Wednesday 31 January 2024

Salzburg Mozartwoche (6) - Peretyatko/Danish CO/Fischer: Mozart and Salieri, 30 January 2024

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mozart: Lucio Silla, KV 135: Overture; Don Giovanni, KV 527: ‘Crudele! Ah no, mio bene!’ – ‘Non mi dir, bell’idol mio’
Salieri: Sinfonia, ‘La Veneziana’
Mozart: Concert aria, ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te?’ – ‘Non temer, amato bene’, KV 505; Idomeneo, KV 366: ‘Oh smanie! Oh furie!’ – ‘D’Oreste, d’Alace’; Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’

Olga Peretyatko (soprano)
Danish Chamber Orchestra,
Ádám Fischer (conductor)

Images: Wolfang Lienbacher

Ádám Fischer is a fine if sometimes eccentric Mozartian. His concert performance of Il re pastore with the Mozarteum Orchestra at last year’s Salzburg Festival was for me a highlight, and his work with the Danish Chamber Orchestra has gained many plaudits. Understandably, if this concert, my final engagement at this year’s Mozartwoche, is anything to go by. Moreover, it confirmed the sensational qualities of soprano Olga Peretyatko, whom I had admired in Idomeneo at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden last year. 

The concert opened with the Overture to Lucio Silla, a new production of which has just opened next door at the Landestheater, for which I hope to return to Salzburg later this season and report. In the meantime, this proved quite a taster, as bright, theatrical, and vigorous as one might expect of the young Mozart in D major, here palpably excited to get his hands on the Milanese orchestra. (Paris was not the only fruit.) Woodwind in the first section foreshadowed those of the warm, central Andante in A, with just a hint of the shadows to come. In the final section, Fischer employed a favoured device of his, also to be heard in the Linz Symphony, of restricting certain passages to solo instruments only. 

Peretyatko joined Fischer and the orchestra for three numbers. First was ‘Crudele! Ah no, mio bene!’ – ‘Non mi dir, bell’idol mio’ from Don Giovanni. Opening very much in medias res, giving the accompagnato permitted the performers to prepare us for Donna Anna’s aria, rather than experience it as a pretty, even generically ‘dramatic’ thing-in-itself. It certainly emerged as consequent, treated not only to pinpoint, expressive coloratura and a luxuriant voice, but equal excellence from the orchestra as a whole, gorgeous horns included. ‘Ch’io mi scordi di te?’ – ‘Non temer, amato bene’ was written by Mozart for Nancy Storace, creator of roles for both Mozart (Susanna) and Salieri. Here again, we experience the most vivid of communication through words and music. Fischer’s decision to play Mozart’s piano part too was unfortunate. I have little doubt that he could play or conduct the piece perfectly well; doing both proved, alas, a mistake, and renewed one’s admiration for those pianist-conductors able to do so. Strongly connected to Idomeneo, the aria’s words (though not its recitative’s) coming from Giambattista Varesco’s libretto, it paved the way for the appearance of Elettra after the interval, in which Peretyatko’s star shone, if anything, still brighter. Immediately in character, she had us feel the vipers in Elettra’s bosom, as did the Danish strings, bows fairly bouncing off the strings. Voice and oboe entwined in a veritable dance of death. A whole opera with Fischer, perhaps indeed Idomeneo, would be just the ticket.


In between Donna Anna and Mme Storace’s aria, we had heard Salieri’s Sinfonia, latterly called La Veneziana by its 1961 editor Renzo Sabatini. It is not an ‘original’ work, but rather the encounter of two opera overtures, its first movement from La scuola de’ gelosi (indeed written for Venice) and the second and third from La partenza inaspettata. Fischer and the Danish players were again in their theatrical element; anyone could and surely would have guessed this to be the world of opera buffa. Conviction and skill in performance placed this on a different level from any of the Salieri performances I had heard earlier in the week. Counterpoint, gesture, and harmony in the first movement had the composer seem fully worthy of standing in this musical company. The charms of the second could likewise well have been thought the equal of an ‘early’ Mozart symphony or overture. Fischer made it sound easy: as important here as in Mozart. A rollocking hunting finale echoed Haydn, if without his single-mindedness, which might in any case have been less the thing for an opera overture. 

The Linz Symphony, in its usual key of C major rather than the D intriguingly if alarmingly promised by the programme, showed in its first-movement introduction that certain ‘period’ characteristics can readily be employed, should one wish, in this music without loss to a sense of mystery. The exposition proper responded in kind, offering as did the performance as a whole a judicious balance between, well, balance and symmetry on one hand and symphonic development on the other. (Those who complain Mozart unduly emphasises the former could not be more wrong.) The second movement was both more intimate and starker, Fischer excelling once more in reconciling apparent opposites and also displaying a keen ear for colour, to which the orchestra eagerly responded. Just occasionally, his handling could be a little fussy, but there was nothing too grievous. The night-air of Mozart’s Salzburg serenades was to be felt, albeit framed a little more darkly. A minuet hewn from fine marble framed a trio (her for soloists) with effortlessly idiomatic lilt and especially delightful bassoon. The finale went as it ‘should’, apparently competing demands again reframed in collaborative fashion. A noisy audience proved an increasing trial for listening, so observation of the final repeat was a definite advantage in this case. The music sounded all the more urgent until a final blaze in which Fischer gave modern brass its glorious head. It was a little showy, but why not? Clarinets returned to the stage for a remarkably keen encore performance of the Figaro Overture, bringing my Salzburg visit almost full circle.

Salzburg Mozartwoche (5) - Hagen Quartet, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, 30 January 2024

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Haydn: String Quartet in D minor, op.76 no.2, Hob. III:76, ‘Fifths’
Mozart: String Quartet in D minor, KV 421/417b
Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp minor, op.131

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt (violins)
Veronika Hagen (viola)
Clemens Hagen (cello)

Image: Wolfgang Lienbacher

Three string quartets in minor keys, two of them in the same minor key, might sound like an overload of misery, or at least darkness, but matters were more mixed in this Hagen Quartet Mozartwoche recital. It was not exactly full of the joys of spring, but then we have some way to go in our Winterreise before we reach such joys. More to the point, we could enjoy a cornucopia of invention from three of the supreme masters of the genre, Mozart rightly at the centre. 

Haydn was, of course, as close to the inventor of the string quartet as makes little matter, certainly its ‘father’ in a way he was not, as once was claimed, of the symphony. He was represented by his ‘Fifths’ Quartet, written at least five years after Mozart’s death, but his voice arguably seemed the oldest here, not least with respect to a surprising approach towards ‘early music’ sound at its opening. Whatever the issues of ‘style’, motivic integrity and emotional intensity are the crucial things for the first movement; they were certainly to be found here. The development’s very particular course was vividly communicated, bringing us to a recapitulation of drama, both on the motivic and the broader harmonic levels, midway between the High Baroque and Beethoven. Melodic grace and expressive depth characterised the second movement variations, major/minor oscillation key to their progress. Vigour and rigour were insistently common to both minuet and trio, as well as to the finale. We tend to associate the daemonic with Mozart and Beethoven in this key, but Haydn here made his claim just as strong, through material and sheer originality in its working that could be only his. This was a fine mental work-out, moving in equal measure: that is, first-rate Haydn. 

Mozart in D minor followed: the second of his quartets dedicated to Haydn. Not that it did not possess many of the qualities ascribed above to Haydn, but what struck me immediately was the greater, more personal pathos, inviting one in to a drama whose subjectivity suggested this might actually be ‘Mozart’s’ drama too, albeit with a question mark such as one would never sense, rightly or wrongly, with Beethoven. The Hagen Quartet made no apologies for the complexity of the first movement, greatly admired by Schoenberg, its development counterpoint Janus-faced in protomodernism and archaism—or so one could fancy. The turn to the minor for the recapitulation’s second group was echt-Mozart, of course, and so it sounded here. The Andante first breathed a warm consolation that was yet fragile, followed by a vehemence sometimes tragic, sometimes merely stark: terms were thus set, to be properly developed. There was no doubting the vehemence of the minuet either, nor the necessary contrast of memories of Salzburg serenading in its trio. If the finale seemed to suggest Schubert, it often does on the page too. The idiocy one often hears about Classical variation form somehow being lesser than that of the Baroque or Romanticism was once again so utterly confounded as to have one wonder how anyone might have thought such a thing in the first place. Perhaps the Hagens might have exercised a tighter grip at times, but there was virtue in not pressing too hard. 

By the end of that first half, my ears were ready for a new key. Beethoven offered that – and not only that – in the advent and unfolding of his C-sharp minor Quartet. The ineffable sadness of the first-movement fugue, so moving and prophetic for Wagner, was expressed without exaggeration, material apparently speaking ‘for itself’, albeit with a (relatively) gentle sforzando nudge for the final note of the subject during the exposition. Everything, it seemed, came from its first statement. As Webern once put it, ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That’s the strongest unity… But in what form? That’s where art comes in!’ Art certainly came in here, at its rarest and most sublime. For whilst this is undoubtedly holy ground, it was so not because we have designated as such, but through intense, honest, ultimately radiant expression: Beethoven’s, above all, but also surely that of the performers. 

A quizzical second movement and good-natured third led us to twin complexity and simplicity in the central fourth. Depth and direction were prey to ‘late’ instability, yet were never quite defeated, that instability transformed into a guiding principle for the scherzo whose manic rigour seemed to take us all the way to Bartók, even Schoenberg, and perhaps even beyond. It may, even though one ‘knew’ otherwise, have seemed to be hurtling towards a conclusion, but serene intervention in the guise of the sixth movement and something approaching tragedy in the finale ensured there were no easy answers—or even questions. This final movement hallowed both ‘old’ and ‘new’, again posing the question ‘how to end it all?’ A signal strength of the Hagens’ performance was that, again irrespective of whether one ‘knew’, one felt that all was in the balance until the very end.

Salzburg Mozartwoche (4) - Baborák Ensemble: Mozart, Reicha, and Michael Haydn, 29 January 2024

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mozart, arr. Radek Baborák: Horn Concerto no.4 in E-flat major, KV 495
Anton Reicha: Quintet for horn, string quartet, and double bass in E major, op.106
Michael Haydn: Horn Concerto in D major, MH 134: ‘Larghetto’ and Allegro ma non troppo’
Mozart, completed Süssmayr (ed. Baborák): Rondo for horn quintet in D major, KV 514
Mozart: Horn Quintet in E-flat major, KV 407

Radek Baborák (horn)
Milan Al-Ashhab, (violin)
Martina Bačová (violin, viola)
Karel Untermüller (viola)
Hana Baboráková (cello)
David Pavelka (double bass)

Not very often does one have opportunity to hear a chamber concert led by a horn player. Still less will it be by one of the distinction of Radek Baborák. Still less than that will the rest of the ensemble be of the distinction of the players Baborák brought together for this, the fourth of my Mozartwoche performances this year. Mixing the familiar and the considerably less so, it proved a joy from beginning to end. 

The former was provided by Mozart’s fourth horn concerto, arranged for ensemble by Baborák. Such an ensemble will never quite sound as if it were an orchestra, perhaps especially in such familiar music, but it imparted a proper sense of ensemble tutti nonetheless. At the very opening, it could perhaps have afforded to play out a little more given the new balance, but solo playing was of such calibre that it mattered not. Phrasing, articulation, dynamic contrasts: all were achieved with apparent effortlessness, married to profound chamber sensitivity from all in a first movement of grace, light, and shade. Baborák’s own cadenzas were stylish and, at times, in the best sense surprising. Grace characterised the slow movement too, its course traced with affection and understanding, players taking all the time in the world but never too much. The finale was likewise possessed of the kind of ‘rightness’ one does not notice, that is a Mozartian rightness. It was a further delight, with a further, foot-stomping surprise to come in the cadenza. 

Anton Reicha’s Horn Quintet followed, written about forty years later in the mid-1820s, given here with its ad libitum double bass. The first movement revealed an accomplished work with plenty to hold the interest, not least given a performance of accomplishment such as this. There was, at least to my Romantically inclined mind, a poignancy to its historical position in the wake of Mozart and Haydn, as with all such Austro-German music, Beethoven and Schubert included. Some intriguing harmonic turns both made sense and helped ensure the music never quite sounded ‘like’ anyone else’s. The development section’s counterpoint convinced, Reicha’s preparation for the return perhaps less so. If an editor might have shortened this movement, there was much to enjoy in its amiable, decidedly non-Beethovenian temperament and course. Likewise in the Lento second movement, though with its own particular character. Baborák’s playing was wonderfully long-breathed, readily complemented by sweet-toned strings, a surprisingly ardent episode keeping all of us on our metaphorical toes. Light fun was had with the minuet’s syncopations, a touch of something deeper offered in the trio. A sunny finale reflected much of work and performance; I cannot imagine the latter bettered. 

The selection from Michael Haydn’s D major Horn Concerto, MH 134, might have seemed puzzling, in that a ‘Larghetto’ and ‘Allegro non troppo’ suggested a second and third movement, in turn to preface Mozart’s fragmentary Rondo in D, KV 514. Tempo indications can be misleading, though, for these were in fact the first and second movement. In any case, the first took us back to more Mozartian climes: Mozart’s (Salzburg) world, if not necessarily more than that, albeit with telling points of contact. This was another beautifully judged performance of considerable grace and, yes, depth, if worn lightly. Harmony and perhaps not only that stood closer, say, to Mozart than to the composer’s brother. Horn playing was to die for, with deeply sympathetic string accompaniment. I did not miss the full orchestra at all. The second movement was perhaps more distinctive, arguably a little closer to Joseph Haydn, though with a few harmonic touches very much Michael’s own. Mozart’s Rondo sounded every inch the classic hunting finale, though with a few strange turns doubtless to be ascribed to its peculiar nature and completion. Ultimately, though, the sense of ebullience with an implication of fragility were spot on, and there was no question who was the presiding master. 

Mozart’s Horn Quintet, obviously without double bass and with one of the violinists taking up the viola, was arguably the sole ‘masterwork’ played ‘as it should be’, but here it was at most first among equals. In any case, the first movement offered all of the virtues from what had gone before: judicious tempo, excellent phrasing and playing, a keen sense of chiaroscuro, collegiality, and so on. It seemed very much to penetrate to the heart, in more than one sense, of the matter; but then, so did everything else. Directness of emotion in the slow movement was not at odds with implicit and explicit compositional sophistication, far from it. Likewise, in different vein, for the finale: sunny, yet never quite without the implication of something darker. Joy is a strange, even difficult thing in Mozart’s universe, as we also heard in the extraordinary encore performance of the slow movement from the Clarinet Quintet.

Tuesday 30 January 2024

Salzburg Mozartwoche (3) - Mozart and Salieri, 28 January 2024

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte, KV 620, Overture; Andante for flute and orchestra in C major, KV 315/285e; Rondo for flute and orchestra in C major, KV 373/285c (arr. Pahud)
Salieri: Concerto for flute and oboe in C major
Mozart: Symphony no.38 in D major, KV 504, ‘Prague’

Emmanuel Pahud (flute)
Camerata Salzburg
François Leleux (oboe/conductor)

Images: Wolfang Lienbacher

This was an interesting concert of music by Mozart and Salieri, the lesser known music faring better for me than the celebrated symphony on the programme. There is nothing unusual in that, of course, especially in repertoire in which very different aesthetics are in play—and ultimately, it may be of greater importance to grant an opportunity to rarely heard music than to present a Prague Symphony to rival Karl Böhm or Daniel Barenboim. 

The Magic Flute Overture, well known though it may be, stood somewhere in between. Tempi were apt and François Leleux took evident care with elements of Camerata Salzburg’s shading. The performance was clear and directed, if somewhat excitable, even fierce. Better that, though, than the po-faced puritanism of many in the Anglo-American wing of the ‘authenticke’ brigade. I sensed an idea – and the most any of us can have is an idea – of the eighteenth-century theatre, though it was difficult to warm to the astringent string tone, worlds away from Sándor Végh. Salzburg woodwind, however, sounded splendid, as they did throughout. 

There followed two pieces for solo flute and orchestra, for which Emmanuel Pahud joined Leleux and Camerata Salzburg. I cannot claim to be a great fan of the lone Andante, KV 315/285e, probably an alternative slow movement for the G major Flute Concerto, KV 313/285c, but it was certainly played well here, with an Italianate long-breathedness that Salieri would surely have admired too. That said, a sense of the ballet – to my ears – is also suggestive of French music. (Think, for instance, of Gluck’s ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’.) Nothing wrong with that: Mozart often blends different stylistic influences. It is not always clear to me, though, quite how those different traits come together. Pahud’s arrangement of the C major Rondo for Violin and Orchestra, KV 373/285c, clearly struck a note of recognition among the audience. Hand on heart, do I think it works as well for the flute as for the violin? No, but it offers new repertoire for a solo instrument less blessed (though hardly without blessings) and, arguably, greater intimacy and sensuality. Occasional solo ornamentation was always tasteful. 

Leleux collected his oboe, whilst continuing to conduct, for Salieri’s Concerto for Flute and Oboe. The first movement’s opening tutti brought both a different voice and a recognisable sense, once again, of theatre. The two solo instruments’ duetting enhanced that impression of opera. Echo effects amused some in the audience: they were well done, if with diminishing returns. I was surprised by the motivic insistence of some passages, but then I suppose we should recall Salieri was a teacher of Beethoven. At other times, the orchestral part was more rhetorical, again breathing the world of the theatre. The slow movement was charming enough, if without the memorability of even lesser Mozart (or Haydn, for that matter). I was not always convinced by its twists and turns, but remained grateful for the opportunity to hear it at all. Here, as elsewhere, Heinz Holliger’s cadenzas offered something new yet in keeping. The finale offered a few surprises, though I struggled sometimes – doubtless labouring under an aesthetic too much derived from Mozart and Haydn – to understand their motivation. A sudden spotlight for the violas, for instance, was intriguing, but ultimately the movement remained somewhat four-square. As an encore, Leleux and Pahud played, without orchestra, the Magic Flute’s encounter between Papageno and Monastatos. 

And so, on to the Prague, its first movement introduction rhetorical, even theatrical, rather than a harbinger of a notably symphonic performance. It was certainly full of incident and notes continued to fly off the page during the main Allegro, whose hallmark, gentle contrast for the second subject notwithstanding, was ebullience: very much a D major for (natural) trumpets and drums. Although enjoyable enough in its way, it felt a little long, especially given the exposition repeat, for something that seemed more inclined towards the early ‘sinfonia’ than the traditional Austro-German symphony. The Andante flowed quickly, as is now fashionable. It was similarly strong in gesture, weaker in overall line. Ultimately, it seemed more a collection of episodes than what we have come to expect. The finale worked best for me, if still lacking a strong enough sense of harmony. Melodic events tumbled forth and sterner passages had an undeniable drama to them, sometimes blazingly so. In context, observing the repeat seemed questionable: again making the movement over-long for Leleux’s approach in performance.

Monday 29 January 2024

Salzburg Mozartwoche (2) - Mozart and Schubert, 27 January 2024

Grosses Festspielhaus

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, KV 492, Overture
Mozart: Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Schubert: Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Igor Levit (piano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Joana Mallwitz (conductor)

Images: Wolfang Lienbacher

Joana Mallwitz’s account of the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro revealed the Vienna Philharmonic as of old. (Conductors foolish enough to try to change its sound will quickly be rebuffed. If you do not like it, work with another orchestra.) Warm sound, fine turning of phrases, and a swift tempo that yet permitted time for the music to breathe offered a proper curtain-raiser. Indeed – a good sign, this – when the Overture had come to an end, I expected and wanted the opera to continue. 

Alas not on this occasion, but instead we were treated to a performance of ‘one of the greatest wonders of the world’ (Alfred Brendel): the E-flat Piano Concerto, KV 271, with Igor Levit as soloist. This was the only work on the programme for which Mallwitz used a score, though her head was certainly not in it. It was interesting to note the change in her – and the VPO’s – approach: although using the same body of strings, there was even in the opening tutti more of a sense of chamber music writ large than in the Overture, whilst retaining warmth and variegation. That impression was confirmed upon Levit’s entry, when he took the existing musical line and ran with it, until handing it back or sharing, in what was very much a shared endeavour. Replete with imaginative touches that never went against the grain, this was a first movement full of life. With Levit’s pearly tone and the heavenly sound of Vienna strings and woodwind, it is difficult to imagine anyone feeling shortchanged, though just occasionally I wondered whether something deeper was missing. 

The answer came in the slow movement: not that something had been missing, but rather that something had been kept in reserve. Its dark C minor opening, direct from the world of opera seria, prepared the way for a profound experience in which a finely spun Mozart line, wherever it might lie, was revealed to be possessed of infinite sentiment. It was not precious, but rather seemed to speak of something, to borrow from Mendelssohn, too precise for words: a grief-stricken lament from the deepest of all composers, or so it seemed here. Its radical interiority could be heard particularly in Levit’s solo passages, even in the voicing of a trill. After that, a finale both lighter and faster than one usually hears again had Mendelssohn’s presence hover before us. The orchestra responded to Levit’s opening challenge in helter-skelter fashion as if a nightmare had ended, and we were back to the day, albeit a day that could not quite banish memory of what had preceded it. The subdominant minuet emerged pristine in surprising simplicity: again at a fastish tempo, but in proportion to the music surrounding it. A surprising – and surprisingly apt – solo encore came in the quizzical guise of Shostakovich’s ‘Waltz-Scherzo’ from the Ballet Suite no.1. 

The second half was given over to Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony. Here there was much to admire – how could there not be with the Vienna Philharmonic onstage? – even if the whole felt lacking in the import and inevitability of the finest performances. Mallwitz presents the work, especially its first two movements, more as companion pieces to the early symphonies than harbingers of Romanticism. There is no Schubert performing tradition here, of course, so one is at liberty to do what one wants so long as it works; but does it? The first movement proceeded fluently without much in the way of tempo modifications (save for actual transition of tempo). Voicing of inner parts was a particular strength. The coda, however, felt less like a culmination and more a signoff. 

If the second movement were also on the fast side, it was proportionally so. Such tempo relationships are crucial; Mallwitz has clearly given them due thought. Detail was present and correct. Alternation of string and wind choirs made its point, without veering too strongly towards Bruckner. There was drama too in climax, silence, and aftershock, difficult not to think of in quasi-military terms, given the unfailing march-like quality to the VPO’s build-up. The scherzo I found engrossing; it offered weight and movement without galumphing, charm as well as style. Its trio proceeded a little too much bar-to-bar, its regularity too obvious. When it came to the finale, it certainly sounded like one—and a finale to what had gone before too. It was very well put together, with clear understanding and communication of harmonic rhythm, indeed rhythm more generally. I could not help but ask, though: what, if anything, might it all mean? Not that such 'meaning' could or should be put into words, but even so.

Sunday 28 January 2024

Salzburg Mozartwoche (1) – Mozart and Salieri, 27 January 2024


Salzburg Marionette Theatre

Images: Bernhard Mueller

Salieri: Axur, re d’Ormus: Piccolo sinfonia to Act IV; La secchia rapita: ‘Son qual lacera tartana’; Il ricco d’un giorno: ‘Eccomi più che mai – ‘Amor, pietoso Amore’; La grotto di Trofonio: ‘La ra la ra’
Rimsky-Korsakov: Mozart and Salieri

Director, designs – Matthias Bundschuh
Lighting – Matthias Bundschuh, Alexander Proschek
Production manager – Philippe Brunner

Isora – Ekaterina Krasko/ Svetlana Schönfeld/Maximilian Kiener
Mozart – Konstantin Igl/Ursula Winzer
Salieri – Brett Pruunsild/Eva Wiener
Blind violinist – Philipp Schmidt

Students from the Mozarteum University Salzburg
Kai Röhrig (conductor)

After a few years concentrating on Mozart alone, Rolando Villázon, Intendant of Salzburg’s Mozartwoche, has turned to Mozart and Salieri. There is so much more, so much more of interest, to Salieri than the preposterous charge that ‘everyone’ knows, but it has been greatly influential, whether we like it or not, and that of course includes its artistic legacy. Most celebrated of all is Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, which will be seen here both as film and play. (I should have been keen to see the latter, but alas the scheduling gods had other ideas.) But long before Schaffer was Pushkin, with his short story: basis, almost verbatim, for Rimsky-Korsakov’s short, one-act opera of 1897, here given at Salzburg’s Marionette Theater with puppets, three young singers, and a chamber ensemble of students from the Mozarteum conducted by Kai Röhrig. 

It is a very short opera, so Matthias Bundschuh has decided, in a prologue, to provide a back-story and to redress a little the Mozart-Salieri imbalance by offering a little of the latter’s own music. A middle-aged prima donna Isora recalls her career in its prime: she worked often with Salieri, ‘Antonio’, though sadly never with Mozart. She sings us some of his music, from the buffa rather than seria end of his output, and tells of his unrequited love – he desired marriage – which resulted in her joking dismissal of him through the gift of poison (happily or unhappily, Gift in German). The scene is set, dramatically and musically, for the opera proper to begin, in a German translation by Bundschuh and Philipp Schmidt. And so, in brief, Mozart, full of live and a levity Salieri finds irresponsible, even obscene, calls upon the elder composer, brings him a blind violinist as a joke, massacring his own ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ – here accomplished with wicked skill – and is invited to dinner, for which he returns in rather darker mood. He tells Salieri the story about the mysterious stranger who has commissioned his Requiem, drinks from the goblet Salieri has prepared, goes to the piano to play from the work he is composing, and is killed. 

All is accomplished through collaboration and synthesis in music, a little speech, and of course the excellent working of Bundschuh’s own puppets. Nice additional touches include a crackly record of Mozart as tango which, somewhat incongruously, the two composers dance, and the intrusion of a recorded excerpt from the Requiem itself. But the scene in which the puppet Mozart plays a new composition of his own at the piano, with interjections from Salieri, is perhaps most impressive. One sees, hears, and appreciates just what craft is required in the collaboration of puppetry and music.

In a programme note, Bundschuh tells of his dislike for ‘Russian pathos’: fair enough, I suppose, but I wonder whether the approach adopted sells Rimsky’s opera, which in any case is hardly Eugene Onegin, somewhat short. It is partly owed, of course, to the requirements of marionette theatre, but might there not have been room for something a little stronger, dare I say more Amadeus-like? Still, the general lightness of what is in any case a light score by Rimsky’s standards has its own allure, and allows our vocal Mozart and Salieri to impress. Konstantin Igl as the former reveals an adept, characterful tenor. The (literally) deeper, even more fragmented Salieri is a Chaliapin role, no less. (The bass apparently claimed to have sung the work as a monodrama, given Mozart’s part also lay within his range.) It was equally well sung by baritone Brett Pruunsild, the two achieving considerable chemistry, notwithstanding the necessity of singing offstage. Similarly impressive was Ekaterina Krasko’s sparkling despatch of the Salieri arias, likewise to sympathetic playing from the conservatoire students and lively overall direction by Röhrig.

There is charm and not a little magic here in this co-production between the Stiftung Mozarteum, the Mozarteum University, and the Marionette Theatre. And once again, I find myself wishing more composers would, as Pierre Boulez suggested some time ago, avail themselves of the possibilities puppetry might offer opera. There is something unquestionably Mozartian to the idea.

Friday 26 January 2024

BPO/Petrenko - Schoenberg, 25 January 2024


Chamber Symphony no.1 in E major, op.9
Die Jakobsleiter

Gabriel – Wolfgang Koch
One who is called – Daniel Behle
One who protests – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
One who struggles – Johannes Martin Kränzle
The chosen one – Gyula Orendt
The monk – Stephan Rügamer
The dying one – Nicola Beller Carbone
The soul – Liv Redpath, Jasmin Delfs

Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus director: Gijs Leenaars)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Image: © Stephan Rabold

150 years on from the birth of Arnold Schoenberg, we could be forgiven for lamenting this world still does not know what to do with him and his music. The most important of twentieth-century composers, he languishes respected yet for the most part unperformed. The muted tones in which even this, his anniversary year, is being celebrated – if not now, then when? – are such that it could readily be missed altogether. There are exceptions, not least my friends and colleagues at Vienna’s Arnold Schönberg Center; I am referring essentially to the world of musical performance—and listening. And just perhaps here also in Berlin, second of Schoenberg’s three major cities. (Los Angeles, alas, has long seemed a lost cause.) Not so much in the city as a whole: we search in vain for contributions from its opera houses – surely things would have been different, were Daniel Barenboim still at the helm of the Staatsoper – and indeed from most of its orchestras, yet in the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic, we at least see in the foyer a little exhibition, mounted in conjunction with the ASC, and here we have now also heard the first of several contributions planned from the orchestra. 

If they continue even to approach the level of this instalment, all will not be lost. The First Chamber Symphony offered a splendid way to start. It was the first live Schoenberg I heard, travelling down as a schoolboy to London on the coach from Sheffield for my first Prom; I think it was actually the first piece on the programme, so the first notes I heard at the Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall, indeed in London, were Schoenberg’s. An attempt at comparison would be pointless: I cannot remember much other than that, even then, it impressed me greatly. But this is therefore a work with which I have lived for a while, and of which I have heard a number of fine performances since that CBSO Prom with Simon Rattle (and Maurizio Pollini), one next door at the Kammermusiksaal included (from members of this same orchestra as the Scharoun Ensemble and Pierre Boulez). Today’s Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko have little to fear from even the most exalted comparisons, but it is better simply to consider their performance on its own terms. 

In some ways the most conservative – in the proper rather than the debased, contemporary sense – of revolutionaries and surely the most revolutionary of conservatives, Schoenberg stands Janus-faced, that historical position readily conveyed here in immanent, performing terms. For a work so sunny and life-affirming, it is haunted by ghosts, many of whom cheerfully partook of this particular feast. First up, in the opening bars, was Richard Strauss, already balanced by a heightened sense that this was as much chamber music, a gathering of soloists, as symphony (or indeed symphonic poem). Brahmsian developing variation, Wagnerian melos, passage of transition that owed much to both, and of course Lisztian formal inheritance were to the fore, but through the particular material and character of this piece; it never felt like anything other than itself, though there was to be heard something of a more traditional, darkly ‘German’ sound and warmth to the ensemble than might often have been the case from Petrenko’s two immediate predecessors, Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle, albeit without sacrifice to clarity and balance. So assured was the latter that one might almost have forgotten what an astonishingly difficult feat it is to bring off (as Herbert von Karajan, Abbado’s predecessor, freely admitted). Illuminating detail – sepulchral, Alberich-like playing from violist Diyang Mei, a snatch of Pierrot-laughter from Kilian Herold’s clarinet – was present to an extent sometimes difficult to believe, but always within a sure and malleable sense of the whole. The development truly developed, showing Schoenberg as heir to Beethovenian struggle. The ‘lightness’ of the beginning of the ‘slow movement’ offered a surprising presentiment of the ‘air of another planet’ soon to be experienced in Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, prior to well-nigh Mahlerian ‘deepening’. No performance of this complex piece can be perfect; it contains more than can ever be achieved in a single performance. This came closer than most.   

True revelation, though, came with Die Jakobsleiter. So seldom is this extraordinary work heard that I cannot have been the only audience member hearing it live for the first time. I had thought I knew this incomplete oratorio well enough, yet such were the strength and all-round excellence of this performance that I realised I had hardly known it at all. Indeed, not the least of my realisations was that one cannot really begin to know it other than through live performance. Recordings, however excellent, can barely suggest the spatial dimension – here the hall came into its own as much as the performers – nor, more important still, the overwhelming power and conviction inherent in the work and any performance worthy of it. One felt the work’s constructivism from the off, its opening cello hexachord so clearly, powerfully generative of what ensued: musical expression first, words from Wolfgang Koch’s Gabriel next. ‘Whether right or left, forward or backward, uphill or downhill’: one felt, harmonically, motivically, conceptually the multi-dimensional Schoenbergian Idea. Just as important, its colours, not only orchestral (though the inheritance of the Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16 was thrillingly apparent) but vocal too, not least from the souls of the Berlin Radio Chorus, individual and as a mass. Instrumental lines, as if generated by the Chamber Symphony and further developed here, contributed equally to the composer’s hyper-expressivity and the sense of its absolute necessity. It was relentlessly dialectical, relentlessly communicative, already pointing to elements of the world of Moses und Aron. A well-nigh flawless cast of vocal soloists had been assembled and exceeded expectations. Again, the variety of colours and expressive gestures within a single performance, be it that of the increasingly Wagnerian Daniel Behle, the dark, rich Gyula Orendt, Liv Redpath and Jasmin Delfs’s souls in vocalise, or anyone else had to be heard to be believed. Schoenberg’s vivid imagery – or is that too representational a characterisation? – was brought still more vividly to life that was both fleeting and aspirant to the eternal.

All the while, we moved, after Swedenborg, upwards, heralded by the sweetest of violin solos from above, instruments and voices surrounding us as if truly from the heavens. This was less the air of another planet than of another dimension, music and post-Wagnerian, post-Mahlerian redemption above, beyond, around us. This was a magic unlike anything I had yet heard. Part of our world, then, does know what to do with Schoenberg and his music. May it serve as an example to the rest.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Daphne, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 20 January 2024

Peneios – René Pape
Gaea – Anna Kissjudit
Daphne – Vera-Lotte Boecker
Leukippos – Johan Krogius
Apollo – David Butt Philip
Four Shepherds – Arttu Kataja, Florian Hoffmann, Adam Kutuy, Friedrich Hamel
Two Maids – Evelin Novak, Natalia Skrycka

Director, set design, costumes, lighting – Romeo Castellucci
Revival director – José Dario Innella
Choreography – Evelin Facchini
Assistant director – Maxi Menja Lehmann
Set design assistance – Lisa Behensky, Alessio Valmori
Costume assistance – Clara Rosina Straßer, Theresa Wilson
Lighting assistance – Marco Giusti

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Gerhard Polifka)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus
Daphne (Vera-Lotte Boecker)

Seen first last year, Romeo Castellucci’s production of Daphne receives its first revival. In one sense, it could hardly be more timely, snow falling outside in wintry landscapes across Berlin and beyond, as it does onstage. Yet that immediately presents a greater untimeliness to the mise-en-scène, for a modern snowscape seems perversely distant from the Thessalian pastoral of Joseph Gregor’s libretto (and Strauss’s imagination). It is beautiful, of course, and with Castellucci, matters aesthetic have a tendency to take on a life, approaching the painterly, of their own. I have heard it said several times that Castellucci has no concept of the dramatic; I think that goes too far in this case, for this is no ‘mere’ installation and a story certainly is told. But the alterity to his aesthetic imagination, to which audiences, perhaps particularly opera audiences, respond very differently, is undeniably present—to my mind, more fruitfully than in, say, his Munich Tannhäuser or even his Salzburg Salome. It may or may not be the story some want to be told – ultimately, I think it remains the same story, albeit from an angle unexpected until one becomes accustomed to its shift – but we certainly have narrative and development as well as setting. 

That setting is one of widespread estrangement from Nature: not, I think, in an especially environmentalist sense, though that need not be excluded, but more existential. In light of that, the conception of the nymph Daphne, according to a programme interview, as ‘a being who withdraws from all social relationships in search of intensive, I should say, (skin-)contact with Nature … a contemporary creature who breaks with her surroundings’, seems central; so is her spiritual, as opposed to political, need to do so. And so, even in the deep snow, it is there she wishes to be. Whilst others, not unreasonably layer their clothing, she sheds much of hers. It is for us a radical break with all we value, social, erotic, and so on—and therein captures the dramatic essence of the work more clearly than one might suspect. The unexpected slant makes clear what that essence and her character are not. 

When Apollo does eventually bring sun to this world it registers powerfully, within its frame. He, after all, is far from entirely at home with himself, having uncomfortably, even shamefully, adopted the methods of Dionysus to ensnare the nymph. But acting in accordance with Nature brings the three key figures, Daphne, Apollo, and Leukippos briefly together, to an extent that would otherwise have been impossible; initial estrangement arguably assists that. I honestly cannot say I understood why the cover of the first edition of The Waste Land descended. It came across a bit too much as ‘referencing’ rather than drama, though I suppose quotation is inherent to the poem, and the act had an aesthetic as well as intellectual presence of its own. I am assuming, I think correctly, that there is greater significance to the invocation of Eliot than simply the scene of a winter waste land. But to return to the snow, one thing one can do with and in it is a favourite act of Castellucci’s: burial. (Another is the blood-like pouring and smearing of red paint over the dying Leukippos, tar-black reserved for Daphne.) Daphne’s transformation takes place both below – soon, we can no longer see her – and above, as the tree present throughout has a sort of apotheosis. There is something magical here, in the simplicity and wonder: ever tied or at least related to Strauss’s inspired orchestral and, eventually, vocalised concluding transformation (very much the composer’s own idea, rejecting Gregor’s idea of a choral finale).


Whilst we naturally – rightly – accord Daphne’s vocalise a key role here, it is actually quite short; for the most part this transformation is orchestral, and Strauss called it an ‘extended orchestral piece’. Here and elsewhere, Thomas Guggeis led the Staatskapelle Berlin with true distinction. From the opening Harmoniemusik throughout the score, the conductor traced an ever-transforming path, perhaps warmer than what we saw on stage, yet rarely heated and never remotely over-heated. This was a reading of subtle mastery, upset at most a couple of times by something intrusive from without—though that is arguably Strauss’s own responsibility. The Goethian metamorphosis that surely underpins Strauss’s method here as strongly and as generatively as in Metamorphosen was painted, indeed lived, as if this were a work far more frequently performed than it is; that is, conductor and orchestra showed deep knowledge and understanding, without loss to a proper sense of discovery and magic. For the orchestral players were at least equal participants in this achievement; I cannot imagine any orchestra, be it in Vienna, Dresden, or elsewhere, sounding more at home and proving a more rewarding guide. 

The cast likewise made an outstanding contribution. In the title role, Vera-Lotte Boecker’s silver glistened, gleamed and blended with her orchestral colleagues, though it could certainly grow into something fuller-voiced, thrillingly so, when called upon. Boecker entered enthusiastically, moreover, into the staging, grasping Castellucci’s at-times-somewhat abstract enigmas and personifying them, enabling one to believe. Like her fellow performers, she played the Straussian role of Music as well as singing or playing its lower-case cousin. To have had not one but two excellent Straussian tenor performances is quite something. Johan Krogius and David Butt Phillip both shone as Leukippos and Apollo respectively: the former offering a properly rounded portrayal, beautifully sung, Daphne’s likeable companion revealing tragic dignity in death; the latter’s rather different journey traced sympathetically and with due mystery. The deep voices of René Pape as Peneios and Anna Kissjudit as Gaea contributed much to the ensemble. Kissjudit may be described as a mezzo, but her chalumeau-like tones revealed, as in her Erda, the ability to sing a true contralto line too. Pape’s tone was similarly luxurious and similarly attentive to words. Shepherds, maids, and chorus were all excellent too. If Castellucci sometimes held the drama at arm’s length, though mirroring and responding it to throughout, that distance and conception of distance arguably enabled the riches of the evening’s orchestral and vocal performances to penetrate audience consciousness the more readily.

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Così fan tutte, Komische Oper, 14 January 2024


Images: Monika Rittershaus

Fiordiligi – Penny Sofraniadou
Dorabella – Susan Zarrabi
Guglielmo – Hubert Zapiór
Ferrando – Caspar Singh
Despina – Alma Sadé
Don Alfonso – Seth Carico
Sempronio – Amer El-Erwadi
Tizio – Goran Jurenec

Director, set and costume designer – Kirill Serebrennikov
Implementation of direction, choreography – Evgeny Kulagin
Staff director (Spielleitung) – Martha Jurowski
Co-costume designer – Tatyana Dolmatovskaya
Assistant set designer – Nikolay Simonov
Dramaturgy – Beate Breidenbach, Maximilian Hagemeyer
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Video – Ilya Shagalov

Choral Soloists of the Komische Oper (director: Jean-Christophe Charron) 
Orchestra of the Komische Oper 
Erina Yashima (conductor)  

There should never be a run-of-the-mill Così fan tutte: Mozart’s most exquisite opera, arguably his profoundest, and perhaps ultimately his greatest. (It is, at any rate, my current favourite, and not only because I heard it last.) This was certainly not it, whether in origin, direction, or performance. Indeed, this staging from Berlin’s Komische Oper is an outstanding achievement in almost every respect, giving one much to think about, much to relish, and much by which to be discomfited. On top of that, it is a long time since I have seen and heard so thoroughly accomplished a cast.


Kirill Serebrennikov’s production was first seen in Zurich in 2018, albeit under highly unusual circumstances stemming from the director’s house arrest. His choreographer and assistant Evgeny Kulagin, here credited with ‘Umsetzung Inszenierung,’ took Serebrennikov’s place in person, passing to Serebrennikov’s lawyer film recordings of what was developing in rehearsal for the director in turn to comment on via video message. Hence the somewhat involved list for the production team, which I thought important to include as a whole and with as clear a translation of terms as I could. Following several extensions to his house arrest, followed by conviction for fraud, probation, dismissal from the Gogol Centre, and bans on travel and leadership of any cultural institution in receipt of government support, Serebrennikov’s suspended sentence was eventually cancelled by another court on account of good behaviour and the travel ban lifted. Having been permitted to travel to Germany in 2022, he was able to direct the Berlin incarnation of the production, of which this is now the first revival. It would be difficult to deny that these circumstances make the production’s achievement all the more impressive; it certainly suggests some truth may yet lie in the double-edged, Romantic adage that adverse circumstances can foster great artistic achievement.    

Onwards, in any case, to the production ‘itself’. It has already begun when one enters the theatre. A horizontally split set (levels 1 and 2) reveals at this stage – it remains, whilst the settings it reveals change over time – two gym settings, male and female, extras working out. Exercise of a different kind, orchestral tuning, provides the accompaniment. The more physical variety onstage continues into the Overture, skipping noises proving something of an aural irritant, albeit a minor issue in the greater scheme of things. Guglielmo and Ferrando arrive, and eventually Don Alfonso, with much stereotypically, indeed performatively masculine behaviour to be observed as the stage is set. It soon becomes clear, though, that whilst Alfonso has some sort of hold over the men at the gym – not only our pair of lovers – he is also a deeply damaged person, broadening and deepening his characterisation from the typical stock-character cynic. This may be connected with war, which looms eerily large for a production conceived in 2017-18; I could not help but wonder whether some changes had been made in light of the invasion of Ukraine, which Serebrennikov publicly opposed. For, when Guglielmo and Ferrando are sent off to combat – it is unusually clear what might be involved, coffins and all, the women in mourning – the military video game whose control Alfonso is trying, indeed struggling, has him shaken, traumatised. Is that merely a metaphor? Perhaps. We may remember Monteverdi’s Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi and any number of other literary and artistic connections and constructions. Revelation of the betrayal or defeat he has suffered in battles of the heart, via a display of text messages, offers further context but does not exclude something darker and deeper still. My sense was of a veteran of both types of conflict—and more.


For when the opposing ‘team’ takes stock, led by Despina, now not a servant but a therapist, she shows Fiordiligi and Dorabella slides of typical male behaviour, especially in the armed forces. What better way to show her patients – the word is actually used in the subtitles, which alternate as faithful translation and guide to the production – what their lovers will really be up to, if they are still alive? Her visual aids pursue a number of lines, some frankly feminist, some more cynical. The therapeutic turn that has informed many of Dmitri Tcherniakov’s more recent productions (e.g. Carmen, Les Troyens, and the Ring; as well, I am told, as his own Così, which I have not seen) is first brought on board but also brought into question. If anyone is perpetrating a hoax here, it is arguably Despina, who also, far from coincidentally, seems the most resilient of the lot.

Clichés that elsewhere have become tired, for instance the use of mobile telephones, both for messages and pictures, are for once used to genuine dramatic ends. This is, after all, how modern communications work—and modern relationships, even sex, too. Nowhere is this clearer, yet also more genuinely complex, than when Guglielmo and Ferrando are replaced by their ‘Albanian’ – in this case, first Arab – counterparts, Sempronio and Tizio, here played by actors (Amar El-Erwadi and Goran Jurenec) whose time at the gym seems to have been still more successful. The ambiguity over whether they are actual, hired replacements – I think they almost certainly are – is such that one can take different views. ‘Different views’, though, may be understood in a different sense, action (of various kinds) being viewed from another level via video link (not necessarily ‘inspired’ by the director’s treatment, but gaining greater meaning nonetheless through that connection) or even ‘in person’ but as ghostly presence, apparently unseen by and indeed deceased for Fiordiligi and Dorabella. There are especially cruel touches, such as thinking all is well, only to hear the lavatory flush from the en suite bathroom: all very much in the spirit of those extraordinary horns of cuckoldry Mozart employs at crucial points in the score. Actual horns are donned by both ‘Albanians’ at one point, suggesting an assumption of quasi-divine status, Dionysus or even Zeus, enabling and initiating congress and conquest. 

For men now are as objectified as women. As a gay man, Serebrennikov will know this all too well, but so do many younger heterosexual men too. This remains a heterosexual opera on the most fundamental level, without say the step into overt lesbianism taken by Stefan Herheim in his reimagination of Die Entführung aus dem Serail as an exploration of love between and beyond the sexes. On the other hand, the bodies of all concerned, but especially Sempronio and Tizio, are so resolutely in the gaze of us all that boundaries blur and dissolve whether we like it or not—and the implication would be that most, perhaps all, of us do. We are all actors, playing roles here, Ferrando explicitly in assuming the metatheatrical, ambiguous with respect to diegetic status, role of ‘a singer’ in ‘Un’aura amoroso’, ‘credited’ at its close by Don Alfonso. That extends, moreover, to gender roles, surely a tribute to the much-maligned yet ever-relevant Judith Butler. It ultimately comes as no surprise, perhaps even as a strangely satisfying fulfilment, that the title scrawled at the back by Don Alfonso is corrected to ‘Così fan tutti,’ tellingly ‘girlish’ hearts atop the ‘i's a further turn of the dialectical gender-screw (as it were).


And yet, this remains a deeply disillusioning experience for all, the modern anomie of what are either hotel rooms or a modern apartment so fashionable it might as well be, not the least of the bridges constructed between deeper meanings to be drawn from Mozart (to a lesser extent, Da Ponte too) and Serebrennikov’s conception. Both women have incomplete, neon-lit crucifixes above their beds: probably only a ‘design feature’, but extending into something more in Fiordiligi’s case, allied to her little shrine (to what, though?) assembled for ‘Per pietà’, when she drags it across the floor, failing twice to maintain the electric connection. For Mozart, these parodies of opera seria have a message that is, among other things, deeply theological; that may or may not be the case here, but it is certainly not to be excluded. This is, after all, a Passion of Passion to rival – to my mind, even to surpass – Tristan und Isolde.

Credit should again be accorded the company’s extras (Komparserie) who had much to do throughout and did it well, not least dressing the two brides in full traditional Russian wedding dress – they might almost have been auditioning for Les Noces – only to have to undress them once again in acts of inflation, deflation, and revelation. In a brilliant coup de théâtre, we turn suddenly to an interpolated musical reminiscence – or premonition – of Don Giovanni’s Stone Guest Scene. The Albanians, seizing hold like twin Commendatores of ‘their’ women’s hands, may be standing in judgement over them or may simply be trying to keep them. It is a disruption that can doubtless only be visited once, unique to this production, but a highly productive one, reminding us that even in the most hedonistic, secular, ‘sex-positive’ society, the question of sin, of remoteness from the divine, does not disappear, far from it; we simply pretend it has and mistake euphemism for theodicy. As desolate as ever, probably more so, the characters attempting to draw some sort of lesson from events that have shattered their world seem quite unaware that, on the level above, an actual fire has begun to blaze. Narcissism, after all, is not the least of our contemporary sins—and/or ailments. 

All this, or most of it, would go for little, were it not brought to life by fine performances. This it certainly received. I can honestly find nothing of any importance to which to object, and much to praise. If I write less about them on this occasion, it is not because I consider them less important; for one thing, they are not to be extracted from what has been said above, but rather very much part of it. In any case, Penny Sofraniadou and Susan Zarrabi portrayed, from the outset, properly distinguished Fiordiligi and Dorabella, clean of line, if hardly of deeper intention. Both drew on varied palettes of vocal colour that could blend where dramatically and musically necessary, without loss to identities that shifted yet never merged. Much the same could be said – and this is Mozart’s laboratory of musical quasi-geometry at work, as well as their artistry – of the Ferrando and Guglielmo of Hubert Zapiór and Caspar Singh. Equally adept as actors and singers, their exploration of wounded masculinities was every bit as revealing as that of Seth Carico’s uniquely subtle Don Alfonso. Ferrando, as usual, had two rather than his full three arias: a pity but not the end of the world. Alma Sadé’s Despina likewise not only acquired new depth as Despina, but contributed that greater range. (And what a relief it was, for once, not to have to endure the usual ‘silly voices’.)


Erina Yashima’s direction of the orchestra proved similarly impeccable. Hers was not the sort of deeply personal reading that leads one to speak of a particular standpoint, ‘Böhm’s Così or ‘Muti’s’; but it performed a different, more readily theatrical function, near-faultless in its incitement, mirroring, and at times questioning of the action onstage. That I barely noticed her tempi as such speaks for itself: there was a ‘rightness’ in context that could not be gainsaid. Nor could the excellence of the orchestral playing in a score in which any false move, any slight infelicity of intonation or phrasing, will stand out like a sore thumb. The Komische Oper may be known primarily for its emphasis on theatre, but that should not mean the orchestra matters less, rather that it is part and parcel of the action. At any rate, so it sounded here. They may not have been singing, but our ‘Albanian’ actors Amar El-Erwadi and Goran Jurenec also contributed greatly to the action and its ultimate achievement. If, as I suggested earlier, the production was able even to reinvigorate well-worn directorial clichés with new meaning, I may as well offer as my own ‘a true ensemble performance’. Do not take my word for it, though: if possible, try to see and hear this Così for yourself. It has, for whatever this may be worth, my highest recommendation.

Antikrist, Deutsche Oper, 13 January 2024

Lucifer, A Voice – Thomas Lehman
God’s Voice – Jonas Grundner-Culemann
The Echo of the Air of Mystery – Valeriia Savinskaia
The Air of Mystery – Irene Roberts
The Mouth speaking Great Words – Clemens Bieber
Despondency – Maire Therese Carmack
The Great Whore – Flurina Stucki
The Scarlet Beast – AJ Glueckert
The Lie – Kieran Carrel
Hatred – Philipp Jekal

Dancers – Ashley Wright, Giorgia Bovo, Ana Dordevic, Sakura Inoue, Vasna Felicia Aguilar, Yuri Shimaoka, Joel Donald Small, Shih-Ping Lin, György Jellinek, Miguel Angel Collado

Director, set designs – Ersan Mondtag
Revival director – Silke Sense
Costumes – Ersan Mondtag, Annika Lu Hermann
Lighting – Rainer Casper
Choreography – Rob Fordeyn
Dramaturgy – Lara Gebhardt, Carolin Müller-Dohle

Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin (chorus director: Jeremy Bines) 
Opera-Ballet and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin
Hermann Bäumer (conductor)

ANTIKRIST, Regie: Ersan Mondtag, Premiere 30. Januar 2022 Deutsche Oper Berlin,
copyright: Thomas Aurin

Rued Langgaard’s ‘church opera’ Antikrist is a strange beast. The opera’s first staging was in 1999 at Innsbruck. This, its fourth ever, was due to premiere in 2020, but was delayed for two years on account of the pandemic. I was rather surprised to see a revival at all, let alone a revival with almost no empty seats and an audience so warmly enthusiastic. Limiting this season’s appearances to two, of which this was the first, seems to have been a canny move. I wish I could have shared the audience’s enthusiasm; instead, the work left me bewildered, although the performances seemed excellent.

There are arguments for and against doing one’s homework before experiencing a musical work for the first time. On this occasion, I did not, wanting to be surprised and to approach what I heard with as few preconceptions as I could. Surprised I certainly was, above all by an opera seemingly without plot, by a treatment of the apocalypse somehow devoid of dramatic interest. What we hear at the Deutsche Oper – and what, it seems, is always heard – is a revised version, from 1926-30. I am tempted to say goodness knows what the original (1921-3) was like, given (from what I read) the libretto was completely rewritten and yet still emerged almost comically unsuited to music, let alone drama, let alone both; yet it seems that the first version may have had a little more in terms of plot. At any rate, Langgaard’s own libretto was the determining factor both times in the Royal Danish Theatre’s rejection of the work, and it would be difficult, unless one were a Langgaard cultist (perhaps there are such people), to argue against that verdict. Not, I hasten to add, that the score proved especially convincing.

What we have, here given in a German translation by Inger and Walther Methlagl amounts to little more than a number of largely unidentified figures – I established that one was the Whore of Babylon and one the Antichrist, and suspected one might be Lucifer, but beyond that was lost – denouncing the lost state of the modern world until an almost literal deus ex machina puts things right. It was not at all clear to me, though this seems to have been the fault of my slowness, from what standpoint this was being presented. Part of me hoped a Nietzschean turn might be taken, but it seems ultimately that Langgaard – I assume his ‘voice’ was presented here as God’s – found all around him filth and depravity and wished to tell us so at great length (just over ninety minutes, but it felt longer). It was as if the ranting of a deranged street preacher were less transformed than converted, editing kept to the bare minimum, into a libretto that somehow must then be set to music. It takes all sorts, I suppose, and there is no intrinsic reason why a reactionary message, perhaps especially one so bizarre as this, should not prove fodder for drama; the problem is more that it does not. Perhaps some find a ‘rejection’ not only of plot, not only of characterisation, but also of drama itself. Again, there is no reason opera should not be postdramatic; much of it is and has been, even avant la lettre. What Langgaard presents, though, seems more incompetent than a positive choice or an aesthetic. 

Might the ‘opera’ have been better off as an oratorio? Perhaps, although it would surely still have required major surgery, even a transplant or two. For there is little redemption to be found in the music either. If you like the sound of Wagner and Strauss, but find their musical arguments difficult to follow, perhaps the music ‘itself’ will appeal. Here, phrases uncomfortably close to counterparts in Wagner dramas – all from at least Das Rheingold onwards – are served up randomly with little to connect them, and much the same is done with or to Strauss. Some might call it a collage effect; I could not help but think Langgaard would have been unlikely to survive a Turnitin inspection. There are, to be fair, more promising, even modernistic passages, especially when he writes purely orchestrally. (It is, by the way, difficult to discern much sympathy for the human voice.) Hints – again, arguably more than that – of Hindemith seem more amenable to something approaching sustained musical development, but ultimately they do not lead anywhere. Maybe that is the point, although I fear I may be clutching at straws. 

What I can say is that the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, conducted by Hermann Bäumer, played with evident conviction and even pleasure, making as strong a case for the score as is likely to be heard. The chorus, as ever well trained by Jeremy Bines, did likewise, as did the cast. Since neither work nor production gave much in the way of clues as to who anyone was, I shall limit myself to singling out some wonderful singing from Flurina Stucki as ‘The Great Whore’. The other soloists were excellent too, though, as were the dancers, even if some of the choreography – especially that without music, at the beginning – proved more puzzling than revealing. In that respect, one might say it suited the work. 

Ersan Mondtag’s production certainly looked good. (The set designs were his too, and he had at least a hand in the costume design.) To me it looked as if Achim Freyer were directing a sequel to La bohème. I am not sure a modern-ish street inhabited by clowns was actually intended as a wry commentary on Langgaard’s claptrap, but to an extent it could be taken as such. What was intended by a car suddenly falling from the sky or the similar aerial suspension of a large figure of a male God with vulva I have no idea, but they gave us something to look at, as did  detailed direction of members of cast and chorus. I can only applaud the Deutsche Oper’s courage in granting us a rare opportunity to assess this work for ourselves with such excellent performers. That said, I cannot imagine wishing to do so again.