Monday 27 February 2023

Gould Piano Trio - Beethoven, 26 February 2023

Wigmore Hall

Piano Trio in G major, op.1 no.2
Variations in E-flat major, op.44
Piano Trio in E-flat major, op.70 no.2

Lucy Gould (violin)
Richard Lester (cello)
Benjamin Frith (piano)

There have been starrier and higher-octane performances of Beethoven piano trios, but this Wigmore Hall concert from the Gould Trio had much to offer an audience permitted, as it were, to eavesdrop on a Sunday evening’s music-making between friends: nothing especially to prove, other than the players’ clear love of music and this music in particular. That and, I should add, a delightful vindication of the rarely performed op.44 E-flat Variations. 

First up was the G major Trio, op.1 no.2, its first movement introduction broad and mysterious, yet clearly heading somewhere. But where? The main Allegro vivace emerged nicely, almost imperceptibly, though we were soon emphatically ‘there’. A few oddities of balance were to be heard in this notoriously tricky medium, but nothing that could not soon be ironed out. It was a pleasure to hear the development section driven motivically, especially via Benjamin Frith’s piano. As a whole, the movement struck the right note – for me – of sunniness, tinged by slight melancholy: Beethoven in G major. The second movement continued in expansiveness, with notably sweeter tone. The striking maturity of Beethoven’s writing here (1793) was relished and communicated, from rapt contemplation of the Kantian heavens to darker shadows below. Springing again from Haydn, yet similarly going beyond in new, surprising directions, the scherzo might at times have had a little more edge, but better that than the merciless hard driving of so many recent Beethoven performances. Haydn’s conception of a Presto was certainly to be heard in the finale, good-humoured yet tenacious. Perhaps the movement goes on a little, but if so, it was difficult to mind in so engaging a performance. 

The theme, or ‘non-theme’, as cellist Richard Lester called it in a brief spoken introduction, of the op.44 Variations was despatched straight, with a couple of opportune archings of eyebrows. Good-natured development allowed each musician – and instrument – moments to shine, Lester’s rich-toned yet variegated solo in the fourth variation a case in point. The sadness of the E-flat minor, ‘Largo’ seventh variation registered without exaggeration, a case study in quiet transformation, both as composition and performance. An increasing array of techniques, palpably sincere, even when – particularly when? – at the cheekier end of the spectrum, was deployed to round off a fine performance of a work deserving of more frequent outings. 

A ‘rarer’ tone was to be heard at the opening of the E-flat major Trio: not exactly ‘late’, yet already peering into that world. Comparison of introductions was instructive. Here, there was no doubt that every single note counted. Similarly, there was no doubt that the Allegro ma non troppo exposition, again clearly derived from what had gone before, was both more complex and yet, at least in some ways, more directly expressed. Subjective fragility was part of that, as were the surprises of developmental twists and turns. Throughout, the relationship – including, yet not restricted to balance – between instruments was well judged. Next, the players understood and conveyed the truth that, for Beethoven, ‘Allegretto’ is more a matter of character than speed. Both inner movements bore that character, yet sounded quite different. Haydn’s pupil is never more so than when he is being himself, the second movement playful and passionate, the third noble and almost infinitely subtle. The finale was more fractured, intonation perhaps a little awry at times. Beethoven on edge, though, is no bad thing; the battle must never be too easily won. His undeniable radicalism was here given its full due. As an encore, we heard a charming arrangement of the Septet’s Minuet.

Thursday 23 February 2023

Stankiewicz/LSO/Roth - Schubert and Zimmermann, 19 February 2023

Barbican Hall

Schubert: Rosamunde, Overture and Entr’actes to Acts I and III
Zimmermann: Oboe Concerto
Schubert: Mass no.5 in A-flat major, D 678

Olivier Stankiewicz (oboe)
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano)
Cyrille Dubois (tenor)
William Thomas (bass)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Gregory Batsleer)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Trenchant opening chords giving way to a delightful oboe solo (Juliana Koch): the beginning of the so-called Rosamunde Overture, really the overture to Der Zauberharfe, offered a version in miniature of the first half of this LSO concert, arguably even of the concert as a whole. The introduction was undeniably on a grand, Romantic scale, though a fizzing ‘Allegro molto moderato’ proved more suggestive of Rossini than of Mendelssohn. François-Xavier Roth took it very fast, but crucially it worked, proving both nimble and full of incident, and if the lack of string vibrato surprised my ears, they (more or less) adapted. Ultimately, it put a smile on my face and proved a fine curtain-raiser. For the darker first entr’acte likewise proved suggestive of the theatre, of stage action about to commence. Its successor’s episodes offered delectable woodwind solos: not only oboe, but clarinet (Sérgio Pires) and flute (Gareth Davies) too. More veiled than sweet, the outer sections offered a different kind of intimacy given Roth’s non-vibrato approach. Signing off with string quartet rather than full strings proved a lovely idea. 

Olivier Stankiewicz joined the orchestra for Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1952 Oboe Concerto. Its first movement, ‘Hommage à Stravinsky’, pulled the older composer’s neoclassicism in multiple directions: homage, yes, but also embroidering and deconstructing. It was all despatched, as throughout, with the cleanest of lines, good humour, and a sign or two of something darker, carried forward into the central ‘Rhapsodie’, full of post-Bartókian night music. Magical solo (and other) evocations helped construct – for there was no ultimate doubt of the composer’s constructivism – a postwar pastoral, hinting at least at so much of what that historically might imply. Stankiewicz played this as the repertoire piece it should be, ably partnered by the LSO and Roth, the finale presented as a brilliant clash and reconciliation between serial and neoclassical tendencies: not only the earlier Stravinsky but Hindemith too. Passages of dissolution suggested men and machines, mannequins too, threatening to break down yet surviving—perhaps a metaphor for the work as a whole and, indeed, much of Zimmermann’s œuvre. 

What a joy, in the second half, it was to hear Schubert’s Mass in A-flat major. Why we do not hear Schubert’s masses all the time, I really do not know. It is a tremendous loss, and many will surely have been encountering this work for the first time. I doubt they will have been disappointed, especially in so sensitive and exultant a performance as this, a fine team of soloists and the excellent London Symphony Chorus now partnering Roth and the LSO. The opening exhortation for mercy sounded with humility, preparing the way for each of the soloists to introduce themselves with distinction in response: ‘Christe eleison’. This Kyrie as a whole had a splendid developmental quality, lightly worn, yet nonetheless telling: not the least example of Roth’s discerning musical judgement. Schubert sounded as a child of Mozart, yet with undeniable affinity to Beethoven, even to his Missa solemnis, as characteristic textures, ultimately to be reduced to no case of ‘influence’, were revealed before our ears. 

A whirlwind of praise was unleashed in the first section of the Gloria, incessant fiddling offering a flickering, moving halo to the choral company of heaven. Those cries of ‘Gloria’ could hardly fail to recall Beethoven, but not to the detriment of a more general impression of abiding, Austrian (perhaps rather than Viennese) loveliness. Lucy Crowe’s soprano duet with clarinet, paving the way once more for the entry of other soloists, in the second section, ‘Gratias agimus tibi…’ was not the least example of that; likewise Adèle Charvet’s rich mezzo solo a little later on, again entwined with clarinet, as well as bassoon. Once again, the LSO’s wind excelled themselves. Roth’s ear for orchestral colour suggested, in that well-worn cliché, a sensitive restoration of an old master painting, for instance in the Credo’s unusually colourful profession of faith. All concerned understood the task, varying in difficulty, of reconciling theological and musical imperatives, the ‘Crucifixus’ section’s pivotal ambiguity erupting in the glorious release of resurrection. Roth directed and shaped, without ever giving the impression of undue moulding. The censer swung in suggestion again of a characteristically Austrian otherworldliness in the Sanctus, both personal and beyond the personal. The Benedictus’s heavenly solo trio, soprano, mezzo, and tenor (an ardent Cyrille Dubois) must surely have had a few hearts skip a beat or two. Then the return of William Thomas’s dark-hued bass for the Agnus Dei rightly imparted a sense of completion: sadness and hope, even before the call to grant us peace.

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Das Rheingold, English National Opera, 18 February 2023


Images: Marc Brenner
Rhinemaidens (Eleanor Dennis, Katie Stevenson, Idunnu Münch)

Woglinde – Eleanor Dennis
Wellgunde – Idunnu Münch
Flosshilde – Katie Stevenson
Alberich – Leigh Melrose
Mime – John Findon
Wotan – John Relyea
Fricka – Madeleine Shaw
Freia – Katie Lowe
Froh – Julian Hubbard
Donner – Blake Denson
Erda – Christine Rice
Loge - Frederick Ballentine  
Fasolt – Simon Bailey
Fafner – James Creswell

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

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Like the Biblical cosmos, that of the Ring offers more than one creation myth, not necessarily entirely consistent with one another. Therein lies the dramatic rub. Richard Jones’s new production of Das Rheingold brings the second creation myth to the fore before the first, the generatio æquivoca of the Prelude, is heard—at least for those mature enough not simply to laugh uproariously at the mere sight of a naked man. (Disruptive audience members who seemed throughout, without evident justification, to believe they were watching Carry on Rhinegold may have been better advised to stick to Donizetti, but doubtless we should ‘respect their choices’.) What the primæval figure does is the thing: he carries wood hewn from a tree across the stage, the wood diminishing in size (and distancing itself from life) in proportion to the civilised clothes he acquires. The World-ash tree and Wotan’s act of ecopolitical violence against it are placed centre-stage—and then, E-flat… 

A hallmark of Jones’s staging throughout is indeed the clarity of its narration. Where Keith Warner’s late Royal Opera staging clearly had ideas, many extremely worthy on paper, the director struggled, so it seemed, to bring them to visual clarity (not to be confused, necessarily, with simplicity) and much seemed confused rather than complex. There may not be much in the way of conceptual complexity; this will not, it seems, be a Ring that changes our conception of the work. But it – the Rheingold, anyway – is as well shaped as Martyn Brabbins’s conducting of the score, both (greatly to my surprise) transformed out of all recognition from the miserable preceding excursion for Die Walküre. The Rhinemaidens’ amoral hedonism is evoked by their fitness wear and activities, a cruel contrast with a clearly unfit Alberich. The golden cyber-child they guard – not very well – is the Rhinegold, original state and potential for capitalisation imaginatively conveyed. And, as throughout, the deed of violence in its theft furnishes a due moment of dramatic horror. It is straightforward rather than reactionary, but in many ways none the worse than that; it certainly compares favourably with the listless soap-opera inconsequentiality of Valentin Schwarz at Bayreuth last summer.

Alberich (Leigh Melrose)

Objects, a crucial, far-too-often overlooked aspect of Wagner’s drama are well dealt with too. The spear, hewn in turn from the ash-wood, appears properly centre-stage. Those new to the drama will see that it is important and be aided in understanding why; more experienced Wagnerites will connect it with the rest of the action and ideas of their own. The Tarnhelm and ring, as well as the hoard more generally, are likewise clearly represented and, just as important, their role in the drama is clearly delineated. Nibelheim’s essential basis as a modern factory is immediately apparent – excellent sound design helps beforehand, in bringing the sound of its anvils immediately before our ears – and Alberich, transformed out of all recognition into a horrifying dictator of modern capital, wields his capitalist ‘whip of hunger’ (George Bernard Shaw) over Nibelung kinsmen with immediate and clear effect. His further transformations, courtesy of the Tarnhelm, again make their point starkly: first, he truly is, as he tells them, ‘everywhere’, his forms multiplying in surveillance and punishment (sorry, ‘incentivisation’); second and third, metamorphoses into dragon and toad are handled simply and without any of the attendant usual confusion. (Again, quite why some engaged in bellyaching laughter at the moment of Alberich’s capture, I cannot imagine. Strange, at best.)

Erda (Christine Rice), Erda (John Relyea)

The final scene makes for powerful dramatic cumulation, well supported by keen Personenregie. Erda’s appearance in pyjamas, keen to resume her sleep, sand of time spraying from her hands, makes a number of important points without fuss; so too does another point of violence, Wotan kissing her—and seemingly changing all. Schoolgirl Norns in attendance may (or may not) know. Freia’s deep affection for Fasolt, in the light of his for her, is  moving, not least on account of deeply sympathetic performances from Katie Lowe and Simon Bailey. That Freia, as well as Loge, wishes to dissociate herself from the entrance into Valhalla is also genuinely moving, as indeed is the mounting of the gold to hide her form in the giants’ removal lorry. Rainbow lighting evokes Froh’s bridge with a delightful sense of the aesthetic that is yet not spectacle for its own sake. When furious, desperate Rhinemaidens, heard offstage, return to the stage to demand return of their gold, Wotan battens down the fortress hatches. The die is cast—as Loge, his bag packed, knows only too well. 

Loge is always a character well-placed to steal the show. Frederick Ballantine’s quicksilver portrayal certainly did that, securely poised on what might otherwise be a tightrope between personability and tales of political alienation. Key to his success, and to that of many other cast members, was crystal-clear diction, enabling the truths of John Deathridge’s excellent new singing translation to hit home with force – the truth that Wagner requires us to think for ourselves, his text a springboard rather than our dramatic destination not the least of them. John Relyea’s Wotan captured, in another strikingly mature portrayal, so many of the nuances and contradictions in the god’s complex, world-winning (perhaps) personality.

Loge (Frederick Ballentine), Alberich

Leigh Melrose’s Alberich was, quite simply, spellbinding. The shift from repressed dwarf to would-be world-dictator owed much to costumes and make-up, but was ultimately his. We sympathised, though not too much; the erotic urge (liebesgelüste, Wagner’s lower case) Wagner noted in Alberich’s case in a letter of 1851 was already a menace. We cowed, with the Nibelungs. And we felt, through his work and the orchestra’s, the ominous power of the curse. Indeed, every member of the cast contributed to this overall success. Madeleine Shaw’s uncommonly sympathetic Fricka, Christine Rice’s surprisingly deep-toned Erda, James Creswell’s contemptuous Fafner, among them. This trio of Rhinemaidens, for instance, would aurally adorn any house. 

The innermost core of Wagner music drama lies, we all know, in the orchestra, his Greek chorus. ENO here likewise had little to fear from the most august of comparisons, not that one felt compelled to draw them. For a signal virtue of this Rheingold was that one sensed how all aspects had come together as so much more than the sum of their considerable parts; had the production been different, so would the singing, and so on. Brabbins’s collegial, structurally comprehending – and communicative – conducting presented itself above all as an enabler of dramatic action and was well experienced as such. I can only imagine orchestral and sung contributions will go from strength to strength over the course of this run.

Donner (Blake Denson), Froh (Julian Hubbard), Wotan, Fricka (Madeleine Shaw)

What a difference, then, fifteen months make, and how great a pleasure it is to report so. When ENO’s new Ring opened in November 2021, oddly with its second instalment rather than its first, neither staging nor performance induced much enthusiasm. Now, at a time of existential concern for the company’s future, its presentation of Das Rheingold proves in most respects a triumph: a vindication for those fighting the philistine atrocities perpetrated by the Arts Council – sorry ‘Arts Council England’ – and the ‘government’ it all too readily serves. Roll on England’s Götterdämmerung, in more than one sense.

Sunday 19 February 2023

Edward Lambert: The Burning Question, The Music Troupe, 18 February 2023

King’s Head Theatre

Arianna – Louise Fuller
The Pope – Arlene Belli
Ignacio – Harry Grigg
San Pietro – Samuel Lom
Heavenly Voices – Rosalind Dobson, Arlene Belli, Peter Martin, Samuel Lom

Elspeth Wilkes and Stephen Westrop (piano duet)

Tabita Benton-Evans (designs)
Jenny Weston (direction, movement)

Images: Tom Trevatt Photography

Two operas in one day: it happens (for a select, perhaps insane, few of us) from time to time, but one probably wants them to be quite contrasted, at least unless they are intended to be performed together. In that sense, Edward Lambert’s new chamber opera, his seventeenth, offered a nice amuse-bouche—and more than that, but not too much—to the first night of ENO’s new production of Das Rheingold, a shortish bus-ride away from Islington’s King’s Head Theatre. 

Inspired by a 2019 incident in which Pope Francis was delayed by twenty-five minutes from meeting the faithful in St Peter’s Square, finding himself stuck in a lift and eventually rescued by firefighters, this ‘comedy in song’, mostly in English but with a little Italian, as well as liturgical Latin, lightly plays with the destination of a soul. It seems that she has done good work in cleaning up the Church, so is destined to do the same for Hell/Hades, though her valet (a demon, Ignacio) worries about how his father there will react to a woman’s leadership. Petrine Security’s visit eventually resolves the matter, as, in recounting a youthful lustful sin, the Pope tells of the child she had had with Persephone, underworld goddess, left in the care of nuns in Woking. That child is Ignacio. Rather than revert to semi-divine status, both he and the angel-chambermaid Arianna resolve to build a life together on earth, the sparks of their love firing the purgatorial fire that will cleanse the Pope and permit her to enter Heaven after all.


To a libretto by Norman Welch and Edward Lambert, which incorporates not only the Latin Requiem Mass but also material by Ambrose Bierce, the opera plays out in what is less a parade of styles—that makes it sound arbitrary—then freely floating, essentially tonal, numbers that evoke a vaudeville spirit, theological-dramatic passage, and benign hauntings from the history of the genre. There are set-pieces, speech, passages of parlando connection, and sound design from, as it were, beyond the beyond, heavenly voices working their recorded yet immediate magic. Much though not all, is underpinned by excellent piano duet work from Elspeth Wilkes and Stephen Westrop. Coloratura embellishes, and ultimately sincerity of love wins, winningly expressed by soprano Louise Fuller and Harry Grigg, ably mentored by Arlene Belli’s Pope and Samuel Lom’s St Peter. Simple, yet undeniably powerful shifts of lighting make important contributions too. This, then, is a real company, thoroughly professional, affair from The Music Troupe, which can and maybe should provoke deeper thoughts, yet which can also certainly be enjoyed as a piece of fun on the surface. As Nietzsche (posthumously) reminded Wagner, not all art need or should be the Stone Guest scene; sometimes, il faut méditeranniser la musique.

Kopatchinskaja/LSO/Roth - Ligeti and Beethoven, 16 February 2023

Barbican Hall

Ligeti, arr. Elgar Howarth: Macabre Collage (UK premiere)
Ligeti: Violin Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Image: Mark Allan


György Ligeti will turn 100 on 28 May. Let us hope for many performances as excellent as this in celebration of perhaps the most abidingly concert-hall-popular of postwar musical modernists. First, François-Xavier Roth conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Elgar Howarth’s 2021 revision of his 1991 ‘collage’ from Le Grand Macabre. From the anarchic Monteverdi hommage of the opening, L’Orfeo’s Toccata revisited via twelve car-horns, to the closing passacaglia with swing, here to my ears slightly suggestive of Kurt Weill, Ligeti’s ‘anti-anti-opera’ or ‘comic apocalypse’ splendidly hit the absurdist spot of would-be annihilation in edited, wordless version. (If ever we needed a return to Breugelland, it is surely during our current NATO-Putin-Zelensky standoff.) Was that an allusion I heard early on to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Perhaps, perhaps not. Does it matter? Again, one can argue either way. A musical melodrama of drumroll and offstage trombone set the, or at least a, drama proper in motion, Death drunkenly fiddling offstage, having us both fear and ridicule him, caught in the headlines of a Fate Ligeti (and Beethoven) may or may not have summoned. The space was used resourcefully throughout, an E-flat clarinet peeking out from a hole in the wall that suggests, yet does not contain, an organ, various tricks beguiling and distracting as commedia dell’arte met something approaching music theatre. A tango-ish Rite, or just a rite? Hard-edged, metallic, it was splendidly theatrical, hallucinatory harpsichord, fairground Bach, and all; unsettling, even frightening fun at its best. 

The Violin Concerto emerged in context as a microtonal dance of something between life and death, the first movement memerising in its difficulties and in Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s (and the LSO’s) despatch of them. A folklike, vibratoless solo ‘Aria’ constantly surprised as other, hocketing instruments joined in deft evasion of the conventional, emotional or otherwise. Ocarinas versus virtuosic violin; piccolo, percussion, and horns: the ‘weird ironic homelessness’ (Seth Brodsky) of this movement held us in its thrall. Its successor, the ‘Intermezzo’ sounded as if an electronic Prokofiev reverie; it is none of those things really, of course, but perhaps the ‘real’ has been overrated. Another passacaglia, here of shifting stillness, ensued, lengthy violin harmonic notes eventually rudely assailed, so as to turn things loudly inwards—then outwards. Shaping from all concerned, Roth as much as the soloist, showed both careful precision and febrile abandon. The finale’s virtuoso fireworks emerged as strangely (in a good sense) hardwon: a further mystery of the macabre. Kopatchinskaja’s own cadenza culminated in singing, whistling, stamping, and more—and not only from her. Leader Carmen Lauri joined her for an encore of the early (1950) violin duo Baladă şi joc, evoking more strongly than anything in the concerto a Bartókian, indeed Hungarian, past that soon would no longer be a desirable, or even conceivable, option for composition. 

As agile in his podium pirouette from receipt of applause to commence Beethoven’s Fifth, applause still ongoing, as in his musical direction, Roth offered us a first movement unquestionably fast by historical standards, yet without being hard-driven. (For the nth time, speed and tempo are not the same thing.) Crucially, Beethoven’s score throughout pulsed with life: a banal cliché, no doubt, but sometimes words are truly insufficient. This was not, nor would anyone have expected it to be, a Beethoven in the line of Furtwängler, Klemperer, Barenboim, et al.; it was clearly influenced by Roth’s work with his period-instrument orchestra, Les Siècles, perhaps especially in the ripe, fruity presence of the LSO woodwind. (Just how did that metamorphosis take place?) But there was no dogmatism, simply a different, sincerely held, and powerfully communicated view. The astonishing textural clarity we heard was not an end in itself, but a means to hear, to feel, musical process. Just as the move to the relative major for the second group inevitably—and irrespective of ‘intention’—sounded a moral as well as a ‘purely’ musical transformation, so did the necessity of further struggle in the recapitulation-as-second-development. The movement’s concision shocked and enthralled as it must, and if, at the close, I felt energy had triumphed over tragedy, or rather there had been a degree of dissociation, then not everything, even in Beethoven, is or need be Romanticism. 

In the second movement, flowing freely, articulation enhanced rather than detracting from the longer line. The martial, French Revolutionary quality to brass interventions was rich in resonance (of various kinds). Every section of the LSO played superbly, but the gorgeous sound of the cellos perhaps merits special mention. Again, this was a vivid communication of form and melodic line as one: wholly involving, as was the implacable, subjectively aware scherzo, whether first time around or in ghostly (here, perhaps ghostlier than I have ever heard) reprise. The sheer energy of contrapuntal outburst in the trio offered an excellent presentiment of the transition to the finale, which was yet not foreshadowed by that presentiment. Again, Roth’s way here was neither Wagnerian nor even especially post-Wagnerian, but that is not to say it lacked its own metaphysics or at least philosophy. At any rate, the sheer physical thrill of what unfolded had its own, perhaps more materialist tale to tell. Later transitions were just as seamless, which is of course not to say without import. This, then, was a reading of great cumulative power, to which the LSO appeared and sounded entirely committed throughout.

Tuesday 14 February 2023

Gerhaher/Huber - Holliger, Wolf, Schumann, and Schoeck, 12 February 2023

Wigmore Hall

Holliger: Elis
Wolf: Abendbilder
Holliger: Lunea
Schumann: Vier Husarenlieder, op.117
Schoeck: Elegie, op.36: ‘An den Wind’, ‘Herbstgefühl’, ‘Verlorenes Glück’, ‘Das Mondlicht’, ‘Herbstentschluss’, ‘Welke Rose’
Schumann: Sechs Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem, op.90

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gerold Huber (piano)

Any recital from Christian Gerhaher is likely to be special; offering a range of quite unusual repertoire, Heinz Holliger’s Lunea written for and dedicated to Gerhaher, this was no exception. It opened, though, with a rare solo spot for Gerhaher’s long-term collaborator, pianist Gerold Huber, and early (1961, revised 1966) Holliger. Gerhaher reading the three Georg Trakl texts on which Elis’s three short piano pieces, ‘Verkündigung des Todes’, ‘Todesangst und Gnade’, and ‘Himmelfahrt’, are based, even providing his own English translation for the programme sheet. Strikingly post-Schoenbergian harmony characterised the first, though its musical gestures worked differently. The soundworld of the second sounded later, more post-Webern, if you will, indeed surely marked by Holliger’s contemporary study with Boulez, albeit with a Germanic accent. ‘Himmelfahrt’, as its name might suggest, seemed in some sense both to reconcile and to go beyond. These aphoristic nocturnes emerged pregnant with emotion, gesture, and – who knows – perhaps ‘meaning’ too. 

Hugo Wolf’s Abendbilder (again early, 1877) followed, without a break. In context, the piano prelude to the first of the three sons sounded Romantically consoling, yet not unrelated: an excellent starting point for our Wolfram von Eschenbach, sorry Gerhaher, to sing, the sincerity as well as beauty of his delivery striking from the outset, likewise command of detail without pedantry. All three Nikolaus Lenau ‘pictures’ rightly formed part of a greater whole, whilst happily going on their own, sometimes pastoral, ways. It was difficult not to marvel at the different shades and colours of Gerhaher’s voice, poetically deployed, an sinking wanness as the sun set (‘Bald versinkt die Sonne’, an example in point. Shades of Schumann and Liszt in language and performance contextualised without overwhelming.

We remained with Lenau for Holliger’s Lunea, written from 2009-10, though only premiered at Zurich’s Opera House in 2013 (also venue five years later for the premiere of Holliger’s opera of the same name, featuring Gerhaher, reworking these settings ‘like chorales in a Bach Passion’). Notably more gestural than what we had previously heard, it yet remains – and, in performance, remained – within the noble Lied tradition. Twenty-two Lenau sentences and a short poem, ‘Einklang’, in memory of Johann Baptist Mayrhofer form a striking cycle that must surely have won the composer new admirers here in London. Gerhaher’s acuity of verbal and musical response seemed ideally suited. That range of colour was now married to a greater range of general delivery, sometimes unabashed song, sometimes recitation, often somewhere in between; extended piano techniques such as bowing the strings acted similarly. Searching melismata unsettled, lit up, even amused, as instances of wordpainting (‘Ein Tropfen im Stein’) worked something like their traditional magic of recognition. Wonderfully nomadic harmony illuminated Lenau’s Wüstenwanderer, prior to that neo-Schubertian postlude of ‘Einklang’.  

I struggle to find Schumann’s Lenau Husarenlieder among his more compelling work, but they received stylish, commanding performances, with a fine degree, where required, of Schwung. Rhythms were well-pointed, and Gerhaher, rightly, I think, permitted a word-driven approach. A selection of six songs from Othmar Schoeck’s Elegie, four to texts by Lenau, Gerhaher imparted a strong sense, even in the others’ absence, of its character as a whole, yet equally individual character to individual songs. Musical process was clear, courtesy above all of the piano, in ‘Das Mondlicht’. The performance as a whole was subtly surprising: no shocks, yet deeply satisfying provided one offered musical attention.

The final Schumann set showed the composer, at least some of the time, the recapturing the infinitely touching spirit of his youth. Gerhaher and Huber offered plenty of variety in the opening, strophic blacksmith’s song, but it was the ensuing ‘Meine Rose’ that played on the heartstrings. Was that perhaps a sense of Schumann influenced by Wagner, or simply memories of Gerhaher’s Wolfram? At any rate, it brought tears to my eyes. So too did the sense of youthful anticipation in ‘Die Sennin’, whilst ‘Einsamkeit’ and ‘Der schwere Abend’ both turned from disquieting ambiguity to ultimate sadness. The final ardour of the strange ‘Requiem’, offered us flame that flickered both in defiance and reconciliation, perhaps like the Lied tradition’s persistence unto Holliger (and beyond?) ‘Zweifeldner Wunsch’ from Schoeck’s Elegie made for a fitting encore, concluding and continuing a line of subtle questioning.

Sunday 12 February 2023

Carmen, English National Opera, 9 February 2023


Carmen – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Don José – Sean Panikkar
Micaëla – Carrie-Ann Williams
Escamillo – Nmon Ford
Zuniga – Keel Watson
Moralès – Christopher Nairne
Frasquita – Ellie Laugharne
Mercédès – Niamh O’Sullivan
Dancaïro – Matthew Durkan
Remendado – Innocent Masuku
Lillas Pastia – Dean Street
Mercédès’s daughter – Fatima Hammad

Children’s Chorus and Additional Chorus
Chorus (chorus director: Mark Biggins) and Orchestra of the English National Opera
Kerem Hasan (conductor)

Images: Adiam Yemane

Whatever happened to Calixto Bieito’s Carmen? I have seen it twice previously at ENO, in 2012 and 2015, and enjoyed it greatly. It has been revived since in London, but it dates back to the 1999 Festival Castell de Peralada and has been seen at a number of houses, Barcelona, San Francisco, and Oslo included. Maybe it has just had its day; with occasional, intriguing exceptions, few things date so quickly as stage productions. I think it is probably more than that, though. By the time of its third ENO revival, the link with Bieito seems tenuous, as if those involved would rather be at work on a new production, a production of their own. We are left with sets and costumes that have often lost their freshness, in seems to be quite a different overall approach, sitting uneasily, even incoherently, with Bieito’s radicalism: a softer radicalism, admittedly, than in many of his stagings, yet radicalism nonetheless. Sadly, many of the objects of Bieito’s critique have either more or less disappeared or found themselves (unwittingly?) transformed into objects of appreciation. 

One looks in vain for any real sense, beyond the uniforms, that this might be the dying days of Franco’s Spain – and uniforms, especially in a drama involving army officers, are hardly restricted to that time and place. The violence is more generalised, less clearly motivated. These are, it seems, simply a bunch of nasty people, Don José included. It is a point of view, I suppose, yet not to my mind an especially illuminating one. Perhaps more seriously, the idea of ‘Spain’ as a perpetual, arguably degenerating recreation, dating back to this opera and beyond seems to have been replaced by a taking at face value, if not quite celebration, of the tackiness and tourist vulgarity at which Bieito took aim. This Carmen now often seems less designed for the Opéra Comique, more to be straining at the commercial West End – without ever quite being able to fill the vast space of the Coliseum as would surely be necessary if taking, however misguidedly, that route. That said, the ballet of the fourth act retains much of its force and bite. 

A vicious toxic masculinity remains, even on occasion continues to shock: Don José striking Micaëla and verbally abusing her as she departs, for instance, that first scene surely echoed at the close when he brutally slits Carmen’s throat. But surely there is more to Carmen, indeed more to Don José, than that. One need not necessarily go down DmitriTcherniakov’s route, decentring Carmen and transforming the opera into Don José’s therapy session, fascinating, provocative, and rewarding though that was. A degree greater sympathy, or at least searching, for all the characters would not have gone amiss here.


More consistently strong performances might have helped. One principal towered above the others, Sean Panikkar’s Don José. The range of his performance, vocally and dramatically, came close to an object lesson, even within parameters that have become unsympathetic. He acted as an energising presence for others too. Rarely, moreover, have I heard such clear diction in this theatre’s cavernous spaces. If that brought the shortcomings of an oddly unsettled English translation more strongly to the fore, that is firmly the fault of that translation. (And really, Carmen in English is ultimately not a very good idea.) Ginger Costa-Jackson’s Carmen grew in stature as the evening progressed, at her strongest (wonderfully acted here) when later showing fear and vulnerability, strangely patchy earlier on. 

A lively, charismatic stage portrayal from Nmon Ford’s Escamillo was not always matched vocally in the lower range, but there was no doubting the commitment of the performance. Carrie-Ann Williams’s late-substitution Micaëla had its moments, more in the third act than the first, but never quite settled. There were, truth be told, several rather mixed performances, and one, the Zuniga, in which the singer seemed lacking, whether on the night or more fundamentally, in the necessary vocal equipment. Fortunately, Christopher Nairne’s Moralès (another late substitution), as well as Ellie Laugharne and Niamh O’Sullivan Frasquita and Mercédès, offered highly convincing, individual performances in their smaller roles.

The ENO Orchestra, meanwhile, was on excellent form, offering precision, warmth and sheen in near-equal (where appropriate) measure. Conductor Kerem Hasan’s tempi were well chosen and communicated, with plenty of drive and tenderness as the score required. The chorus and additional chorus did good work in all that was asked of them. I just wish the parts, many of them good, had added up to a more satisfying theatrical experience, as had been the case previously, whilst noting that mine seems to have been a minority view.

Thursday 9 February 2023

Schumann Qt/Barrágan - Brahms and Schumann, 7 February 2023

Wigmore Hall

Brahms: String Quartet no.3 in B-flat major, op.67
Schumann: String Quartet no.2 in F major, op.41 no.2
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, op.115

Erik Schumann, Ken Schumann (violins)
Veit Benedikt Hertenstein (viola)
Mark Schumann (cello))
Pablo Barrágan (clarinet)

Brahms and Schumann fit, for many reasons, like a glove. Participation of the Schumann Quartet (named after its three Schumann brothers, not the composer) does no harm either; nor indeed, on the evidence of this concert, does a guest appearance from clarinettist Pablo Barrágan. This was an evening of fine musicmaking throughout, evidently appreciated by the Wigmore Hall audience. 

First up was the third and last of Brahms’s surviving string quartets. (He is said to have destroyed his first dozen, even twenty, attempts, so fierce was his self-criticism, those first efforts having been made at Schumann’s urging.) With the Schumanns, the first movement and much of what was to follow wore their Beethovenian inheritance brightly. Even Brahms’s trademark metrical complexity seemed to spring to an unusual extent from Beethoven’s syncopation. There was something of late Beethoven’s fragmentation too, from at least the second group onwards, though there was never any denying Brahms’s own voice in the work’s undergrowth. None of it, of course, is remotely easy listening, and the development too us to greater extremes, no attempt made, quite rightly, to smooth the edges. The recapitulation seemed, in duly Beethovenian fashion, at least as much a second development as a return.

I was struck, in the second movement, by the relish with which the players communicated Brahms’s melodic profusion: first led by Erik Schumann’s first violin, proceeding to involve all. Still more important was the creation of an emotional world, poised between tragedy and something more affirmative, that engendered. Ghosts of the past made their presence felt: not only Beethoven, but Schumann, Bach, Schubert too. It was luminous, yet unquestionably grounded. A more turbulent third movement followed, seemingly darker and lighter, sometimes by turn, sometimes at once. Veit Benedkt Hertenstein’s viola emerged, properly, as first among equals, soon rivalled by Mark Schumann’s cello. Restless until the end, it prepared a fine contrast with the post-Classicism in work and performance of the finale, charm no more precluding depth than it would in Haydn. Serenity and joy were hard won, and all the more appreciated for that. Here was fulfilment, predicated on prior intense longing.

The first movement of Schumann’s F major Quartet, op.41 no.2, heard him in notably post-Classical style too. The Schumanns’ unhurried approach sounded just right to me: Allegro vivace does not mean the music should be harried, quite the contrary. The theme of the second movement was more inward, exuding all the charm of a ‘characteristic’ piano piece. Variations offered individuality and cumulative unity. By contrast, the scherzo and trio’s intensity and frankly involved character presented a later, almost Tchaikovskian Romanticism. The finale was delightfully puppy-like in character: a Haydn tribute, so it seemed, though with a Romantic heart. 

For the second part, we returned to Brahms, to the Clarinet Quintet. Poised and searching, the first movement presented the clarinet now as first among equals, though Barrágan would generously cede as required. Fuller texture combined with still greater sense of chiaroscuro that attended a keen sense of form—and, with that, an equally keen sense of the Mozartian perfection of late Brahms. The Adagio’s sweet melancholy and resurgent passion, h painful in their memories, contributed further to an idea of ‘lateness’ that was anything but maudlin. Romantic questing captivated in the Andantino, relative lightness of tone yielding ambiguously to darker impulses. Stoicism was the order of the day at the onset of the final theme and variations, which unfolded with all the complexity of a human being’s warring passions. The path taken seemed inevitable at the close, though everything had been to play for during its course. This fully involving performance was followed by an encore arrangement, again for clarinet quintet, of Schumann’s Abendlied: once more poised and with subtly convincing depth.

Wednesday 8 February 2023

Salome, Vienna State Opera, 4 February 2023

Images: © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn 

Herod – Gerhard Siegel
Herodias – Michaela Schüster
Salome – Malin Byström
Jochanaan – Wolfgang Koch
Narraboth – Daniel Jenz
Page – Patricia Nolz
Jews – Thomas Ebenstein, Andrea Giovannini, Carlos Osuna, Katleho Mokhoabane, Evgeny Solodovnikov
Nazarenes – Clemens Unterreiner, Attila Mokus
Soldiers – Ilja Kazakov, Stephano Park
Cappadocian – Alejandro Pizarro-Enríquez
Slave – Daniel Lökös
Executioner – Alexandre Cardoso da Silva
Cameraman – Benedikt Missmann
Little Salome – Margaryta Lazniuk
Little Salome (Dance/Video) – Anna Chesnova

Cyril Teste (director)
Céline Gautier (artistic collaboration)
Valérie Grall (designs)
Marie La Rocca (costumes)
Julien Boizard (lighting)
Mehdi Toutain-Lopez (video design)
Rémy Nguyen (video design (live camera))
Magdalena Chowaniec (choreography)
Sergio Morabito (dramaturgy)  

Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

At last, a new Salome comes to Vienna, Boleslaw Barlog’s venerable (1972!) staging finally having been retired. Cyril Teste’s new production has much to recommend it, both in itself and as realised by cast and orchestra. At first sight, all is as one might expect from a contemporary staging. Herod’s court has a mix of modern(ish) civilian evening dress and military uniforms. Guests are seated at a long table and champagne flows. We see them not above, as in David McVicar’s long-running Covent Garden production, but behind. But we see greater detail through live video. Herod’s leering obsession with Salome is already apparent. A state banquet is the setting, but the tragedy for Teste is familial; in a programme interview, he sees parallels with Hamlet. I am not sure I see it that way, really. The aestheticism of both Wilde and Strauss seems, at least in Teste’s spoken outline, somewhat shortchanged. In practice, though – and this is surely more important – the production is open enough to allow one to approach it from one’s own standpoint and not feel disappointed, quite the contrary.

© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn 

There is commendable attention to atmospheric detail, contributing considerably to a more detailed whole. Curtain movement chillingly – in more than one sense – conveys the sinister evening wind. More fundamentally, the detail of camerawork not only brings to life more that is going on, more than one can reasonably take in on a single viewing, but also enables Herod’s pornographic intent to reveal itself. For this Salome is not only a family tragedy; it is a tragedy of an abused girl/young woman. Salome’s dance is closely filmed, split between her and a memory of her still younger self. Initially parts of it seem odd, bizarrely awkward, as when she flexes her muscles, but one realises that is the point. Salome is both too knowing and not knowing enough; a part of her is shockingly, even heartbreakingly, innocent. And yet we must watch. Even the Tetrarch finds it impossible to watch some of it, head in hands toward the side of the stage, though that does not subtract from his glee at its close. He would probably prefer a private viewing. Aestheticism, then, comes here after all; we should always beware rulers who also think themselves artists.

I am (nearly) always surprised how most productions put entirely to one side Salome’s explicit reference to homosexuality; it is not even a subtext, but a text, Salome promising Narraboth a green flower if he will do her bidding. In my experience, only Hans Neuenfels’s brilliant Berlin staging has taken the opera at its word here (assuming we do not count David McVicar’s gratuitous nude executioner). The production certainly does not lack other sexual content, though, culminating in a gripping collision between Salome, the executioner, and the head of John the Baptist he has brought up from the cistern employed as a mask. Ultimately the executioner, at Herodias’s bidding, withdraws, but not before he too has had his piece of the girl. Moreover, the now common portrayal of Herodias’s page, sung by a female voice yet unquestionably a male role, as an androgynous woman poses, or at least suggests, further questions of gender, even as it takes us further from Wilde’s green carnation.

© Wiener Staatsoper / Ashley Taylor

This would count for relatively little, were it not for a host of outstanding performances onstage. Malin Byström fully inhabited the title role from beginning to end, in as fine a performance as one could hope to see and hear. Gerhard Siegel did not mistake grotesquerie of behaviour for a licence not to sing. His Herod was all the more plausible, as well as all the creepier and more sinister, for its vocal qualities. Michaela Schüster was surely destined for Herodias, her portrayal effortlessly iconic – for once, the much-abused word seems fitting – in its small observations as in its effortless hauteur. Ultimately, rule is hers, at least until eclipsed all too briefly by her daughter. Wolfgang Koch’s Jochanaan is a typically intelligent portrayal: necessarily direct in its prophecy, yet subtle in its interplay of words and music. The finest Narraboths always leave one wishing for more, that the officer’s tragedy might be averted. Daniel Jenz was no exception, his Narraboth sweetly sung, imploring and bewitched. Cast from seemingly endless depth, this Salome had everyone, however small the role, contribute to a greater whole. For me, the two Nazarenes, Clemens Unterreiner and Attila Mokus, especially caught the ear, but it may well have been others—and surely was for others in the audience.

© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn 

The Vienna State Opera Orchestra was on excellent form too, full of rich, warm tone in which to luxuriate, yet ever precise and directed. It may not be quite the period instrument here, Salome having reached the house as late as thirteen years after its 1905 Dresden premiere; one might nonetheless have been forgiven for thinking so. That precision owed much, of course, to Philippe Jordan’s thoughtful conducting. If this were not a Salome on which he stamped an indelibly personal mark – one might think here of, say, Karajan’s Salome – that was surely not Jordan’s intention. In permitting the score, after the necessary cliché (and illusion), to speak for itself, he was less neutral than responsive to the particular requirements of the stage.

Tuesday 7 February 2023

Don Giovanni, Vienna State Opera, 3 February 2023

Don Giovanni – Kyle Ketelsen
Commendatore – Ain Anger
Donna Anna – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Don Ottavio – Dmitry Korchak
Donna Elvira – Kate Lindsey
Leporello – Philippe Sly
Zerlina – Isabel Signoret
Masetto – Martin Häßler

Barrie Kosky (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Theresa Gregor (costumes)
Sergio Morabito, Nikolaus Stenitzer (dramaturgy)

Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Thomas Lang)
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Antonello Manacorda (conductor)

Images: © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Donna Anna (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller) and the Commendatore (Ain Anger)

One of Barrie Kosky’s great virtues as a director is that he does not impose a one-size-fits-all approach, or aesthetic, to his work with opera. There will sometimes, of course, be visual similarities – doubtless in part his, in part his design team’s – but they are intermittent and rarely, if ever, determining factors for the conceptual framework. (An especially vexing misconception of the AMOP crowd is that designs ‘are’ the production. No wonder they fail to understand anything they see.) And that framework, like it or otherwise—I have regularly fallen into either camp—is usually pretty clear. 

What puzzled me most about this Don Giovanni was a relative lack of clarity—whether in my perception or intrinsic. I think I managed to piece a bit more together afterwards, but much of it seemed, at least to me, a little undercooked: not a characteristic I readily associate with the director. Is that perhaps a by-product of its first outing having been at the height of the pandemic, when restrictions may have inhibited certain types of action? Characters certainly seem to spend a good deal of time, though far from all of it, some distance apart on a large stage. It is a rocky, rather grim landscape, many miles (literally, I suspect, as well as conceptually) from early-modern Seville (or the Venice Da Ponte’s libretto often seems fundamentally to suggest). Nothing is hidden, or concealed, in a wasteland that is anything but labyrinthine. It sprouts flora in the final scene of the first act, as do the chorus (who, whatever I said earlier on, resemble strikingly the chorus in Kosky’s Komische Oper Monteverdi Orpheus). But then it is back to the grey, rocky landscape—and latterly, a pool of water. 

That literal flowering seems to suggest some sort of Bacchic ritual, it would seem, albeit curiously shortlived. Perhaps that is the point: what does Giovanni do when things are not flowering, when the wine is not flowing—which does not even seem to happen at his feast, nor indeed ‘Finch’ han del vino’? He waits, it seems: a curious undermining of the kinetic energy that makes up his dramatic – in music and words alike – persona. Again, I imagine that is the point. Indeed, after, though only after, the performance, I sensed that, especially later on, this had been for Don Giovanni and Leporello, perhaps for the others too, a performance of Waiting for the Commendatore. Or had it? The idea of a Beckettian Don Giovanni is intriguing, but not very much more seems to be done with it. 

Don Giovanni (Kyle Ketelsen) and Masetto (Martin Hässler)

The other principal theme, perhaps related, is a centring of Leporello, who seems (not unreasonably, I suppose, given a standpoint of psychological realism) quite traumatised by his experiences with Don Giovanni. Is there a sense of abuse there? One might argue that that is intrinsic to the master-slave dialectic, though I am not sure that is quite how Mozart and Da Ponte see it. I think so, but more strong, again especially towards the end, is a sense of an ersatz father-and-son relationship. Perhaps, according to standpoint, that is intrinsically abusive. One might, truthfully yet not necessarily revealingly, observe that all of Don Giovanni’s relationships, if one may call them that at all, qualify as such. I sensed, though, that Kosky is saying more than that, without being quite clear (in my mind) what that ‘more’ is. Donna Elvira seems to be behaving rather unusually too. 

Don Giovanni and Leporello
(Philippe Sly)

Another Kosky virtue is that he knows his music. As with any director, indeed any musician, one might disagree with his response, but it would be unfair to claim that he has not considered it. A case in point here would be the concatenation of dances Mozart presents as a society of orders stands on the libertine – perhaps even revolutionary – precipice. For once, not only do we have the different bands of musicians on stage; the characters dance the appropriate dance, lending visual realisation of an extraordinary moment whose import may not always be recognised by a twenty-first-century audience. Too often, directors impose trademark silly dancing for all-comers. (There is a bit of that too, but not here.) I could not help, though, but wish that Kosky had interpreted the music, or at least how I hear it, a little more. It is not that music need always be doubled on stage, any more than the libretto need, but in the absence of a stronger conceptual lead, it might have helped. Herbert Graf’s Salzburg Felsenreitschule ipproduction for Furtwängler continues to score here. 

I am wary, as anyone should be, of saying it would have been better to have done x than y. It seems more fruitful in general to concentrate on y, though consideration of x may have some heuristic use in sharpening critique of y. For me—surely also for Mozart and Da Ponte—Don Giovanni is unquestionably a religious, indeed a Catholic, work, profoundly concerned with sin and damnation. That does not mean it must be presented as such, but it suggests performance would do well at least to find a satisfactory alternative to doing so, rather than simply ignoring the issue. That may be why, assuming God rather than Nietzsche to be dead, Kosky steps, surprisingly tentatively, toward the Theatre of the Absurd and, perhaps, beyond it to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, though neither comes across so starkly as it might. But then, perhaps neither is supposed to; if something is a context, it is not necessarily for me to say that it should become something more than that. Is it, though, for an audience member to voice bemusement concerning what, if anything, the message might be? Surely it is; for if not, not only criticism but theatre itself must be dead. And, whatever Kosky’s message may be, whatever the strange intermittent lack of theatricality to a production that yet strains hard to be theatrical, I strongly doubt he would wish to propose that particular death. 

As it was, a strong cast of singers worked hard to bring theatrical as well as musical values to the stage. Kyle Ketelsen was an energetic, charismatic Don Giovanni, owning the stage when he needed to, yet not without a sense of the chameleon when musically as well as dramatically called for. Philippe Sly’s wounded yet spirited Leporello offered a tour de force in the service of Kosky’s strangely compelling conception. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, an initial announcement notwithstanding, and Dmitry Korchak both shone as the unambiguously seria pair, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. They understood how coloratura works dramatically—and made us feel that. Kosky’s Donna Anna is certainly no unwilling participant: a more controversial idea now than it might have been twenty or even ten years ago, but certainly not without warrant in the score, let alone Romantic tradition. Kate Lindsey’s ‘Mì tradi’ was worth the price of admission alone; not that the rest of this captivating artist’s performance was not similarly excellent. If I were unsure quite what Kosky was trying to suggest here, there was no doubting Lindsey’s dramatic and musical capabilities of doing so. Ain Anger’s Commendatore was intelligently sung, paying commendable attention to the words as well as to overall aura. Isabel Signoret and Martin Häβler’s spirited Zerlina and Masetto likewise made much, though never too much, of their words, marrying them with sweet satisfaction to melody and overall characterisation. 

Antonello Manacorda and the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera (to all intents and purposes the Vienna Philharmonic) seemed neither at odds, nor completely of one mind. There was no discernible attempt made to stymie the Vienna sound, commendably full on occasion, and anything but puritanical. (Imagine: puritanism in this of all works!) Yet whilst generally choosing sensible tempi – I still cannot come on board with the fashionable alla breve for Overture and Stone Guest, however ‘correct’ it is held to be – Manacorda often seemed to remain somewhat on the surface: more, perhaps, of orchestra than score. He was supportive of the cast, though, and I cannot imagine anyone being seriously disappointed. I doubt use of the all-too-familiar conflation of Prague and Vienna versions was his doing. Whoever made that decision really should have known better, but no one ever does (well, hardly ever). The outcome, save in the most blistering, powerful of performances, is always dramatically unsatisfactory; this was no exception. Prague is, of course, the answer; it would be a good start were someone occasionally to ask the question.

Thursday 2 February 2023

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera, 1 February 2023

Royal Opera House

Images: Clive Barda / ROH

Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Mika Kares
Tannhäuser – Stefan Vinke
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Gerald Finley
Walther von der Vogelweide – Egor Zhuravskii
Biterolf – Michael Kraus
Heinrich der Schreiber – Michael Gibson
Reinmar von Zweter – Jeremy White
Elisabeth – Lise Davidsen
Venus – Ekaterina Gubanova
Young Shepherd – Sarah Dufresne
Elisabeth’s Attendants – Kathy Bathko, Deborah Peake-Jones, Louise Armit, Amanda Baldwin
Dancers – Matthew Cotton, Camilla Curiel, Donny Ferris, Evelyn Hart, Liudmila Loglisci, Risa Maki, Sean Moss, Andrea Paniagua, George Perez, Thomas Kerek, Hobie Schouppe, Juliette Tellier

Tim Albery (director)
Jasmin Vardimon (choreography, Venusberg scene)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sebastian Weigle (conductor)

‘R. slept well and has decided to have a massage only once a day,’ writes Cosima Wagner in one of her last diary entries, from Venice, only twenty days before Richard’s death (when Cosima’s world and thus her diary came to an end). The day took its course, via Cosima’s characteristic desire ‘not to thwart or overburden the cherished workings of his mind,’ a ride to the Piazzetta during which Wagner extols Bach’s fugues, luncheon, visitors, R. yet again reading Gobineau, to: ‘Chat in the evening, brought to an end by R. with the “Shepherd’s Song” and “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser. He says he still owes the world a Tannhäuser.’

With those celebrated words—and the tantalising prospect of hearing Wagner, even at that stage in his life, playing from his Grosse romantische Oper at the piano, perhaps singing along—the composer pointed not only to ongoing dissatisfaction with the form Tannhäuser, revisions notwithstanding, had yet reached. He also drew attention to the potential he believed his material, musical and dramatic, still had to reach a more satisfactory, perhaps more ‘finished’ state. Should one agree with Wagner—a sizable contingent has long preferred to shun changes made for Paris and Vienna, adhering to something close to what was originally given in Dresden—these twin, related issues will inevitably inform musical performance and staging alike. (Arguably, even if one returns to Dresden, less easy than some claim, one cannot forget what comes after, and that will continue to colour in one way or another the approach one takes. ‘Authenticity’ is always an illusion and usually a pernicious one.) Whether problem, opportunity, or both, it was difficult not to sense such questions hanging over what was seen and heard in the second revival of Tim Albery’s production for Covent Garden, now conducted by Sebastian Weigle.

It is certainly difficult to imagine a Tannhäuser in which the dichotomy between Venusberg and Wartburg does not loom large—some might say damagingly so, crushing the prospects for more plausible psychological motivation. (Some, equally might say this is Wagnerian myth, not Ibsen; psychological realism is hardly at issue here, at least not straightforwardly so.) Take the opening Venusberg scene, where the greatest difference between ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’—whatever qualifications we can and should add, still the fundamental distinction between versions—will always be seen and heard. It is rare, though not quite unheard of, in my experience not to regret the loss of the additional music written for Paris, should director and/or conductor opt for Dresden. In many ways, the Overture and Bacchanale were promising. Weigle’s way with the former, in particular, seemed to look (listen) back, a more Mendelssohnian Wagner than one often hears, with what at times sounded like—though surely were not—more chamber orchestral forces. What, surely, one then should hear is an invasion from the realm of Tristan; one—or I—never quite did. The stylistic incongruity of later material, such as it is, should be enabled to present immanent critique. Here, I am afraid, it simply seemed to go on for a bit too long: surely missing one of several points. It was, to a certain extent, made up for by the excellence of the dancers, strangely choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon, in a way that more often suggests school PE lessons than something more conventionally erotic. (Maybe that is the point, but it is probably better not to go there.) The dancing itself, though, deserves credit as first-rate; without that, it would have been a long trudge, and without the excuse of being a pilgrimage.

Albery’s production itself has its moment of greatest promise here—probably not coincidentally. The opera house, however many times we have seen this before, is fruitfully reflected onstage. Whether Tannhäuser has made it as artist and stands in need of a fresh, perhaps less sticky, challenge, or whether he was mad to leave is left to us, which is fair enough. But the conflation of Venusberg, Royal Opera House, and, in couplings with dancers, the Paris Jockey Club too has something to be said for it—if only its implications had been pursued. For, apart from when it necessarily returns close to the end, the idea of Tannhäuser as artist seems pretty much to be dropped. The proscenium arch lies as a ruin in the second act, but why we are in what seems to be a guerrilla war zone—Bosnia, we originally thought, perhaps now Ukraine—I have no idea. I cannot imagine the idea is that, without Covent Garden, love it as we may, there will be civil war, but who knows? No one I have spoken to, at any rate. Much of what unfolded seemed barely directed at all, as if the singers had been left to fend for themselves; perhaps they had.

Weigle proved more variable. The first act increasingly dragged. I do not know how long it actually lasted on the clock, but it seemed to last longer than any I could recall. Part of that, doubtless, was the production, but there was a near-fatal lack of inner, musical tension, recovered, albeit fitfully, during the second and third acts. What was ultimately lacking, though, was any real sense of the musical architecture. This can, arguably should, be understood in various ways. It need not all be Klemperer (though what I should give to hear that putative performance), nor for that matter Furtwängler (likewise). Likewise, it need not all be Wagner’s various musical inheritances, grand opéra included, just as it need not all be aspiration towards music-drama proper. But some sense of being more than number opera joined up is surely essential, or at the very least strongly desirable. The orchestra, likewise, came and went, strings sometimes sounding scrawny, at others blooming nicely. Offstage brass, however, was magnificent. There were many pleasures to be heard from vernal woodwind too.

Another, more prosaic, type of problem was presented by Stefan Vinke in the title role. Four nights previously, on the first night, he had withdrawn through illness. This time, he sang, but his voice and, with it, the drama came close to being lost altogether in the Venusberg scene. He rallied and, a similar yet less extreme example in the Rome Narration notwithstanding, showed great professionalism in doing so. It was not a great omen, though, and seemed to unsettle audience and cast alike—maybe, to be fair, it did the conductor too. Otherwise, Vinke’s straightforward way with the role had much to be said for it: no great revelations, but capable of despatching it, clear of words and musical line, and physically enthusiastic. Lise Davidsen, though, was the true star of the show, as she was when I saw her previously in this role, at Bayreuth in 2019. She strikes a wonderful balance between Nordic cool (a reprehensible yet perhaps inevitable cliché) and warm humanity, as indeed she has in everything in which I have heard her. There is no doubting her ability to sing Elisabeth; that is a given. But she does much more with it too, whilst leaving the character open to our own thoughts. Arguably, Elisabeth will always remain something of an enigma, and that is no bad thing; or, alternatively, for her to be more than that, Wagner would have to have rewritten the part, and he did not.

Anyone daring to succeed Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram as his work cut out, but Gerald Finley succeeded in making the role his own through song; not, I hasten to add, that this was not a well-acted performance too, for it was, but rather that it was musically and, indeed, verbally conceived in the first instance. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Venus held the stage through abundant personality, of stage and vocal varieties. Mika Kares’s Landgrave cut a powerful presence. Sarah Dufresne’s beautifully sung Shepherd had one wish the part might be extended. The Royal Opera Chorus was on very good form, well prepared by William Spaulding.

Nevertheless, firmer hands on the ultimate rudders, both scenic and musical, would have lifted the evening considerably. Is Wagner, as sometimes I have heard claimed, to blame, here, for still owing us his later thoughts on (and with) the work? That would be far too easy a get-out clause. Tannhäuser may not be perfect; it may not even be finished, or capable of being finished. But I am not the only one to have seen and heard other, more convincing near-solutions to its riddles. From Barenboim to Thielemann, from Götz Friedrich to Tobias Kratzer, it can be done. Oddly, though, my impression is that a number of the shortcomings on offer here, as well as the virtues, may actually have set many in the audience thinking about the nature of the work and its problematical dramaturgy. Perhaps it is time to intone, affecting an Anglican rather than Catholic or Lutheran voice, that we all, ‘in a very real sense’, still owe the world a Tannhäuser.