, English horns)? That particular singularity one noticed—how could one not?—from the outset, perhaps enhanced, even amplified by having violins, violas, and wind standing. But the processional quality to the ‘Adagio’ first movement, here as well-judged and vivid as the pilgrims’ march in Harold en Italie, is ultimately the more unusual, the more fascinating; and so it was here. Horns, French and English, engaged in dialogue as if this were versicle and response. Suspensions told, ‘naturally’, quite without exaggeration. Above all, the music developed, meaningfully and movingly: so long as one listened. The second movement, marked ‘Presto’, burst forth in bright, vigorous necessity: hungry in the best way, nourishing too. Above all—and how sorely this was needed for this listener at this time—it made me smile: not in the condescending ‘Papa Haydn’ way most of us have now consigned to the rubbish bin, but inspired by the invention and humanity not only of Haydn but of these wonderful, international musicians. ‘Revelatory’ is a word overused, but I cannot resist it to describe the MCO and Roth in the minuet: taken one-to-a-bar and it felt just right. The balance between courtly and something more rustic, yet still cultivated, once again felt spot on. Slight relaxation for the trio seemed inherent rather than imposed. Then came the finale, ‘Presto’ as only Haydn can be. Roth took it fast, yes, yet never harried the music. Natural horns crackled; cor anglais echoed; strings provided the ultimate engine of development as rigorous as it was joyful. Truly this was music-making to lift the spirits.

Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani—not ‘strong orchestras’, as my original typo had it, though on reflection...—comes from similarly dark times to ours, composed in Switzerland in 1938, the final page of the manuscript completed on the day the Munich Agreement was signed. It is difficult not to read the turbulence and tragedy of world events into the music; yesterday, for me at least, it proved impossible, although by the same token, it reminded me that such human flourishing should never be reduced to external influence and ultimately can never and will never be crushed. The first movement sounded urgent, incisive, troubled, controlled, its counterpart in Stravinsky’s subsequent Symphony in Three Movements very much Martinů’s offspring. Procedures and sounds evoked Bartók too: another salutary reminder of opposition to fascism. Anger was retained and transmuted in the second movement, accompanied now by the deepest of grief, whether voiced by piano (Holger Groschopp), strings, or both. How that grief told in present circumstances! The finale renewed the virtues of the opening movement, taking the forward in a jagged, mordant dance of death, culminating in grim apotheosis. Tragedy, then, in every sense of the word.  

And yet, onward we must go, however bleak and dark our prospects may seem. What better way to make that attempt than with the twin inventions of Ligeti and Haydn? Stefan Dohr joined an ensemble of outstanding MCO players, four natural horns (José Cicente Castelló, Jonathan Wegloop, José Miguel Asensi Marti, and Lionel Pointet) among them, for Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, outstandingly led as ever by Roth. As Haydn laid before us an almost Newtonian tonal universe—not for nothing do many consider The Creation his supreme masterpiece of masterpieces—so Ligeti went beyond, to genuinely new discoveries, explaining: ‘In this piece I experimented with very unusual non-harmonic sound spectra. … By providing each horn or group of horns with different fundamentals I was able to construct novel sound spectra from the resulting overtones. These harmonies, which had never been used before, sound “weird” in relation to harmonic spectra. I developed both “weird” consonant and dissonant harmonies, with complex beats.’ The controlled mystery of the opening ‘Praeludium’—perhaps in its way a late-twentieth-century ‘Representation of Chaos’—seemed to tell us so much of what the work would be about. Moreover every note, ‘weird’ or not, told, as it might have done in Haydn, Webern, so many others from the great tradition with which Ligeti had far from entirely broken. The second of seven short movements, ‘Signale, Tanz, Choral,’ suggested an almost Benjaminian sense of play, first between horns, then between other instruments, not least the basset horns specifically chosen by the composer for enrichment and blend of sounds. A truly mesmerising solo duet from Dohr announced the three inner movements: ‘Aria, Askak, Hoketus’, ‘Solo, Intermezzo, Mixtur, Kanon’, and ‘Spectra’. An ensemble of untold yet controlled giddiness led us by the hand toward that fifth movement of near-Messiaensque sublimity. The closing ‘Capriccio’ and ‘Hymnus’ lived up fully to their names and yet equally expanded our understanding of them and their possibilities. For an encore, Dohr treated us to some of the finest playing and musicianship I have ever heard on any instrument, in a riveting Messiaen ‘Appel interstellaire’ from Des Canyons aux étoiles.

And so, we returned to Haydn and to E-flat major for the Drum-Roll Symphony, his penultimate, written more than thirty years later than the first symphony we had heard. Just as Ligeti’s work had, in context, picked up the importance of horns from Haydn, now Haydn picked up from Martinů aspecial role for timpani. Matthias Kelemen, beguilingly inventive without a hint of narcissism for his Intrada, was responded to in kind by cellos and others: a not dissimilar relationship of versicle and response from The Philosopher. Indeed, the first-movement introduction as a whole proved uncommonly dramatic, finding form in that drama as much as drama in that form. The exposition likewise presented Haydn both as single-minded and multi-voiced, an example for us all. Contrapuntal density and similar direction characterised a development section as full of surprises as the moment of return—whether one ‘knew’ or not. In the second movement—no sense whatsoever here of this being a slow movement—Roth’s swift tempo and lightness of texture did not in any sense preclude depth or exultancy. It was full of colour and delight, even—especially?—for someone such as me, who hears it so differently in his head. Matthew Truscott’s violin solo delighted equally; so too did a purpose that we only call Beethovenian because, quite frankly, it is, however much avant la lettre. I learned much from this and can say no better than that. The minuet witnessed a properly generative balance between the straightforward and sophisticated, echoed yet far from banally repeated in its trio. The controlled—that word again—helter-skelter of the finale offered kinship to Ligeti and a glint in the aural eye far from dissimilar, for both were surely the most European of composers. Haydn’s joy brought tears to my ears for a number of reasons. Catharsis, then, in humanism.

Sunday 15 December 2019

Die Zauberflöte, Vienna State Opera, 10 December 2019

Sarastro – Ain Anger
Tamino – Andreas Schager
Speaker, Second Priest – Adrian Eröd
First Priest – Peter Jelosits
Queen of the Night – Aleksandra Jovanović
Pamina – Andrea Carroll
Three Ladies – Fiona Jopson, Ulrike Helzel, Zoryana Kushpler
Papagena – Ileana Tonca
Papageno – Rafael Fingerlos
Monostatos – Benedikt Kobel
First Armoured Man – Herbert Lippert
Second Armoured Man – Ryan Speedo Green
Three Boys – Members of the Vienna Boys’ Choir

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier (directors)
Christian Fenouillat (set designs)
Agostino Cavalca (costumes)
Christophe Forey (lighting)
Beate Vollack (choreography)

 Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Martin Schebesta)
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
James Conlon (conductor)

Something new, Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando, was followed by something old: that most Viennese of operas, Mozart’s Magic Flute. It was premiered in 1791, not at a court theatre—today’s State Opera today’s equivalent—but at the suburban Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, which had opened in 1787 and had been under the management of Mozart’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, since 1789. Geographically, one should not make too much of that: the Wieden district is but a stone’s throw away, today’s Fourth District, incorporated in 1850. (It includes the Karlskirche, the Naschmarkt, and so on: landmarks many would think of as ‘central’. Gluck lived there, as later would Brahms.) Nor should one necessarily overemphasise the ‘popular’ element: its repertoire was mixed, but it included plenty of Goethe and Schiller. Use of the vernacular was hardly unprecedented either: Joseph II’s plan for a German National Theatre had given the world Die Entführung aus dem Serail, although that transformation of the Burgtheater came to an end shortly thereafter.

Nevertheless, the work’s roots in popular theatre should not, cannot be denied any more than the opportunity afforded by relative freedom of genre: a synthesis of everything from Hanswurst to Bach and, incipiently, onwards to Beethoven. The genre of Singspiel permits that, but it is the element of musical magic, the fully achieved status of Zauberoper that extends beyond historical definition, binding together and sublimating the material both then and now. Successful performance and production need in some sense to further or at least to reflect that. Sadly, such a goal—hardly unreasonable—seems increasingly beyond the realms of possibility. Indeed, Mozart in general often seems to prosper better now at smaller theatres, often in conservatoire productions, rather than at the great houses and festivals of the world that for long did him proud. I wish I could account this evening an exception. Alas—and it saddens me greatly to say this—it often proved tedious, anything but a Zauberoper.

On the face of it, James Conlon’s approach to the musical direction had much to be said for it. A reasonable sized orchestra—if hardly large, more’s the pity—combined with judicious tempi and disinclination to follow ‘period’ fads augured well. How rare it is nowadays to hear ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ taken at something other than a breakneck tempo. Alas, there was barely a hint of magic, let alone of drama or enlightenment. The orchestra sounded cultivated enough, yet rarely committed, save for some truly euphonious—magical—wind playing. There were, moreover, quite a few false entries and disjunctures between pit and stage. Repertoire performances are or should be the lifeblood of a house such as Vienna: that does not mean, however little the time afforded for rehearsal, that they should descend to or below the level of the merely routine.

The cast fared better, though it was not a vintage evening on that score either. Andrea Carroll’s sincere Pamina was probably the highlight for me: clean of line and winningly instrumental of tone, whilst equally at home with words and their implication. Rafael Fingerlos’s Papageno also impressed, likewise as keenly communicative with words as with music and gesture. I was keen to hear Andreas Schager’s Tamino. It is not every day, indeed barely any day, that one gets to hear a Heldentenor in this role, let alone the world’s reigning Siegfried and Tristan. Alas, compared to, say, Siegfried Jerusalem—I think of Bernard Haitink’s recording—this was a one-dimensional performance, largely lacking in variegation and verbal nuance; it was better heard in solo passages rather than ensembles, during which it could sometimes veer disconcertingly astray. Ain Anger’s Sarastro was more consistent: intelligent and musical, if occasionally a little dry of tone. Aleksandra Jovanović’s Queen of the Night did not quite scale the heights—literally, in her first aria—but nor did she really disappoint. One could not have asked for more from the three outstanding Vienna Boys’ Choir soloists; their counterparts as Three Ladies also performed admirably.

As for Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production, it is difficult to know what to say. It barely seemed to be a production at all. There was the germ of something metatheatrical: what seemed to be a setting of a rehearsal room, the implication of a stage in front corresponding with the actual Vienna proscenium. That, however, was it. Moreover, the placing of action, such as it was, made a nonsense even of that germ of an idea. Otherwise, there was a melange of largely unattractive costumes, with the singers largely left to fend for themselves. Oh, and a Monastatos in blackface: yes, blackface, in 2019. Whatever reservations someone might have held concerning Neuwirth’s Orlando, then, one realised all the more not only why it was necessary, but what laudable, magical effort had been expended on its advent. Something new, once again, would be welcome.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Olga Neuwirth: Orlando (world premiere), Vienna State Opera, 8 December 2019

Images: (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Orlando – Kate Lindsey
Narrator – Anna Clementi
Guardian Angel – Eric Jurenas
Queen, Purity, Friend of Orlando’s Child – Constance Hauman
Modesty – Margaret Plummer
Sasha, Chastity – Agneta Eichenholz
Shelmerdine, Greene – Leigh Melrose
Dryden – Marcus Pelz
Addison – Carlos Osuna
Duke – Wolfgang Bankl
Pope – Christian Miedl
Orlando’s Child – Justin Vivian Bond
Putto – Emil Lang
Doctor 1 – Wolfram Igor Derntl
Doctor 2 – Hans Peter Kammerer
Doctor 3 – Ayk Martirossian
Orlando’s Girlfriend, Lead Singer – Katie La Folle
Lead Singer – Ewelina Jurga
Two Actresses – Selina Ströberle, Antoannetta Kostadinova
Tutor – Andreas Patton
Russian Sailor – Felix Erdmann
Boat’s Captain – Michael Stark
Children’s Father – Tvrtko Štajcer
Officiant – Massimo Rizzo
Fiancée – Katharina Billerhart
Servant – Florian Glatt
Cameraman – Robert Angst

Polly Graham (director)
Will Duke (video)
Roy Spahn (set designs)
COMME des GARÇONS (costumes, masks)
Julien D’Ys (hair creation)
Stephen Jones (masks)
Ulrich Schneider (lighting)
Markus Noisternig, Gilbert Nouno, Clément Cornuau, Olga Neuwirth (live electronics and sound design)
Julien Aléonard (sound direction)
Jenny Ogilvie (movement)
Helga Utz (dramaturgy)

Vienna State Opera Choral Academy
Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus directors: Thomas Lang, Stefano Ragusini, Svetolomar Zlatkov)
Band (Lucas Niggli (percussion), Stephan Börst (bass guitar), Edmund Köhldorfer (electric guitar), Annemarie Herfurth (synthesister), Martina Stückler (alto saxophone))
Stage Orchestra and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Matthias Pintscher (conductor)

The first ever opera composed by a woman to appear on the main stage of the Vienna State Opera, let alone the first such to be commissioned and premiered by that house, not only did Olga Neuwirth Orlando defy expectations; not only, indeed, was it dramatically concerned with defiance of expectations; it accomplished those tasks and/or performed those roles with gestures of defiance such as that house had never previously seen. It was concerned with writing, yet also with performance; with sex, yet also with gender; with Vienna, yet also with the wider world; with art, yet also with violence. This was an historic evening that was also concerned with history—and with its uncomfortable bedfellows, present and future.

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, yet, as is common with Neuwirth’s work, drawing upon and quoting a number of other related sources—some quotations came from Sally Potter’s film—score, Polly Graham’s staging, and libretto, written collaboratively by Catherine Filloux and Neuwirth, take us from the Elizabethan era to the present, dangling an uncertain future before us. Orlando, the boy who time travels and reawakens as woman sees his/her story taken further than Woolf’s 1928, through spin of a filmic top and absorbing musical transition, right up until now, yet also peers into the future through her non-binary child, played here by performer Mx Justin Vivian Bond, whose non-operatic voice is doubtless more startling to many in a theatre such as this than are ideas of gender fluidity. Or rather, the latter should come as little challenge whatsoever to an artform and audience accustomed to a Nerone, a Cherubino, or an Octavian, yet sadly may still do so for some in this particular context. Perhaps, be it consciously or unconsciously, because this is not an opera written by men; because, like Neuwirth’s widely misunderstood American Lulu, it is an opera that purposely seeks to avert, even to neuter, the male gaze. How dare she/they? That the mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, a renowned interpreter of all three of those roles, should feature here at the centre of the opera and do so with such excellence, should and, certainly in my case, did give pause for thought.

Hand on heart, in the house, I was neither so intrigued or convinced by libretto and Polly Graham’s often surprisingly conventional staging as I was by score and most performances. That said, I have since found myself considering their collaborative interaction more than I should have suspected. There is probably a lesson in that too: certainly collaboration and respect of difference lay, unsurprisingly yet with undoubted moral force, in occasion and opera alike. The scenes looking to the future, for all their polemical intent, seemed to me dramatically to descend into little more than a litany of demands to build a better world; I was going to say no one could reasonably object to them, but many objections—not least the hostility experienced from sections of the audience—are far from reasonable. Aesthetic judgement would probably have recommended a cut of half an hour: perhaps even more, with greater time being afforded earlier scenes that seem somewhat rushed through. That was not necessarily, however, the sole form of judgement to be exercised here. Perhaps this audience did need to see and hear Orlando with her girlfriend, to hear her child sing freely, to be reminded of the threat Trump-and-Johnson fascism poses us all, and so forth. Olga Neuwirth is not Richard Strauss. This was not really an occasion for l’art pour l’art. Mr Greene’s refusal to publish Orlando’s work and his anger when she dared question his critical judgement spoke of and to many: not so much when the mask dropped as when it was donned in all its horror.

I set to thinking about how Neuwirth’s work fitted—and did not fit—into received canons of modernist politically committed work. (How could I not, such having been a particular research—and life—concern of my own?) Not entirely coincidentally, Hans Werner Henze and Luigi Nono came to mind. Electronic manipulation of voices, here clearly a telling comment on and dramatisation of other possibilities and hopes for transition, formed part of a greater determination to offer as large a vocal range as possible, whilst rightly affording particular attention to the female voice in its various guises. As Matthias Pintscher pointed out in a programme interview, not only did Neuwirth specify that Orlando should be sung by a mezzo, but ‘exactly what kind of mezzo-soprano she has in mind. And always the spectrum: the three ladies Purity, Chastity, Modesty, or the three doctors or the poets, and especially in the choruses: a children’s choir, and the division in the voices.’ That went for vibrato, or not, and all manner of degrees in between. Interest in incorporation of music from far beyond the Classical canon, whilst subjecting it to procedures and development we may still reasonably consider modernist is a political as well as an aesthetic statement. The desire to give voice to those without a voice is common, of course, to both Henze and Nono, yet not necessarily in this way. It is difficult to imagine either incorporating pop music in this way, though Henze arguably came a little closer in a work such as Natascha Ungeheuer—or perhaps better, in his idea of a work that in many ways turned out rather differently: ‘the finished product,’ as he put it, ‘was to have a touch of arte povera.’

Quotation, allusion, reference: these are rife, incorporated into Orlando’s development as a writer, again more successfully in the score than elsewhere. The play between expectation, between what was new and what one ‘knew’, between those and what one may have been artistically convinced one knew was part and parcel not only of the opera’s aesthetic worth, but surely also of its political message. Tudor church music, Purcell’s Sound the Trumpet (to different yet related words, and sung by a different vocal type), a wonderful recording of Arnold Rosé and his daughter playing the Bach Double Violin Concerto (names of Holocaust victims projected), chordal progressions from Wozzeck (I think…), square manipulations of material from The Rite of Spring: they formed the drama but also led one to think what is ‘quotation’ and how does it differ from ‘allusion’ and ‘reference’? Traditionally, pitch has proved paramount. Should it be now, in a different age, with different music, different requirements, different forms of transition? Again and again, one’s ears come back to the interludes, to possibilities for change, for transformation—and to their achievement. There is messiness, often deliberately so. That was surely part of the point, just as it can be with Henze and indeed with much art, musical and non-musical. Neuwirth’s recent film score for Die Stadt ohne Juden could not help but hang in the air, not least since the strong presence of film sometimes afforded a narrative, yet aesthetically destabilising, sense of film to proceedings.

I could continue saying what the opera is not. It is certainly not primarily concerned with character, as conventionally dramatically understood. Neither is Fidelio, for that matter, still less Al gran sole carico d’amore—or any Nono opera, for that matter. There is often something to be said for a via negativa, perhaps: ask Aquinas, or the Schoenberg of Moses und Aron, with its ‘unrepresentable [etc.] God’. Again, though, I am not sure that that is the point here. Comparison with Al gran sole, an opera concerned with women’s revolutionary experience, written by a composer of undoubted importance to Neuwirth, may well illuminate. Yet it still presents a male composer as model. Many, most, even all of us can only avoid that path fitfully for the moment. Awareness may take us a little further along a path less trodden; or, to quote the thirteenth-century inscription that once so inspired Nono, Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar,’ (‘Travellers, there are no paths, only travelling itself’). Easy, doubtless, to say, with privilege, yet nevertheless often helpful to bear in mind.

That certain threatened, entitled, privileged elements in the audience took it upon themselves loudly, violently, fascistically to boo the composer—not, be it noted, anyone else from a participant list of Meyerbeerian proportions—doubtless contributed to the first-night ‘drama’ in the demotic sense. Yet it was difficult to resist—and why would one resist?—asking why they had done so. Presumably those old, white, cisgender, heterosexual men had known that they were not in for an Against Modern Opera Productions evening of Donizetti and Zeffirelli. They had attended, it would seem, in order to boo, in order to attack—a woman and others in roles these self-appointed protectors considered not to be fit for them. We knew on whose side they would have stood—on whose side they still stood—when it came to accusations of ‘degenerate’ (entartet) art. That Neuwirth, longstanding collaborator with that most heroic of Nestbeschmutzerinnen, Elfried Jelinek, once again refused to be oppressed by the hegemonic either/or, to be ‘yodelled out of existence’ as she put it in a celebrated 2000 intervention against Austria’s far-Right FPÖ, that she and others fought back, was the crucial thing here to those angered by the slightest disruption to their unmerited, alleged authority.

What better way to oppose stark primary colours of exclusivity than through music, that most ambiguous of media? Those who would ‘defend’ it—against what and on whose authority?—proved, as ever, to be those most violent in their defamation of it. ‘I will continue,’ in Orlando’s final words, ‘because: “Nobody has the right to obey!” My hopes are fading, but my rage remains. –’ Yes, but… Just as in Così fan tutte or Capriccio, Götterdämmerung or, yes, American Lulu, music, still more than language, provides the ‘buts’. For that, however, one must listen, and to listen through the struggle to appreciate that there is no more one way to listen than there is to write or to perform. If that is not ultimately a political message, I am not sure what is. ‘Nobody has the right to obey!’