Friday 24 June 2022

Violet, Music Theatre Wales, 23 June 2022

Hackney Empire

Violet – Anna Dennis
Felix – Richard Burkhard
Laura – Frances Gregory
Clockkeeper – Andrew MacKenzie-Wicks

Jude Christian (director)
Maya Shimmin (assistant director)
Rosie Elnile (designs)
Cécile Trémolières (costumes)
Jackie Shemesh (lighting)
Adam Sinclair (animation)
Jasmin Kent Rodgman (bell sound design)

Sound Intermedia (sound design)
London Sinfonietta
Andrew Gourlay (conductor)

Completed in late 2019 and scheduled to premiere in the lost year of 2020, Violet, an excellent new one-act opera by Tom Coult and Alice Birch finally had its first performance earlier this month in Aldeburgh. Jude Christian’s production for Music Theatre Wales has now reached, for one night only, London’s Hackney Empire, under the Royal Opera House umbrella. In a pre-performance talk, Coult recalled his fears during that terrible intervening period that his first opera would prove a white elephant, that it would never be seen, that the companies involved would go bankrupt, and so on. Whilst I am sure it will be no comfort, the greater hunger so many of us feel for live performance following its enforced suppression may well have resulted in a more warmly appreciative reception. At any rate, a large as well as enthusiastic audience greeted Violet’s London premiere, current transport difficulties notwithstanding. 

Time is, quite literally, of the essence here. It is the first word we hear; it haunts libretto, score, and stage action; we experience the dark side of both its regularity and what might happen, were it to malfunction. The overarching concept is of a world in which, suddenly and without direct explanation, each day an hour is lost; the number of the day (increasing) and the number of its hours (decreasing) displayed by the somewhat mysterious Clockkeeper. It is surely not for nothing that the clock resembles a gallows, nor that Violet’s husband Felix, the stunting, repressive conventionality of whose domestic regime seems to mirror that of society at large, ends up being hanged from it. There are prospects of liberation, or at least rebellion: depressed and holed up in her time-regulated household, Violet grasps the possibility of being different, even of living. But all the while, time is lost—and crucially, one hears that musically, in the contest of narrowing and widening horizons. Like a temporal concertina, the frame is clear, but within that framing, when possibilities are presented, stylistic variety asserts itself. Birch’s precise yet open language is not so much mirrored as complemented, expanded upon, by Coult’s score. That is to say, this is (on my terms, anyway) a real opera, not a mere play set to music. 

A thirteen-strong London Sinfonietta ensemble, directed with sympathy and understanding by Andrew Gourlay, ensured that conventional and less conventional instruments (e.g. pitch pipes, dog clickers, and kalimba, as well as prepared instruments and different tunings for strings) combine, associate, and dissociate with a combination of clockwork precision and ominous disarray such as characterises the work ‘itself’. The work is introduced and punctuated by passages of electronic music, based on bell sounds (tolling, pealing, or something else?) on which Coult collaborated with Jasmin Kent Rodgman. What, in abstracto, might seem obvious musical devices—perhaps they are, yet so what?—such as prolongation and other transformation of musical material as time runs out make their point frighteningly well. Coult writes evocatively of the music becoming ‘more desiccated, frayed, curdled’; that is very much what we hear.   

Christian’s staging, focused straightforwardly on Violet’s kitchen and the clock, tells the story intelligently and, again, openly. We are never told what to think, but we are supported in doing so. Cécile Trémolières’s costumes breathe the same air of restriction, yet never constrain us to a particular time or place. Transformations in Violet’s mood are milestones—or perhaps not, since nothing is averted. Anna Dennis’s assumption of the title role is authoritative: assured and again suggesting ambiguity in what we might make of it. Although an announcement was made concerning Burkhard’s recovery from illness, one would not have known. His dark yet subtle malevolence was part and parcel of that created by composer and librettist. Frances Gregory’s Laura hovered tantalisingly between escape and capitulation, similar to Violet, yet different. Andrew MacKenzie Wicks gave a striking performance of the acts—and non-acts—of the Clockkeeper, keeping his cards properly close to his chest. 

There are hints that the catastrophe is in part environmental, but that is not the principal point and may not be the cause. For time runs out as cruelly as it governs our ‘normal’ lives. A final scene frames and intensifies our response. A mediated world of banal quiz shows, time again at a premium, and military conflict, likewise, plays out: that ‘out’ as crucial as in the prior action. There is a political point here; indeed, there are several. It is up to us, though, to divine what it is, what we should do, how we must change. Like Violet emerging from her depression, then; and yet, if such would be the outcome, what might be the point? The hope we lost in 2020, the hope we should have heard in Fidelio, had it and Beethoven not been silenced in his anniversary year, become ever more distant. Late capitalism becomes ever later; the very automation that should afford us greater leisure, even greater freedom, continues to benefit not the many, but the few. Redistribution of wealth, of time, of hope must wait, although—as in the scene when Felix tries to glean from the Clockkeeper just what is going on—no one tells us why.

Tuesday 21 June 2022

The Excursions of Mr Brouček, Grange Park Opera, 18 June 2022

The Theatre in the Woods

Mr Brouček – Peter Hoare
Málinka, Etherea, Kunka – Fflur Wyn
Mazal, Bounzincek, Petrik, Svatopluk – Mark Le Brocq
Würfl, Paycek, Councillor – Andrew Shore
Sacristan, Dudcek, Domšík – Clive Bayley
Kedruta – Anne-Marie Owens
Spotcek, Vojta, Raincek, Mirosla – Adrian Thompson
Postdatedcek – Jonathan Kennedy
Child Prodigy – Pasquale Orchard
Spotcek – Robin Horgan
Farty – Benjie del Rosario
Taborite I – Toki Hamano
Arty, Taborite I – Marcus Swietlicki
Dancers – Lauren Bridle, Bridget Lappin, Arianne Morgan, Luke Murphy, Jay Yule

David Pountney (director)
Leslie Travers (designs)
Marie-Jean Lecca (costumes)
Tim Mitchell (lighting)
Lynne Hockney (choreography)

BBC Concert Orchestra
George Jackson (conductor)

Bounzincek (Mark Le Brocq) and an artist on the moon
Images: Marc Brenner

Hats off to Grange Park Opera for unquestionably the best of the four ‘country house’ operas I have seen so far this season. First, and perhaps most important, with respect to the work itself: Janáček’s The Excursions of Mr Brouček. I suppose it might be theoretically possible to reach a state in which Janáček’s music was heard too often, though it might not. (Imagine saying such a thing of Bach or Mozart.) If it is, though, we are nowhere near that yet. Yet the Janáček operas we see staged are mostly, perhaps understandably, restricted to three: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, and The Cunning Little Vixen. We must go beyond The Makropulos Case and even From the House of the Dead to reach Mr Brouček. Doubtless some in the Grange Park Opera audience had seen it in the theatre before, but I had not, and was immensely grateful to have the opportunity to do so, let alone for it to be performed so well. 

Mr Brouček will doubtless always be a problematical work, in a way that the aforementioned popular (relatively speaking) trio will not. Its two-part structure will probably always require effort to bring together—if, indeed, such is the dramaturgical aim. But art is certainly not always about perfection, or approaches to it. Sometimes, it is about quite the opposite. The first part’s satire against pretentious avant-gardism, or perhaps better derrière-gardism, hits home more readily for a modern, or at least non-Czech, audience than the second, more preoccupied with Czech national mythology—although a little grounding helps us on our way. Nationalism, after all, remains sadly too universal. But the other part of the satire is against the antihero himself: the philistine who has little idea what he is doing in Prague, let alone on the Moon or in the fifteenth century. To that, we can and should all relate. No one likes a landlord, after all, especially one who boasts of having no mortgage, only a three-storey house. You can begin to see why the opera will never touch as Katya does. That is not its purpose.


Málinka (Fflur Wyn)

David Pountney’s production pulls out all the stops for a frankly zany trip from Prague to the moon, clarified and extended by Marie-Jean Lecca’s imaginative costuming. Leslie Travers’s brilliant set for the former captures an almost childlike delight in city models, as well as the, or at least an, idea of Prague. The empty pretentiousness of the moon artists—Pountney has fun, using his own, free English version of the text, creating names such as Spotcek, Raincek, and Postdatedcek—engenders an intoxication of its own. It is fun to watch, which guards us against too ready identification with Brouček. ‘We must each fight our inner Brouček,’ Janáček insisted. A similar, yet different mix of magical constructivism informs the still more bewildering—for many—and darker trip to the Prague of the Hussite rebellion.


Mr Brouček (Peter Hoare)

Whether one cares for the (literal) toilet (brush) humour of the interlude between the visits, will be a matter of taste. Monty Python is not my thing, but if it is yours, you will almost certainly love Pountney’s more outrageous excurses. Sometimes, though, I wondered where the heart was, especially during the Moon-trip. Is there not something more positive to say about artistic creation too? The answer, I suppose, would be that it lies in the score (and, indeed, in the artistic endeavour of performance and reception itself. It arguably suggested itself onstage at the end, when the innkeeper Würfl collected his drunken patron, laughed at his tall tales, but also walked him away in camaraderie. Perhaps that was enough. Again, that will probably be as much a matter of taste or inclination as anything else.


Peter Hoare’s Brouček captured well the contradictions not only of the character, but of our response(s) to him. This was a typically intelligent performance, which held the stage, amused, and touched without sentimentality. Fflur Wyn’s Málinka and other roles were lively, characterful, and rooted in, yet far from hidebound by, the text. Such is the magic of theatre, and such might be said of any number of the cast, including Mark Le Brocq’s handful of roles, Andrew Shore’s, and Clive Bayley’s, as well as Anne-Marie Owens's Kedruta. This was very much a company effort, which did Grange Park Opera proud, enthralling an audience that could all too readily have registered mere bemusement at the work’s oddity.

Domsik (Clive Bayley)

George Jackson’s traversal of the score elicited my unqualified admiration, as did the playing of the BBC Concert Orchestra. Incisive and expansive, earthy and soaring, above all attuned to those fabled speech rhythms and their unpredictable, magical combination into form and structure, this was as fine a Janáček performance as I have heard for some time, all the more so for its revelation of relatively unfamiliar territory. Time and time, presentiments of the Vixen’s world shone through, anchoring these ‘excursions’ in a common humanity and inspiring us to go forth and create it. The score emerged possessed of the musical, scherzando brilliance of the more or less contemporary Gianni Schicchi, if perhaps less single-minded, at any rate without the latter work’s dramaturgical precision, considered as a whole. We might say Janáček’s musical dramaturgy is more adventurous, though much depends what one means. Whatever our thoughts on that, this was a musical banquet beautifully and, at the last, movingly served.

Sunday 19 June 2022

Eugene Onegin, Opera Holland Park, 15 June 2022

Tatiana – Anush Hovhannisyan
Onegin – Samuel Dale Johnson
Lensky – Jack Roberts
Olga – Emma Stannard
Mme Larina – Amanda Roocroft
Filipievna – Kathleen Wilkinson
Prince Gremin – Matthew Stiff
M. Triquet – Joseph Buckmaster
Zaretsky/Captain – Konrad Jaromin
Solo tenor – Phillip Costovski

Julia Burbach (director)
takis (designs)
Robert Price (lighting)
Jo Meredith (movement)

Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus director: Richard Harker)
City of London Sinfonia
Lada Valešová (conductor)

Eugene Onegin (Samuel Dale Johnson).
Images: Ali Wright

Sharing a single set by takis with Carmen—typically resourceful, sustainable practice for Opera Holland Park—Julia Burbach’s Eugene Onegin proved a puzzling affair. The idea, I think, was to move between monochrome and colour, perhaps playing with memory and/or dreaming, but too much remained obscure or arbitrary (at least for me). Burbach seemed unsure whether to opt for realism, something more symbolic, or even a coherent melange of the two. Presumably, the uniform light colours of the first scene were intended to evoke a sort of Chekhovian boredom, but it seemed at odds with Pushkin, let alone Tchaikovsky.  Having everyone dressed in similar finery in that opening scene also suggested a chorus of nobles rather than peasants. For these were clearly the same people we encountered in the ball scene, and I do not think the intention was to suggest some sort of Russian Petit Trianon. Quite why some were playing badminton, I have no idea; it proved distracting in the wrong way, as had ‘peasant’ dancing earlier on. A turn through colour to black largely made emotional and narrative sense, yet details continued to sit oddly with the overall ‘picture’. Nothing ever quite moved convincingly, nor settled down.

It was also unquestionably the most heteronormative Onegin I have seen: a perverse distinction, one might say. Not only is there no sign, no inkling, nor even the slightest twinkling of an eye, of homosexual subtext; the characters are conventional enough in their relationships to be plausibly heterosexual. Perhaps if one were viewing work and creator from a Putinesque standpoint, that might signal cause for celebration. To the rest of us, it may seem strange or evasive.

That said, the cast did a fine job within these confines. Jack Roberts (an OHP Young Artist) and Emma Stannard gave a fine impression of Lensky and Olga as a young couple giddily in love. Their sheer enthusiasm proved infectious, not least given the curiously static production. Roberts’s sappy tenor and Stannard’s deep-toned mezzo proved just the vocal ticket too. Samuel Dale Johnson’s offered a thoughtful, well-sung performance as Onegin, both beguiling and infuriating in his mood swings. If the visual haunting demanded by Burbach in the Letter Scene seemed somewhat contrived, Dale Johnson’s subtler vocal version thereafter, culminating tragically in buyer’s remorse, was far more convincing. Anush Hovhannisyan’s Tatina gained in confidence as the evening went on: character development of course, but also, I think, in strength of performance. By the final scene, this was a formidable portrayal indeed. There were no weak links onstage, Kathleen Wilkinson’s Filipievna and Konrad Jaromin’s appearances as Zaretsky and the Captain especially catching the ear.

Tatiana (Anush Hovhannisyan)

Lada Valešová’s direction of the City of London Sinfonia seemed, laudably, engineered to follow these particular performances and production, rather than being imposed upon them. Was her languorous, intimate way with the first act too much of a muchness? That is probably a question of taste. It is not how I hear the work, but there was a thoughtful approach at work here. I missed a sense of abandon in the big public scenes, though Valešová’s scrupulousness offered alternative rewards.  One should also bear in mind that she was working with—and emphatically with—a chamber orchestra. A larger orchestra, as well as a different production, may well have brought forth a different musical reading.

Madama Butterfly, Royal Opera, 14 June 2022

Royal Opera House

Pinkerton – Freddie De Tommaso
Goro – Alexander Kravets
Suzuki – Patricia Bardon
Sharpless – Lucas Meachem
Cio-Cio-San – Lianna Haroutounian
Imperial Commissioner – Dawid Kimberg
Original Registrar – Nigel Cliffe
Cio-Cio-San’s Mother – Eryl Royle
Uncle Yaukusidé – Andrew O’Connor
Cousin – Amy Catt
Aunt – Kiera Lyness
Bonze – Jeremy White
Dolore – Leo Stokkland-Baker
Prince Yamadori – Alan Pingarrón
Kate Pinkerton – Rachel Lloyd

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier (directors)
Daniel Dooner (revival director)
Christian Fenouillat (set designs)
Agostino Cavalca (costumes)
Christophe Forey (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Dan Ettinger (conductor)

Images: © Yasuko Kageyama

‘In the 21st century, staging Madama Butterfly poses questions for any opera house. The opera’s essence is a violent collision between two cultures. But how to represent another culture on stage with truth and sensitivity? In reviving Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s classic production, we have involved Japanese practitioners and academic to work towards a Butterfly both true to the spirit of the original and more authentic in its representation of Japan.’

Not perfect, far from it; one could readily pick holes in that section of the programme’s ‘welcome’ statement from Oliver Mears and Antonio Pappano. For instance, t is at least debatable, to my mind rather more than that, that the work’s ‘essence’ is something else entirely. Moreover, if the Royal Opera were honest about it—this would be true of pretty much every opera company on the planet—staging such a work and production did not really ‘pose questions’ until very recently indeed in the twenty-first century. It is good, though, to see the opera world showing some such development, and we should be gracious about that: we all, after all, have a long, long way to go in working towards a more racially (and otherwise) just society.

I do not recall having seen the production before, so cannot comment on how noticeable the changes are. I suspect some of them would have passed me by, had I not been advised what to look for, though that doubtless says more about my (ignorant) standpoint than anything else. Costumes, we read, have undergone modification to make them more of the period in which the production is set, not least in terms of their signification of social status. Make-up has also been modified, in order to appear less caricatured, more ‘natural’ or at least appropriate. This I can see from looking at pictures from previous outings. Otherwise, Leiser and Caurier’s production seems to me ‘classic’ only in the sense of standing firmly in the middle of the road: a degree of abstraction, more as style than concept, remaining essentially realist; no Zeffirelli horror, but nothing to scare the Daily Mail horses either. Christophe Forey’s lighting guides the action, subtly and more starkly. And revival director Daniel Dooner does a good job guiding his forces on stage, although the heroine’s demise proved unfortunate.


That final rolling around on stage was an extreme conclusion to a performance from Lianna Haroutounian that was throughout more strong than subtle. I am not sure it was especially in keeping with the avowed intentions of this revision, but it did no especial harm. Ultimately, though, it was difficult to take her seriously enough in the role. Freddie De Tommaso’s Pinkerton also tended towards the broad-brush, albeit with greater attention to detail: a perfectly decent, if not especially illuminating, performance. I presume a pronounced lachrymose tendency in the third act to have been an interpretative decision, just in case one did not loath the character enough; the self-pity did the trick, in any case. Patricia Bardon’s Suzuki was constant and compassionate, very much what one expected—and wanted—to hear. For me, Lucas Meachem’s Sharpless was the pick of the bunch, his thoughtful, variegated performance unquestionably founded in the text. The Royal Opera Chorus was not on its best form, comparisons with Covent Garden’s recent Lohengrin again unfortunate.

 Not nearly so unfortunate, though, as the conducting. In the programme, we also read Mears and Pappano write, ‘We are thrilled to welcome back Dan Ettinger to conduct.’ They could hardly say they had been pained to do so, but leaving out Ettinger altogether would have been preferable. It is difficult to imagine anyone having been thrilled with the results, at any rate. Ettinger’s sole advantage, relatively speaking, was that he was not Daniel Oren: another, frankly atrocious conductor Covent Garden engages with bewildering frequency. This was bad, but perhaps not quite so bad. Quite what it is with some such figures I do not know; maybe it is the demands of artist management companies. Whatever it is, houses should stand firm. For Ettinger’s perverse achievement in ridding most of Puccini’s score, especially an interminable first act, of any interest, let alone drama, was not something any house should welcome. The rest was loud, crude, weirdly devoid of harmonic rhythm, and often simply of harmonic, let alone structural, interest. 

If work and production are to be further re-evaluated, then having someone capable of leading such re-evaluation from the pit would help; enlisting someone capable of holding one’s attention would be a bare minimum. Better still, consider a staging that engages more deeply with the racial and sexual violence, as well as the devastating imperialism, that lie at this opera's heart (or lack thereof).

Tuesday 14 June 2022

Carmen, Opera Holland Park, 10 June 2022


Carmen – Kezia Bienek
Don José – Oliver Johnston
Escamillo – Thomas Mole
Micaëla – Alison Langer
Frasquita – Natasha Agarwal
Mercédès – Ellie Edmonds
Zuniga – Jacob Phillips
Moralès – Jevan McAuley
Le Dancaïre – Themba Mvula
Le Remendado – Mike Bradley

Cecilia Stinton (director)
takis (set designs)
Johanne Jensen (lighting)
Isabel Baquero (choreography)

Children’s Chorus from Cardinal Vaughan School
Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus director: Richard Harker)
City of London Sinfonia
Lee Reynolds (conductor)

Image: Ali Wright
Carmen was the last opera I saw before the end of the world. Not necessarily what I would have chosen; for many of my friends it was Fidelio, whose absence from my truncated Beethoven Year I regretted deeply. But then none of us chose pandemic, lockdown, death, misery, and the rest. It was good, though, to have opportunity to exorcise another pandemic ghost, albeit in different guise. Cecilia Stinton’s new Holland Park production has little in common with Martin Kušej’s staging at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden; nor did Lee Reynolds’ traversal of the score, in his own, skilful, new reduction correspond to my memories of Daniel Barenboim. 

Different strokes…? Doubtless, yet I could not help but regret the lack of rethinking, especially in staging. There are half-hearted nods to a feminist turn, which in context come across more as odd than enlightening, for ultimately what we see is highly conventional, permitting of little to say other than what it is not. We lacked, thank goodness, Francesca Zambello’s notorious donkey; otherwise, this was a ‘period’ tale, in uniforms and frocks. It all looks a bit like a school play. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s radical decentring of Carmen could not be more distant; the unremitting intensity of Calixto Bieito’s much ‘straighter’ retelling in Franco’s Spain seems a world away too. There is some ‘colourful’ dancing and other musical comedy-style ‘business’. Children hand around postcards advertising Escamillo’s fight. Don José elicits strikingly little directorial interest, but it would be difficult to say any of the characters was fully treated. And that, bar a peculiar role reversal at the opening, is more or less it. It seems odd that anyone might need a course in orientalism at this stage, but there we are.

Reynolds’s conducting had none of Barenboim’s revisionism either, yet proved more compelling than the staging. The City of London Sinfonia was on sharp form, clearly in sympathy with its conductor’s carefully gauged balance of drive and lyricism. If I missed the sense of numbers contributing to a sum greater than their parts, that is often the case here; and I realise, especially in the ‘authentic’ opéra comique version, that I could readily be accused of wanting to turn the opera into something (more Austro-German, Nietzsche forbid) than it is. Reynolds and the orchestra supported the cast and led the action where necessary and appropriate. No one could or should reasonably have been disappointed, save for the inevitable reductions in scale of a chamber orchestration. Even then, different balances—not least, more prominent woodwind—had one reconsider one’s position on the work: no bad thing, given its ubiquity. 

Kezia Bienek fully inhabited the title role, insofar as the production permitted. Hers was a Carmen, quite rightly, not inclined to take any prisoners, yet far from one-dimensional. Vocal delivery was well centred on the text as a whole (that is, words and music) and stage presence fitted the bill splendidly throughout. If the staging seemed rather to leave Oliver Johnston to fend for himself, he proved well able to do so, giving us an intelligently sung Don José. Thomas Mole’s dark tone was just the thing for Escamillo, in another intelligent reading. Micaëlas rarely disappointed, but that is no reason not to celebrate Alison Langer’s performance, beautifully and touchingly sung. A fine supporting cast and excellent performances both from the Opera Holland Park Chorus and pupils of Cardinal Vaughan School compensated in good measure for what I—though not, I think, the audience as a whole—perceived as lack of ambition in the production.  

Sunday 12 June 2022

Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard's Castle, Oper Frankfurt, 5 June 2022

Frankfurt Opera House

Dido – Cecelia Hall
Aeneas – Sebastian Geyer
Belinda – Kateryna Kasper
Second Woman – Karolina Bengtsson
Sorceress – Dmitry Egorov
First Witch – Elizabeth Reiter
Second Witch – Karolina Makuła
Spirit, Sailor – Carlos Andrés Cárdenas

Bluebeard – Nicholas Brownlee
Judith – Claudia Mahnke
Prologue (on tape) – Benedek Salgo

Barrie Kosky (director)
Alan Barnes (revival director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Joachim Klein (lighting)
Zsolt Horpácsy (dramaturgy)

Frankfurt Opera Chorus (chorus director: Tilman Michael)
Frankfurt Opern- und Museumsorchester
Benjamin Reiners (conductor)

First Witch (Elizabeth Reiter), Sorceress (Dmitry Egorov), Second Witch (Karolina Makula)
Images: Barbara Aumüller

The operatic double-bill presents problems and opportunities—like any staged event, one might say, though there are of course specific cases for each genre, even vis-à-vis spoken theatre. First, at least in most instances, comes the question of what to programme together, that is assuming one has rejected the obvious solution of leaving a shortish one-act opera on its own. Practices change: we now rarely programme Salome or Elektra with another work, although once this was far from uncommon. Bluebeard’s Castle is more often heard in concert, which permits a broader range of companion pieces; in the theatre, it has also attracted ballets and even concert works, Katie Mitchell’s recent Munich staging having been presented with Bartók’s own Concerto for Orchestra. Another companion, at Salzburg, Covent Garden and the Met, has been Erwartung: the timings work well, as do the complementary dramatic trajectories. In New York, Jessye Norman played both Judith and The Woman, quite a feat. Dido and Aeneas has likewise had various operatic partners, as well as none; ENO’s After Dido, again directed by Mitchell, presenting the opera within a larger theatre piece. Only last month, I saw an HGO performance paired with John Blow’s Venus and Adonis. In our enclosed musical world, ‘early music’ all too often siphoned off as a thing-in-itself, rarely to be performed with modernist works, or even on the same instruments, one interesting dramatic solution can rarely if ever have been attempted before: Bluebeard and Dido, both treatments of a proud woman’s fate. Step forward Oper Frankfurt and Barrie Kosky, in their 2010 production (taken to the 2013 Edinburgh Festival), now revived in Frankfurt for the fourth time. 

A further major question lies in how far to connect the stagings and performances. Calixto Bieito’s pairing of Bluebeard with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi for Kosky’s home territory of the Komische Oper Berlin presented what we might think of as a strong yet subtle combination of the two, leading connection not only through scenery but action and ideas, without forcing it. Kosky seems more content to let us do the work: no bad thing necessarily, and it may (more or less) simply reflect the differences between the works. The closest I could come to a guiding thread was use of space, physical and metaphysical. When Dido opens, we see a crowded bench, somewhat cramped, with what may be a theatre audience, or at any rate a representation of the cast and (postmodern?) society featured. There is stereotypical Kosky action, whose silliness will irritate or not according to persuasion, albeit in more of an alienating, even Brechtian way than twelve years later one might expect from him. There is, of course, cross-dressing—but in a fun slant on such gender bending, it is unclear whether the female singers who play witches (as well as countertenor Dmitry Egorov as the Sorceress) are male or female; at least it was to me. I only discovered when they sang. And in that sense, there is some impression given that liberation from a claustrophobia that stands somewhat at odds, presumably on purpose, with our post-Virgilian idea of Carthage is through music, through dance, through human (and theatrical) activity. The loneliness felt in the case of Dido and Aeneas alone on the vast expanse of the bench comes as contrast, yet within an overall sense of constriction. It is perhaps a reinvention of the classical AMOR/ROMA dilemma, not without metatheatrical elements born of, yet far from enslaved by, the old English court masque. 

Bluebeard (Nicholas Brownlee) and Judith (Claudia Mahnke)

With Bluebeard, by contrast, where one would expect to see visual, if opulent constraint, within the castle, the stage is wide-open, though its tilting revolve, leading nowhere, provides necessary boundaries. The important thing here, I think, is that nothing is overladen with attempts, necessarily unsuccessful, to conjure visually the riches of what we hear. There is good reason this opera is often given in concert. Like Bieito, Kosky understands Bluebeard as a game of sado-masochism. It is played out with restraint, though certainly not without action, simply making every action, more symbolist than realist, count. And it is open, like the stage, permitting to make what one will. Doubles of different ages come and go, participate and do not; but it is clear where the drama truly lies. 

Benjamin Reiners registered the orchestral action most strongly in Bartók, seemingly afraid to trust Purcell at what we can still with good reason consider his word, notwithstanding the complexities of textual issues three centuries on. Leading the excellent Frankfurt Opern- und Museumsorchester, Reiners traced the ebb and flow of Bartók’s score with dramatic wisdom, absorbing the fascination of detail within longer-term hearing (and playing), not unlike what we saw played out above. If lacking the razor precision and strength of tonal association of the finest accounts, there was no reasonable room for complaint here, especially with Nicholas Brownless and Claudia Mahnke on stage. Their commanding, utterly involved performances seemingly took us to the limits, straining at something beyond, again just like Bartók’s (and Béla Balázs’s) drama. Within those limits, all manner of variegation made its point just as strongly. Bluebeard’s deep, damaged vulnerability came as powerfully to the fore as Judith’s complex death wish, caught within the dictates of fate. 

When it came to Purcell, Reiners (and, to a certain extent, the orchestra) seemed more uncertain, aping what we have come to know, rightly or wrongly, as ‘period style’ without making the case for it. The results often sounded arbitrary, more fashionable than grounded, resorting to peculiar distractions so as not to sound too archaeological and thereby emerging as neither fish nor fowl, not even an alchemical combination of both. I do not think I have ever, in any variety performance, heard the second section of the overture taken at anything like such a speed. One may quibble with the suggestion by the Victorian editor (and composer) George McFarren of ‘Allegro moderato’, though it seems sensible enough to me; a modern Presto merely sounded bizarre. Other sections came across as listless, lacking necessary underpinning of harmonic rhythm. Peculiar Luftpausen were frequently inserted into vocal lines, solo and choral; whether this were a feature of the production or simply the performance, I am not entirely sure, though I had a distinct impression, so well staged were they, that it may have been the former. At any rate, they served little musical—nor, for that matter, dramatic—purpose, though some will doubtless have felt differently. Likewise addition of recorder, oboe, and percussion. (The same people who scream blue murder at a great name from the past ‘taking liberties’ with early music seem strangely content with far more musically arbitrary practice such as this, so long as vibrato is minimised and/or ‘period instruments’ are employed.)

Dido (Cecilia Hall) and Aeneas (Sebastian Geyer)

A good deal, though, was redeemed by the singing. Cecilia Hall and Sebastian Geyer made for a captivating, ill-fated pair, who used Kosky’s staging (and Alan Barnes’s evidently attentive revival direction) as a fine springboard for their own thoughtful interpretations of mood, action, and overall trajectory. Kateryna Kasper’s Belinda, Karolina Bengtsson’s Second Woman, and Egorov’s aforementioned Sorceress, all impressed in detailed performances highly invested in music, words, and gesture. The chorus responded similarly well to demands both of score and production. Much, then, to enjoy—and on which to ponder.

Thursday 9 June 2022

Li-Tai-Pe, Theater Bonn, 4 June 2022

Bonn Opera House

Emperor Hüan-Tsung – Mark Morouse
Poet Li-Tai-Pe – Mirko Roschkowski
Ho-Tschi-Tschang, Doctor of the Imperial Academy – Giorgos Kanaris
Yang-Kewi-Tschung, First Minister – Tobias Schabel
Kao-Li-Tse, Commandant of the Garden – Johannes Mertes
Herald – Martin Tzonev
Shepherd – Kieran Carrel
Soldier – Pavel Kudinov
Fei-Yen, Korean princess – Ava Gesell
Yang-Guy-Fe – Anna Princeva
Mandarins – Tae-Hwan Yun, Alexander Kalina, Juhwan Cho, Ricardo Llamas Marquez

Adriana Altaras (director)
Christoph Schubiger (set designs)
Nina Lepilina (costumes)
Boris Kahnert (lighting)
Andreas K.W. Meyer (dramaturgy)
Chorus and Extra Chorus of Theater Bonn (chorus director: Marco Medved)
Beethoven Orchester Bonn
Hermes Helfricht (conductor)

Images: Thilo Beu

An opera you have never heard of, let alone heard, by a composer you have probably never heard of either: experience teaches us scepticism. ‘Unjustly neglected’ can readily prove all-too-justly neglected. Not, however, in this case. It may sound as though I am inventing the figure of Clemens Erwein Georg Heinrich Bonaventura von und zu Franckenstein, known to his friends simply as ‘Clé’; or is he a rejected character from an ill-advised attempt at a sequel to Der Rosenkavalier? But no, not only did Franckenstein exist; he played a far from inconsiderable role in German musical life, serving twice as Director of the Bavarian Court/State Opera (1912-18 and 1924-34), at the beginning of that second term appointing Hans Knappertsbusch as music director. He was also a composer of five operas, one, Die Biene, to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Li-Tai-Pe, his last, a popular work in theatres across Germany following its 1920 premiere until 1944; after which, until now, silence. Engaged in a long-term project, Fokus ’33, examining German operas that disappeared from the repertoire either in 1933 or 1945, Theater Bonn has successfully returned Li-Tai-Pe to the stage and also begun to explore other works by the composer. 

It was a strange coincidence to go from Das Lied von der Erde one evening to an opera concerning the poet of four of its songs the next, yet, however we wish to transliterate the poet’s name, we are probably better keeping these two incarnations apart, save for his fondness for drink. Ultimately, this is an historical folktale, albeit with little of the edge we might associate with the Brothers Grimm et al. What instead it offers is a tale well told, with some degree of post-Meistersinger reflection on the creative process of song. The Emperor calls upon the provincial, unclubbable Li-Tao-Pe to turn feelings of love into song, which he does with great success, thus creating enemies who come close to engineering his downfall, only for the poet to be saved by his acknowledged, yet truest love from home, with whom he leaves to build a new life. The role of song in love and politics, as well as ‘for itself’ and vis-à-vis the public, is lightly yet interestingly examined during the course of a three-act opera that is well proportioned, lasts under two hours, and in no sense overstays its welcome. Rudolf Lothar’s skilful libretto plays no small role in that; opera-goers may known him from Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland, but there is clearly more to his œuvre, from novels and plays to a libretto (for Paul Graener) on the subject of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

What of Franckenstein? It seems—and here I must note Juliane Brandes’s helpful programme essay—that a crucial figure in placing his musical language is his teacher, Ludwig Thuille, now likewise little known as a composer though he retained currency in German postwar conservatories through his decidedly non-Schoenbergian Harmonielehre. Historically, though, Thuille, whose other pupils included Hermann Abendroth, Walter Braunfels, Rudi Stephan, Ernest Bloch, and Paul von Klenau, was accounted a key figure in the so-called Munich School of composers, from whom Richard Strauss now dwarfs all others, but which also includes Hans Pfitzner, Max Schillings, and Alexander Ritter. Lest this become a game of ‘degrees of separation’, perhaps it is best to say that Wagnerisms in harmonic language were not necessarily matched by Wagnerian technique, let alone by the techniques of composers such as Mahler, Strauss, Debussy, and Schoenberg whom we have come to consider next in historical line. Motifs are employed, largely associated, it seems, with people or objects, but they do not really create harmony and form. 

In fact, in Franckenstein, Germanised Puccini often came to mind. There is no fathomless depth beneath the surface. Orchestration, textures, and even melody have something in common with the Italian master, whether through influence or common background. This was not the Puccini of Turandot, which in any case had yet to be written, but nonetheless later works, such as La rondine and Il trittico. Harmonic progressions from Il tabarro and the whirlwind scherzo-writing of Gianni Schicchi haunted the pit. Well-nigh inevitable pentatonic writing tended to be melodic rather than penetrating more conventional, even conservative structure. It is well-made music, though, clearly born of theatrical experience and, like the libretto, falls clearly and meaningfully into three well-proportioned, shortish acts. Nothing cries out for an editor (in a welcome contrast to another recent rarity The Wreckers, as revived at Glyndebourne: more ambitious, yet showing cruelly that ambition need not equal achievement.)


Adriana Altaras’s production is similarly well judged. Altaras knows that she cannot simply present such orientalism for a modern audience without a degree of framing. Film initially takes us to a modern Chinese city, transformed, even transmuted, into the stage on which the opera takes place. Clichés of orientalism are present, almost inevitably, for instance in the absurdly stylised presentation of the mandarins, but they are italicised and left for us to judge, without much in the way of danger of our swallowing them whole. The fairy-tale is far from absent, though; rather, it and its images—garden, river, boat, the art of painting as well as that of song—are framed. 

Hermes Helfricht’s conducting of the excellent Beethoven Orchester Bonn similarly made a strong case for the work, ‘in itself’ but also as something eminently viable for the modern stage. Textures, balances, and tempi all convinced, in another crucial element of assuring us this was no mere act of musical archaeology. Mirko Roschkowski’s assumption of the title role, poised somewhere between lyrical tenor and something more heroic, struck just the right note. So too did Anna Princeva’s thoughtful, committed portrayal of his love, the ever-faithful Yang-Guy-Fe. Mark Morouse’s Emperor likewise impressed in a reading rooted in, yet never limited by, the text. There was no weak link in the cast, though, its members coming together strongly as the sum of more of its parts. The large chorus deserves special mention, for musical and stage response alike; that was clearly born of keen direction, yet direction can only take one so far.


Last but not least, I should praise Theater Bonn for its outstanding documentation, the programme booklet including several essays, including musical examples, excerpts from other writing, images, and a full libretto. More please.

Saturday 4 June 2022

Kožená/Staples/COE/Rattle - Strauss and Mahler, 3 June 2022

Philharmonie, Cologne

Strauss: Metamorphosen
Mahler, arr. Glen Cortese: Das Lied von der Erde

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Simon Rattle (conductor)

No sooner than gaining Simon Rattle, London is about to lose him again, one of many ‘Brexit dividends’ that continue to lighten our lives. As is so often the case, Britain’s loss is Germany’s gain, Rattle exchanging the London Symphony Orchestra for Munich’s Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the meantime, Cologne’s Philharmonie is offering a ‘Sir Simon Rattle Portrait’, involving both the LSO and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Here, I heard Rattle conduct the latter in Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Glen Cortese’s reduction of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde for smaller orchestra.

The COE’s sound for the Strauss, cultivated and variegated, spoke very much of a collection of soloists come together in collaboration with a conductor, influencing one another. Rattle gave a detailed, yet unfussy account, taking time where necessary, letting the music breathe, but also pushing on later in tandem with Strauss’s generative motivic writing. I was put in mind of a comment Rattle made when recording Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder of this being the largest of string quartets. And Metamorphosen here sounded, more in the flexible line of Furtwängler than, say, Karajan or Klemperer, as if a companion piece to Verklärte Nacht, albeit with its sinking back into darkness perhaps having something in common with Strauss’s own Alpine Symphony (if you can imagine a chamber version of that). That was not final, of course, for spirits rose proudly once more, Rattle doing justice to the emotional and formal complexities of the work. Whilst sometimes I missed the stronger bass and thus harmonic drive one would hear from the conductors cited above, this had much to recommend it, not as a final word, but an important current one. For if this is not a piece that deals in ambiguities, what is?

Das Lied von der Erde made for an interesting comparison with a performance (for full orchestra) I heard last month from the LPO and Edward Gardner, with the same soloists, Magdalena Kožená and Andrew Staples. Rattle conducted from memory, as he had Metamorphosen. Whereas much of his recent Mahler has seemed wilful to me, I had the impression the challenge of this new version gave him enough of a challenge to curb more arbitrary flights of fancy (though some will have disagreed, particularly in the fifth and sixth movements). At any rate, neither Cortese’s work nor Rattle’s response offered little that is radical. I had been expecting something akin to an Erwin Stein Mahler Fourth, whereas here we had a large chamber orchestra (strings, mostly pairs of wind instruments, etc.) playing a slightly reduced score. Both singers seemed more greatly at ease, I thought, though whether that were a matter of score, conductor, or both I can hardly say. Staples in his numbers was readily able to sing on top of the orchestra rather than within, though there were a few cases, doubtless interpretative choices, of slight hectoring. The orchestra, though—and one felt this from the very start—retained its sense of being a group of soloists; that is the COE way (which so attracted Claudio Abbado, among others). Never did one quite hear the full, Mahlerian orchestral sound, whether in wind or bass, though that may in part have been Rattle’s preference. Instrumental solos, for instance Clara Andrada (flute) and Kai Frömbgen (oboe) were outstanding. 

In ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, the second movement, Kožená, confiding and intimate, though not without moments of grander scale, collaborated both with her instrumental partners and with Rattle to trace a sese of circular despair, of lack of progress, as the third stanza returned us to its opening material. There was as great an orchestral swell as we heard at the close of this movement, paving the way for detailed, chamber contrast in the third and fourth, Staples notably more lyrical than he had been in London. Rattle and Kožená conjured up a nightmarish central section in ‘Von der Schönheit,’ the former’s interventionism more pronounced in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, its third stanza heard as if in a daze. But then, the text does say: ‘Mir ist als wie im Traum’. 

‘Der Abschied’ lacked nothing in darkness as it opened. Rattle was again keener to mould, though not unduly. He arguably brought the music closer to Schoenberg than often one hears: individual lines threatened to go their own way, yet never quite did. Kožená’s singing was richly expressive and adaptive. Whereas Gardner had, until part way through this movement, seemed largely content to act as accompanist, Rattle’s more prominent ‘voice’ helped ensure a sense of turn around rather than flicking of a switch: ‘Die Schönheit dieses Abends au genießen.’ The lengthy, at times Wagnerian, orchestral interlude conveyed a sense that, while turning back might be inevitable, it would not be done without a fight. There was some splendid dragging of orchestral feet here, leading to a chamber Totentanz. As its marionettes prepared the wat for a desolate ‘Er stieg vom Pferd…,’ Kožená sounded—indeed, looked—changed forever. Her radiant final stanza, magical celesta and all, made the point near-definitively.