Monday 28 February 2022

La bohème, English Touring Opera, 26 February 2022

Hackney Empire Theatre

Marcello – Michel de Souza
Rodolfo – Luciano Botelho
Colline – Trevor Eliot Bowes
Schaunard – Themba Mvula
Benoît, Parpignol – Matthew McKinney
Mimì – Francesca Chiejina
Musetta – April Koyejo-Audiger
Alcindoro – Phil Wilcox
Policeman – Aidan Edwards

James Conway (director)
Christopher Moon-Little (revival director)
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Florence de Maré, Neil Irish (designs)

Chorus and Orchestra of Chorus of English Touring Opera
Dionysis Grammenos (conductor)

Still they come—and come again, as in this English Touring Opera revival of James Conway’s production of La bohème. The work’s popularity shows no sign of abating, and why, one might ask, should it? It is a fair question, up to a point, especially when considered vis-à-vis the many lesser works that make up much of opera’s benighted ‘core repertoire’. It is a well-nigh perfectly crafted work, remarkably concise and accomplishing so much within four short acts, one might be tempted to ask further, ‘why should operas be longer?’ Many are not, of course, and many do not need to be. Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, and a few others one often regrets they are not longer still, yet appreciates the craft and integrity that ensured they were not. Puccini, however, gets things just right on his own terms and attracts newcomers and old-hands alike. 

All too rarely—and this is a sadness—is it on account of the productions his operas, still less this particular opera, receive. Stefan Herheim’s staging remains the only one I have seen (alas, only on video) to accomplish something of great interest in the way one might naturally expect of the composers mentioned above, or indeed most others. If I cannot say Conway’s production joins Herheim, it has far better excuse than those intended for larger houses. It is not trying to do so, but rather intelligently presents a more or less ‘traditional’, unquestionably resourceful Bohème suited for touring across the country, often to towns that might otherwise not receive a single opera performance all year. Revived with equal intelligence by Christopher Moon-Little, there is thus nothing to complain about and indeed much to cherish. A realism that is yet not quite realistic, suggestive, as Conway proposes in the programme, of dream memories is just the thing—all the more so when one thinks about it. Puccini’s Bohemians (perhaps all the more so Henri Murger’s) will at some point get over ‘it’, however all-encompassing it might seem to them at the time; at least, the men will. And the women, the civettas or grisettes (on whom, read Moon-Little’s splendid programme note), well, they are fated to be remembered only by those ultimately shallow artists-turned-gentlemen. There is much enlightening observation; I cannot recall a production/performance that brought to one’s attention so clearly the importance of Schaunard’s being a musician, for instance. Nothing gets in the way; the story is clearly told. I was unsure why Parpignol had become ‘Pa’Guignol’ but his puppetry—perhaps that was enough reason—adds a welcome sense of bite, which might with benefit have been extended further. As discussed, though, that was doubtless not the aim here. 

It helped greatly to have for once a youthful cast for whom no disbelief needed to be suspended. That cuts both ways: one appreciates the callowness—at least from jaundiced middle-age—as well as the attraction of ‘Bohemian’ life, but that is surely as it should be and is no comment on the artistry involved. If Hackney cannot be home to a tale (partly) about hipsters, where can? Each of the central male quartet was splendidly distinguished, by voice, character, even costume, whilst at the same time forming a coherent ‘group’. Michel de Souza’s ardent Marcello was, rightly, a keen match for Luciano Botelho’s sensitive portrayal of Rodolfo. Trevor Eliot Bowes and Themba Mvula impressed as much as any Colline and Schaunard I can recall. Francesca Chiejina and April Koyejo-Audiger offered keenly observed performances which evidently developed over time as Mimì and Musetta: no stock gestures here. What I missed was a greater sense of chemistry between the pairs of lovers, leaving enjoyable performances that never quite moved. Perhaps, though, that was my fault, or perhaps it was even the point. Diction throughout was excellent, though the surtitle translation was often strange: ‘kind regards’ should surely remain the stuff of passive-aggressive e-mail.

 Bryan Higgins’s chamber orchestration (twenty-seven players, strings works very well, even in a large theatre such as the Hackney Empire. That does not negate, but rather supports, the achievement of the orchestral players themselves: as varied of tone and dynamic contrast as they were incisive. At the big moments, one might well have been listening to band three times the size. Intimacy came off just as well. Smaller theatres, ETO’s touring bread and butter, will have a treat in store. Orchestra, cast, and score were ably conducted by Dionysis Grammenos, if sometimes the music and thus the drama stopped and started a little too much for my liking. Others, though, may have found a certain lack of ‘symphonic’ continuity, for want of a better adjective, in keeping with the cinematic anticipations of the work. At any rate, there was no doubting the concision. Now for ETO’s new production of the season, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel.

Saturday 26 February 2022

LSO/Hannigan - Strauss and Poulenc, 24 February 2022

Barbican Hall

Strauss: Metamorphosen
Poulenc: La Voix humaine

Barbara Hannigan, Denis Guégin, Clemens Malinowski (direction, video)
Julien Bourdin (sound engineer)

London Symphony Orchestra
Barbara Hannigan (soprano, conductor)

24 February 2022 was a black day for Europe, for humanity. The prospect of a concert opening with Strauss’s Metamorphosen seemed potentially a little much, directing us all too readily to where war once more threatened to take us. Perhaps it was as well that the LSO, unobtrusively conducted by Barbara Hannigan—she only began to direct at the first violin entry—offered a performance more Apollonian than Dionysian, Goethe more than requiem. In an extended companion piece to Capriccio and its opening sextet, to the Oboe Concerto too, an aristocratic collection of string soloists came together as if a collection of Masters in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. In principle, I may have missed something darker, something engaging with Beethovenian ghosts of heroism, with destruction and devastation; but such quietly dignified, civilised music-making was probably the right thing at the right time. 

A darker performance might also have called into question the appropriateness of the pairing with Poulenc’s La Voix humaine. Here, to an unusual extent, Hannigan had taken to heart the word ‘humaine’. This was a glorious performance by the human voice, certainly, but equally so in terms of conducting and something approaching live filmed ballet, the two (or three) often fusing to form a greater ‘act’. Three live cameras proved in more than one sense a projection by ‘Elle’. Perhaps the orchestra itself was too, or Elle was imagining herself as conductor (or as Barbara Hannigan). Any initial scepticism concerning Hannigan’s conception of the work as a woman’s fantasy—perhaps this was simply what she might have said to someone from her past; perhaps there was no man at all—vanished, this viewer and listener entirely won over by the immediacy, commitment, and technical excellence of the performance, unsparing close-ups included. The film froze and Hannigan turned to the audience, continuing to act, when Elle told us of her attempts at suicide. Simple, yet startlingly effective.

The LSO, willing partners to Hannigan, Denis Guéguin, and Clemens Malinowski, proved precise, incisive, and affectionate without sentimentality. Where was the authorial voice, one asked? Was there more than one, or was there indeed one at all? Such questions emerged as both necessarily particular and more general, pertaining to what after all is, in some ways, little more (though no less) than recitativo accompagnato and to the heart of opera ‘itself’. The magic of Poulenc’s cadences and indeed of other harmonic progressions duly registered, lifting the everyday and its fantasies momentarily into that new realm we call the transcendental. Poulenc’s grand climax, almost paradoxically repeated yet convincingly so, on those final, tragic words, ‘Je t’aime’, reminded us, should we have needed reminding, that he, like his protagonist, knew how to put on a show. So too, likewise in the very best sense, did our performers this evening.

Friday 25 February 2022

The Cunning Little Vixen, English National Opera, 22 February 2022

Images: Clive Barda

Forester – Lester Lynch
Vixen – Sally Matthews
Forester’s Wife, Owl – Madeleine Shaw
Schoolmaster, Mosquito – Alan Oke
Priest, Badger – Clive Bayley
Poacher – Ossian Huskinson
Innkeeper, Cock – John Findon
Fox – Pumeza Matshikiza
Innkeeper’s Wife, Chief Hen – Gweneth Ann Rand
Dog – Claire Barnett Jones
Pepík, Woodpecker – Alexandra Oomens
Frantík, Jay – Ffion Edwards
Harašta – Ossian Huskinson
Dragonfly – Joy Constantinides
Frog – Robert Berry-Roe
Cricket – Ethan James
Grasshopper – Kavya Kutsa

Jamie Manton (director)
Tom Scutt (designs)
Lucy Carter (lighting)
Jenny Ogilvie (movement)

Children’s Chorus (chorus director: Patrick Barett)
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus director: Mark Biggins)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Failure to love the operas—more generally, the music—of Janáček would be a strange, soulless thing indeed. It seems more to be opera companies, strange, incomprehensible entities, than opera-goers, be they casual or more seasoned and committed, that accomplish that strange, incomprehensible failure. Fortunately, since opera returned to London, we have had opportunity to see a Janáček opera at Holland Park, Covent Garden, and now at the Coliseum too, with Glyndebourne adding to the tally not so far away. Holland Park’s Cunning Little Vixen last summer makes ENO’s claim that the opera is ‘rarely staged’ especially peculiar, but arts advertising is another strange and incomprehensible world. We can and should be grateful for Janáček wherever we find his works staged; that is surely the important thing, not least at a time when humanity stands in danger of extinction from so many catastrophes at once.

The idea of Jamie Manton’s new production seemed to be that the human world aged more readily and found itself less capable of regeneration, perhaps in light of its incomprehensible despoliation of Nature, than the natural world of animals, to the detriment of the slow-witted former and probably the quicker-witted latter too. Deforestation was, I think, part of that tale, felled logs across the stage, living wood turned dead at the hand of man. Silent child and/or adolescent versions of certain characters—the Forester, his Wife, the Vixen, and the Dragonfly—heightened the sense of cyclical, generational narrative, freer than their elder selves, without merely getting in the way. Just as important, they and other silent roles gave opportunity to child performers, as of course did the children’s chorus. Vivid, painterly impressions of human life and the seasons were unfurled: always a dramatic reminder that what we think of as Nature, or at least what we can ever know of it, will always remain an uneasy compromise with the natural world 'itself'. 

There was also an intriguing sense of the story, or at least the human part of it, lying closer to earlier Janáček works such as Jenůfa and Katya Kabanova. When the Forester took the Vixen home, it was indoors, to a claustrophobic setting that would not have been out of place in a typical ‘contemporary’-minded production of either of those. This Moravia was far from a rural idyll, though it arguably had more in common with the stage of life at which Janáček wrote his opera, memories of his relationship with Kamila Stösslová colouring the Forester’s strange love for the Vixen and ultimately that sense of transcendental communion engendered by that love.

Martyn Brabbins led a loving—perhaps in the third act, a little too loving—musical account, especially strong in conveying not only the metrical implications of Janáček’s use of Czech speech rhythms, but how evidently felt they might be by performers and audience alike (even in English translation). Here was a score clearly internalised, whether its moments of rapture or its (often overlooked) harder edges, chiming nicely with what we saw on stage. By the nature of the work, a Vixen performance needs to be a company effort. That was certainly what we saw and heard here.

Sally Matthews shone in the title role, her bell-like soprano emotionally adaptive to a variety of situations, Pumeza Matshikiza’s Fox similarly likeable and (strangely?) relatable. The journey of Lester Lynch’s Forester offered a crucial dramatic counterpoint, ably supported and brought into relief by a host of sharply drawn cameos. It would ultimately be a little pointless to go through the large cast, but Madeleine Shaw’s Forester’s Wife and Ossian Huskinson’s Harašta seemed to me particularly vivid portrayals, in stage and vocal terms. Storm Eunice, the natural world in notably hostile guise, may have put paid to the premiere, but there will always be more to come, further opportunities. Like the Forester, we human beings must learn better how to take them—before it is too late.

Friday 18 February 2022

Kopatchinskaja/BFO/Fischer - Stravinsky, 17 February 2022

Royal Festival Hall

Jeu de cartes
Violin Concerto
Petrushka (1947 version)

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Iván Fischer (conductor)

Image: Parri Thomas

I think this may have been the first visiting orchestra (from outside the United Kingdom) I have heard in London since the before-times. The twin viruses of ‘Brexit’ and Covid have both played their part and will doubtless continue to make their baleful presence felt. At any rate, to have the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall playing Stravinsky seemed like a good sign that musical life in London was regaining a little lost ground. (Alas, as I type, I learn that Storm Eunice has done for this evening’s ENO premiere of The Cunning Little Vixen, but let us hope that will prove merely to have been postponed.)

The orchestra and Iván Fischer made as strong a case as I can imagine for Jeu de cartes (which, a little improbably, received its European premiere from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Karl Böhm). The three introductions to its three ‘deals’ were colourful, angular, motor rhythmic: just what one would hope for from neoclassical Stravinsky. The first offered especially fine woodwind playing, for instance in the principal flute’s solo. (She would also shine in Petrushka.) The second offered deceptively amiable chugging, just as the doctor ordered. There was, moreover, undeniable charm to be heard in the trapping of neo-Tchaikovskian melodies in Stravinsky’s unpitying straitjacket. Greater dramatic intensity came in the third, a reflection of work more than performance. Throughout, one could hear this was a ballet, and almost see the dancers, as if this were Prokofiev. There was a winning parade of ‘characters’ too. I cannot say it dispelled my suspicions of ultimate emptiness, but such is the quicksand of (some) neoclassical Stravinsky. 

Patricia Kopatchinskaja joined the orchestra for Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto. Her incisive, often aggressive solo playing seemed to bring back this neoclassical work to Russian roots many of us might never have suspected were present—certainly not to this degree. In that, the BFO and Fischer seemed more than willing partners. The two inner Arias proved surprisingly close in some respects to the Violin Concertos of Prokofiev, albeit—like those moments of Tchaikovsky in Jeu de Cartes—imprisoned within a polemically heartless cage of metronomic precision. Bitter-sweetness was to be heard from violin and woodwind soloists alike, the second Aria’s fuller sadness bringing the music intriguingly close to the final act of The Rake’s Progress. Bright, often balletic exuberance characterised the closing ‘Capriccio’. Certainly capricious, it offered a characterful opportunity for more ‘conventional’ virtuosity, finely taken. It was an intriguing performance, which took nothing for granted, and certainly had me rethink much of what I thought I had ‘known’ about this polemically strange work. As an encore, Kopatchinskaja offered us two of Bartók’s Duos for two violins, the excellent István Kádár her partner. 

Fischer made the strongest case I can recall hearing for the 1947 revision of Petrushka; or, so I initially thought. I do not mean to imply this was not a fine performance; it certainly was. Rather, I was increasingly unsure whether what I was hearing with surprise was down to Stravinsky or to Fischer. Perhaps it is better to say that the version of the score Fischer chose played to his strengths and to how he hears the work. The Shrovetide Fair music came across bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of colour and rhythmic bite, above all full of expectation. The musicians’ often extraordinary precision truly brought it to life. Again, there was no doubt this was a ballet (perhaps ironically, given the version concerned) and, in this case, both purged by the fire of intervening neoclassicism and brought back to life in knowledge of what had gone before. Perhaps that gave extra poignancy to the particularly icy murder of Petrushka. Characters danced before the mind’s eye and, most startling, rhythms pounded more remorselessly than in any other performance that springs to mind. This was worlds away from the very different post-Romanticisms of Gergiev and Boulez, perhaps closer to Stravinsky’s own way with the score. At any rate, what we heard was both animated and animating, blessed by splendid orchestral playing, and above all highly enjoyable.

Thursday 17 February 2022

Jerusalem Quartet - Beethoven (2), 16 February 2022

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.2 in G major, op.18 no.2
String Quartet no.8 in E minor, op.59 no.2
String Quartet no.13 in B-flat major, op.130, with Grosse Fuge, op.133

Alexander Pavolvsky, Sergei Bressler (violins)
Jonathan Brown (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)

For the second in its series of five concerts offering the complete (canonical) Beethoven quartets, the Jerusalem Quartet followed its programming practice in the first. Whereas last month, we heard the first of the ‘early’, the first of the ‘middle-period’, and the first of the ‘late’ quartets, here we heard the second in each category, a satisfying and thoughtful alternative to either a strictly chronological survey or one that combined the works according to other criteria. One surprise change was that of the violist; Ori Kam had fallen ill and been replaced by the excellent Jonathan Brown, doubtless to the relief of all concerned. 

The G major Quartet, op.18 no.2, opened with Mozartian grace. One of the questions to be asked in the movement as a whole, and to a certain extent throughout the work, was the degree to which that would prove recognisably post-Mozartian. An infectious vitality, perhaps already with a tiny hint that what was possible for Mozart was no longer for Beethoven, informed and animated what we heard. (A nagging voice reminds me of Furtwängler’s words: ‘I have always devoted a great deal of thought to the word vital. It is a word of intellectuals for intellectuals. … Mozart and Beethoven are not vital, but simply beautiful, great, good, what they want to be. What highly praised modern art expresses: Vitalität.’ I am not quite so sure, but never mind.) At any rate, this was fresh playing, unburdened by any such doubts, suggesting (almost) a whole career ahead for the composer. A truly startling development section surprised, even when one ‘knew’ or thought one did, nothing taken for granted. So too did a developing recapitulation, Haydn’s pupil excelling himself with timing of surprises. The Adagio cantabile progressed with that somewhat complex grace characteristic of early Beethoven slow movements, interrupted by a kinetic outpouring almost ‘late’ in quality. The relationship may be less fractured, but the shock, again even when one knew, nonetheless made us listen. It came to rest of a sort, necessitating the scherzo in a not entirely dissimilar relationship. Full of youthful energy and again full of surprises, the performance displayed Beethoven’s character and resourcefulness—that transition back to scherzo from trio, for instance—to excellent effect.  The finale was clearly in Haydn’s line, that crucial issue of character well judged. Yet its waywardness, wilfulness, and even wildness were heard to be unmistakeably Beethoven’s own. Tonal jumps and slides were good-humoured yet not without edge. And how it developed! 

Rhetorical drama between different material and tendencies was brought to the fore in the first movement of the second Razumovsky Quartet. The Jerusalem Quartet deployed a palette with a broad array of dynamic contrasts, yes, but so much more besides: attack, articulation, bowing, vibrato, and so on, a masterclass in string playing. This is not easy music, but nor was it rendered obscure, concision and direction key to that achievement, as scale and scope were rendered thrillingly immediate. The slow movement sounded initially simpler, more songful, at least on the surface, yet so much more lay beneath—and increasingly, on the surface too. It received an eloquent, deeply moving performance, sublimity earned, not assumed. There will have been more ‘beautiful’ accounts, yet few more truthful. Here was Beethoven craggy, scowling, and, dare I suggest, morally strenuous. Obstreperous yet, again, good-natured, the Allegretto third movement admitted of no easy answers, at times veering almost towards ‘late’ enigma. Its trio sounded as strange as I can recall, suggestive of Bartók, Janáček, and Schoenberg. The sign-off, when it came, was splendidly laconic. The finale was almost a world in itself, quizzical yet determined, also experienced as necessary release from what had preceded it. Victory was not easily won, but the keener for it. 

The first movement of the op.130 Quartet had difficulty speak for itself, with no need to highlight. Emotionally honest, with an inwardness through and even in the fractures, it always permitted of consolation as alternative to the abyss. In the second movement, what initially seemed understated became still more extreme. Its Presto speed was part, yet only part, of that. A fine, necessary balance was struck between the horizontal and vertical in the ever-mysterious third movement, its processes not only audible but well-nigh visible. Excellent democracy between all four players was crucial. The fourth movement emerged almost as if a mirror image, inverted, of its predecessor, yet moved in quite a different direction, properly disorienting. The ‘Cavatina’, resolutely unsentimental yet certainly not without sentiment, was heard less with hushed awe—there were occasional passages—than at an unashamedly human level: warm to the extent of passion, and ultimately straightforward. No one would accuse the Grosse Fuge of that, but it struggled heroically toward the all-encompassing: tentative and strident; looking back (to Mozart as much as Bach) as well as forward; forbidding and deeply sympathetic; through lenses of Goethe and Schiller; via Heaven, Hell, and ultimately the playfulness of Earth too. This was Beethoven’s richly divine comedy.


Monday 7 February 2022

La bohème, English National Opera, 5 February 2022


Marcello – Charles Rice
Rodolfo – Adam Gilbert, David Junghoom Kim
Colline – William Thomas
Schaunard – Benson Wilson
Benoît, Alcindoro – Simon Butteriss
Mimì – Sinéad Campbell-Wallace
Parpignol – Adam Sullivan
Musetta – Louise Alder
Policeman – Paul Sheehan
Official – Andrew Tinkler

Jonathan Miller (director)
Crispin Lord (revival director)
Isabella Bywater (designs)
Jean Kalman, Martin Doone (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus director: Mark Biggins)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Ben Glassberg (conductor)

ENO La bohème 2022, company © Genevieve Girling

This was, I think, the fourth time I have seen Jonathan Miller’s production of La bohème. It strikes me, in this revival directed by Crispin Lord, to have a good deal of life in it left. Indeed, previous reservations have largely vanished. It is not a complex piece of theatre, nor does it lead one especially to reassess the piece, but it enables an intelligent retelling, far from dependent on the participation of particular artists and frames that retelling in unshowy yet arresting 1930s style. It is recognisably Paris, recognisably ‘Bohemia’, and again offers space, if far from a blank canvas, to enable artists to create them and make them their own. It has a definite photographic-cinematic look too, and a similar propulsion to the action, all suiting and shaping Puccini’s timing, concision, and ‘cuts’. Where I initially found elements of comedy jarring, now they seemed to me very much part of a greater tragicomic vision, like night and day, or life and death. The ‘extra’ elements observed, whether general city toing and froing or, in the fourth act, Musetta arriving downstairs with Mimì, struggling to get her upstairs, genuinely added to the drama rather than distracting from it.

Perhaps I had previously been too much of a curmudgeon, or perhaps the distance afforded by a revival director and lively cast make all the difference. Perhaps, even, the pandemic has played its part in permitting all of us to appreciate what we have, rather than longing for what we have never had. At any rate, it works well and spares us the inevitable ‘coronavirus production’ around the corner. The one I truly dread is the Tristan ‘Brangäne, you’re on mute’ staging: ‘I only wanted to stage this opera when Tristan und Isolde could be shown as radically distanced from each other, never truly on-screen at the same time. Video conferencing gave me the tools to pursue that vision.’ But I digress: back to Puccini. 

Or maybe not, for one of the most impressive aspects was Ben Glassberg’s conducting, which revelled in Puccini’s Wagnerisms, memories of Tristan evoked quite magically in the first act, without taking for something they were not. The sounds extracted from the ENO Orchestra were often magnificent: a great dynamic range, from moments of hushed intimacy, to grand, declamatory gesture. But it was Glassberg’s pacing and his reconciliation of vocal and orchestral demands that marked this out most strongly. That was not all his doing, of course. Both orchestra and chorus—what a joy to see and hear a chorus, handled most resourcefully, onstage once again—deserved plaudits in their own right. String sheen and incisiveness, bubbling woodwind and chorus: these and more played their part in weaving an effervescent, yet ever-darkening dramatic tapestry. 

ENO La bohème 2022, Simon Butteriss, Louise Alder © Genevieve Girling 

So too, naturally, did the singers. Sinéad Campbell-Wallace gave a touching performance as Mimì, finely acted as well as sung, with a generosity of spirit that took us far beyond any perils of sentimentality. Louise Alder was an outstanding Musetta, as charismatic as one could wish for in vocal as well as stage presence, with a sharply drawn character that avoided all suspicion of caricature and yet suggested uncommon depth, worn lightly. Charles Rice offered a similarly charismatic Marcello, swaggering, ardent, yet not without vulnerability. David Junghoon Kim was alas unable to sing Rodolfo, though continued to act it, Adam Gilbert making an excellent replacement from the wings. Benson Wilson and William Thomas gave sharply etched portrayals of Schaunard and Colline respectively, the latter's Coat Aria a tiny gem in itself. Simon Butteriss well-nigh stole the show with turns as Benoît and Alcindoro. Some may not have cared for his—and other—spoken interventions, but for me they seemed much in keeping with the general sense of musico-theatrical company. That, surely, is a post-pandemic prize ENO would do well to win back. On this evidence, at least, it is a good way there already.

R.I.P. Hans Neuenfels, 1941-2022


Hans Neuenfels, who died today, played a very important role in my personal development towards greater understanding—I hope!—of opera as theatre that is, or should be, both alive and critical. The first production of his I saw was his 2000 Così fan tutte: my first ever Così, and one which in its determination to delve beneath the surface and to reveal the sadomasochism that lies at the heart of this richest of works, has informed my understanding and adoration ever since. (What a pity this walk through the treacherous pleasure gardens seems never to have been recorded, or at least released. Who knows? Maybe there is yet hope.)

Since then, I have seen a good few of his opera productions, including La finta giardiniera, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Queen of Spades, and most recently Salome, all of which were a privilege to have encountered—and which encounters continue to have me think and re-evaluate my standpoint. But of those I have seen it is his classic Bayreuth Lohengrin that will perhaps have the longest, at least most transformative impact upon opera.

Here I reproduce, from my book After Wagner, the relevant section from its seventh chapter, on staging Lohengrin:

Nor were there easy answers in another production, also mentioned earlier, by Hans Neuenfels for Bayreuth.[1] It has become celebrated and/or notorious for its rats, but the important thing remains what they might mean or at least imply. Neuenfels is a celebrated figure from an earlier generation of so-called Regietheater, whether in spoken or musical drama. Though many visual motifs from his productions have proved highly contentious when first seen – his 1980 Aida for Frankfurt, resolutely contemporary in setting, with the slave girl a modern cleaner, or a highly eroticised, narcoticised Così fan tutte for the 2000 Salzburg Festival – a few years subsequently they will often have passed into common currency. Der Spiegel reported heavy booing for Neuenfels in 2010, yet by the time of my second visit in 2012, the staging seemed almost to have attained the status of a modern classic.[2] And, although it would be difficult to claim that Neuenfels engaged so closely with the music as, say, Herheim did in Parsifal, he did not work against it – unless one were of the opinion that rats on stage did so ipso facto. Shifts in the action at times certainly appeared broadly to reflect the contours of the score. I saw this Lohengrin twice, in 2011 and 2012. [I would see it again, in 2014, too.] Vogt again offered his uncanny – and doubtless very different – reading on both of my visits to the Festspielhaus. Again the purity of this individual, some might say idiosyncratic, tenor delighted: coldly seductive in its (apparent) honesty, and yet chilling – an excellent fit with both work and production.

Neuenfels presented a laboratory experiment; those experimented upon were rats – or at least, they often were, for there were times when they shed much of their rat-like appearance and resembled humans. Their feet nevertheless always gave them away. Lohengrin was shown during the Prelude – opening without stage action – trying to break into the realm of experimentation. The experiment seemed at least in part political in nature – though this was never hammered home; the work made one reflect upon the staging and vice versa. Again, the darker side of Lohengrin, the nature of its ultra-mysterious charismatic hero and the way a crowd would follow him, was the stuff of the conflict. (That could not help but leave one asking: were Ortrud and Telramund right to resist? Were they the true rebels, revolutionaries even?) It was a pity, therefore, that we did not hear the word Führer when Lohengrin introduced his successor, Gottfried (‘Seht da den Herzog von Brabant! Zum Führer sei er euch ernannt!’) Schützer, the ‘Protector’ employed earlier for Lohengrin, was used instead.

Perhaps the abiding question with which we were left related to who was actually running the experiment? Who was on the outside? It is, in a sense, a variation upon a perennial problem of political philosophy, never more so than in Rousseau: who is the Legislator? ‘A superior intelligence beholding all the passions of men without experiencing any of them would be needed.’[3] The audience, perhaps? It was certainly not the sickly, flawed, proto-Amfortas figure of King Henry the Fowler, as much a pawn as anyone else – an aspect granted added resonance when one considers the historical King Henry, founder of the Ottonian dynasty, and the Romantic as well as National Socialist view of him as father of the German nation. Wagner’s twilight world between history and myth is an especially interesting feature of Lohengrin, fully relished here. Indeed, this shrivelled Henry found himself dragged off-stage by attendants, redolent perhaps of those enigmatic ‘authorities’, somehow both ominous and strangely irrelevant, to whom Don Ottavio refers in Don Giovanni. (We shall revisit them in the next chapter.) The two characters who briefly managed to throw off the shackles of supervision were Ortrud and Lohengrin, at a time when arguably both of them are at the height of their powers, during the second act. So perhaps no authority was absolute though whatever this was behind the experiment – Fate? the near-omnipotent surveillance of late capitalism? The illusion of the Gesamtkunstwerk? Nothing at all? – would in both cases manage to reassert itself, before bringing forth the fragile infant figure of Gottfried from an egg. Leaders, such as they be, were clearly to be moulded, nurtured, not born: a typical, eminently understandable, German preoccupation. The Protector/Führer needed protecting too.

[1] This production is also available on DVD, from BBC/Opus Arte: B007ZB7U00.

[2] Review by Werner Theurich, ‘Neuer Lohengrin in Bayreuth: Wie man der Schwan rupft’ (accessed 23 October 2012).

[3] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourses, tr. G.D.H. Cole, revised J.H. Brumfett, John C. Hall, and P.D. Jimack (Dent: London, 1993), p.213.

Friday 4 February 2022

Kolesnikov - 'In Memory of Marcel Proust': Schubert, Louis Couperin, Hahn, Fauré, and Franck, 3 February 2022

Wigmore Hall

Schubert: Piano Sonata in G major, D 894: 1st movt
Louis Couperin: Unmeasured Prelude in G minor
Reynaldo Hahn: Le rossignol érpedu: ‘Les deux écharpes’
Schubert: Atzenbrugger Tanz in A major, D 365/30
Hahn: Premières valses: ‘Ninette’, ‘Valse noble’
Schubert: Waltz in B minor, D 145/6
Hahn: Premières valses: ‘La Feuille’
Schubert: Atzenbrugger Tanz in A major, D 365/30
Hahn: Le rossignol érpedu:’Narghilé’
Fauré: Nocturne no.12 in E minor, op.107
Louis Couperin: Sarabande in A minor
Franck: Prélude, choral et fugue
Hahn: Le rossignol érpedu: ‘Ouranos’
Schubert: Piano Sonata in G major, D 894: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th movts

Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)

Pavel Kolesnikov has never shied away from imaginative programming, connecting small pieces and movements from larger works so as to provoke fascinating encounters and transitions. In this case, he wished explicitly to pay tribute to Marcel Proust in his centenary year, intriguingly playing with conceptions of musical time—and what could be more apt for this of all novelists? I confess to having felt a little scepticism toward Kolesnikov’s claim, cited in the programme note, that Schubert and Proust would ‘merge miraculously’ in an ‘art of stretching time and communicating poignant intensity through what is intimate and even miniscule,’ but was quite won over by what I heard in practice. 

Schubert’s G major Sonata, D 894, opened and closed the recital, indeed stretching time in ways quite unexpected. The first movement, heard at the opening, was spacious and highly, subtly flexible. In some ways, it felt slow, in others not at all; I honestly have no idea how long it took, nor did I feel any desire to find out. It spoke with wounded nobility, without ever tending to the lachrymose or anything otherwise sentimental. It had all manner of colours, whilst only rarely raising its voice. Kolesnikov may have looked as if he were lost in reverie, but this was throughout a directed as well as highly imaginative performance. And then, Schubert transformed into Couperin, Louis Couperin that is, in one of his Unmeasured Preludes, G major transformed into its tonic minor—sort of. I say ‘sort of’ because the use of tonality is as different as other aspects of the writing. One might have spoken of improvisatory ‘style’, but in reality, it was more a matter of creating music out of what had been left, the pianist revelling in apparent weirdness, in clashes of melody and harmony. Whose music, whose memory, is it anyway?

The rest of the first half sequence was given not only to Schubert and Louis Couperin, but also to Reynaldo Hahn (Proust’s lover) and Gabriel Fauré (greatly admired by Hahn and Proust). Hahn’s ‘Les deux écharpes’ emerged from within that Unmeasured Prelude, or so it sounded. Kolesnikov captured flow, chiaroscuro, glitter, and fleetingly something darker below. A Schubert dance, in many ways similar to a waltz—think of Mozart’s various ‘German dances’—and an actual Schubert waltz, more wistful and refined, danced on and off stage. New moods, new vignettes, new boundaries to be blurred—until the subtleties of a Fauré Nocturne were heard, not slowly, yet supremely un-rushed. If I find Hahn’s music charming whilst it lasts, yet always struggle to remember a note of it thereafter, that says its own thing about time, or me, or both. A closing Louis Couperin Sarabande evinced quiet dignity, speaking of a past (real or imagined) from a similar past and present. 

César Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue opened the second half, in more improvisatory fashion, yet convincingly so, than one might have expected. Whether that were on account of the specific context, or because that is how Kolesnikov hears it anyway, is rather beside the point; it made sense here, interior subjectivity the thing. An appealing, ‘after-dinner’ pedal haze sustained harmonies without loss to purpose. Not that the machine à modulation (Debussy) failed to make that aspect of his presence felt, especially in a ‘Choral’ as Romantic as a ‘Fugue’ that favoured harmony over counterpoint. Hahn offered a wandering interlude, less still than evoking stillness.

And then, back to Schubert. It felt like a shift to another plane, as if a flashback were over (oddly, given much of the chronology, yet it did not feel odd). The ‘Andante’ received a lovely, unsentimental reading even before its sterner turn. The Minuet had a fine spring in its step, more forthright than its sister dances earlier on, enabling its trio to take us once more to a dream-world, albeit a different one. The finale united and set against one another those twin tendencies. Taking its time, it and we enjoyed both the route and diversions from it. It sounded very much like the finale to an evening, not only to a sonata, though Debussy’s ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ made for a strikingly Parsifal-ian encore, reminding us of two further Proustian enthusiasms.

Tuesday 1 February 2022

Theodora, Royal Opera, 31 January 2022

Royal Opera House

Theodora – Julia Bullock
Irene – Joyce DiDonato
Didymus – Jakub Józef Orliński
Septimius – Ed Lyon
Valens – Gyula Orendt
Marcus – Thando Mjandana
Actors and dancers – Aquira Bailey, Browne, Ben Clifford, Sarah Northgraves, David Rawlins, Holly Weston, Kelly Vee

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Harry Bicket (conductor)

Katie Mitchell (director)
Chloe Lamford (set designs)
Sussie Juhlin-Wallén (costumes)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Sarita Piotrowski (movement)

ROH Theodora 2022, (c) Camilla Greenwell

Theodora received its first performances at Covent Garden in 1750. Now, at last, Handel’s oratorio came home, albeit staged—and in a staging Handel, Thomas Morrell, their singers and their audience might have had difficulty in understanding. That qualification is, of course, irrelevant as only a truism can be, for much of we might do would be largely incomprehensible to eighteenth-century London, let alone fourth-century Antioch. The question, as ever, is how performance—which emphatically includes the audience—might mediate between different societies, between different ideologies, between text, act, and critique. 

Katie Mitchell adopts, unsurprisingly, a feminist standpoint. She updates the action to a modern embassy, lorded over by Valens as Roman ambassador (rather than governor), where Christians work as an oppressed class. One of their number, Theodora, is pushed to the extent of attempting and, more controversially, succeeding in destruction of the embassy. That already points to a shift in standpoint, crucially apparent from the opening. We should normally wait until the third scene before seeing (hearing) Theodora or indeed the Christians more generally, the first two scenes being devoted to Valens, Didymus, Septimius, and the Chorus of Heathens. Here, we see Theodora and her people from the start, in the kitchen (traditionally, the female ‘domestic’ sphere, of course, ‘top chefs’ notwithstanding). When we view and hear the Romans, it is through their eyes and ears as much as our own. That continues to be the case when Theodora has been sent to the brothel (the other side of the main public room from the kitchen) as a sex slave and continues, moreover, to be the case for Didymus when they have exchanged clothes, when he takes his first, literally faltering steps in heels to learn what it might be to view the world as a woman, and to be treated by that world as a woman. He experiences female solidarity with fellow sex workers, as had Theodora. They teach him how he might survive, by pole-dancing.


Yet we also remain wise to what continues to divide them; there is far more to womanhood than clothes and a blonde wig. For where Mitchell’s achievement hits home most powerfully, often shockingly so, is in its unflinching portrayal of violence against women, Theodora humiliated, molested, ‘remade’ in an appearance acceptable to those in power, and awaiting rape. Septimius may speak of Theodora as a ‘prostitute’, but she is not that; there is no payment. She is entirely at the mercy of those who possess her—until, that is, she fights back. Mitchell’s determination to avoid, to demolish, the male gaze is meet and right. Indeed, in having Didymus stand as the object of our gaze, male and female, first in the baptismal rite conducted at the end of the first act, renewed and parodied in the second loss of his clothes (his masculinity too), she reminds us that even such fragile ‘equality’ as that will constantly be under attack. We recognise it as inversion, even if we pleasure in it. And should we not instead wish for and bring about liberation instead? 

Whereas the libretto has us move in our mind’s imagination from one camp to the other, the embassy setting enables exchange, sometimes by splitting the stage into different rooms, sometimes by having their worlds collide. This has evident dramatic consequences, but they can be arrestingly aesthetic too. In Irene’s ‘Defend her, Heav’n!’ for instance, the action taking place simultaneously in the brothel is seen in magnificently crafted slow motion (movement: Sarita Piotrowski) that interacts with vocal and orchestral music in astonishing fashion. Mitchell appreciates the difficulties attendant to staging in ‘modern’ fashion arias which, if even if they had been intended to be staged—we need not be too hung up on that, for Handel would have written them similarly, even identically—would not generally have been conceived as purveyors of dramatic action. Here, and on certain other occasions, she lets the world continue to move. How, after all, could she stop it? Yet there is a suspended quality to that action, a recognition that beholding it can be exquisite, can be spellbinding, and can be harnessed, dare I suggest, to good and evil.


Harry Bicket’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House—in a welcome break with much recent practice, the Royal Opera has not consigned Handel’s music to an imported band—impressed most when, as often it did, it appeared quite indivisible from the stage action. I had a sense—right or wrong, it barely matters—that he might have done it differently in a performance without Mitchell’s staging. At times, more often than not with the chorus, it took a little while to settle down; indeed, some of the faster choral writing, arguably too fast on this occasion, ran a little ragged. This, however, was by and large a thoughtful and compelling musical performance, with some utterly ravishing woodwind playing in particular. And what a joy not to have to endure Handel with toothpaste-squeezing strings!


What a joy, moreover, to be treated to such a cast of Handel singers, who of course contributed greatly to much of what I have said above. Julia Bullock’s patient strength and unshowy sincerity seemed to me just the ticket for Theodora. Charles Burney described her predecessor, Giulia Frasi, a few years earlier as having for Handel ‘a clear and sweet voice, free from defects, and a smooth and chaste style of singing; which, though cold and unimpassioned, pleased natural ears, and escaped the censure of critics.’ Doubtless that meant something different then from what it would now, but I sensed, however fancifully, a dialogue between our two Theodoras, in the broader spirit of what we saw and heard elsewhere too. If I felt the production a little less clear what to do with Irene—perhaps I was simply failing to understand—Joyce DiDonato’s performance of heartfelt clarity likewise challenged one to imagine it sung otherwise. Likewise Jakub Józef Orliński’s Didymus, as athletic and as melting as his stage presence. Movingly, intelligently compromised as a character between worlds, Ed Lyon’s Septimius was again an object lesson in vocal style, clarity, and tenderness. If Gyula Orendt’s task as Valens in this production was rather thankless, he emerged nonetheless with vocal and dramatic credit. Dramatic credit certainly went to the non-singing actors in the cast too, crucial to Mitchell’s vision—and to our increasingly discomfited gaze.


I have a ‘but’. (Does not one always?) I can see why Mitchell and her team resist Theodora’s martyrdom. In many ways, I sympathise, though surely we have all moved beyond Cathérine Clément’s notorious Opera, or the Undoing of Women (notorious not least for treating opera as if it were not a musical genre). Yet ultimately, to have the heroine survive and kill her oppressors points to a lack of interest I find more troubling than any inversion or deconstruction; it is a lack of interest shared by most opera directors and indeed by most beyond our theatres too. For Theodora is supposed to be a Christian in more than name. Didymus is supposed to convert in more than word. Who are these ‘Christians’? One could adopt a Nietzschean attitude towards their ‘slave morality’ if one did not want to take their faith, or Handel’s, at face value. One could make them another oppressed group: Muslims, say. There is surely, though, interest in that for which they are willing, even joyful, to die; to lose that completely seems an unnecessarily bitter pill. Religious belief and a broader theological framework seem neither here nor there, which surely is to sidestep why Theodora ‘should’ have died and to fail to recognise her on terms more radical still than anything attempted here and which ultimately resist victimhood more strongly too. That, of course, is not what Mitchell has chosen and she is perfectly entitled to have made the choice she has, but it is surely not incompatible with feminism (at least as this male voice understands it). We are nevertheless left with much to consider.