Friday 31 March 2023

Idomeneo, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 30 March 2023

Idomeneo – Andrew Staples
Idamante – Magdalena Kožená
Ilia – Anna Prohaska
Elettra – Olga Peretyatko
Arbace – Linard Vrielink
High Priest of Neptune – Florian Hoffmann
Oracle – Jan Martiník
Cretans, Trojans – Marie Sofie Jacob, Ekaterina Chayka-Rubinstein, Johan Krogius, Friedrich Hamel

David McVicar (director)
Caroline Staunton, Colm Seery (assistant directors)
Vicki Mortimer (set designs)
Gabrielle Dalton (costumes)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Colm Seery (choreography)
Benjamin Wäntig, Elisabeth Kühne (dramaturgy)

Movement Group
Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Simon Rattle (conductor)

Images: Bernd Uhlig

David McVicar’s disdain for theatre that might lie more on the critical-ideological side is well known and well documented. This fawning newspaper interview is doubtless not his fault; the journalist clearly knows nothing about opera and seems more interested in admiring and detailing his physique: ‘I'm distracted by the arms. They are bursting out of a tight T-shirt full of artful rips. They're the kind of arms that have you thinking of Glasgow shipyards, or perhaps gay nightclubs. They're not the kind of arms that have you thinking of arias.’ Much to unpack there, in the unlikely event one is particularly interested in reasons for the interviewer’s ‘distraction’. We nonetheless proceed to read the interviewee roundly disparage German theatre: ‘“There'll be combat physiques,” he says, “and balaclava helmets, and machine guns, and there'll be neon strip-lighting, and everything will be antiseptic and everyone will over-react madly and the audience will sit there, taking it all incredibly seriously, and I'll be sitting there stuffing my fist in my mouth, because I'm trying so hard not to laugh.”’ It is perhaps not surprising then, that Germany has not proved a typical base for the director’s career, and it did come as a surprise to see him listed to stage Idomeneo for the Berlin State Opera back in 2020, just before the world ground to a halt. That never happened, of course, though rehearsals took place. McVicar’s Berlin Idomeneo has finally seen the light of day three years later, in a house that has seen its fair share of changes in the meantime, not least the retirement of its long-term music director, Daniel Barenboim.

Barenboim, always surprisingly selective in the Mozart opera he conducted – the Da Ponte operas, and long ago, never to be repeated, The Magic Flute – was not due to conduct. A very different kind of Mozartian from Barenboim, Simon Rattle, was—and did three years later. It is probably the Mozart opera with which Rattle is most strongly associated, having conducted at least two staged productions previously (at Glyndebourne) as well as giving it in concert. The length of his association with the work shows; one can see as well as hear that he knows it intimately. Sometimes that can be a danger with Rattle in classical and romantic repertoire; he can seem eager to impose ideas on music, disregarding its line as if for the sake of doing something new. Whilst there was a degree of moulding the score, certainly in ways one would never have heard from Karl Böhm or Colin Davis, they were not disruptive and, crucially, always bore a rationale. I may not always have liked the post-Harnoncourt rhetoric, but Rattle’s job – theatre’s job – is not necessarily to provide me with what I like. I tried to approach it on its own terms, and found a generous way with the music, especially convincing in the transitions, of which here there are many, between recitative, arioso, and arias, ensembles, and choruses. Rattle’s experience, highly unusual for a conductor of his standing, in music of the French Baroque stood him in excellent stead here; this was worlds away from the metronomic stiffness of many English, ‘period’-inclined conductors. There were times, I admit, when a stronger sense of direction, less lingering, would not have gone amiss; the third act, even shorn of its ballet music, sounded somewhat sprawling. Yet Rattle’s concern for detail, surely admirable in itself, never extended to losing the word for the trees.

It was fascinating, moreover, to hear the Staatskapelle Berlin respond to a way with Mozart so different from Barenboim’s. If the strings sometimes sounded as if they might have appreciated being let loose more – and not only concerning vibrato – they were nonetheless willing, perhaps even happy, to follow different thinking, as they will need to in the post-Barenboim era (whether listeners such as yours truly like it or not). The timpanist seemed delighted by the opportunity to use hard sticks, underlining and punctuating the action with great flair. If I cannot say I cared for the rasping sound demanded from the trumpets, the orchestra’s woodwind sounded simply ravishing, Rattle’s keen, somewhat ‘French’ ear for colour liberating them as soloists (and ensemble players with the cast). For all the difference between Barenboim and Rattle, that is certainly a characteristic they hold in common—and one to which no one is likely to object. Colourless Mozart would be a peculiar goal indeed.


Singing was generally excellent. Magdalena Kožená also has a long history with this work, not least with Rattle. She seemed very much in her element here as Idamante, as stylish as she was characterful and committed. Her chemistry with Anna Prohaska’s Ilia was notable, that chemistry as musical as it was gestural, their lines entwining (with or without woodwind) as if twin coloured strands in a fine tapestry. Prohaska’s performance offered a near-perfect balance between words, musical line, and stage presence. A few strange vowels notwithstanding – and goodness knows what much ‘Western’ singing of Russian roles must sound like to native ears -- Olga Peretyatko’s Elettra fizzed with musico-dramatic commitment, only hamstrung by McVicar’s production (to which, of course, I must shortly return). In possession of both his arias, Linard Vrielink’s Arbace had ample room to impress and to rise above the generic assumptions that often underlie this role; this opportunity he took wholeheartedly, sharing with most of the cast a keen understanding of the dramatic role of coloratura. Andrew Staples, a Rattle favourite, did not always seem ideally suited to the title role. One need not go full-Pavarotti, to feel something a little more Italianate is ideal here. However, so long as one could take a more English sound – Peter Pears sang the role for Britten – one was rewarded by a detailed and conscientious performance.

What, then, of McVicar’s production? It has a few important, related ideas going for it, namely that of the end of Idomeneo’s rule – ‘regime change’ if you will, in line with Martin Kušej’s largely misunderstood production for Covent Garden – and that of love, in this case between Idamante and Ilia, conquering all. Both have eminent warrant in the work, indeed are arguably embedded within it. It is the classical dilemma of AMOR versus ROMA. The sinister role played by Arbace as chief ideologue is worth noting; indeed character and role are surely rendered sinister with an interventionism McVicar has decried elsewhere. At the close, Idamante and Ilia seem unaware of anything but each other, enabling Arbace to dispose, for reasons presumably of religion and state, of the former king as surplus to requirements. By the time Idamante realises, it is too late. Life, and Crete, must go on.

I just wish there had been more of this—or of something, almost anything. Elsewhere, McVicar seems so reluctant to ‘say’ anything, that it makes for a strangely inert dramatic experience. Dancers, as so often in his staging, do their thing, yet to what end is at best unclear. Portrayal of the sea monster on stage is, admittedly, a tricky thing at best; some may have been more convinced by graceful waving around of hands than I was. Nods to Japanese Noh, often concerning Elettra and her attendants, might have led somewhere, yet seem strangely unconnected with a highly ‘traditional’ everything else.  Indeed, they come uncomfortably close to suggesting all-purpose orientalism. There are no combat physiques, machine guns, neon strip-lighting, and the rest, but there is not much of anything else either. For a new production, bar its strong finish, it seems a curiously wasted opportunity that often borders on the tedious. Musical performances more consistently had one think about as well as enjoy them.‘

Tuesday 28 March 2023

Die tote Stadt, English National Opera, 25 March 2023


Paul – Ralf Romei
Marietta, Voice of Marie – Allison Oakes
Brigitta – Sarah Connolly
Franz – Audun Iversen
Juliette – Rhian Lois
Lucienne – Clare Presland
Gastone – Innocent Masuku
Victorin – William Morgan
Count Albert – Hubert Francis
Marie – Lauren Bridle

Anniliese Miskimmon (director)
Miriam Buether (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Imogen Knight (movement, intimacy)

Members of the Finchley Children’s Music Group (chorus director: Grace Rossiter)
English National Opera Chorus (chorus director: Avishka Edirisinghe) 
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Kirill Karabits (conductor)

Images: Helen Murray
Brigitta (Sarah Connolly), Paul (Ralf Romei), Franz (Audun Iversen)

A few years ago, I should have said it was a problem with the work itself. Having seen Die tote Stadt for the first time, in a performance and a production that had both seemed very good, I had emerged finding it somewhat laboured and ridiculous: more than a curiosity, perhaps, yet not something whose appeal for others I could share. In the meantime, a concert performance of another Korngold opera, Das Wunder der Heliane, did little to change my mind. Then I decided to test my initial judgement by seeing Die tote Stadt again in Munich, when the Bavarian State Opera put on a new production, staged by Simon Stone, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, with Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen in the two central roles. And I was won over. So I know that it can work very well, or at least that it did for me once and there is no reason to think it could not do so again. Quite why this new production from ENO did not, I found hard to put my finger on, since there seemed to be much that was admirable and little or nothing that was not, reviving my doubts concerning the work itself.

The key, I think, may have lain in the production, which seems unfair, since there was nothing really to object to in what Anniliese Miskimmon and her team presented. But whereas I have often disliked Stone’s reductionist way with drama—his Medée for Salzburg and a recent Phaedra in London cases in point—in this case, it seemed to be just what the work, which can readily seem overblown to no particular end, needed. Without Stone’s stronger interpretative stance and strategy and however attractive Miriam Buether’s sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes (with one unfortunate exception), drama lagged behind ambition. It was difficult not to feel that something smaller in scale, perhaps a one-act chamber opera, might have come close to hitting the spot, thus again returning one to the problem of the work ‘itself’. 

The dream world, in which Paul meets Marietta and works through his morbid attachment to his deceased wife, Marie, seemed confused—but not in an especially dream-like way. It seemed to imply that either Paul had actually entered a hospital or sanatorium, or he had been in one along; but no, it was only a dream. Marietta’s troupe invited unflattering comparisons with Ariadne auf Naxos. The 'dead' city of Bruges, or some substitute, did not get much of a look in – partly Korngold’s fault – and the strange religious procession came unfortunately close to the world of Carry On films, even for those of us who know the cited Robert le Diable. Certain other ‘religious’ details gestured in another, potentially more fruitful direction, though no more than Strauss does Korngold seem able to take religion seriously.

Juliette (Rhian Lois), Lucienne (Clare Presland), Count Albert (Hugh Francis), Marietta (Allison Oakes), Victorian (William Morgan), Innocent Masuku (Gastone), Franz

Singing, though, was mostly good, if sometimes hampered by a clunky English translation (‘based on’ Kelly Rourke) of a libretto that is in any case far from exemplary. Korngold and his dreadful father were no composite Hofmannsthal, to put it mildly. Though struggling with illness, Ralf Romei put on an impressive performance as Paul, only noticeably tiring some way through the third act—which is something that could happen to anyone. It is a cruel role, and Romei’s artistry proved something of a revelation. Allison Oakes was a nicely Wagnerian Marietta, with welcome echoes of Brünnhilde, though it was not always the most subtle of portrayals. Sarah Connolly left one wishing there was more to the role of Brigitta in a typically human, beautifully sung performance. Audun Iversen’s Franz was similarly first-class, offering fine attention to detail. Kirill Karabits knew exactly how to draw the best out of the ENO Orchestra, ensuring – rightly, I think – that the score sounded closer to Puccini than to any of Korngold’s Austro-German colleagues. But there were times when something sharper – and Puccini can be as sharp as anyone – seemed required, just as on stage. I imagine this might tighten over the run, but a greater dose of chamber-like intimacy might also be a good thing. 

I recognise also that much of the scepticism I voice concerning the opera others might with respect to Die Frau ohne Schatten, but there not only do we have Strauss and Hofmannsthal, even in mutual misunderstanding, at the very height of their powers; we also have a symbolism that attempts to elevate us to some sort of ‘higher’ ideas and even, more controversially, a message. Pronatalism is a deeply unfashionable message, one with which many of us would take issue, but drama is not there primarily for us to agree with it—and the message becomes more readily understandable in the face of the loss of life occasioned by the First World War. How to get on with one’s life in the face of more strictly personal loss is a perfectly reasonable subject for a drama; part, of what Die Meistersinger – another opera interested, albeit pre-Freud, in the interpretation of dreams – is about is how to cope with the sufferings of life and love in the actual, phenomenal world. Perhaps the problem is that the intermittent attempts at symbolism and, above all, the ‘it was only a dream’ idea are a convoluted and contrived way to get there. Even viewed psychoanalytically, it seems to be making a mountain out of a molehill; not, of course, that grief is nothing, but it seems less here than it might. The dream sequence comes across more as an idea for an opera than a dramatic necessity. That, at least, was what I emerged feeling, though I had felt more positively in Munich.

Paul, Brigitta, Chorus

Whatever my doubts, though, this was a justly ambitious, laudable project from ENO: a reasonably well-known twentieth-century opera, only staged twice previously in this country and never by this company, deserved its debut and clearly won new converts. Perhaps the fairest thing is to view the opera as a fragile flower, in need of great care and good fortune in cultivation; or, to turn it back on myself, to say that it may not ultimately be an opera for me.

Friday 24 March 2023

RPO/Petrenko - Beethoven and Mahler, 22 March 2023

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven: Fidelio, op.72: Overture
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Revelge’, ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’
Beethoven, orch. Mahler: Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Claudia Huckle (contralto)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Matthew Brook (bass-baritone)
The Bach Choir
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)

This was a fascinating programme of Beethoven, Mahler, and Beethoven-meets-Mahler, performed with verve and conviction by a fine quartet of soloists, the Bach Choir, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and Vasily Petrenko. Petrenko had stepped in at relatively short notice, substituting from an indisposed Andrew Davis, but especially during the second ‘half’, Mahler’s ‘retouching’ (Retusche[n]) of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, one would surely never have guessed. He and the orchestra fully entered into the spirit of the enterprise, viewing or rather hearing Beethoven via Mahler, without merely attempting to recreate. Such ‘recreation’ – ‘as close as possible to Mahler’s vision’, according to Petrenko’s spoken introduction – must remain a starting point, as opposed to a destination; the music still requires choices to be made, standpoints to be taken, just as in any performance. The crucial thing was that Beethoven and the Ninth in particular were rescued from their current malaise, in which deeply unsatisfactory, often plain inadequate, performances rob the music not only of its meaning, which will after all always be contested, but of any meaning whatsoever. 

But first came the Overture to Fidelio and a selection from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, introducing, as it were, our two principal musical characters. The RPO immediately sounded on top form, and what a joy it was to hear this music with so large an orchestra. (The recent, domesticating onslaught on Beethoven has been entirely negative, leaving what should go almost without saying as a rare luxury.) Attack and polish were impeccable; tension was maintained throughout. A slight absence of greater line immediately after the start was soon rectified, in an impressive performance all around.

Each vocal soloist from the symphony was allotted a Wunderhorn song: a nice idea, though having applause after each song, the next singer only then coming on stage, broke continuity and might have been reconsidered. Moving downward from soprano to bass(-baritone), the selection began with Helen Watts’s ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’. I quite liked Petrenko’s deliberate way with the song, though sometimes solo instruments were not entirely together. At any rate, Watts offered a sincere, communicative performance, intimate despite or perhaps even on account of the number of strings. A more alienated, unquestionably ‘later’ world than that of Beethoven was upon us, trumpets ironically connecting it with Fidelio. When the girl began to weep (‘Das Mädchen fing zu weinen an’), the accent, orchestral as well as vocal, on ‘weinen’ truly hit home. Claudia Huckle’s true contralto proved just as communicative in ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, the sardonic note of the performance, pursued and intensified in the two songs yet to come, arising ‘naturally’ from Mahler’s writing, not least the orchestral marching; there was no need to ‘apply’ anything from without. Nicky Spence’s dark, urgently compelling ‘Revelge’ took us to the brink of Wozzeck, bones grimly rattling. Matthew Brook engagingly played the (holy?) Fool in St Anthony’s sermon to the fish, his face even offering a close-up glimpse of the open-mouthed congregation. Petrenko’s supply of orchestral colour and continuity was spot on. I could even hear Berio waiting in the wings: further time-travel, all the better for it. 

The opening of the Ninth – surely the only Ninth in which even now one might not seek clarification, ‘do you mean Mahler’s?’ – sounded duly possessed, Petrenko’s judicious tempo ensuring urgency was not conflated with excessive speed or, worse still, metronomic inflexibility. Harmony and detail – Mahler’s as well as Beethoven’s, the former’s radical rewriting of some inner parts in particular immanent as well as merely apparent – once again emerged ‘naturally’, however much hard work may have been necessary to give that impression. Where earlier generations spoke of restoration of Beethoven’s letter, here one could experience restoration of his spirit. Whilst it may seem strange to speak of concision in this vast first movement, one can and should, unless something has gone horribly awry; one certainly felt it here. The battle royal of the development was won through counterpoint old and new, as much as harmony, Mahler (at times) winning the upper hand. The moment and section of return were cataclysmic, even carnivorous, for this was certainly no Beethoven for vegans. Mahler’s additions sounded close, at least, to necessary—and utterly convincing. The coda terrified as it must, yet nowadays rarely does. 

A scherzo as energetic as any, awe-inspiringly so, judged to a tee the particular qualities of ‘a’ Beethoven scherzo as well as this particular one. How the horns, doubled in number, rollicked, strings danced, and timpani bounced! The trio was its bubbling and consoling self, its propulsion, crucially, an ethical as well as ‘purely’ musical imperative. The Adagio molto e cantabile may have been a little lacking in the ‘molto’ department; it felt swifter than, say, Furtwängler or Barenboim. But who knows what Mahler did? Petrenko rightly took his own approach, concentrating on the ‘cantabile’, enabling not only song but nobility to emerge, not least through fine command of line. The crucial thing was that Beethoven mattered once more. And if one heard much of what must have inspired Mahler, all the better, whether in the role of woodwind, sounding hear close to a celestial organ, perhaps played on by one of those Wunderhorn saints, in harmony, or indeed in form. Presentiments of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in particular seemed unusually apparent. 

Terrible sounds, against which the sincerest, most eloquent entreaties of cellos and basses inveighed in vain, opened the finale. When those strings reached the ‘right’ theme, relatively swift in Petrenko’s hands, yet never too much so, it proved infectious for the rest of the orchestra, as if the gift of music (and, thank goodness, string vibrato) had been discovered anew. Brook’s verbal intervention set the scene for a conclusion that took us not only from Beethoven to Mahler, but also from Beethoven to Mozart; Don Giovanni hinted at previously, we could now hear generations of response to The Magic Flute. In context, the Turkish March seemed to hint also at Mahler’s own ‘Revelge’. Clarity and commitment from the Bach Choir, as well as the solo quartet, ensured, in wonderful fullness of sound, that Schiller also received a due hearing. If this were Beethoven in brighter colours than we imagine, say, Wagner’s to have been, why not? Ultimately, it needed to be Petrenko’s Beethoven as well as Mahler’s, and so it was. Musical history is never drawn, or at least never should be, in a straight line. To do so would be to rob it, as well as music, of its humanity. The speed of the final bars, whilst not prepared in Furtwängler’s way, nonetheless echoed it from a distance. ‘Seid umschlungen, Millionen!’ That applies to interpretation too.

Thursday 23 March 2023

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Academy of Music, 21 March 2023

Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Images: Craig Fuller

Count Almaviva – Vitor Bispo
Countess Almaviva – Madison Horman
Susanna – Luiza Willert
Figaro – Michael Ronan
Cherubino – Georgia Mae Ellis
Marcellina – Chloe Harris
Bartolo – Wonsick Oh
Basilio – Magnus Walker
Don Curzio – George Curnow
Antonio – Oleksandr Ilvakhin
Barbarina – Clara Onif
Two Bridesmaids – Cerys MacAllister, Clover Kayne

Stephen Medcalf (director)
Jamie Vartan (designs)
Simon Corder (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Alice Farnham (conductor)

Countess Almaviva (Madison Horman), Susanna (Luiza Willert)

The first day of Spring brought the welcome sight of daffodils in Regent’s Park, followed a few yards away by the recurring epiphany that is The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Academy of Music. Our world may still be in dire straits, but there was something to lift the mood, as was the performance given by an excellent young cast of singers from Royal Academy Opera in a new production by Stephen Medcalf.

Medcalf lightly updates the action to the mid-twentieth century. Those with superior knowledge of fashions in military uniforms will be able to tell me more precisely when. It does no harm, enables the action still to speak pretty much for itself, and avoids the danger of fetishising eighteenth-century costumes to no particular end. The droit du seigneur might sit a little oddly with that on paper; yet as we all know, powerful male predators reinvent it constantly—and many of the finest Figaro productions have found explicit parallels elsewhere. Here, since the principal difference is of ‘look’, rather than substance, it really need not matter to anyone save the dullest Beckmesser. Where Medcalf particular scores is in imparting such a fine sense of theatre, and enabling the cast to do likewise. From the very first scene, one sees that Figaro and Susanna have learned to work together, as have the singer-actors portraying them; the drama could barely unfold more naturally as a result. Where it becomes stylised, as in a striking section of slow motion acting during the second-act finale, Medcalf has listened to the score and reacts accordingly, to the benefit of stage and pit alike. Simon Corder’s lighting similarly follows suit—and, on occasion, leads. And in scenes notorious for potential confusion – they are not especially so, yet some directors nonetheless manage to make a pig’s ear of them – Medcalf’s calm yet fond professionalism clarifies rather than obscures. Who is who in the garden during the fourth act is a case in point, though a curmudgeon (who, me?) might ask: without a degree of confusion, would they actually act in that way at all?

Count Almaviva (Vitor Bispo)

Each of the singers had something excellent to contribute. For me, the absolute pick of the bunch was Luiza Willert’s Susanna. She did not put a foot, or pitch a note, wrong; one came to realise quite how much of a lynchpin the role is, and how much the rest of the cast benefited from her spirit, her tirelessness, and her vocal artistry alike. Not that Michael Ronan’s Figaro paled by comparison. Here was a similarly human portrayal, alert to words, music, and gesture, and their alchemic combination. Vitor Bispo’s Count was startlingly good, full of toxic yet alluring masculinity, yet assuredly human nonetheless. His third-act aria was a true highpoint of the evening, recognised by the audience as such. Madison Horman’s Countess offered a lovely ‘Porgi, amor’ in particular; she conducted herself with great dignity throughout. As is so often the case, a small theatre worked wonders in Mozart, enabling us truly to engage with the characters and their interaction. Georgia Mae Ellis as Cherubino responded strongly to the comedy of Medcalf’s direction, as did Magnus Walker as a clerical Basilio. Clara Onif’s cavatina as Barbarina as so often had one wish she had more to sing, but what she did – assured stage presence included – she did very well indeed. There was no weak link, though; a fine company on stage had been created.

Barbarina (Clara Orif)

Alice Farnham’s conducting was sometimes rather hard-driven, the Overture a case in point. The abruptness of some orchestral phrase-endings also attested to puzzling mannerisms of ‘period’ performance. For the most part, though, Farnham maintained and propelled the flow of action well. There were a few – a few too many – noticeable cases of singers and orchestra falling apart, for a number of bars rather than beats, but rehearsal time is never enough and Farnham always ensured they came back together. Occasional thinness of violin tone was regrettable, but again that was doubtless to be attributed to a way of hearing Mozart that is simply not mine. The Royal Academy Sinfonia otherwise showed much to recommend itself, and will surely have learned much from the experience. Alexsander Ribeiro de Lara’s harpsichord continuo playing was excellent throughout: doing what it should with care and imagination, without narcissistically drawing attention to itself as is far too often the case nowadays. Whatever my misgivings orchestrally, this was a life-affirming Figaro at a time when such is sorely needed.

Monday 13 March 2023

Liverman/Walker/Shibe/Gunnell - Henze, El Cimarrón, 11 March 2023

Wigmore Hall

Will Liverman (baritone)
Adam Walker (flute)
Sean Shibe (guitar)
Owen Gunnell (percussion)

I had waited a long, long time for a performance of Henze’s ‘recital for four musicians’ from 1969-70, El Cimarrón. Like other works from the zenith of Henze’s political commitment, it seems largely to be shunned by today’s performers and venues. Hats off, then, to both the Wigmore Hall and to the four musicians involved in this performance, baritone Will Liverman, percussionist Owen Gunnell, flautist Adam Walker and guitarist Sean Shibe, the last two doubling up on various percussion instruments throughout, both for putting on a performance at all and for giving so fine an account of the work. In a sense, one either does this properly or one does not do it at all, but that does not mean one should merely take for granted performing excellence. 

Any idea that El Cimarrón might seem merely dated was thus triumphantly despatched. Many of our ideas concerning cultural appropriation might have changed in the meantime, but the urgency of its message concerning capitalist-imperialist exploitation in general and enslavement of black people in particular, remains at least as apparent as ever. Moreover, Henze’s method of letting escaped slave Esteban Montejo’s testimony essentially speak for itself – albeit with that testimony noted first by the Cuban ethnologist Miguel Barnet, translated into German by Hans Magnus Enzensbeger no less, here further translated into English by Christopher Keene – holds up pretty well in terms of what we might consider respectful, whilst leaving open the question, as Henze explicitly acknowledged concerning works written at this time, of ‘bourgeois’ aesthetic value. 

The idea arose from a conversation Henze and Enzensberger had had round about 1968, concerning ‘the difficulties of writing political songs which would go beyond, or circumvent the achievements of Eisler, Weill, or Dessau’ (Henze). Henze thought some sort of song-cycle a likely result, but in the end El Cimarrón turned out to be, at least according to his understanding, ‘a trial run for a new type of concert’. This, I think, gave a flavour of that: recitation, some song, elements of music theatre, above all a testimony arising from true ensemble cooperation that ‘cannot be done in a few days of rehearsal’, not least when it comes to the necessity for the players to invent music themselves, ‘where only a “graphic” serves as clue, stimulus or signpost’. 

We could not know, of course, at least without detailed knowledge and memory of the score, quite what was notated and how. Nevertheless, a sense not only of ensemble, but of comradeship, emerged. There was no doubt that these were players who were listening closely to one another, listening moreover that was not only instinctive but had also been learned through a political process of rehearsal. The vast array of instruments before our eyes and ears was a mise-en-scène in itself, but also an invitation to a world partly known yet also quite new. Liverman’s move in the first song, ‘The World’, from wordless song to recitation, at times quite Schoenbergian – Henze, however much he distanced himself, could never help himself here – conveyed meaning both through words but also via their means and variety of delivery. Yet it was equally in the interludes, in instrumental transition, as so often in such music, that a good deal of the journey was to be had—and to be reflected upon. 

Elsewhere, music could be frankly pictorial; we all knew what inhuman catastrophe Liverman’s chains depicted, but there was far more: jew’s harp ‘which represents the stars in comic strips that, on such occasions, dance in front of the eyes of the injured party’; pounding African drums offering a truth in sharp contradistinction to that of imported, Roman Catholic priests, Henze and Montejo having no time whatsoever for the hypocrisy, economic, sexual, and otherwise, of the latter. It could also, however, effect mood and drama, for instance, in Montejo’s flight into the mountains—even though, perhaps especially though, this was not a straightforwardly dramatic piece. 

For me, the reflective and revolutionary centre came later than the mid-point; ‘The Rebellion’, ninth of fifteen numbers, went further, deeper, into something approaching true melancholy. The ensuing ecstasy of redress, of revenge, at ‘The Battle of Mal Tiempo’ was highly infectious. Agitprop? If so, it worked. An equally strong impression was made by ‘The Bad Victory’, which followed, the unease of its darkly military parade showing us everything was certainly not what it seemed. And if sounds from the opening returned at the end, this was not to denote something banally cyclical. As Henze explained, and as we seemed to feel, ‘the pre-revolutionary situation is reinstated, looking backwards is ruled out, everything is now directed forward towards a new identity’. 

Not long before El Cimarrón, Henze had resolved that he would no longer write, as he feared he might have fallen into doing, merely for himself and his friends, but rather ‘to help socialism’; that doing so would involving both embodying in his work ‘all the problems of contemporary bourgeois music,’ and transforming them ‘into something that the masses can understand’. That would not involve submitting to commercial considerations, but nor was there any ‘place for worry about losing elite notions of value’. From the beginning, that has led some to question the artistic and/or enduring ‘value’ of such interventions. To experience, however, something that spoke so vividly, if necessarily from its time, to the age of Black Lives Matter proved a necessary surprise and, in its way, a proper call to arms. 

Let us hope, then, that this will mark the beginning of many such opportunities, in London and elsewhere. What next? Perhaps the ‘vaudeville’ La Cubana, or the ‘show for 17 performers’, Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung Natascha Ungeheuers? Simon Rattle performed Henze’s Che Guevara requiem Das Floß der Medusa in Berlin in 2006; might he wish (and be enabled) to bring it to the LSO’s repertoire? (Its celebrated non-premiere, halted by police, might make interesting material for a drama of its own.) Surely it is long past time for the Royal Opera to revive Henze’s collaboration with Edward Bond We Come to the River, or indeed to stage one of Henze’s earlier or later operas. König Hirsch would come top of my list. As Henze’s 2026 centenary nears, a coordinated offering would be just the thing. One can dream...

Sunday 12 March 2023

Turandot, Royal Opera, 10 March 2023

Royal Opera House

Turandot – Anna Pirozzi
Emperor Altoum – Alexander Kravets
Calaf – Yonghoo Lee
Liù – Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha
Timur – Vitalij Kowalkow
Ping – Hansung Yoo
Pang – Aled Hall
Pong – Michael Gibson
Mandarin – Blaise Malaba
Two Girls – Marianne Cotterill, Tamsin Coombs

Andrei Serban (director)
Jack Furness (revival director)
Sally Jacobs (designs)
Kate Flatt (choreography)
Tatiana Novaes Coelho (choreology)
E. Mitchell Dana (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Images: Marc Brenner

Andrei Serban’s production of Turandot has certainly offered the Royal Opera its money’s worth. First seen – somewhat oddly, not at Covent Garden, but on tour to Los Angeles – in 1984, it has had no fewer than fifteen revivals on home territory, as well as touring internationally and being adapted for performances at Wembley Arena (1991 and 1992). No wonder, as Serban’s programme biography states, that ‘he is both surprised and delighted that his production … is still revived.’ This, however, is apparently to be its final outing. Assuming that to be the case, it is receiving a good send off: not before time, yet with strong performances and revival direction from Jack Furness considerably more convincing than what I saw in earlier reincarnations (2013 and 2014). 

What we see seems understandably eager to veer towards Carlo Gozzi’s fairytale. Ping, Pang, and Pong (I know…) lose the worst of their racialised appearance, clearly taking their leave instead from commedia dell’arte. Lively performances from Hansung Yoo, Aled Hall, and Michael Gibson certainly helped in that respect, perhaps even going so far as to suggest that these, alongside Puccini, might be the real orchestrators of the action, playful as well as sadistic, intriguingly beyond morality in an almost Nieztschean sense. Where that leaves the story of Turandot, Calaf, and of course Liù remains, shall we say, problematical. The ‘arias’ embedded in the score stood out awkwardly, as if remnants – and in a way they are – of bygone technique, which the composer at the height of his musical powers was unable to banish entirely, on account of theatrical and audience expectations. 

The closer the story moves to realism, the more repellent its final sadism becomes: magnificent in a way, yet also strangely unsatisfactory. The more fantastical the framework and action, the greater the artifice, the better. This seems to be well understood and indeed communicated, not least through a parade of dances that might readily have seemed theatrical for the sake of theatre. In a way they still do, yet in this context, that offers a possibility if not quite for redemption, than for something less (im)morally outrageous. The framing of the set as a theatre of sorts, or at least a public arena suggestive of one – are not the two often coterminous and coexistent? – contributes with unusual success to that desirable distancing of standpoint. Masks serve with similar, indeed still more absolute, necessity.


In the title role, Anna Pirozzi offered a well sung, unusually human performance, warmer than many, though also posing the question as to whether that is what we should want here. Why not, really? In posing that question it is surely performing a dramatic service of its own, difficult conflict being part of the point. Yonghoon Lee’s heroic stab at Calaf should also be commended. Only on rare occasions, when something more inwardly vulnerable was required, did it sound lacking, but that is always a difficult near-circle to square. He can ride an orchestral wave, and did. He also seemed very much at one with Furness’s reimagining of the production. Even reimagined, the production arguably does Liù no favours, but that is much to ask of any staging. Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha’s heartfelt, sincere performance was very much in the mainstream of expectations here. Timur’s strange appearance – an old man, to be sure, though it is stranger than that – likewise does the role no favours, yet when he sang, Vitalij Kowalkow was able vocally to rise far above visual limitations. 

In the pit, Antonio Pappano offered what for me turned out to be one of his best performances at Covent Garden. I have given up trying to reconcile myself to his Wagner; we clearly hear and understand that and much other music in such different ways that I am unlikely to ‘get’ it any time soon. Here, however, a Puccini darkly haunted by, even founded upon, marriage of darkly Wagnerian chromaticism to a surprisingly Wagnerian way with motivic construction – to my ears, more so than in Pappano’s Wagner – offered just the sort of musico-theatrical experience that was called for. Flexible yet goal-directed, enabling of singers yet also revelling in Puccini’s ‘symphonism’, it told us what we knew yet perhaps still wished we did not. This was a murky, malevolent tale that could not quite be wished away with a welcome does of theatrical fantasy. The oft-remarked affinities with more contemporary (to Puccini) music, not least Stravinsky and Schoenberg, were perhaps less immediately present, but viciousness both of score and broader theatrical purpose were certainly very much with us. With orchestra and chorus on excellent form, Pappano brought something both old and new to the score, greatly to his – and its – credit.


Farewell then, we think, to Serban. Even when revived with such intelligence as seen here, this is not a production directly to address the very difficult, probably insoluble, questions this extraordinary, flawed opera presents. Yet, given space such as was granted here – and was not, to the best of my memory, so apparent when I first saw the production – it can nonetheless permit them to play out. Taking a view seems more of a moral imperative here, on account of the sadism as much as the racism; there are many ways to do that, whether by transforming the work into something more directly political (or something else?) or by confronting its issues head on. We shall see what Serban’s successor does. This however, offers an often intriguing and absorbing last hurrah, as well, I suspect, as a hint to why new steps may prove necessary.


Thursday 9 March 2023

Kantorow - Brahms, Liszt, and Schubert, 8 March 2023

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Brahms: Piano Sonata no.1 in C major, op.1
Schubert-Liszt: Der Wanderer, S 558/11; Der Müller und der Bach, S 565/2; Frühlingsglaube, S 558/7; Die Stadt; S 560/1; Am Meer, S 560/5
Schubert: Fantasy in C major, D 760, ‘Wanderer Fantasy’

Alexandre Kantorow (piano)


I have come a little late to the party for Alexandre Kantorow, the first French pianist to win gold medal in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019. (A French winner seems unlikely this year, for sadly obvious reasons.) This was my first encounter with Kantorow, but I certainly hope it will not be the last. His Queen Elizabeth Hall recital revealed both transcendental virtuosity, very much in the line of Liszt, but also a first-rate musical mind. 

Having more or less given up on the Brahms piano sonatas as not for me, it was gratifying to be shown how wrong I had been. Kantorow’s performance was one of those times when one heard a work with which one had long had difficulties, only to wonder what those difficulties could ever have been. Grabbing the first movement by the scruff of its neck, he took Brahms’s opening Hammerklavier references for the red herring they are, revealing a work emphatically rather than incidentally in bright C major, Beethovenian precedent instead furnished by the Waldstein Sonata. The second group proved properly tender, taking its leave from Schumann, yet in half-lights already strikingly mature. Muscularity and freedom were both readily apparent; so too was a coherence surprising not so much in itself, but rather in that it was achieved through a command of line that never took the easy, formalistic route and was all the more convincing for that. A turbulent development section swept us into a recapitulation full of poetic magic. The second movement was darkly Schubertian. At times, its freedom was such as to sound quasi-extemporised, yet it was always sure of where it was heading. Quietly surprising, it found powerful contrast in an energetic scherzo whose trio melted somewhat yet never unduly, before building equally – at least – in power. Like its predecessor movements, the finale might on the surface have seemed rhapsodic, yet was despatched in gloriously Romantic freedom crucial to a far-reaching conception of the whole, with all the technique required to bring that off. 

There followed a selection of five Schubert songs as arranged for solo piano by Liszt. How every one sang—and sighed, each different in character yet similar in virtues technical and more broadly musical. Veiled yet full of tone, Der Wanderer and Der Müller und der Bach spun narratives and fantasy worthy of both Schubert and Liszt, privileging neither, the first song of course preparing the way for Kantorow’s later performance of the Wanderer-Fantasy. Shades of Schubert impromptus, heard through a Lisztian prism, were manifest in Frühlingsglaube, albeit with decoration that could only be Liszt. Schubert’s mysteries in Der Stadt were multiplied by Liszt—and kept multiplying. Here was truly sepulchral Romanticism. Am Meer, poised like the song itself, between the stable and the hallucinatory, proved equally yet differently poignant, as if it were experiencing and yet revisiting at once. 

The Wanderer-Fantasy opened with brighter tone, recalling the opening of the Brahms—as, of course, did the key. It was no less freely virtuosic than either Brahms or Schubert-Liszt, and Kantorow again worked the magic of having us hear Schubert at least partly via Liszt, perhaps via Brahms too. Familiar themes and progressions sounded newly minted. Likewise the song at the fantasy’s heart sounded both ancient and newly conjured. Finely shaped whilst always sounding spontaneous, it culminated in twin crowns of fugato and coda that, understandably, left the audience keen to hear more.

Friday 3 March 2023

Stemme/Svensson - Wagner, Liszt, Koch, Mahler, and Weill, 2 March 2023

Wigmore Hall

Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder
Wagner-Liszt: Am stillen Herd aus Richard Wagner’s ‘Meistersinger’, S 448
Sigurd von Koch: Die geheimnisvolle Flöte
Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
Weill: Happy End: ‘Surabaya Johnny’; Nannas Lied; Youkali

Nina Stemme (soprano)
Magnus Svensson (piano)

What it is to hear a great voice such as Nina Stemme’s at close quarters. Doubtless there will be some – there always are – for whom this was not, according to their own arbitrary definition, ‘true Lieder singing’. (They probably said the same about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, though would deny it now.) Such silly, anti-operatic snobbery aside, though, anyone actually listening to Stemme’s way with words, here at the Wigmore Hall just as on the stage at Covent Garden or Bayreuth, will have heard that it was precisely that, furthered by a voice that never needed to strain, yet which never sounded too big, and which sounded as if it could have gone on all night. 

The Wesendonck-Lieder are perhaps not the easiest place to begin, cold, but here was the hochdramatisch thing from the start. The size of Stemme’s voice was apparent, of course, but so too were seemingly endless reserves of breath. Hardly surprisingly, echoes – presentiments, really – of Tristan und Isolde were heard. And the leisure of the close to the opening ‘Stehe still!’ was indicative of an approach that could and did take its time, seeing no reason to rush, without even the slightest hint of dragging. Magnus Svensson proved a supportive pianist, but this was really Stemme’s show, ‘Der Engel’ beginning with relative intimacy, blooming at her behest, the piano in tandem. There was a little of Isolde on stage too, Stemme gazing into the distance in the piano introductions to ‘Im Treibhaus’ and ‘Träume’: not stagey, but rather poised. The former’s tessitura permitted a taste of what her Brangäne might have been like too. Ringing top notes in ‘Schmerzen’ and ‘Träume’ alike, the former leading to a truly exultant climax, the latter’s detailed colouring, each reiteration of the word ‘Träume’ subtly different, a joy in itself. If Svensson’s solo rendition of Liszt’s Meistersinger paraphrase proved a little stiff, freer the more it became Liszt proper, then it was a welcome opportunity to hear a true rarity. 

Another rarity was Sigurd von Koch’s 1916 song-cycle, Die geheimnisvolle Flöte, in a well-judged performance that might have been prepared for a repertoire work. Setting poems from Hans Bethge’s collection Die chinesische Flöte, known to many musicians from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Koch offers well-crafted responses, firmly rooted in German song tradition, yet with occasional hints of something more Debussyan (in harmony, rather than word-setting). Stemme and Svensson treated each of the five songs individually, with their own moods, yet also as part of a greater whole. The sadness of ‘Traurig Frühlingsnacht’ and the dark defiance of the closing ‘Herbstgefühl’ – no gentle autumnal – were especially captivating, the latter quite something in performance. 

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder is, of course, absolutely central to the repertoire, more often heard in orchestral guise, yet with such clarity and spareness heard here perhaps sounding both more starkly modernist and closer to Bach. Stemme offered great clarity too, both of line and of purpose, though she was certainly not deaf to Mahler’s irony, a nice link to the Weill songs to come. If it were difficult not to think of this performance in some sense as ‘operatic’, it was certainly not so in a negative way. As in the Wesendonck-Lieder, Stemme was not afraid to colour with tuning, a sign of well-placed confidence as well as artistic judgement. She, as well as Svensson, used harmony – for instance on the words ‘O Augen’ in the second song – to evoke Wagnerian mystery. The intensity of ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’ gave way to still greater sadness, again not without irony or indeed straightforward delusion, in ‘Oft denk’ ich sie sind nur augegangen’. True Mahlerian horror was unleashed in the closing ‘In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus’, the hallucinatory final stanza a proper heir to Winterreise. (Now there is an intriguing prospect.) 

Stemme’s use of words was crucial in Weill – with and without Brecht – in which three songs she continued to hold the audience in the palm of her hand. Svensson’s pianism seemed just the thing here too, idiomatic throughout. So vividly communicative was Nannas Lied that surely a listener without texts and without a word of German would have had a strong idea of the ‘Liebesmarkt’ and the challenges of moving beyond ‘siebzehn’. The tango rhythms of Youkali offered still more alluring cabaret, also – perhaps oddly – making me think we need to hear Stemme in Schoenberg, from the cabaret of the Brettl-Lieder to full-throated Erwartung. As an encore we heard the Broadway Weill: ‘My Ship’ from Lady in the Dark, despatched indeed with sails made of silk, Stemme’s English as perfect as her German. Wonderful!

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Rusalka, Royal Opera, 27 February 2023

Royal Opera House

Rusalka – Asmik Grigorian
Prince – David Butt Philip
Vodník – Rafał Siwek
Ježibaba – Sarah Connolly
Duchess – Emma Bell
Kuchtík – Hongni Wu
Hajný – Ross Ramgobin
Wood Spirits – Vuvu Mpofu, Gabrielė Kupšytė, Anne Marie Stanley
Lovec – Josef Jeongmeen Ahn

Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami (directors)
Chloe Lamford (set designs)
Annemarie Woods (costumes)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Ann Yee (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Images: Camilla Greenwell

A strange evening: I very much enjoyed this new Rusalka, though found myself slightly haunted by the suspicion I did so more than I should have done. Musically magnificent yet theatrically inert: opera should intrinsically be more than that, yet I suppose we should be grateful that it can still partly satisfy, even when one crucial component misfires. 

The production is oddly listed as having been ‘created by Natalie Abrahami and Ann Yee’ but with ‘Ann Yee and Natalie Abrahami’ as directors. Equitable, perhaps, but does such re-listing really merit a line in the programme? (Does it really merit three lines in a review, one might also ask, I suppose.) I mention it only as a minor instance of something more irritating. Equity, sustainability, so much else: these are of course causes toward which we should all be working, a great deal faster and harder than we are now. They do not, however, in themselves make a production; they are certainly no substitute for one either. For here, whilst one could read an interesting programme note, promising much, by Jessica Duchen on ‘A Sustainable Rusalka for the Royal Opera House’, the results were actually neither sustainable – for that, ‘wed have to have started the control systems much earlier’ (Abrahami) – nor, contra what we read, saying anything much about sustainability or wider ecological issues. Instead, there was a strange boast, admittedly fulfilled, of having ‘worked with our creative team to create the illusion of water, using paint effects and lighting, and a set that can hold this without having to turn over actual water’. Fine, if hardly unprecedented. Is that not more often the case than not with water? How many productions will theatregoers already have seen that did just that?

Ultimately, the directors (or ‘creators’) feel the story is ‘not about nature’s conflict with humanity, but rather humanity’s need to connect and meld with nature’. It is a point of view: not one that makes a great deal of sense to me, either intrinsically or in the case of Rusalka, but worth a hearing or viewing. What, then, do we have? A sort of non-directed cartoon with words and music attached. Singers generally have to fend (creditably) for themselves. A mossy fairytale without irony or magic turns mildly trashy in the second act, presumably out of a desire to be ‘contemporary’. It looks as though a few items from Claire’s Accessories have been magnified on stage to frame the ‘party’. Inflatable toy animals are presumably intended to imply distance from Nature’s real animals, yet since no one seems to know what is going on, they just look silly. We return more or less to a slightly broken version of the setting for the first act. Alleged intentions go unrealised, as if our ‘creators’ have failed to appreciate that stating you will do, let alone explore, something is not the same as doing or exploring it. As a framework for the story, it works reasonably. Paule Constable’s lighting pretty much steals the visual show, saying so much more than Yee’s tedious, seemingly tone-deaf choreography.

And save, mercifully, for the musical performances: singers, orchestra, and conductor. My two other big house Rusalki over the past decade or so have been Paris in 2019, not so long before the end of the world, and Covent Garden’s first (!) staged performance in 2012. An excellent Komische Oper staging in Berlin was a slightly different animal, built as it was around a thriving company, as opposed to an ‘international’ cast; it offered by some way the most interesting, penetrating production (Barrie Kosky). Paris had Camilla Nylund, Klaus Florian Vogt, Karita Mattila, Thomas Johannes Mayer, and Michelle DeYoung, Covent Garden 2012 also had Camilla Nylund, working with Bryan Hymel, Petra Lang, Alan Held, and Agnes Zwierko. At this level, comparisons are often more a matter of taste than anything else, but I should unhesitatingly plump for David Butt Philip’s Prince from Covent Garden 2023 and consider its cast every inch the equal of its illustrious predecessors. 

One of my first thoughts was that surely we must be due a Lohengrin from Butt Philip soon; lo and behold, on later reading the programme biographies, one (Deutsche Oper Berlin) is forthcoming. Beautifully, unerringly musically phrased, his Prince conveyed a vulnerability and complexity of character considerably beyond either of the aforementioned performances. This was a considered character development, conveyed through words and music. Asmik Grigorian’s Rusalka likewise had it all: effortlessly scaling the vocal peaks, drawing in through hushed intimacy, and offering almost everything in between. Her stage presence likewise was second to none. Sarah Connolly’s Ježibaba and Emma Bell’s Duchess – I am not sure why the usual ‘Foreign Princess’ was not used here, but no matter – represented luxury casting. The former’s expressive range, controlled in technique yet with dramatic spontaneity (or the impression of such), could hardly have been bettered. The latter’s star quality shone through: both in itself and as something akin to metacommentary on the role. Rafał Siwek’s dark-toned Vodník was just the thing too, in voice and presence. Lively and warmly sympathetic performances from Hongni Wu (Kuchtík) and Ross Ramgobin (Hajný) were also highly worthy of note.

 Excellent conducting from Susanna Mälkki (Paris) and Yannick Nézet-Seguin (Covent Garden, 2012) notwithstanding, Semyon Bychkov was for me in a different league. His was world-class conducting, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounding the equal of its very starriest peers. One might expect operatic symphonism from Bychkov, but the extent to which the entire work sounded as if heard in a single, variegated breath nonetheless astonished. A symphony in three movements emerged, its first two acts strongly contrasted. The first was doubtless ‘objectively’ on the slow side, but emerged as an exquisitely conceived, quasi-Wagnerian tapestry in absolute commanded of our musical attention. The second entered more Italianate waters, enlivened by a welcome dash or two of Tchaikovsky, and the third effected due synthesis, culminating in a climax that can surely have never sounded closer to the pantheistic ecstasy of Janáček. Not, of course, that this was not first and foremost Dvořák, but it was a generous, cultivated and culturally broad performance that denied national, let alone nationalistic, clichés. 

Mention should also go to the language coaches, Lada Valesova and Lucie Spickova. I do not speak or understand Czech, save for odd words and phrases I have picked up. But I could have had a stab at transcribing some of it here, such were the clarity of diction and, insofar as I could tell, evident meaning with which words in their alchemic union with music were treated. All in all, then, a splendid evening—yet despite, rather than on account of, the inconsequential production.