Wednesday 30 August 2023

Musikfest Berlin (1) - Nagy/Concertgebouw/Fischer - Widmann and Mahler, 26 August 2023


Jörg Widmann: Das heiße Herz
Mahler: Symphony no.7

Michael Nagy (baritone)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Iván Fischer (conductor)

Image: © Fabian Schellhorn / Berliner Festspiele

Musical life in Berlin has been reignited before the summer festival season elsewhere has ended: first the season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic, after which the orchestra tours to a number of venues, Salzburg included, and the following night the opening concert of the 2023 Musikfest Berlin, which takes in ‘home’ and visiting ensembles. That concert fell this year to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Iván Fischer, in music by Jörg Widmann and Mahler, joined in the former by baritone Michael Nagy.

Widmann's short song-cycle, Das heiße Herz, originally written in 2013, was orchestrated in 2018, the new version's premiere being given by Christian Gerhaher, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and Jakub Hrůša. Widmann sets five poems, two from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, providing an obvious connection already with Mahler, and one each by Klabund (‘Der arme Kaspar’), Heine (‘Das Fräulein stand am Meere’), and Brentano (‘Einsam will ich untergehn’). Klabund's poem is the first, an ear-catching opening of harp, celesta, crotales, and other percussion leading us (and the voice) into a post-Mahlerian soundscape in terms both of timbre and harmony without, at least here, regressing. Henze was another composer to come to mind, though this is certainly not pastiche, rather allusion and, later, reference. Here, as elsewhere, the orchestra gave a detailed, indeed authoritative performance, Nagy shaping the vocal line well in a similarly authoritative and communicative account. The Wunderhorn ‘Hab’ ein Ringlein am Finger’ gives a still stronger, arguably explicit, sense of refracted Mahler, via Wozzeck. Heine's song has something of the raconteur to it: a different, more popular mode of delivery, matched by Widmann’s harmonies and brass writing. ‘Kartenspiel’, the second Wunderhorn song, steps up its predecessor's demand that the ghost of tonality be acknowledged, though the vocal line in particular still went where it would in a post-tonal universe. A surprisingly jazz-like bass line took us on a path towards more or less fully fledged big band music at the close, via a polystylistic collage of allusion that offered a not entirely dissimilar sense of the disconcerting to Schnittke. 

The first four lines of the Brentano song open with solo voice, in folklike, even hymnal manner; I was put in mind, almost certainly coincidentally, of a nonconformist hymn recalled from my childhood. Solo instruments gradually joined to form a Webern-like ensemble on the path to fuller orchestra. There is here a stronger tonal pull, and increasingly so, an expressionist turn at one point rescuing the tendency from bathos. Whether the balancing act Widmann attempts here is entirely successful will probably be as much a matter of taste as anything else. It is rather what one would expect from him, yet never simply a reprise of earlier rummagings around the debris of German (post-)Romanticism. Reception was enthusiastic.

A considerably longer second ‘half’ was given over to Mahler's Seventh Symphony, in a brilliant performance that confounded expectations and opened up new perspectives on the work. Vigorous, determined, its tread in line with that of its counterpart in the Sixth, the first movement's notably faster initial tempo (faster than usual, I think) sounded a note of ambiguity that would never be shed, but rather joined by many more such notes. As a desperate fury took hold, Fischer embraced Mahler's parodies, self-parody included, and respected them by giving them their due without placing them in inverted commas or underlining them. Much the same could be said of his presentation of the way Mahler 'cuts' his material, not cinematic, but not entirely un-cinematic either. Those crucial liminal passages beguiled and shocked. Rapt hallucination took our breath away in preparation for a recapitulation that threw everything up in the air and saw where it landed, whilst always maintaining coherence. The Concertgebouw Orchestra, steeped in this music, sounded just right for Fischer's approach, doubtless informing it too. 

The opening of the first Nachtmusik was truly a thing of wonder, both in the perfection of the horn echoes and the way they spread, like a contagion. Fischer's conception of ‘night music’ was more of a nocturne than a Bernstein-like house of horrors, nonetheless showing ‘lightness’ to cover a multitude of sins, stylistic, textural, and otherwise, and certainly not without irony. All was finely articulated, without the slightest sense of self-satisfaction. It was strangely exhilarating, with a proper sting, even when one ‘knew’, to the close. A fascinatingly malevolent scherzo ensued, Mendelssohn dropped in acid, with the twin tendencies of control and finish on one hand, and ever threatening to veer out of control, that might imply. Skeletons danced in properly Alpine fashion. Berlioz taking a trip in more than one sense. The ending was similarly equivocal and violent. Listening to the second Nachtmusik, it struck me quite how close we stand here to Webern, but as a process rather than a fixed aesthetic, orchestra distilled into a Webern ensemble in real time, as it were. A host of solo instruments paraded in a rich tableau of the human, or perhaps the divine, comedy. Whilst one can hardly avoid mentioning the violin and mandolin, this held for so many, including almost the whole woodwind section, that it would be invidious to name names.

The Rondo-Finale’s timpani call-to-arms, or whatever it is, imparted a fitting suggestion of Don Quixote to its entire enterprise, continually upsetting the Meistersinger apple-cart in the service of a darker comedy. Perhaps. For there were no certainties here, and justly so. Fischer concentrated on drawing excellent playing from the orchestra and steering the vehicle, declining any attempt to ‘solve’ Mahler's enigmas. Once again, this was a tale of ghosts at the feast: the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, obviously, as well as earlier movements of this, but also the Second and even the Tenth-to-come: if Mahler had earlier showed a path to resurrection, perhaps purgatory, or even limbo, now seemed more fun, as well as more attainable. Bach, Mozart, and others made their bows, but what did it mean? The nihilist answer, ‘nothing’, was not necessarily right or wrong, it seemed, but there came another suggestion, not to be conflated with it, an affirmation rather of scepticism, albeit from one who truly believed. Perhaps that is the true horror of the Seventh.

BPO/Petrenko - Reger and Strauss, 25 August 2023


Reger: Variations and Fugue on a theme by Mozart, op.132
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, op.40

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

It had been a while. The last time I had heard the Berlin Philharmonic had been on 5 March 2020, just four days before public performances ceased in that great, monstrous silence. Now I was here for the orchestra’s season-opening concert of Max Reger and Richard Strauss under music director, Kirill Petrenko. Absence may have had the heart grow fonder, but this was outstanding music-making by any standards.

What a joy to open with Reger’s Mozart Variations, a masterpiece, yet one I had not hitherto had opportunity to hear live. They do not come around that often: Furtwängler gave the Berlin Philharmonic premiere in 1934, 21 years after its first performance in Wiebsbaden, conducted by the composer, and the BPO had not played it since 1995, under Horst Stein. (If you think Hindemith terminally unfashionable, turn to Reger. Schoenberg, though, knew his worth, unhesitantly calling him a genius.) Petrenko and the Berliners brought us a properly backward glance from the early twentieth century, a Mozart both more delicate and, somehow, more robust than we should hear now, Reger increasingly present – as through the set as a whole – in, for instance, his octave doublings and, crucially, our listening. The first variation brought clucking worthy of Haydn, Reger’s voice becoming ever more evident in toy-shop enchantment. The second and third variations sounded almost as if homages to Brahms; in a way, they are. Vertical and horizontal expansion inevitably brought Schoenberg to mind, but also (for me) Elgar too. Reger could do with a champion or two such as Elgar has; maybe he has found one in Petrenko. The third, however, also took a step back to earlier Romanticism, breathing the air of a Schumannesque forest. Why all the references to other composers, you may ask, and it is a reasonable question. Perhaps because Reger, especially when much of his music remains relatively unfamiliar, seems to invite them, but I should stress that he never merely sounds ‘like’ someone else. 

The fifth variation’s scherzo-like quality similarly brought Busoni to mind, whereas the deliciously sly modulations of the sixth reminded us of Reger’s acknowledged mastery in this field. One might think his book on the subject overly theoretical, but it served a point, here painted in vivid colour. A heartfelt slow movement followed, Wagner not a million miles away, nor Elgar, but always Reger ‘himself’. Petrenko seemed always to alight on just the right tempo, giving the illusion of permitting the music to play itself. And the BPO's playing was unfailingly gorgeous. The sly ingenuity of the fugue was brought home with clarity and warmth; detail was scrupulously yet never pedantically observed. Harmony was at least as much king as counterpoint, which returns us to Mozart...

Strauss too owed much to Mozart, though not so much in Ein Heldenleben as many other works. The tone-poem’s initial portrayal of the hero inaugurated a season-long theme of ‘Heroes’. It had everything going for it – depth of tone, the playing of those eight horns, the finest articulation, balances spot on – other than some of the swagger Karajan might have brought to it. Perhaps that slightly vulgar bombast, a necessary tone in the palette of an anything-but-vulgar composer, does not come so readily to Petrenko. This, however, was my sole, fleeting reservation and hardly a major one. Strauss’s critical adversaries were faster on their feet than usual, perhaps making their hot air all the more ephemeral. It made for a powerful contrast, highly dramatic, with the well-nigh Wagnerian gloom of string response. Concertmaster Vineta Sareika-Völkner’s solo playing in evocation of the hero’s companion was of equal excellence, her storytelling as vital as that of her orchestral colleagues. In musical congress of distinction, both sides enabled us to learn more of the other, as doubtless they themselves did too. 

True symphonic coherence, lightly worn, was readily apparent in the transition to ‘Des Helden Walstatt’, and indeed in other transitions. Here was a battle royal, its heat initially erotic, yet turning frankly military, the jangle of the battlefield approaching cacophony at times. (So perhaps Petrenko can do ‘vulgar’ after all, particularly when prepared. The opening's out-of-the-blue, cards-on-the-table stance is extraordinarily difficult to bring off; either that, or difficult to prevent overshadowing everything else.) The final two sections functioned not only as crucial staging posts in narrative and form, but also as a conspectus of Strauss’s art, recapitulating works yet to be written as well as those that had. Don Juan met Die Frau ohne Schatten in a second development actually to rival Beethoven by never tackling him head on, rather than by merely aspiring to do so in the key of the Eroica. And yet, Petrenko and the orchestra never mistook this tone poem for a symphony, still less a mere collection of scenes. Strauss may employ symphonic means, but never exclusively so. Ein Heldenleben is a treacherous work, full of traps for even the most experienced conductors and orchestras. Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic did it and themselves proud.

Salzburg Festival (7) - The Greek Passion, 22 August 2023


Grigoris - Gábor Bretz
Manolios - Sebastian Kohlhepp
Katerina - Sara Jakubiak
Yannakos - Charles Workman
Lenio - Christina Gansch
Andonis - Matteo Ivan Rašić
Michelis - Matthäus Schmidlechner
Kostandis - Alejandro Baliñas Vietes
Panais - Julian Hubbard
Nikolio - Aljoscha Lennert
Old Woman - Helena Resker
The Patriarcheas - Luke Stoker
Ladas - Robert Dölle
Fotis - Łukasz Goliński
Old Man - Scott Wilde
Despinio - Teona Todua

Director - Simon Stone
Set designs - Lizzie Clachan
Costumes - Mel Page
Lighting - Nick Schlieper
Dramaturgy - Christian Arseni

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Huw Rhys James)
Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Choir (chorus director: Wolfgang Götz)
Angelika Prokopp Summer Academy of the Vienna Philharmonic
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Maxime Pascal (conductor)

Images: © SF/Monika Rittershaus

Salzburg’s new production of Bohuslav Martinů‘s opera The Greek Passion has much going for it, but alas one major thing against, at least for me. The latter I shall come to, but let us first consider the positives. The theme of the opera and Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel from which it is adopted could not be more timely. A tragedy in which refugees are rejected by a stern, unbending, mendaciously ‘Christian’ society, shown for what it is by the ostracism and death of one of its own for showing proper Christian charity, has a multiplicity of resonances today. It surely follows on well in the wake of Nono’s Intolleranza, which Covid had me miss.

Performances were generally very good, often excellent. Maxime Pascal, known primarily for more overtly modernist music, a complete cycle of Stockhausen’s LICHT underway with his ensemble Le Balcon, could hardly have offered more committed advocacy at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic. A wild, often bewildering, variety of musical styles was vividly characterised. Playing was sharp, warm, weighty, delicate, and so much more, as required. Choruses were equally impressive, hymnal and more violent confrontation of two great masses of human beings brought to equally vivid aural life. 

Sebastian Kohlhepp gave a powerful, vulnerable portrayal of Manolios, the shepherd given the role of Christ in the village Passion play and ultimately murdered for taking Christ at His word. Gábor Bretz made for an implacable priestly foe as Grigoris, whose social rigidity and machinations set the tragedy in motion. Charles Workman as the compassionate pedlar Yannakos, Łukasz Goliński as Fotis, the priest at the head of the refugees, Christina Gansch as Lenio, who transfers her affections from Manolios, and Sara Jakubiak as the other object of his affections, preparing to play the role of Mary Magdalene, all impressed in detailed interpretations, well sung and acted. So did others in smaller roles, of which there are a good few.

Simon Stone’s production did its job well enough too, perhaps at its best in using the great space of the Felsenreitschule stage to show the two communities at odds. Painting a wall with the words ‘REFUGEES OUT’ is not subtle, but subtlety is hardly what is called for here. The appearance of live animals, a donkey and goat included, onstage brought back unwelcome thoughts of Francesca Zambello’s School of Zeffirelli Carmen. It seemed to entertain the audience, especially when the donkey refused to budge, but what it offered beyond that, I really do not know. I wondered whether more might have been done to help the innocent viewer understand who was who on a more detailed, personal level, but responsibility for that really lay elsewhere.

That brings me, alas, to the real culprit for me: the work itself. This is the second, 1961 version of the work, written after rejection by Covent Garden. According to Michael Beckerman’s programme note, the first ‘is considered more experimental, is perhaps more conventionally dramatic, and has much more spoken dialogue.’ For the first two of those criteria, I cannot help but wish we had heard the first, for what we saw and heard was anything but ground-breaking and, far more important, lacking in the basic dramatic tools to which it seemed to aspire. There is nothing discernible in the way of musical characterisation, making Beckerman’s hyperbolic claim ‘Martinů had much in common with Mozart’ especially unfortunate. (I could probably suggest points I have in common with Dame Joan Collins, but that would not make me a natural Alexis.) There is little in the way of musical continuity, and the libretto, Martinů‘s own, is at times shockingly bad. I had to check that it was not a hamfisted ENO translation. I sympathise: I could not write a libretto in, say, German; I doubt I could write one in English. But the composer’s word-setting is also un-idiomatic. And, to be fair, I do not try to write operas. I do not think it would be helpful to go into great detail and should note this was one of the most enthusiastic receptions I encountered at this year’s Festival. Mine was a minority view, though shared still more vehemently by my companion.

I had assumed the spoken scenes were Stone’s, it seeming unlikely Martinů would have used, for instance, the word ‘donkeyfucker’, for instance. Whoever wrote them, they added nothing to what we knew already, coming across mostly as an attempt to sound ‘edgy’. Alas, everything seemed at best caught between largely incomparable stools. To do something for refugees is, of course, admirable and necessary. Despite the obvious objections, that can include artistic endeavour, indeed arguably must. Intolleranza is a case in point. It would need, though, to be more convincing than this. In the meantime, donation to a refugee centre would be a better way forward.

Salzburg Festival (6) - GMYO/Hrůša: Mahler, 21 August 2023


Mahler: Symphony no.9

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)

Image: © SF/Marco Borrelli

Time was when I, like many concertgoers, was hearing a great deal of Mahler’s symphonies, probably more so than those of anyone else. That was partly choice, of course: no one compelled me to, and I was very much under Mahler’s spell. (Not that I am necessarily free now.) But it was also a reflection of concert programming and indeed the recording industry. As a student, I was avidly collecting Pierre Boulez’s revelatory Deutsche Grammophon series as it came out. In 2007, I travelled to Berlin for Holy Week and Easter, to hear Boulez and Daniel Barenboim conduct them all (minus the ‘Tenth’), plus the orchestral song-cycles, though sadly no Das klagende Lied. It was a defining moment in my musical life and even in my musical writing, for it had me begin my blog to record my experiences. (At the time, I did not even really know what a blog was.) As the years rolled on, though, increasingly and again like many, I felt that the Mahler craze was getting out of hand. I should always be interested in an outstanding performance of a Mahler symphony, just as I would with a Beethoven symphony, yet most to my ears were anything but, too many conductors and their egos reducing them to the level of ‘orchestral showpieces’. It seemed the best thing for Mahler, for other composers, and for audiences would be a period of silence. Some time before the pandemic, my attendance had tailed off considerably. Since concert life began once more, I realise I have not been to a single performance of a Mahler symphony, unless we include Das Lied von der Erde. Now, for whatever reason, I shall have several over the next month. Will absence have made the heart grow still fonder? We shall see.

The first in my mini-series was a Salzburg Festival performance of the Ninth Symphony from the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and Jakub Hrůša: an excellent team on paper and in practice. Doubtless not stinting on rehearsal time, and certainly not on numbers – I counted ten double basses and there must have been closer to forty than thirty violins – this was a performance to fill the Felsenreitschule, quite rightly at least as much in magical moments of quiet stillness, somehow both endless and over in the blinking of an eye, as in climaxes. We can perhaps be too ready to speak of national characteristics in music, especially in so complex a geographical and cultural area as Central Europe, yet momentarily forgetting whom I saw at the podium and listening only, as it were, with my ears, I was in the first movement and beyond put in mind both of the sort of sound I associated both with the Czech Philharmonic and with Rafael Kubelík’s wonderful recordings (studio and live) with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. There are all manner of ways to approach Mahler, but this particular brand of unforced musicality and golden, glowing, never saturated string tone seemed to forge a connection not only with Mahler’s Bohemian origins, but also with a tradition dating back to Mozart, Mysliveček, and indeed beyond.

Programmatic explanations help some listeners and do no great harm, though the claim that Mahler’s faltering heartbeat may be heard in the first movement may be an exception. At any rate, there was neither need nor invitation to think in such terms, Mahler and Hrůša reminding us of Mendelssohn’s oft-quoted observation that music expresses thoughts that are not too indefinite for words, but rather too definite. In many ways, the lack of anguish (and apparent who) was welcome, though occasionally I could not help wishing for a little more edge—doubtless ironically, given what I said earlier. With melody, harmony, and counterpoint in such productive balance, though, and with Hrůša’s unobtrusive shaping of the whole so finely judged, there were no grounds for complaint. This was not an especially modernist Mahler, though not was it backward-looking; other standpoints will have their day. 

Oscillation between string-led material and multiple woodwind voices continued into the second and third movements. The second certainly had its moments of rusticity, perhaps closer to Haydn than often one hears, but there was alienation too: in the very idea of rusticity, of course, but also in the music’s twin embrace of and escape from it. The Rondo-Burleske dug deep, not only on account of the depth of string tone, embracing counterpoint and its vigour in a related and complementary, yet also contrasting, fashion. Perhaps there might have been greater violence, even horror, yet, again not unlike Kubelík, Hrůša reminded us there were other tendencies in the music. I was also reminded at times, and not only here, of Bruno Maderna’s startlingly ‘different’, yes-saying way with the work. Hrůša’s marriage of precision and patience paid off handsomely in the way all would surely have felt the pull of progressive tonality, whether they knew the term or not. Mahler’s path to the finale, here resolute and unsentimental, unhurried yet rarely if ever lingering, made sense both emotionally and intellectually. One cannot say fairer than that. 

Salzburg Festival (5) - VPO/Harding: Ligeti and Strauss, 20 August 2023

Grosses Festspielhaus

Ligeti: Atmosphères
Strauss: Metamorphosen
Ligeti: Lontano
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

Image: © SF/Marco Borrelli

This excellent programme and performance from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Harding, substituting without change of a single piece for Franz Welser-Möst, paired two works by Ligeti, whose centenary we celebrate this year, with two by Richard Strauss, always a Salzburg favourite (and one, of course, of the Festival’s founders). One could doubtless strain to draw comparisons between the two composers. (I once divined some ‘elective affinities’ between them and Debussy for a programme note covering a highly unusual menu of Jeux, Schlagobers, and Melodien.) But whilst such points naturally present themselves in real-time experience, it would be stretching things to say the two had much in common other than fantastic technique. The contrasts worked well, though, in a concert whose only real fault was a strangely lukewarm audience. Perhaps they did not much care for Ligeti, but they seemed almost as undemonstrative for Metamorphosen. My suspicion is it had more to do with Welser-Möst’s withdrawal, yet Harding marked, if anything, an upgrade (at least for me). 

The two Ligeti works, both ‘for large orchestra’, made for interesting complement and contrast in themselves. Atmosphères, from 1961, made for a tremendous opener, presenting a universe or perhaps even universes like no other. Teeming with music, with life, with possibility, like the introduction to a Haydn symphony, it seemed to incorporate sounds that it actually did not: one of those experiences in which one could swear one has heard electronics, only to find one has not. This performance at times seemed almost granitic, as if Otto Klemperer were the guest at the feast, if you can imagine such a thing. It was febrile, yes, but also monumental. 

Lontano (1967) offered the third in a series of four unforgettable orchestral openings—and paths taken. Yet more worlds opened up, some glanced only fleetingly, at least for now, though one fancied one might revisit. Life, again, seemed to be the operative concept. Every sound was somehow both familiar and unfamiliar, in spontaneous yet deeply considered generation. Harding built the performance with selfless skill; there was unquestionable drama here, but Ligeti’s, not his. Oddly, in context, the low bass line seemed to presage the all-too-celebrated opening of Also sprach Zarathustra: difficult to know what to make of that, yet intriguing. 

For that sense of drama also proved a guiding thread. If the first section of Strauss’s symphonic poem sounded a little brash, it was also similarly brimming with potential. It offered generous scope for contrast too, eagerly accepted, not least in the gorgeously sweet string tone of what followed. Nietzsche generally seems a bit of a red herring to me here, save for a general materialism, but there was certainly a sense of positivity, of the need to say ‘yes’ to another new world. Whatever my doubts concerning the opening, doubts that may concern work at least as much as performance, this was an eminently musical account, which, again in context, seemed to speak of and through a rich process of metamorphosis. It danced well, and Harding whipped up a fine head of orchestral steam when called upon. If he lingered a little toward the close, one can hardly blame him. Strauss, after all, does that too. 

That leaves Metamorphosen itself, heard between the two Ligeti pieces. There was no doubt whatsoever here that this was a piece ‘for 23 solo strings’, Harding their genial enabler, with none of, say, Karajan’s autocracy. That does not mean form could not be heard and felt, quite the contrary; it emerged from a sense of collegial chamber performance. The beginning was a little on the slow side, I think, yet it did not drag; rather, it spoke of genuine grief, soon inflected by finely etched chiaroscuro in harmony, texture, and narrative as much as in dynamic contrasts. Inner workings of great complexity were revealed, so as duly to rival Ligeti. Patience was the key to Strauss’s great outpouring, its quiet devastation emerging from within. 

Salzburg Festival (4) - Le nozze di Figaro, 20 August 2023

Grosses Festspielhaus

Images: © SF/Matthias Horn

Count Almaviva - Andrè Schuen
Countess Almaviva - Adriana González
Susanna - Sabine Devieilhe
Figaro - Krzysztof Bączyk
Cherubino - Lea Desandre
Marcellina - Kristina Hammarström
Bartolo - Peter Kálmán
Basilio - Manuel Günther
Don Curzio - Andrew Morstein
Barbarina - Serafina Starke
Antonio - Rafał Pawnuk

Director - Martin Kušej
Set designs - Raimund Orfeo Voigt
Costumes - Alan Hranitelj
Dramaturgy - Olaf A. Schmitt
Lighting - Friedrich Rom
Sound design - Max Pappenheim

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera (chorus director: Jörn Hinnerk Andresen)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Raphaël Pichon (conductor)

Susanna (Sabine Devieilhe), Count Almaviva (Andrè Schuen)

Martin Kušej’s new Figaro is my third in Salzburg, after Luc Bondy (my very first visit and my very first Figaro in the theatre) and Claus Guth. (I did not see Sven-Erik Bechtolf.) My hopes were high. Kušej is, of course, an eminent director, a key figure in Austrian theatre, with an estimable track record in opera in general and Mozart in particular. His Don Giovanni and Clemenza di Tito for Salzburg I only know from DVD, but both make got compelling and, in the best sense, provocative dramas; his Idomeneo for Covent Garden was predictably misunderstood by most, yet also proved a thoughtful, urgent piece of theatre. 

Were hopes, even expectations, then fulfilled? In part; or, if you prefer, with reservations. The first two acts seemed to me stronger than the latter two. During the Overture, we briefly meet the characters for the act-to-come, many preparing with a narcotic of choice. Notably, the Count – or plain Almaviva, as surtitles suggest we should know him in this contemporary setting – has no need of them, a drug perhaps to himself and others, at least the leader of a pack one would not be entirely surprised to discover dispensing as well as consuming. In a welcome change from the tiresome camp-fest to which we have latterly become accustomed, without textual warrant, for Basilio, here the singing-teacher is a sinister priest, or at least dog-collared figure; on harder stuff than most; thoroughly in control; and with a gun, one of many in this production, concealed in his guitar-case. Dr Bartolo is a distinctly sinister figure too, cigar ever in hand, gun often so, filming what he can with Marcellina. This gangland crew may be met properly in and around Don Curzio’s bar (also a third-act venue), passing through, never at home, in need of something they rarely if ever get and which is certainly not the usual.

The lack of evident distinction of rank and social order, so crucial to Da Ponte and to Mozart, offers certain dramatic opportunity. Characters need to be drawn, indeed somewhat redrawn, all the more sharply, something Kušej largely accomplishes. There is, though, as ever loss—and I hope I do not say this as an operatic reactionary. Quite apart from the compromise to intricate delights, meaning, and trajectory, there remain loose ends or at least puzzling aspects. We should probably not make too much of the obvious question – if he is plain Almaviva, why is she not simply Rosina? – but Figaro’s role, as well as the Countess’s, is diminished. We can fill in some things for ourselves; he would doubtless challenge the Count more openly if he could, but the latter’s charismatic advantage is a different matter from manorial justice. And the reunion of Figaro with his parents neither rings true nor has anything much in the way of meaning. I am sure one could, moreover, argue that the Countess is liberated by being shown to be just as bad as the rest of them; perhaps she is. It does not feel like it, though, whatever the erotic suggestion of a potential three-way between her, Cherubino, and Susanna. Her forgiveness is unconvincing and, again, divested of much of its meaning and indeed purpose. Figaro is far from impossible to reinvent; ask Claus Guth, whose Strindbergian reading remains a turning-point. This has many good points, not least the anomie of Kušej’s places of transition; it is a serious piece of theatre, such as one would (sadly) be unlikely to encounter in this work in Britain. But it has problems (for me) too. The odd pampas-grass setting for the fourth act raises questions a touch carelessly rather than fruitfully.

Countess Almaviva (Adriana González), Cherubino (Lea Desandre), Susanna

In my experience, one often – this is just a tendency, not a rule – encounters either an outstanding pair of baritones or sopranos. (Figaro was first sung by a bass, but that is rarely the case today.) This was different, perhaps in part a reflection of Kušej’s priorities, yet clearly a matter of strength of performance too. The electricity between Andrè Schuen’s Count and Sabine Devieilhe’s Susanna is palpable throughout. The latter wins, of course, partly because she recognises the purely transactional nature of the ‘real’, non-feudal master. He can pay a woman for services rendered, including dressing him – haughtily, contemptuously impassive – afterwards, but there are limits, not only ontological and social, but also of his personal making. Schuen’s third-act aria as staged by Kušej proved a masterclass in more than one sense. But so did Susanna’s quickness of mind, as transmuted into words, music, and gesture throughout. By their side, Krzysztof Bączyk’s Figaro, admirable in many ways, seemed a little too bluff. Adriana González sang ‘Dove sono’ beautifully, but ‘Porgi amor’ was at times unfortunate, González incapable of sustaining the opening line. Lea Desandre made, once more, for a characterful, animated Cherubino. Especially worthy of mention otherwise were Serafina Starke’s finely sung (and acted) Barbarina and Manuel Günther’s newly interesting Basilio. 

Behind, or rather below, them were Raphaël Pichon and a Vienna Philharmonic on very good form. It must be a little nerve-wracking to even the most confident of conductors to approach this work with this orchestra, but the chemistry seemed genuine, and Pichon, thank God, made no apparent effort to make the Viennese sound other than they will. (It would never work, so why try?) Pichon is clearly attentive to words as well as music, and has evidently encouraged his cast in that respect too. Tempi were mostly well chosen, with none of the fashionable hectic quality that mistakes Mozart for Rossini. There were some post-Harnoncourt allargandi, yet with better dramatic justification and greater flexibility. This was a highly creditable main-stage debut. 

The fashion for hyperactive continuo playing continues apace. Pedro Beriso was no exception, but unusually, his playing often fulfilled a role more dramatically important than shouting ‘look at me’. Given the particular requirements of Kušej’s production, Beriso was often called on to provide connecting music, Mozart’s or Mozartian, not unlike an organist during a service. Use of Mozart’s extraordinary, almost dodecaphonic G-major Gigue, KV 574, as a dividing piece between scenes was a lovely surprise. In its toying mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, as well as thought-through if, in some quarters, controversial liberty with Mozart and Da Ponte’s text, it offered a sample of as well as a metaphor for the whole. 

Salzburg Festival (3) - Bernheim/Tysman: Schumann, Duparc, and Chausson, 19 August 2023

Haus für Mozart

Schumann: Dichterliebe, op.48
Duparc: L’Invitation au voyage, Phidylé, La vie antérieure
Chausson: Poème de l’amour et de la mer, op.19

Benjamin Bernheim (tenor)
Sarah Tysman (piano)

Image: SF/Marco Borrelli

When singers known primarily for opera venture into the song-recital world, results may, unsurprisingly, vary. Here, in an ambitious programme from Benjamin Bernheim, accompanied by Sarah Tysman, there was considerable variation within the programme too. Whilst it would be tempting to ascribe this primarily to the differences, far from only linguistic, between French and German song, a rapt first encore of Strauss’s Morgen suggested matters were not quite so simple. So too, for what it is worth, did the excellence of Bernheim’s German.

Nonetheless, Schumann’s Dichterliebe proved only intermittently successful, far from helped by penny-plain accompaniment (very much accompaniment rather than partnership). There were lovely moments; a slow yet sustainable ‘Im wünderschönen Monat Mai’ promised much for what was to come, likewise and ardent ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’’. Words were always clear, as was their meaning. An animated ‘Aus alten Märchen’ imparted a sense of what might have been, in more than one sense. But deeper meaning, the sheer, unbearable sweetness of suffering, and so much more proved elusive. If it were not so straightforward as exchange of detail for the broader brush, it was difficult not to feel stage familiarity might have impeded a deeper performance.

Both artists sounded transformed in Duparc and Chausson: more animated and, as it were, more ‘inside’ the music. The three Duparc songs had everything: shape, range, style, and a keen sense of metaphysics beneath the surface. Readily, absorbingly communicative in both vocal and piano parts, their subtle ecstasy left one in no doubt this was the real thing.

Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer benefited, quite properly, from a more wandering approach that was yet fundamentally grounded, like Chausson’s Wagnerian harmony, in something that had not taken leave of its moorings. The deceptive ease of Bernheim’s singing was striking in its clarity and, again, its communication. Tysman rose similarly well to the ‘symphonic’ challenges of performing Chausson on the piano. This is almost at times a symphonic poem with voice as much as a song-cycle; where necessary, it sounded like it. The Romantic dolour of ‘La Mort de l’amour’ became ever more deathly through its passage, at times semi-hallucinatory, at others clarity itself spelling death. French, moreover, throughout sounded as if it were the easiest language in the world to sing: a signal achievement for any singer, Francophone or not.

Salzburg Festival (2) - Il re pastore (concert performance), 19 August 2023

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Alessandro – Daniel Behle
Aminta - Emőke Baráth
Elisa – Nikola Hillebrand
Tamiri – Julie Roset
Agenore – David Fischer

Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Ádám Fischer (conductor)

Images: SF/Marco Borrelli

It is not every day I get to hear a Mozart opera live for the first time. That in itself would be enough to welcome the Salzburg Festival’s concert performances of Il re pastore, part of its venerable Mozart-Matinee series. But this proved an outstanding performance, which would still greatly have impressed, were Mozart’s Salzburg serenata the repertoire work it should be. Quite why Mozart’s ‘early’ operas, with the arguable exception of La finta giardiniera, are so neglected is beyond me, but then so is an operatic world in which Donizetti is wildly more popular than Dallapiccola. The important thing is how many ears will have been opened by this performance, conducted with theatrical flair and palpable belief in every bar by Ádám Fischer. 

Leading a small yet, in the acoustic, warm and expansive Mozarteum Orchestra (strings, Fischer unsurprisingly drove harder at times, for instance during the Overture, than Leopold Hager in his classic Philips recording with the same band from what is now half a century ago, but there was always good and discernible reason for his choices, with none of the arbitrary distortion so favoured by a good number of post-Harnoncourt conductors. Such was the sense of a greater whole, style and ideas as one, I could even for once enjoy the rasping of natural brass. The Overture’s twin characters, presaging those of the drama – regal and pastoral – were presented with beguiling brilliance. Trumpets, drums, and key associations rang as true for Alessandro (Alexander the Great) as for the House of Habsburg, the occasion of Mozart’s Metastasio setting being the visit of Archduke Maximilian Francis to Salzburg. Truth, integrity, love, and other qualities and emotions resonated and moved one similarly. Tempi were nicely varied, seemingly suited to the needs of character and singer, and yet always making made sense in terms of the work as a whole.

A cast as fresh as it was faultless, its movement directed by recitative-pruner Birgit Kajtna, was of course central to this success. Emőke Baráth took on the (original) castrato role of Aminta, the shepherd called to be king. Baráth’s chalumeau-like voice was just the ticket, as was her splendidly natural way with sung words. As early as the first two arias, fine complement and contrast were set up with Aminta’s lover, the nymph Elisa. Nikola Hillebrand’s coloratura in that second aria, ‘Alla selva, al prato, al fonte’, was as great and dramatically meaningful a delight as the Mozarteum woodwind’s interjections. As the two grew in stature, even at the end of the first act encompassing grander orchestral recitative, they never forgot their origins, again key to the dramatic trajectory as well as to the Mozartian enchantment. Aminta’s reluctance to accede to the throne, thanking the gods yet admitting the price (loss of his beloved) was too high, proved moving indeed.

Clad in properly imperial coat, Alessandro joined us with the nobleman Agenore first from the balcony above. In the former role, Daniel Behle exhibited similarly impressive control and dramatic command of the often extremely demanding coloratura. (Mozart took no prisoners at this stage of his career.) David Fischer searingly conveyed the sincerity of his love for the dispossessed princess Tamiri, now destined for Aminta as king rather than him, and, in his second-act aria ‘Sol può dir come si trova,’ the utter desperation of his plight. Julie Roset’s silvery soprano deepened throughout the performance: another well-judged and well-executed trajectory. The final ‘chorus’ of resolution brought home the closeness, especially for Mozart, of symphonic and operatic finale, in form, function, and character. House lights came on as stars shone in the firmament and love smiled more sweetly than ever. Here were all the glories of one of the Mozart’s Salzburg’s liturgical music and not a little of its implicit theology too.

Tuesday 29 August 2023

Salzburg Festival (1) - Volodos: Mompou, Liszt, and Scriabin, 18 August 2023

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mompou: Musica callada, nos 1, 2, 27, 24, 25, 11, 15, 22, 16, 6, 21, 28 

Liszt: Ballade no.2 in B minor, S 171

Scriabin: Études in F-sharp minor, op.8 no.2; in B-flat minor, op.8 no.11; Préludes in E-flat minor, op.11 no.14; in B major, op.16 no.1; in E-flat minor, op.16 no.4; in B major, op.22 no.3; in B-flat minor, op.31 no.1; Deux Poèmes, op.63; En rêvant, op.71 no.2; Flammes sombres, op.73 no.2; Piano Sonata no.10, op.70; Vers la flamme, op.72

Image: © SF/Marco Borrelli

Opportunities are rare to hear the music of Federico Mompou, and from a pianist of the stature of Arcadi Volodos rarer still. My friend and colleague Erik Levi, who also wrote the excellent English-language programme essay for this recital, described Mompou to me as ‘Webern meets Satie’: a good and intriguing starting point. In this selection of twelve pieces from the twenty-eight that make up Musica callada (1959-67), the aphoristic Schoenberg also came to mind, though Mompou’s writing (and Volodos’s performance) tended to suggest brevity rather than aphorism. Melting tone, more forthright as and when necessary, and startling clarity and conviction were key to this performance, each piece seemingly haunted by what had gone before, whilst remaining very much its own utterance. A sense of song, of breath and of breathing too, informed even the more ‘external’ sounds: bells tolling, for instance. All seemed fresh, even provocatively so, every gesture counting. Melodic or not, with Debussy and Liszt often present and occasional appearances by Poulenc in old-French mode, this music will surely have won a good few new converts.

For me, the only real disappointment on the programme was Liszt’s Second Ballade. It began promisingly, Volodos’s colouristic wizardry transferred to a larger stage and scale. Some harmonies sounded strangely familiar, others entirely new. It was, to be sure, aballadic utterance, but where for me it increasingly fell short was in formal command. Volodos clearly has a strong affinity to what we might, with due Romanticism, call the Lisztian soul, but quite why things were happening when they were, what connected them with what had gone and what followed, remained elusive. The audience, though, went wild.

In Volodos’s wide-ranging, almost chronological selection from Scriabin’s piano music, he seemed absolutely at home, assembling and vividly communicating a programme that felt like a vast symphonic poem of its own, developing in technique and harmonic language, yet again strangely consequent on what had gone before. That was true of individual pieces too, from the two Études of 1894-5 onwards, the latter, in B-flat minor, sounding like the perfect love-child of Chopin and Tchaikovsky. Time was bent, yet direction was ever-clear, indeed clearer. Subtlety and detail were second to none, likewise tumult when it came (as often it did). As time passed, and Scriabin’s musical personality darkened and deepened, a sense of proximity to, perhaps even influence from, composers such as Debussy and Schoenberg heightened, Klingsor’s magic garden and its implications very much in the background, though perhaps that says as much about me as the composer (or pianist). This was extraordinarily eloquent and committed advocacy, and in pieces such as the Tenth Piano Sonata, with a formal command beyond question. We were taken not only vers la flamme, but through and beyond it.

Thursday 17 August 2023

Bayreuth Festival (3) - Tannhäuser, 16 August 2023


Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia - Günter Groissböck

Tannhäuser - Klaus Florian Vogt

Wolfram von Eschenbach - Markus Eiche

Walther von der Vogelweide - Siyabonga Maqungo

Biterolf - Olafur Sigurdarson

Heinrich der Schreiber - Jorge Rodriguez-Norton

Reinmar von Zweter - Jens-Erik Aasbø

Elisabeth - Elisabeth Teige

Venus - Ekaterina Gubanova

Young Shepherd - Julia Grüter

Le Gateau Chocolat - Le Gateau Chocolat

Oskar - Manni Laudenbach

Pages - Cornelia Heil, Ekaterina Gubanova, Laura Margaret Smith, Karolin Zeinert

Tobias Kratzer (director)

Rainer Sellmaier (designs)

Manuel Braun (video)

Reinhard Traub (lighting)

Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus director: Eberhard Friedrich)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra

Nathalie Stutzmann (conductor)

For my third and final Bayreuth performance this year, I revisited an old friend, Tobias Kratzer’s Tannhäuser. New when we met in 2019, it has weathered the pandemic storm and since assumed something close to classic status. Not that, like any of us during that or indeed any other four-year period, it has remained the same. Artists have come and gone, though some have remained: Markus Eiche’s Wolfram, Jorge Rodriguez-Nortonäs Heinrich der Schreiber, and from Kratzer’s new, Ariadne-like troupe, Manni Laudenbach’s Oskar and Le Gateau Chocolat. Memory can play tricks, so this may be a matter of my imagination, but I think Le Gateau Chocolat’s first-interval show had acquired a greater edge as storm clouds have gathered across the world in the battle to preserve, let alone extend, LGBTQ+ rights. (Let us Westerners never forget that, for much of the world, such rights remain a pipe dream.) Calling on Bayreuth to ‘come out of the closet’, explicitly telling the audience it had seen a queer show, and unfurling the rainbow flag (as would soon be done onstage, in the house, at the end of the second act) seemed, in the light of much that has happened, a more political act than ever, as necessary as the Festival’s ongoing exploration of past Jewish contributors.

To take a step back, we first meet he troupe - Tannhäuser, Venus, Le Gateau Chocolat, and Oskar - during the Overture, on Manuel Braun's wonderful video and briefly onstage. Anarchic, hurried, and chronically lacking in cash, they meet tragedy as Venus pushes down on the van’s accelerator to escape the latest, Burger King non-payment predicament and seemingly kills the policeman who had caught them. That affords the occasion for Tannhäuser deciding to leave the band and return to the Bayreuth Festival, pilgrims and all, where Tannhäuser is being played, yet stands in need of an injection of Wagner the Young German revolutionary, who stands behind them at least as much as he does behind his ‘official’ life beyond the grave. 

Venus & Co. will not take no for an answer, though, and pursue Tannhäuser, two worlds colliding above all in the Wartburg/Festspielhaus. Venus makes her way onstage as one of the pages, the discipline of an opera performance clearly not to her liking. Her invasion, joined by Le Gateau Chocolat and Oskar, occasions Tannhäuser’s crisis of artistic, sexual, and revolutionary confidence. The third act plays out much as one might have expected, albeit with a touching friendship between Elisabeth and Oskar, and a properly disturbing twist in which Elisabeth cedes to Wolfram but only so long as he is dressed as Tannhäuser. When he attempts to shed Tannhäuser’s clown wig, she adamantly replaces it. The action, though, has been prepared so as to heighten the emotional and intellectual weight of its drama. What may have seemed like an entertaining new story has proved a friend of long standing after all, a friend with whom our own journeys have shared much.

Klaus Florian Vogt, a newcomer to the title role here, did a typically committed, highly well-acted job. His voice remains controversial: put simply, people tend to like it (in a particular role) or not. Leaving that aside, and considering what he does with it, no one would have had reasonable, or even unreasonable, grounds to accord him anything but praise. And when one recalls the not-so-distant days when opera houses struggled to cast any Wagner tenor role, one realises that not everything has changed for the worst. Vogt’s Elisabeth, Elisabeth Teige, proved an unusually powerful presence in the role, her part, seemingly vocal and instrumental in quality, in second-act ensembles something close to awe-inspiring. Her compassion, moreover, was matched by her womanliness: this Elisabeth is avowedly no cipher. 

From the rest of a fine cast, Markus Eiche’s Wolfram and Siyabonga Maqungo’s Walther were impressively attendant to the demands of words, music, and stage, as was Günter Groissböck’s Landgrave, luxury casting indeed. Ekaterina Gubanova enthusiastically grasped the challenges and possibilities of Kratzer’s expanded conception of Venus, and added several more for good measure. Julia Grüter shone, strikingly so, as the Young Shepherd. And of course, Le Gateau Chocolat and Laudenbach shone in their roles, as did Eberhard Friedrich’s outstanding Bayreuth Festival Chorus (again!)

There is often a ‘but’, and here it comes. Nathalie Stutzmann’s conducting proved something of a work-in-progress. Balances were often eccentric, sometimes revealing interesting aspects of the score and (especially) its grand opéra origins, as well as affinities with Berlioz, but that eccentricity often proving puzzling rather than enlightening. There was little in the way of greater, ‘music drama’ line, which is fine up to a point if one wishes to highlight where the work, musically, has come from, but some greater sense of overall structure is surely desirable, whichever version of the work one uses. Here, for better or worse, it is Dresden. Perhaps most concerningly, there were occasions, especially during the second act, when ensemble veered dangerously close to collapse. There were, I think, good ideas here, maybe their execution will improve with greater experience in an admittedly difficult house. In any case, there was so much else to enjoy that no one seemed to notice, or care, which perhaps is as it should be. We tend to our communities, or should, as a whole, not as an aggregate of individuals.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Bayreuth Festival (2) - Parsifal, 15 August 2023


Amfortas - Derek Welton

Titurel - Tobias Kehrer

Gurnemanz - Georg Zeppenfeld

Parsifal - Andreas Schager

Klingsor - Jordan Shanahan

Kundry - Ekaterina Gubanova

Knights of the Grail - Siyabonga Maqungo, Jens-Erik Aasbø

Squires - Betsy Horne, Margaret Plummer, Jorge Rodriguez-Norton, Garrie Davislim

Flowermaidens - Evelin Novak, Camille Schnoor, Margaret Plummer, Julia Grüter, Betsy Horne, Marie Henriette Reinhold

Alto solo - Marie Henriette Reinhold

Jay Scheib (director)

Mimi Lien (designs)

Meentje Nielsen (costumes)

Rainer Casper (lighting)

Joshua Higgason (AR and video)

Marlene Schleicher (dramaturgy)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus director: Eberhard Friedrich)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra

Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor)

To move from Dmitri Tcherniakov’s gripping Flying Dutchman to Jay Scheib’s new and much-trumpeted, Artificial Reality-enhanced Parsifal veered towards regression from the sublime to the ridiculous. I should state that I was not one of those with the spectacles necessary to see the ‘enhanced’ version, my short-sightedness being (just) too severe. But since most in the Festspielhaus audience did not have the glasses, it does not seem unreasonable to write about what I could see, whilst noticing access issues that surely require resolution.

I wish I could tell you what Scheib’s production is about. It certainly does not seem to be founded in knowledge of, or even interest in, Wagner and Parsifal. ‘When I think of the word “Bühnenweihfestspiel,’ Scheib tells us in the programme, ‘I think first of all about a celebration. We are opening a festival! Let’s get the party started!’ Leaving aside what is presumably an unintentional hommage to the former Labour MP Keith Vaz, it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with advice to look up the ‘weih’ part of the word in a dictionary, and thereafter to consider what ‘consecretion’ might entail. Or even just to acquaint oneself with the plot, let alone with Wagner’s writings. Good things can, of course, proceed from misunderstandings or misappropriations; the problem is that very little at all proceeds from this or from anything else.

What do we have, then? It looks somewhat like a computer game, I think, though I am hardlly the best person to know. That, I suspect, is the ‘aesthetic’, but I may be wrong. What action there is unfolds against some of the most hideous designs I have had the misfortune to see, accompanied by apparently equally meaningless activity and lack of activity. Strange outfits sported by some of the knights in the first act suggest a directorial attempt to tell us he too has done some drugs in his time. I was unsure for a while whether the peculiar shapes on them were intended to evoke bacteria - wounds of their own? - but Gurnemanz’s sudden acquisition of them on a garish, presumably sacerdotal cloak and equally sudden dispensing of them suggested not. The poor souls looked like refugees from a discontinued children’s television programme. Earlier, indeed in the first-act Prelude, Gurnemanz has sex with a woman, tastelessly magnified on live camera. Who she is I have no idea, but she returns to stand and then walk around in the third act, before embracing him at the close. 

Amfortas’s blood, not unreasonably, appears for a while to be a preoccupation, the wound rather monstrously magnified on camera during Gurnemanz’s first-act narration. Parsifal smashes the grail at the end, though with what import again I have no idea. Certain people walk around or wear slightly different clothes. There are two Kundrys, I think, one of whom silent, sometimes mirrors the action of the other and sometimes walks around in a circle. Others, above all Parsifal and Kundry in their great confrontation in the second act, seem entirely abandoned and have to fend for themselves. And the Barbie-meets-Benny Hill aesthetic of that act, sadly lacking the intellectual heft of either, is not an experience I should wish even on Mr Vaz. That Klingsor wears heels seems a peculiar, carelessly offensive translation of self-castration. To be brutally honest, though, it is difficult to care. So boring, I am sad to say, was this hapless production that it almost had me long for the prior nadir of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s staging (2016-19), though at least it had none of Laufenberg’s Islamophobia. Illumination such as that offered by Stefan Herheim (2008-12) will always remain a rare experience, but surely a director should be able to do, or at least try to do, better than this.

Sadly, this made it difficult, at least for me, to care much about or even to attend to the musical performances. Pablo Heras-Casado’s conducting was generally fluent enough on the micro-level, but imparted little sense of a greater whole. String tone was sometimes strangely thin, though to his credit, Heras-Casado seemed largely to have the measure of the particular challenges presented by conducting in Bayreuth’s covered pit. The audience, though, was wildly enthusiastic. So too was it for most of the singers (with none of the incomprehensible booing heard the previous night). For me, insofar as I could tell beyond the production, they were more impressive than moving. Andreas Schager was his usual indefatigable self in the title role. We are lucky to have him and his seemingly boundless enthusiasm, although his voice is no longer so fresh as it was. Ekaterina Gubanova similarly gave much as Kundry; her attention to the equally exacting demands of words and music was noteworthy throughout. So too was Georg Zeppenfeld’s as Gurnemanz, though Heras-Casado’s lack of greater structural command did not assist the narrations. Derek Welton’s Amfortas was finely sung throughout, as were the choral contributions. A concert performance would, frankly, have enabled greater appreciation both of these performances and of Wagner’s drama.

Bayreuth Festival (1) - Der fliegende Holländer, 14 August 2023


Daland – Georg Zeppenfeld

Senta – Elisabeth Teige

Erik – Tomislav Mužek

Mary – Nadine Weissmann 

Steersman – Tansel Akzeybek

Dutchman – Michael Volle

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, designs)

Elena Zaytseva (costumes)

Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)

Tatiana Werestchagina (dramaturgy)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)

Oksana Lyniv (conductor)

It had been six, not seven, years since I last saw The Flying Dutchman, but it was time. So it was for ‘H’: Holländer, rather than a friend from Line of Duty, though there was certainly something of the allied Nordic Noir genre to Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging, first seen in 2021. The Dutchman revisits his home town following an horrific crime, resulting in a woman, perhaps a prostitute, left hanging from a window, seen (or dreamed) during the Overture. He plays his cards close to his chest, but is bent ultimately on justice, revenge, or both, insofar as they may be separated. Is that what he achieves? He seems to think so, maniacal in a burning triumph to match Götterdämmerung, windows of Tcherniakov’s own small-town, Norwegian set, its church a focal yet distant point of alternative judgement; or, for Nietzscheans, alternative death, ablaze. Until, that is, Mary, the ‘normal’ yet apparently decent animating future of community singing (rather than spinning), desperate to escape from that world, shockingly shoots him dead at the close, the ironic strains of Wagner’s 1859 ‘redemptive’ ending telling their own tale from the pit. 

Mary, it seems in this retelling, is Senta’s mother or stepmother. She is certainly resented earlier by Senta, who in crazed fashion – is she high, a not uncommon reaction to smalltown life? – supplants her in front of the choir, waving her arms around to little apparent musical effect. The Dutchman’s picture, however, still causes a stir. To have Nadine Weissmann, Frank Castorf’s unforgettable Erda, in this newly important, and sympathetic role, added intriguing, intertextual possibilities to this mind, although that is perhaps for the most part a private matter. Weissmann’s performance was as musically endearing as it was dramatically powerful, its silences and quiet looks as potent as the final shot.

This is, among other things, a tale of storytelling. The Steersman, Daland, the Dutchman, Senta, most likely everyone has a story to tell. The past, especially as understood by the present, is like that. For the woman hanged was the Dutchman’s mother, and it would seem, Daland’s lover. (I think it was a little more than a transactional arrangement, though I am not entirely sure. Perhaps they were not either.) The town bar is a dangerous, masculine place of storytelling; the Dutchman has money, and thus can buy men and time. The choir is most probably the bar’s feminine equivalent. At any rate stories are told and heard, decisions are made, and steps are taken towards the final tragedy.

For Senta, it has been a tale cleverly poised between Nordics Noir and Beige (the latter literally in Elena Zaytseva’s costumes for her and the womenfolk). And it is emblematic of the success of the whole, almost whatever one may think of parts of it, that this is seen and heard at all levels. When Tansel Akzeybek’s Steersman sang his song, eliciting derisory laughter, the number of different tones and expressions used, without sacrifice to the whole, transformed it into a mini-cantata or indeed an encapsulation or anticipation, of the whole drama. The tragedy of having to live in the circumstances given and which cannot be altered is not of course, uncommon. It seems, however, unusually apparent and immediate on this occasion. That thought may be politicised; it may be internalised; it may even be transmuted into geography. What is this Norway, we might ask, for Wagner, for Tcherniakov, for the performers, for us? To say it is, the imagination is too easy, although there is surely an element of that. We all create it before our eyes and ears, although certainly not with free will. Always the grey, the beige, the community, and likewise our dreams, fantasies, and plans to escape beckon, thwart and are thwarted, impart life and death. 

Michael Volle’s complete portrayal, as visceral as it was detailed, as rooted in Schubert ballads and even Bach as it was echt-Wagnerian, was a rare prize, fundamental to our experience, as was Georg Zeppenfeld’s luxury casting as Daland. I say ‘luxury’, but in fact a signal virtue of this performance and this production was to have one realise quite how important and complex the role should be. Elisabeth Teige’s Senta was fully the equal of the portrayals of her illustrious peers. A fittingly Nordic heroine, as steely as Nilsson when required, yet probably more variegated in response to very particular stage requirements, she understandably received thunderous applause. Erik is a difficult role; one cannot (usually) be unduly heroic or assertive. Tomislav Mužek nevertheless impressed in another excellent performance.

Eberhard Friedrich’s Bayreuth Festival Chorus was likewise on first-rate form, as it must be. A rooted community that can yet be swayed, it offered an almost Bach Passion-like combination of participation and observation. That goes for Tcherniakov as well as Wagner. Much the same may be said of what Wagner would soon designate his Greek chorus, the orchestra. If Oksana Lyniv drove hard times, not least during the Overture, and sometimes seemed more inclined to look back toward the number-opera past than forward to the music-drama future, hers was always a musically and dramatically motivated reading, strongly in sympathy with the production. The orchestra itself was incisive, decisive and full of telling colour, such as Wagner had learned in Paris. My ears may still tend, say, towards Wolfgang Sawallisch in 1959, but this was – and is – a Dutchman for here and now. After all, the past, constantly retold and reinvented, is always with us, terrifyingly so as the house from which that terrible deed was done burns.