Sunday 28 November 2021

L'Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Academy of Music, 25 November 2021

Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Concepcíon – Bernadette Johns
Ramiro – Will Pate
Don Iñigo Gomez – Michael Ronan
Torquemada – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Gonzalve – Liam Bonthrone

Gianni Schicchi – Patrick Keefe
Lauretta – Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada
Rinuccio – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Gherardo – Samuel Kibble
Simone – Wonsick Oh
Betto – Daniel Vening
Marco – Will Pate
Nella – Sophie Sparrow
La Ciesca – Luiza Willert
Zita – Bernadette Johns
Spinelloccio, Notary – Michael Ronan
Gherardina – Clara Orif
Pinellino – Johannes Moore
Guccio – Charles Cunliffe
Buoso Donati – Tom O’Kelly

Stephen Barlow (director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Alice Farnham (conductor)

Images: Craig Fuller


How wonderful at last to return to opera at the Royal Academy of Music. (I caught an excellent concert of chamber music by Bartók and Eötvös from musicians coached by Tamara Stefanovich earlier this term.) Many of London’s best opera performances come from our conservatoires, young, enthusiastic musicians aided to act as a company, with none of the grind of repertoire routine, the ‘star system’, or worst of all, agent-determined casting that can blight bigger stages. The smaller size of theatres helps too. To see characters’ faces, especially in a fast-moving, highly reactive ensemble piece such as Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, is worth a great deal.


It is a work that tends to bring out the best in its performers—and certainly did here. Stephen Barlow directed a staging set roughly halfway between the time of composition and the present day. I do not think I have ever seen a production set in 1299, and cannot say I have any particular desire to do so. An abiding idea of Florence will always loom large, though, and so it did here: in this case, tinged with music. Composer Buoso Donati’s grand piano helped fill the stage, a drunken Betto (Daniel Vening) occasionally hammering out a tune on it. Monuments to past greatness, or at least renown, included a Maggio Musicale poster for one of Donati’s operas. A large instrument case inherited from the set for L’Heure espagnole, provided a place to hide the body where necessary. But the crucial action lay, as it were, in the interaction, clearly well planned and rehearsed both by Barlow and conductor Alice Farnham. Yannis Thavoris’s costumes contributed to the framework for delineation of character: Bernadette Johns’s Zita every inch the wheelchair-ridden (malingering?) battleaxe with airs, Will Pate’s Marco and Luiza Willert’s La Ciesca a uniformed policeman and ambitious, voluptuous wife, and so on. Patrick Keefe’s Schicchi necessarily took centre-stage once present, and figuratively once announced. His was a fine, detailed performance, as were those of his daughter Lauretta (Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada, with a lovely, snapshot-like ‘O mio babbino caro’) and her eager lover Rinuccio (Ryan Vaughan Davies). But there is little point in merely repeating the cast list. All contributed to the greater whole, as did incisive orchestral playing and conducting. Puccini’s score glistened as it should and must; the opera’s wit duly scintillated.


Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole had taken place in a musical instrument repair shop El Tempo, time more overtly met music in the guise of instrument cases with time signatures and tempo markings: ‘4/4’, ‘Assez vite’, and so on. The largest functioned as clock cases to be hiked up- and downstairs by Ramiro. Again set, costumes, and lighting (Jake Wilshire) made a considerable contribution to the overall mise-en-scène. What I missed somewhat, even at the time, though still more so in retrospect, was a sense of musical urgency and utmost precision, the latter surely a sine qua non for all Ravel performance. Farnham was supportive to her singers—and that, of course, may well have been to the point—but there were times when tempi dragged a little. The small orchestra (strings seemed less at home in Ravel too, sonorities and balances somewhat variable. That cavil notwithstanding, Johns offered a lively, seductive Concepión, Pate properly under her spell, growing in (the character’s) masculine confidence. So too were the other male singers, Vaughan Davies a nicely fussy Torquemada, Liam Bonthrone and Michael Ronan properly preening suitors in their different ways. Much to enjoy, then, in both cases.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

Hewitt - Mozart, Messiaen, and Chopin, 23 November 2021

Wigmore Hall

Mozart: Piano Sonata in C major, KV 309/284b
Messiaen: Préludes: ‘La colombe’, ‘Le nombre léger’, ‘Instants défunts’, ‘Les sons impalpables du rêve’, ‘Plainte calme’, ‘Un reflet dans le vent’
Mozart: Piano Sonata in B-flat major, KV 281/189f
Chopin: Nocturne in F minor, op.55 no.1; Nocturne in E-flat major, op.55 no.2; Scherzo in E major, op.54

Angela Hewitt (piano)

A slightly strange programme, this, albeit with much to enjoy. Neither of the Mozart piano sonatas is generally considered popular or even immediately ingratiating; that made it all the more interesting to hear what Angela Hewitt would do with them. Leopold Mozart found the C major Piano Sonata, KV 309/284d ‘strange’, having something in it ‘of the rather artificial Mannheim style’, though he modified that judgement by saying that the Mannheim contingent was ultimately so small that his son’s good style was not spoiled. In the first movement exposition, Hewitt nonetheless seemed to take Leopold at his word, giving an unyielding, unsmiling account, seemingly etched in chrome: clearly a performance decision, since she did not continue like that, either in this or other works. The development’s plunge into the minor was powerfully dramatic, speaking of the opera house both in initial gesture and melting, vocal response. If only there had been greater sense of harmonic direction and indeed of how various figures, finely articulated in themselves, might cohere to form a greater whole. Although neither of the remaining two movements smiled or relaxed quite as they might, they had more of that at least, emerging much the stronger for it. Hewitt’s deadpan sign-off in the finale’s coda was almost worth the price of admission alone. 

Hearing six of Messiaen’s eight piano Préludes was a little strange too, though there was plenty of variety to those that reached the stage. In this, the composer’s first published work—Le banquet céleste, written earlier, was published later—we naturally hear considerable influence from Debussy, for which Hewitt’s ability to play ‘without hammers’ proved duly illuminating. There were other ghosts at the feast too: Dukas, Franck, perhaps Ravel, and of course Liszt. It was as fascinating to chart their interaction as to bask in premonitions of Messiaen’s mature musical language and method. Many of the building blocks were there, not least modes of limited transposition, but the sensibility was somewhat different. Sometimes, that is; for in the closing ‘Un reflet dans le vent’, everything—in a wonderfully synthetic vision—came together, both in text and performance. Hewitt seemed to pick up contrapuntal tendencies from Mozart amidst the polymodal chromaticism of ‘Les sons impalpable du rêve’, though Bach was the likelier progenitor. At any rate, there was something feverish enough to suggest a dream world, without loss of clarity or direction. I very much liked the song-like quality imparted to ‘Plainte calme’: a deceptive simplicity, perhaps, in its mysticism. Much the same might be said of the opening prelude, ‘La colombe’, whose constructivism seemed both to the fore and magnificently beside the point. 

Hewitt seemed to view—certainly to interpret—Mozart’s B-flat major Sonata, KV 281/189f, more warmly than its predecessor. Here there was just as much variety of articulation as in the C major Sonata, but its first movement seemed to sing more freely. Less Mannheim, perhaps, and more aspiration to Vienna—or even to London, for the spirit of Bach (this time, Johann Christian) is surely more in evidence here. A crisp, unfussy opening Allegro gave way to an Andante amoroso suggestive of opera rather than born of it; this is instrumental music after all. Hewitt’s phrasing and voicing made a fine case for music all too readily underestimated. The closing ‘Rondeau’ delighted, its darker, chromatic turns voiced without over-emphasis, always attentive to a need for light and shade. That is not to suggest an old-fashioned Meissen china sensibility, but rather an ultimately sunny disposition that may not be mine yet has its own rewards. There are, I think, darker currents, sharper dramatic twists here, even in such early Mozart; others are free to think—and play—differently. 

Hewitt’s final set turned to Chopin. After a somewhat plain—deliberately so, I am sure—opening to the F minor Nocturne, op.55 no.1, her performance developed into something quite compelling, a strong sense of narrative drive allied to harmonic and motivic development. Likewise for its companion piece in E-flat major, op.55 no.2, which sang as it developed. The E major Scherzo seemed to offer an entire world: not unlike a sonata or symphony, save for the fact that it is entirely unlike a sonata or symphony. Here, rather more so than in Mozart (certainly the C major Sonata), different, contrasting material sounded—and felt—more clearly, dramatically integrated. We hear overt Romantic virtuosity less often than we might from Hewitt, but certainly did at the close: thrillingly. So too did we in a big-hearted, big-boned encore account of Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung. I should be fascinated to hear Hewitt play more Liszt.

Sunday 21 November 2021

Die Walküre, English National Opera, 19 November 2021


Siegmund – Nicky Spence
Sieglinde – Emma Bell
Hunding – Brindley Sherratt
Wotan – Matthew Rose
Brünnhilde – Rachel Nicholls
Fricka – Susan Bickley, Claire Barnett-Jones
Gerhilde – Nadine Benjamin
Ortlinde – Mari Wyn Williams
Waltraute – Kamilla Dunstan
Schwertleite – Fleur Barron
Helmwige – Jennifer Davis
Siegrune – Idunna Münch
Rossweisse – Claire Barnett-Jones
Grimgerde – Katie Stevenson

Richard Jones (director)
Stewart Laing (designs)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)
Akhila Krishnan (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Images: (C) Tristram Kenton
Siegmund (Nicky Spence) and Sieglinde (Emma Bell)

I wanted so much to like this more than I did. It is not quite ENO’s return to the Coliseum after you-know-what, but in many ways it felt like it. (A Philip Glass revival and a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan will have had their devotees, but they are not my potion of forgetfulness.) Anneliese Miskimmon, ENO’s Artistic Director, could not have been more welcoming in her brief address from the stage before the performance. And what could be a greater declaration of intent for a new era than a new Ring? Perhaps a Schoenberg or, still more so, a Stockhausen series? But even then, the Ring retains for many the status of non plus ultra. Its all-encompassing nature continues to surpass all competitors; no artwork has more to tell us, so it seems, at any juncture in our dubious human development.

No Ring is therefore going to be perfect; even the most exalted performance, let alone staging, will have imperfections. It would be too easy to judge perfection a lesser thing; it is not, necessarily, but it is a different thing—one which Mozart (often) has covered. Yet if a Ring in performance will always fall short, it should not fall so short as Richard Jones’s half-hearted attempt at a production, which detracted all too much from a mixed musical performance laying claim to not inconsiderable virtues. Perhaps more would have been gleaned had we seen Das Rheingold first. Starting with the second instalment is not without precedent, but I remain unconvinced that it is a good idea. Berlin’s Deutsche Oper has had to present Stefan Herheim’s new Ring as and when it can, but that is a different case, planned performances having to be cancelled, given without an audience, and so on. (How I long to see what Herheim has done!) Yet it is difficult to imagine that much light being shed on a Walküre (sorry, Valkyrie, as ENO obstinately continues to refer it) seemingly without a concept or indeed much of an idea at all. Presumably, money was tight, for what we see is not so much minimalism as people wandering a little lost around a stage that sometimes has scenery and sometimes does not. As in Jones’s recent, wretched La clemenza di Tito for the Royal Opera, there was a vague look: in this case, noir-ish ‘Scandinavia’, though it would be difficult to say anything more precise than that. ENO’s publicity suggests the idea that this is a family saga: well, sort of, I suppose, but only if that is taken to be the crucible for something greater. Use of video to show Alberich (‘Nibelung’ tattooed on his forehead), Grimhilde, and Hagen when referred to in Wotan’s narration—nothing more, just show them—seemed both patronising and pointless, though perhaps in a greater context it contributes to the banal theme of family feud. The appearance of Hunding’s clan on stage might have contributed further, but ultimately undirected (like so much else), they proved little more than a distraction, the lack of much to distract from notwithstanding.


Alberich (Jamie Campbell), Brünnhilde (Rachel Nicholls), Wotan (Matthew Rose)

Maybe the strange claim (Christopher Wintle) that opened one of the programme notes offered a clue to the lack of any exterior, let alone political element: ‘Most of us can agree that The Valkyrie is “about” incest.’ I do not know precisely to whom ‘us’ refers; certainly not to me, anyway. Wagner’s drama is no more ‘“about” incest’ than The Flying Dutchman is ‘about’ sailing. The point of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love is that it breaks the violent, cruel bonds of marriage, family, and custom (which Wagner specifically identified with Fricka); that it leads Siegmund to reject immortality, and thus to put Brünnhilde on her way to doing likewise, to attaining the superior status of ‘purely human’; and precisely that it does not matter whether the Volsung twins are brother and sister, not that it does. Here, occasional straining towards a familial idea, for instance Hunding’s physical brutality to Sieglinde, seemed little more than striving after effect, given a lack of embedding in anything more than an IKEA catalogue. The production team sported more interesting clothes than those given to the cast; maybe they should have swapped.

Grimgerde (Katie Stevenson), Rossweisse (Claire Barnett-Jones),
and Siegrune (Idunnu Münch)


Or maybe they should have given them to the curious animals that pranced around the stage, Wotan’s ravens (I think) included: more Sesame Street than creatures of the forest. Whether the concept were malevolent or ironic, neither possibility was achieved. For some reason, a lone tap dancer did her stuff during the Ride of the Valkyries, whilst actors in horse costumes struggled around on tip toe. Why on earth Grane, understandably fidgeting, was made to balance in this way through the entirety of the final scene—and not only then—I have no idea; but then I have little idea about anything else either. Inability to set the stage ablaze at the close was attributed to a late intervention from Westminster City Council. Alas, Wotan’s protracted fumbling to attach to Brünnhilde a harness that would awkwardly suspend her above the stage, without the slightest sign of flames that had intermittently flickered earlier, seemed all too apt a metaphor. Quite what the Met, where Jones’s third (!) attempt at the Ring is heading, will make of it is anyone’s guess. It is certainly devoid enough of intellectual content to satisfy Friends of Otto Schenk. But the ‘look’, for that is all it is, and lack of discernible stage action will surely trouble many. 

Martyn Brabbins’s conducting was sane, measured, and doubtless sensitive—perhaps too sensitive—to the needs of his singers. Brabbins clearly appreciates the need to think in the broadest terms about Wagner’s structures, yet often seemed to confuse that with maintaining a slow speed throughout, occasionally changing gear when that could not conceivably be maintained any longer. A few understandable fluffs—every performance has them—notwithstanding, the ENO Orchestra played beautifully, if often in strangely subdued fashion, especially in the first act (!) I do not know how long it lasted in actual minutes, but it felt like the longest I had ever heard. By contrast, the third act often seemed rushed, if hardly short. This was clearly a work in progress, but there may be considerably more hope for improvement here than in the staging.



Had it not been for an initial announcement, no one would have known Nicky Spence was suffering from a cold. Siegmund is clearly a role for which he is ready—and for which he has well prepared. There are strength, vulnerability, and many other of the qualities we need, even in so unpromising a setting as this. It was difficult to discern much in the way of chemistry with Emma Bell’s Sieglinde; nor did this seem to be ironic or deconstructive detachment. However, considered on its own terms, her performance also impressed, indicative of a woman bruised yet determined to command her own destiny. Dart-playing Rachel Nicholls, lumbered with a strange skater-girl look, trod a fine, shifting line between Brünnhilde's youthful impetuosity and the glimmers of something more moving, more human—which is to say she understood what was at stake, even if Jones did not. Matthew Rose, lumbered with, well, being a lumberjack-turned-television-detective, offered a typically detailed and thoughtful performance as Wotan, though the third act did not show him at his strongest. These things vary from night to night. Brindley Sherratt's focus as Hunding varied too, though at its best it offered something darkly psychopathic. One of the strongest, most committed and sustained performances came from the team of Susan Bickley (finely observed, on stage) and Claire Barnett-Jones (also finely observed and with gleaming tone, from a box above) as Fricka. This, again, was a performance that truly used words, music, and gesture to suggest drama beyond Jones’s imagination.


So too did John Deathridge’s new singing translation. It was in many respects remarkably faithful not only to what Wagner said but, crucially, to what he did not, employing suggestion and ambiguity in the right places. It had an intriguing line too in something akin to Stabreim. Word order and stress played their part, as did various other considerations one might find—with profit—in reading Wagner’s own Opera and Drama. This did not, like many of ENO’s translations, attempt to draw attention to itself, still less to elicit inappropriate laughter; rather it participated in the dramatic effort in a way the singers and orchestra, if hardly the director, did. The sort of people who drone on about ‘the Coli’ and alleged halcyon days of Reginald Goodall will doubtless bemoan the lack of Andrew Porter, but their parochial concerns need not be ours.


Fricka (Susan Bickley) and Wotan

‘Mark well my poem,’ wrote Wagner to Liszt in 1853, enclosing a copy of the Ring in verse; ‘it contains the beginning of the world and its end.’ One might argue that beginning(s) and end happen elsewhere in the Ring; but were this the generic television ‘show’ from which Jones & Co. appeared to have taken non-inspiration, it seems doubtful, even in the unlikely event of a decision to renew for another ‘season’, that many viewers would have been remaining. To achieve not only an Annunciation of Death, but an entire Walküre, in which nothing whatsoever seemed to be at stake, was a peculiar, perverse and strangely pointless achievement. Either Jones needs to rethink—the prefix ‘re-’ may be too kind—or ENO should act decisively with courage and substitute another production or concert performances. With Wagner, in Wagner, much is or should be at stake.

Saturday 20 November 2021

Philharmonia/Schiff - Mozart, 18 November 2021

Royal Festival Hall

Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’
Don Giovanni, KV 527: Overture
Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano, conductor)

‘A feast of Mozart’ is how this concert was advertised—and indeed in many ways it was, not least for those of us unlikely to be able to attend (yet again) Salzburg’s Mozartwoche next January. It was, though, a somewhat inconsistent feast, though and oddly planned at that, a piano concerto followed by an unrelated symphony making for a strange first half. The second half—rather less than half, in minutes taken—was more impressive, although there were certainly things earlier on to admire and enjoy. It was nonetheless difficult to resist the conclusion that, nowadays, the best of András Schiff’s pianism is to be heard on period instruments and certainly not on a modern Steinway; in addition, it is difficult to credit him as much of a conductor.

The opening of the miraculous E-flat major Piano Concerto, KV 271, augured well, the Philharmonia’s playing crisp and cultivated, Schiff’s tempo well chosen. And there was sometimes, if not always often enough, a willingness to yield. More concerning was an intermittent disinclination to phrase, ends of phrases merely left hanging, cut off abruptly. That was especially odd given an evident ability to phrase where so inclined, for instance in the passage for crossed hands. Why Schiff felt the need to play piano continuo throughout the opening tutti and beyond, I do not know; it added little other than distraction. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, I gained the impression the pianist would be happier playing a fortepiano. Fair enough, but in that case, why not do so? The slow movement was taken swifter than Schiff would once have been likely to, but had more in the way of dynamic contrast. His dogged continuo playing continued to irritate, but that is clearly now his way. The music’s restlessness was often well conveyed, but again a reluctance to yield was concerning. An ebullient finale seemed less hidebound by determination to eschew Romanticism: not because Schiff’s approach was notably different, but more on account of its intrinsic qualities. Again, passages for crossed hands were beautifully taken. The central episode was honest and unfussy, if hardly seductive, the Philharmonia offering some lovely orchestral playing nevertheless.

The first movement of the Linz Symphony proved a disappointment. A broad introduction tailed off at its close, dissipating the energy required for the main Allegro spiritoso to burst forth as surely it must. The impression was of flatness, and of an inability quite to settle on the right tempo. It took until the recapitulation to do so. Period trumpets with modern horns (and other instruments) made for a strange compromise; perhaps there was reason behind it. The second movement, together with the finale the most convincing, flowed with greater coherence. There was something of an edge to the Philharmonia strings, but that seemed to be an interpretative decision. A graceful minuet gave way to a slightly distended trio, small-scale (with radically reduced strings) rather than intimate. Momentum was restored in the finale, well pointed, nicely directed, and full of life and direction. Schiff largely left the players to play: a distinct improvement on earlier, fussy intervention. Taking the closing repeat is doubtless justifiable, but here it offered little beyond repetition for its own sake. 

The Overture to Don Giovanni was much better. Its introduction taken unfashionably in four, and all the better for it, was grander than anything heard hitherto, but more to the point offered due sense of expectation, fulfilled in the main body of the overture. It duly fizzed, crucially emerging from what had gone before. Again, Schiff wisely left the musicians largely to play for themselves. Although Schiff held up his hands to forestall applause, wishing to move straight into the D minor Piano Concerto, many applauded anyway. 

The concerto’s first movement was similarly ‘traditional’, but also more focused than anything we had heard in the first half. Schiff seemed more at ease with himself and with the Philharmonia. The opening tutti was exemplary, articulation integral to the musical drive, not a strange end in itself. If there were still occasions when his playing seemed more suited to an older instrument, they were fewer and less glaring. And the Philharmonia by now seemed to know when not necessarily to follow the arms waved around from the keyboard. Schiff used Beethoven’s cadenza. The Romanze was on the swift side, though not unreasonably so; better that than laboured. Focus remained, in a performance nicely sung and without fuss. During the central G minor episode, Schiff’s care to voice every note—not always the case in the first movement—went to show just how essential each of them is. The movement as a whole was well shaped, which is to say there was no overt shaping at all; it sounded just ‘right’. Mozart’s treacherous opening to the finale was despatched without fear, the orchestral response wondrous in diabolical grandeur. This was properly Catholic Mozart. Indeed, there was a keen sense of solo/tutti versicle and response, melting where necessary into chamber music. That is Mozart, of course, but it requires understanding and communication in performance too. The cadenza may have seemed a good idea in the abstract, opening with material from Don Giovanni before returning to music from the concerto itself, yet ultimately it failed to convince. It would surely have needed something more Mephistophelian, more Lisztian (a composer Schiff has long disdained), and less disjointed. Still, the coda, full of energy, offered a proper release. As an encore, we heard an unpretentious account of the Adagio from the extraordinary late B-flat major Piano Sonata, KV 570.

Friday 12 November 2021

Chamayou/LSO/Roth - Gossec, Saint-Saëns, and Beethoven, 11 November 2021

Barbican Hall

Gossec: Symphonie à 17 parties in F major, Rh 64
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.22
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.55, ‘Eroica’

Bertrand Chamayou (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

François-Joseph Gossec lived a very long life during ‘interesting times’, born in 1734 in the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and dying in Paris in 1829, just short of the July Revolution. His Symphonie à 17 parties was written under Napoleon, in 1809, so makes for an interesting companion piece to Beethoven’s Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo, its initial dedication (to Bonaparte) famously scratched out in fury in response to the First Consul’s self-elevation to the rank of Emperor. If closer comparison is beside the point—whatever the virtues of Gossec’s piece, it would pale if heard after Beethoven—then this was an excellent opportunity to hear a little-known work, with fine advocacy from François-Xavier Roth and the LSO, Bertrand Chamayou contributing a blistering account of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto in between. 

Gossec’s Symphony immediately catches the ear with its grandly rhetorical opening bars, prior to what comes across to our ears as fond looking (listening?) back to the eighteenth century, unquestionably from the standpoint of a composer for French orchestras. (Gossec had founded the Concert des Amateurs in 1769, offering for twelve years a serious rival to the celebrated Concert Spirituel.) And that was only the introduction. The first movement as a whole proved colourful and theatrical, testament to the composer’s interest in concert and dramatic work alike (sacred music too). If the movement’s close relied heavily on tonic and dominant harmony, that in itself is hardly a fault; one might—many do—say the same of Beethoven. The Larghetto second movement showed some rather more surprising harmonic shifts, allied to a keen ear for colour as heard earlier. Such music can all too readily be rushed, but not here; nor did it drag. The minor-mode Minuetto (I should have guessed ‘scherzo’) came as a considerable surprise, both in itself and for its counterpoint. Split violins, as well as considerable LSO heft (twelve first violins down to five double basses), truly told, as did unmistakeably Gallic use of bassoons. The trio’s Harmoniemusik was attractive enough, though perhaps it outstayed its (symphonic) welcome. The finale again had a strong sense of the opera house to it. Some phrases sounded superficially Mozartian in themselves, but the construction is very different. 

Chamayou ensured a properly arresting opening to the Saint-Saëns Concerto, as if extemporising on Romantic memories of Bach—which, in a way, is very much what the composer is doing. The LSO’s response was equally, differently rhetorical, the first movement’s course meeting somewhere in between, broadly Lisztian. What some say of Liszt, I might wonder of Saint-Saëns; this movement does sound to me a little like an introduction to an introduction. I am probably missing the point, though, and there was no denying the superior quality of Chamayou’s pianism: glistening, melting, virile, double octaves and all. Fantasia-like swirling mists prior to the close proved mysteriously alluring. A sparkling, sprightly, even sprite-ly second movement began in Mendelssohnian vein, before moving in quite different directions. The tarantella finale sounded ambiguous, perhaps ambivalent, certainly a whirlwind. One could only marvel at the pianist’s technique and musicianship, Roth ever the alert, discerning accompanist. As an encore, we were treated to the Adagio from Haydn’s late Piano Sonata in C major, Hob.XVI:50. Rapt in its intensity, it benefited from a similar sense of the improvisatory, founded in attention to detail and command of line. I should love to hear more Haydn from Chamayou. 

The opening of the Eroica came as quite a culture shock (to me, at least). I do not think I have ever heard it so fast: presumably taken at the ever-controversial metronome marking. Roth’s musicianship won me over, though. This was a very different Beethoven from that of Wagner, Furtwängler, Klemperer, Barenboim, or a host of others. Of course it was, Colin Davis included. (It was under him, I think, that I last heard the LSO play this symphony.) But comparison, or for that matter contrast, is not the point here. Roth, anything but dogmatic, had his own vision and it worked splendidly. Ultimately, I missed a degree of grandeur, but here, in Beethoven’s first movement, not only did notes fly off the page; they fairly danced. There was, moreover, a fine sense of exploration to the development and what is in effect a second development (recapitulation). 

The Funeral March was brisk, if less (to my ears) iconoclastically so. Obsequies grew in stature, as if grief were approaching us from a distance. There was, fittingly for the programme, a strong sense of French Revolutionary processional. It was, perhaps, more Berlioz’s Beethoven than Wagner’s—and none the worse for it. Excellent woodwind solos (Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe here first among equals) contributed to the greater whole. Counterpoint lay at the movement’s very heart; if sometimes I had wondered quite what was at stake in the first movement, here there was little doubt. Busy energy, born of detail and line, characterised the scherzo, the trio’s celebrated horns sounding with vernal freshness all the more welcome in dark November. Taken attacca, the finale constantly surprised, rethought in many ways by Roth. No variation was taken for granted, that for strings alone taken by solo instruments with strikingly ‘period’ tone. But that was a means to an expressive end, not an end in itself, the entry of the LSO’s woodwind creating all the greater contrast and later string vibrato far from parsimonious. It was exciting and coherent: neither quite what many would have expected, nor in any sense perverse. It was quite something (even to a die-hard Furtwänglerian such as yours truly).

And it was salutary to be reminded by Roth from the podium that Beethoven, here conducted by a Frenchman and played by an (international) British orchestra, was the most European of composers. ‘Vive l’Europe!’ as he said, to great applause. London needs to hear that more than ever right now.

Monday 8 November 2021

LPO/Gardner - Haydn and Bartók, 6 November 2021

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn: Symphony no.90 in C major, Hob.I:90
Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle

Ildikó Komlósi (soprano)
John Relyea (bass)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Image: Mark Allan

Intelligent programming, this, the C major of Haydn’s Ninetieth Symphony prefiguring one of the most jaw-dropping moments in all opera, indeed in all music: Bluebeard’s revelation of his kingdom in all its glory as the Fifth Door of his castle is flung open. There is ultimately greater difference, of course, than similarity between Haydn’s exploration of his Classical tonal universe and his tricks with our ears and expectations, and Bartók’s grandiose use of a C major chord as luminous, associative tonal centre; yet that in itself could be understood and, more important, perceived to be the point.

A broadly germinal introduction to Haydn’s first movement proclaimed just such a voyage of exploration. Under Edward Gardner, the LPO sounded lively and variegated, if also a touch hard-driven. For better or worse, such is the way of much Haydn performance today, perhaps an excessive if understandable reaction to clichés of geniality. More important was the strong sense of motivic development, not only in the ‘development’ section itself, but also in a recapitulation sounding on the cusp of Beethovenian second development. In that context, I could live with certain ‘period’ affectations, which did little harm, save for sometimes obscuring, more so later in the symphony, a longer term sense of line. 

The second movement flowed as one would expect in such a reading, its stern contrasts traced not without yielding. Again, Haydn’s score was finely articulated and variegated, albeit sometimes at that expense of traditional line, though with a welcome mystery to the course it would take (again prefiguring Bartók?) Solo lines, for instance flute (Juliette Bausor) and cello (Kristina Blaumane) were without exception very well taken. Gardner presented the minuet nicely on the cusp of one- and three-to-a-bar, its symphonic nature and individuality relished and communicated. A dainty reading of the trio, led by Ian Hardwick’s fine solo oboe, was given to a smaller ensemble, the return of full orchestra for the minuet’s reprise grandly moving. The finale blazed like fireworks outside (this was the sixth of November). Arguably, it too was a little hard-driven, though Gardner’s tempo had a sense of rightness, and the general yet particular character of a Haydn finale was undeniably present. The false ending caught out many—understandably. 

Following the interval, music emerged—not as in the Haydn’s introduction, yet in a way that could perhaps be associated with it—from words, from bardic verse, in the guise of the recorded spoken Prologue to Bluebeard’s Castle. The orchestra spoke, it seemed, doubtless in part testament to Gardner’s operatic experience, especially with orchestral recitative. Song, ineffably Bartókian rhythm, equally ineffable post-impressionist harmonies, and of course Bluebeard and Judit took centre (aural) stage. There was a sense of awe, of wonder, and of foreboding to our first encounter with the castle—listed by Bartók as a ‘character’—that never left us. Ildikó Komlósi’s request for the keys because she loved Bluebeard chilled, as shifting orchestral colours reoriented and disoriented us as equally helpless spectators to Fate’s progress (and regress). ‘Because I love you’: terror spoke, above all through the orchestra. All the while, John Relyea as Bluebeard remained implacable, until he too bowed, with a hint of brokenness, to what seemed to be—but is it?—the inevitable.   

Treasures glistened, eliciting audience wonder; likewise at timbre and tonality when, at the Fourth Door, the sun finally shone in, Bluebeard’s garden revealed. There was blood on the flowers’ petals, though, and we felt it. The opening of the Fifth Door would, in a half-decent performance, send shivers down the spine at any time, yet now, after all this waiting, it truly felt as though the symphony orchestra, here underpinned by organ (Richard Gowers) had returned in all its glory. Relyea was magnificently ecstatic beholding and introducing his kingdom. Judit, however, knew already that the game was up. The sheer horror we heard in the orchestra as the Seventh Door was opened, Bluebeard’s former wives present, Judit now bound to join them, was only furthered by the tenderness that followed. There was something beautifully elegiac, not entirely un-Straussian, to Bluebeard’s introductions here: not quite regretful, for he was certain, but resigned. The final, wordless climax told us night would now last forever.

Sunday 7 November 2021

Le nozze di Figaro, HGO, 5 November 2021

Jackson’s Lane Theatre

Figaro – Louis Hurst
Susanna – Shafali Jalota
Count Almaviva – Thomas Chenhall
The Countess – Camilla Harris
Cherubino – Esme Bronwen-Smith
Don Basilio, Don Curzio – Martins Smaukstelis
Doctor Bartolo – Hector Bloggs
Marcellina – Becca Marriott
Antonio – Owain Evans
Barbarina, Second Bridesmaid – Astrid Joos
First Bridesmaid – Phoebe Smith
Chorus – Anna Simmons, Angela Yang

Julia Mintzer (director)
Benjamin Anderson (assistant director)
Carmine de Amicis (choreography)
Charles Ogilvie (set designs)
Ruben Cameiro (costumes)
Jancy Dancinger (sound and lighting design)
Ben Poore (dramaturgy)

HGO Chamber Orchestra
Thomas Payne (conductor)

Images: Laurent Compagnon

HGO (formerly Hampstead Garden Opera) has been one of the musical heroes of the pandemic. Last year, it brought opera back to London with Holst’s Savītri; this year, it was one of the first to bring it back again, with Cavalli’s L’Egisto. Now, in a new production from the director of Savītri, Julia Mintzer, and in a return to the company’s ‘home’ at Jackson’s Lane Arts Centre in Highgate, we have perhaps the most beloved opera, most central to the repertoire of all: The Marriage of Figaro. 

It used to be said that one could not go wrong with Figaro, at least in terms of staging. Don Giovanni was the director’s graveyard, largely because directors ignored its theology and treated it with one-sided psychological realism. Latterly, though, a good few stagings have shown it is possible to make just as much a mess of its predecessor. Not this one, though, far from it; its path proves thoughtful, surprising, and in the best sense provocative. Had I been asked during the interval where it was heading, I should never have guessed. There was a welcome dose of matters that lie beyond individual rationality—the socio-political and what I think we can call the Freudian. That did not come, however, at the expense of the basic necessities of character delineation and development, whose expression is of course the achievement not only of the production team but of the young artists on stage too. What matters is how things come together—and they came together very well.

Initially, we seemed to have a more or less conventional updating to an English country estate of the early twentieth century, which dating became clearer, as the work progressed, to the time of the Great War. As soon as one truly watched and listened, though, it became clear that this was far from conventional. An eye for period detail, creditable in itself, also suggested haunting by the past—perhaps even by the broader Enlightenment project that had led there and of which this opera may be considered part. The Count’s injuries—we see him either with cane or transported by sedan chair—would seem to have been sustained in prior action, relived a little too enthusiastically by the guard (Antonio) on the estate. Figaro, as his valet, shared in some of that haunting too. The Countess mourned her youth, of course, but may also have been mourning a civilisation that has collapsed and yet which all onstage, in their way, continue manically to celebrate. Laudanum helped, or probably did not—but was widely available to all. 

And so, the delirium of war, when it came, was both a natural development and that which has most been feared. The strobe lighting chaos it wrought at the close of the third act—marriage ceremonial itself—is psychological as well as political, throwing up the characters, their affections, and their impulses, and seeing where they land. The fourth act worked out some at least of the consequences. Its final scene needed to celebrate similarly: both as reasoned necessity and as something that, like the final number of Cosí fan tutte, rang hollow and yet true. English titles generally offered straightforward translation, sometimes supplemented by updating and commentary: perhaps in some sense also visualising workings of the unconscious. 

The score, slightly cut beyond the norm, was presented with commendable alertness and cultivation by a small band of soloists (two violins, viola, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, and synthesised harpsichord) in an arrangement by Jonathan Lyness, conducted by Thomas Payne. Tempi were often, though not always, brisk, yet eminently capable of flexibility too, the Countess’s final words given notably slowly (indeed, as we shall see, tragically). There were a few occasions when instrumentalists and singers drifted apart, but Payne ensured that they came back together quickly. There seemed every reason to expect minor first-night infelicities to be ironed out later in the run.


Heading the cast were a fine Count and Countess Almaviva. Thomas Chenhall as the former was proud, virile, and crucially wounded within and without. His third-act aria proved uncommonly successful in conveying the crucial seria element to the Count’s musical identity. Camilla Harris’s Countess truly had one sit up upon her vocal appearance—what wonderful cunning on Da Ponte’s part to save his trump card until the second act—in a performance as beautifully sung as it was intelligently presented. Louis Hurst’s Figaro and Shafali Jalota’s Susanna were keenly observed throughout, properly animating the entire action from within. As Cherubino, Esme Bronwen-Smith captivated though force of personality and similar attention to detail. Martins Smaukstelis did likewise as Basilio, an intriguingly chameleon-like portrayal, boasting notable ease in Italian as well as a finely expressive face. The very different, more diffident impression presented by his Don Curzio confirmed the individuality of portrayal. All the cast contributed, though, to a fine ensemble performance very much greater than the sum of its parts. Hector Bloggs and Becca Marriott carved out a Bartolo and Marcellina of genuine depth, no mere buffa caricatures. Owain Evans and Astrid Joos made much of their roles as Antonio and Barbarina, as even did the Bridesmaid (Phoebe Smith) and additional chorus members (Anna Simmons and Angela Yang).

Could there, then, yet be emancipation, even liberation? Perhaps, if only in the moment. A nice touch, pregnant with meaning, was the Countess assuming Susanna’s (presumed) soubrette voice, a mere caricature, to Susanna’s horror. There remained a social gulf between them. Basilio’s final leap into the arms of Antonio suggested other possibilities, not least in the wake of wartime chaos. That said, the weight of past, present, perhaps even future could not be disregarded. Long after the final chord, one remained haunted by the devastation on the Countess’s face following her closing (false) benediction. In this Freudian Figaro, God is dead, which calls into question her words of forgiveness and implicit redemption and is certainly not the case with Mozart and Da Ponte. If, however, they can still offer something in the moment, as well as recognition that things are never quite so straightforward as schematic explanations of human behaviour would have us believe, the work and its authors, above all Mozart, remain productive and provocative as ever.