Tuesday 21 May 2024

Götterdämmerung, Deutsche Oper, 20 May 2024

Images: Bernd Uhlig (from 2021 premiere, with a considerably different cast)
Hagen (Albert Pesendorfer)

Siegfried - Clay Hilley
Brünnhilde – Ricarda Merbeth
Hagen – Albert Pesendorfer
Gunther – Thomas Lehman
Gutrune, Third Norn – Felicia Moore
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Waltraute – Annika Schlicht
First Norn, Floßhilde – Lindsay Ammann
Second Norn, Wellgunde – Karis Tucker
Woglinde – Lee-ann Dunbar

Director – Stefan Herheim
Revival directors – Eva-Maria Abelein, Silke Sense
Set designs – Stefan Herheim, Silke Bauer
Costumes – Uta Heiseke
Video – Torge Møller
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf

Chorus and Additional Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus director: Jeremy Bines)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Nicholas Carter (conductor)

All things, good, bad, and indifferent, must come to an end; or must they? The idea that Wagner’s Ring is cyclical is widespread – many routinely refer to attending a ‘cycle’ – but it is at least open to criticism. More on that later, but this Deutsche Oper Ring has certainly come to an end with performances of great distinction, perhaps the most uniformly well cast I have ever seen, and with astonishing conducting from Nicholas Carter, certainly the best I have heard since Daniel Barenboim in 2013. Not, of course, to forget the superlative playing given throughout by the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, showing itself once again to be the match of any (Wagner) orchestra in the world, the Staatskapelle across town included. No Ring would be anything at all without Wagner’s reimagined Greek Chorus, leading, commenting, questioning, seducing, thrilling, and chilling; this one, as translucent as it was darkly malevolent, as weighty as it was agile, did all that and more. Only now, in the final instalment, it was joined by Wagner’s actual chorus, those of the Deutsche Oper as seemingly always excelling not only vocally but as dramatic participants onstage. 

A Ring in the theatre is, of course, its production too; this marked the end of Stefan Herheim’s memorable staging. No Ring is perfect: it is not, should never be, that sort of work. It is too big, too unmanageable, too much a ‘world’ for that. This has contributed much, though, not least from its insistence on Wagner’s ‘three days with preliminary evening’ as a musically driven drama that navigates between the concerns of an ongoing rite and something explicitly contemporary. In that, at its best, it has penetrated to Wagner’s own mythological practice, doing what it has shown and what it has suggested to us. If the final scene of Siegfried proved for me a rare disappointment, it also gained from what happened next—though I still think it would have benefited from heightened attention to the drama of Siegfried and Brünnhilde and less to the crowd of copulating extras around them. Here, though, at the onset of the Prologue to Götterdämmerung, the generational shift (which has already, strictly, been accomplished) is accompanied by a scenic one; or rather, the action passes between two basic settings throughout, the old one of the rehearsal room and piano, and the new one of the Deutsche Oper itself. 

We probably should not make too much of a distinction, or maybe we should, between actors and chorus. Perhaps some have gone on to be audience members, whilst some continue in their movement and ‘extra’ roles. The more important thing, I think, is that two related worlds less collide than interact. There is, after all, little point in telling a story if no one is there to listen. In any case, the actors surround blindfolded Norns (echoing the state at one point of the treble Woodbird), choreographically heightening the drama just as they did to form the Rhine in the first scene of Das Rheingold—and just as they will in the final scene of Götterdämmerung to form the fire, aided by striking red lighting. Again, some of the most powerful effects are the simplest and, as Wagner put it, the most ‘purely human’. Meyerbeer’s ‘effects without cause’ are neither his business nor ours, whatever the (exaggerated) claims that have been made for the elder composer’s influence on this drama. A degree of grand opéra, yes, but other composers in that genre, the creator of Rienzi included, loom larger, which is not to say that a blazing account of the second act trio – courtesy of the orchestra, Carter, Ricarda Merbeth, Albert Pesendorfer, and Thomas Lehman did not thrill – for it very much did. 

Back for now, though, to Herheim. (In a sense, the distinction is false, albeit necessary to say anything at all.) The theatrical ‘business’ of dressing up continues to loom large, enabling characters to become – perhaps even to leave behind – ‘themselves’, as well as actors to become characters. White sheets become improbably large wedding dresses for Brünnhilde and Gutrune, their entanglements, their allure, and their physical dangers offering visual metaphors aplenty. Rhinemaidens, in losing their external trappings, become Norn-like, hieratic, in their warnings to Siegfried, Carter’s quasi-liturgical handling of the score both reflecting and leading that. Hagen assumes Siegfried’s heroic costume, whereas Siegfried fatally loses his. Gunther is likewise transformed from initial silliness (not a criticism, but rather a commendation of Lehman’s alert performance) into something more. The white tie of an ‘artist’ is the key, or at least it seems to be, as it is for Siegfried’s transformation (as well, undoubtedly, as whatever it is Hagen slips into his drink). Their scene on Brünnhilde’s rock is very well handled, both initially equals, sharing the lines, before Gunther fails and Siegfried must take over ‘as’ Gunther—before, of course, returning to the Gibichung Hall, where the sleep into which he keeps falling (Hagen’s doing?) overcomes him. It seems also to overwhelm during his final scene, staggering about, not ‘himself’—until he can finally become himself at his death, fully in keeping with Wagner. 

Gunther (Thomas Lehman), Siegfried (Clay Hilley)

In the meantime, Hagen’s departure into the audience for his watch proves, with further Brechtian use of house lights at critical moments, a telling and striking coup de théâtre. First he finds Waltraute there, his intimidation a prod to the mission she undertakes to her sister. Then he conducts the dialogue with Alberich from there, his father on stage, Siegfried sleeping. Alberich’s presence as clown of death, spying the action, even trying to force the ring from the sleeping Siegfried’s hand, visually informs not only his son’s appearance but that of zombie guests to the abortive weddings. As we hear the Nibelung and his ring musically envelop the action, so does he colour the participants too. Not for nothing does he manically play the piano at the end of the first act and resume his performance at the beginning of the second. His longtime antagonist appears too, actors assembling to show, first during Waltraute’s narration and on occasion thereafter, Valhalla’s throng of gods and heroes, a weary Walvater finally descending to the piano to receive Brünnhilde’s ultimate judgement. 

Before (re-)turning to the close, I should add a little about the vocal performances. Merbeth combined the headstrong virtues of her Walküre Brünnhilde and the lyrical ones of her Siegfried performance into a memorable assumption of her role. Clay Hilley again proved tireless – as tireless as a Siegfried can ever really be – and committed as the doomed hero. Pesendorfer and Jordan Shanahan’s Hagen and Alberich cast spells both dark and magical through voice and stage presence alike. Lehman’s Gunther and Felicia Moore’s warmly sympathetic Gutrune captured the difficult, sometimes thankless essence of their characters, always alert to the particular demands of the staging. Annika Schlicht’s chalumeau-like Waltraute was as much of a vocal and dramatic joy as her Fricka. Norns and Rhinemaidens were uniformly excellent. This was, I am delighted to reiterate, at least the equal of any Ring I have heard in uniform excellence of casting, and perhaps more than that. There may have been starrier casts; there may have been individual performances ‘bettered’ in one way or another, for there always will be. Yet across the board, the Deutsche Oper’s strong sense of company will take some beating. 

Following departure of all from the stage and a splendidly oracular image summoning up memories of Delphi, but also of Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez revelling in Wagner’s own revisiting its prophetic indeterminacy, we return to where we began: rehearsal room with lights, emergency exit, and piano, no sign of suitcases, refugees, or anyone/-thing else we have seen in between. A cleaner (with a hint of Erda to her?) comes to check all is as it should be. All has been washed away, or has it? Others will doubtless come along to stage the work again. The question remains whether they will have learned anything. For Wagner’s ‘watchers’, those ‘men and women moved to the very depths of their being’ were all along intended to imply this was not entirely a return, that consciousness had been created or raised. The Ring ends not in E-flat-major, but in D-flat, the key of Valhalla. Over, then, to those who have made it, us included. Only, given the achievements to date of ‘human consciousness’, who would bet against catastrophic repetition?

Monday 20 May 2024

BPO/Roth - Žuraj and Bruckner, 19 May 2024


Vito Žuraj: Anemoi
Bruckner: Symphony no.3 in D minor (first version, 1873)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)


Image: Monika Rittershaus

What to do on the evening between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung? Saner souls might take a night off. Yours truly opted for the light relief of heading to the Philharmonie in a new work by Vito Žuraj and Bruckner’s Third Symphony, in performances from the Berlin Philharmonic and François-Xavier Roth. I am glad I did so too, for those performances were excellent, introducing an excellent new work for large orchestra, commissioned by that orchestra, in only its second performance (the first having taken place the night before), alongside a reassessment of a (to me) flawed repertoire work that made more sense of it than any other I have heard. 

Žuraj’s Anemoi takes its name and inspiration from the Greek wind gods, children of the dawn goddess Eos and the god of dusk, Astraeus. Over its roughly twenty-five minutes, what is effectively a modern tone-poem introduced us to these gods as winds: less, I think, their effect (though we felt that) as the winds themselves. It offered a master-class in use of every section of the orchestra, various combinations of instruments employed as if this were a concerto for orchestra, or perhaps a concerto grosso, unfurling power all the greater when they came together in a storm, gods at work in their usual battling. It felt almost as if we were the land, receiving due battering—and less often, due benefit (closing raindrops a case in point). Sheer busy-ness of trumpets in one section, multiple uses to which trombones might be put, lyra sounds such as I had never heard from the harp, and evocation of the aulos in the opening, microtonally fracturing unison of oboes, cor anglaise included: these and more were impressive in themselves, but more importantly conveyed a narrative of melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, counterpoint, and more. Fantastically assured, it was no mere ‘showpiece’. Roth’s precision and that of the orchestra were, properly, means to an ‘expressive’ end, not ends in themselves. 

I had more or less given up on Bruckner’s Third Symphony, whichever version it was presented in. Roth’s direction had me hooked from the truly misterioso opening of the first movement, solo trumpet and strangely translucent orchestra drawing one in. There was certainly all the orchestral depth one could wish for when called for; traditional orchestral ‘choirs’ were likewise present and correct. Nothing, though, was taken for granted. This felt like an exciting exploration, Mendelssohn and even Berlioz (perhaps via Liszt and Bruckner) behind, another world in front. If, sceptic that I partly remain, I do not always find the first movement material especially memorable, harmonically and even melodically, its presentation made good, even logical sense. And if I wished that Bruckner, however anachronistically, might have learned a little from Žuraj’s or even Wagner’s more varied use of brass, there was no doubting the excellence of the playing. A songful meeting of Schubert and Wagner – Tristan and Tannhäuser in particular – characterised the second movement, whose compelling performance had me almost forget its occasional melodic awkwardness. 

Roth’s tempo for Bruckner’s scherzo proved a revelation. A faster pace again suggested roots in Mendelssohn. Of course, the latter composer rightly remained some way off; this is hardly fairy-land. But kinship was apparent and convincing. The trio’s good humour and grace were welcome; taken like this, there was never a suspicion of lumbering. With that in mind, the proportional tempo adopted for the beginning of the finale made excellent musical and dramatic sense. I confess to having failed – still – to comprehend the logic of where Bruckner takes us next. Perhaps I am still guilty of listening to this too much as if it were Brahms, and of holding it responsible for being something it does not aspire to be. Nonetheless, this excellent performance made me hear the score as never before, even revealing Bruckner who can dance rather than stomp. It also made me all the keener to hear Roth conduct Wagner.


Siegfried, Deutsche Oper, 18 May 2024

Images: Bernd Uhlig (from 2021 premiere)
The Wanderer (Iain Paterson) and Alberich (Jordan Shanahan)

Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Mime – Ya-Chung Huang
The Wanderer – Iain Paterson
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Fafner – Tobias Kehrer
Woodbird – Nicolas Schröer
Erda – Lindsay Ammann
Brünnhilde – Ricarda Merbeth

Director – Stefan Herheim
Revival director – Philine Tiezel
Set designs – Stefan Herheim, Silke Bauer
Costumes – Uta Heiseke
Video – Torge Møller
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf

Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Nicholas Carter (conductor)

Mime (Ya-Chung Huang)

Emblems of the refugees’ arrival but also perhaps of impending departure, suitcases once again form and delimit the set, the rehearsal piano at their centre once again omnipresent. Wagner’s life and work becomes their own, our own. It certainly has mine since I first fell under its spell, and despite occasional attempts to escape – or at least to take a break – it never works. This Deutsche Oper Ring is not helping in that vain attempt, a somewhat disappointing third act notwithstanding. 

A Ring mystery is what its ring actually does, what its powers actually are. They certainly do not tally with what the characters tell us about it. Must one in some sense believe? Is it a form of theology, as Wagner, keen student of Feuerbach, might understand it? Probably. At any rate, it notably does Alberich’s bidding at the start, its yellow light focused at the piano, opening its lid, and thus initiating the Bühnenfestspiel’s ‘second day’. He and Wotan, Schwarz-Alberich and Licht-Alberich, as Wotan-as-Wanderer will call them, watch and wander from the start. They are not always present, yet often they are. Tellingly, the Wanderer watches the whole first scene from above, and Alberich appears, to Mime’s anger, during the second. (Perhaps, again, his brother might actually have been able to help him, like Siegfried, like the Wanderer, but the clever craftsman does not want to know.)  Their final confrontation, at least onstage, in the first scene of the second act attains a tragic magnificence and import such as rarely, if ever, have I encountered. That again, is surely in part Nicholas Carter’s doing, proportions of the act as a whole seemingly reconsidered, so that, like the final act of Die Walküre, thoughts of lopsidedness – the so-called ‘Forest Murmurs’ often overstay their welcome, but not here – never materialise. It is also surely that of Stefan Herheim’s staging; the two, along with vocal-dramatic performances proceed together, more or less indivisible (although for the purposes of writing, one must start somewhere). The two figures are, of course, themselves refugees here: they have stepped forward, assumed roles; yet, like the boys in Lord of the Flies, however changed, they must also remain who they were, albeit within a different, often Brechtian framework of storytelling. 

SIegfried (Clay Hilley), Brünnhilde (here Nina Stemme)

Music continues to play its stage role. Where Alberich, in a sense, founded his enterprise on an instrument he had found, or perhaps brought with him, Mime has expanded his endeavours into a brass workshop, where instruments hang from the ceiling. It is a slightly odd assortment and that, presumably, is the point. Mime is not an ‘artist’, but a ‘craftsman’; Wagner always upheld that Romantic distinction, which directly colours his creation of Mime and Siegfried. An artist would doubtless have brought in some other instruments. Incapable of moving beyond his narrow, technical purview, Mime continues to do the same thing—as, of course, he does in attempts to reforge the sword. Not for nothing in Herheim’s cunning elision of Wagner and Mime (here, for better or worse, in striped top) is the ‘Wagner tuba’ a key exhibit. Dubious tendencies from Wagner reception –much as we might wish, we cannot always simply ignore them – resurface. Mime’s dwarf-like quality and large head surely offer a nod to strange claims made concerning Wagner’s height and (worse still) physiognomy. Nietzsche would have laughed; the Wanderer does. 

The craftsman’s resourcefulness is important, though, at least if it may be harnessed to something more. It is possible, at least for Siegfried, to have bellows created from what is available, in a splendid nod to the original steam technologies of Bayreuth. Fafner also emerges from the suitcases and instruments too, brass teeth fairly gleaming, basic sheet props and colourful lighting again working their wonders for the rest of his maw. For lighting (Ulrich Niepel) can accomplish so much, simply yet starkly, as in Mime’s silhouette of brief power, or its prospect, when he holds the Wanderer’s spear. A vision of the world, which Mime, like Alberich still would ‘win’, is unfurled, again using what has emerged from the refugees’ possessions. 

Siegfried and Mime

It is a pity, perhaps, that Siegfried’s appearance – notably, like that of his father – is so ‘historically’ bound as (to us) to seem ridiculous, but that is surely deliberate, the flaws of ‘heroism’ present from the beginning. A striking innovation, though, is the return of Siegmund and Sieglinde in a Hänsel und Gretel-like ‘Dream Pantomime’. Siegmund may have rejected the immortality of Valhalla, but there are other ways to return, to guide (such as Mime never could). That the Woodbird, an excellent boy treble (Nicolas Schröer) emanates from this world – a very junge Siegfried, if you will – makes a significant contribution to the psychoanalytical framework. So too does the dragon’s blood in which he becomes mired and the pitching of appearance somewhere between clown (picking up from Das Rheingold) and (from Die Walküre) zombie, a disconcerting contrast with fresh youthfulness of voice. 

Carter seemed to offer a presentiment in the first act, which (rather than vice versa) on one occasion seemed very much to approach Humperdinck’s score. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it struck me at the time and before I knew what was to come on stage. His direction of the once-again outstanding Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper remained deeply and consistently impressive, both tied to and leading the action onstage. So too did the cast’s performances. Iain Paterson proved a typically thoughtful Wotan, Jordan Shanahan making a welcome return as an ambiguous clown-Alberich, readable and ‘relatable’ on multiple levels, without forsaking the destructive impulse at his core. 

Siegfried and Mime

Ya-Chung Huang’s Mime was, quite simply, one of the best I have seen and heard, turning the Siegfried-Mime axis into a true battle of very different tenors, for which Clay Hilley’s tireless Siegfried should also receive due credit. Both learn to conduct, as to play the piano, to lead musically and seemingly according to the score, but do they bring it to life? That requires the return of the refugees—and discarding of the old (Walküre) score. Huang’s ability, doubtless enhanced yet only enhanced by make-up and costume, to play his role as if Mime were a puppet-clown, grotesque yet also human, captured so much of the role, its uncomfortable aspects included. Above all, it reminded us of Wagner’s great achievement in showing us, as the late, greatly lamented Michael Tanner pointed out, the sheer misery that it is to be Mime. Tobias Kehrer continued and extended his excellent work as Fafner, that extraordinary last gasp of recognition – ‘Siegfried!’ – given its proper, prophetic, yet chilling worth. I assume his return to ‘life’, or whatever it was, was as much a recognition of the underlying Brechtian ideas as it was of his acquiring zombie-status, though perhaps it was both. The Woodbird’s frustrated waving him away, getting in the way of the story, was a nice touch, but I did wonder whether it might have been better all round not to present the problem in the first place. 

The Woodbird, Siegfried

What, then, of the third act? Musically, again, there was much to admire, though even in that respect – and perhaps more on account of inextricable connection with stage action than any actual flaws – it held my attention less. There was certainly nothing to complain about in Lindsay Ammann’s return as Erda, beautifully sung and enunciated, the character, now more dishevelled, awakened from her sleep and emerging once again from the prompter’s box. Ricarda Merbeth’s surprise return, in place of the previously advertised Elisabeth Teige, as Brünnhilde will have disappointed no one either. Her radiant performance, quite an achievement given its notorious demands so late in the evening, was quite the tonic, insofar as one could avoid distraction, from the events around her. For whilst I can rationalise Herheim’s decisions here, for the first time I felt rather less than convinced. 

The first two scenes go mostly as they ‘should’. No harm in that, quite the contrary, and the third seems nicely set up by the now apparently proficient Siegfried summoning Brünnhilde’s mountain and fire from the piano. Unless, though, I was missing something – it would not be the first time – there is not much more to it then return of the refugees, their ‘identification’, first among straightforward traditional gender lines, with Siegfried and Brünnhilde, then, taught by the score (whose ubiquity becomes more than a little tedious) and, presumably, also by what the two principal characters sing, turning more fluid in orientation and staging an orgy around them. It is all very well done, to the extent of unfortunate distraction from the two singers, ‘parked and barking’. Again, I assume that to be the point, yet it ultimately seemed to me misguided. I doubt this was an attempt to hold up Wagner’s drama as insufficient, or intolerably Romantic. Frank Castorf did so in his Walküre and it proved the weakest part of his Ring. Yet Castorf arguably proved most compelling here in Siegfried, when his conception found itself guided by the weight of Wagner’s drama, even perhaps by a mediated version of its Romanticism. Is a basic Brechtian point about storytelling, ‘enhanced’ by young people in white underwear doing their thing, enough? There are plenty of places one might go in Berlin to see the real thing, if that is what one is after. 

It might be tempting to see this ‘problem’, if problem it be, as mirroring Wagner’s own in completing the Ring. After all, it was at precisely the same place, the end of the second act, that he ceased his compositional work on it for twelve years. Turning instead to Tristan and Die Meistersinger, he wrote to Liszt that he had ‘led my young Siegfried into the beautiful forest solitude; there I have left him beneath a linden tree … he is better there than anywhere else. – If I am ever to take up this work again, it must either be made easier for me, or else I myself must in the meantime make it possible to bestow this work on the world in the fullest sense of the word.’ Yet when Wagner did return to his Siegfried, to the linden tree, or rather to the scene that followed in which all is both changed and resolved, it was still more under the spell of Schopenhauer and his musical aesthetics (as well as his broader philosophy). That, really, should have been right up Herheim’s street. I shall happily eat my words if all becomes clear in Götterdämmerung; for now, however, I register my first note of dissent. 

Saturday 18 May 2024

Karajan-Akademie/Petrenko - Mendelssohn and Widmann, 17 May 2024


Mendelssohn: String Octet in E-flat major, op.20
Widmann: Quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano
Mendelssohn: Symphony no.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’

Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Karajan-Akademie, founded on the initiative of the man himself in 1972, is perhaps the ultimate in orchestral scholarships. Its graduates are to be found in orchestras across the world. On the basis of this evening concert whose second part was conducted by Karajan’s successor but two, Kirill Petrenko, it would seem unwise to bet against that continuing. Any good orchestra will excel in chamber music playing too. The first part of the concert, offering a work for strings by Mendelssohn and one for wind and piano by Jörg Widmann confirmed much to admire in that respect as well.

Mendelssohn’s music nearly always lifts the spirits—unless played poorly (which does not bear thinking about). The Karajan-Akademie’s Octet offered no exception. From the off, the first movement had a sense of rightness that implied spontaneity, yet doubtless entailed much preparation. Tempo, balance, poise, and sheer élan characterised the performance that mirrored Mendelssohn’s own extraordinary combination of youth and maturity. Counterpoint was vividly present without congestion of textures. Not that sterner passages, for instance in the development, were undersold. The melancholy of exhaustion and its differentiation told its own tale, as did the revival of spirits for the return. Above all, it made me smile. If Beethoven’s inheritance was not absent in the first movement, it was immediately more apparent in the second. A keen architectural grasp was combined with moral seriousness and due sense of the sublime (without a hint of pomposity). The featherlight, fairytale fantasy of a Mendelssohn scherzo held no fears for these players; their relish proved properly infections. They stepped forward and blended in ensemble like musical actors in a play (A Midsummer Night’s Dream only just round the corner). Beethoven’s influence, worn ever so lightly, also characterised a finale of vigour, rigour, and release, which seemed to delight in the very essence of music. The players’ delight both in their performance and the warmth of its reception were palpable, and rightly so.   

Next came Widmann’s Quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano, a 2006 commission from the Karajan-Akademie. The combination of piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon has as its most celebrated, unmatchable example that of Mozart, although Beethoven’s early work is a fine example too. Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, op.26, and Suite, op.29 between them contain the instruments, though neither of course matches directly. It was Schoenberg’s music and perhaps also that of his alleged antipode, Stravinsky, that seemed more to haunt on this occasion, for who would dare follow Mozart’s KV 452 directly? Widmann claims to have done so, but that was not so apparent to me, and more to the point, seemed to matter. His longstanding – even then, as the recipient of the Akademie’s Claudio Abbado Composition Prize – preoccupation with German Romanticism registered strongly: not only in its Second Viennese School culmination, but also in Schumannesque (at one remove) piano writing. There was humour; there were what once we might have called ‘extended techniques’; and there was a ‘lost waltz’ that seemed to have strayed from the Vienna of Schoenberg and Berg (perhaps the Wozzeck tavern). Eighteen miniature movements in not much more than twenty minutes offered a vivid, youthful conspectus that again seemed just the thing for outstanding young performers. They seemed to enjoy it too. Piano was exchanged for celesta in the final movement, ‘Flugtraum’, casting a spell of enchantment not only over what had gone before, but also over what was to come.

Petrenko joined a full chamber orchestra (strings for the return of Mendelssohn in his Italian Symphony. Lessons of chamber-musicmaking seemed very much to have been learned, both for the players in their listening and sheer responsiveness, and also for the conductor, who in his wisdom – again, one could also see and hear his enjoyment – knew precisely when and when not to conduct. If one could hear, even in the excellent acoustic of the Kammermusiksaal, this was not an especially large string section, that did not matter in the slightest: it was different, neither better nor worse, and balance with wind was impeccable throughout. The first movement got off to a fine start, as well-judged as the Octet. Fine clarinet solos deserve special mention, though there was nothing approaching a weaker link. Petrenko likewise shaped the second movement well, crucially without giving much impression of doing so. His task was to draw out the musicianship of his players, a task accomplished to a tee. Line persisted, however much the scenery changed: the procession, after all, never stops. The Minuet again gained much from the sense of chamber playing writ large; it is not the only way, of course, but it worked well. Its trio seemed all the more to breathe the air of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Presto Saltarello danced on hot coals, infectious and cathartic as a summer night’s fever. Mendelssohn at last seemed to have turned bad; perhaps it was so, if only in the moment.

Friday 17 May 2024

Kozhukhin - Widmann, Schubert, Ligeti, and Liszt, 16 May 2024

Pierre Boulez Saal

Widmann: Idyll and Abgrund (Six Schubert Reminiscences for piano)
Schubert: Piano Sonata in G major, D 894
Ligeti: Études, no.13: ‘L’Escalier du diable’
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S 178

Denis Kozhukhin (piano)

With this intelligently programmed and performed recital, Denis Kozhukhin reminded us what an interesting musician he is. Both halves presented a major piano sonata – two of the most celebrated and, in different ways, difficult in the repertoire – preceded by a more recent work either, in the first case, paying explicit reference to the earlier composer or, in the latter, holding something diabolically transcendental in common. 

Jörg Widmann’s 2009 Idyll and Abgrund, subtitled Six Schubert Reminiscences for piano, opened the programme. If its first ‘reminiscence’ certainly had melodic roots in Schubert, its harmonic world initially seemed closer to late Liszt, before heading in another direction altogether, heavy dissonant interventions in the treble sounding oddly like Schnittke. That composer also came to mind in the mode of expression of the second, though Schubert and indeed Brahms, as well as a more general (typically for the composer) relationship to German musical Romanticism were present. There were here and throughout so many ghosts that I cannot remember them all, and am not sure it would be helpful to list them even if I could. A charming waltz began, only to be partially obscured, yet soon returned to go a little haywire, pianist’s whistle and all. Kozhukhin offered a fine lilt, always idiomatic without sentimentality. There were starker passages. And surely that was Schubert’s final piano sonata I heard in the last movement, just before the close. But so what? Reference, allusion, or kinship were apparent, ‘meaning’ more allusive—and doubtless rightly so. 

Schubert’s own G major Sonata, D 894, followed. The first movement, Molto moderato e cantabile, was taken at no Richter tempo; how – why – would one imitate the inimitable? But it certainly took its lead from Schubert’s marking, as indeed did all four movements, in character as well as mere speed. A sense of sleepwalking, as in Thomas May’s programme note quotation from Alfred Brendel, was apparent, Schubert striding ‘across harmonic abysses as though by compulsion, and we cannot help remembering that sleepwalkers never lose their step’. Kozhukhin’s command of line certainly suggested this. One might, at any one moment, have been forgiven for thinking Schubert was not really in the business of development, but he was, through a stasis that was only apparent yet no less ‘felt’ for that. And he proved just as adept as summoning ghosts, albeit without any compulsion to name them. Form grew out of what we heard rather than being imposed upon it; that said, there was no doubting the moment of tonal return, nor the transformed nature of material thereafter. What a pity, then, that someone’s telephone went off at the first movement’s close, visibly disconcerting pianist and audience alike. The Andante received a similarly ‘interior’ reading, passages turning outwards where called for and not without violence. It made sense, again as if from deep sleep. This music can certainly be understood dialectically, yet it was less clear than with Beethoven that that would be the point. It came from a damaged world, a damaged psyche, Adorno’s Minima moralia coming to my mind, but showed great strength from within. The minuet asked and responded, the difference between question and response meaning all—both to pianist and composer. Its trio offered a vision of something beyond, perhaps heavenly, whilst unable or unwilling to let go of remaining, unbridgeable distance, as if a Bach musette found itself in the world of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, neither party knowing quite what to do. The final movement brought us back to earth, perhaps, whilst remembering what had just passed (and in truth, we had never really left). This was the wayward progress of music that wishes to approach Mozart, yet actually ends up further away. Might Kozhukhin have confronted the abyss more starkly? Perhaps, but his long, unbroken line told its own story. 

The thirteenth and longest of Ligeti’s Etudes, ‘L’Escalier du diable’, offered a strong pictorial sense of its titular inspiration without being bound by it, nor indeed by anything else other than a precision the composer would surely have admired. The craziness of its technical demands and their fulfilment were all part of the challenge—and the fun. Dynamic levels were as rock-solid as rhythm, a big, post-Romantic sound as present where required as interior unwinding. It was probably just my imagination, but I could have sworn a chord emerged, perfectly in keeping, as if from the world of Messiaen. In any case, the final resonance was surely one to rival Stockhausen. 

It made for an ideal curtain raiser to the Liszt B minor Sonata, which began with an almost modest precision that was actually more a case of knowing where the music must lead. That precision remained, as did tautness of conception, again with fine command of line to recall Schubert. There was no haze here, though, in a performance that was bright even when dark, and ever immediate. If there were sleepwalking here, it was of a more nightmarish quality. Kozhukhin did not shy away from rhetoric as such, the first statement of the second subject, for instance, highly declamatory, but form and, even on occasion, a certain formalism were more to the fore. Perhaps the performance, then, sprang from Ligeti in that sense too. Again, it was certainly not that Kozkuhkin could not spin a compelling, even spell-binding cantabile line; he could and did. Integration nonetheless always seemed his ultimate concern. Clarity of texture and purpose was admirable, even if I occasionally missed a little Romantic mystery. (Was that just me trying to have it all? Probably.) There were surprises, though, in the sense that new points of departure, the fugato a case in point, truly sounded as such, even when one ‘knew’. The true recapitulation sounded, again, with all the inevitability one could wish for. It was, perhaps, a more modernistic story than often, but that is inherent to Liszt. And on the very few occasions when the music threatened to escape even the most iron self-control, that is surely part of Liszt and Lisztian performance too. This sonata will never sound ‘perfect’; it is not Mozart and is not trying to be. It was something different from that and all the better for it. 

A moan: must audience members really tell each other loudly what an encore is when a musician begins to play it, or just as bad, give a stage-sigh of satisfaction? Well done: you have recognised Schumann’s Träumerei, one of the most celebrated and likely encores in the piano literature. Fortunately, Kozhukhin gave an honest account, beautifully voiced. To be fair, no one made such noises for the first encore, perhaps because – like me – they did not know what it was. Hymnal and, if I remember correctly, slightly modal, it had melodic and harmonic characteristics I might have guessed to be Russian. I wondered whether it might have ‘meant’ something beyond its notes; at any rate, Kozhukhin clearly believed in and winningly communicated those notes.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

Die Walküre, Deutsche Oper, 12 May 2024

Images: Bernd Uhlig (from 2020 premiere, with a different cast)

Siegmund – Daniel Frank
Sieglinde – Elisabeth Teige
Hunding – Tobias Kehrer
Wotan –Derek Welton
Fricka – Annika Schlicht
Brünnhilde – Ricarda Merbeth
Siegrune – Arianna Manganello
Roßweiße – Karis Tucker
Gerhilde – Felicia Moore
Ortlinde – Maria Motolygina
Waltraute – Elissa Pfaender
Helmwige – Flurina Stuckl
Schwertleite – Alexandra Ionis
Grimgerde – Nicole Piccolomini
Schwertleite – Lauren Decker
Hundingling – Eric Naumann

Director – Stefan Herheim
Revival director – Silke Sense
Set designs – Stefan Herheim, Silke Bauer
Costumes – Uta Heiseke
Video – William Duke, Dan Trenchard
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf

Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper 
Nicholas Carter (conductor)

What if the Volsung twins did not engage our sympathies so fully as they usually do? What if their actions were less positive than we tend to think? Sometimes, recently, those questions have been posed implicitly by what still seems to me a strange desire positively to reassess the Fricka of Die Walküre. Not that Wagner is the only point of reference here, but the Ring’s creator was very clear on this, both in the work ‘itself’ and in other writing. A letter to Theodor Uhlig (12 November 1851, so before he had started work on the music) speaks of Wotan’s ‘struggle with his own inclination and with custom (Fricka)’ and indeed Fricka herself refers to ‘the guiding rope of custom, rent asunder,’ which she would ‘bind anew’. Latterly, some seem to have decided to take the part of Fricka’s family-values morality. Like every character – this is part of Wagner’s greatness – Fricka is given her due, and should be in performance. A caricature, whilst tempting, will get us nowhere. What I took from the first act of Stefan Herheim’s Walküre – thus before her reappearance – was something slightly different: a willingness, refreshing if unsettling, to challenge the dominant narrative concerning Siegmund and Sieglinde, a challenge to which Fricka would assent, albeit for different reasons. Sieglinde has still been deeply wronged, of course: the evening begins with her, traumatised, unable to make the central stage piano sound. Only after several fruitless attempts does the orchestra launch its storm. It is a questionable pursuit in ‘real life’, of course, to cast doubt on how trauma may manifest itself; perhaps the same should be the case here. That said, many of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s acts seem designed to dissipate sympathy, from her insistence on kissing him far too ‘early’ and in front of the mute Hundingling (her child with Hunding, I presume), to her murder of him who, starved of affection from his father seems only to wish to find a new family with his mother and her new lover. That Siegmund too rejoices in that act underlines the predicament. His holding Hunding earlier at knife point also reverses roles somewhat. Ultimately, the strength both of acting and Personenregie (seen also, for instance, in the individual treatment of the Valkyries) made a case for reassessment. So too, arguably, did the doubt –preconceptions properly challenged – I continued to feel. The framing is powerful and provocative; that is what matters most.


Likewise or at least related, in the third act, the true horror of what Wotan proposes for Brünnhilde, too readily sentimentalised, comes across more clearly than I can previously recall. Portrayal of male violence, especially sexual violence, against women onstage is a controversial issue now, and rightly so. Nevertheless, Herheim’s portrayal of Valkyries raped by a host of the undead – immortality and mortality a crucial theme for Wagner’s deeply Feuerbachian drama – underlines what the god intends for his ‘favourite daughter’, too often lost in final reconciliation. Hundingling, notably, has taken his place along them; what else, after all, could he have learned from his earthly sojourn? This scene seemed to alter the dramatic, perhaps even the temporal, proportions of the third act. The latter probably were objectively different too, conductor Nicholas Carter working in tandem with the production. Throwing the dramatic weight forward had the first two scenes seem considerably more substantial, the third a logical, still deeply moving outcome to its predecessors. The emotional torrent of Wagner’s – and the once more outstanding Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper’s – strings still registered keenly, yet a shadow rightly hung over what we heard and felt.

All around, refugee suitcases formed the set, reminding us of the external world encountered in Das Rheingold. A war zone is suggested, aptly for all that unfolds, the second as much as the external acts. These people’s reappearance and different reactions to what they saw reminded us we should not take ‘their’ reactions for granted, ‘othering’ them as an undifferentiated mass. These, like the characters of the Ring many are playing, are individual human beings, not some other species known as ‘migrants’. Wagner was a refugee too and expressed pride in having been so; so is Siegmund, always ‘geächtet’, as he puts it. And so too, we should remember, is Sieglinde, returning to her Medea-like act. We always feel sympathy for Medea, so should we not for this Sieglinde too? If not, why not? From where, we might ask, are they refugees? The world around us has all too many possibilities, as does history. So too does reception history: might we not understand them also as heirs to the ‘men and women moved to the very depths of their being’ at the end of previous Ring productions. Celebrated predecessors such as Chéreau and Kupfer spring particularly to mind. For reception, always a Herheim speciality, continues to be so. The brilliant coup de théâtre of turning on the house lights when Wotan wills ‘das Ende’ may be old hat: Brecht, 1924, as a friend commented. But is that not the point here, that theatre and reception history more broadly contribute to what we see and hear, both when it conforms and when it does not? One could not want for alluring yet dangerous contrast in fire from lighting and video here either.

Carter’s direction continued to impress. If I found the opening Prelude hard-driven, then I often do; it could reasonably be replied that this is, after all, a storm. This conductor’s chemistry with the orchestra was not the least of this performance’s virtues; nor was careful shaping, without sounding unduly moulded, of paragraphs and scenes to form not only a satisfying musical whole, but one that interacts tellingly, excitingly with the action onstage. There are so many potential approaches to this music that it is perhaps impossible, even for a Furtwängler, to keep them all in the air. If, though, I sometimes missed the dramatic and dialectical despair conjured from the second act – that extraordinarily difficult yet crucial sequence – by the likes of Bernard Haitink or Daniel Barenboim, the sheer malevolence of the darker music associated not only with Hunding, but also with Wotan, was rendered strikingly immanent. It is a wonder, given the repeated telephone calls taken by someone in the far left of the stalls, that the Annunciation of Death managed to move at all, but it did. (It certainly had me devising my own such annunciation for whomever the culprit may have been.)


Herheim’s different conceptual approach to Siegmund and Sieglinde doubtless had consequences for perception of their performances. So too did relatively unappealing – especially so in Siegmund’s case – scenic presentation. That said, whilst Daniel Frank sang the role well enough, it did not seem to me the most keenly dramatic of performances, however considered. Elisabeth Teige engaged attention and sympathy more powerfully as time went on as his sister-bride. Tobias Kehrer’s Hunding seemed to me revisionist in an ultimately more convincing fashion, imparting deeper understanding of how and why even this most unsympathetic of characters might have turned out the way he did, without neglecting that he had. Derek Welton’s Wotan came across as perhaps more tightly, certainly more darkly, focused than that of Iain Paterson in Das Rheingold; that is perhaps in part a matter of material, but surely also pays tribute to the intelligence and musicality of this fine artist. At times, profoundly, disconcertingly other-worldly, the god could also readily turn human, all too human. Annika Schlicht’s Fricka was again not only beautifully sung, but verbally scrupulous, as here she must be all the more. From a fine complement of Valkyries, Ricarda Merbeth captured an excellent balance of waywardness – how could anyone delude himself she could for long be kept in check? – and growing compassion.

If, initially, I felt if not underwhelmed, then less overwhelmed than by the fizzing theatricality of Herheim’s Rheingold, this Walküre grew on me and has continued to do so. Music drama is, after all, not only theatre, as an increasingly Schopenhauerian Wagner would have been first to argue. At the close, Mime-as-Wagner returns, to deliver at the ‘right’ musical moment Siegfried from Sieglinde, collecting the shattered pieces of Notung too. Both Mime and Wagner soon had their doubts as to what sort of monster they had created. That here they have done so from, as it were, the very spirit of music, the ever-present piano, will surely prove significant. Soon we shall discover for ourselves.

Sunday 12 May 2024

Das Rheingold, Deutsche Oper, 11 May 2024

Images: Bernd Uhlig (from 2021 premiere)

Wotan – Iain Paterson
Donner – Thomas Lehman
Froh – Attilio Glaser
Loge – Thomas Blondelle
Fricka – Annika Schlicht
Freia – Flurina Stucki
Erda – Lindsay Ammann
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Mime – Ya-Chung Huang
Fasolt – Albert Pesendorfer
Fafner – Tobias Kehrer
Woglinde – Lee-ann Dunbar
Wellgunde – Arianna Manganello
Floßhilde – Karis Tucker

Director – Stefan Herheim
Revival director – Constanze Wediknecht
Set designs – Stefan Herheim, Silke Bauer
Costumes – Uta Heiseke
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Video – Torge Møller
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf

Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Nicholas Carter (conductor)

We begin in the rehearsal room, piano onstage, vast grey slab wall and fire exit behind, lights above. Below, the orchestra tunes, actually tunes. The magic of theatre, of music theatre, of opera, and of all concerned to bring it to our eyes and ears brings the two together: not necessarily so we cannot tell the difference between ‘drama’ and ‘reality’, but so that we are made aware of the ever-shifting boundaries between them, how one brings the other into being, as is also the case for Wagner’s related yet different trinity of drama, music, and gesture in Opera and Drama. That ‘book of all books on music’ (Richard Strauss) is, in a sense, the fount of all we see and hear; onstage, it is represented by the piano: the instrument around which so many rehearsals have taken place and at which Wagner sat to compose; from which for many, though not all composers, the miracles of the modern orchestra first come into being. A suitcase-laden procession of refugees, the perennial image of our times – from the vicious, racist ‘swarm’ of Cameron and Farage’s ‘breaking point’, to Merkel’s inspirational ‘Wir schaffen das’ and the welcoming crowds I saw at Munich Hauptbahnhof – crosses the stage and initiates the action, one of them, Wotan or better the human being who will play that role, plays the celebrated E-flat with which the Ring begins. This is no ‘crisis’; it is a reality and, in that reality, an opportunity. These people are the very stuff of the drama, of our drama, and of theirs. Decisions made and roles played will be matters of life and death. How differently this plays now that Merkel’s Willkommenskultur has itself been assigned to history, how all the more necessary then it is to find a new path. 

Herheim and his revival successors do this, moreover, not through dwelling on origins, but through the brazenly theatrical (and musical) magic of opera. Reality never quite disappears, but the insight of Schiller, Marx, and many others, Wagner included, that, left to his own devices, given the freedom and the education to do so, man will create is not only the starting point, but a point, if you will, of (Nietzschean, even Schopenhauerian) eternal recurrence that yet, through (Hegelian) history, is never merely that. The animating philosophical conflict of the Ring has begun. Likewise, animating joy in and through theatre, of the rehearsal piano rather than the piano composer, of Wagner’s creative life has been reignited, through Rhinemaidens’ magic tricks, Loge’s devilish flashes of fire, ever-resourceful use and reuse of stage staples such as billowing sheets, and the whole Wagnerian phantasmagoria of sight, sound, and sensation. Froh’s final rainbow is surely, at some level, a successor to Götz Friedrich’s rainbow tunnel in the previous Deutsche Oper production. History and, more specifically, reception both form and liberate us in our response. 

The first scene emerges, in typical, theatrical twin bind and opportunity, both seamlessly and with seams openly to show from what has gone before. The Deutsche Oper’s actors – ‘extras’ if you prefer, but the term seems more than unduly limiting – form the Rhine from themselves: what else do refugees have? They have their packed belongings, of course; still more will come from them in due course, the gods’ costumes included. Inciting, reflecting, and been incited by the Rhinemaidens’ play, their beautifully, sexily choreographed movement suggests a Venusberg-am-Rhein, with all the occasional awkwardness of an orgy’s need for perpetual reignition. Alberich, or the person who becomes him, models himself on that saddest of theatrical figures, the clown. That is how the others see him, of course; most poignantly of all, it is how he sees himself when they hand him back his mirror. He has, as Wagner shows us, been so sorely provoked, with so little prospect of reward in a cruel non-golden age of aesthetic hedonism, that renunciation of ‘love’ – as someone once said, ‘whatever that means’ – is an obvious next step. The ring he creates seems immediately to do his bidding—until, and ay, there’s the Ring’s rub, it does not. And we see it, as well as its consequences, throughout. 

From those sheets come the Rhine, the mountains of the gods’ realm, even the tree at the end from which, I assume, the next instalment will spring. A premonition of Volsung twins strongly suggests so: a sparing use of video and thereby all the more powerful. The whole Bayreuth project was built on technology, as was the world from which it sprang. So too were they built on choices of what to use and when, not on idiotic euphoria and fear about film supplanting theatre or ‘artificial intelligence’ supplanting actual, human intelligence. The hoard, perhaps the best I have seen, comes from those suitcases: a true bric-a-brac show, including musical instruments (echoing, almost literally, Alberich’s possession and instrumental use of a trumpet in the first scene) and religious artefacts, cross and menorah included. 

They cover Freia clumsily, brutally, yet also completely inside the piano from which she and Fricka, in posed nineteenth-century tableau vivant-style have risen, and through which portal she and the giants (her love for Fasolt is movingly real, as it should be) have passed to and from Riesenheim. Donner and Froh are splendidly caught too, stars of rock (Freddie Mercury) and disco (wig carefully prepared with hairspray, soon lost) respectively. Loge is a true Mephisto to two Fausts, Wotan and Alberich, with a little – in this he is not alone – though never too much of previous Herheim creations, the Parsifal Klingsor and the Lohengrin Herald reincarnated in something dazzlingly new. Alberich’s Nibelungs are, for once, a true host of night, terrifying to behold, images of death and the undead, marching to his lead. (Again, I recalled, a brief yet telling image from the second act of that Bayreuth Parsifal.) Indeed, throughout, the ways in which movement proceeds both in time to the music and not, yet never heedless to it, are not the least indication that we are in the hands of a musical stage director. Attempts at musical direction, both from the piano and conducting from the score, of the would-be leaders of our stage world, tell – and play – their own stories too. 

Art and its tricks, then and now, are not reality; they spring from it, yet we see, far more clearly how they are put together, whilst wondering all the more at them. They are more than reality; again, they form and react to it, at least potentially liberating us from it. And they cross history, through an artwork’s reception, always a joy for and from Herheim. Wotan’s winged helmet for once says much, not least in the boredom with which he discards it. So does Mime as Wagner in trademark velvet beret, a cunning tribute-cum-insult, in which the inventor of the Tarnhelm who cannot ever quite become an artist embodies the brilliance and insecurity of his creator. Yet ultimately, that craftsman also brings the drama, brings us, the score from which first he, then others reads, sings, learns, and is bound by. In a duly ambiguous representation of Werktreue, it becomes Valhalla, the sacerdotal fortress and resting place of heroes. Meanwhile, the sword, emblem of Wotan’s ‘great idea’, is placed through the piano lid, ready for a truer, more courageous hero to extract it. 

If Herheim surpassed my expectations, so too did the performances. Nicholas Carter’s musical direction proved, quite simply, a revelation. Carter has recently led performances of the Ring in Bern; returning to the Deutsche Oper, he offered an ideal balance between thorough musical grounding and theatrical spontaneity. This was a performance in which everything both fell near-miraculously into place and yet also involved itself in the dramatic here and now, as much, as it must, contributing to the drama as reflecting it. Balances were, without exception, well judged, as were tempi. What particularly struck me was the keenness of ear – and ability to project it – in recognition of Wagner’s different kinds of writing. Rarely, if ever, have I heard so clearly the roots in Gluckian accompagnato of Fricka’s contributions to her first exchange with Wotan, also of course tribute to the astute, rich-toned artistry of Annika Schlicht. My sole, extremely minor musical disappointment lay with the anvils. All else fairly sprung off the page as if in a musical Kammerspiel, mediated in the mind’s eye by the magical mechanics of the piano. 

A Kammerspiel would be nothing without its actors, and here both individual performances and ensemble as a whole were second to none. There may be (some) starrier assumptions elsewhere, but none more alert to the joy, as well as to the necessity, of musicotheatrical creation. As Schlicht’s consort, Iain Paterson offered a thoughtful performance, typical of the cast as a whole in its alertness to verbal and musical texts alike, as well as to their alchemic reaction as part of a new-yet-rooted performance text. Any Loge worth his salt will steal the show, 'durch Raub', yet Blondelle’s owned it too: tricksy, fiery, manipulative, and corrosive, in words and line as in gesture. Albert Pesendorfer and Tobias Kehrer shone as the giants, their performances as finely differentiated as those of Ya-Chung Huang’s intelligent Mime and Jordan Shanahan’s masterclass in the role of Alberich: sympathetic up to a point, yet as brutal in his forming by events as he had initially been hapless. This clown had grown up to lead troops, not a troupe, his curse echoing in the ears until the close. An excellent trio of Rhinemaidens underlined that too, their cries piercing any attempts there might have been to rejoice. So too did the coup de théâtre of Erda’s appearance and finely sung warning (Lindsay Ammann), emerging from the prompter’s box so as, well, to prompt, ‘sensibly’ clad like a stock librarian of yore. To whom, after all, should one turn for wisdom regarding texts?

Saturday 11 May 2024

Violetter Schnee, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 10 May 2024

Silvia – Anna Prohaska
Natascha – Clara Nadeshdin
Jan – Gyula Orendt
Peter – Jaka Mihelač
Jacques – Otto Katzameier
Tanja – Martina GedeckDirector – Claus Guth

Revival directors – Caroline Staunton, Tabatha McFadyen
Set designs – Étienne Pluss
Costumes – Ursula Kudrna
Video – Arian Andiel
Lighting – Olaf Freese

Vocalconsort Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin
Matthias Pintscher (conductor)

Image: Monika Rittershaus

Beat Furrer’s Violetter Schnee was one of the last operas I saw, early in 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic closed theatres and halls, much else besides, across the world. It fascinated me then and has done again, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden having taken the amply vindicated decision to revive its 2019 premiere production not for the first but the second time. Broadly, my reaction proved somewhat different – not unusual for re-encountering a work – in that it seemed considerably clearer what was happening dramatically, which certainly includes the musical contribution to that drama, although, probably not unrelated, I felt myself less mesmerised and yet more horrified by its course and outcome. 

Timing has doubtless played its part too. It is certainly not the case that in January 2020 all was well with the world, generically or for an Englishman in temporary exile from Brexit-Insel, awaiting the end of one particular aspect of that world. However, the pandemic, followed by further global manmade catastrophes in Ukraine, Sudan, Palestine, and elsewhere, and humankind’s similarly incomprehensible and inexorable determination to destroy what is left of the planet it calls home have taken their toll for all, even for those of us less directly in the (often literal) firing line than others. For this is an apocalyptic, even a post-apocalyptic work – that elision may be important, not only to the work but to our present condition – in which the horror of what we have done to our world stares us in the face. Händl Klaus’s libretto, after Vladimir Sorokin, and Furrer’s score alike fuse, so that one can hardly tell what came first, with Claus Guth’s production and of course performances onstage and from the pit to present what, by most readings, would seem a hopeless episode in which climate change has done what we as a species have willed it to do. 

The ‘violet snow’ of the title is key: is this world – are we – on the way to a frozen future, a new Ice Age echoing the world of the drama’s lynchpin, Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow? Or will it continue to warm, as the characters’ speak and sing of strangely warm snow, albeit while they all the while wrap up for winter, might suggest. Is the final coming of a violet sun – we see that, for ourselves, unlike the ‘violet snow’, which looks like any other, leading us to ask whether it might be a mirage – the end, or a second chance, an entry to the new world with which technology-soothsayers would seduce us? Paired characters react differently, yet perhaps to no avail, their ensembles ultimately suggesting frenetic futility, and seem at one point to settle, perhaps not unreasonably yet chillingly, on nihilistic partying, before moving on to confront once again the cold, dark world beyond their flat. In a sense, it has all been foretold in the opening scene but one, the first without words or characters, in which Tania, a spoken role played unforgettably by Martina Gedeck, sees Breughel’s painting at a museum, becomes transfixed and ultimately collapses, only to wake up (I think) in the dwelling of the others. 

Furrer’s orchestral writing seems both to drive long-term change in something akin to Klangfarbenmelodie that often, tellingly, suggests electronic sounds without including them, and also to heighten passages and moments of particular drama. Vocal writing, though doubtless enormously complex and difficult, is as it is for a reason: this is no easy situation, nor should any of us pretend it is. Something, we feel throughout, has already happened, as well as is about to happen. It is probably too late, but what if it is not? I recalled a very different work, with goings-on both very different yet in a sense not so different as they first may have seemed: Thomas Adès’s Buñuel-derived Exterminating Angel. Not the least suggestion I gleaned here was that I should give that opera, which I admit to having been nonplussed by when I first saw it, like many other things another chance. 

We surely owe each other that, as we dance on the edge – or beyond it – of the volcano, just as we owe thanks to an outstanding team of musical collaborators led by Matthias Pintscher, all directing their contributions to a common goal. Their voices, individual and in ensemble, eventually joined by the excellent Vocalconsort Berlin, had something to tell us, but would we, could we, listen? Their inability to hear – how, after all, can one hear snow – warned us, as did the mildness of the evening as we spilled out once more onto Unter den Linden, a very different experience from the January performance I attended and doubtless the January of the previous year. Would we simply dissolve into a world that has already been damaged, as voices did time and time into the orchestra, and/or would we emerge once again from it? Can we defy the brutal, surprising, yet necessary stop with which the opera comes to a halt?