Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Buchbinder/Gewandhaus/Nelsons - Strauss, 10 May 2022

Barbican Hall

Don Juan, op.20
Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

At long last, London seems to be reopening its doors to visiting orchestras; that is, to orchestras visiting from what we on Brexit-Insel shall presumably soon be referring to as ‘the Continent’ and beyond. Not a moment too soon, as this all-Strauss concert from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra reminded us. The orchestra’s magnificent blend of individual virtuosity, from concertmaster to timpanist, with dark, unhomogenised, ‘old German’ tone showed what we have been missing in the meantime. Andris Nelsons revelled in the sheer capability of his orchestra, perhaps sometimes a little too much—but can we really blame him? Even the Barbican’s acoustic did not sound all that bad. 

Don Juan is quite the curtain-raiser, even for the second half of ‘The Strauss Project’, the first instalment having taken place the night before. (Must everything now be a ‘project’, let alone ‘the project’?) It was that combination of virtuosity, which is of course non-negotiable for the piece, with depth, of precision and warmth, that struck me from the outset. I was not entirely convinced by the extremes of tempo Nelsons brought to it, although if I am honest, I enjoyed the languor even as I knew it was wrong (partly how a younger, sterner, long-since-vanquished me thought of Strauss more generally). And there were always sheer phantasmagoria and phantasmagoria-about-to-be-revealed to be enjoyed too. Soloists too numerous to mention shone without exception, though I simply cannot fail to do so for Henrik Wahlgren’s oboe. And the sense of Lenau’s idealism at the end blazed, even if I could not quite tell you how we had got there. The orchestra itself was the thing; and what a thing it was. 

The Burleske for piano and orchestra I still find puzzling, unclear quite what it amounts to or why, though that is doubtless my fault. It seems mostly to fall under Brahms’s spell, with little sign of the real Strauss, but then it is a very early work. Rudolf Buchbinder brought solid technique to the piano part, though he lacked the magic the initially programmed Yuja Wang might have offered. The splendid dialogues between timpani and orchestra, and timpani and piano, were brought vividly to life by Tom Greenleaves. Once again, the Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded outstanding, whetting one’s appetite for Brahms, as well as more Strauss. The account as a whole was well shaped, with a fine command of detail. If ultimately it felt over-extended, that is surely a matter for Strauss rather than Nelsons and Buchbinder. Rather to my surprise, the latter gave a sparkling account as encore of Alfred Grünfeld’s Johann Strauss paraphrase, Soirée de Vienne. There was now something wonderfully old-school to his pianism; it made me smile. 

Also sprach Zarathustra is a very difficult piece to bring off, so much so that often one can wonder whether the fault lies with the piece itself. Nelsons and his orchestra triumphantly showed that it did not, in what is probably the best live performance I have heard of it. Nelsons’s way with it was rather operatic, or at least highly dramatic. And because the drama was there, so too was the irony, both meaningful in practice rather than mere theory. All too often, the opening sounds stiff; here, by contrast, it gave a sense of being alive, even of vitalism as a Nietzschean principle, that persisted and developed throughout. It was moulded, as Strauss must be—this is not music that plays itself—but unobtrusively, so as to give the illusion of something ‘natural’. Richness and cultivation of solo string tone simply had to be heard to be believed: next stop, the Prelude to Capriccio, it seemed. Its expansion into the entire string section likewise seemed to prefigure that opera’s ‘Mondscheinmusik’. Here, one knew, was a collection of soloists that could t turn into a unified mass at the drop of a hat. Hearing that transformation was itself worth the price of entry, as were those darker-still passages that threatened to turn into Die Frau ohne Schatten. The fugue took its time, but with an air of mystery to it such as I cannot recall; at last, I felt its dramatic sense. Waltzing was so infectious I could actually see members of the orchestra, listening to their colleagues, sway. Nelsons showed a keen sense, moreover, of how Strauss builds the tone-poem motivically, in tandem with harmony and overall structure. There is no room, nor was there in performance, for the either/or here. For there was a sense of joy, not always a characteristic associated with Strauss, that here seemed ineffably as right as it would in Bach, Handel, or Haydn. The comparison may seem odd, but it did not at the time. Nor, I think, would it have done so to Nietzsche. 

Sunday, 8 May 2022

Kožená/Staples/LPO/Gardner - Birtwistle and Mahler, 6 May 2022

Royal Festival Hall

Birtwistle: Deep Time
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner (c) Mark Allan 


For many, the greatest English composer since Purcell and the greatest English composer of opera tout court, Harrison Birtwistle died little more than a fortnight before this concert. Even for those more sceptical, or with other candidates, his was a titanic presence not only in English and British music, but in the music of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. With the partial exception of Elgar, here, rightly or wrongly, was the first major composer from this island viewed in his lifetime with equal esteem by the rest of the world. Was anyone ever disappointed by a Birtwistle work? Some were repelled, true, yet they were usually those who knew nothing of music and cared less, wishing simply to strike a reactionary pose. The claim that Britten walked out of the premiere of Punch and Judy seems almost certainly untrue—why would he?—though it does not stop the story being repeated. (I suppose I am at least part-guilty here.) The sheer quality—and individual quality at that—of each work was breathtaking. It was, then, a fitting albeit unexpected tribute, in a programme long planned, to have this concert dedicated to Birtwistle’s memory. 

Deep Time has gone deeper, I think, but Edward Gardner’s performance with the LPO nonetheless gave a good sense of its essence, of ‘how it goes’. A typical and typically unique opening, dark and ominous, growled, formed, developed, layers of geological sediment, both material and metaphorical, beginning to overlap, punctured and once again formed by shafts and shards of light. Processes, ‘natural’ and ‘mechanical’, the latter not a million miles from the clocks as well as the heavier industry of northern historical landscapes, had us ask initially whether the strange yet familiar musical juggernaut passing before us were animate or inanimate: Harrison’s Clocks or Minotaur? Or, as Birtwistle himself pointed out: ‘geologic time,’ as ‘first proposed by the eighteenth-century Scottish geologist James Hutton,’ involving ‘a perpetual cycle of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation for which there is “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”.’ 

Process, however, and drama—and colour, what colour! Birtwistle and Brahms probably do not have much in common, though their CDs sit close, alphabetically, on my shelves—likewise those of Britten and Boulez, contributing to a host of difficult relationships, sometimes shading into antipathies. Nonetheless, music by Birtwistle and Brahms shares a characteristic in that, though sometimes decried as lacking in colour compared, say, to fantastical creations from French and Russian schools, as soon as one listens, a myriad of colours opens up beneath the surface, in fact coming together to form that surface. In Brahms’s case, I once heard that likened to the magic of a pond: not meant unkindly, far from it. Here, it is a slice of geological landscape and its ecosystem. How does it fit together? It is difficult to say, though hocket appears to provide both glue and dynamism: continuity in discontinuity. Vertical shocks and after-shocks help form its beauty, but as so often, so does the landscape behind: changing, yet probably on account of our shifting standpoint, rather than its. Birtwistle’s memorial for Peter Maxwell Davies, premiered in 2017 by Daniel Barenboim, continued his own endless parade. 

Das Lied von der Erde can be understood, or at least experienced, as a memorial too, though it should no more be reduced to that than should Deep Time. For me—others may differ—Mahler ideally requires a firmer view; it is ‘conductor’s music’ in an emphatic sense, though certainly not only that. It can take many views, from Boulez to Haitink, Klemperer to Bernstein, but here Gardner seemed too ready to act, at least until the final song, as ‘accompanist’. This was a performance, at any rate, that, again until that long, final farewell, sounded very much as song-cycle rather than symphony. Fair enough, one might say; is that not a view in itself? And nowhere, after all, does Mahler call Das Lied a symphony. True, though surely there is an implicit call for greater continuity than we heard here. On the performance’s own terms, though, we heard estimable contributions by Magdalena Kožená, Andrew Staples, and the LPO, and were mercifully not subjected to a perverse standpoint, to a determination to do things to Mahler’s score, which can all too readily prove the obverse side to the ‘personal’ coin. 

Staples opened the cruel (to the tenor) first song not only valiantly, but with great success, a supportive Gardner doubtless drawing on his long operatic experience to unsure that the singer could be heard. If the orchestra sounded at times a little harsh—beyond, I think, the demands of sardonic mood—that was probably more a matter of the Festival Hall acoustic, especially in the Stalls, than a mark of interpretation. Its performance, like that of Staples, was in any case admirably clear and pointed, teeming (perhaps not entirely unlike Birtwistle’s piece) with life/death. ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod.’ The difference between ice and fire was mediated on a knife-edge by sweet LPO violins. 

Kožená’s approach, ineffably sincere, unquestionably rooted in the verbal text, had an instrumental quality to it too, especially in the second song, ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, as if her voice were another woodwind instrument, perhaps a chalumeau, joining the LPO consort. Ambiguity between twin needs for peace and refreshment (‘Ja, gib mir Ruh’, ich hab’ Erquickung not!’) was fundamental, the contrast with a bright-eyed ‘Von der Jugend’ (Staples) clear and meaningful. Nicely etched—one could well-nigh hear the brushstrokes—it was in turn succeeded in contrast by an expressive ‘Von der Schönheit’ from Kožená. A vivid orchestral parade could have been a little sharper, but resonances with earlier works made their point: another ‘endless parade’. Within the song, moreover, Kožená characterised with keen sense of drama contrasts between outer sections and more volatile middle, the steed’s mane tossed in frenzy. Staples and Gardner forged a sense of touching intimacy in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, as if the forest Siegfried had finally attained the capacity to reflect. Throughout, we heard intriguing contrasts and much lovely detail; slightly lacking, whether by default or design, was that symphonic guiding thread. 

The dark opening chords of ‘Der Abschied’ brought, in context, momentary remembrance of Deep Time, but more so, a sense of fate so as necessarily to introduce oboe and other solos. It was time for a long farewell, Kožená’s entry thoughtfully heralded by the arrival of a text message somewhere in the audience. Even that, however, could not stop the sun sinking as flute and mezzo sang. Kožená painted the landscape beautifully, not least the floating moon, ‘wie eine Silberbarke’. It was a world of silver and shadows, of moonlight, like Birtwistle’s very different landscape both physical and metaphysical. With the crucial new vista between ‘letzten Lebewohl’ and ‘Ich sehne mich’, as with subsequent return to darkness, not only did Kožená’s voice bloom, but the performance turned decisively to symphonic mode; via Schopenhauerian metaphysics, fate was proclaimed the order of the day. On that latter turn, the aural sky turned crimson; and so began the inexorable tread to eternal peace. ‘Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz.’ And so it felt, woodwind barbs notwithstanding. For this might be death, but it was no longer dark; that had been life. A radiant, deeply moving, final farewell was heard and felt. With the fragile, ineffably touching advent of the mandolin, tears began to flow, reflected in heavenly (celestial) arpeggios from, yes, the celesta. ‘Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig blauen licht die Fernen!’ A glimpse, then, of eternity: ‘Ewig … ewig…’.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Fin de partie, Opéra national de Paris, 30 April 2022

Palais Garnier

Hamm – Frode Olsen
Clov – Leigh Melrose
Nell – Hilary Summers
Nagg – Leonardo Cortelazzi

Pierre Audi (director)
Christof Hetzer (designs)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
Klaus Bertisch (dramaturgy)

Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Markus Stenz (conductor)

Images: Sébastien Mathé/OnP

Modernism’s endgame, modernist opera’s endgame, opera’s endgame: all have been proclaimed time and time again. One might say the same for Romanticism, Classicism, sonata, symphony, and other isms and genres. Whatever the truths of the matter—we can no longer justifiably speak in the singular, if ever we could—this first opera by György Kurtág, first heard in Milan in 2018 and now receiving its French premiere, suggests that twilight, however prolonged, has once again proved as productive, as challenging, as illuminating as first dawn or zenith. The owl of Minerva may or may not be spreading its wings; Kurtág may or may not be almost the last modernist standing; opera may or may not be stronger, more varied, more resistant than ever before. These are inevitable and may even be important questions. What matters above all, though, is that Kurtág’s Fin de partie/Endgame emerges, even from a single hearing, a single experience in the theatre, as an unqualified masterpiece.   

Janus-faced, like most—all?—artworks of stature, Fin de partie takes Beckett’s masterpiece, which Kurtág first saw in Paris in 1957, and, in concluding a modernist chapter, perhaps even a book, appears also to open several more. Although it feels very much a finished work, it remains at least in theory a work-in-progress, to which Kurtág might add further ‘scenes and monologues’ from Beckett’s play—or even conceivably from elsewhere, given its second Prologue (the first being purely orchestral) is a setting for Nell, startlingly in English rather than French, of the poem Roundelay. This ‘dramatic version’ of the play, in most respects literal, with the slightest addition here or somehow seems always to have been conceived for music, indeed seems never to have existed without it. Libretto (if one may call it that) instructions are as detailed musically—‘comme une mélodie de Debussy’—as they are scenically, or both: ‘mouvement très lent d’interrogation avec la main gauche esquisse le “et puis” de Gr. C. et Piatti … assez grand changement de ton’. Many thanks are due to the Opéra national de Paris for reprinting it: an invaluable resource for future study and reflection, as well, I hope, as for subsequent preparation.   

The ultimate synthetic distillation, though, is musical—just as one often fancies Beckett’s words to point not only to the limits, the endgame, of language, but to the beginning, the necessity of music. (His Schopenhauerism extended way beyond mere ‘pessimism’, to the truly aesthetic.) Words here are everything—one hears, and hears measured every one—until they are not. That ancient operatic alchemy we trace back at least as far as Monteverdi is once more at work, and Monteverdi—the Monteverdi of the dramatic madrigals and the two surviving late operas in particular—comes to mind among many ghosts of the opera-as-sung-play past. Mussorgsky, Debussy, Berg, Janáček stand prominently among them, as well inevitably—if perhaps more tangentially—as Wagner, Bach (‘not an opera composer, but’), and even Boulez (ditto?) Are these affinities or similarities, or are they actual influences? Does it really matter? It seems both to do so, as we reach the end of the game, but also not. After all, what does matter when we reach the end of the game, that any game, any game? 

For, apart from his own voice—what a strange provision!—that which comes most strongly to mind is another supreme writer of vocal-dramatic music on the smaller scale, whom we yet imagine desiring, wishing, ultimately aiming to bring forth an operatic synthesis. As it was in the beginning, it still is now: Webern. Perhaps not even in Webern have I heard such sustained, certainly not such dramatic, development of intervallic relationships, in themselves and in relation to timbre (probably other parameters too) so as to fulfil the tragic necessity of rebuilding a shattered universe: the same task, yet always different. Every note counts, of course, yet every note is heard and felt, and bears the ultimate weight of tragic and tragicomic existence that we may know it counts. The affinity with Beckett’s language and what some understandably, straining at the bounds, will term in despair anti-literature is clear; but music is no representative mirror, any more than it is in Monteverdi, Wagner, or Webern. Its autonomy, its pairings—here as crucial as any in Bach or Bartók—and so much else continue: in hope, if you like, yet only in the strange sense that Beckett does. Until, I think, the close, when something strange happens, a musical synthesis taking wing and building, such as can often happen almost irrespective of intention. Think, for instance, of Wagner. This is less evidently redemptive, though stirrings of sympathy for Hamm and Clov are not entirely denied. Fin de partie, however, seems to speak or sing of something that might refashion redemptive ideas through shattered glass, shattered lives, the fragmentary challenges of modernity and modernism.


An orchestra used sparingly and with very different balances from that of the Romantic past—a modern ‘ensemble’ writ large—tells us that throughout. Just five first violins and five seconds, against eight violas, eight cellos, and six double basses, and indeed five flutes, six percussionists, two bayans (Beckettian vaudeville movingly transmuted via Sofia Gubaidulina), and so on have seeped into our consciousness, yet rarely if ever together. Mahler haunts, but he cannot live. Conducting, as he did earlier performances in Milan and Amsterdam, Markus Stenz understands or at least appreciates—can anyone ‘understand’?—communicates, and lets that fragility breathe and expire. We all listen, whether something can be said or sung, or not. For what else is there to do? Not listen, of course, but which of us wishes to assume Nagg’s fate? We know there will be no sugar-plum at the end, celesta notwithstanding. 

And yet, music endures, as does theatre—as, perhaps, do literature and drama too. A wonderful quartet of soloists ensures that, as does Pierre Audi’s careful direction, doubtless treading a minefield of what the dread estate, as well as the dedicated composer, would permit. Action/inaction takes place outside the house, but it looks very much as we should expect, without ever feeling expected: post-drama, we might think, of the post-absurd. Frode Olsen, struggling with illness, nonetheless held the stage with a fiercely committed performance as Hamm, holding it all together, in the tragicomic absence of any ‘it’ to hold. Leigh Melrose’s protean Clov, wounded yet spirited, alert and alive, yet quite without hope, struck me as definitive, however illusory the idea. An outstanding artist whenever I have heard him, Melrose may have given his finest performance yet. Hilary Summers offered a masterclass in extracting much from little, as Kurtág and Beckett do themselves. Transformation of a vocal line, through pitch, dynamics, shifting colour said, as with the rest of the cast, the rest of the work, both something and nothing, often in chamber collaboration with an instrument or two from the pit. Crucially, Nell’s death could neither have been more nor less heartbreaking. Leonardo Cortelazzi’s made for a fine sidekick, his Nagg splendidly, pointlessly excitable yet resigned. Steeped, like the others, both in the text and in its twin possibilities and impossibilities, he closed and opened the square that should have been a circle. 

Here, then, is a masterpiece in a way that seems, both modestly and defiantly, not of our age. Many composers would now, quite understandably, tell us such is not their interest. They are not attempting to write works such as Fin de partie and failing, ‘better’ or otherwise. Given the ideological issues at play, we can all understand that. When, however, a work—and this is, emphatically, A Work—such as this comes along, it brooks no dissent. To be there is akin to being there for Gawain (may its composer now rest in peace), for Mittwoch (likewise, on Sirius), maybe even for Wozzeck or for Tristan. Kurtág may or may not have been writing for posterity. Until one of our politicians hastens the final endgame, perhaps tomorrow, posterity will nonetheless hear and listen to Kurtág.

Saturday, 30 April 2022

LSO/Rattle - Weill, 28 April 2022

Barbican Hall

Kleine Dreigroschenmusik
Vom Tod im Wald, op.23
Street Scene: ‘Lonely House’
Four Whitman Songs: ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ and ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’
Die Sieben Todsünden

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples, Alessandro Fisher (tenors)
Ross Ramgobin (baritone)
Florian Boesch (bass-baritone)

London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Images: Mark Allan

The opening of Kurt Weill’s Kleine Dreigroschenmusik struck a properly anti-Romantic note, the Overture clearly growing out of 1920s’ Neue Sachlichkeit, the ‘Anstatt-dass Song’ likewise wearing its post-Busoni-and-Hindemith constructivism wisely on its sleeve, a hard edge supplied by banjo and piano. In between, the ‘Ballad of Mackie Messer’ showed something a little more yielding, rapport between saxophone and piano especially noteworthy. At times, it perhaps felt a little too conducted, but there is a difficult balance to strike here. An intimate, inward account of ‘Polly’s Lied’ and a surprisingly fast—if only in context—‘Kanonen-Song’ worked well in tandem. Simon Rattle tied things up nicely in the Finale, whose temporary ghostliness trod a thin yet necessary line between alienation and something that might just have been pathos. In the excellent hands of the LSO brass, its Chorale proved properly inscrutable. 

We remained with wind band for the little ballad-like cantata, Vom Told im Wald, for which Rattle, his players, and Florian Boesch gave a compelling, sepulchral performance which, like the rest of the programme, never exaggerated, without quite straying into the world of understatement. Those who like Weill to go to extremes may have been disappointed, but there was much to be said for an approach, especially in the concert hall, that underlined his more ‘purely’ musical qualities, as well as the more traditional side to his acuity of verbal response. Weill’s flirtation with less tonal realms contrasted strongly with ‘Lonely House’ from Street Scene (Andrew Staples), its ‘American’ style well captured, now with the luxury of a full complement of LSO strings, idiomatic without cloying. Two of the Four Walt Whitman Songs, more interesting to me, were shared between Ross Ramgobin and Staples. The vivid quality of Ramgobin’s ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ had us see as well as hear the bugles and drums. ‘Dirge for Four Veterans’ proved nicely ambiguous in its military response. 

For the ballet-chanté, The Seven Deadly Sins, Rattle conducted the LSO without a score. Strikingly dressed and coiffured in ‘Weimar’ style, Magdalena Kožená navigated the demands of song and speech alike with typical excellence, her German outstanding in clarity as well as idiom. Rattle kept the action moving, though it never sounded remotely hard-driven. This is clearly a score he knows, understands, and loves; the LSO and his cast responded in kind. That tightrope between alienation and something more sympathetic was once more intelligently trod. Well shaped and paced, it almost sounded over before it had begun. A fine conspectus of Weill, then, though it was perhaps a pity not to hear any of his early concert music: to my ears, generally showing the composer at his finest.


Wednesday, 27 April 2022

Lohengrin, Royal Opera, 24 April 2022

Royal Opera House

Henry the Fowler – Gábor Bretz
Lohengrin – Brandon Jovanovich
Elsa – Jennifer Davis
Friedrich von Telramund – Craig Colclough
Ortrud – Anna Smirnova
King’s Herald – Derek Welton
Brabantian Nobles (‘Four Followers of Telramund’) – Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Thando Mjandana, Matthew Durkan, Thomas D. Hopkinson
Pages (‘Four Women at the Wedding’) – Katy Batho, Deborah Peake-Jones, Renata Skarelyte, Louise Armit
Gottfried – Alfie Davis

David Alden (director)
Peter Relton (revival director)
Paul Steinberg (set designs)
Gideon Davey (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Tal Rosner (video)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)

Considering the first night of David Alden’s (then) new production of Lohengrin in 2018, I found ‘a conceptual weakness at ... [its] heart. I suspect it can be remedied: if a shell, it is a fine shell. It will not, however, remedy itself.’ Rather to my surprise, I found this first revival, notably under a new director, Peter Relton, much stronger. It is not always easy to be sure what has actually changed, and what one is viewing differently for oneself. I shall not try; the earlier review remains for anyone who wishes to read it. In at least partial recantation, then, I am happy to say this made for a far more satisfying evening, dramatically and musically, than that experienced four years ago. Moreover, for Wagner to have returned so emphatically to one of the city’s main houses marked a step-change in London’s operatic recovery. However much one wished it to succeed, ENO’s autumn Walküre proved a bitter disappointment. If Lohengrin did not quite match the success of Covent Garden’s astonishing recent Peter Grimes, it stood closer to that than to November’s dispiriting evening at the Coliseum. 

An interwar fascist regime, on the verge at least of further war, is the setting (albeit with certain irritating Alden anachronisms of the sort that conceive postmodernism as style rather than philosophy). The aftermath of war, presumably the Great War, that haunts the first act in particular, every character seemingly damaged, mentally and often physically too. The charge of war and of preparations for another has obvious resonances to spring 2022; they could hardly fail to speak. If King Henry cowers like a question mark—in his throne, with crown, he seems an all-too-obvious rip off from Hans Neuenfels at Bayreuth—and the Herald wears his injuries anything but lightly, others struggle to stand too. Telramund and Elsa act and react in caricatured expressionist style. Even Lohengrin adopts a foetal position of comfort with Elsa, presumably seeking a mother figure lacking in the Grail brotherhood. (As Nietzsche did not say, let us not go there.) 

Only Ortrud, doubtless significantly, operates as normal. Perhaps it is her ‘magic’, or perhaps that magic is a metaphor for something broader; that is really up to us. A fine touch, at the close of the second act, is her apparition in a box, toasting (cursing) with champagne the unhappy couple. Hemmed in by Paul Steinberg’s sets, their crossings and their disjunctures a striking visualisation of catastrophe, the action is never likely to end happily. This, after all, is a tragedy, probably the purest in Wagner; a signal strength here is that we do not forget that. That is not, of course, to say that it always need be played exclusively as such, but there is an ultimate trajectory here less in evidence than last time, which certainly strengthens the drama in this context. 

So too did Jakub Hrůša’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House—and the golden orchestral playing itself. Hrůša is not afraid to take his time, the first act feeling especially broad, though never merely slow. Careful attention to detail and to its place in the whole had Wagner’s score veritably glow with inner life. The old operatic forms on which much of Wagner’s conception is ultimately based were clear. In Mein Leben, Wagner recalls Schumann’s puzzlement at a Dresden reading of the poem; he ‘liked it, yet couldn’t figure out the musical form I had in mind for it, as he couldn’t find any passages suitable for traditional musical numbers. I then had some fun reading him different parts of my poem just as if they were in aria and cavatina form, so that in the end he smilingly conceded the point.’ Full performance can heighten that sense further—yet also more dialectically. For equally clear were the development of those forms and the forces energising that development: harmony (especially that of Ortrud), of course, but also an energised conception of Gluckian accompagnato arising from Wagner’s work as conductor, editor, and director. 

At any rate, not only did Hrůša show a fine Wagnerian’s ability to hear vast structures—acts, at least—in a single breath, but he inspired the finest playing from all sections of the orchestra throughout. Each act had its own way of unfolding; no one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a patient, powerful strategic ear and mind. Moreover, he often favoured—unfashionably—long, quasi-vocal orchestral lines: not so much Straussian as with kinship to the Wagner of a conductor such as Karajan. The vertical was not ignored, but experience suggested ultimately a more horizontal conception of Wagner’s—‘endless melody’, perhaps—and convincingly so. 

Brandon Jovanovich offered a finely judged portrayal of Lohengrin, as acute in verbal as musical terms, its clarion heroism shielding—and sometimes not—a vulnerable and decidedly ambiguous inner core. Craig Colclough’s Telramund, tragically in thrall to Anna Smirnova’s sensational Ortrud, presented similar ambiguities, those similarities engaging sympathy and our appreciation of dramatic complexity. If there was something winningly ‘old-school’ to Smirnova’s vocal delivery and sheer star presence, that was not at the cost of more ‘modern’ engagement with directorial concept, far from it. Jennifer Davis’s movingly human Elsa grew in stature throughout a committed performance. Gábor Bretz vividly captured the King’s instability. Derek Welton made for an uncommonly vivid Herald, hinting intriguingly at psychological complications from a wartime past. 

Last but far from least, William Spaulding’s Royal Opera Chorus sounded on as fine form as I can recall for some time. How welcome, moreover, it was to have a large chorus seemingly unrestricted—reality may have been different—by pandemic restrictions in what it could do and, above all, how it could sing. Ultimately, then, it was that crucial, yet often elusive, sense of a dramatic whole that served to distinguish revival from first incarnation.

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Berlin Festtage (5) – Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Don Giovanni, 17 April 2022

Don Giovanni – Michael Volle
Donna Anna – Slávka Zámečníková
Don Ottavio – Bogdan Volkov
Commendatore – Peter Rose
Donna Elvira – Elsa Dreisig
Leporello – Riccardo Fassi
Masetto – David Oštrek
Zerlina – Serena Sáenz

Vincent Huguet (director)
Aurélie Maestre (set designs)
Clémence Pernoud (costumes)
Irene Selka (lighting)
Robert Pflanz (video)
Louis Geisler (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

Don Giovanni (Michael Volle), Commendatore (Peter Rose), Leporello (Riccardo Fassi)
Images: Matthias Baus

Don Giovanni was the first opera Daniel Barenboim conducted: at the 1973 Edinburgh Festival. Nearly fifty years on, this new production was eagerly awaited, if more for Barenboim than for director Vincent Huguet, whose previous contributions towards this Berlin Da Ponte ‘trilogy’ (see here and here) have generally been considered disappointing at best. Alas, Barenboim, whose incendiary conducting of Peter Mussbach’s production here on Unter den Linden in 2007 remains one of my Mozart operatic highlights, had to withdraw, replaced by Staatskapellmeister Thomas Guggeis. 

Not that Guggeis fared poorly, far from it. In such circumstances, it is difficult to know quite how much is Conductor B and how much is Conductor B leading what is essentially Conductor A’s conception. Guggeis had been involved with rehearsals, and was in any case due to conduct a later performance. There was certainly no question of ‘period’ faddism. Possible flashpoints went unscathed, the Overture’s opening and the Stone Guest scene itself taken at a well-chosen tempo that enhanced rather than detracted from the depth and grandeur of Mozart’s abidingly theological conception. Guggeis always drew something approaching the best from the Staatskapelle Berlin, and generally ensured fire, drama, and where appropriate depth and heft. The all-too-familiar conflation of Prague and Vienna versions was used, but that was not his fault. Damage wrought to the second act was minimised by continuing flow. If, ultimately, there was not that Furtwänglerian Fernhören one would have expected with Barenboim, who is to say what we should have heard in something entirely of Guggeis’s conception. Here is a conductor who always impresses; this was no exception. 

As for Huguet’s staging, it made some creditable efforts to connect with what we had seen before, but alternating as they did between vague and specific, without much in the way of rhyme or reason, it was difficult to know what to make of them. It seemed to be set in the present, the baritonal-heroic baton passed slightly awkwardly from Guglielmo to the Count to Don Giovanni. Leporello likewise seemed to be picking up from Figaro and Donna Elvira from the Countess. Whether they were intended to be the same people a generation on, or simply to be read with reference to what had gone before was never clear. On the one hand, there were clear references; on the other, much seemed not to make sense at all when one followed them through. Giovanni was a photographer, or was credited as such, though it seemed to be Leporello who took the photographs—of his master’s conquests, of course. Displayed on a tablet, projected onto a screen for the Catalogue Aria, the similarity of their subjects, without exception young, slim, and conventionally good-looking (see also Così) was markedly at odds with the variety of which Leporello sang. Whether this were a deliberate mismatch or mere carelessness was unclear; to be honest, it become difficult to care very much.


Why Elvira briefly became a politician/dignitary, handing Giovanni a prize for his retrospective during the first-act finale, I have no idea; at any rate, she took her wig off—or did she put it back on?—and that line of transformation abruptly closed. I wondered whether there was also a hint at Don Ottavio and Donna Anna reincarnating Ferrando and Dorabella, but perhaps not. A strange gap at the end of the first scene, entirely halting the action for a less-than-necessary scene change, did not do wonders for continuity; perhaps it was a metaphor. Don Giovanni's brief appearance in a coffin, which first I thought was a bath (!) might have seemed suggestive, but it was simply part of an unconvinving move, for no evident reason, to a chapel of rest. And why he, supposedly dead (straightforwardly murdered here) stood in the wings to watch the scena ultima was never clear either. Perhaps he too was trying to work out whether there had been any meaning to what had just unfolded. (In the programme, Huguet says that the hero died, merely adding to the confusion.) There was little, if anything, in the way of social differentiation, let alone of sin and punishment (that despite the Commendatore suddenly, arbitrarily, becoming a courtroom judge). One might have wondered why Mozart and Da Ponte bothered. 

Singing was mostly admirable, though it cannot be said that the production afforded singers much in the way of inspiration. Michael Volle is ever a consummate professional; and so he was here, fully in command of the title role and its demands. Riccardo Fassi’s agile Leporello provided vocal complement and contrast, differently dark in hue. Slávka Zámečníková and Bogdan Volkov perhaps lacked a little in dramatic stage presence, but that was as much a matter of the production as anything else. Guggeis might have drawn out the seria distinction of their parts more strongly, but again that would not necessarily have made much sense, given what unfolded (or did not) onstage. They sang well, at any rate, as did Elsa Dresig in a welcome return as a volatile Donna Elvira. If Peter Rose were on occasion slightly woolly as the Commendatore, David Oštrek and Serena Sáenz offered a winningly straightforward peasant couple, physical and vocal selves as one. If an air of missed opportunity proved impossible to dispel, responsibility lay squarely with the production.

Friday, 22 April 2022

Orpheus/L'Orfeo, Komische Oper, 16 April 2022

(sung as Orpheus in German translation by Susanne Felicitas Wolf)

Orfeo – Dominik Köninger
Euridice – Josefine Mindus
Amor – Peter Renz
Sylvia/Proserpina – Maria Fiselier
Plutone, Caronte – Tijl Faveyts
Figures of Orpheus and Eurydice – Alexander Soehnle, Helen Schumann
Dancers - Meri Ahmaniemi, Martina Borroni, Ana Dordevic, Zoltan Fekete, Michael Fernandez, Paul Gerritsen, Claudio Greco, Marcel Prét, Tara Rendell, Lorenzo Soragni

Barrie Kosky (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Katharina Tasch (costumes)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)
Otto Pichler (choreography)
Alexander Koppelmann (lighting)
Chorus (chorus master: David Caevlius) and Orchestra of the Komische Oper
Matthew Toogood (conductor)

Amor (Peter Renz), Orpheus (Dominik Köninger)
Images: Iko Freese /

Barrie Kosky’s advent as Intendant of the Komische Oper in 2012 was marked by a twelve-hour ‘Monteverdi Trilogy’, in which the three extant Monteverdi operas were given in new productions and in newly composed realisations by Elena Kats-Chernin (also new German translations by Susanne Felicitas Wolf). Avid Monteverdian, especially in non-‘period’ guise, though I be, I was unable to attend, but have tried to make up for that since. I saw Poppea five years later, in 2017; five years, after that, comes Orpheus/Orfeo. If I must wait another five for Ulisse, so be it, but I hope to have opportunity a little sooner.

Orpheus, as one would expect, was originally seen first. Although I was surprised how well Poppea adapted to German translation—testament, doubtless, to Wolf’s work, as well as to collaboration with Kosky and Kats-Chernin—this probably did still more so. It seemed, if anything, more conceived as a new whole. (Or perhaps I was more receptive. Who knows?) At any rate, Kats-Chernin’s opening suggests more powerfully something new, rising from a stable yet uncertain bass, to take in yet also go beyond Monteverdi (including leaving, with great regret, some elements of an acknowledged masterpiece). The sound-world in general speaks of the Mediterranean—all its shores, not just the north-west—though in more popular vein than, say, Henze’s extraordinary realisation of Ulisse. This, one might say, is Monteverdi for the Komische Oper rather than for Salzburg.

Orpheus, Eurydike (Josefine Mindus)

Kats-Chernin deploys a splendid array of continuo instruments (accordion, bandoneon, cimbalom, the ancient djoze, and double bass). Apparently, some listeners were unhappy with the use of accordion in particular, lamenting its lack of decay, which they associated, not entirely unreasonably, with continuo playing. It did not trouble me; quite the contrary, I found it atmospheric and duly flexible. I should also point doubters (on principle) to Monteverdi’s own use of organ, including the reedy regal, for Hades. Otherwise, we have six first violins, four seconds, two double basses, two flutes/piccolos, two clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, percussion (including vibraphone), celesta, and synthesiser; and, from the auditorium, used in sparing yet quite spectacular fashion, two antiphonal funeral bands (two bassoons; two horns, two trombones, tuba, and percussion; and two horns, two trumpets, bass trombone, tuba, and percussion). It is ‘interventionist’, I suppose. Whatever would be the point, especially in Orfeo, with its meticulous instrumentation, of not being so? But, with hints of a liminal electronic world, yet still rooted in worlds of Monteverdi and, one can fancy, of Thrace, it challenges us to locate ourselves and our responses within a lush, almost overgrown visual world prior to civilisation.

Kosky’s staging is, as one might expect, still more exuberant: literally, at times, all-singing, all-dancing. The energy of the opening wedding festivities must have come across as a powerful statement of intent, as well as a great deal of fun; it still does now, also as a fine testament to his years as Intendant. There are no inhibitions here, and somehow even fewer as time goes by. The sheer physicality and sensuality of by no means explicit portrayal, centred on Dominik Köninger’s sensationally sung, danced, and acted Orpheus (also a fine Nerone in Poppea) is impossible to resist. Amidst nymphs, fauns, a whole cosmogony of ancient-modern life, everyone can find his, her, or their part. One can see and more or less feel the sweat on their bodies, prior to tragedy and then again prior to what may or may not be apotheosis. La Musica becomes Amor/Cupid, signalling less a move away from the primacy of music as acknowledgement of its greater powers. Peter Renz I recognised from Poppea; he did a similarly characterful job here, and is clearly a crucial thread running between the three.


It is not Apollo, but a woman—Sylvia (Maria Fiselier), albeit singing Apollo’s words—who beautifully calls Orpheus to the stars. I am not quite sure why; at the time, I simply assumed it was, for some reason, a female Apollo. Contrast with Tijl Faveyts’s dark-hued bass (Pluto/Charon) is also heightened. It does no harm, though, and perhaps reflects a greater surrounding fluidity, to which all contribute, ambiguous puppet figures of Orpheus and Eurydike included. The latter’s return to Hades is accomplished in moving vocal terms by Josefine Mindus, as well as by a finely conceived—and executed—moment of stage decision, returning her to those depths from which she had never quite risen. In that connection, what happens at the close is interesting, Orpheus re-entering, at Cupid’s behest, the pool into which he had descended to find his love in Hades. Perhaps this is not, after all, the after-life he has been promised. Happy Easter.

Friday, 15 April 2022

Berlin Festtage (4): Così fan tutte, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 14 April 2022

Fiordiligi – Evelin Novak
Dorabella – Marina Viotti
Guglielmo – Gyula Orendt
Ferrando – Bogdan Volkov
Despina – Barbara Frittoli
Don Alfonso – Lucio Gallo

Vincent Huguet (director)
Aurélie Maestre (set designs)
Clémence Pernoud (costumes)
Irene Selka (lighting)
Louis Geisler (dramaturgy)  

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Giuseppe Mentuccia (conductor)

Images: Matthias Baus
Don Alfonso (Lucio Gallo) and Guglielmo (Gyula Orendt)

From The Marriage of Figaro to Così fan tutte: the first to the last of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas; or, with Vincent Huguet, from the second to the first in his ‘trilogy’. The setting suggested this, I suppose, moving back from the 1980s to the late 1960s, though that in itself assumes a unity one might not otherwise discern (or guess). Guglielmo, apparently, becomes Count Almaviva—and, after that, Don Giovanni. In Così and Figaro, he is sung by the same artist, at least, Gyula Orendt, though Michael Volle is due to take over in Don Giovanni. Beyond that, though, I found little indication of what might well be an interesting standpoint to take onstage. One can read this in the programme, of course, as I did afterwards, though what if one has not bought one? Should there not be some stage indication of this situation? We learn other oddities of Huguet’s conception in the programme too, for instance that Don Alfonso and Despina are married. I am not sure what light that shed on anything, but it was in any case not apparent to me. 

I think I can see why someone might opt for a ‘flower power’ setting. Ultimately, one can set this opera anywhere or nowhere, with little in the way of loss, so long as one has some underlying, convincing idea to what one is doing. But the point—Mozart’s, still more than Da Ponte’s—seems to have been missed entirely, with something frankly weak and uninspiring put in its place. (I confess that I had to read the programme and watch a short video even to get that far, but perhaps I am just especially slow.) Apparently what happens is that Alfonso and Despina meet another couple of couples, ‘from, let’s say, Milano’ who are intending to marry, and decide to show them a few home truths by having them lighten up a bit. Fine, so far as it goes, but ‘you can have a lot of problems and it is never that bad’. Really? Is not the agonising truth of this work, in all its exquisite sadomasochism, that it really is ‘that bad’, actually worse, and that you—we—must somehow live in knowledge of that devastation? We have eaten the apple; we are fallen creatures; more to the point, we are going to keep on falling, keep on hurting, even killing, each other. It is an opera made for Schopenhauer, save that it is still clearer-eyed. Of the philosophical, let alone religious, truths at the work’s heart—this is surely a ‘Passion of passion’, to quote Michael Tanner on Tristan—there is little or nothing. ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ is a message of sorts, I suppose, though ultimately, however much (or little) one dresses it up with a smattering of Foucault, it does not really extend beyond the realm of the self-help book. 

That, however, seems largely beyond the point, given how difficult it is (at least it was for me) to deduce any of it from what we actually see. We simply have the time-change, a move for a while to what appears to be a yacht, the inevitable silly dancing and other tomfoolery, smoking of what appears to be marijuana, and some random extras engaging in what sometimes, but not that often, approaches soft porn. Two of them massage members of the cast for a while, again to no evident reason. Everyone is conventionally good-looking and everything is surprisingly heterosexual, any engagement between women remaining clearly for the benefit of the man watching or participating. I could not help but notice that a few more elderly men in the audience were audibly excited by female nudity; one even managed to wake from his intermittent snoozing to exclaim something whose meaning I mercifully could not quite discern. If this is sexual liberation, some serious repression would be in order, if only to prevent participants expiring from sheer boredom. That may be a point worth making, though it seemed to arise by accident rather than design.

Despina (Barbara Frittoli), Dorabella (Marina Viotti), and extras

Daniel Barenboim should have conducted, but has had to take time off to recover from illness. In his place, at very short notice, was his assistant Giuseppe Mentuccia. It is difficult to tell much of Mentuccia’s own vision of the work from such a ‘jump in’, given that he would essentially have had to conduct Barenboim’s Così, perhaps with the odd inflection when he can. There were a few hints that he may have preferred swifter tempi at times, yet for the most part he fulfilled his duties very well indeed, the Staatskapelle Berlin sounding gorgeous and fully involved throughout. I look forward to hearing more of Mentuccia on his own terms. 

Orendt impressed once more, if anything still more so than as the Count. His dark, virile baritone was well complemented by Bogdan Volkov’s sweet-voiced tenor, ardent and imploring as required, as Ferrando. The latter’s duet with Evelin Novak’s Fiordiligi was a particular vocal (and orchestral) highlight for me. Fiordiiligi’s journey, traced in finest Egyptian vocal cotton, was throughout as involving as Huguet’s banalities permitted. I was less sure about Marina Viotti’s contrasting Dorabella, though concluded that to be more a matter of taste than anything else, her degree of forthrightness in, say, ‘E amore un ladroncello’, a valid interpretative choice (if not necessarily mine). Lucio Gallo made for an effortlessly stylish, verbally acute Don Alfonso. Barbara Frittoli shared the same virtues and offered a welcome change as voice of experience rather than irritating soubrette. She felt no need to resort to silly voices for Despina’s other ‘characters’, employing subtler transformations of tone and colour. 

The cast throughout worked very well together, though I could not help but wish they had been put to use in a more interesting, even challenging, production. Memories of Hans Neuenfels in my first Così continue to die hard, though there have been many alternative options since. Incidentally, on what does Huguet base his claim that the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas are ‘the most-performed operas worldwide’? They have not been in any statistics I have seen; indeed, not one of them falls into the top three, so far as I am aware. I should be astonished, though heartened, if Così came into the top ten. It is certainly among the least understood, though Don Giovanni must come close, and even Figaro’s more profound meaning seems to elude most.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Richard Wagner and the Nationalisation of Feeling, exhibition at Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

The space in which Berlin’s Deutsches Historiches Museum’s temporary exhibitions take place has an interesting floor plan right now: on the second floor, portraits of Angela Merkel (to open later this month); on the first, ‘Karl Marx and Capitalism’; nothing currently on ground level, though something is in preparation; and down in hell, sorry the basement, ‘Richard Wagner and the Nationalisation of Feeling’, or in German (not the same thing) ‘Richard Wagner and das deutsche Gefühl’. Doubtless coincidental, but in the wake of wildly differing portrayals of Marx and Wagner, one begins to wonder. I am told the original idea had been for a large exhibition examining nineteenth-century German ideas of capitalism; that understandably having proved unduly ambitious, two parallel exhibitions, allegedly looking at ‘left’ and ‘right’ critiques of capitalism remained. That may or may not be the case; alas, the bizarre placing of Wagner, a committed revolutionary socialist until his dying day, on the political ‘Right’ seems to have endured. Indeed, the Wagner presented is little more than a racist—as if any nineteenth-century European were not, by our standards.

According to introductory words for the Marx exhibition, attributed to the DHM’s President, Raphael Gross, ‘it is striking that Marx and Wagner understood completely different things under capitalism.’ It would be, if it were the case. I apologise if I sound unusually, or even usually, intemperate about the matter, but as someone who has written not a little on the subject, over a not inconsiderable period of time, I can honestly say that any claim that these near-contemporaries, both heavily influenced by (Young) Hegelian philosophy and French socialism, and holding much else in common, held ‘completely different’ conceptions of capitalism is straightforwardly untrue. Feuerbach, Bruno Bauer, Moses Hess, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and many others put in small, valued appearances in the Marx exhibition, intelligently and imaginatively curated by Sabine Kritter. 

They are, so far as I can recall, entirely absent from its Wagner counterpart. The latter has a host of fascinating exhibits, and is very much worth visiting for their sake. Its curation, by Michael P. Steinberg, is however little short of a disgrace, peddling distortion, disingenuousness, disinformation, and plain untruths as if it were another ‘lovechild’ of Boris Johnson. Chez Steinberg, an idea—well, sort of—has been formulated; and that is it. Truth and accuracy, let alone balance, can go hang—and do.

Entering, we see the bewildering claim, ‘The economic, social, and cultural upheavals that affected people’s lives from the 1840s on goaded European society increasingly into action.’ It read slightly better in German, if I remember correctly—I had neither time nor energy to make notes in both languages—but said the same thing. This, however, was our introduction to the Vormärz. How unlike any other period of history. Homing in on Wagner, we move from meaningless nonsense to blatant untruth: ‘His aim was not to change the individual, but society as a whole.’ A false opposition at best, it becomes truly absurd after Wagner’s reading of Schopenhauer—another figure I cannot recall encountering, though perhaps I forget. What, then, is renunciation of the Will? And what of Wotan’s, let alone Wagner’s Schopenhauerian realisation, as outlined in Wagner’s celebrated letter to August Röckel of 25/26 January 1856? 

Next comes a ‘Prologue’. It offers an arresting array of images: portraits, cartoons (including one new to me, ‘Don Richard Juan Lohentrist’ from the Sinnige Bilderbogen für grosse Kinder (Leipzig, c. 1869)), busts, death mask, etc. Matching this, or not, we learn in the text that Wagner ‘developed artistic and entrepreneurial strategies in which emotions played a central role’. Again, how novel. It sounds like the sort of meaningless guff an unprepared student might splurge onto the page, in order to submit something rather than nothing for an essay. Alas, apart from the constant text/subtext, ‘Wagner was an almost uniquely reprehensible racist’, that seems to be the thesis of the exhibition. Elsewhere, Steinberg has voiced decidedly peculiar opinions about the lack of subjective ‘feeling’ in German culture prior to the nineteenth century. This, as it were, would appear to be an extension of that. Oh, and did you hear that Wagner was an almost uniquely reprehensible racist? Forget the Nazis; Wagner is the one.

There follow four thematic sections, entitled ‘Entfremdung’ (Alienation), ‘Eros’, ‘Zugehörigkeit’ (Belonging), and ‘Ekel’ (Loathing), followed by an ‘Epilogue’. I could not help but feel that many of the categories of the Marx exhibition, for instance ‘From Critique of Religion to Social Criticism’, ‘Nature and Ecology’ (Wagner is unquestionably ‘greener’ than Marx), ‘Revolution and Violence’, and ‘New Technologies’ would have made more sense, but who knows? To be fair Entfremdung and Eros are perfectly reasonable categories. How they are treated is the problem. ‘Alienation’, we read, ‘is considered [by whom?] a basic feeling [Grundgefühl] of the 1830s and 1840s, which were marked by upheavals and revolutions.’ Again, sub-undergraduate stuff, at best, but unobjectionable compared with what comes: Wagner ‘increasingly wanted himself and his work to be understood as “German”. This “Germanness became the fundamental principle and benchmark of his œuvre.’


It really did not, I am afraid. Take a look at The Artwork of the Future. (It could have been various other of Wagner’s writings.) Whereas Greek tragedy had been ‘generically national’, the artwork of the future would represent the second of the ‘two principal moments in mankind’s development … the un-national, universal’. Whereas the Athenian spectator had been reconciled with ‘the most noble and profound principles of his people’s consciousness’; Wagner’s post-revolutionary audience would celebrate its membership of ‘free humanity’, a ‘nobler universalism’. Such remarks should be understood, it is true, in the context of a belief, widespread amongst many contemporary German, particularly Hegelian, thinkers, in the ‘universal’ nature of Germany’s historical mission (a belief which may be traced back at least as far as Herder). Moses Hess (him again), certainly no ‘nationalist’ in any Romantic or völkisch sense, had written a few years earlier, under many of the same influences as Wagner and Marx: ‘We Germans are the most universal, the most European people in Europe.’ Germany—we see this even in early essays by Wagner—was deemed to possess the peculiar ability, indeed imperative, to synthesise developments from elsewhere, and to bring them to their conclusion. But the aim was universal, and equally crucial, to be understood as part of early socialism’s attempt at least as much to found a new religion as to respond to the Industrial and French Revolutions.


Wagner was a revolutionary in this and many other ways; the exhibition, however, tells us that he ‘was personally acquainted with many of the [Dresden] revolutionaries’. Yes, because he was one. He probably ordered hand-grenades and certainly stood watch from the Kreuzkirche tower, not that you would know from here. Enjoy, then, the exhibits, including an 1841 edition of Georg Herwegh’s Gedichte eines Lebendigen, as well as an 1849 picture of Herwegh’s flight. You will probably wonder what they are doing there, though, since Herwegh’s relation to both Wagner and Marx, let alone his role in introducing Wagner to Schopenhauer, go unmentioned. Look at the 1849 manuscript of Die Not, signed simply ‘W.’ and wonder what its context might be. The material on contemporary theatres—plans, interiors, as well as a lovely paper theatre and figures for Tannhäuser—is significantly better.


‘Eros as a feeling means the coveting of people or things.’ I am afraid it does not. Wikipedia does a lot better; I have checked. Worse still, Wagner ‘resembled a Gründerzeit entrepreneur. Coveting, ownership, and possessions were central conceptions for him.’ In some ways, yes, but in the sense of wanting to rid the world of them. Read Jesus of Nazareth or, better, get to know the Ring. Perhaps you should have done that before, but it is never too late. A request for credit from a wine merchant is used to imply a sybaritic existence, quite ignoring the ‘worth’ repaid to the world goodness knows how many times by Wagner’s works and performances. A top hat from Paris further displays Wagner’s wickedness. Yes, he lived in nineteenth-century society and engaged with it. My iPhone also does not mean I do not wish to overthrow capitalism. A slipper from 1850, made of silk and leather: well, you get the idea… Where is Fafner’s Proudhonian rentier, ‘Ich lieg’ und besitz’’? The text either states or implies—its wording is unclear—that Wagner revised his works principally in order to make more money out of them. So he did not ‘owe the world a Tannhäuser, but vice versa. Extraordinary! As for the strange closing sentence, ‘By mixing public and private areas, emotion merged with business,’ answers on a postcard, please.


And so it continues. ‘Zugehörigkeit’ misunderstands Wagner’s at-best equivocal nationalism at every turn. There is no recognition that texts might acquire different meanings, let alone that Wagner’s meaning(s) may not have been those of a curator clearly suffering from first degree ressentiment. ‘The question of who should belong and who should not became increasingly important—in his [Wagner’s] œuvre and in society’. Not really; evidence is flimsy at best. But if we are going to make the claim, we should probably hear about Wagner’s Francophobia, his problems with Jesuits, Junkers, journalists, German princes,  and the rest. You will be unsurprised to hear we do not.


For this ‘antimodernist’ (to be fair, the German ‘Antimoderne’ says something different) composer of Tristan und Isolde (?!) saw Judaism, we learn in Ekel, ‘as the root of all that was wrong in Modernity and the cause of the dissipation of society’. Citation needed. The writer would struggle, since this is very much the wrong way round. Wagner’s antisemitism—regrettably, the exhibition favours ‘anti-Semitism’, implying the existence of something called ‘Semitism’—tends to reflect other, more deeply rooted dissatisfaction with aspects of capitalism. That is not remotely to excuse it, but rather to try to explain. It is certainly not the ‘root’ of anything. Nor were ‘Wagner’s portrayals of Mime and Alberich … often seen as anti-Semitic’. Quite the contrary; this was exceedingly rare, but has become, rightly or wrongly, more common recently. We have scenes from Barrie Kosky’s (to my mind) misguided production of Die Meistersinger presented quite uncritically, along with an intriguing sound-installation of Kosky’s, ‘Schwarzalbenreich’, in which he makes the case you would expect, yet far more interestingly—and with evident commitment—than the rest of this section.


The ‘Epilogue’ again has some excellent exhibits: a Lohengrin chocolate bar, a 1933 Bayreuth playbill for Die Meistersinger and an August 1939 poster for a Berliner Sommer-Festspiele Rienzi. It also, incredibly, claims that when Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow ‘coined the term Nibelungentreue (Nibelung loyalty) in 1909, he was using something that went back all the way to the Ring. Apparently, Bülow and the person who wrote this were both unaware of a certain mediaeval epic. Wagner, you see, was responsible for the First as well as the Second World War. A 1952 edition of Adorno’s Versuch über Wagner is, bafflingly for Adorno at his least fragmentary, translated as ‘Fragments on Wagner’. And Tolkien, it is claimed, took inspiration for ‘the basic idea and the title’ for The Lord of the Rings from Wagner. It may be a little more complicated than that—but then, that could be an epitaph for the exhibition as a whole. What a wasted opportunity.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Staatskapelle Dresden/Honeck - Mozart and Haydn, 11 April 2022


Mozart: Overture: La clemenza di Tito, KV 621
Haydn: Symphony no.93 in D major
Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music, KV 477/479a; Vesperae solennes de Confessore, KV 339: ‘Laudate Dominum’; Requiem in D minor, KV 626; Ave verum corpus, KV 618, interspersed with Gregorian chant and readings

Nikola Hillebrand (soprano)
Marie Henriette Reinhold (contralto)
Sebastian Kohlhepp (tenor)
Mikhail Timoshenko (bass)
Ulrich Tukur (reciter)
Dresden Chamber Choir (chorus director: Tobias Mäthger)
Dresden Kreuzchor (chorus director: Karl Pohlandt)

Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Manfred Honeck (conductor)

Whilst much of the Staatskapelle Dresden is in Salzburg for the Easter Festival, those players staying at home are offering a good deal of Mozart: complementing, for those able and willing to take the two-hour rail journey, the current Mozart festivities in Berlin. (Salzburg, ironically, is giving Wagner, Bruckner, and Shostakovich.) Manfred Honeck and the Dresden orchestra here paired Mozart with Haydn, culminating in an imaginative presentation of the Requiem—part of it, anyway—interspersed with plainsong and readings. 

It was difficult not to think of Sir Colin Davis during the Overture to La clemenza di Tito—or indeed elsewhere, given his long association with the Dresden orchestra. Odious though comparisons may be, this was a sound he would have recognised, I think, albeit in a more excitable and, to an extent, more rhetorical reading. The Staatskapelle sounded fresh and transparent, boasting fine string agility and sheen. Habsburg counterpoint told as it should. It was a welcome curtain-raiser that augured well. 

Honeck’s view of Haydn was more severe, worlds away from the ‘genial’ label that characterised the composer, arguably too much, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Shocks and surprises registered forcefully, suggesting consciously or otherwise an attempt to have one feel something akin to what Haydn’s first, unsuspecting audiences might have done. Indeed, the snarling first chords had one wonder, even when one knew, whatever was coming next. A rigorous introduction followed, the exposition only a little more smiling. One could only marvel at Haydn’s concision, the repeat upon us in no time at all. Honeck showed a keen ear for detail and not a little theatricality in the preparation and instantiation of surprises. Whether one needs the fortissimo bassoon ‘intervention’ in the second movement to be quite so heavily underlined is, I suppose, a matter for debate, but it worked as a climax as well as local colour. Prior sternness had summoned the future spirit of the late Masses; I could not help but think the joke was played less straight than humourless. More importantly, an array of invention was on show throughout Haydn’s variations. 

Idiomatic swing notwithstanding, the Minuet was similarly severe, its Trio’s heightened contrasts offering nothing in the way of relaxation. This was fiercer Haydn than I could readily recall, more Napoleonic than Viennese. And indeed, in the finale, it was the Beethoven of the Fourth Symphony that came to mind, in a reading replete with contrast and meaning conveyed through articulation. (It is surely no coincidence that Honeck is a violinist.) Here, though, severity was not unrelieved, Rafael Sousa’s delightfully ‘sung’ oboe solo a case in point. Returning to the idea of imaginative recreation of a first hearing for that London audience—and the slightly smaller Dresden orchestra aside—this would have been quite the calling card. 

And so, to the second part of the evening’s proceedings. Tubular bells heralded offstage members of the Kreuzchor, bidding us commence our observance: ‘Requiem aeternam…’. Throughout the plainsong, and despite not even being onstage, these young singers’ words were perfectly clear, pitches and phrasing perfectly judged. This and three further invocations, ‘Domine exaudi orationem meam’, ‘In quacumque de inocavero te’, ‘and ‘Christus factus est’, joined readings from one of Mozart’s letters to his father (4 April 1787), the composer at his most Catholic in recognising the comfort of death as the destination of all life; from two poems by Nelly Sachs, ‘Wer weiß, wo die Sterne stehn’, ‘Wenn im Vorsommer’; and from two passages in the Revelation of St John the Divine. Animated, involved, and involving readings by Ulrich Tukur, culminating in Scriptural death and resurrection, contributed greatly to the fuller dramatic and intellectual conception. Like musical themes, certain words, ‘Tod’ unsurprisingly among them, echoed, connected, even developed. 

The Masonic Funeral Music came first among the musical pieces, between Mozart’s letter and the second instance of Gregorian Chant. One of the crucial things that letter tells us—and which many ignore—is that Mozart saw no contradiction between Freemasonry and his Catholic faith, quite the contrary. Once past an immediate puzzling harshness—I am not quite sure what happened, nor whether it were deliberate—wind chords were beautifully voiced. Strings brought tragedy and some degree of consolation. Honeck’s reading proved well paced and articulated, with a strong sense of liturgical intonation; no one could have missed the cantus firmus here. The ‘Laudate dominum’ from the KV 339 Vespers flowed beautifully, soprano Nikola Hillebrand as warm and stylish as the Dresden strings, the Dresden Chamber Choir (Dresdner Kammerchor) similarly clear and warm, holding out what seemed to be real hope of consolation. Honeck shaped the movement well, without rendering it unduly moulded. 

The Requiem ‘Introitus’ followed Sachs’s poems, seemingly rising out of what had precieded it. Again beautifully voiced and paced, it offered choral singing of equal clarity and impact (characteristic throughout of these thirty-six singers). Hillebrand returned almost as if a character, transfigured by what had passed: an angel, perhaps. Honeck moulded the performance dynamically, again without it becoming mannered. Rhetorical shifts in tempo made sense, as did the swiftness and momentum of a ‘Kyrie’ that yet remained unhurried. This meant something, something important. When, following the first of the Revelation readings, the ‘Dies irae’ burst forth, it terrified, souls trembling in torment and embodying that torment. Clean, rich performances from bass Mikhail Timoshenko and trombonist Nicolas Naudot opened the ‘Tuba mirum’, were answered in vividly human fashion by tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp, voicing both fear and consolation, and the splendidly contraltoish mezzo Marie Henriette Reinhold, as well ultimately as our returning angel Hillebrand. They made a fine quartet too, in excellent balance with the orchestra (and choir). 

The ‘Rex tremendae’ bore down with all the weight of the Counter Reformation itself in mourning. One could almost hear the veils of mourning, mediated or rather amplified by the old ‘Spanish’ Habsburg court dress. Mozart transformed it with searing modernity, and yet also preserved it: tradition aufgehoben. Did Honeck slow too much for the cries of ‘Salva me, fons pietatis’? Perhaps for some, even for me in the abstract, but he clearly had his reasons, yielding far more often in Mozart than Haydn. The ‘Recordare’ made for a fine contrast, orchestra and soloists wonderfully transparent, movement forward ignited by counterpoint. Cellos led telling, accompagnato-like rhetorical thrusts. It was all there in the words, or at least could well be discerned to be. In the ‘Confutatis’, operatic Furies became real, which for Mozart is to say Christian. And yet, they were tamed, enabling the noble ‘Lacrimosa’ to conclude its section. 

Chant, the Kreuzchor as excellent as ever, and a final passage from Revelation, telling us of the heavenly Jerusalem, the Lord making all things new, prepared the way for a lithe, urgent ‘Offertorium’. Some aspects of the orchestration I did not recognise; I assume this to have been a matter of the edition used, but perhaps I was just hearing the music differently. The ‘Hostias’, sweetly, even devoutly, imploring, gained meaning from its liturgical context. Here, one felt, was the point at which this prayer, shunned by Protestants, could become possible. At any rate, singing was beautifully sustained, quite different from what had gone before. Both ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ sections were well directed and meaningfully shaded, for this was outstanding choral singing as well as orchestral playing. And then, there came a short pause, followed by a repeat of the ‘Lacrimosa’, only to stop at the end of the eighth bar, where Mozart’s hand falls away. Had I looked properly at the programme, I should have known this was coming, but I am rather pleased I did not, shock to expectations thereby fully registering. Instead of the rest of the Requiem, however understood, we moved to the heavenly funeral motet, ‘Ave verum corpus’, sweet in consolation and truthful. 

Bells tolled briefly again. And then, magical silence, only broken some time later by an idiotic ‘Bravo!’ (Can anyone seriously think that an appropriate response to a setting of a Requiem Mass, save, perhaps Verdi’s?) With this Requiem, though, there will never be peace. It was interesting to hear it done like this, all the more so given my lack of preparation. Yet, as when I have heard similar performances, I ultimately felt it a pity not to hear what ‘should’ have followed. Do we really think Mozartians such as Karl Böhm or Sir Colin had no idea what they were doing? Not that Honeck was making any such claim, of course; he was simply presenting his own, thoughtful, in many ways brilliantly conceived version for the evening. Different occasions present different choices, none of which ever quite adds up: heartbreaking, given the perfection of Mozart’s music. Requiem, but no peace: what could speak better to our current situation?