Monday, 29 August 2022

Salzburg Festival (5) - Katya Kabanova, 26 August 2022


Katěrina Kabanova – Corinne Winters
Marfa Ignatěvna Kabanova (Kabanicha) – Evelyn Herlitzius
Varvara – Jarmila Balážová
Boris Grigorjevič – David Butt Philip
Váňa Kudrjáš – Benjamin Hulett
Tichon Ivanyč Kabanov – Jaroslav Březina
Savël Prokofjevič Dikoj – Jens Larsen
Kuligin – Michael Mofidian
Glaša – Nicole Chirka
Fekluša – Ann-Kathrin Niemczyk

Barrie Kosky (director)
Rufus Didwiszus (set designs)
Victoria Behr (costumes)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Christian Arseni (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Huw Rhys James)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra,
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)

Images: SF / Monika Rittershaus 

For me, Barrie Kosky has often been at his best when staging more serious operas, which do not lend themselves to his trademark ‘showbiz’ treatment, and for which he has shown a single-mindedness again quite different from what other stagings may have led us to expect. Pelléas, Rusalka, Eugene Onegin, and Iphigénie en Tauride spring immediately to mind. Others differ strongly, I know, so it is probably more a matter of taste as anything else (though not in the case of that breathtakingly dishonest Bayreuth Meistersinger). This new Salzburg production of Katya Kabanova broadly falls, I suppose, into that category. There was certainly nothing to object to, nothing to distract; and yet, I could not help but feel—more feel than think—that something was missing. 

Theatre is not, of course, made in a vacuum. Experience of the pandemic—far from over, of course, whatever our overlords may tell us—is still raw and its consequences are still very much with us (he wrote, typing, FFP2-mask-clad, on a train out of Salzburg). No need to worry: this is not a Katya full of masks, Microsoft Teams, and parties chez Johnson and Simmonds, though surely it will come. (My bet is on a Zoom Tristan by 2025.) But rather, the vast stage of the Felsenreitschule seemed strangely underused, as if to allow for social distancing, save—a crucial exception, I grant—for a vast, immobile (boundaries occasionally altered between scenes) crowd, backs turned to us throughout. Extremely realistic, of all shapes and sizes, this wall of puppets could well have been taken for actual human beings, had one not known—or suspected, given the lack of movement. It was an arresting image, walling in the community, Katya’s horizons, and indeed those of everyone else, although Kosky’s interest, not unreasonably, seemed to lie in the heroine. A large stage with nothing else to detain us: on second thoughts, one could readily have had set designs and kept the characters apart as necessary, so perhaps it was not Covid at all. Words from a programme interview lend credence to that view, Kosky saying that he did not want to ‘do Kátá Kabanova as an Ibsen or Strindberg drama – it’s not just about the family.’ He says he and his production team needed ‘to consider how we could represent this village or small town and Kátá’s feeling of isolation within this place, and at the same time concentrate on Kátá and the immediate family around her, without turning it into a chamber piece with walls, doors, tables, chairs and a samovar – which wouldn’t work anyway in the Felsenreitschule.’

So maybe the pandemic and the horrific loneliness it brought for many of us haunts responses rather than intention; or maybe, just maybe, the one does not exclude the other, especially in the work of so experienced a man of the theatre. For whilst Kosky verbally acknowledged the role of the community, and that puppet-wall was ever-present, the impression—present, I think, in much of the Personenregie too—was of a more existentialist drama than either we are accustomed to or those words imply. True, there were at the beginning of each act other, sonic hints of something, whether natural or social, lying beyond. Birdsong preceded the first act, bells the second, and thunder the storm of the third. Beyond a light bit of sado-masochism, as Kabanicha walked Dikoj around on a leash and poured liquid on him, the abiding feeling for me remained loneliness in a vast space.

In the title role, Corinne Winters proved an estimable contributor to this concept, determined to make her own way in the role, never remotely reliant on post-Hardy (at least for an English speaker) cliché. If I observed and was duly repelled by her treatment, only really at the end was I moved. I say this not as adverse criticism; that seemed to be the dramatic strategy, to emphasise the final breakdown. It seemed to be Jakub Hrůša’s conception too, in the pit. Goal-orientation is not only a musical strategy for Beethoven and his followers. There was never an ounce of sentimentality, never a moment to enjoy the excellent, if not to my ears always entirely idiomatic, playing of the Vienna Philharmonic for itself. Sometimes, I may have wished the music, the drama, would linger just a little, but that was surely the point. And surely they were right.

Where I had a few doubts was with some of the Czech language heard. I cannot really say more than that, speaking not a word of the language myself, but I wonder whether it is a coincidence that, without knowing who they were beforehand, I often felt a greater immediacy from those whose first language it was. First and foremost was Jarmila Balážová: an outstanding Varvara, glowing with an infectious zest for life in such sharp contrast with Katya’s fate and, yes, that of the society around them. Presented with considerable vocal beauty and undeniable sincerity, David Butt Philip’s Boris was another fine portrayal—from an artist who seems never to give anything but. Evelyn Herlitzius gave a duly terrifying star turn as Kabanicha, surely one of the most unremittingly evil characters in all opera. As is her wont, this was a powerfully committed performance throughout. Benjamin Hulett’s idea of Kudrjáš and his communication of that idea seemed almost designed to vindicate the description in Ivana Rentsch’s excellent programme essay of his character’s ‘mellow detachment’, as much expressed through sonority as gesture.All contributed, though, to the sharply delineated drama unfolding; there were no exceptions, nor even weak links. And whether the pandemic coloured conception, response, or both, is perhaps unimportant, given the tragic power of the denouement.


Thursday, 25 August 2022

Salzburg Festival (4) - Levit: Bartók, Schumann, Wagner, and Liszt, 24 August 2022

Grosses Festspielhaus

Bartók: Out of Doors, Sz 81
Schumann: Waldszenen, op.82
Wagner, arr. Zoltán Kocsis: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178

Igor Levit (piano)

Image: SF / Marco Borrelli

For this Salzburg Festival recital, Igor Levit offered a programme of piano music—and, in one case, orchestral music transcribed for the piano—rich in connections explicit and implicit, and beautifully balanced too. Programming is in many ways an art in itself, yet not of course quite in itself: the music needs to be performed at least as compellingly as it has been assembled. There was little problem in that respect here, given performances that never took the works in question for granted, always looked—and listened—afresh.

Bartók’s Out of Doors suite was a welcome choice to open. The drums and pipes of the opening piece gave neither pianist nor audience time to adjust. Poundingly percussive from the word go, it was always much more than that, though: melody and harmony, as ever in Bartók, at least as crucial as the initially startling melodic element. Levit understood and conveyed this, not only here but in the following pieces of very different, highly contrasted character. This suggested what a treat we might have in store from the Sonata and the Piano Concertos; let us hope they are only just around the corner. The ‘Barcarolla’ emerged as a mysterious heir to Chopin et al., those others certainly including Liszt, especially the Liszt of those lugubrious late Venetian works. I thought I heard a kinship to Prokofiev too: less expected, perhaps, but making a great deal of chronological sense. (Kinship need not mean influence in either direction.) Levit’s variety of articulation in service of the musical idea was just the thing to tease out its secrets. Delicately insistent, the ‘Musettes’ presented yet another winding, post-Romantic way, sharply contrasted by the night music of the fourth piece. Bells? Birds? Breezes? Beasts? Who knows? It was certainly Bartók, at any rate, the beating heart of the work as a whole. Independence of hands, the very foundation of Lisztian technique—well, one of the foundations, anyway—was crucial here in delineation and communication. The final piece was every inch the finale, early echoes of the opening taking us along a very different, dancing path. Fiendishly difficult and infectious, this was the piece with the most transcendental virtuosity, in Levit’s hands a veritable whirlwind.

Schumann’s Waldszenen is another set of pieces one might expect to hear more often than one does. Here, it breathed a post-Bachian air, not only in its counterpoint, but in melody, harmony, figuration, and much else. The introductory piece gently placed us in medias res: storytelling magic with an inwardness (Innigkeit) all Schumann’s own. The hunters of the second brought a degree of stormy release, ever precise, though, just as in Bach. Deceptively, captivatingly ‘einfach’ or simple, ‘Einsame Blümen’ offered as keen a note of fantasy as anything else: a note struck, in various ways, throughout the set, not least in a questing ‘Freundliche Landschaft’. In between, the dignified pathos, both directed and a little wayward, of ‘Verrufene Stelle’ hinted at a fugal mind deconstructed. A friendly wayside inn (‘Herberge’) and dignified ‘Vogel als Prophet’, the latter’s animation almost yet never quite suspended, took us into the sky before coming properly back down to earth in a rhythmically generative ‘Jagdlied’ that, in context, suggested memories of Bartók. Schumann’s epilogues are always things of wonder; here was a fond ‘Abschied’ indeed, its reluctance to close as touching as it was understandable.

Nietzsche famously declared he would not touch the score of Tristan und Isoldewithout wearing gloves. There was no doubting the dangers of its opening Prelude here, in a 1978 transcription by Zoltán Kocsis. More flexible than one would expect from an orchestra, it became a forerunner of late Liszt, ever struggling, ever becoming, endless in melody—until, that is, one realised that it was actually taking its cue from earlier Liszt, in the guise of the Sonata into which its close dissolved. We shall never finally disentangle the mutual influence and affinities of the two composers; here was a good reason perhaps not even to try, musical threads all the more dangerously intoxicating with ‘dies süsse Wortlein: und’: Wagner und Liszt.  

In that vein, the beginning of the exposition proper sounded like another chapter in the same story, beginning with Wagner, moving to those shockingly ‘new’ (even now) Liszt scales of the introduction, and new bursting forth in other, neue Bahnen, to quote Schumann on a young composer (Brahms) who certainly did not appreciate this work, allegedly falling asleep (!) when Liszt played it to him. That almost novelistic sense of pages, even chapters being turned was, I think, a particular characteristic of Levit’s performance, Liszt’s supreme Faustian bargain turned almost literally into a nineteenth-century page-turner. The composer’s formal concision can hardly be gainsaid here, but a complementary expansiveness was revealed as the other side to a coin of seemingly endless transition. There was time for grandiloquence as well as for silence; there was space for rhapsodic freedom and constructivism. (To misquote Dolly Parton, it takes a lot of organisation to sound that free.) With Liszt, especially here, several balls will often be in the air at any one time. The odd one may be dropped, but that is part and parcel of his generosity of character. With the structural outline firmly in place—there was no question as to the moment of recapitulation—there was no harm in occasionally pausing to ask a question, or even to admire the view. A divine comedy, a thoroughly Lisztian enterprise, was created before our ears. One had the sense, moreover, that it was a one-off, that a different tale would have been told on another occasion.

 With quiet dignity, the poet spoke (‘Der Dichter spricht’) for a Schumann encore. On a more modest yet not necessarily less eloquent level, Romantic rhetoric held us once again in its sway.

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Salzburg Festival (3) – VPO/Barenboim: Saint-Saëns and Wagner, 22 August 2022

Grosses Festspielhaus

Saint-Saëns: Samson et Dalila, op.47: Act II
Wagner: Parsifal: Act II

Elina Garanča (soprano)
Brandon Jovanovich (tenor)
Michael Volle (baritone)
Members of the Young Singers Project
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Jörn Hinnerk Andresen)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

This was, alas, very much a concert of two halves, disturbingly so. For reasons that I hope will be obvious, I shall concentrate on what was best; there is neither critical nor broader human need to hammer home the shortcomings.

Programming was unusual, yet revealing: an excellent case of using a cast to think what might conceptually as well as musically be possible. Consider what these two acts, premiered within five years of one another, have in common or in meaningful contrast, and the answer is quite a lot. Samson et Dalila is not, I think, a theological work; formal affinities to oratorio notwithstanding, it treats with religion, as do many nineteenth-century operas, as an engine of drama and colour. Parsifal most certainly is a theological work; we should probably not get too hung up on whether to call it an opera at all, but its dissociation from common operatic practice is undeniable, even extreme. Both acts, however, deal with seduction of a quasi-consecrated hero with a religious (and political) mission, by an exotic temptress with whom, at least in part, it is difficult not to feel some degree of sympathy. Indeed, as John Snelson remarks in his programme note, hearing these two acts divorced from their predecessors (however much we may still bear them in mind) enables us to observe the action more ‘from the perspective of the women’, even arguably intensifying ‘the hypnotic force they exert as they propel the dramas to contrasting climaxes’. Saint-Saëns’s ambiguous musical debt to Wagner was certainly in evidence here too, perhaps unsurprisingly given the conductor was Daniel Barenboim.

What was surprising was that Saint-Saëns fared so much better overall than Wagner. The initial orchestral sound we heard from the Vienna Philharmonic was, to my ears, perfect in balance, colour, and harmonic grounding, its darkness seemingly transposed from Siegfried’s forest. It was inviting, intensely so, with promise—not least of danger. On entry, Elina Garanča could likewise hardly have been improved upon: flawless in delivery, dignified and rich of tone, her (Dalila’s) made mind up, her lines despatched with duly operatic grandeur, even hauteur. The orchestra spoke and commented upon the action, much as in Wagner, though rightly also with reference to a long French history of orchestral recitative dating back at least to Rameau. There was certainly more than a little Berlioz to be heard; I soon found myself wishing for a Troyens from these forces, whilst knowing in my heart of hearts that it was already too late. Barenboim’s ear for motivic unity extended over sections of the score, but also across the entire act, imparting a unity necessary yet sadly all too rare in this repertoire. Michael Volle made for a commanding High Priest of Dagon, his typical sensitivity to words and music married to extraordinary dynamic and colouristic range. Brandon Jovanovich, our Siegmund-on-Seine, was as ardent a Samson as one could have imagined, playing nonetheless on a fine ambiguity between hero unmediated and a character compelled (or choosing) to play that role. The climactic duet between Samson and Dalila was, quite simply, a privilege to see (such acting too!) and hear, all the while knowing Dalila ultimately was in control.

The Parsifal Prelude was more deliberate, at its best evincing the spirit of a Klemperer, certainly oozing Tristan-esque malevolence. I listened for as long as I could in that vein and, to be fair, there was much in the orchestral cauldron still to admire, at least in the first scene or two. The first, orchestral intimation of Klingsor’s magic garden, for instance, appeared before our ears’ eyes with all the freshness of continually renewed experience. Whether that were the VPO’s or Barenboim’s, however, soon became a moot point. Samson et Dalila certainly does not play itself; the talk I heard from some about the conductor’s disengagement at this stage was just that, talk. It was, sadly, shown all the more to be so by much of what we heard of Parsifal, in which a disaffected orchestra at times seemed more or less to have given up, kept together (just about) only by the extraordinary commitment of three outstanding soloists. One made what one could of it; at least I did. Concentrating on the poem, I heard all the more in this context just how much of Wagner’s language is steeped in Lutheran theology. So many of the words could have stepped straight out of Bach; in a sense, they had. The luminosity of the orchestral grail, here with a distinctly Viennese tinge, beguiled as ever. Ultimately, though, this was difficult to listen to, as well as to watch.

Barenboim does not need critics, even those who are long-term admirers, to tell him what to do. I hope, though, that those close to him will counsel caution, for his recovery is clearly far from complete. If, for now, that entails fewer, shorter concerts, then for his sake I hope he will consider that path.


Salzburg Festival (2) - Il trittico, 21 August 2022

Grosses Festspielhaus

Gianni Schicchi – Misha Kiria
Lauretta – Asmik Grigorian
Zita – Enkelejda Shkosa
Rinuccio – Alexey Neklyudov
Gherardo – Dean Power
Nella – Lavinia Bini
Gherardino – Daniel Fussek
Betto di Signa – Manel Esteve Madrid
Simone – Scott Wilde
Marco – Iurii Samoilov
La Ciesca – Caterina Piva
Maestro Spinelloccio – Matteo Peirone
Ser Amantio di Noclao – Mikołaj Trąbka
Pinellino – Aleksei Kulagin
Guccio – Liam James Karai
Buoso Donati – Leopold Böhm

Michele – Roman Burdenko
Giorgetta – Asmik Grigorian
Luigi – Joshua Guerrero
Il Tinca – Andrea Giovannini
Il Talpa – Scott Wilde
La Frugola – Enkelejda Shkosa
Song seller – Dean Power
Lovers – Dean Power, Martina Russomanno
Midinettes – Dijana Kos, Irena Krsteska, Wilma Maller, Irina Peroš, Katarína Porubanová, Anna Yasiutina
Dancers – Clara Cozzolino, Mário Jorge Moisés da Silva Branco, Joni Österlund, Anna Possarnig, Guillaume Rabain, Nicolas Franciscus, Giulia Tornarolli

Sister Angelica – Asmik Grigorian
La Zia Principessa – Karita Mattila
Abbess – Hanna Schwarz
Sister Zelatrice – Enkelejda Shkosa
Mistress of the Novices – Vaterina Piva
Sister Genovieffa – Giulia Semenzato
Sister Osmina – Martina Russo manno
Sister Dolcina – Daryl Freedman
Nursing Sister – Juliette Mars
Alms Sisters – Lavinia Bini, Alma Neuhaus
Novice – Amira Elmadfa
Lay Sisters – Svenja Kallweit, Anna Yasiutina
Son – Jonathan Ehrenreich
Choral soloists – Dijana Kos, Mari Nakayama, Irina Peroš

Christof Loy (director)
Étienne Pluss (set designs)
Barbara Drosihn (costumes)
Fabrice Kebour (lighting)
Yvonne Gebauer (dramaturgy)  

Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Choir (chorus director: Wolfgang Götz)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Jörn Hinnerk Andresen) 
Angelika-Prokopp-Summer Academy of the Vienna Philharmonic (stage music)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)

Images: (C) SF /Monika Rittershaus

In many ways, this new production of Puccini’s triptych of one-act operas marked a triumph for the Salzburg Festival. One serious unforced error detracted, yet could only detract so far; likewise a few other cavils. Singing and orchestral playing were excellent throughout on the evening I attended, the last in the run. If Christof Loy’s production offered nothing particular in the way of insight, let alone re-evaluation, it presented the stories clearly and with élan, aided by good design work. Everything came together well, at an undeniably ‘Salzburg’ level.

Loy’s major miscalculation was to mess around with the ordering, so as to present the operas in the order Gianni Schicchi, Il tabarro, and Suor Angelica. The self-justification given in the programme made things worse, speaking of Suor Angelica having given the ‘impression’ of ‘such an extreme impact … that Gianni Schicchi came across as relatively trivial’. Not in my experience, nor in that of anyone I have spoken to. Nor has Il tabarro suffered from a lack of contemporary relevance, as Loy bizarrely suggests. (Quite why moving it to second place would help here remains unclear too.) Apparently, because this is a Festival, ‘everyone [is] in good spirits to be here,’ it makes better sense to open ‘with the seemingly life-affirming atmosphere of Gianni Schicchi’. Enough! There is good reason for placing the comedy last. Suor Angelica, meanwhile, suffers from being placed third, in that not only does it offer less a climax than a sense of tiring, even tailing away; but, perhaps worse, its own genuine musical as well as dramatic interest pales when heard after Schicchi. If you wanted to lend credence to claims of the saccharine, you could do a lot worse than adopt this reordering. Loy says that Franz Welser-Möst and he were in agreement on the matter; Welser-Möst really should have known better. None of this is fatal; after all, the operas are often (probably more often) played alone with entirely different companion pieces. But there is little gain here, and not inconsiderable loss.

Loy’s reputation in certain quarters remains something of a mystery to me. There is, as there certainly was here, a genuine craftsmanship at work. That I could admire—and did greatly. Movement and placing of objects on stage, the identity of each character (most of them, anyway), and much else had clearly been considered; one was left with little doubt that what one saw was what one was supposed to have seen. This is no more than speculation on my part, but I can imagine singers liking to work with him: certainly no bad thing. But beyond a certain generic stylishness, which is presumably in large part the work of his designers, I struggled to find any particular conceptual thinking at work, whether in each individual opera or as something to connect them. All three were vaguely modernised, I suppose, but unless one considers ‘modern dress’ to be a concept in itself, there was nothing to trouble conservative viewers. On the other hand, there was no banal intervention as in, say, Loy’s Tristan (Covent Garden) or Die Frau ohne Schatten (Salzburg, in which he essentially ignored the work altogether). So horses of no breed would have been scared away; perhaps that in itself was the idea.

The Vienna Philharmonic was on tremendous form, clearly relishing the opportunity to play all three operas in something approaching ideal conditions (certainly by way of comparison to the rehearsal schedule, or lack of it, in Vienna). Welser-Möst’s guiding spirit was heard to best effect in the first two operas, the scintillating scherzo of Gianni Schicchi razor-sharp, yet with plenty of tenderness too, the ominous ostinato of the Seine in Il tabarro duly overwhelming. (It took a few hours to get the latter out of my head, following the performance.) Light and shade were as meticulously planned and projected as any stage lighting, and there could be no doubting Welser-Möst’s knowledge and understanding of the scores. I missed a sense of something darker in Suor Angelica, but that was doubtless in considerable part a matter both of the piece itself and Loy’s decision to move it. There might nonetheless have been greater bite in its often intriguing harmonies and also a greater range of colour. A tendency to greyness such as I have often heard in Welser-Möst’s Strauss was not entirely avoided here.

Asmik Grigorian’s heroic service as heroine (of sorts) in all three proved both heartfelt and flawless. She did not tire, far from it, and gave considered, distinct performances of each of her roles. I do not think appreciation of her Sister Angelica was helped by its placing, giving the impression of everything leading up to a ‘big moment’, but I have probably said enough about that now. Her chemistry with Joshua Guerrero as Luigi and, indeed, negatively with Roman Burdenko as Michele was, to my mind, just as impressive, both of those artists turning in thoughtful as well as viscerally immediate performances. So too, unsurprisingly, did Karita Mattila as La Zia Principessa. From the moment she stepped on stage, one knew this was going to be something special, and it certainly was. Equal attention to words, music, and gesture informed a star turn that collegially collaborated with, in no sense upstaging, Grigorian. Much the same might be said, albeit (properly) with less hauteur, of Hanna Schwarz’s Abbess. Grigorian’s Rinuccio, Alexey Neklyudov, proved youthful, ardent, and similarly intelligent: a fine companion. Every portrayal in Gianni Schicchi was indeed, of similar quality, whether solo or ensemble, from Misha Kiria’s wily lawyer down (should that be the right direction). Enkelejda Shkosa’s turn as Zita here was followed by a splendidly animated La Frugola, hinting at hidden depths of sadness, in Il tabarro. This was a Trittico that almost offered the definition of casting from depth. For fine singing, complemented by excellent stage gifts, Personenregie, and orchestral playing, this will surely prove difficult to beat.


Monday, 22 August 2022

Salzburg Festival (1) - Melnikov/Mozarteum/Bolton - Mozart, 21 August 2022

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Symphony no.31 in D major, ‘Paris’, KV 297/300a
Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453
Serenade for orchestra no.9 in D major, KV 320, ‘Posthorn’

Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)

‘Mozart, more intimate [than Beethoven], more touching, between the melancholy of the past and the serene expectation of the future, Mozart, who is neither a child, nor an androgyne nor an angel, but a little of all these, Mozart, always loving, always confident, Mozart smiled, even before death…’ It is difficult to take issue with many, if any, of these claims, save perhaps for the particular comparison with Beethoven, from the fourth volume of Messiaen’s Traité de rythme, de couleur, et d’ornithologie. Messiaen’s insistence that Mozart smiled was repeated in his final commissioned work, Un sourire, written in 1989 for the 1991 bicentenary. If I were to offer a single criticism of the Mozart revealed, or obscured, by Ivor Bolton in this Mozart Matinée, it was that the music all too rarely smiled.

In the Paris Symphony, indeed, the decidedly un-Mozartian quality of the grimace was more to the fore. The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra offered a welcome, full sound, enhanced by the size of the hall, only slightly marred in the ‘Parisian’ opening by the incongruous sound of rasping ‘period’ brass with a ‘modern’ orchestra, albeit one with regrettably little in the way of string vibrato. Bolton’s tempo, however, was well chosen, probably somewhat on the slow side for today’s fashions—allegedly ‘period’, yet rarely anything of the sort. A hallmark of this performance was the elemental sense imparted by certain basic musical figures. Not always did they fully develop into larger lines beyond that, though, having excellent playing (whether to one’s taste or no) give the impression of dragging rather than fizzing. The slow movement—the 3/4 Andante rather than the 6/8 Andantino—was not entirely without such doggedness but flowed better. I was left regretting its brevity, but then why say more than need be said? Bolton seems not to have mastered the (admittedly difficult) trick of playing as fast as the closing Allegro demands without sounding hard-driven. It was here, above all, that I regretted the lack of a smile, the presence of all too many grimaces. Counterpoint, however, was clear, adding a welcome ‘learned’ depth.

That inability to sustain a long Mozart line, or maybe unwillingness (could it be that he actually does not want to?) was again apparent in the opening of the G major Piano Concerto, KV 453. Lovely woodwind playing could not entirely disguise the lack of vibrato from violins in particular. More, though, than in the symphony, Bolton carried the music forward, although only after pianist Alexander Melnikov’s entry was it clear how this might be done more readily. Strange ritardandi were Bolton’s doing; Melnikov could generally be relied upon to put them right, though he was not without a certain brusqueness either. The cadenza, Mozart’s own (as in the second movement) melted beautifully where called for; a little more of that earlier on would surely have been preferable. Messiaen, at least, would have thought so. The opening phrasing of the Andante was much better. Melnikov’s fashionable decision to play piano continuo before his first solo entry struck me as unnecessary, but it did no great harm. The sense of hushed mystery he brought to the minor mode was beautiful indeed; for that, one could have forgiven much. It was the finale, though, that fell most readily into place, its ‘rightness’ of tempo and phrasing leaving space, well taken, for something closer to the magic Mozart requires. Mozart’s changes of tempo were well handled, characterful and consequential; those imposed on final exchanges between piano and orchestral less so, their rhetoric decidedly uncertain, even arbitrary.

The Posthorn Serenade’s first movement offered another grand, if slightly astringent, introduction. Apparent confusion over dynamics at one point aside, the rest was generally well shaped and benefited from a stronger sense of forward momentum than the Paris Symphony had. Bolton’s rhetorical broadening for the onset of the recapitulation worked in context. The second movement was on the swift side, but far from excessively so. I did not care much for the agogic accents employed, but I have heard far worse mannerism. It was otherwise well shaped and projected, though the Trio, taken by solo instruments, relaxed too much to the extent of sounding sluggish. Whether it was strictly necessary for flutes and oboes (not bassoons) to stand for the beginning of the third movement, the practice drew visual attention to aural delights to be savoured from all in the section. Third and fourth movements were beautifully played, at well chosen tempi; there were even a few smiles. The fifth emerged, intelligently and convincingly, as its predecessor’s successor bathed in darker shadows, that characterisation having us value all the more the passages of sunlight. Here was the dramatic highpoint of the morning, seeming already to point toward the world of the Da Ponte operas. A robust opening to the Menuetto was taken with just the right amount of swing. The considerably faster tempo taken for the first Trio sounded unsettled, even bizarre, but moderate slowing for the second worked well, its solo wonderfully played on what looked to me like a genuine posthorn. The finale offered a rousing close, full of incident and variety. It was a pity, I felt, that some of these insights could not have been fed back into the first part of the concert, to show us the truth of Messiaen’s further claim that Mozart’s form ‘is always perfect and constantly renewed’.


Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Prom 39: Hartwig/BBC SO/Oramo - Turnage, Vaughan Williams, and Elgar, 15 August 2022

Royal Albert Hall

Turnage: Time Flies (UK premiere)
Vaughan Williams: Tuba Concerto in F minor
Elgar: Symphony no.1 in A-flat major, op.55

Constantin Hartwig (tuba)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

Three very different English composers were to be heard here, in excellent performances from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo. Elgar’s First Symphony was for me unquestionably the highlight, but the varied conspectus will have offered something for many. It is especially welcome just now to be reminded that, notwithstanding unremitting hostility from our fathomlessly philistine government and media, there can still be something to celebrate in English artistic endeavours, past and present. Nadine Dorries does not yet hold all the cultural cards.  

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Time Flies is a co-commission from the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, and the BBC SO. Its premiere, like so many, fell victim to Covid, as did the Tokyo Olympic Games at which it was due to take place. The piece’s three movements, ‘London Time’, ‘Hamburg Time’ and ‘Tokyo Time’, the last considerably more extended than its predecessors, last about twenty-five minutes in total. ‘London Time’ opened with an urban confidence, metallic and syncopated, perhaps more redolent of London a dozen years ago than now. Upbeat and playful, that opening material nonetheless fell downward through disorienting, corrosive chromaticism, until we reached one of Turnage’s trademark saxophone solos, prior to a final section in which various tendencies are combined. Hope for the future? Perhaps.

The opening trumpets of ‘Hamburg Time’ seemed to recall Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man or, after a while, the Janáček of the Sinfonietta. Stravinsky too came to mind, especially as woodwind became more prominent. But these were ghosts; Turnage’s is the fundamental voice. A sense of wide-open space similarly dissolved in unease, reassertion of something perhaps not so very different from socialist or at least collectivist realism the hallmark of what follows. Jazz rhythms, sonorities, and attack of ‘Tokyo Times’ were refreshingly distinct from faded orientalist tropes. Turnage evokes them, of course, rather than simply recreating them, another sign of Stravinsky’s presence (perhaps Henze’s too). An enigmatic chorale at the centre—post-Messiaen, or is it post-Weill?— cautioned against easy answers.

Vaughan Williams’s Tuba Concerto was treated to a splendidly nimble reading from Constantin Hartwig and the orchestra. The first movement’s liveliness was justly ambiguous, culminating in a beautifully played cadenza imbued with a sense of longing the more impressive for not being milked. The central ‘Romanza’ offered a fine instance in miniature of Vaughan Williams’s ability to create something folklike that is entirely composed rather than found. Again, there was longing without cloying, let alone sentimentality. The tuba part sounded at times almost like a descant, albeit amidst or beneath orchestral textures, at any rate in intriguing counterpoint. The finale offered darker, even diabolical, play not so distant perhaps from Prokofiev, though certainly speaking with a different accent. Another cadenza, different in character, proved equally fine in execution. A sudden end underlined the composer’s achievement in concision, never outstaying his welcome. That, alas, is more than can be said for a dreary encore, apparently Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, which served mostly to underline Vaughan Williams’s skill in tuba-writing.

Oramo’s studied tempo for the opening of the Elgar avoided sentimentality without going down the more common road of swiftness. Articulation further underlined a premonition of shock, even shellshock. When the full orchestra entered, it sounded glorious, as much maestoso as Elgarian nobilmente, without a tinge of regret. Did it, though, lead to the Allegro material, or was it more a matter of sectional contrast? I missed something, a sense of connection, however intangible, characterising performances otherwise as different as Boult and Barenboim. That, however, was my only doubt concerning this fine performance; given the excellence of everything else, I am happy to allow the fault may have been mine. For Oramo captured even-handedly Elgar’s Wagnerian and Brahmsian tendencies; as did the BBC SO’s sound. And the return of the opening material unquestionably arose from preceding breakdown, mood-swings necessitating something both old and new. It was not only Brahms and Wagner, though: the most liminal qualities of this movement evoked, yet never merely recreated, both featherlight Mendelssohn and phantasmagorial Strauss, the latter especially at the point of disturbing recapitulatory collapse. If the frame of reference were not so wide as that of Barenboim’s extraordinary recent performances, we had likewise travelled a long way from the Boultian ascendancy.

The second movement similarly had a Mendelssohn-cum-Brahms underpinning to its steely (anti?)-militarism. As with Mahler, who increasingly came to mind, there were startling new vistas to witness, though the light, often the half-light, crucially was different in quality. For all the alleged serenity of the third movement, there were darker forces at work too. Harmonies summoned Hagen from his watch. At the close, there prevailed a rapt inwardness not so different from Schumann’s Innigkeit, albeit exquisitely and even tragically late. Disorientation, even brokenness, marked the onset of the finale, the question being ‘is this irreparable?’ It was no easy question to answer, a struggle of Brahmsian order indicated. If here, Elgar comes perilously close on occasion to imitation of Brahms, it is a fault in the right direction—and here a winning one. Ultimately, nobility in both work and performance won out, not despite but on account of the slings and arrows.


Saturday, 6 August 2022

Bayreuth Festival (4): Götterdämmerung, 5 August 2022


Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Gunther – Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Alberich – Olafur Sigurdarson
Hagen – Albert Dohmen
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Gutrune – Elisabeth Teige
Waltraute – Christa Meyer
First Norn – Okka von der Damerau
Second Norn – Stéphanie Müther
Third Norn – Kelly God
Woglinde – Lee-an Dunbar
Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde – Katie Stevenson
Grane – Igor Schwab

Valentin Schwarz (director)
Andrea Cozzi (designs)
Andy Besuch (costumes)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Luis August Krawen (video)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

Valentin Schwarz’s Ring ends more or less where it began, bar curtain-calls in which the long-awaited appearance of Schwarz and his team was greeted by the most intensive booing I have ever heard. I suppose a ‘cyclical’ turn will appeal to some who insist on referring to the Ring as a ‘cycle’, when it is nothing of the sort. Even those, however, who discern some kind of return at the close will have wanted a little more for their money than a hasty, borderline-cynical return of dual umbilical chord babies on video, and, prior to that, of a swimming pool for the Rhine.

Schwarz’s unwillingness or inability to formulate any kind of concept, let alone to present it successfully, has long since had hopes for drama run out of steam. Unwillingness—let us be charitable—to carry though any coherent correspondence between objects, themes, even often characters, leaves us with an incoherence that does not register as an aesthetic challenge, but simply as a careless mess. Siegfried apparently forgot to take Notung with him—or rather, the director forgot that he should. It was there, but Brünnhilde kept it, storing up various trouble for a final scene to the first act. This is not a matter of highlighting contradictions, already existing or even newly created. It is not freely associating; indeed, it is barely associating at all. It seems to speak more than anything of lack of acquaintance with Wagner’s work and—which may or may not be fair—sheer laziness. Like a child with an extremely limited attention span, Schwarz presents something, tires of it, presents a new thing without bothering to connect it to the previous thing, and continues. Occasionally, some older things return, yet neither with dramatic reason nor insight. To list them is almost the only thing one can do, given such absence of the conceptual; but it quickly becomes tedious, so I shall try to remain (relatively) selective.

The dark-haired boy we first saw in Das Rheingold shooting others with a water-pistol at the swimming pool seems in some sense to have become the gold, the ring, young Hagen, and now—oddly, having aged far faster than everyone else—‘old’ Hagen. A girl, who may or may not be the same as one also marked out at the swimming pool, who in turn may or may not be the same as the one Erda a little later seemed keen to protect, seems at times to take on the mantle of the ring, although there is also from time to time a ring too (which, given generally dim lighting, most of us can barely see). What we are supposed to make of that girl’s disappearance during the final scene, or indeed anything much in a scene that sadly had many in the audience laughing at its sheer ineptitude, I have no idea. Hagen’s return right at the end, stumbling on to shout ‘Zurück vom Ring’ (is he advising people to stay away from himself?) and then stumbling back off again, was not the least embarrassing episode in a renewed, though hardly rejuvenated, string of scenic non sequiturs.

Personal assistant Grane is still around too. It is hardly unusual for the gods to have nothing god-like to them at any stage whatsoever, though such is at best a one-sided view. Rarely if ever before, though, can they have been so recklessly divested of all character, even much in the way of motivation, and for that to have been the fate of dwarves, giants, heroes, and humans too. Turning a horse into a man in a suit does not seem much compensation, or even relevant. Anyway, Grane goes with Siegfried into the world (actually, back to part of Fafner’s house, I think) to encounter a Gunther who slightly resembles Peter Stringfellow or even Jimmy Savile, but whose inspiration a German friend tells me is a trashy television series called Die Geissens – eine schrecklich glamouröse Familie. Gunther wears a sparkly top that asks ‘Who the fuck is Grane?’ Quite, though one might ask that about anyone here, really. Grane is later beaten to something not a million miles from horsemeat. Gunther leaves the carrier bag with pieces of his body by the pool for Brünnhilde in pink dressing gown eventually to pick up Grane’s head to sing to. The unfortunate image resembles Golden Girl Rose Nylund doing a turn as Salome on her way to collect midnight cheesecake, albeit with none of the fun or interest that might entail.


But poor Brünnhilde (seriously). She too has been subjected to pretty horrific, all too casual abuse, seemingly to no end other than as something else to do (and not in a Clockwork Orange sort of way either). How much, if at all, violence towards women should be depicted on stage (or screen), especially by men, is of course very much a live topic at the moment. There may be no definitive answer, yet it is hardly a question simply to be ignored or, worse, trivialised. So many important questions, moreover, are treated similarly. Alberich’s alleged inability to father Hagen—‘it is not entirely clear’, writes dramaturge Konrad Kuhn in the programme, ‘how he could have conceived a son’—is at best problematical. ‘How,’ asks Kuhn, ‘did this “nasty”, this “hairy and hideous imp” … beget a child with the proud Queen Grimhild?’ Perhaps using the power he has amassed by foreswearing love? There is not much of a mystery, here, really, let alone inconsistency, though what form of power is of course open to speculation and interpretation. Instead, though, we end up with something that trivially disrupts the very parallelism the production seems to wish to construct between Wotan and Alberich, and arguably has more than a pinch of ableism to it. (Some might argue racism too; let us leave that for another day.)

Even Cornelius Meister’s conducting, a solid highlight of the previous three evenings, proved more mixed here. There is no shame in that; many conductors, at the best of times, are more successful in some parts of the Ring than others. That the prologue and first act in particular dragged, often seeming to lie behind whatever notional basic tempo had been set, was nonetheless unfortunate as nonsense upon nonsense unfolded onstage. That episodic quality continued into the second act, received with unusual rapture by the audience, but which to me lunged and lurched too often, making all too little musical sense. The third act, though, was much better, a sense of form as living structure once again imparted. There is no reason to think that the rest of the work will not follow in time. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, doubtless understandably, sounded at times tired. As an audience member, one could certainly relate. There were some splendid passages too, but this was not a vintage night for Wagner musically.

If vocal performances did not always reach the heights, nor did they ever fall below a reasonable level. Olafur Sigurdarson’s Alberich and Albert Dohmen’s were typically intelligent portrayals, founded in the poem and employing its musical marriage to considerable effect. Insofar as one could avoid Schwarz’s weird conception of Gunther—was he supposed to be high, or just very, very peculiar?—the same could be said of Michael Kupfer-Radecky in that role. If quality of diction came and went, there was much to appreciate in Iréne Theorin’s Brünnhilde, who managed to maintain a considerable degree of dignity, events around here notwithstanding. Fullness and bloom of voice were often as impressive as her sheer resolve to get on with it. Clay Hilley, a very late substitute as Siegfried, did more than could reasonably be asked of him. Not once did his voice tire; he committed himself with apparently equally enthusiasm to what was going on dramatically. Elisabeth Teige’s Gutrune was not helped by the production—who was?—but was a convincing vocal performance. Waltraute did not suit Christa Mayer quite so much as Fricka, but there was little doubting the quality of verbal response. The Rhinemaidens and Norns were all very good. If the chorus was far from overwhelming in the Vassals’ Scene, perhaps Covid restrictions were still in play; it looked as well as sounded smaller than usual.

It made for a long and dispiriting evening, though. I am only too aware of precedents, of how, say, Patrice Chéreau’s first run met with uproar and incomprehension, proceeding to become perhaps the best loved (and esteemed) Ring of all time. Not having been there, I can only speculate, but many have said it improved radically during its stint, a tribute to Bayreuth’s Werkstatt principle. Perhaps this might too, then; or perhaps I might change my mind and come to recant, as I did with Frank Castorf (parts of whose production I had, though, always admired). No one would be happier than I to admit he was wrong if so. It is far from the case that every idea advanced is unworthy of consideration; the problem more is that the production itself barely deigns to extend that consideration, already having jumped on something else. I think there would have to be a greater willingness, indeed any at all, to extend the frame of reference beyond a rich, unlikeable family. Why should we care, if that is all there is? Characterisation would help, to put it mildly, but so would a sense of the political and indeed the religious—of context whether broadly, specifically, or both (ideally). There is, it seems, no getting around that—and it is unclear why Schwarz, Kuhn, and company are so determined to try.

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Bayreuth Festival (3): Siegfried, 3 August 2022


Siegfried – Andreas Schager
Mime – Arnold Bezuyen
Wanderer – Tomasz Koniezcny
Alberich – Olafur Sigurdarson
Fafner – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Erda – Okka von der Damerau
Brünnhilde – Daniela Köhler
Woodbird – Alexandra Steiner
Young Hagen – Branko Buchberger
Grane – Igor Schwab

Valentin Schwarz (director)
Andrea Cozzi (designs)
Andy Besuch (costumes)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

This Siegfried made for pretty miserable music drama, I am afraid, the considerable qualities of the music ‘half’ notwithstanding. In a peculiar way, Wagner’s vision was vindicated. His works are not operas, nor are they intended to be. They may well impress in concert performances or in audio-only experiences at home—phenomena worthy of greater attention—but they need to impress musically and dramatically in the theatre, the whole so much more than the sum of its parts. One never knows what might be pulled out of the hat for Götterdämmerung, but it is difficult to imagine that it can truly redeem the incoherent, often tedious parade Valentin Schwarz has set before us so far. 

Incoherence may be the root problem, or at least a problem that takes us closer to the root. Some of the ideas set forth—some, rather than all—may well have merit, yet rarely do Schwarz and his team seem to have the persistence or even the attention-span necessary to pursue them. A claim might be put forward, I suppose, for an aesthetic of incoherence. Dramaturge Konrad Kuhn makes the claim in a programme note that ‘time and again, we encounter inconsistencies and contradictions in the Ring’. I am tempted to reply ‘speak for yourself’, but to an extent, it may well depend what one means. Rarely if ever are they straightforwardly ‘inconsistencies and contradictions’. The different standpoints presented, the dramatic and intellectual antagonisms put forward, the questions presented that are bigger than any possible attempt at answering them: these are part of what makes the Ring so extraordinary, so powerful, so life-changing a work. They are not signs of ineptitude, of carelessness, or some other shortcoming. This frankly slapdash attitude, however, does seem to inform what is set before us. It is not a matter of taking Wagner to task, of seeing how far a line may be pushed, but apparently of becoming bored with him and the challenges he sets us. It is a point of view, I suppose, or better an attitude or malaise; unsurprisingly, it offers little support for even a one-sided attempt to stage his most ambitious work. 

Siegfried opens in the same house in which we encountered Siegmund and Sieglinde, neither the first nor the last time when we return to the same location yet seek in vain a reason for having done so. Mime has done it up for Siegfried’s birthday party, ready to present a puppet show. If, like me, you are always intrigued by the possibilities of puppets and puppetry, you might have thought this augured well, I suspect you would soon have lost interest, when they were barely used—though perhaps not quite as quickly as the director. Having resolved to do without a sword in Die Walküre, or indeed Das Rheingold, Schwarz has Siegfried find one here concealed within Mime’s walking frame (which he does not appear to need). Since it is already there, never having been broken, the not inconsiderable time in words and music taken to reforge the sword requires something else on stage. Alas, none is forthcoming.

The second act takes place in Fafner’s expensive looking residence, irrespective of the changes in location required. Again, the starting idea does not seem unpromising. Various claimants to his wealth come to visit the giant-dragon (neither, in fact) to persuade him to leave it to them. Wotan, Alberich, Mime, Siegfried (in his way) all pay their house calls. Fafner’s carers do what needs to be done, the theme of abuse continuing to play out in his treatment of a female nurse who turns out to be the Woodbird. The other carer seems to be an adolescent version of the dark-haired boy from Das Rheingold. My speculation that he might turn out to be Hagen has been vindicated, though the symbolic identification Schwarz made between him and either the gold or the ring appears to have been dropped entirely. Siegfried has his sword but cannot be bothered to use it to kill Fafner; instead he throws him out of his chair and has Hagen strangle him to finish him off. Siegfried does use it on Mime, though. It looks at one point as if Siegfried and the Woodbird might go off together to further one part of his education, but instead he and Hagen run out together into the world, whilst the Woodbird returns to drop an item of clothing on top of her abuser as the curtain falls.


What should probably be the most decisive scene in the entire Ring, Wotan’s abandonment of Fate, quasi-identified with Erda, went for almost nothing, at least scenically. Another character, female, was present: a Valkyrie, a Norn, the girl Erda was chaperoning in Das Rheingold? Who knows? Increasingly, I was tempted also to ask: who cares? Hagen mostly sticks with Siegfried, who bullies the poor boy semi-insistently; until he does not, that is, disappearing at some point—I did not notice when—following the ascent to the mountain-top, which confusingly appears to be an adapted Valhalla. Nothing much else happens thereafter, though Grane-as-PA returns to compliment Brünnhilde on her new hat. Eventually, the work comes to a close.

Again, Cornelius Meister and the Festival Orchestra impressed. Meister’s discernment of the Ring’s architecture comes through unfailingly yet unobtrusively. If only some of this could have rubbed off on the production team. (I think as much of the dramaturge’s silly claim about inconsistency as in the inconsistencies and non sequiturs that play out visually. How well do they actually know the work?) Dynamic range was considerable, always with good reason, and never to the detriment of the singers. The theatre and covered pit help, of course, but they can only do so much. 

Andreas Schager’s Siegfried is for many of us a known quantity. On first hearing, it seems miraculous: at last someone who can sing this well-nigh impossible role and draw on seemingly infinite vocal resources to do so. None of that has changed—and we should all be thankful that we need no longer endure performances from singers who are simply not up to the job. Is it unfair to wish for something a little more, some greater verbal subtlety? Probably, yet in the absence of anything compelling from the production, I found myself doing so. Almost certainly, in fact, given the onstage chemistry shown with Arnold Bezuyen’s intelligent, wheedling Mime—who, for once, one never started wishing would emerge victorious.  Tomasz Koniezcny and Olafur Sigurdarson continued to prove themselves as the Wanderer and Alberich, the latter in particular never putting a dramatic foot wrong. This is fine singing, by any standards. 

I initially thought Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s Fafner a bit underpowered, but then realised that was not his fault; the lack of a cave and thus of any sort of projection just leaves him to himself. It is a perfectly intelligent performance on its own terms, let down by the staging. Okka von der Damerau’s Erda likewise deserved better, much better, yet could not be faulted on vocal terms. Likewise Alexandra Steiner’s Woodbird and Daniela Köhler’s Brünnhilde, whose gleaming tone and sheer relish for what promised to be new life offered both succour and inspiration. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Bayreuth Festival (2): Die Walküre, 1 August 2022


Siegmund – Klaus Florian Vogt
Hunding – Georg Zeppenfeld
Wotan – Tomasz Konieczny, Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Sieglinde – Lise Davidsen
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin
Fricka, Schwertleite – Christa Mayer
Gerhilde – Kelly God
Ortlinde – Brit-Tone Müllertz
Waltraute – Stéphanie Müther
Helmwige – Daniela Köhler
Siegrune – Stephanie Houtzeel
Grimgerde – Marie Henriette Reinhold
Rossweiße – Katie Stevenson
Grane – Igor Schwab

Valentin Schwarz (director)
Andrea Cozzi (designs)
Andy Besuch (costumes)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

The boos are getting louder: not, I think, for the musicians, but for the production of Valentin Schwarz, who has yet to appear for a curtain-call. That need be no bad thing artistically, though the practice itself is fascistic; should a bourgeois audience feel satisfied with what it has consumed, it will be a disturbing outcome for art. Here, though, the open mind I am endeavouring to keep concerning Schwarz’s production is struggling a little. As a distinguished Wagner scholar said to me when I met him afterwards, ‘It is getting worse.’ On the basis of what I saw in Die Walküre, I had little choice but to agree.

Short of the framing of the action as a saga of twins, which here seems more assumed to continue from Das Rheingold than illustrated, there is little at all to point to other than strange departures from Wagner’s drama, which taken separately or together fail to amount to anything very much. Siegmund and Sieglinde are, I think, taken back by their self-discovery to their childhood, joined by ‘symbolic’ star-children. (Either that, or they fantasise about the children they will have, but I think it is the former.) There is nothing wrong with that; it makes sense. But for it to have taken place in Wotan’s godly quarters seems peculiar—imagine Fricka’s thoughts on that—as well as quite at odds with what they have just sung, without obvious reason.

 It is later implied that Sieglinde, heavily pregnant throughout the first two acts, is carrying Wotan’s baby. At least I think that is why he ‘comforts’ her, whilst Siegmund and Hunding seek one another, pulling down her tights and apparently attempting to deliver the child. If not, it is a straightforward case of sexual assault, although I suppose it must have been anyway earlier. My guess would be that this is intended to enhance the parallelism between Wotan and Alberich, that both will be found to have produced children, Siegfried and Hagen, through rape. But where that leaves Siegmund, goodness knows: St Joseph with a twist, it would seem. Where, though, does that leave Hunding? He must surely have noticed. It is difficult not to conclude that Wagner’s plot would have been better left as it was.

In between, Freia’s funeral, or at least her lying in rest, had taken place. There were some germs of decent, if ultimately rather incidental ideas, here. Assuming we are still to take her as goddess of love, her death would have obvious implications (although its timing is arguably strange, given that Siegmund and Sieglinde have just met). In a Mafia-film-style mise-en-scène, a few people come to pay their respects, whilst Wotan and Fricka have their decisive confrontation. (Brünnhilde spends some of that scene in what appears to be a greenhouse. I don’t know either.) Hunding petitions the gods in person, an interesting touch. That Fricka returns at the end of the third act, after Wotan has put Brünnhilde to sleep (and made, you guessed it, his incestuous urges all too clear), suggests that she is confident in her triumph. She even wheels on a drinks trolley and offers Wotan a celebratory glass. He declines, though, so in the absence of a spear—just nothing at all, throughout—Fricka clinks together the glasses to make the requisite noise.


I am afraid I have no idea at all what happens in the Ride of the Valkyries. It veered all over the place—at least the BBC light entertainment place—from Dr Who to The Benny Hill Show to Casualty, with an apparently accidental turn for Diana Dors’s gender-reversal ‘The Worm that Turned’ series for The Two Ronnies. Sometimes the Valkyries were in charge, sometimes Wotan’s guards. There was a great deal of mobile telephone use. Perhaps it is time to call for a moratorium on those devices onstage, unless the director has a clear idea what they are for. As things stand, they seem to have become the new suitcases.

Lack of objects when called for and introduction of obscure alternatives does little to help. I have already mentioned the lack of a spear or any substitute.   Just as the role of Das Rheingold’s dark-haired boy is more unclear than ambiguous, so is that of the strange pyramid-in-a-box, earlier seen and quasi-worshipped upon the gods’ entry into Valhalla as if a grail-refugee from a production of Parsifal. It now reappears as a repository for a pistol. Sometimes a pistol is a Notung equivalent, sometimes not; sometimes there are several. None of it makes any sense, really, and try as I might to try to piece together some sort of explanation, I am really on the verge of giving up.

As for Grane’s reincarnation as Brünnhilde’s male, suited personal assistant, it makes even less sense when there have been a few apparently arbitrary visual references to actual horses elsewhere. Finally, there is a strong impression that the strongest acting is brought by the singers themselves to their roles. Personenregie is intermittent at best and sometimes disappears altogether in longer exchanges between characters. I suppose some of these things, minus the lack of Personenregie, might add up to something in retrospect, but I do not feel especially hopeful.

Musically, things are better, often much better. Cornelius Meister continues to impress greatly with his command of structure and detail, conveying and expressing a Wagner melos from the pit that drives and, in many respects, is the action. The sound he drew from the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra—and, I assume, to an extent, the sound its players wished to conjure too—was in some ways distant from that we might recall from old Bayreuth recordings, closer to those of other opera orchestras. Choices seem well justified to me, though, and there is no point merely trying to imitate Karl Böhm—or anyone else, for that matter. There is considerable emotional and conceptual range as the cauldron of Wagner’s Greek Chorus bubbles: quite a difference, alas, from what we see onstage.

Not, however, from what we hear onstage. Lise Davidsen’s Sieglinde was at least the equal of any I have heard. No one seems to have a bad word to say about this extraordinary soprano, and so far there seems no reason for anyone to do so. Her final peroration here, ‘O hehrstes Wunder!...’ was as vocally magnificent, riding the orchestral wave almost like no other, as it was clearly heartfelt, the culmination of a dramatic journey that now must end. Klaus Florian Vogt’s tenor will always divide opinion. Much of that is simply down to taste. Whether one liked his performance or not—and there is no getting away from the fact that its sound is very different from the baritonal Siegmunds we have come to expect—his was certainly a committed and, I think, highly likeable performance. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding offered a masterclass in the role, everything present and correct, both considered and alert to the moment.

Tomasz Konieczny and Michael Kupfer-Radecky shared the role of Wotan, the former having become unable to continue during the second interval. Both gave strong performances, deeply rooted in Wagner’s text; if the ear took a little while to adjust to new sound and delivery, that was a tiny price to pay for so crucial, short-notice a substitution. Christa Mayer’s Fricka was once again first-class, fuller-throated than often one hears, and all the better for it. Iréne Theorin impressed as head Valkyrie, youthfully impetuous and headstrong, yet clearly transformed by what she had witnessed. The rest of her team was cast from depth, including a return for Mayer as Schwertleite. Had this been a concert performance, I suspect it would have moved more than it did in the theatre. This Ring, however, will continue in Wagner’s own theatre.


Monday, 1 August 2022

Bayreuth Festival (1): Das Rheingold, 31 July 2022



Wotan – Egils Silins
Donner – Raimund Nolte
Froh – Attilio Glaser
Loge – Daniel Kirch
Fricka – Christa Mayer
Freia – Elisabeth Teige
Erda – Okka von der Damerau
Alberich – Olafur Sigurdarson
Mime – Arnold Bezuyen
Fasolt – Jens-Erik Aasbø
Fafner – Wilhelm Schwinghammer
Woglinde – Lea-ann Dunbar
Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde – Katie Stevenson

Valentin Schwarz (director)
Andrea Cozzi (designs)
Andy Besuch (costumes)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Luis August Krawen (video)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Cornelius Meister (conductor)

In der Erde Tiefe
tagen die Nibelungen:
Nibelheim ist ihr Land.
Schwarzalben sind sie;
Schwarz Alberich hütet’ als Herrscher sie einst!

So begins the Wanderer’s answer to the first of Mime’s three riddles, in which notoriously the dwarf asks his unwelcome visitor questions he hopes will catch him out—they do not—thereby wasting the opportunity to ask the chief of the gods what he, Mime, actually needs to know. Mime has asked which Geschlecht may be found in the earth’s depths. Wotan/the Wanderer tells him: the Nibelungs, that is Mime’s own kin. In response to the third riddle, when Mime asks him which Geschlecht lives in the cloud-hidden heights, the Wanderer, disguised chief of the gods, tells his interlocutor that it is those very gods, continuing, ‘Lichtalben sind sie; Licht-Alberich, Wotan, waltet der Schar.’

If I understand correctly—I should stress that I am writing this immediately after Das Rheingold, with much yet to be revealed—those points in that exchange point to something crucial in understanding Valentin Schwarz’s new Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring. That dialectical opposition between Wotan and Alberich, ‘white’ and ‘black’ Alberich—which is certainly the meat of the Rheingold drama, and in many ways underpins all that is to come—is taken a little more literally, rendering them twins. The Rheingold prologue is perhaps as close as we shall come to a musical presentation of the ‘spontaneous generation’ Wagner’s contemporary Karl Marx hymned in his long unpublished, Feuerbachian Paris Manuscripts: Generatio æquivoca is the only practical refutation’ of the theological ‘theory of creation,’ The ‘abstraction’ of the old way of thinking of oneself as apart from Nature overcome, ‘for you too are Nature and man’.  (Wagner would have read Arthur Schopenhauer’s description ‘spontaneity of the world of Nature’ in Parerga and Paralipomena when working on the score, but the roots of this idea unquestionably extend back to the Young Hegelian inheritance he and Marx—‘black’ and ‘white’ Marx?—found in Ludwig Feuerbach and other writers of the 1840s.)

Luis August Krawen’s opening video projection makes it very clear that we were in the waters (‘in the river Rhine’, as Anna Russell would have reminded us, ‘in it!’) so as to fit any number of creation or non-creation myths. What proceeds differently here is the vision of twin umbilical chords, leading us to twin babies—who, as the saga develops, we associate with Wotan and Alberich. At any rate, there are birth, kinship, and rivalry: a reminder that Mime’s ‘Geschlecht’, often translated as ‘race’, has here more to do with genealogy, with family, house, and lineage. Schwarz not only takes Wagner’s three lineages—dwarves, giants, and gods—as the basis of the drama to come, but takes Wagner further than himself by rendering at least two of them estranged branches of the same clan: Cain and Abel, Esau and Isaac, Wotan and Alberich…

Inheritance, therefore, is fundamental. In an underlining of the family saga element (which, at one level, surely no one could deny) Schwarz has Alberich steal and turn a child from the swimming pool over which the Rhinemaidens (glorified au pairs?) watch over a group of children. Notably, that child is black-haired, as opposed to the blond of the others. One can go down the route of trying to work out precisely what the ‘dark’ child symbolises: the gold, what it is turned into, inheritance? I am not sure that is really the way to go, though. There is a struggle between Black and White Alberich both for that boy and, intermittently, for a blonde girl, which perhaps represents—if at times, a little confusingly—the overall power struggle. Alberich is certainly an outsider and remains so, presumably at some stage cast out. Wotan’s crew is the ‘legitimate’ branch, with a ghastly family (shades of Murdoch, or even Dynasty?) in competition over the spoils and succession. I worry somewhat that the ‘racial’ element of Geschlecht may come to be seen as the point, rather than a metaphor, but perhaps the claim—it certainly has been claimed, if far from convincingly—is that race is the point here. As with much else, we shall see.

There are intriguing elements, for instance the ongoing element of the children ‘leaders’ educating and abusing other children, struggle and oppression already echoing down the ages. Wotan’s ecstasy in his own apparent victory at the close is compelling: high, it would seem, on his own ideology, or at least his own misdeeds. There are others I have yet to understand: why does Erda put in several appearances before her scheduled arrival, just to watch, and why does she walk off with the blonde girl in her care at the end? Is this in some sense a presentiment of Brünnhilde, as the boy might be of Hagen? Again, we shall see. It would be odd to understand everything, or even have much of a developed idea about at this stage. This, after all, is only the
Vorabend, the preliminary evening. Something more strongly political might not be a bad thing, but one might argue much attention, from Patrice Chéreau onwards, has been devoted to that already; perhaps it is time for a shift of emphasis. Again, we shall see.

Conducting anything at all at Bayreuth is a difficult task indeed, even when familiar with the set-up, let alone when not—likewise even when it is a single evening’s work, rather than that of four. Cornelius Meister, who was due to conduct Tristan but now substitutes for Pietari Inkinen, made a better job of Das Rheingold than I have previously heard here (Sinopoli, Petrenko, Janowski). Balance was excellent; so too was pacing. If there were a few orchestral fluffs—a couple of brass wrong entries, for instance—nothing was too grievous. The orchestra itself likewise sounded on good form. In both cases, more will surely come, but this was an impressive start.

So too was it for the cast. Olafur Sigurdarson garnered the greatest cheers from the audience as Alberich, probably rightly so. His was certainly an outstanding performance, seemingly instinctively alert to the dramatic reality and implications of Wagner’s particularly dialectical blend of verse, music, and gesture. A blond Egils Silins—that dark/light antagonism again—offered a proper battle as his principal antagonist. Christa Mayer’s Fricka was thoughtful, considered, and personal in tone and delivery. Much the same, albeit far from the same, might be said of Okka von der Damerau’s Erda. Arnold Bezuyen and Daniel Kirch made much of their tenor roles, verbally and physically, as Mime and Loge respectively. Elisabeth Teige’s Freia offered proper beauty of tone, well echoed by that forlorn violin solo of ‘love’ in the orchestra. Jens-Erik Aasbø and Wilhelm Schwinghammer contrasted actions and motivations well in the giants’ roles. It was an impressive trio of Rhinemaidens we heard too, their ensemble warning in the final scene fatally apparent. As for what is to come, we shall see (and hear).